2018 | Jan
While the Greek economy struggles to recover, social discontent markedly manifests through the slogans on the walls of urban centers . In times of crisis, the walls in central neighbourhoods of Athens have been converted to platforms of free expression. Graffiti and slogans constitute alternative means that potentially express aspects of social demands and reflect the spirit of various social groups. But, graphics on the walls are considered by authorities as illegal since they occupy part of the urban space without permission.
This article presents the ‘pulses of the city’ as echoed in the authors’ mind and psyche during an experimental wandering (dérive) around central neighbourhoods of Athens. It will be shown that slogans written on the walls reflect a wide range of opinions and illustrate the diversity of certain local groups’ reactions in relation to recent developments.
Although cyberspace can be eventually considered as one of the principal environments of contemporary communication, in practice people still live and interact with each other within the real-physical urban space. According to Park (1925), big cities do not simply constitute artificial constructions and mechanisms, but also express human nature. Lefebvre argued that urban space belongs undoubtedly to the sphere of politics since various conflicting interest groups seek to manage and exploit it (Lefebvre, Enders 1976). According to Negri (2009), the contemporary ‘industry of architecture’, in cooperation with the fashion and the film industries, contributes to the suppression of any act of resistance against the establishment by projecting ‘artificial light’ to all aspects of our life. Eventually, as argued by Harvey (2003), individually and collectively we are all architects. Thus, it is in our hands to re-shape the urban environment. All people have ‘the right to the city’ (Lefebvre 1996).
Social movements often employ radical techniques against power structures. Atton (2001) outlined that ‘alternative media’ offer the possibility for democratic communication to people being excluded from mainstream mass media, while Downing (2001, 2008) called ‘radical’ the media that social movements use. Furthermore, according to his theory, alternative media also include artistic production and cultural practices, such as street theatre, tattoos, clothing, graffiti and many more. In the same context, Fuchs (2010) set urban art murals, posters and graffiti under the heading ‘critical media’ and stresses that their content may include the ‘suppressed possibilities of existence’ expressed by dominated groups and individuals.
Undoubtedly, in everyday life, urban space is converted to an open community platform that carries graphics of various forms and content, communicating messages, which often draw our attention and invite us to daydreaming. All outdoor advertisements, municipal banners, traffic signs, authorised graffiti etc. can be considered as mainstream media of visual urban communication. On the contrary, alternative media include all outdoor unauthorised expressions, such as wall slogans of any content (political, sports or existential content), illegal posters, graffiti, stickers etc. Hence, speaking about unauthorised outdoor graphics, we refer here mostly to unofficial expressions of any form, performed without permission on the city’s walls, billboards, public transport etc. Unauthorised outdoor graphic illustrations obviously challenge the existing power structures and belong – as an action of communication – to the radical media.
According to Debord, psychogeography investigates ‘the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals’ (Engel-Di Mauro 2008:23). In this spirit, to better understand the significance of alternative outdoor graphics in Athens, we performed a city wandering (dérive), which constitutes one of the most significant psychogeographic techniques of the Situationists (Debord 1955, 1956). In fact, we passed through various urban environments in a state of mind withdrawn from daily routine. During such a wandering (dérive) participants must be driven by the perspectives of space and the attraction of encounters, without any particular destination, forgetting work, leisure or other conventional motives for movement and action.
After wandering around the city, we sketched a ‘psychogeographic’ map (Figure 1), which illustrates our route and groups the places that we passed through according to ‘unities of ambiance’, that is, unities of uniform unauthorised outdoor graphics and uniform urban features concerning the typology of business stores and buildings or the attitude of people. According to Chombart de Lauwe (1952), the city’s neighbourhoods are not defined only by geographical and economic factors, but also by the behaviour and attitudes of their inhabitants. The ‘unities of ambiance’ constitute psychogeographic formations as perceived by the authors-wanderers, and divide the city into distinct parts according to certain features, including social factors, the composition of the population, the aesthetics of the landscape, the noise, the light, the urban planning etc. The unities of ambiance can be articulated according to a certain social or demographic criterion. For instance, a unity may consist of a homogeneous population hanging out in the area and including artists and students. However, only one certain feature, such as a dominant architectural style, is not enough to define a unity of ambiance. According to Debord, a unity of ambiance contains many components. However, social morphology and the ‘soft’ and flexible features of the city, such as human activities, the presence or absence of light and sound or even people’s ideas are very important. The ‘hard’ elements, such as the form, the size or the location of the buildings, just articulate the above-mentioned features (Sadler 1999: 70).
