What would better describe a human community than the tendency of its members to interact with each other on a continual basis? Martha Fleming points out the existence of many different kinds of communities: some engage in “activism” or form an “audience” or simply function as the “public” -and there are many meanings for the words I have used so far! In order to make sense, each thing ought to be understood in its proper context. The question of “Difference” is key to these issues.
My presentation will draw on the description of the human condition (la vita activa) by Hanna Arendt and her notion of human beings as a “zoon politikon” the political animal. In referring to the common world of institutions and spaces, she explains that only through the human fabrication of such a public sphere and the ensuing transformation of the world to a community of things are we endowed with a durable arena in which citizens may come together to engage in political activity. Special focus is placed here on “permanence, stability and durability” i.e. the qualities necessary for building communities based on a shared environment between people and across time.
From this angle and in the current climate of crisis that affects common resources as well as the environment and our cities, the question arises of how architecture and art can come to the support of urban communities and their needs. My approach here follows on the tracks of Italian theorist Giorgio Agamben who distinguishes between simple life, the life of any living organism (similar to what the Greeks called “zoe”) and “bios” or the political life that entails social participation and the enjoyment of civil rights. Agamben refers extensively to life outside of the political community, what he calls bare life. In doing so he deals with the subject of exclusion and examines the relationship of the biological to the political body. If biopower is power exerted onto population and bare life, the politics involved is also a biopolitics. Agamben focuses on “homo sacer” the living dead, the necessary and useful excess product of globalized capitalism. In a broad sense, he understands the term “displaced” to comprise all those who exist in what he calls a state of exception, that is, people voided of their legal rights, exiles and fugitives. The modern “apolis” [ά-πολις], the city-less (i.e. someone who like Sophocles’ Antigone does not belong to any community) becomes emblematic of contemporary bio-political reliance on bare life.
Now, Chantal Mouffe has spoken of critical art as the kind of “art that foments dissensus, that makes visible what the dominant consensus tends to obscure and obliterate. It is constituted by a manifold of artistic practices aiming at giving a voice to all those who are silenced within the framework of the existing hegemony.”
In fact, within the framework of critical art practice, different disciplines such as architecture, geography and the visual arts already claim a long history of creative cooperation, especially in Europe and the USA. With considerable delay due to the polemic around the validity of such practices, Greece eventually caught up. A public action organized by the collective “Astiko Keno”/(Urban Void) in the neighborhood of Psirri was the first to which the local community was invited to participate together with local personalities such as a well-known fellow who comes to my mind, commonly referred to in the neighborhood as “Simos the existentialist” and also, artists and architects. The action took place in empty land lots in Psirri as an attempt to question at that time a decree regulating land use in the area (1998).
The Nomadic Architecture Network began working in 2004.
The actions of the Network aim at providing support for the postcolonial urban communities founded on affinities rather than essences; these can include anti-capitalist and women’s movements, movements which promote ecology as well as immigrant and queer action groups, etc. Our idea of art owes much to Michel Foucault and his critique of the mechanisms of social control. Our practice consists in public interventions that are largely open-ended in their conception so that form and content can be finalized through human interaction. Involvement with the communities is essential to our practice and we seek and value the participation of people who specialize in different fields, as well as those of different origins and with different socio-cultural background. Our practice aspires to the implementation of a broader understanding of hospitality as referred to by Derrida.
“Community, public space, difference” would all remain empty words without engagement on the ground.
As a collective we want to be playing an active role in matters that affect the city of Athens. We often work together with artists, geographers, anthropologists, with schools of architecture and city movements. In addition to being a central concern of contemporary art, space and its potentialities provide a bridge between art and architecture. The work of art is open-ended, in progress, a process that evolves in time towards the unexpected. One of our main concerns is to contribute to the creation of new subjectivities, allowing for a diversity of (fresh or previously silent) voices to be heard. To make visible aspects of social reality overshadowed by the dominant ideological mechanisms that produce consensus.
In general, we use a variety of artistic tools, media and practices and take strong interest in possible forms of cooperation that can be conducive to collective action. Our approach remains “agonistic” as we know that in dealing with issues of public space and with the intermediate ground (between private and public), social divisions simply cannot be circumvented.
We are committed to the creation of public space as a theatre of agonistic involvement for a multiplicity of social identities.
Participative planning is essential to our methodology.
Through research and public action we want to know how art and architecture can have a liberating effect for the most exposed part of humanity that has been left to strive in precariousness.
