Ain’t No Future Like the Present:
Archaeologies of the future in Yorgos Zois’ "Third Kind"
17 April 2021
George Mantzios University of Toronto
An unknown date in the future. The earth has been abandoned for a long time. What is left of humankind has found refuge in outer space. Three archaeologists from this space colony are now returning to earth to investigate a mysterious five-tone signal that has been broadcasting from an abandoned airport in what was once Athens, Greece. Sifting through the airport’s detritus and the remains of its last inhabitants for clues, the archaeologists trace the signal to a makeshift refugee encampment by the airport’s former arrivals terminal where they encounter Nuri, a refugee who has been stranded there all alone for an inordinate amount of time.
Figure 1. Still from Yorgos Zois’ Third Kind (2018), © Yannis Kanakis
Archaeologist 1 [English]: <No sign of life… Five tone signal confirmed. New coordinates: 1917.14.1980. Heading to west sector.>
<…There is something weird here. Something in the air. The air is heavier here.>
Figure 2. Still from Yorgos Zois’ Third Kind (2018), © Yannis Kanakis
Surveying the entire airport, the archaeologists eventually converge on the source of the signal. It’s coming from an encampment of tents sprawled out on the field of a derelict 2004 Olympic sports stadium, just west of the airport’s Arrivals terminal. A silhouette is spotted shuffling around inside one of the tents.
Archaeologist 1 [English]: < “Who are you? Can you hear us? What is your name?” >
< “Are you alone, Nuri? Where are all the others?” >
Nuri [Pashto]: “They are all gone.”
< “How long have you been here?” >
Nuri [Pashto]: “I’m not getting old anymore. I don’t count the years anymore, I’m stuck. If you stay here, you will understand… The first night here, I found a blanket and slept on the ground. I remember looking at the stars, whistling this tune, waiting for an answer. Now you are here. No one could expect that you would come after so long… Where are you from?”
Archaeologist 2 [German]: < “We come from another time.” >
Nuri [Pashto]: “Why are you here?”
Archaeologist 3 [Norwegian]: < “We investigate the past. We collect memories.” >
Archaeologist 1 [English]: < “Your memories…” >
The camera focuses in on Nuri’s face, lingers there just long enough to suggest that it is in fact passing through his face and into his mind, accessing his memories. The frame suddenly narrows and blurs into a quick succession of shots captured by the handheld camera of someone on the move: Blown-out buildings; people running, bleeding; stretches of highway; figures boarding long-haul transport trucks under the cover of darkness; the swarming of exhausted bodies as they are pulled from dark waters onto shore; flashlights groping at blank spaces on the water’s surface; people trekking through a muddy countryside; a group now approaching a border fence; the nearing glare of flashing police sirens; queueing in makeshift bureaucratic offices; more running; a flock of birds passing overhead at dusk; Nuri in the airport now, walking around documenting what he sees: discarded airline tickets, old flight maps, airport signage, Arabic, Urdu, English and Farsi graffiti scrawled on walls held together by a thick coat of handwritten demands, “HOME,” “PAPERS,” “ASYLUM.” All this appearing eerie and desolate, like Nuri’s whistling broadcasting aimlessly into the vacuum of outer space…
So goes the climactic scene of extraterrestrial encounter in Yorgos Zois’ short sci-fi film, Third Kind, which was officially selected for the 2018 Cannes Film Festival’s La Semaine de la Critique. Shot exclusively at Ellinikon airport within a single month in the summer of 2017, Third Kind features the airport at a critical moment in the decades-long history of its dereliction. Since its decommissioning in 2001, Ellinikon airport has been memorialized in photographic exhibitions, social media posts, YouTube travel vlogs, and art installations as a “ghost airport.” This representation insists even though the airport had been steadily and visibly occupied for the greater part of the past decade. For example, in 2011 the cultural association of former Olympic Airways employees (POLKEOA) established a makeshift civil aviation museum on-site as a protest of the state’s abandonment of the airport to ruin. Between November 2015 and June 2017 these occupants had cohabited the former Arrivals terminal alongside thousands of migrants (primarily from Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Pakistan) with whom they had been entangled in differential relationships of abandonment and appeal vis-à-vis state and European authorities.
Moreover, by the time of its tenure as an informal migrant reception center Ellinikon already represented the crown jewel in the portfolio of HRADF (Hellenic Republic Asset Development Fund), the development fund tasked by Greece’s troika of international creditors with overseeing the largescale sell-off of “underperforming” public assets, including at one point everything from the water utilities of Athens and Thessaloniki to Mussolini’s former villa on the island of Rhodes. In 2014, Lamda Development Group purchased the rights to develop Ellinikon for €8 billion in what was billed as the largest privately-funded investment in Greece ever (Bellos 2019). The Ellinikon, as this controversial urban revitalization project is marketed on Lamda Development’s website, is being championed by the neoliberal government of Kyriakos Mitsotakis as a runway for the ascendancy of Athens into a global business and leisure hub in the Eastern Mediterranean (Greek City Times, July 4, 2020).
