Polytechnio, Exarcheia

Friday, 4 March 2016. I got off the bus a couple of stops before Omonia to check out the Faculty of Architecture, which is housed in a building known as Polytechnio in the central district of Exarchia. I had noticed the building already on the day I arrived in Athens, as its neoclassical facade is very prominent from the main street connecting the city center to Kypseli, where I am staying. I walked through the entrance gate into the outside area of the complex, which comprises a series of structures around the perimeter of the block, additionally to the neoclassical building in the middle. All walls were filled with graffiti and banners hanged between trees. As I walked through the gate, I noticed several families with their children coming in and out of a door to the right. Some women wearing hijabs were washing clothes outside in an improvised washbasin. I headed to the central building and, as soon I passed the door I heard a man speaking English. He was guiding a tour for a small group of foreigners and I tagged along, introducing myself when I found a chance. The tour guide was a professor from the faculty. He was very friendly and showed us the studios, and the library, telling us how big a struggle they had to fight in order to even have one. I asked him about the families I’d just seen outside and he told me they are refugees living in a part of the building that had been squatted by anarchists from the neighborhood. They’ve been there for a while already, he said. The tour finished in the inner courtyard of the main building. It is a pompous space with very well conserved neoclassical elements. It also stands out as the only part of the building that has no graffiti on the walls. Unlike the other outside spaces of the complex, it remains closed at night. This is his favorite part of the building, the guide told us. He talked exactly as one would expect from an architect. “What I like the most about this space is the way it frames the sky. You won’t find a better view of the sky in Athens,” he said.

The inner courtyard of Polytechnio in Athens.
Photo by Hatto Fischer, found here.

Saturday, 12 March 2016. For most of the day the air was dense and the sky of Athens looked reddish from Saharan dust carried by the wind. […] I sat in a café in Exarchia until late afternoon reading the book of Cavafy poems that I had borrowed from K. After dinner I got a beer from a kiosk and walked to Platia Exarchion, the main square of the anarchist district. It was strangely empty for that time on a Saturday. I sat on the concrete rim of a flowerless flowerbed for a cigarette and looked at the protest banners suspended between the lights. I tried to decipher what was written on them by reading out the Greek letters. I could only understand the word “cannibalism”. After putting out the cigarette, I walked towards the bus stop undecided whether or not to go home. It was so early in the evening after all. As I passed by the gate of the Polytechnio, I noticed it was unusually crowded. The gate was open so I walked in. The further I walked into the complex, the more people I saw. I could feel a nervous atmosphere in the air. There were about fifty people gathered in that place, all restless and fidgety, speaking to each other in murmurs. The vast majority was wearing black clothes, and more than a few had motorcycle helmets on. I felt displaced and vulnerable but the sight intrigued me. I walked to a gloomy, sheltered passageway behind the colonnade in the back end of the complex where there was a desk oddly placed against the wall. I sat on it looking at the mob from a safe distance. People kept coming in large quantities, many wearing helmets and balaclavas hiding their faces. Some people carried rolled-up red flags. A guy with a black bomber jacket was holding a baseball bat. I sensed danger in the air and it made me feel thrilled. At around 8:45 p.m. the mob reached its largest extent. There must have been at least two hundred people there, mostly in their thirties. A bit before 9 p.m. everyone started walking in formation towards the gate. In about ten minutes there was no one left in that space. I trailed the group until the gate keeping a distance from those behind. Already on the street, the mob turned left towards Platia Exarchion. After pondering for a moment, I turned right towards the bus stop. It was time to go home.

The gathering mob from where I was seated,
taken with my iPhone camera.

Athens central district of Exarchia has a long history of civil disobedience, and for that reason, it has played an important role in the social and political life of Greece for many years. In November 1973, a student uprising at the Polytechnio and its subsequent violent suppression by the Greek army triggered a series of events that eventually led to the fall of the military junta that had been ruling the country since 1967. In December 2008, the murder of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos by the police resulted in violent protests in the district that eventually escalated into widespread rioting across the country. The protests lasted for several weeks and attracted global media attention; an ominous sign of the full-blown crises that were to follow throughout the next decade. The murder took place in the corner of two pedestrian streets, Tzavella and Mesologgiou, a stone’s throw away from a spectacularly grotesque—if notoriously anonymous—building that immediately caught my attention as I first walked that street. I see it as an architectural synecdoche of Exarchia: the way the building sits in the block, skewed and unperturbed, disregarding the logic of what surrounds it, somehow translates into architecture the attitude of the whole district.

The building that caught my attention, a stone’s throw away from where Alexandros Grigoropoulos was murdered by the police in 2008.
Map by Google Maps. Photo by me.

