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!



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.”


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.

Discussion with an artist in Larissa: art in a hospital and art in a crisis

Melas Karagiannis is a Greek painter in Larissa, a city in central Greece. He recently produced some paintings for the radiology clinic at the Larissa University Hospital.  “I’m actually working there as a cook, because as a painter you can’t survive. Don’t try this at home,” he jokes.

Art can have specific purposes, and this is certainly the case in a hospital. As an artist, Melas says, “If you want to do something, I mean artistically, in a hospital, you should really think, ‘In that place there are people who are not well.’ It’s not a gallery, so you can’t put whatever you want, or whatever you like. There are people who are sick, are ill, and they want to get better, so you should really take care. Be careful of what you are going to produce.”

Cancer patients, their families, hospital staff and visitors all have access to the corridor lined with Melas’s paintings.

“You should talk to the people who are working in the hospital,” he advises. “You should get their advice so they can help you have a better result. That’s all.”

While working at the hospital, Melas wanted to do something for the clinic’s patients. The psychiatrist and psychologist working in the hospital clinic advised that the paintings include cool colors, like blue and green, and remain abstract – that is, without representations of people, animals or other objects. “It cools them down; they relax while they walk. They don’t just see a naked wall, they see something, but it’s nothing in particular. It’s great. The reactions are good. And I’m happy for that.”

Melas is a painter. He has several influences: “Salvador Dali, and also pop art, this kind of mixture…colors, strong colors. I’m trying to provoke in a way, the people around me, to show them something that will wake them up from their routine reality.”

He says that most people either like his work or hate it – which indicates that his work has an effect on people. “These are the reactions which I like – either love it or hate it – because it is very important. The people that are neutral…it means [the piece] didn’t touch them.”

“I’m working on several paintings now, because I can’t work on one. I’m just mixing colors and seeing the result, that’s all. If I don’t like it, I just put some more color on it until I like it, and it stays.  That’s the way it works.”

As an artist in Larissa, he is not alone. There are many creative people in Larissa, professional and amateur, producing art. They paint, sculpt and write.

“Sometimes I think that this city can’t really see what is going on, and it is unable to give all the artists a chance to show their work.”

According to Melas, the state should play a role in helping artists create and display their art. “This is the only way. Nobody else will [do this]. And the artists, by themselves, it’s not a matter of courage, it’s a matter of money, strictly. They can’t afford to pay to have shows.”

He acknowledges that the Greek state will not likely take on this role anytime soon given the economic crisis.

Yet art has an important role to play during this crisis. “To provoke. To wake up. There’s no other role now, it’s the times. Art now should wake up the people, should make them think ‘why’ when Greece is like this: why is the situation is like this, why are we like this. And to show them, every day art should be like a mirror. Around the misery which we are living. Nothing else. There’s no time for beautiful paintings, or flowers somewhere and sunsets. To provoke, nothing else. To wake them up. We ended up like this because we were sleeping. And it’s time to wake up.

When asked if he has any message for aspiring or working young artists in Greece, he says he cannot understand young artists in Greece.

“I understand that it is very difficult to live, just to survive, from art.  It is very easy to say, ‘I have to do what the people want me to do or paint, just to pay my rent.’

But the only message I can give them is: don’t give up. Do what you want to do. This is the only thing that is going to change the world. If you give up, nothing is going to change. It is going to stay the way it is. And you see the results; they are obvious. So don’t give up. And if the younger generations don’t give up, maybe a better future will come. If they give up, then for sure it’s going to be the same.”

Sounds like a message for more than just young artists. We’ll take it.

View some of Melas Karagiannis’s work on his website: http://www.melas-karagiannis.eu/

This is the first in a series of interviews from Larissa. Read the introduction here and stay tuned for the rest!

A global public art project allows local communities to be a part of their local art

This GOOD article describes how artist JR took his project to a global level, thanks to his vision and the 2011 TED prize. His InsideOut Project allows whole communities to be a part of local art.

Check out the Inside Out Project trailer, Episode 1, and other videos on the project’s YouTube channel.