In order to understand our interventions and the work with communities, it is necessary to have an idea of who lives in the historical center of Athens where the Nomadic Architecture Network has been active since 2005. There are the older inhabitants who resisted the trend (since the 70’s) to move to the new middle class suburbs and away from the degraded inner city, there are immigrants who had arrived as early as in the early 90’s, many enterprising Chinese who are retailers or even owners of huge businesses. In the area of Gazi we find internal migrants from Thrace: Turkish and Pomak speaking Muslims who descended in the ‘70s. Then there are the Roma gypsies. As alternative artists had started to settle in the historical centre due to low rents, the LGBT community moved in around their new venues in Gazi. However, the extreme commercialization that followed spoiled the love affair with the area for many of these people forcing them to pack up again. Below Omonoia Square we find Africans, Pakistanis, Afghans etc (more than 200 ethnic groups) most of whom come from regions ravaged by war and extreme poverty. They live in sordid conditions paying a fee per day to share basement rooms that function as dormitories where they sleep by shifts. Of course there are the homeless and the women who work in brothels and in the streets. Finally, shop and night club owners and their employees.
Recently, a new socio-economic class of people has poured into the historical centre. They usually come from the posh northern suburbs and may have a second home there or even in another European metropolis. They live in the new blocks of luxury apartments or in renovated houses, protected by security cameras. These real estate investors never took into account the pre-existing communities neither opened any dialogue. The municipality and the ministry of the environment have not yet looked into the problem of such a violent transformation. As a result, the centre of Athens is not far from the dystopias described by Mike Davis: derelict buildings, trash, junkies and scavengers next to the luxury lofts and the Chinese shops. The fear is palpable in the face of old inhabitants who remain in the area against all odds. Car windows often get smashed, purses stolen etc. The situation being precarious despite the strong police presence, it seems that the latest policy consists in intensifying security even further.
In view of the situation described above, we created the Nomadic Architecture Network. In 2005 we embarked on an anthropological study to research the area of the Gazi village by drawing mostly on lived and shared experience. “I beg you not to demolish my world!” was the title, which originated in the graffito of a child written in the local Turkish dialect. We wanted to become involved in the life of the community in order to understand their dynamics as well as the day-to-day effects of the push of capitalist interests.
(1) On June 21st 2005, with our support, the local community organized a musical performance in the central square. Through a series of events we presented the study that we had carried out in cooperation with the inhabitants, including many children and women. A map was drawn next to the central square in which one could follow the various stages of the transformation of the area. Across from the central square, in an empty lot owned by the municipality, we designed a playground together with the children of the 87th intercultural primary school. The materials we used included soil, ropes, fishing nets etc.
(2) We then focused on the “transformation of the ground”. Participants animated a series of actions in the area involving exploratory walks and a protest that drew attention to the displacement of local people.
A-polis was the project we presented at the art exhibition organized by Kostis Velonis under the auspices of the Hellenic American Union in Athens. We prepared a series of abstract votive sculptures, inspired from goddess Artemis (of the Greek mythology) the virgin goddess of the hunt and the moon –and goddess of difference- identified with Roman Diana. The sculptures were edible and offered as gifts to the communities in appreciation for their trust. In return, the asylum seekers at the Lavrio Refugee Centre and the association of second hand merchants at their open-air bazaar on Ermou St. offered their gifts to us.
The ambiguity of the roles became apparent during the project as the “city-less”, the people without a community became in turn our hosts and we turned into their guests.
The action with the title “Procession on the tracks of habitation” in the area of Athens’ historical Olive Grove was an exploratory walk across the Gazi village until Markoni (a neighborhood in the heart of Elaionas –the Olive Grove). There were various happenings all along that set off the special characteristics of different locations with respect to the city of Athens. We also wanted to draw attention to the need for the conservation of the area as a park.
The workshop “Open House” was an idea we developed in cooperation with Jilly Traganou and Lydia Matthews. In this project we looked into the imaginary dimension of “home” for the emerging communities of the new diasporas, which take root beyond national borders. We focused especially on the experience of women. We wanted to explore the mythologies of everyday life in conditions of displacement, precariousness and de-territorialization. In the course of the workshop we created a community network that brought together women from different age groups/nationality/professions with personal experience of deterritorialization or displacement. Normally, they would have had little or no possibility to share their knowledge. The community network that was created planned a public action that took the form of a “collective habitation”. The result was reminiscent of the fiction of Elif Safak and her completely different but nevertheless, deeply connected women. At a first stage, a women’s collective appropriated the space of the Byzantine museum in Athens. The workshop “Open House” will migrate in June to Manhattan and the Lower East Side. This is an action that evolves simultaneously in three cities, Athens, New York and Berlin.