Nowadays, Exarchia is famed for being home to several anarchist and anti-fascist groups. Many artists and intellectuals live there too making the area an important hub of independent cultural production. Exhibitions and concerts regularly take place in venues around the central square, Platia Exarchion, where one can also find many bookshops and cafés. Police stations and banks, on the other hand, have no place in Exarchia, as such symbols of authority and capitalism would constitute easy targets for far-leftist groups. In fact, one of the first things I learned about the district by talking to locals is that, since the violent clashes of 2008, policemen are “not allowed in”. The phrasing may sound like an overstatement but the fact is that one does never see them around. There are heavily armed officers permanently stationed in certain corners that access the square, but they never really cross inside. As a result of this status quo, people can deal and consume illicit drugs in the area around Platia Exarchion without the fear of police harassment, most visibly marijuana.1 But the trafficking and use of heavier drugs is also known to take place in the area, particularly heroin and sisa,2 which have witnessed a big upsurge in past years, associated with the rise of unemployment.This is precisely what was behind the agglomeration of people I witnessed that Saturday evening in Polytechnio. Talking to a local some days later, I learned that the people who gathered there were anarchists from Exarchia. They demonstrated in the district’s main square against a drug-trafficking gang, which presumably was responsible for attacking a girl in a local self-managed community centre not long before. The day after the demonstration a video was uploaded on the Internet by the organization: hooded and helmed silhouettes marching and chanting around the square dramatically lit by red flares. Some protesters marched while brandishing guns and other weapons in the air. There were no clashes that evening, just the march; and even though it resorted to the idea of violence, the protest does not seem to have been meant to be a violent one. It was essentially a reaffirmation of territorial authority by a more activist faction of the local community. A message in the beginning of the video clarifies the motives: “Popular march of self-defense against state repression, the mafia and social cannibalism.”3

The mentioning of state repression in the context of this particular demonstration raises some interesting issues, as this time—for a change—the state was not directly the target. The term can be seen here as a signifier for what the anarchist community of Exarchia sees as the root of the drug problem that they were bracing themselves with: the allegiance of the state to the ruthless logics of neoliberal capitalism and the mobilization of its repressive apparatus to suppress alternative ways of living.I got some additional perspective on these issues when, a few weeks later, I started reading Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance.

“Society has been broken up, rendered fragile and fragmented by thirty years of perpetual precarization, uncontrolled and rampant competition, and psychic poisoning.”4

One can certainly see the emergence of a thriving drug market within the scope of such transformation. Bifo goes on with other symptoms:

“There will be little cheer in the coming insurrection, which will often be marked by racism and self-defeating violence. This is the unfortunate effect of the long process of desolidarization which neoliberalism and the criminal political left have subjected society to for decades through their incessant proliferation and fragmentation of work. […] No one will be able to stop or guide the insurrection which will function as a chaotic reactivation of the energies of the body of the socius, which has for too long been flattened, fragmented, and lobotomized.”5

Chaotic is a keyword to understanding the many variables behind the insurgent drive in Exarchia. The same local resident I talked with also told me that the aggressive tone of the demonstration was far from being consensual. She herself was very critical of the display of firearms as it was done, revealing similar concerns to those of Bifo about the self-defeating dangers of resorting to violence—or, in this case, the idea of violence. Even though one may think of far-leftist anarchists as being the opposite of what one would call racists, the effects of such an aggressive stance against a group referred to as Albanian mafia may be problematic on that level. Racist sentiments may not be present among the community just yet, but one cannot deny their risk of arising on the long run.

“The uprising against financial capitalism that began in the European countries in 2011 can be seen as a mantra, as an attempt to reactivate the conjunctive body, as a form of therapy on the disempathetic pathologies crossing the social body and the social soul. Upheaval, uprising, insurrection, and riots: these words should not be seen in a militaristic sense. The organization of violent actions by the anticapitalist movement would not be smart, as violence is a pathological demonstration of impotence when power is protected by armies of professional killers.”6

Following Bifo’s words, one may rightly pose the question: Was the demonstration in Platia Exarchion that evening aimed at scaring away the Albanian Mafia or at provoking the police? I would say, both. Aside from serving to discourage the violent activity of the drug-related gangs in the district, the demonstration also sought to reassert the autonomy of the community from the state-run law enforcement apparatus by sending the message that they can take care of their safety on their own—a mantra ultimately aiming at strengthening their collective identity as anarchists. But such aggressive display may be a double-edged sword: even though these activists could arguably defend such actions as simply taking over a position that has been left vacant with the retreat of the police forces from the neighborhood, they may also be laying the groundwork for their own dismissal, as such suggestion of unilateral violent action can be exploited by the repressive force of the state to justify the end of the status quo in the district. Bifo concludes on a hopeful note, framing violence not just as a symptom but also as part of the therapy process itself:

“The uprising will frequently give way to phenomena of psychopathic violence. These should not surprise us; we should not condemn these acts as criminal. For too long has financial dictatorship compressed the social body, and the cynicism of the ruling class has become repugnant. The uprising is a therapy for this kind of psychopathology. The uprising is not a form of judgment, but a form of healing. And this healing is made possible by a mantra that rises, stronger and stronger, as solidarity resurfaces in daily life.

It is useless to preach a sermon to those who can only express their revolt in a violent way. The medic does not judge, but heals, and the task of the movement is to act as a medic, not as a judge.

What we should be able to communicate to the rioters, the looters, the black bloc, and the casseurs is a truth that we have to build together and to spread: that a collective mantra chanted by millions of people will tear down the walls of Jericho much better than a pickaxe or a bomb.”7

Even if acts of popular resistance often seem to lead nowhere, collective mobilization always yields unexpected outcomes and many times these might be extraordinary. On sunny, warm days, students from the Faculty of Architecture in the Polytechnio usually move their desks to the inner courtyard to work outside on their projects together. One of such days I witnessed a small group of students building models together with refugee children, in what seemed to be a casual and impromptu moment. In that instant, more than framing the sky beautifully, those walls were framing utopia itself. Had the anarchist community not taken the initiative to squat the Polytechnio so to provide shelter for refugees, encounters like that one would never happen.

