The City as a Place of Economic and Social Struggle and Contradiction: Current Public Art Projects in Athens

By Eva Kekou, 4Humanities International Correspondent

We all know from listening to the news about the urgent situation in Greece. We know the unemployment numbers and we see people protesting, complaining and being destructive in an attempt to show their anger and fear. People outside Greece, however, still don’t really know how everyday people, including artists, academics and citizens, take the initiative in their hands to act collectively, to team up with others, and to use public space to re-claim their rights. Perhaps something positive can be said after all about this very negative situation? Perhaps people, due to circumstances, are forced to become more involved and responsible and to act collectively rather than individually? Perhaps art is a positive means of resistance? In this post, I have chosen to showcase some particular artistic projects and collective initiatives in order to show how people look at crisis and their problems and how they would like to communicate them with the outside world. Apart from one locative media project, most of these projects are focused on issues of public space and the current ‘crisis’ situation in Greece. This post is a complement to my interview with Blanka Amezkua about her 12 Artists | 12 Barbershops | Athens project.

As Habermas discusses, participation and communication are the tools of reclaiming public space. Additionally, as Simmel argues, although the revolution initiated by the railway reduced the gap between the social castes/orders it also played a detrimental role in their composition and coexistence in shared space. Similarly, the lack of communion and osmosis (what do you mean by this term? I don’t understand) in Greece created a problematic situation in the extraordinary case of the Greek financial crisis because people were entrenched in their own economic and social spheres. Now, however, due to need, this is changing. The people ?nd themselves once again closer to one another, outside, in the town squares, ?ghting for their rights in public spaces – or spaces they make public – and trying to connect themselves to the city around them.

This post features a number of public art projects and initiatives about the ‘crisis’ situation from many different artistic perspectives.

Agora and This Is a Poem

Public space in Athens contains many spaces, such as town squares, streets, parks, and gardens, that today are landmarks or spaces in which nature survives in the urban environment. They constitute spaces where various urban social events unfold, they assist in the orientation of newcomers to the city, and the people living in the city have the opportunity to come in contact with its elements. They are spaces of movement and stasis; spaces of meeting, protest, feast, revolution, with different stimuli from those that determine the bustling city.

One important example of public space is the square, and squares constitute a public space with particular historical memories. The squares in ancient Greece were situated within the limits of the city centre and they constituted a space of spectacles, ?ghts, and gathering – spaces where the philosophers contemplated and spaces for the assembly of citizens. The ancient Athenian Market, as an initial form of square, was a symbol of free expression and the distribution of ideas and goods. It was a grander and more public representation of the residential atrium.

Whereas in ancient times the Agora, along with the rest of the public spaces, was an
extension of a private citizen’s residence that merged with the city, today, in our age of globalisation and anonymity, public space has become an extraneous place and the private residence a shelter from the public. However, traditions and habits help retain this connection between private citizens and public spaces, especially in the Mediterranean and other warm countries where the climate requires and allows for people to venture for longer periods in the city’s squares, parks and gardens to cool down. Public art and events converge in this return to past habits, reinforcing them and accommodating the citizen’s ever-changing perception of space.

In an effort to reacquaint people with the public sphere, we often use elements that relate to current events. Such an example would be the art project This is a Poem by an augmented space between the digital and the physical. After scanning a QR stencil imprinted on various streets across Athens, one can download poems by Greek poets (both known and unknown). Participants can also upload poems using the group’s platform.

????????H /Austach/Exchange

Often, however, there isn’t just one city center anymore; in Athens, for example, there are many city centers. Austausch/Exchange is an art project which took place in the broadway passages of Athens, a multi-cultural building and passage. This passage involved two theatre spaces, movies, bars and shops and has been out of action during the last decade. This space has functioned as a central point for culture but is now an unused building space in Athens close to the Athens center in an area almost inhabited by political and economic immigrants, the unwanted element in the city of Athens. This summer the space was revived in a project initiated by the architect-curator Sofia Dona. with a number of artists from around the world. (These artists include Nikos Arvanitis, Eriphyli Veneri, Yota Ioannidou, the MMine Group (Manolis Daskalakis, Krini Dimopoulou, Dimitra Dimopoulou), Loukas Bartatilas, Zafos Xagoraris, Nina Pappa, Thalia Raftopoulou and artist from the Bauhaus University at Weimer (Silja Darmstadt (Germany), Emrah Inandim (Turkey), Sujinn Tim (South Korea), Sarah Mac Keever (Ireland), Federica Menin (Italy), Hannes Neubauer (Germany), Yomayra Puentes (Colombia), Ella Tetrault (Canada), Sarah Yazdanirad (Iran), Yuequn Zhang (China), Danielle Kourtesis (USA)). The event was co-produced by the Goethe Institut Athens, which organized a week full of lectures from June 11-19, 2012. These events occurred at the same time as the riots and protests upon Angela Merke’s arrival in Greece.