It was in anticipation of this national economic lift-off that on 2 June 2017 the International Organization of Migration, working in coordination with the Greek government and police, arranged a nine-bus convoy to carry out the forced eviction of the remaining five hundred asylum seekers still at Ellinikon, which by that point was the last informal migrant reception center still operating in the Greater Athens area. Surveying the site as a potential filming location shortly thereafter, writer and director Yorgos Zois related his impression of the scene: “It was like a civilization that was lost from one day to the next” (personal communication). Haunted by the material remains of the recently and doubly displaced that he discovered scattered throughout the abandoned airport, Zois decided to act fast, before the bulldozers commissioned for the airport’s demolition could get to work.
Third Kind confronts the viewer with the mass displacement of humankind into outer space, which in the film works as an inverted metaphor for the displacement of actual refugees from both their homelands and the airport. It is an inverted metaphor because in the film displacement signifies escape and refuge and is reserved for a cast of white space colonists. Meanwhile, Nuri, a Pashto-speaking Iranian refugee, is cast as a terrestrial alien, condemned to remain without belonging, suspended in an evacuated spacetime of abandonment and endless waiting, far from home and humanity.
The choice of the airport-turned-refugee camp as a filming location serves as an instructive metonym for the way Athens specifically, and Greece more generally, has become a global hub of two different and conflicting regimes of mobility: tourism and migration. Correspondingly, the airport is where these conflicting regimes of global hypermobility converge. The airport has become a representative infrastructural vector for both the promise and threat of globalized interconnectivity; it is where cosmopolitan promises of urban/regional/national development and efficient mass travel and consumption confront an international apparatus of mass surveillance, security, population and disease control. Accordingly, insofar as the refugee and the airport both represent expressive totalities for the biopolitical dimensions of late modern mobility, it is important to consider how the temporal displacement of the one articulates the spatial dislocation of the other. By honing-in on the entanglement of both at Ellinikon, Third Kind gives a political reality allegorical reach: refugees fleeing the fallout of neo-imperial wars in the Middle East and North Africa are here stranded in arrival, literally, in the former Arrivals terminal of an iconic abandoned airport that once upon a time monumentalized Greece’s own longing for arrival to/of a “European” global modernity.
I would like to propose that the central subject matter of Third Kind is the felt density of this suspended futurity. The film screens the airport as a phantasmagoric epicenter or ground zero for haunted visions of global modernity, wherein time ceases to be a neutral medium and is apprehended instead as a felt density. In Third Kind time itself becomes the invasive alien force that infiltrates the present in the form of rust and ruin and discarded human belongings. Third Kind probes these infrastructural and humanitarian ecologies of abandonment and ruination to affect a sense of what Mark Fisher (2014) has called “the slow cancellation of the future.” Recall that time does not pass for Nuri; he has stopped growing any older. He claims to be stuck in a perpetual present. Likewise, the extraterrestrial archaeologist surveying the airport terminal cannot help but remark that “there is something weird here… Something in the air… The air is heavier here,” a sensation Zois and his film crew actually experienced while surveying the site as a potential filming location (personal communication). The weight of this suspended futurity thus achieves an “atmospheric architecture” (Böhme 2017) at Ellinikon, or, alternately, it could be said that Third Kind screens Ellinikon airport as this atmospheric architecture.
Nearing oblivion, the airport-turned-temporary-refugee camp decomposes into the visual mediums that seek to (re)present it. By thus attending to the airport’s ruination in terms of what remains at and of Ellinikon, I believe that due praise should be given to the film for its ability to evoke a temporality of suspension where absence becomes as ecstatic as material presence is partial, precarious and scattered.
What the viewer is confronted with in Third Kind is less an archaeology from the future as it is an archaeology of the future. After all, to the extent that Third Kind is set at an unknown point in the future, temporal distances between the near and distant future are rendered anomalous. Both suddenly take on an uncanny resemblance to a perpetuated present that is staged in terms of what will have been; that is, in terms of the aftermath of the ruination that is still on-going at Ellinikon. In this way the film locates both refugee and the airport within larger economies of abandonment – namely, the ones that haunt late capitalist imaginaries of global connectivity, mobility, disposability, and urban decay. It does so by speculatively sighting/citing/siting (what) remains at and of Ellinikon as artifacts of our future-present.