Later in the book, Bifo talks of a place marked by the “frail architectures of collective happiness”:

“This place we don’t know is the place we are looking for, in a social environment that has been impoverished by social precariousness, in a landscape that has been deserted. It is the place that will be able to warm the sensible sphere that has been deprived of the joy of singularity. It is the place of occupation, where movements are gathering: Tahrir Square in Cairo, Plaza del Sol in Madrid, and Zuccotti Park in New York City.”8

For its history, but also for its present, I would add the Polytechnio in Athens to that list.

This text is adapted from Portugal Is Not Greece: Strabismic Gazes on the Peripheral Condition, my final dissertation for the MFA Public Art and New Artistic Strategies at the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar. The dissertation was written after a two-month trip to Athens, Greece, that happened between 1 March and 30 April 2016. It combines the narration of some events from that trip’s journal with theoretical reflections written in a more essayistic style.

[1] Possession or use of even small amounts of cannabis is illegal in Greece, and transgressors are often arrested and fined, although rarely convicted by court. Possession of large quantities may lead to several years in prison. Information from Wikipedia, here.
[2] Also called the “cocaine of the poor”, sisa is a cheaper and more toxic variant of methamphetamine that is mostly produced in illegal laboratories in Athens. It started being noticed in the streets of Athens in 2010. Information here.
[3] Information and video found here.
[4] Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e). 2012. p.49.
[5] Ibid. p.50.
[6] Ibid. p.132.
[7] Ibid. pp.132-3.
[8] Ibid. p.140.



Portrait of Strabo, geographer, holding a globe.
Source here.
Map of Europe according to Strabo.
Source here.

One of the earliest surviving testimonies of mutual perception between the peoples inhabiting the territories of the modern states of Greece and Portugal can be found in Geographica, an encyclopaedia of geographical knowledge written by Strabo (ca. 64 BCE–ca. 24 CE), an educated citizen of the Roman Empire of Greek descent. He was born in what is nowadays Turkey but spent much of his life travelling through various parts of the empire, which back then was the political entity that exerted sovereign authority over large stretches of land across Europe and around the Mediterranean, including what constitutes the territories of Greece and Portugal nowadays.

Geographica is a detailed description of the entire world known to that time and is divided into seventeen books, the third thereof focusing on the Iberian Peninsula, which back then went by the name Hispania. Portugal exists today in parts of what used to be the Roman provinces of Lusitania and Gallaecia, in the southwest and northwest of Hispania, respectively. Even though there are no records of Strabo ever visiting the region, the book describes it with a considerable amount of detail. Along the descriptions of topographical features and natural resources of that corner of the empire, Strabo delves into characterizing its autochthonous peoples. According to him,

“The Lusitanians are reported to be clever in laying ambushes, sharp, swift of foot, light, and easily disciplined as soldiers.” 1

Strabo speaks of a more or less savage folk, a quasi guerrilla, with a strong connection to the land and able to catch the enemy by surprise. The language unveils preoccupations of a military nature, hinting on local resistance to Romanization. Other passages reveal a gaze more akin to that of anthropology; a process of subjectification of the natives mostly concerned with their dietary and hygiene habits, as well as religious rituals:

“[…] some of those who dwell near to the river Douro2 imitate the Lacedæmonians3 in anointing their bodies with oil, using hot air-baths made of heated stones, bathing in cold water, and taking but one tidy and frugal meal a day.” 4

“All the mountaineers are frugal, their beverage is water, they sleep on the ground, and wear a profuse quantity of long hair after the fashion of women, which they bind around the forehead when they go to battle. They subsist principally on the flesh of the goat, which animal they sacrifice to Mars, as also prisoners taken in war, and horses.” 5

Strabo finishes the chapter by pointing out the peripheral condition of the region as a justification for the rustic character of its people:

“The rough and savage manners of these people is not alone owing to their wars, but likewise to their isolated position, it being a long distance to reach them, whether by sea or land. Thus the difficulty of communication has deprived them both of generosity of manners and of courtesy.” 6

Overall, the language unveils a particular gaze that one can relate to that of the 18th and 19th century European expeditions into the African continent; a patronizing gaze that, even if at times admitting uncertainty, does not fall short of speculating on possible interpretations for the habits of the natives. But what I find most interesting about all this is the name of the geographer itself: Strabo means squint, or cross-eyed, as in Strabismus.

Strabismus is a curious condition. It interferes with binocular vision by preventing a person from directing both eyes simultaneously towards the same point. It is usually congenital and is not necessarily associated with decreased vision from any of the eyes–at least in a first stage. As the eyes of a strabismic individual do not properly align with each other, the condition may lead to double vision. In order to avoid this, the brain often adapts by ignoring the signal from one of the eyes–typically the deviated one. In this case, usually no noticeable symptoms are experienced other than a minor loss in depth perception–which may not even be noticeable by someone who has had strabismus since birth or early childhood, as they likely learned to judge depth and distances using monocular cues. On the long run, though, the constant suppression of one eye may hinder its development resulting in a deterioration of the vision of that eye–amblyopia, commonly referred as “lazy eye”.7

While Strabo was not an uncommon name among Greeks at the time, the Romans seem to have employed the term as a cognomen for anyone whose eyes were distorted or deformed.8 There’s no evidence that Strabo had any sort of eye condition but the mere fact one can entertain that possibility gives the very idea of intercultural gaze a rather ironic perspective. The strabismic subject is paradigmatic of the role of the gaze in the construction of subjectivity. I shall explain this later on. First it might be important to gaze upon the concept of gaze itself.

