Flesh, stone and contemporary artistic practices

by Eva Fotiadi, 2014-15

In his book Flesh and Stone, Richard Sennet has written a history of the body and the city in Western Civilization in the form of a series of studies of cities during particular moments when something happens that ‘marked a significant point in the relation between people’s experience of their own bodies and the spaces within which they live’ (Sennet 1994: 22). The book is about history, however Sennet’s motivation relates to the present. He maintains that ’the geography of the modern city, like modern technology, brings to the fore deep-seated problems in Western civilization in imagining spaces for the human body which might make human bodies aware of one another’ (Sennet 1994: 21).

In the first chapters Sennet writes about ancient Athens. He refers to the nakedness of men and the proud presence of their bodies in public, as opposed to the covered bodies of women, bodies considered ‘physiologically defect’ (Ibid: 71). Women generally refrained from public space and visibility, and even at home were not present in the rooms of men’s symposia. Nonetheless, women did have their own annual rituals, which brought their bodies and their bodily desires out of their usual confinement. An example was the annual Adonia festivals, which were agricultural summer rites related to death (Ibid:73-80). The interesting aspect of Adonia in relation to space, time, body and the city is that they took place at night and on the rooftops of houses. Covered by the darkness, women wandered around residential neighbourhoods and responded to calls from unknown women on rooftops to join them. The rooftop was neither the private space of the house, nor a public space like the Agora or the gymnasium. Moreover, it was a place with no designated use. According to Sennet, the rooftop was a ‘space of metaphor’ that in a ritual refers ‘to a place in which people can join unlike elements. They do so through how they use their bodies, rather than through explaining themselves. In the Adonia, dancing and drinking take the place of complaint, or of analysis of the condition of women in Athens’ (ibid: 79). Sennet adds that ‘this explains a certain bafflement in Aristophanes and Plato’s comments on the Adonia, their inability to make sense of what was going on; the rooftop rite defies analytical reasoning’ (Ibid, 80).

In another example he writes about Venice in the Renaissance, about the spatial restriction of non-Venetian populations such as Germans, Greeks and Jews for reasons of economic interest. In the case of the Jewish population, economic interests were intricately intertwined with prejudices of Otherness and fear projected onto Jewish bodies. The segregation of bodies was spatial, temporal as well as visual. Jews were allowed in the city during day-time, and even then there were much-telling rules concerning clothing. Since 1397 they were required to wear a yellow badge. From 1416 prostitutes and pimps had to wear yellow scarves too. Moreover, the city did not tolerate Jewish women wearing jewellery or other ornaments outside the ghetto. With a decree of 1543 prostitutes were also not allowed to wear jewellery or silk (Ibid: 239-240). The establishment of the first Jewish Ghetto came at a time of great losses in trade and seven years after a big military disaster. The city leaders ‘blamed these losses largely on the state of the city’s morals’. They launched a moral campaign to reform the city, part of which was also the Ghetto: ‘By segregating those who were different, by no longer having to touch and see them, the city fathers hoped that peace and dignity would return to their city’ (Ibid: 216). All sorts of prejudice targeted Jewish bodies as infectious and seductive – as threat. However the city’s economy needed the Jews and so they were segregated but not expelled.

Greece during the second decade of the 21st century has its own experience of using the Other as scapegoat, with the crisis-hit, austerity state employing strategies of spatial and visual segregation of bodies considered unclean, infectious, amoral – threatening. The non-European migrant as Other doesn’t usually need to be designated by clothing as difference is visible on the skin. S/he has systematically been treated as unwelcome by authorities and citizens alike, or altogether removed from public visibility in urban space. When ‘otherness’ includes groups of ‘white’ citizens – homosexuals and transsexuals, drug addicts and prostitutes, all treated sometimes with undifferentiated prejudice – then it is a publicly often unavowed spatial and visual designation within the city that leads to them. This was manifested in the spectacularly mediatized police operation of rounding up HIV positive women in spring 2012, with as criterion the particular times they frequented particular areas of the Athenian centre.

Already since decades artists have expanded the domain of what can be understood as art. Artists’ practices, or rather practices that can be called ‘artistic’ in an expanded field that does not fully follow modern art’s imperatives such as originality or authorship, are often difficult to distinguish from other professional or social practices. However, they are not fully identifiable to the function of the latter either. They are different in that they do not function primarily in order to implement an action or task, but, quite significantly, the performance of the action or task as art enhances the awareness of its constitutive elements, the specificities of form and content as relations of time, space and agency between humans in the spaces they use and inhabit. In Greece over the last couple of decades one can find such practices in an interdisciplinary field that links art to urban space. A field of hybrid, often collective, post-studio practices emerged through attempts to process and translate experiences of urban space and city life into process-based and performative acts: some of the work of Chondros and Katsiani, the project Route 49, actions and projects by the groups Urban Void, Filopappou Group, Omonoia Collective, Microgeographies, Errands, the artist Maria Papadimitriou and so on.

In a general tendency of collectivization and ‘commoning’ that characterizes many recent social and cultural – including artistic -initiatives, one sometimes finds actions and gestures that may not introduce new rites comparable to ancient ones, however in some ways are reminiscent of the Athenian women’s Adonia. Encounters of locals and migrants, loosely organised walks, collective kitchens and gardens, team games, meetings and alternative appropriations of spaces loaded with histories or symbolisms, or simply of neglected spaces. Initiatives and actions by the Nomadic Architecture network come to mind here. Often festive and always inclusive, such actions are mostly too explicitly militant in their message to be associated with Bourriaud’s relational art, but they also lack measurable impact or broad publicity to be considered social activism. Moreover, they are too low-key, totally unspectacular and even banal in their repertoire of actions and symbolic means for cultural activism as understood by Duncombe. Yet in their discrete and precise character as open-ended, collective actions, they use space in a way akin to the rituals’ ‘spaces of metaphor’, as places where ‘people can join unlike elements’ and ‘[t]hey do so through how they use their bodies’, not mainly ‘through explaining themselves’. They bring bodies in a conscious and sensory relation to one another, to the city’s architecture and its histories. In doing so, they bring to the fore presences, narratives and identities that both official authorities but also many citizens select either to ignore or to stigmatize and exclude.

In this context, an initiative of coordinating children of various ethnic backgrounds to imagine, design and construct their own, common playground can be a hybrid artistic-architectural contribution to an antifascist performing arts festival. At the same time, the same people involved in this initiative might participate to non-art initiatives for creative activities for children, without needing to ‘package’ this participation as part of their projects, but still acting from within an expanded and multifaceted artistic and/or nomadic architectural practice. Rancière’s understanding of artistic practices appears pertinent here, namely as ‘ways of “doing and making” that intervene in the general distribution of ways of doing and making, as well as the relationships they maintain to modes of being and forms of visibility (Rancière, p.13). From this perspective, practices like this can activate in the present Sennet’s aim to bring to attention our culture’s deficiencies in imagining spaces for the human body and of human bodies to be aware of and relate to one another in urban space


Jacques Rancière (2004) The Politics of Aesthetics, translated with an introduction by Gabriel Rokhill, New York: Continuum.

Richard Sennet (1994) Flesh and Stone. The Body and the City in Western Civilization. New York etc.: Norton.