And insofar as Third Kind develops an archaeology of the future by intervening in the accelerated ruination of the airport-turned-refugee camp, it gestures to the sort of forensic archaeology of forced migration being explored and promoted by anthropologists like Jason de Leon (2015) and archaeologists like Yannis Hamilakis (2016). And yet, the film’s archaeology perhaps comes closer to what Jussi Parikka (2012) calls a ‘media archaeology’, where the cinematic sci-fi remediation of remains at and of Ellinikon render these remains as something between film props and forensic evidence, or rather, as something more than the former but perhaps less than the latter.
A media archaeology redirects attention to how media technologies are themselves always-already artifacts by virtue of their built-in disposability, a point drawn out in Third Kind by casting slightly dated media found on-site as archaeological artifacts – record(ing)s of the airport’s ruination as it yields to rust, rot, and weeds, the wider ecologies of remains. For example, Third Kind shows an old TV set in the abandoned Arrivals terminal broadcasting dated documentary news footage of the refugees residing there. In fact, besides Nuri, the only appearance of refugees in the film takes the form of remediated media recordings (e.g., old tape recorders, TV sets, camera phone footage) that are encountered as ambiguous clues by the extraterrestrial archaeologists surveying the site (see Figures 3 and 4).
Figure 3. Still from Yorgos Zois’ Third Kind (2018), © Yannis Kanakis
Figure 4. Still from Yorgos Zois’ Third Kind (2018), © Yannis Kanakis
From the perspective of a media archaeology then, Third Kind interfaces the spectral traces of displaced migrants at Ellinikon as mediatic apparitions. The uncanny sense of haunting this provokes reveals how the airport and the film’s speculative future of it can work as an “eccentric location” (Comaroff & Comaroff 2018) for thinking of and from the borders of Europe (which in the film become a metaphor for the anthropogenic inhospitalities of the planet itself). In thus probing the genre of sci-fi for coordinates of collective reckoning in spatial imaginaries of global modernity and displacement, Third Kind draws inspiration from and pays homage to Cold War-era sci-fi films – Zois singles out Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), and Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) – in order to provoke the kinds of questions that haunt popular invocations of Ellinikon as a “ghost airport”, namely: what kinds of futures – if any – are implicit in the idea of suspension? And what is the relation between ruination and the future?
Ultimately, the film’s media archaeology begs such questions but does not answer them. Its speculative experimentations with the sci-fi genre are not didactic exercises for reimagining a more equitable future. They are instead tools with and through which to conjure the felt sense of the upended spacetime that undergirds the cruel paradox of being stranded in arrival. At the risk of sounding too formulaic: Third Kind screens a suspended futurity by speculatively extrapolating the material and temporal entanglements of contemporary mass migration and infrastructural ruin in and from Athens, Greece. Indeed, if a subversive dimension can be claimed for the film it surely has more to do with the way it evokes the temporal injunctions that work to diminish horizons of political possibility than it does with the way such possibilities might be enacted. Viewed against the more recent media spectacle of bulldozers clawing away at the airport to make way for another promised national take-off, Third Kind continues to provoke speculation about its own status as an archaeological record of our future-present.
Bellos, I. (2019). Lamda looking at 8 bln cost at Elliniko. Ekathimerini, 26 November. Available at: https://www.ekathimerini.com/economy/246891/lamda-looking-at-8-bln-cost-at-elliniko/.
Böhme, G. (2017). Atmospheric Architecture: The Aesthetics of Felt Spaces. London; Oxford: Bloomsbury.
Comaroff, J., & Comaroff, J. (2018, June). Crime, Sovereignty, and the State: The Metaphysics of Global Disorder. Paper presented at The Institute for Critical Social Inquiry, New York. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zmqxgm4nYa8&ab_channel=TheNewSchool.
De Leon, J, (2015). The Land of Open Graves. Living and dying on the migrant trail, Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Fisher, M. (2014). Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. Zero Books.
GCT (2020). “New Greece” rises up at old disused Hellinikon Airport. Greek City Times, 4 July. Available at: https://greekcitytimes.com/2020/07/04/new-greece-starts-at-old-unused- airport/.
Hamilakis, Y. (2016). “Archaeologies of Forced and Undocumented Migration” Journal of Contemporary Archaeology, 3(2): 121-138.
Parikka, J. (2012). What Is Media Archaeology? Cambridge: Polity Press.
Third Kind (2018). Yorgos Zois, dir. Color 32’. Greece-Croatia. Production Co.
George Mantzios is a PhD candidate in social-cultural anthropology in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto, Canada. He is also an associate program coordinator for the Pelion Summer Laboratory for Cultural Theory and Experimental Humanities (https://www.pelionsummerlab.net/).