In Greece, MELD | Athens invited six Greek photographers to lead a Group Action as part of this global art initiative. They created portraits of children from privileged and underprivileged backgrounds in Athens and posted them in side-by-side pairs in the city’s public spaces on October 15, 2011. This Eyes of Truth Group Action was a parallel event with the October 10, 2011 TEDxAcademy.

TEDxAcademy Talk by Corinne Weber, Creative Director & Producer of MELD and Yvonne Senouf, Creative Concepts Producer of MELD:

Where are all the Porsches? Creative and Community-Oriented Energy Pulses in Larissa

In early November of last year, The Telegraph picked up on a quote by a former head of the Greek prime minister’s economic department, reported in an Athens News article, claiming that Larissa “tops the list, world-wide, for the per-capita ownership of Porsche Cayennes.”

I visited Larissa in August last summer. I did not see any Porsches.  Perhaps I was just distracted by all the artists and community activists I met. Perhaps they just did not invite me to ride around in their Porsches.

Art installation by Christos Papanikolaou, under the Alkazar bridge in Larissa.

The quote is from an article Professor Herakles Polemarchakis published in the Spring 2011 issues of the Bulletin of the Economics Research Institute of the University of Warwick, where he wrote about the “rather faceless locale” of Larissa and used the Porsche statement as an example of Greek tax evasion. This statement then circulated on other media outlets and social media.  A few days later, a Business Insider article reported that Professor Polemarchakis could not verify the information, saying that it was something he heard a few years back, and that the per capita ownership number was from “someone else who researched the matter recently.”

My verdict on this Porsche issue: the example is moot.  Professor Polemarchakis did not cite evidence for the information, the Telegraph article (and the headline) was more a cheap shot than an informative report, and the other media outlets waving the story around certainly did not add any substantive information or context of their own.

It is frustrating to see a factoid used as a shocking illustrative example of a serious issue when the ‘fact’ portion of the ‘factoid’ is not actually cited – particularly when it refers to a whole city that is not well-known outside of Greece for any of its actual attributes.

Luckily, months before this article, I heard that Larissa was a growing hub for graphic designers and other creative types, and I had an opportunity to visit in August.  Less than 24 hours in Larissa was enough to show me that it was not at all a faceless locale. Everything I observed, heard and experienced in the city pointed to this being true.

Originally, I set out for Larissa to spend time with a friend and learn more about her work with the Synergy of Music Theatre (SMouTh), a non profit organization helping youth and adults learn and reinvent artistic expression through music theater. After meeting her over two years ago at an event in Washington, D.C., organized by an organization focusing on Greek diaspora communities, we had only exchanged a few emails and Facebook comments. Over a year ago, I was on a work trip in a location much closer to Greece’s timezone, and had an opportunity to listen live online to a radio show she was co-hosting. That was the extent of our interactions.

But this is Greece, where people welcome you to their town and mobilize their friends to give you the warmest welcome and most authentic introduction to their community and rhythm of life that they can possibly squeeze into whatever short timeframe you have.  To put it another way: a Greek host does not just invite you to meet up for a coffee somewhere. A Greek host will meet you for coffee, bring you into the kitchen to sample all the local specialties, and convince the place to stay open late and host a party, to allow you, the guest, to experience Greek kefi (no direct translation, something like spirit and fun and joy) – even if you are a Greek from abroad and know a little about kefi.

I met my friend for coffee, we caught up on each other’s lives and work, and when she heard about the Reinventing Greece project, she mobilized several individuals working to reinvent their community through art, entrepreneurship, digital storytelling, and community action. On only a couple hours notice, these people took the time to share how they are trying to contribute to their communities in a positive way through their work. These interviews will be featured in an upcoming series focusing on Larissa.

View of the First Ancient Theater of Larissa from the pedestrian street.