French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre is often credited for having first established the connection between the function of the eye and the construction of the self. According to him,

“[…] my apprehension of the Other in the world as probably being a man refers to my permanent possibility of being-seen-by-him; that is, to the permanent possibility that a subject who sees me may be substituted for the object seen by me. “Being-seen-by-the-Other” is the truth of “seeing-the-Other.” 9

In simpler words, I come into being as a self on the very moment I realize someone is looking at me. The Other’s look, his gaze, is the very production of the self. For Sartre, the role of the eye seems to operate on an ontological level.

Influenced by Sartre’s findings and, perhaps most importantly, by the Freudian articulation of human behaviour in terms of drives, Lacan later defends a different, pre-existing and externalized gaze. “I see only from one point, but in my existence I am looked at from all sides,”10 is an often-quoted line used to illustrate his position, even though it falls short in framing his broader thesis, which is based on an articulation of gaze not in terms of vision per se but in terms of desire. Where Sartre sees a binary–the subject and the Other11 –Lacan sees a triadic model: the subject (the one who sees), the visual object (the Other who is seen), and the gaze (a third locus).12 The gaze is the unconscious desire or, as Lacan calls it, the objet a (objet autre, French for “object other”), “something from which the subject, in order to constitute itself, has separated off as organ. This serves as a symbol of the lack, that is to say, of the phallus, not as such, but in so far as it is lacking.”13 Slavoj Žižek gives a good definition:

“This is objet a: an entity that has no substantial consistency, which is in itself ‘nothing but confusion,’ and which acquires a definite shape only when looked upon from a standpoint distorted by the subject’s desires and fears […] objet a is the strange object which is nothing but the inscription of the subject itself into the field of objects, in the guise of a stain which acquires form only when part of this field is anamorphically distorted by the subject’s desire.” 14

This field that Žižek is referring to is, in the case of the gaze, the scopic field, the field associated with the scopic drive–which works similarly to the other drives, such as the oral, anal and invocatory drives. The gaze, the being-looked-at-from-all-sides, intervenes within the scopic field to sustain, to constitute subjectivity as a social representation in a function of desire. To understand this process, Lacan provides us these two simple schemes:

“The first [triangle] is that which, in the geometral field, puts in our place the subject of the representation and the second is that which turns me into a picture. On the right-hand line is situated, then, the apex of the first triangle, the point of the geometral subject, and it is on that line that I, too, turn myself into a picture under the gaze, which is inscribed at the apex of the second triangle. The two triangles are here superimposed, as in fact they are in the functioning of the scopic register.” 15

At the scopic level, the split between the eye and the gaze is, in the final analysis, the split between the conscious and the unconsciousness; the visible and the invisible; the representation and the objet a. The intermediate space between these two is the space of the screen, where images and desires are perceived and projected.

Strabo’s Geographica is precisely the screen Lacan tells us about, where the representation of the natives of Iberia is projected together with Strabo’s own desires. His gaze is a reinforcement of his own cultural identity. By othering the native people of a faraway land, Strabo perpetuates the very concept of a Greek culture. What he is saying is “we are not them”, or “Greece is not Portugal.”

Earlier I stated that the strabismic individual is paradigmatic of the role of the gaze in the construction of subjectivity. If one considers that the psychosocial symptoms of strabismus are often more pronounced than the strictly optical ones, we might get a glimpse why. The strabismic person sees the world clearly just like the well-sighted does, but by virtue of his awareness that his condition renders him different, he is more prone to be conscious of the gaze of the Other.

With this in mind, let us conceive of strabismus not as a hindrance but as a capacity. Let us consider the strabismic individual as an empowered subject, armed with a unique binocular vision that despite–and by virtue of–rendering him different from the Other, allows him to apprehend the world permanently through a double perspective: while the aligned eye fixes it from a standard viewpoint sending visual signals to the brain to be interpreted as images, the unaligned eye allows the subject to apprehend the world through unvisual signals. Even though the brain doesn’t register these signals as images, they are nevertheless projected onto the screen of the visible, giving the world the shape of the subject’s subjectivity.

In this speculative construction, the unaligned eye of the strabismic subject evolved by natural selection to become a super-eye. It is the eye of the objet a, a built-in Lacanian gaze. The lazy eye of the Southern, crisis-ridden subject is not lazy anymore. It can move freely within its orbit and occupy any eccentric position in order to enhance the realm of the strictly visual with deviant subjective angles.

This dissertation is arranged in such a binocular fashion as a reaction to the gaze of Strabo himself. It intercalates passages from the journal of my trip to Athens (which took place between 1 March and 30 April 2016) with eccentric, unaligned perspectives that I matured on after returning form that trip. In the context of the current European identity crisis, I believe such a perspective might be fit for a proper understanding of the current state of affairs.

This text is adapted from Portugal Is Not Greece: Strabismic Gazes on the Peripheral Condition, my final dissertation for the MFA Public Art and New Artistic Strategies at the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar.

