Lost Spaces, Found Playgrounds

This weekend I went to see and participate in an art exhibit about lost spaces. We used words, images and art to illustrate spaces that we have lost – real or metaphorical – and placed the postcards with others in the exhibit. This was the Ripple Effect: Currents of Socially Engaged Art Exhibit and Postcard Workshop.

I made a postcard that my mind has wanted to create for quite some time, though I was not aware of this. I placed my card in the exhibit, but I did not describe my lost space in front of the group, for whatever reason, so I share it here.

Family History Postcard

The space lost, the space I cannot access, is my family history beyond the last three generations. My great-grandparents lived in the Black Sea region, and less than a century ago, Turkey and Greece exchanged populations (more accurately: mutually expelled their citizens), so records are difficult to access, or are no longer available. The search itself requires significant time and resources and a trip to the physical spaces. My card illustrates a space in memory that is lost: a metaphorical space that exists as a result of lost physical spaces.

There is a distinct feeling of an empty space when the knowledge of family history is not there. To understand the lost value of a family history (the stories of family members) that has always been unknown, look at the value of family that was known and lost. Several of the people that stood up to share their lost space described and illustrated physical spaces related to memories with family members that had passed away, but also the joy and inspiration that remained in their lives, from their perspective on life and living, to the career to which they dedicate their life.

Through my work, I focus on diaspora and immigrant or migrant communities, and the issues that impact the lives of these individuals, as well as all those they care about across our global networks of humans. I also identify myself as Greek-American, and am somewhat involved in the community. While I like to find activities around the city that let me learn and do new and different things, it was a satisfying challenge to have to illustrate a feeling that has been growing and linking my work and personal life.

The opportunity to play with pictures, words, scissors, and glue, and to explore how others use images and words to express memories, stories, places and feelings helped me be reflective and creative – and it was fun.

Participation in the workshop was organized by SPACIOUS, an organization and a movement organizing events for people to meet and connect through art, dance, play, recess and other activities that let us unleash our curiosity, creativity and wonder.

Apparently (and fortunately) there is a growing movement around the importance of playfulness in keeping ourselves healthy, creative and balanced. This must extend beyond the U.S., because the event made me think of new initiatives in Greece based on similar principles:

Startegy is a series of “play-driven workshops” to help people unleash ideas and facilitate entrepreneurial behavior, as they seek to start a new business or project.

Imagine the City thinks of the city as an extension of home. The initiative develops campaigns and projects to improve the aesthetic of the urban environment and attract citizens back into public spaces. The goal of their recent project, Syn-Oikia Pittaki, is to transform a dimly-lit street in the Athens neighborhood of Psyrri into an area bustling with people, local business activity and community events, as a way to begin revitalizing a neighborhood. The project’s first action was to illuminate the small pedestrian street with donated lighting fixtures. (More here.) The project will continue with additional events over the next year, in cooperation with the City of Athens.

The initiative’s inspiration comes from Plato:  “The city is the way it is, because its citizens are who they are”. What if citizens have more spaces to play?

Athens Plaython (play + marathon) is the first international street games festival in Athens hosting creative street games, design and technology workshops, and fun for all ages. The launch in 2011 hosted more than 1,000 people, and it won the second place award in the TEDxAthens Disruption in Learning challenge.

I am sure there are more. Please share them here, and go play!

 

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Graffiti art and local dining: get out of the house

“An idea that began from our need for such a space…”

This is the message that greets visitors to the restaurant’s website (in Greek), and the reason that co-owners Giannis Petrou and Asterios Ganas created the concept for the locally-sourced food establishment that is Klimax (klee’-maks). This local business in the Greek city of Larissa celebrated two years this month. I sat down to speak with Giannis Petrou about his experience launching this small business, the graffiti mural he painted on a neglected wall across the street, and his perspective on food, art and public spaces. [Note: our discussion took place over a year ago, but it does not make his story and perspective any less interesting, or make me miss the place and the environment any less.]

“It’s been two years now that my partner, Asteris, and I have spent unbelievable funds, energy and time for this concept called Klimax,” says co-owner Giannis Petrou. The concept of Klimax is physically centered around a small self-service restaurant that sells locally produced food and wine, but it encompasses more. “It is not an establishment that sells wine, cheese and pasta. It is something different.”

Klimax is a place for people and community. “There is a great need today for people to go out on the streets and see that something is happening.” They need spaces to do this.

