Walking on shifting grounds

by Sevie Tsampalla

This article discusses the spatial and relational practices put forth by Nomadic Architecture. It looks at how nomadism, migration and the commons, are entangled in its walking actions and translate in ways that shift our understanding of them. The thoughts take as a starting point the action “Walking the routes of the displaced”. The video documentation of the action was presented in the framework of small change, a group exhibition curated by the author at the artist-led space AirSpace gallery (UK) in 2013. 

Mapping / disrupting the narratives of displacement

Mapping / disrupting the narratives of displacement

Walking the routes of the displaced took place on June 1 2013 and was part of a series of actions entitled ‘They forced us out of here’. This walk started at the Embros theatre and continued to Omonoia, through the streets of Menandrou, Theater Square, Aghiou Konstantinou, ending with a discussion at the Social Center (Network for the Support of Immigrants and Refugees) at Exarchia Square. In Nomadic Architecture’s own words ‘the action is about the difficult – sometimes impossible – journey of displaced people to get to the city; the center of Athens, gentrification, the chasing of immigrants and vulnerable groups, and their displacement, forcing them into concentration camps, such as Amigdaleza’[i]. By the summer of 2013 more than 60,000 people had been stopped, searched and detained in the streets of Athens, as a result of the major sweep operation Xenios Zeus, which had launched a year earlier, in August 2012. As only a small percentage was actually found to be unlawfully residing in Greece, the operation was more symptomatic of a systematised racial profiling, as well as of a dominant perception of the centre as haven of illegality and criminality.

Dominant aspects in Athens of that period appear at the edges of the screen in the video documentation of the action. In one of the first ‘scenes’, we see a number of policemen on motorcycles, riding fast pass the group of people that the camera is following. Some of the policemen turn their heads towards the group and although their eyes remain invisible behind the helmets we sense their surprise and curiosity. In this marginal and almost imperceptible moving of the heads, we understand that the presence of this group in these streets is something against expectations – a strange body. The camera follows the group as it walks slowly through the streets, stopping every now and then, to form a loose circle around the individual who takes central stage to read a text, recite a poem or sing. Mostly following them from the back, the camera offers the viewers the perspective of the participants, and only occasionally takes a distance to give an overview of the group or of the surroundings. The portrait of the city is ‘sketched’ as the group walks and we get a glimpse of daily life as people get on their motorcycles, enter their cars, walk or stand in front of shops. Often a passer-by will stop, talk to members of the group or even join in and walk together with them for a while.

In my opinion, the action is based on a dual premise: that of charting and at the same time disrupting the narratives of displacement in the centre of the city. If the route aimed to engage with the latter, its start and end relate to sites that actively produce counter-narratives to the hegemonic discourses of cultural production and migration in the city. We know how loaded public demonstrations tend to be in Athens, commonly beginning or ending up outside ministry buildings, or, as in the case of the annual march commemorating the Polytechnic uprising, at the American Embassy. The action replaces the usual symbolically loaded edges that embody institutional power, with two contemporary hubs of self-organisation, Embros and the Social Centre. In both, individuals and collectives work together through art, radical politics and education against, on the one hand, the commodification of culture and, on the other, for the active solidarity with migrants living in the city.

Chosen by each participant individually, the texts read during the action are quite diverse: among them, a fragment from David’s psalms, poems composed by members of the group, a short extract from the writings on the commons by Hardt and Negri (2009) They all relate in some way to displacement, as the overarching theme of the series ‘They forced us out of here’. As they are recited in public, in areas that at the time were havens of repressive operations, they offer a mediate counter-language, a disruption of the rhetoric of unlawfulness and fear. Extending Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s proposition that poetry is a deactivation of language as a system of information and communication, we could say that these public readings aim to deactivate the language spoken by the state of exception. Typical for a city in crisis, Athens by 2013 had declared such a state, with symptoms like increased policing, the rhetoric of urgency and repressive operations of the so-called ‘war against unlawfulness’, targeting above all migrant populations and autonomous spaces (Φιλιππίδης 2012).

Poetry and the state of exception have a fleeting encounter at the start of the action. Right when the policemen ride by, a poem is read aloud about a girl that was brought to the city in a truck. Chance synchronises those two images, yet the encounter is not at all incidental in the city’s reality.

hidden among others from the countries of snow, where yesterday they used to hope and they used to dream where in a truck together with other women, somewhere from the North…now she is learning Greek in the streets of Athens, She goes Ev-ri-pi-dou, So-fo-kle-ous, So-cra-tous, Athi-nas, Akademia Pla-to-nos.