[1] Strabo, Geographica. Book III, Chapter III, Section 6.
[2] The natural border between the provinces of Lusitania and Gallaecia.
[3] Or Laconians, the inhabitants of Laconia, a region in the southeastern part of the Peloponnese peninsula in Greece, which administrative capital is Sparta.
[4] Strabo, Geographica. Book III, Chatper III, Section 6.
[5] Ibid. Section 7.
[6] Ibid. Section 8.
[7] Medical facts about Strabismus found on Wikipedia.
[8] Pothecary, Sarah. Strabo the Geographer: His Name and Its Meaning. In Mnemosyne 52 (6). 1999. p. 691. Available here.
[9] Sartre, Jean-Paul, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hanzel E. Barnes, The Philosophical Library Inc., 1993, p.257.
[10] Lacan, Jacques, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, p.72.
[11] As Richard Boothby put it, Sartre grounds his theory on the Hegelian dialectics of master/slave. “This binary model raises a number of problems, among which is Sartre’s tendency to assume an either/or relation between the two poles it identifies: either the other retains his rights as a subject by objectifying me with his look, or he is himself rendered an object under my look.” In Richard Boothby, Figurations of the Objet a, In Jacques Lacan: Critical Evaluations in Cultural Theory (II), ed. Slavoj Zizek, New York: Routeledge, 2003, p.169.
[12] Ma, Yuanlong. Lacan on Gaze. In International Journal of Humanities and Social Science. Vol. 5, No. 10(1). October 2015. p.127.
[13] Lacan, Jacques, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, p.103.
[14] Zizek, Slavoj, Troubles with the Real: Lacan as a Viewer of Alien. 2009. Available here.
[15] Lacan, Jacques, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, pp.105-6.

A New “We” in Brazil’s Middle Class

June 2013 protests in Rio de Janeiro. Banner reads “We are the social network”.
Photo: author unknown. Source here.

In June 2013, as several Brazilian municipalities were getting ready to raise public transportation fares, citizens flocked to the streets in a movement of popular unrest that quickly grew nationwide. But what began as a unison chorus of protest for the right to the city, eventually turned into a cacophony of individual desires and aspirations of mute ideology, orchestrated by rubber bullets and riot police batons. It was the country’s middle class who took over the public space of the main cities, definitively revealing the existence of a new “we” in Brazilian society, for better or for worse.

After the control of the inflation rate in the ’90s, a decade of easy access to credit and policies of income inclusion followed, resulting in a sharp decline of poverty levels and the establishment of a solid “new middle class” in Brazil. Poor families arose to a new condition of consumption and have now access to goods and services inaccessible to previous generations, a circumstance that naturally conveyed a widespread optimism. But while in southwestern Europe the renewed community spirit is fed by the adversities of the financial crisis, how to understand the new “we” in the wake of Brazil’s economic prosperity?

In order to understand the mobilizing force behind the recent wave of protests in Brazil, one should avoid seeing it as a renewed form of collectivism, but rather as the late expression of an earlier one, developed throughout the crisis that afflicted the country in the ’80s when, much like today’s southwestern Europe, adversity gave rise to self-driven initiatives of civic association grounded on a strong network of community solidarity. But that mobilizing strength now faces the risk of wasting, as the new middle class, dazzled by consumerism, increasingly turns to individualization. If on the one hand the June upheaval in Brazil is revealing of the latent potential for collective mobilization, its chaos and unclear aims are telling of the tendency toward fragmentation. Such contradictions exemplify the paradoxes around the new middle class, a term that meanwhile has become something of a commonplace, widely exploited by both the media and politicians in affected speeches ranging from an alienating, illusory swelled-optimism to an inoperative, uncreative and prejudice-based pessimism.

But if one can argue that income raise instilled individualistic values in Brazilian society, one should also consider that the adversities caused by the very economic prosperity are triggering significant collective synergies, some of which were identified during the research project Nós Brasil! We Brazil![1].

In Porto Alegre, the residents’ association of Bairro Farrapos, one of the city’s poorest areas, mediates between population and public authorities in order to ensure the sustainable development of the community threatened by the land valorization that followed the completion of a nearby soccer stadium. This and several other self-driven associations refer to participatory budgeting, a municipal tool of micro-funding for local projects. In Salvador, on the other hand, processes of real estate speculation in a central neighborhood lead to the establishment of the civic movement “Nosso Bairro é Dois de Julho” that has been fueling a growing activism in defense of the right to the city.

Demonstration of DESOCUPA Movement in Salvador against the approval of the New Law of City Land Use.
Photo: Carlos Américo Barros. Source here.

It seems therefore important to undo the installed misconception that opposes “crisis” to “growth”. Actually, if combined together, these two terms even enclose the potential to elucidate on the question raised before: while in the countries of southwestern Europe it’s a “growing crisis” that is at the root of experimental initiatives of social cooperation, in Brazil, the most interesting results seem to be produced by a stance on “critical growth” — and “critical” here can mean both turning point and subject to judgment.

For the adversities of its past and taking into consideration its present opportunities, Brazilian society reveals a huge potential to strengthen a sense of community, especially considering the renewed connectivity brought by online social networks, to which a better informed “new media class” also has access, allowing for mobilization on an unprecedented scale. But although it is there, the potential alone is just not enough. As in southwestern Europe, good results depend on several factors, both in terms of the structures of power as of the actual involvement of the population.

Facing these changes, it seems we can speculate on two possible scenarios: either the new middle class unifies, understanding the process of social mobility as something collective, hence fostering community bonds — June demonstrations can be seen as a point of inflection suggesting this path — or else people see this promotion as a personal achievement, choosing the road of a growing individualization and pursuing ideals of consumption that surpass the car and homeownership, such as the experience of gated communities instead of the aggregating potential of public space, or even access to private education and healthcare and the consequent marginalization of public services. Whatever the future holds, it is important not to deny the potential of Brazil’s new middle class under the argument that it arose from a growth without development, or mystify and over-size its importance because, as in southwestern Europe there is much work to do across the Atlantic.

