The city and the stranger: towards an Athenian emancipatory expressionism | VASO MAKRYGIANNI

August 19, 2014

The city…

Cities nowadays don’t serve only as nodes of global economic networks or as fields for capital accumulation, but primarily act as vivid places of encounter and emancipation. If we consider space as a derivative of everyday life experiences, then, those cities derive from the simultaneous presence of millions of people coming from different places of the planet.

In a peculiar coexistence with huge construction projects, freshly gentrified areas or decadent crisis-scapes, migratory populations produce their own heterotopias [1] in the urban fabric. Most of those contemporary ‘vagabonds’ [2], apart from being in a ‘state of exception’[3], piled in concentration camps, transit airports or detention rooms they are active citizens that produce their own spaces of living in the contemporary Greek metropolis. While performing everyday life they often act as deregulators of the hegemonic city image and question livelylimits, fragments and borders posed by the nation state, the market and various other power mechanisms.

…and the stranger

In order to set the urban question it is often necessary to assume the presence of a ‘stranger’. This phenomenal externality seems to destabilize the established city image. Those ‘strangers’ do not simply cross over the city’s terrain but transform thoroughly the urban space. They introduce multiplicity and diversity; they question hegemonic characteristics and set a series of issues that reform the dominative figure of contemporary metropoles. Following Massey[4] the presence of the ‘strangers’ in the city allows the possibility of heterogeneity that comes in direct opposition with the hegemonic common sense. In addition, class race and gender characteristics remain strong differential categories that do not allow the homogenization of such populations.

While performing everyday life and producing the urban (space) they give new meaning to the ‘citizent’ and question the formal migration policies. In Lefebvre‘s words :“those who perform the everyday life in the city, through living and producing space, have the legitimate right to the city”[5] Thereby, the relation between the city and the citizen is re-determined. Citizenship is determined by inhabitance and not by the inclusion to a nation-state. On the side, through this understanding another hegemonic schema is questioned, that is the bipolar of inclusion/incorporation and exclusion, that requires a static and homogenous receptor- the ‘body’ of the nation state.

Furthermore, the status of migrants appears identical to a state of ‘anomia’[6]. But the way we approach any category has direct impact to the spaces that this category signalizes. For instance, the more we consider oppressed immigrants the more we perceive spaces of defense, while the more we consider subjects in a state of resistance the more we perceive emancipatory spaces. The perception of migrants as subjects enclosed in a zone of anomia or exception often hides aspects such those of resistance and struggle and identifies them as passive recipients of oppression rather than as active agents.

Following Casa-Cortes et all [7]migration suggests a double state of resistance and emancipation. On the one hand there is a domical relation between migration and struggle that emerges during border crossing. It is the moment when transnational policies like the Shengen or the Dublin II agreements are questioned boldly. On the other hand, there is an emersion of emancipatory movements while performing everyday life and conducting struggles (no matter how ephemerous they may appear). This double substance is defined spatially in different scales from a hyperlocal (when crossing borders) to a local level (when inhabiting the city).

in Athens…

Ever since the crisis broke out in Greece, several struggles and collective actions of resistance have emerged. In May 2009, in the aftermath of the December 2008 revolt, riots broke again in the Athenian metropolis. During a police control operation, a policeman tore pages of the Korani that an Iranian carried in his pocket. The following days about 2000 protesters (the majority were Muslim men) gathered and marched towards Syntagma square in order to protest. The manifestation ended up with the police throwing tear gas and attacking to the protestors who fought back the sovereign brutality. Those days the public open spaces of the city (squares and streets) and the bodies of the protestors formed the spaces of resistance against the sovereignty power.

About half a year later, in November 2008, during the Kourban Bairam, an open public prayer was organized in more than 14 open public spaces in Athens. The initiative was taken by the Muslim union of Greece. While the previous years such events were celebrated in closed public spaces, that year the prayer signalized a protest for the absence of an Athenian mosque [8]. The Muslims gathered in order to pray in central public spaces like the square in front of the town hall (Kotzia) or the open space in front of the central building of the University of Athens. It is estimated that more than twenty thousand Muslims gathered that day. The hierarchical structure of the prayer organization (Muslim union of Greece) and the gathering under a very strong identity (the religious one) hardly denote emancipatory practices. Nevertheless the ‘exodus’ from the approximately sixty five [9]informal mosques that exist in the city center , in order to perform a public and visible ceremony in an unfriendly and sometimes hostile Greek orthodox environment constitutes an act of resistance and claim of the city’s public space.

Still, claiming the city’s public space doesn’t only refer to symbolical practices but it is integrated in the everyday life of the newly comers. Streets, pavements, and squares , apart from serving as spaces of leisure or circulation constitute the work place for many migrants that work as street vendors in the city center. Street vending has become an open battlefield in the Greek capital. Using the “illegal trade” as a pretext the state rhetoric separated the indigenous populations from the newcomers. The latter became the scapegoat of the recent crisis accused for the collapse of the commercial sector [10] and were repeatedly hunted by the municipal police, members of the fascist Golden Dawn and ‘legal’ vendors. In order to protect themselves, the street vendors settled in spaces near the university. Primarily because the police used to avoid such spaces [11] and also because of the solidarity networks that emerged between students and migrants. In several cases, a very strong network of support was created. For instance in the ‘Athens University of Economics and Bussines’ (ΑΣΟΕΕ) migrants and students have been conducting an everyday battle in order to defend their spaces from the police invasion. In this way a very central space of Athens has turned into a battlefield where struggles of students and migrants against sovereignty take place.