IMG_2366-Klimax2Klimax is situated along one of Larissa’s pedestrian paths, and directly across from the First Ancient Theater of Larissa (excavated recently, and dating to the 3rd century BC). “We waited for a shop to empty out in this part of town,” emphasizes Giannis, “and as soon as we found it, we rented it and fixed it.” In the evenings, seating expands from the little corner shop to either side of the pedestrian street, in a way that makes one wish it would continue along the entire length of the path. There are cushions for people to sit casually on the short wall along the railing that separates the path and the field of the ancient theater. It hosts live music, book presentations, local wine tastings. People meet friends, greet staff and friends as they pass by, make new introductions, comment on the jazz music playing.

On the other side of the railing, there is a large mural painted on the crumbling side wall of a building, which faces the ancient theater and looks down the length of the pedestrian path. This is Giannis’s work. I ask what inspires him. “I try to improve the image and, more broadly, my life and the lives of everyone around me, to try and improve what they see,” he says. “The wall we photographed that stands behind us was created for that very reason.”

IMG_2361-Gianni2

Giannis Petrou, co-owner of Klimax, discusses the mural he created across from the restaurant, and the importance of art in public spaces.

I sat all day in the business in the winter and I could see this wall. It was crumbling, neglected, and full of weeds – in the most beautiful point in the city. I thought it would be good to take the initiative to jump over the railing and do something secretly because if I were to seek a permit to use the wall, neither the Municipality of Larissa, nor the archaeological department would grant me the permit. I jumped the railing three Sundays in the early morning hours before dawn, I created [the mural] and then I gained the people’s congratulations, ‘good for you’s’, etc. And that’s my intention from here on, to be honest: to trespass into fields and create wall murals.”

“Beyond seeing an ugly wall that I could not stand to look at, I wanted to make something that someone would see and ask ‘what is he trying to say?’ For me this is more valuable. If I made this piece or any other piece and kept it at home or took it to a gallery, no more than 50-100 people would see it. But here I see that there is not a person that goes by all day that does not say, who did this?

For Giannis, the reaction of the people passing by is the best outcome of the mural. “People’s reaction was very warm… The most important thing is that the archaeological department embraced this, and they liked it a lot, and they left it there. And they want to keep it. I admit I was not expecting that. I expected them to tear it down, to destroy it.” To the contrary – they installed the spotlight.

The concept and story of Klimax is integrally linked to the location: “Despite our disappointments for two years that there was no available spot here at the ancient theater, we waited because we did not want to do at another place in the city. We wanted Klimax to be created here only.”

Climbing over obstacles and creating new something new
The name Klimax is from the ancient Greek word κλίμαξ/κλίμακα, meaning ladder. It was inspired from the Byzantine icon of The Ladder of Divine Ascent, or Ladder of Paradise, an ascetical treatise for monasticism in Eastern Christianity. “This work describes the 30 steps that we must all climb to be closer to God. All this – steps, God, etc – is in parentheses,” explains Giannis, “in the sense that we are not referring to a theocratic issue, but we try to overcome obstacles, ‘climb the rungs’ and create new things.”

“This is for us our great secret, and our ‘climb’ progresses daily. We search for new producers, look for new people who with small unit production, who do not have someone to support them and they produce a product. Meanwhile, we want this product and we provide it to customers. This happens every day. It is a piece of the city that concerns the people; they respect it and they support it….Not all of Larissa can understand this.

We simply created a place where we would want to go. That’s it. And because nobody had created it, we have done it now.”

People still ask Giannis and Asteris about their experience in setting up the business – how and why they did it.  “All the time. Every day.” Giannis smiles. If not for the restricted economy, he expects there would be several similar establishments in Larissa already. “To do this, we got funds from our own people: our wives, our mothers, our families, our siblings. They gave us whatever they had so we could create this establishment. This makes us feel great responsibility, but more so, when this goes well, it makes us more proud, because these people were proved right and we did not disappoint them. They gave us their money without asking us exactly what we wanted to do. We did not know exactly what it would look like. So when this goes well and progresses, it does justice to them.

“We wanted an establishment like this – me, Asteris, our wives – so we could go out, but it was missing from this city so we were forced to go to Athens.” To develop their idea of what they wanted this space to look like in Larissa, the business partners made several trips to cities across Europe to meet people with restaurants based on such a concept. “We went on around 15 trips to create just one spot in this city, in front of the ancient theater, where everyone can come, chat with friends, listen to beautiful music, drink a nice wine, and feel human. This is what we intended to do.”