The title of our collaborative action for the 2nd Athens Biennial was “Water Girls Water Boys, Across the Bay of Phaliron, by the mouth of the Kifissos River and the island of Psyttaleia” (http://faliron-bay-athens.blogspot.com/).
Apart from the Greek collectives “Urban Void” and “Nomadic Architecture Network”, there were people from the New York based “Flux Factory” (Douglas Paulson, Chen Tamir) and “Koh Architects” (Damon Rich, Jae Shin), as well as many guests and local associations. We all walked together along the Kifissos River from Piraeus Street to Faliron Bay and also sailed half way to Psyttaleia (uninhabited island in the Saronic Gulf a few miles off the coast of Piraeus with the largest sewage treatment plant in Europe). The action directed attention to the ecological disaster that afflicts the environment of the river delta.
Last October in cooperation with the group European Alternatives and SARCHA, we organized the Symposium POLIS 21 – BETWEEN FILOXENIA AND XENOPHOBIA (www.polis-21.com) at the Byzantine and Christian Museum. The action titled “From Farsi to Greek, across borders” took place in Monasteraki Square.
Currently, the Nomadic Architecture Network is working on “The transformation of the historical centre of Athens: the role of art“. This is a study that looks at the life of the immigrant communities in the centre of the city and examines the effects and possible role of cultural policy and practices. The question is whether and how “architecture” and the “arts” can contribute to the effective improvement of the city centre while avoiding the fallacies of gentrification. It is a study funded by the Latsis Foundation.
In the midst of such precariousness, what does it take to speak of compassion and what is humanity all about, when there are persons, names and stories that will never see the light of day, when people who have lived in a place for generations are suddenly forced to leave? Or when vulnerable people are thrown out into the street? What we are witnessing is once more the usurpation of land from its legitimate owners, the people who inhabit it. We are also faced with an up-and-coming industry of public art that uses aestheticism as a strategic lever in the service of repressive urban planning. In this light, art and architecture function as a horse of Troy for real estate developers. By all means, targeted areas must be ridden of their previous inhabitants and that may pass through degradation and allowing social problems to fester. Underprivileged communities do not have the organization to resist systematic pressure and it is usually a matter of time before they cede territory to the new class of well-to-do people pouring in to take their place. This is what happened to the Muslims of Gazi, the Roma in Elaionas and it is happening right now to the immigrants in Metaxourgeio.
In a recent article, Nikos Kazeros says: “We had better mistrust the reasons behind the absence of the government from areas that are deemed degraded and thus, fit for renewal. A consequence of this absence is the all apparent necessity of a substitute… readily provided by private companies, more or less in a “messianic” role.”
What can be done?
Until now, the State has neglected those who were most in need.
Universities, foundations and various agencies in cooperation with community art projects and architects can make a difference. We could ensure that the local communities’ voices are heard and that neighborhoods are revitalized through participative planning.
We could be working more effectively with the local communities to support each and every victim of gentrification. It is our duty to draw some red lines that will set limits to rampant speculation and become actively engaged in support of the coexistence of people, in support of communities and of their territorial rights.
To our mind, community-based art and architecture is a collective artistic praxis that gives voice to real people on the ground and allows for interaction between architects, artists and community groups, always placing special emphasis on participative planning. We support the right to the city in these times of increasing exclusion. We are somehow attracted to the notion of Utopia as the imagination of place. Do I need to stress more the aesthetic and political importance of the triangular relationship involving artist-architect-community?
It epitomizes the role of the contemporary artist and architect in the city as well as the cooperation patterns that can connect groups and networks in different countries through synchronized action. In a broader sense, I would call this outlook ecological.
The question that keeps coming to mind is “who counts as a human being”? Which lives are worthy of love and acceptance and how can it be that some do not have any rights at all?
Through our bodies we always remain exposed to others, and our very vulnerability ties us to others (2004b: 20, 22) Judith Butler
First presented at the symposium with subject “creative economy, creative Athens: opportunities and challenges in times of crisis”, an event organized by the British council of Athens, the Panteion University’s dpt. of media and culture, hosted in the Benaki Museum of Athens, March 26th 2010, with the participation of David Barrie.