Figure 1: A psychogeographic map drawn by the authors representing their wandering (dérive) around the city of Athens. The areas a, b, and f form a single unity of ambiance, the areas c, d and e form another unity of ambiance, while the areas g and h form two other distinct unities
The psychogeographic research
The field of our wandering (dérive) included the central area of Athens. Αs point of departure we selected Syntagma Square (a at Figure 1). Initially, we followed a zig zag route, which passed through Omonoia Square, Monastiraki, Psiri Square, Keramikos, Kolonaki and Exarcheia districts and, finally, we moved away from the center walking along Patission Avenue (b, c, d, e, f, g and h at Figure 1  ).
Syntagma Square is located in front of the Greek Parliament where most of the demonstrations take place. Although the square is protected by the police and gets rapidly restored after demonstrations, many faded slogans were still on the walls provoking strongly our senses. In the surrounding central streets and, more precisely, along Filellinon Street, Mitropoleos Street, Ermou Street, Karagiorgi Servias Street and Stadiou Street, our emotions intensified as the graphics’ density grew higher. In this area, we observed all forms of unauthorised outdoor graphics, such as slogans that referred to a series of issues, varying from gay rights, immigration, anti-establishment declarations and complains about the economic crisis to lyrics of existential content, stencils, classic graffiti, street art, stickers and tagging (Photos 1 to 6). The switching of expensive stores and luxury hotels with closed bankrupt businesses, covered by political slogans, graffiti and posters, reflected to our senses an atmosphere of frustration, motivating intense negative and pessimistic moods, as well as a tendency to revolt.
Photos 1-6: In the area around Syntagma Square we observed all forms of unauthorised outdoor graphics, mostly political slogans, stencil, classic graffiti, street art and tagging
Walking along Stadiou Street, we approached Omonoia Square, which is located at the heart of the city center. Undoubtedly, this area constitutes a multicultural zone. However, apart from tourists, immigrants and refugees, we encountered jobless and homeless people, illicit street vendors, pickpockets, drug addicts etc. Most of the walls, where not covered by graphics and posters, were black due to air pollution. Graphic representations on the walls included mainly classic graffiti, stencil, tagging, rhymes concerning football teams and political slogans against the crisis and austerity measures (Photos 7 to 12). All these graphics, along with the closed and bankrupt business stores, the composition of the wandering population including many unfortunate or marginal persons and the garbage lying on the streets, provoked our sorrow, despair and desire to protest. The atmosphere also in this area remained pessimistic, in a déclassée version, since the local market was not characterised by the luxury of the business stores at the area of Syntagma Square.
Photos 7-12: In the broader area around Omonia Square we observed mostly classic graffiti, tagging, stencil, political slogans, football rhymes and street art
During our wandering around Monastiraki, Psiri and Keramikos (Gazi), we realized that there was a different aesthetic quality characterizing the walls , since many graphics appeared to be commercialized or, at least, we perceived them as artistic youth innovations following the mainstream culture. It seemed to us that all these areas constitute a ‘unity of ambience’, since it was very difficult to define precisely when one state of mind provoked in a certain neighborhood gave place to another. All these neighborhoods are meeting points for the youth and get crowded especially on weekends. Actually, they are stamping grounds of young people following the mainstream culture. There is a variety of commercial activities, such as the traditional Monastiraki bazaar, fashion stores, bars, night clubs and restaurants offering diverse types of entertainment. In these commercial places, radical political slogans and graffiti had different effect on our senses, in comparison with the areas that we had already visited. We observed a large variety of graphic expressions, such as street art, classic graffiti, tagging etc., which often came along with political content. This mixture, embedded within the omnipotence of the entertainment industry’s commercial environment, often caused us a certain amount of confusion. In these areas, it was very difficult to distinguish radical expression from the commercialised graffiti of the mainstream culture. Most of the stores had assimilated the radical media aesthetic forms and, sometimes, they used even the same socio-political messages for commercial reasons. It was clear to us that the aim of these performances was not to support social struggles and give the floor to marginalised members of the society but to attract customers or, at best, to experiment with mainstream youth art. In this sense, the alternative mechanisms of urban expression are subjected to ‘objectification’ and ‘recuperation’ (Asger 1960, Lukács 1968, Debord 1969), bringing radical struggles together with other practices that belong to the sphere of ‘Spectacle’ (Debord 1970), such as commodities, promotion and fashion (Photos 13 to 18). Although our mood was less anxious in comparison with our mood in other areas, due to the walls’ intense ‘beautyfication’ by the entertainment industry, after all, our emotions were shaded again with lighter tones of indignation and bitterness about the current crisis, the immigration issue and gender discriminations, influenced again by the few radical expressions that we managed to distinguish.
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