Learning from Athens: more than a Common’s place

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A friendly encounter during the 1st May march in Athens

Chiara Organtini (Indisciplinarte) visits Maria Chatzopoulou (COMM’ON) and Angeliki Tseliou (Kalliga Square Citizens Association) in April-May 2017 in Athens

When I find myself lost in a forest of questions, resetting GPS and unlearning how to see and listen to the environment, I often go for an epicurean exit strategy: let’s gain fuel, equip myself with food for thoughts and energy to carry on with inspirations coming from faraway. Stop focusing on the obstacle and open up the view, enlarge the horizon to let the solution, the destination appear.

With Indisciplinarte, in the curation of CAOS, we have been questioning community and city governance a lot, using arts and creativity as driving forces for our mission of being a reference point for city transition. How do we proceed together? How do we enforce our sense of belonging? How do we create space for decision-making? How do we create a space for cure, dialogue and exchange based on participative, collective values and circularity?

I came back to the idea of agorà, the central public space in ancient Greek city-states. I decided to look for the homeland of this and to explore it at the hottest moment: on the 1st of May, the celebration of the idea of labour and during Documenta, one of the main contemporary arts events whose double location in Kassel and Athens raise many controversies. That’s when I wanted to go to visit Marou and Angeliki in Athens.

I first visited Angeliki, a very energetic and passionate citizen, the soul of Kalliga Square Citizens Association, a grass-root initiative aimed to improve the Athens 6th district life.  I spent my first day with Angeliki and her family slowly getting to know the city geography, shapes and also shadows under the apparently spotless flag of Documenta, visiting the exhibition at the brand new EMST//National Museum of contemporary art.

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EMST  national museum of contemporary art, inside the building

After all the buzz around the manifestation I decided to pause my judgment before having seen the situation myself. We ended the day in the beautiful neighborhood Psiri, talking about impressions, projects and life committing to keep on the conversation on the final night with a goodbye dinner.

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The colorful neighborhood of Psiri

On the following day, I celebrated the 1st of May with Marou, spending the entire day in conversation, talking about our projects and experiencing the energy of Exarchia, famous home for Greek anarchists and tattooed with history, in between processions, graffiti and gas bombs.

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The 1st May march in Athens

Marou is engaged in a project called Comm’on, a shared space for people active in societal changes, particularly in regards to city living and social ecosystems. In a very proactive way, their claim is to not ask for a change, but to co-create change. Across the sea from Italy I could feel the call resonate with me and tune with my trajectory and Indisciplinarte’s work. Together with Marou we are also engaged in the Navigator prototype, an online mapping system that provides knowledge about successful local and transnational networking models, which I find quite accurate for this travelling metaphor! It was precious to get time to exchange about the CitizensLab network and the Network Navigator idea that takes up many cups of coffee and lifted us up on Marou’s beautiful rooftop.

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Exarchia main square, political statements and manifesto

Talking about nets and connections, Marou explained the process of the Synathina, a community platform enabling the exchange and connection among citizens and associations. The aim of this platform was also to let people contribute to the improvement of the quality of life in their neighbourhood. She was very honest also in reporting all the steps, positive milestones and difficulties spotting some relevant moments they experience along the way.

One of the examples of Marou’s work was the challenging process of engagement in the 6th district around the Kypseli’s market also mentioned by Angeliki. Working as a facilitator with the Municipality of Athens, Marou was engaged in the mediation process with the citizens of the area that aimed at co-designing with them the future of this market, envisioning its possible uses in reaction to their suggestions, as well as to facilitate the development of a storytelling project and a public event on the square. Talking of this process, she mentioned interesting organisations and possible future connections for me, UrbanDig, an organization engaged in artistic production and site specific projects for the city. Beyond that it appears more and more clear how crucial the role of storytelling is in this engagement to stress identity, the capability of the arts to help imagination to blossom and to escape from the offer-demand-dynamics toward a different way of exchanging, outside the profit modus. I also realised how crucial is the role of politics and the risk of endangering the consistency of a dialogue with the citizens by the instability and rules of political fights and bureaucratic chains.

The mission of enabling the exchange is the basis of Marou’s new project and also the call I am trying to fulfil. Through Marou’s experience I have received recommendations and learnt methods on how to manage and evaluate projects, how to map and relate to stakeholders, how to give a European scale to local engagement in order to enforce its presence, finally, how to build trust and to mobilise human capital and their imagination spreading a cross-sectorial pollination. Walking across Exarchia to the 6th district, we gave a physical space to our words, we passed through the university of architecture and the 6th district park and we saw how this story is embodied in the city. Athens’ 6th district was indeed a rich beautiful area that changed in reaction to the crisis of housing: when spaces were left empty vandalism occurred, processes went down and new comers settled creating a social mélange not easy to be understood. Therefore, the place is now full of frictions, untied in its language and profile, physically not well preserved and in decline.

Being there, thinking of the active mission of Angeliki and the crucial role of CitizensLab member Eleni Zontirou, a representative of the municipality in the district, a recurrent question was spinning in my head: what happened in a no man’s space? Is it a white blank or an out-of-law place? How do we shift from property that brings care but also exclusiveness and closure to a sense of belonging that can provide a collaborative caretaking able to create bonds in the process of making, in the sharing of tasks as well? How do we take care of the Commons?

The following days were spent at Common’s headquarter at the enigmatic Syntagma square, where I also met Stelios, Marou’s colleague whose background is in law and regulation with a specific eye on non-profit organisation and culture. We had an interesting conversation about planning and management, facilitation and audience engagement and the consistent need to tune your voice, evaluate and take distances to see your strategy taking a realistic understanding of the sustainability of the process. This also led us to talk about Technopolis, a hub of cultural events based in a former factory, upgrading a historic area of the capital and creating another focal point in the cultural identity of Athens. Once I visited the place, I was struck by Serge Ecker’s digital artwork, a neon light merging the two graffiti Lathos and Vasanizomai, that made me suffer and the idea of mistake questioning our agency and empathy in regards of the economic crisis and reshaping of the future.

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A map of Technopolis

Talking of future, the educational programme captured my admiration there and just that night over dinner, living in a perfect circular novel, I discovered that Angeliki is involved in that department in Technopolis, opening up new possible connections with CAOS, that walked the same functionalisation story. In a perfect alpha and omega round my trip ended with Angeliki and her family talking till night about district, legacy of grass-roots initiatives, sustainability of the mission and necessity of finding a common code to a commonplace that can tune this cultural mélange in a cultural intimacy, often linked with collective blames and shames we all should face and overcome.

 

It was an unforgettable lesson then to close my visit with a night walk to Kalliga square that in its simplicity whispered to me a possible reply to my investigations around how do we create a common space.

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Marou and Stelios: the fabulous Common’s team at work

Chiara Organtini is an art worker active in project management and creative processes facilitation currently based in Terni, Italy. With her organisation Indisciplinarte she is engaged in the organisation of Terni international performing arts festival and in the curation of CAOS centro arti opificio siri, a multidisciplinary arts center and creative hub born from the renovation of an industrial space. Her mission is to activate and enable uncanny connections pursuing a vision of arts as generator of change.

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