[1] The project Nós Brasil! We Brazil! was the German contribution to the X Bienal de Arquitetura de São Paulo. It documents three workshops held in Curitiba, Porto Alegre and Salvador. In each city, curator Matthias Böttger and artist/architect Luis Berríos-Negrón created a large Y-shaped table to discuss with local activists, artists, urban dwellers and architects: who creates the city?

This article is a reflection on the outcomes of the Weltstadt project Nós Brasil! We Brasil! focusing on the future of Brazilian cities in the wake of the emergence of a new middle class in the country. It was featured in the third issue of the Weltstadt newspaper We-Traders. Swapping Crisis for City, which focuses on collaborative synergies in the crisis-ridden cities of southwestern Europe.

Am Haus

The endings of a Turkish verbal tense written in black plexiglas were applied on the ochre façade of a corner building.

Am Haus, by Ayse Erkmen.
Photo: author unknown. Source here.

Mise-en-scène: a significant part of the Turkish community in Berlin was established during the ’60s and ’70s, under a bilateral agreement between Germany and Turkey. Originally recruited in order to fill the lack of manpower in post-war Germany, the Gastarbeiter (guest workers) were mostly young men who were paid full wages, but from whom it was expected to return to Turkey within some years. “But few workers returned because there were few good jobs in Turkey. Instead they brought in wives and family members and settled in ethnic enclaves.”[1]
Am Haus, the 1994 installation by the Turkish female artist Ayse Erkmen (1949-), chose the façade of a housing building at the busy Oranienstrasse, in Kreuzberg, one of the districts with the highest rate of Turks in Berlin.

Detail of the installation Am Haus.
Photo source: ERKMEN, Ayse – In Berlin. Berlin: DAAD-Künstlerprogramm, 1995. p. 29.

Am Haus could well be mistaken for an advertisement to a language school. According to a website of online Turkish lessons, there are two different variations of the past tense in this tongue: one with the suffix -di and one other with -mis, being that the first one is more common in the everyday speech. The difference between -di and -mis past tenses is simple: if you’ve lived the event or have seen it with your own eyes, with your own senses, the past is built with the -di suffix. But if you didn’t see nor hear it, then -mis is employed. The -mis tense is used in stories and tales. It is commonly referred to as the indefinite past tense.[2]
Erkmen’s installation introduces that peculiarity of the language through the endings of the Turkish indefinite past tense, a conjugation that fell into disuse amidst the younger generations of Turkish background who, meanwhile, assumed the German as their main tongue.

Am Haus means literally “On the House”, but one should conceal the article between brackets in order to preserve the ambiguity of the German title – specially considering the emphasis that this installation puts upon language refinement. “On (the) House” also refers to the way one speaks in Turkey, the faraway home of parents but less and less of their offspring.
Though subtle, Erkmen’s installation is extremely poetic. By employing the past that no one saw or heard, the “tense used in stories and tales”, the intervention acts in the field of nostalgia by promoting it – if it exists – or by pointing out its absence – to those for whom that past is long gone.

Concerning its categorization on the tripartite scheme of the public art – memory, identity and action[3] –, one could say that Am Haus relates more to identity, but its subtle interventional character grants it a special framing as action.
By adding a textual message to a wall, one can arguably state that Am Haus approach is reminiscent of the graffiti – they both definitely intervene in a provocative manner. However, Am Haus stands boldly apart from the intrusive character of a random vandal attack. Erkmen’s installation doesn’t seek to place itself where it doesn’t belong. In fact, by ‘turkifying’ a façade in the Kreuzberg district, Am Haus expresses an almost opposite attitude, like an attempt to complete the setting with an indispensible element that it lacked before. Erkmen’s “graffiti” convert instead of subverting. Furthermore, by imposing a Turkish cultural element on the façade of a typical Berlin building, Erkmen also seems to suggest that the social integration of the foreigners implies a certain need to rethink the public space and its ways of appropriation. It is specially this feature that reveals the interventional nature of Am Haus, defining it better as “action”.

For its prime location, daily crossed by thousands of Turkish speakers, Am Haus promotes transient discussion. One can imagine that, whenever a passerby who knows how to conjugate with -mis notices the installation, some sentences might be constructed employing the threatened tense. Others, to whom the hooked letters will stress an immediate familiarity, might end up frustrated for not understanding what they write. To those, the installation might end up whetting the curiosity for a grammar review.

More than a graffito, Am Haus is a “wanted poster” for culture, or a transformed form of publicity promoting the language.

Ayse Erkmen’s Conversations, Istanbul. 1997.
Photo: author unknown. Source here.

The link between this installation and advertising was emphasized in 1997 when Erkmen gave continuity to the project in Istanbul. On a large electronic billboard, the same indefinite past endings were screened for a few seconds in-between the programmed advertising spots. Conversations, was the title chosen by the artist for the installation in Istanbul.
In Erkmen’s own words: “The first version in Kreuzberg, Am Haus, sought to be a mere visual experience for those that are not familiar with the language and, for the Turkish community, an opportunity to build up sentences. While in Istanbul, it could induce conversations considering that most people speak the language.”[4]

[1] In here.
[2] In here.
[3] These dimensions are illustrated in the article “Berlin and Santa Comba Dão“.
[4] ERKMEN, Ayse – Art In Space In MATZNER, Florian (ed.) – Public Art: A Reader. Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz. 2004. p. 47.