In between nearly seven hours of interviewing, everyone I met in Larissa still found time to make sure we could enjoy a few meals, some local wine and the beautiful summer evening together. They also helped me get in a little tourism, including a walk around the Frourio (the fortress) and the First Ancient Theater of Larissa (excavated recently, and dating to 3rd century BC), and a quick visit to the Municipal Art Gallery of Larissa/Georgios Katsigras Museum, with the second largest contemporary art collection in the country after the National Art Gallery. The tour was particularly enjoyable because of all the pedestrian paths in Larissa – an outcome of a direct effort to improve the urban plan of the city and enhance public spaces and cultural history. Read the case study at Eltis, The Urban Mobility Portal.

Consider this an introduction and please stay tuned for the interviews from Larissa.

The Greek Crisis: Tents on a Square

  • The “gypsy tents in Syntagma [Square, in front of the parliament] make for an unacceptable sight.”
  • “…what we have now is an image of lawlessness.”
  • “…find a solution to restore the image of the square”
  • “A peaceful demonstration is one [thing] and the camp on Syntagma that is killing the city is quite different.”

Following those quotes, you may be expecting to read something like: these are the statements I am hearing from people in the city. In fact, these are statements from Greeks in public leadership positions. Read again, with their names indicated:

  • The “gypsy tents in Syntagma make for an unacceptable sight.”
    – Justice Minister Miltiadis Papaioannou. According to Kathimerini, the same term, ‘gypsy tents,’ was used by Costas Aivaliotis, spokesman for the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS). Source.
  • “…what we have now is an image of lawlessness.”
    – Dora Bakoyannis, leader of the Democratic Alliance party and former Minister of Foreign Affairs. Mayor of Athens from 2003 – 2006. Source.
  • “…find a solution to restore the image of the square”
    – The mayor’s office. Source.
  • “A peaceful demonstration is one and the camp on Syntagma that is killing the city is quite different.”
    – Justice Minister Papaioannou. Source.

There was quite a push to clear the tents off Syntagma Square in Athens in the last two weeks, and today, city authorities and the police finally removed them. This past Thursday, a prosecutor began an investigation to determine whether the demonstrators maintaining the tents and activities on Syntagma Square were breaking any laws.

I support a respectful use of public space and a concerted effort to promote tourism. However, the situation on the main public square in Athens and the remarks of political leaders at the local and national level raise different issues in my mind, and do not bring me to the conclusion that the priority in Athens is to clear the tents away.

Who determines the use of public space?

There is a great and historical significance to the public square.  We tend to think of public squares as a starting point for tourists: lovely areas with cafes, beautiful restored historic buildings, and monuments of historical and influential figures. Perhaps we sometimes forget that, around the world, they have been the settings for significant social and political developments, and not always positive ones. Some of our most inspiring but also our darkest moments as human beings have played out in public squares around the world, from revolutions to public executions. Yet some people are uncomfortable with having the country’s social, economic or political problems reflected on the main public square in the capital. What exactly is the reason why the demonstrators in tents on Syntagma should have a shorter timeline than the economic crisis that brought them to the square?

If other citizens want the protestors to move out because their use of the square is being prevented, this is an important matter to address. But this is not what is being said. Based on discussions with people here in Athens, and my own experience passing through the square nearly every day for the past three weeks, there is plenty of space to pass, the area is tidy, organized and peaceful, and no one walking through seems disturbed or obstructed. Every time I passed through the square in the evenings or at night, there were people of different ages there, engaged in discussions near the tents.

Syntagma the first week of July.

People cleaning the square. Mid-July.

This is extremely contrary to every sidewalk I have walked on in the city, where mopeds and motorcycles park and drive freely, and cars often park half or entirely on the sidewalk. Yet this is not the obstruction and lawlessness leaders are commenting on right now.

Further, the demonstrators have not thrown unwilling citizens and tourists into their effort to make their voices heard by political leaders, which cannot be said of, for example, taxi owners.  Taxi owners have been on strike for nearly two weeks, and part of their strike has included blocking access to roads, ports and airports.  They also went so far as to throw oil on a road to prevent vehicles from leaving the port of Piraeus. Rather than make a case for their position and invite supporters to join them, they simply interrupt services for citizens and tourists and hope this will somehow aid their cause.