The use of private and public space is a very complex theme as downtown Athens does not have an official center. Rather, it has many centers and peripheries. Paradoxically, immigrants have lived downtown for the past decade, which meant that Greek citizens would not like to work with them and produce in the center. A large number of unused buildings, some of them unused due to legal issues and others due to neglect, exist in the center of Athens. These buildings have been neglected by the authorities and are now unable to house the homeless people who increase every day. The project examined issues of urbanism, including the use and exploitation of the spaces in the city, particularly in times of emergency.

Karotsi

The Karotsi project took place in Athens on a Saturday noon in early April, and it was about the residents of the Kotzia area, another area where many of the homeless now gather. The square lies in the heart of Athens and it, along with the buildings that surround it, have great historical importance. One of these buildings is the Municipal theatre by Tschiller, where 150 immigrant families were once housed before it was demolished in 1933. Today, it is an urban void with nary a living tree in its vicinity, where immigrants and substance users assemble along with the occasional passerby heading to the surrounding shops. The project consisted of a person with a cart roaming the square and distributing fruit to the people present. It is a symbolic act, a reminder of the immigrants with their carts that roamed the streets scrounging for metal and paper in the waste bins so they could sell it afterwards on the other side of the city. However, this specific cart, instead of being filled with objects, is emptied as a giving gesture. It is also important to note that historical centers in the city of Athens have lost their importance as urban centers and are only inhabited or used by economic immigrants these days. This is because the whole center of Athens tends to be identified as a space for crime and a dangerous place for citizens to be. This project can be seen as an attempt to reinvigorate one of Athens many city centers.

Atenistas and the Lunch Street Party

The Atenistas group, which actually goes by different names in every city across Greece, encourages the residents of various cities in collective action in spaces that are not used, creating stronger bonds among them. Atenistas organize various meetings in parks and other public spaces for various purposes, such as cleaning parks or dancing the tango in old and abandoned train stations. Other formations, such as the Lunch Street Party, also work in a similar fashion. In the Lunch Street Party, people are invited each month to aggregate in local open spaces and share their food with others. The intent is build a sense of community, to discuss common problems and issues, and to get people actively involved in public spaces that a few years ago did not have the same character in Greece.

Polypolis Game by Sarcha Architectural Association

Another project that focuses mostly on human geography and the heterotopic microcosm of the neighborhood is Polypolis by Sarcha. This is a mindset-shifting board game that is played today in Gerani, Kerameikos, and other areas and cities. The Polypolis game was initially a research mechanism where different groups of players strived to resolve the complex issues related to the existing human, physical, and natural resources within city blocks. As the current economic crisis hits a number of European countries, the Polypolis game took on a life on its own, becoming more popular; this is because it uses a playful manner to train and educate city inhabitants in how to cope ‘in common’ with issues that affect their community’s resources. The whole neighborhood transforms to a board game representation and its inhabitants manage it according to certain roles. Through this game, the residents of a particular area become reacquainted with the problems of their community as they are neglected by the authorities. The game involves a large number of economic immigrants while reshaping their role in their communities as the physical living space transforms into an illusionary ludic space. It also teaches participants to become critical and to stand up for their right in a more thoughtful, critical and involving way – something that Greek citizens are not necessarily used to doing.

Un/Inhabited: Out of the Box Intermedia

Art theorist and curator Sozita Goudouna explored the island of Delos and its history in her project Un/Inhabited through a number of talks, lectures and performances, all of which took place on Delos, the island across from the cosmopolitan and very famous Myconos. Delos is an uninhabited island which used to be the center of the economic and social life in ancient Greece, a very significant and sacred place which is uninhabited by law. Only a specific number of archeologists and art historians are permitted to stay on the island for work purposes, and everyone else can only visit for specific time and on specific days. This project was part of a trilogy of similar projects that took place in three different locations: the first part took place in Athens as locus solus at the Benaki Museum, and the second part took place on the island of Hydra. Although not about cities in the present day, this project centers on how economic, religious and social life transform over time and on how a space is transformed – physically, imaginatively, discursively – by habitation or uninhabitance. More info about the project can be found at outofthebox.org.