The group’s slow pace is in sharp contrast with the fast passing of the policemen on motorbikes, custodians of the spectacle of surveillance. During the walk various forms of movement alternate. The silent walking in front of Embros, turns a few streets later into a slow dance pace of contact improvisation, where physical contact triggers new movements between group members and spontaneous participants. Other moments include the individual open movement that accompanies the performing of a theatrical text, and the almost impromptu whirling of some group members in Omonoia square. This constant flow corresponds to the experience one has when walking in the city’s centre. The body finds itself circulating in a space dense in movement and opens up to encounter the many others that inhabit it.

Operations like Xenios Zeus were supported by an effort to present migration as the problem of the centre of Athens (Hatzopoulos and Kambouri 2011). By localising it, migration becomes a problem that is controllable. This demonization produces a static and homogenous concept which ignores the diverse mobilities and performativities that characterise both migration and urban movement. For the newly arrived the desire to start a new life reaches here a crucial point. Connecting to the existing networks and migrant communities established in the city since a few decades can mean securing the resources that will enable to continue the journey to their preferred destinations. But, even if the journey is hindered in strict terms, migrants are not immobile or disconnected from people and locales. Their presence always transcends geographical zones, as they try to remain in contact with those they leave behind, and connect to those they meet in host countries like Greece or in desired destinations. Quite accurately the term ‘connected migrants’ refers to all those social bonds that emerge within these diverse and transnational networks of migrant mobilities (Hatzopoulos and Kambouri 2011).

Walking the routes of the displaced makes visible the diverse socialities that are produced here, while at the same time, it undermines their marginalisation by racist discourses. The camera captures fragments of the socio spatial relations that the group is able to witness and come in contact with. Next to the Afghan who stands in front of his shop, individuals of diverse ethnicities form groups, linger, chat, wait for offers of potential day labor or improvise markets. Occasionally tourists appear next to people rushing to work, while teenagers are just hanging out on benches. Formal and informal economies, the permanent and the ephemeral coexist here. As the group walks, it produces a sociospatial narrative of its own, which at specific moments succeeds in interacting with those various others it comes across. At the same time, it would be fitting to say that the group is also opening up a space of alterity. Its presence, though peaceful and ephemeral, disrupts daily life as it is expected to happen here.

The action on the whole explores the possibilities of a narrative cartography based on an interconnection between body, text and space. The big cartographic gesture of the body that charts an area as it is walking incorporates various smaller gestures. Rose petals are thrown on the ground and small pots of basil are given to passers-by. Fruits are taken from the shops along the route, to be given to passers by a few moments later. Reading and listening takes over when the body stops in front of busy shop entrances, hotels and kiosks. Such gestures propose a mapping of the area, which is based on exchanging, collecting and leaving ephemeral, yet visible traces behind. The video documentation, with is minimal editing, offers a perspective which comes close to how the walk took place. Realised after the action, a map using collage, photography and text, adds one more medium of subjective mapping that the group explores.

We can trace affinities between Nomadic Architecture’s walking as critical cartography to the dérive of the Situationists, where the body captures the city’s unconscious mood, and is able to undermine the normative cartography of the State, that tends to represent the city as a controllable image-object. However, how important is to be aware of those affinities when one encounters such actions in the streets of Athens? On the side of the readings, interesting dialogues occur between the group members and people who ask them what they are doing This is not a coherent narrative, but rather a narrative that is in the making, fragmented as the stories that it collects, not by coming to interview people here, but by osmosis and interaction, by observing and by being observed. What matters more is that the action activates a new space of co-habitation, where different kinds of socialities and perceived alterities are able to cross paths with one another.

Traversing routes between nomadism, migration and the commons

Nomadic Architecture’s actions re-contextualise nomadism, a term commonly associated with natural settings, in urban and public spaces. In an analogy to the nomadic pastoralists, who make use of resources that would otherwise remain neglected or marginal [ii] Nomadic Architecture often lays the focus on urban voids, spaces of architectural or social neglect, but often baring the potential to function differently within the city fabric.