To what extent can image divert attention from or completely hide reality?

It seems to me that clearing off every marble tile on the square is less of a concern in addressing the image of the city and the country than the issue of how the media is covering events in Greece and the absence of a strong, clear and consistent message from the mayor’s office or national leaders on what is happening and what they are doing to move forward. Who would we fool by removing the tents from Syntagma?  No one will see the closed, empty shops on every street? No one will encounter young people around the city during the day, who have no job to go to?  Tourists will not notice the increased amount of graffiti and visitors will not see that neighborhoods in central Athens are crumbling further from the condition they were in just a couple years ago? Or will no one see the children, often victims of criminal and trafficking rings, approaching them one after the other to beg while selling flowers or tissues or while playing the accordion?

Whose vision of tourism are we concerned with?

Let’s assume a clean Syntagma will shine so bright as to hide all of the above in a lovely hazy glow.  What is the comprehensive plan for tourism? Is a clean, quiet Syntagma Square the center of the plan?  I would think that making transportation efficient and clean, and developing the network of museums, archaeological sites and cultural activities would be some of the main concerns, particularly in the short-term. There are some disappointing blind spots in these areas.  Here are just a couple examples:

a)     I had to pass through one of the Athens bus terminals several times this summer to catch buses for other parts of Greece.  To get to the terminal, you need either a car/taxi or to switch from the metro to a city bus.  Once you are there, use the restrooms at your own risk (ladies, there are still squat toilets in use) and bring change to give to the woman at the door so that she hands you some toilet paper. There is also one giant chaos of people, buses and cars going wherever they please throughout the terminal, and a non-stop procession of people selling trinkets, tissues or directly begging for change. The train would be a nice alternative, given that the station is accessible by metro, but it still does not connect Athens to all the larger cities of northern Greece.

This is an issue of far greater concern to me than a peaceful walk across Syntagma Square.

b)    There is an issue relating to archaeological sites in Athens of which not many people are aware. In February, archaeologists discovered the Altar of the Twelve Gods during renovation work for the electric rail near Thiseio and Monastiraki.  The altar was an area of religious and political significance, and at one time was the central point from which distances were measured.

This week, the Council of State, the Supreme Administrative Court of Greece, ruled to allow the burying of the Altar 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, such as constructing an underground line for the train.

It is disappointing that there has been no significant discussion on the part of the relevant authorities (Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Regional Authority of Athens, City of Athens) to consider a solution that would allow the site to be excavated and integrated into a network of sites highlighting ancient Athens, including the Acropolis, the Agora, Kerameikos and other ruins, or even a plan to revamp and better utilize the existing sites.

Public Speaking 101

Ultimately, this situation reveals that Greece’s leaders appear to have forgotten the importance of public speech.  Hard to believe, given Greece’s history, but painfully clear in the statements above.  It is something I have heard this summer from people of different ages, in different sectors and of different political views:  leaders are not speaking to the people in a way that acknowledges their struggles or gives them reason to believe that anyone in power is truly making an effort to make things better.

The People’s Assembly of Syntagma Square has continued to maintain its online forum (real-democracy.gr) and its system of selecting topics of discussion, and it says that the peaceful protests will pick up again in September. Leaders can ignore all of this, call them drug users and loose women, and suggest that the tents on Syntagma are one of the city’s biggest problems if they choose, but this approach only dismisses the real frustrations of the broader public, many of whom are really struggling.  There are European Union statistics that indicate this, if the message is not coming through from the Greek people themselves:

“Based on the most recent statistics available, Brussels calculates that 116 million people in the EU are at risk of poverty (they live in a household with a disposable income below 60 percent of the national median) or social exclusion. The 2008 figures show that more than 2.1 million Greeks fall within the “at risk of poverty” bracket.”

August is a quiet month in Greece.  The weather is hot; most people go on vacation.  Hopefully Greek leaders will take this time to think about the message they are sending to international and domestic audiences, and lay out a respectful and constructive communication strategy. And some would do well to consider the racism they express when using the word ‘gypsie’ as a derogatory adjective.