Madre Terra

Madre Terra was part of the more extended project Routes and Homes: Migrant Trees, which itself is a continuation of a previous project called Open House, focusing predominantly on the notion of migration. It took place in 2010 at el Jardin de Paradiso in the lower east side where the participants were mostly Latin-American local residents and artists. This project included the planting of seeds from foreign countries, representing not only the migration of humans, but also that of plants as well. Many of the seeds originated from Athens (I thought you said they were from foreign countries? Perhaps you could explain a bit more here, as this is rather confusing) and the difficulties of the journey were recorded, signifying the elaborate workings of nature and the weaknesses of our contemporary perception of it. This project also brought to light the subject of community gardens and their uncertain future in the developing urban environment. The people, in their attempts to protect these urban oases, formed green guerilla groups, transforming this area into a place of intense activism. Moreover, by combining the Paradiso garden with the Navarinou park by placing pictures of the park in the garden, community gardens are seen in a different light.

Buried Words

Buried Words is a project by artist Barbara Papadopoulou that uses the green areas in a city to express ideas, actions and feelings and to communicate to the public. It is an Art of Trace, as she puts it, which is an idea that oscillates between poetry and land art, word and image. The project has taken place in various European cities using the local language to express this poetic gardening. By planting grass in public spaces, Papadopoulou creates words that evoke thoughts and feelings. As the grass grows taller, the words take form and become more distinct and clear, surprising the people that come across them and inspiring them to participate in this verbal form of gardening.

Khpos Assomaton

Continuing with urban gardening, another group of people in a central part of Athens took the liberty of giving an empty and abandoned plot of land back to the public. The architect Eleni Tzirtzilaki and the local residents of the Psyrri area, after much hard work and diligence, managed to clean and prepare the plot of land of Agioi Assomatoi for gardening. This was done in order to create a local and communal vegetable garden where the locals could grow their own food. This action was in answer to the economic crisis that has caused distress for many people and families, as they often do not make enough money to support themselves. The ?rst vegetable that was grown and then cooked caused great exultation and happiness to the people who worked in the garden, who often organized picnics there and shared their food among themselves. The communal vegetable garden not only produced food, but also strengthened the relationships between the residents, some of whom are immigrants and foreigners who were previously avoided by the locals.

Unfortunately, the vegetable garden didn’t last long since the area, being of archaeological importance, was soon fenced in by the municipality and the people were locked out of their garden. Despite protestations and efforts to regain their garden, the area remains locked and fenced and the land is once more unused and abandoned, proving the dysfunction of the municipality.

…Some words as an epilogue to, but not the end of, an ongoing process

Cities are born in order to cover needs of cohabitation and interaction. Often these needs are covered completely and correctly, whereas other times only partially. Sociopolitical conditions can often violently force and prompt change in ideas that concern interaction and coexistence, as well as in the planning for the viability of the cities. It is a fact that the networks I presented here, despite being either autonomous or collective efforts and synergistic initiatives, lack cohesion and connection. However, they nevertheless constitute the beginning of a basis for changes in policy in a complex city with non-existent planning for incorporating foreigners and multicultural societies.

Although Athens is a European city, it has a very complex character. It has both a geographically and a sociopolitical obscure position in the west, affording it a similarly unde?ned identity. Besides, the reception and incorporation of immigrants and foreigners has greatly proven that policies governing integration applied in other countries are non-existent in Greece.

I remain as I proposed in the beginning, optimistic and positive, for critical situations can bring changes, which I hope will be of a positive nature. In fact, some months ago, the architectural competition Rethink Athens was announced. It is a much debated competition, as it was announced during the economic and social crisis. In this way, it presents two contradicting sides of society that come in con?ict – art and economics – especially when society cannot provide the basics for a large percentage of its population. The people of Athens also, however, wish for more viable conditions of urban co-existence and have a desire to re-design the historical centre of the city. Thus, the crisis situations are, as always, contradictory and oxymoronic; yet, through the con?ict between these different groups and desires, change always arrives.

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