“Our friends support this idea. We did not communicate the idea, because the two or three people we first told mocked us. They thought it was a given that a 30 square meter self-serve establishment across from the ancient theater would not last 2-3 months, it would go out of business immediately. After that we decided not to pay attention to those who had knowledge on the subject, the “experts”, but decided to do what we wanted.”

Art finds people, people find perspective
I ask if he wants to be more involved with painting and art, and he admits it was his childhood dream.“For me, to say that you exist and you are a painter and an artist is asceticism. You must work on it from morning till night and torture over a canvas…Unfortunately, I could not achieve this in my life. However, as you can see, I catch a few breaths, I sneak small opportunities, like this wall here, to exercise it.”

He chose to exercise this ‘small opportunity’ in a public space, so I ask him about the relationship between art and public spaces. “In my opinion, this is the point. Art must leave the «galleries». I worked for six years as an art director at the Larissa Museum of Modern Art, and… unfortunately, at all the openings that I recall, there were 50-60 people. This means what? That painting and art in general that is ‘shut away’ in galleries or museums in Greece unfortunately reaches very few. Art must provoke…it must stir people and get them out of the house, pull them out of their shell. This is the role of art around the world and across time.”

“[If] you cannot bring to people to the galleries and museums, what do you do? What Banksy did in London, what others did earlier in New York: provoke people in public spaces so that they become sensitized. Art does not wait for people to come to it; art goes to the people. For me, this is what it is all about and this is my purpose… I do not plan to create paintings [on canvasses] and put on a gallery show, it no longer interests me. When an opportunity presents itself, I will paint walls.

As you see, we can say all these things with many words, but it is very simple. To make a wall or an installation outside is nothing tremendous. Simply, you must have a goal of engaging as many people as you can.”

Giannis observes that a key consequence of constantly increasing sales taxes on consumer goods and consumption in the country is that people have less options for spending time with each other in public.  “People must go out, not necessarily to go to establishments, [but] to sit at the public squares, to speak, to mobilize.”

“I try to encourage young people who have an artistic vein to get out of the house and create something that will provoke people…For me there is a value in creating something that makes you stop and say ‘why did this person do this, what is this?’” Gianni nods at his mural on the wall behind us, to illustrate the point and bring it all back together – and local. “The man that climbs the ladder and sees the city from above, the paper dove that is at the top of the ladder, why is it there? Bring people into a process of reflection.”

This past year, Klimax opened another piece of the original Klimax concept: a garden, consisting of greenery, recovered materials, art and more seating.

Happy two-year anniversary and many more to Klimax, a space and place for community.

This is part of a series of interviews from Larissa. Read the introduction here and the first interview with artist Melas Karagiannis here.

Tour Klimax through this video.

Greece: transform museums to transform communities

Greece is known for its history and culture, and trademark designs from classical Greek architecture and art make an appearance throughout the U.S. and other countries, in everything from public buildings to mass-produced women’s accessories. The new Acropolis museum infused a new energy to the celebration of this culture and gathered over 300,000 fans on Facebook.

National Archaeological Museum of Athens.

New plans were announced over the past year to help the Greek capital preserve and showcase this cultural heritage, as well as its contemporary creative arts. Many of these plans are not new, but the announcements may be a sign that they will soon get underway. The discussion should not end at how we showcase history, culture and art, however.  Museums and art venues have a higher calling and a greater value to contribute to society. There is vast potential for Greek museums, historical sites and art venues to find new ways to deliver the past into the creativity and imaginations of Greeks and the world’s visitors, from where it will emerge back into communities as new forms of art, design and social interactions.

Greece’s Central Archaeological Council (KAS) announced a plan for a new Archaeological Museum of Athens to showcase the full timeline of the city’s history. This plan will involve an international architectural design competition, as with the new Acropolis Museum, and a two million euro grant from the City of Athens. The first stage in this new city archaeological museum plan is a project to improve the Plato’s Academy, an archaeological site in the center of Athens previously described as neglected: “Eroding walls, rusty fences, haphazard collections of ancient stones, and a lack of explanatory signboards characterize a place that should be a world heritage site.” The Plato’s Academy renovation is estimated at one million euros, though existing funding is enough to cover the call for design proposals.

The National Museum of Contemporary Art is also preparing for a new home. By October 2013, with funding from the European Regional Development Fund (ERFD), it will be housed in the old Fix brewery, Greece’s first major brewery.