Historically, nomadic populations have been moving in cyclical or periodical ways, along routes that were based on the knowledge of available or exploitable resources. In its strict definition migration is distinguished from nomadism, in that movement does not follow the logic of a cycle and is driven from a will to settle in a new place. In its contemporary condition, however, migration, and especially the undocumented one, intersects with nomadism. Complex geopolitical processes, border politics and smuggling networks define the routes that are available for migrants, while their journey between departure and desired destination includes many stops across countries. Their stay in transit stations is very often prolonged due to legal and bureaucratic impasses. Improvising shelters in open spaces or occupying flats and buildings, they are able to connect to others that can help them to find their way in and ultimately out of transit cities like Athens. Their mobility does not only depend on the availability of temporary dwellings, but is often the result of the politics of displacement, which target such spaces and force them to move to other areas.

More than often Nomadic Architecture attempts a friction with migration, by researching forms of habitation that migrants devise while ‘en route’, and by seeking physical and relational connections with them through inclusive actions – co-habitations in public space. Such is the case of the action Walking the routes of the displaced. These co-habitations presuppose and address public space essentially as a commons; in other words, as something which is communally produced and is accessible to everyone.

Spanning from natural resources, such as air, water, the oceans and forests, to the social and cultural creations, such as creative works, libraries and public spaces, the commons are often defined as ‘the things that we inherit and create jointly’ (Carroli 2014) Although in theory they are readily available to all, in reality practices of power control and exclude who gets to access them. Restriction and exclusion are fundamental for the appearance of the commons. As the Italian jurist and activist Ugo Mattei suggests the commons acquire meaning when they are demanded for politically (Caperchi 2012). From this perspective, collectivism is a sine qua non: demands become visible, translated in action and asserted when we come together.

In Greece, the resurgence of the commons has been inscribed in the narrative of the crisis, as a socio-political urgency under the weight of the austerity driven policies of the past few neoliberal governments. Athens in particular, has contributed to a broadening of the spectrum of what a collectivity can be. Autonomous spaces, such as the Embros theatre, and self-organised community parks like the Navarinou park, disturb the dominant institutional strategies that define city planning and urban living by occupying previously vacant buildings or lots and transforming them through collective creativity.

If it wasn’t for Mattei’s argument on the reverse analogical relation between restriction and appearance of the commons, the plethora of bottom up initiatives would simply signify a strengthened access to public space. In Athens, collective-run endeavors have been growing in parallel with the inability of the state to respond to the social inequalities that the crisis has accentuated, and mirror the restraints exercised on the political level. The closing down of autonomous spaces such as Villa Amalias, Patission 61 & Skaramagka has, for example, signalled a systematised effort to ‘reduce the effective spaces of self-government and self-determination, reducing thus the spaces of real local autonomy’. Adding the protests, manifestations and riots that have marked the city in recent years, it is easy to recognise Athens’ public space as one that breeds social and political change through conflict and contestation.

Within this context, Nomadic Architecture’s actions present a socio-spatial counter narrative to the state of exception or state of emergency and its prominent manifestations in Athens’ public space. This materialises in my opinion in the ‘where, who and how’ choices the collective makes: the sites they chose to intervene, the participants they involve and the ways this involvement happens in the streets of Athens. Nomadic Architecture choses to be present there where social urgency and self-government often coincide, such as in Akadimia Platonos, at the Prosfygika at Alexandras or the Embros theatre, as well as in central areas that are characterised by a high circulation of ‘others’, such as Omonoia, Psyrri and Metaxourgeio. Their walking actions gather diverse participants (in age, nationality, occupation, gender…), while the synthesis of the group differs from action to action. Walking, reciting poems, dancing and singing – often in different languages, connect the group members with each other and at the same time become the means of an extended invitation to anyone that encounters them to join in.

The transformative intent to arrive to a different kind of spatial production does not result in any tangible, material intervention in the urban environment, but is articulated through an open ended, participatory and relational process. What actualises this are the performing elements, which are integrated in the actions as a flux of alternating acts of spoken word, dance or bodily gestures, and do not make up a rigid structure with a clear start and end. They are more stages of a process of relating to the other group members, that takes shape through interaction with those outside the group. And this in itself is important as it points towards an understanding of public space as a commons founded on relational principles, rather than property (Carroli 2014). As such, the actions are not about re-claiming segments of public space from those who control exclusion, in order to return them to other kinds of groups, but rather attempt to examine how new relations between its many groups of users can result in co-producing a different social spatial dynamic.