Berlin Junction

Two curved corten plates shape an eerie walkway.

[Berlin Junction with the Philharmonic on the background]. Author Unknown, undated. Source here.

One year after being unveiled in 1987, in front of the Martin-Gropius-Bau – an important museum in West Berlin, nearby Potsdamer Platz –, Berlin Junction was repositioned, after a suggestion of Richard Serra (1939-), its author, to a site nearby the Berlin Philharmonic – the iconic concert hall designed by architect Hans Scharoun, that opened its doors in 1963.
Its new position was very close to the former plot of a house long gone. The number 4 of Tiergartenstrasse was the address from where Third Reich officials planned the “euthanasia” campaign that killed thousands of people with mental illnesses and physical disabilities. The former headquarters of the Aktion T4 didn’t survive the heavy bombings of the Second World War. Its debris gave place to a traceless urban space featuring a bus stop, a traffic island and a wide sidewalk in front of the philharmonic main entrance.
Due to its proximity to such a historically sensitive location, Berlin Junction unintentionally acquired a memorial meaning a posteriori.

For having not been originally thought as such, Serra’s memorial is shrouded in considerable controversy. The formal abstraction of the sculpture didn’t remind the historical background of the location in any special way; it was rather submitted to a recurrent formalism in Serra’s oeuvre that counted already, by then, with a vast curriculum of corten sculptures dealing with leaning surfaces and the spaces shaped by them. Edifying a sculpture like so many others to highlight such a sensitive chapter of German history was therefore not very well received by a significant amount of people.[1]

[Bronze plaque with Berlin Junction on the background]. Michael Rajzman, 2010. Source here.
[Detail of the engraved text]. Janna Falkenstein, 2007. Source here.

In order to answer to the critics – and to also create a space where one could pay homage and also get information about the past of the area – a bronze plaque was installed on the floor in 1989. Under the title “In honour of the forgotten victims”, the text inscribed refers to the event to remember, the profile of the 200.000 victims and the perpetrators (that included “scientists, doctors, nurses, policemen and law, health and work officials”) as well as the places of collection and extermination of those people. It finishes stating: “the number of victims is high. Low remains the number of convicted criminals.”
Even though the engraved text doesn’t specifically mention Serra’s sculpture, there is an implicit relationship between both in a material level. The dark tone of the bronze in which the three-meter sided square plaque is made of doesn’t leave much room for doubts that it is actually trying to integrate – justifying – the uncanny presence of Serra’s curves.
In a way, the silent minimalism of Berlin Junction and the discreet presence of the memorial plaque – often hidden under snow and leaves – would be responsible for a series of other memorials that eventually took place in this address: in 2007, an information panel was added to the shelter of the bus stop nearby and, from 2008 onwards, a vertical panel with documental graphical elements came to complement the available information, attracting greater attention to the spot.[2]

[Memorial of the Gray Buses with the Berlin Philharmonic on the background]. Tom Benz-Hauke, 2008. Source here.

More recently, another sculpture “parked” in the area in memory of the Aktion T4, as part of a wider project from artists Horst Hoheisel (1944-) and Andreas Knitz (1963-), called Memorial of the Gray Buses. The project consists of an itinerary sculpture of a bus cast in concrete, similar in colour, shape and size to the vehicles that transported the thousands of patients from the hospitals to the death camps.

[Memorial of the Gray Buses “parked” in Berlin]. Author unknown, 2008. Source here.
[“Where are you taking us? 1940/1941”]. Author unknown, 2009. Source here.

“Where are you taking us?” – the question of one of the patients is inscribed in the interior of the bus that, being divided in half through a passageway, invites the passerby to cross it. The bus sculpture stood there for one year, between 2008 and 2009, and is now roaming other sites involved in the Aktion T4 throughout Germany “as a way of transporting the memory – as a vehicle of history.”[3]

Even though the Memorial of the Gray Buses doesn’t show an explicit reference to Berlin Junction, it is possible to establish a spatial analogy between both sculptures in the sense that both outline a passageway. A crossing that, despite short, spatializes the idea of an initiatory experience; something like a rebaptism raising historical awareness. But the affinity between both sculptures is also enhanced by their own materiality. Although the concrete and the corten steel are substantially different, they both imply a powerful destruction symbolism. It was out of concrete and iron that the urban landscape of post war Germany was made of. Furthermore, while the concrete calls for the memory by facing the spectator with the amnesic risk of its alienating and unifying grayness, the corten steel, due to its similarity with rusty iron, conveys feelings of resistance and temporality, hence exhibiting the aura of having witnessed history. Nevertheless the oxidation of the corten steel being the result of a chemical process performed artificially and in a short time, this material embodies suffering and objectifies pain.
Therefore, one can argue that there is an immediate dimension that allows one to correlate Berlin Junction with a solemn tribute, both in a spatial and in a material level. This fact justifies, in a way, the a posteriori allocation of a memorial meaning to the sculpture and its apparent suitability for the purpose. Despite the critical voices raised against its intention to commemorate by itself the victims of the Aktion T4, there doesn’t seem to have been the will to remove the sculpture from its place. The problem seemed to lie only in its self-absorbed offish minimalism.

[Visitors interacting with Transition – Berlin Junction]. Georg Klein, 2001. Source here.