There are signs that steps may soon be taken toward a more comprehensive strategy to making important cultural sites accessible. The Onassis Foundation announced Rethink Athens, a plan to improve central Athens through urban development, including pedestrian roads connecting archaeological sites and museums, bicycle lanes and an extension of the tram line. The Foundation is funding a European architectural design competition, with the hope that the urban development project will be funded from EU structural funds (ESPA).

Can Athens adopt a comprehensive strategy to integrate art and culture with the community – a strategy that goes beyond initiatives to upgrade museums and make archaeological sites more accessible? Questions remain. Funding for museum security is scheduled for significant cuts, event after two museum robberies this year, one at the Archaeological Museum of Olympia in January, and one at the National Gallery in February. The existing National Archaeological Museum of Athens, renovated ahead of the 2004 summer Olympics, still has insufficient space to showcase its entire permanent collection and insufficient funds to keep all the wings open and fully staffed. Outside its walls, part of the neighborhood has been a gathering place for drug users, and the streets around the museum, the nearby National Technical University of Athens and the nearest metro station, Omonia, are dirty and graffitied.

Further, another portion of the Altar of the Twelve Gods was discovered in February 2011 under the electric railway (ISAP). The Altar, near the Acropolis and ancient Agora, is a significant site for understanding ancient Athens: it was the central point from which distances were measured. KAS granted ISAP permission to rebury the Altar, and Greece’s Supreme Administrative Court, the Council of State, ruled in July to allow burying it so that the electric rail continues to run over it, despite a petition by a citizens’ initiative requesting that this action be suspended and that the government consider an alternative solution of constructing an underground line for the train. In this example, relevant authorities (Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Regional Authority of Athens, City of Athens) failed to act to adopt and implement a solution that would allow the site to be excavated and integrated into a network highlighting and better utilizing sites of ancient Athens, including the Acropolis, the Agora and Kerameikos.

It takes more than beautiful physical structures, clean streets and easy public access for a museum or site to help us connect with our past and inspire our future. Museums are trying out innovative ways to connect with people and communities through social media and interactive educational programs. Examples of this exist in Greece and throughout the world:

  • The Municipal Art Gallery of Larissa/Georgios Katsigras Museum has a learning center that offers free workshops for children and adults.
  • In 2009, the Portland Art Museum – one of the oldest museums in the U.S. – brought in the China Design Now exhibit and invited the community to be a part of the exhibition by creating and contributing content and hosting events throughout the city. (More at FastCompany.)
  • A competition in 2011 sponsored by the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded grants to 12 U.S. libraries and museums for proposals to create facilities where teens can explore digital media, technology, art and literature through hands-on learning experiences.

There are also international networks that help museum teams meet and learn from each other in these areas. The MuseumNext 2012 conference in Barcelona May 23-25, for example, will focus on Digital Participation, Digital Marketing and Digital Challenges through presentations and interactive or hands-on sessions.

Common Threads: Tribute To Philadelphia’s Youth. Mural by Meg Saligman.

Local communities can also take an active role in creating opportunities for museums to be a part of the community. Since 1959, Philadelphia’s Percent for Art program takes one percent of a construction contract paid by the City to fund art in public spaces, which has helped fill today’s streets, squares and parks with art. Boston landed on the Fast Company’s Fast Cities Fast Cities 2010 for its innovative approach to supporting the arts community through a housing program. The Artist Space Initiative (ASI) supports the creation of spaces for artists to live and work in industrial areas or emerging neighborhoods that meet artists’ needs.

In Greek cities, visitors will see buildings, long occupied with residents and small businesses, that have unfinished or unpainted outer sidewalls. Ask local residents about this phenomenon, and they will tell you that tax policies create an incentive for owners to leave the building unfinished to avoid property taxes that kick in when a building is completed. Greece’s municipalities and central government should be exploring tax reforms that will make it beneficial for property owners to not only fix this aesthetic disgrace, but to invite and commission local artists to turn gray concrete blobs on the cityscape into canvasses for work that will speak to or reflect the community.

Athens, and indeed, all of Greece, has a wealth of art and culture – historic and contemporary. In addition to showcasing such treasures, the country has the potential to explore innovative ways to help culture, art and community come together. If culture and art institutions, local communities, national authorities and private businesses all enter this discussion and learn from successful examples around the world, Greece can develop a strategy to transform its heritage into an inspiration and a pulse for its modern communities.