Pointing to the opposite direction of property is also the fact that the spatial production that is proposed acknowledges the strength of temporality. Nomadic Architecture’s actions are not bound to one space across time – but traverse the city, mapping its transformations through the body, engaging with different individuals, collectivities and parts of the population, adopting hence the term of temporary co-habitation. Based on this it would be appropriate to say that the actions do not seek to signal the idea of a community, with its romanticised connotations of a homogenised group of participants that share the same identity, but of a commons based on a shared interest in co-producing common urban resources (Gilbert 2014).

Commoning as nomads?

Bringing commoning within the framework of European politics is foremost asking what legacies and futures we can co-produce as European citizens. Commoning always implies processes that are inclusive. Decisions that seal land and sea borders produce a narrative of a Europe that is exclusive, contradicting the principle of free circulation that has been central to the European experiment from its beginning. Mobility has become a privilege for those already inside the Fortress, but not granted easily to outsiders. Especially the effort to fortify the Mediterranean clashes with the long tradition of flows that have been contributing from this geographical part to what we tend to understand as European identity. The myth of Europa’s abduction by Zeus already locates its definition outside of its perceived (even across centuries) territorial borders and thanks to the friction with the Other (Douzinas 2012).

It seems that despite the long tradition of exposure to the other and the more recent post-national citizenship discourses, it is still hard to detach ourselves from the idea that specific places belong to specific people. The sedentary model continues to define our perception of space and identity, even if now we have been moving from the nation state towards a larger transnational family bounded by economic, political and cultural bonds. Replacing motto’s such as ‘’Greece to Greeks’ with that of ‘Europe to Europeans’ means applying the sedentary logic on a larger scale. Departing from Deleuze and Guattari’s distinctions between the sedentary and the nomadic model, philosopher Rosi Braidotti has elaborated further the critical and political potential of nomadic subjects. The nomadic way of inhabiting pace is above all bounded to movement, a relationship which is by definition partial, but also not static. Ultimately, being a nomad is about multiple ways of belonging. She writes: ‘Nomadic political subjects sustain and materially frame an empirical transcendental site of transformative becomings. They are enfleshed subjects who actually yearn for qualitative ethical changes, wanting to feel at home in the world while resisting it’ (Braidotti 2012).

Rather than sustaining divisions between the perceived North and South, West and East, are we able to find ways of commoning as nomads? The current flows of migrants and refugees attempting to reach Europe either by walking across borders or cramped on unseaworthy boats, confront us all with the question and responsibility of redefining the very idea of solidarity and European citizenship. Commoning is in this case about acting together against the rhetorics and strategies of exclusion, deportation and displacement. A nomadic European Union is a place where there are neither migrants nor permanent inhabitants, but subjectivities that embrace movement, both belonging and resisting their contexts and historicity (Braidotti 2012). From the micro-political of daily activism, we might be able to transform Europe to a more hospitable place for affirmative macro-politics. This effort to turn the negative to positive can start as simple as walking together in a nomadic city as Athens, walking together to shift grounds.

Walking the routes of the displaced

Participants: Tonia, Fares, Despoina, Fezmiester, Omar, Patricio, Aya, Xristina, Lynn, Aglaia Komninou, Nazari, Efi, Aggelina, Sofia Grigoriadou, Giannis, Aggelos Skourtis, Eleni Tzirtzilaki, Stefanos Handelis, Kostas Plessas.

Itinerary: Riga Palamidi and Sarri St. – Menandrou St. – Theater Square – Aghiou Konstantinou St. – Omonia Square – Patission St. – Stournari St. – Exarcheia Square – Social Center (Network for the Support of Immigrants and Refugees – 13, Tsamadou St., discussion).


[i] Another action in the series was realised in the frame of the Athens Biennial 2013, Agora. See: http://nomadikiarxitektoniki.net/en/projects/utopia-meeting/they-forced-us-out-of-here-walking-the-routes-of-the-displaced-small-seeds/.

[ii] I find useful the description provided by the Encyclopedia Iranica: ‘Pastoral nomadism is a livelihood form that is ecologically adjusted at a particular level to the utilization of marginal resources. These resources occur in areas too dry, too elevated, or too steep for agriculture to be a viable mode of livelihood, and the nomadic pastoralist thus makes use of resources that otherwise would be neglected.’ See http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/nomadism.



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Hardt, M. and A. Negri (2009) Commonwealth, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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