In the meantime, the ‘Union of African women’ claimed through collective processes the presence of women and especially of migrant women in the public space. In September 2010 they organized the ‘3rd Festival of Solidarity’ in collaboration with citizens of their neighborhood. The festival was organized in a public square in one of the most central and over-populated neighborhoods of Athens with a high percentage of migratory populations. Being marginalized by the identity of a ‘female-migrant’ in a ‘white city’, they had to confront numerous exclusions. Nevertheless, during the festival, they achieved to transform the square to an open public space, safe from racists pogroms, in a neighborhood that had become dangerous for non-white people,.

The linear narration of the above practices does not exhaustthe range anddiversity of such movements; on the contrary, it emphasizes the time and space continuity of emancipatory movements in the urban space. It allows us to question the consideration of separate spheres of the everyday life between the Greek and the ‘stranger’. Mainly in times of crisis when the capital relation becomes more intense and the struggles for life and survival multiply and become more radical it appears that the space-time of the metropolis is compressed resulting to zones of daily coexistence and simultaneity.

 

In short, if we make an attempt to overcome dilemmas such as ghetto versus gentrification or marginalization versus assimilation and bring to surface potential dynamics that may be lying underneath during the production of the city space, then a plethora of evolving communities and spaces will appear. Spatial emancipatory practices that derive from encounters and conflicts in local level affect different parts of the city and form spaces that come in direct opposition with the sovereignty policies. These spaces allow us to imagine geographies of resistance instead of fear.

towards anemancipatory expressionism

Critical thinking as well as class race gender and culture prerequisites should not only constitute as tools for analysis and identification of the difference but as a tool for severe critique of the sovereignty.

One of the most interesting points of Lefebvre’s work remains the notion of the city as a result of social class relations of conflict and antagonism. Within a Marxian background/root/ origin, the French philosopher highlights the urban space as a field of collective life and emancipation and intents not only to understand the city but to shed light to all those forces able to change it. In that way, space inherits a special meaning as direct result of everyday life of people-citizens, thus everyday life comes to the foreground as a potential field of subversion.

The city rises as a field of conflicts, and through the dialectics of fear and resistance it is possible to emerge spaces of emancipation. The porous synthesis of space questions limits such as established identities. It destabilizes relations of power and notions like “illegal”, “flagitious”, “anomous” that give birth to spaces of exception, ghettoization and exclusion. It allows us to break the former spatial contract and form again the relation between citizens and city while promoting “stasis” instead of persecution in the urban space.

It is about time to enlighten such dynamics of coexistence in the Athenian urban fabric in a crisis context. Andit is high time we saw such spatial practices and the emerging interactions with the former urban environment and the local population. Against the actually existing neoliberalism stands an actually existing movements of resistance and emancipation.

A new expressionism of the contemporary metropoles is rising within the crisis. A violent and overstressed emotion is depicted in the emersion of new urban spaces. The question posed here is whether this tension will follow geographies of power or geographies of resistance and emancipation.

 

VASO MAKRYGIANNI  holds a diploma in Architecture and is a PhD candidate in Urban and Regional Planning in Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece. In her research she explores emancipatory practices of migratory populations and spaces of resistance in Athens during the crisis era. Her interests include socio-spatial analysis and urban planning, gender studies, social movements and radical geography.

 

 

Footnotes:

[1] as Foucault would probably suggest (Dumm, T. L. (2002) Michel Foucault and the Politics of Freedom. Rowman & Littlefield)

[2] as Bauman describes them (Bauman, Z. (2001) La posmodernidad y sus descontentos. Ediciones AKAL)

[3] following Agamben’s dystopias (Agamben, G. (2008) State of Exception. University of Chicago Press)

[4] Massey, D. B. (2005) For space. London; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE.

[5] Lefebvre, H. (2007) Δικαίωμα στην πόλη Χώρος και πολιτική. Κουκκίδα.

[6]Douzinasanalyzethenotionwithinacrisiscontext (Douzinas, C. (2011) Antistasē kaiphilosophiastēnkrisē: politikē, ethikē kaiStasē Syntagmā. Athēna: EkdoseisAlexandreia.)

[7]Casas-Cortes, M., Cobarrubias, S., DeGenova, N., Garelli, G., Grappi, G., Heller, C., Hess, S., Kasparek, B., Mezzadra, S., Neilson, B., Peano, I., Pezzani, L., Pickles, J., Rahola, F., Riedner, L., Scheel, S. andTazzioli, M. (0) ‘NewKeywords: MigrationandBorders’, CulturalStudies, 0(0), pp. 1–33. doi: 10.1080/09502386.2014.891630.

[8] such as stadiums etc, since Athens is the only European capital without a mosque, see further details in http://www.reuters.com/news/pictures/slideshow?articleId=USRTX113DQ#a=1

[9] Hatziprokopiou, P. and Evergeti, V. (2014) ‘Negotiating Muslim identity and diversity in Greek urban spaces’, Social & Cultural Geography, pp. 1–24.

[10] Kaminis, G., (2010) Interview in Lifo, 13/10/2010. [in Greek] Retrieved from www.lifo.gr

[11] because of a former legislation that forbade the police to enter university spaces, the legislation changed during the recent crisis, and the last few years several times policemen have entered the university spaces

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