In 2001 – maybe as an attempt to overcome this uncomfortable feeling –, Serra’s sculpture came to incorporate a sound installation by the German artist Georg Klein (1964-). Transition – Berlin Junction lasted for six months and consisted of “a composing process for four voices: one female voice, one male voice, traffic noise and computer generated sine tones”.[4] Continuously produced, day and night, by speakers under four iron grates installed in the ground, the sound was “almost static – sometimes with a stable rhythmic pattern”. The grates included infrared motion sensors that transformed the sound in real time, whenever a visitor walked through the sculpture.

photography by fundel | bildraum-f.com, (c) 2012.

The basic sound was derived from the shape and material of the sculpture and its inherent acoustical proprieties, “specially the extraordinary echoes”. Depending on the use of the sensors, the “more or less metallic sound” composed “long sound curves […] like the different shadow lines of the curves of the sculpture”.
In a way, by adding an additional sensorial component to it, Klein’s installation can be seen as an attempt to further enhance the experience of Serra’s sculpture.

With his installation, Klein also further deepened the transitory feeling of Berlin Junction that, “with its dangerously sloping plates seems to be a special transition space with an ambivalent character just as transition times in life, with their aspects of searching, insecurity, hope and fear”.
Among the possible acoustic elements, a Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) poem could sound, also reflecting the ambivalence of transitions: “… the driver is changing the wheel. I don’t like where I come from. I don’t like where I am going. Why do I watch the changing of the wheel with impatience?”[5] Thus, in addition to being a result of a material and spatial understanding of the sculpture, Klein’s installation also does a political interpretation of Serra’s gesture by regarding it as a “comment on the situation of Berlin in that time: divided in two parts, paralyzed in a threatening position.”
Therefore, Klein’s sound installation enhances the possibilities of transition in Serra’s sculpture, by introducing both the change by movement and by participation.
The memorial mission of the Aktion T4 events was also intensified by the sound installation. “The word ‘here’ spoken by a female voice draws attention in a simple, semantic and phonetic way. And the visitors who perceive the strange sounds at this site with their ears, they also open their eyes looking to the ground, where bodiless voices come out of the earth.”

Overall, Transition – Berlin Junction ascribed some pertinence to Serra’s sculpture. The installation proved to be sensitive to the circumstance of the monument, contributing to its acceptance as a memorial and narrowing its relationship with the surroundings – by adding a musical dimension to the sculpture, Klein also brought it closer to the Philharmonic.

[Aerial view of Serra’s public sculptures at the Kulturforum], Bing Maps. 2010.

But there’s another – more discreet – aspect that one should take into account when considering Berlin Junction. Even though it’s almost unnoticeable on site – due to the distance and to some visual obstacles – Berlin Junction is perfectly aligned with an earlier sculpture by Serra, next to the Mies van der Rohe’s New National Gallery. Berlin Block (for Charlie Chaplin) was installed in 1978 over the museum’s deck, just like some other modern sculptures. But its positioning doesn’t seem to have been accidental; there seems to have been a conceptual intention in aligning both sculptures. If, on the one hand, Berlin Junction‘s curves can be related to the organic shapes of Scharoun’s concert hall, on the other hand, the rigidity and sobriety of Berlin Block place it more justly in front of Mies’ museum.
Together, Berlin Block and Berlin Junction strengthen Serra’s minimalistic approach to public art, while disclosing some of the political humour that portrayed the moment of their installation: while in 1978 the division of the world in two blocs was a reality with no end in sight, in 1988 it was already possible to preview an imminent transition, that would actually take place one year later, with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

[Berlin Block (for Charlie Chaplin) next to the Neue Nationalgalerie]. Author unknown, 1978. Source here.

Due to the fact it was installed one year after the death of Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977), the title of the cubic sculpture suggests that it is dedicated to his memory. But this dedication also allows one to draw some additional political parallels: the actor that directed and starred in “The Great Dictator” (1940) – a parody with the Nazi regime and the German anti-Semitic policies – was himself target of accusations of anti-American activities in 1952, and sympathy with the communist ideology, leading him to definitively abandon the United States.

While the Tilted Arc in New York City questioned the significance of public artworks[6] – proving that it’s the public who always has the right to the last word –, Berlin Junction and Berlin Block (for Charlie Chaplin) contributed to the questioning of public memorials in several other levels. Subscribing to Serra’s minimalistic approach to sculpture – as one can see with the shy (but certainly not unintentional) alignment of the block and the junction –, his Berlin public works also denote a tacit aptness to a memorial duty due to their material or spatial properties.

One could say that Serra likes to keep a certain impenetrable aura about the symbolic content of his works as a set of his own unattainable poetry. In 1998, when asked why he created a sculpture to Charlie Chaplin, Serra answered: “The piece is a 77 ton block cube. It’s impaled into the deck of the Mies van der Rohe National Gallery and the way it’s impaled into the deck gives the block a very ungainly look. Almost as if Chaplin was turning on his shoe. It has an almost comical gesture in the fact that this massive block seems to be plunged into the surface or entailed into the surface of the deck. And I think it undercuts the seriousness of the work by allowing one to see another aspect of its ungainliness. The title is Charlie, but you know what, Mark, we’re going to have to wrap this up. Some people came and I gotta get out of here with them. Unless there’s another question you really want to do, we’ll do it.”[7]

[1] It’s possible to find several websites where the relevance of Serra’s Berlin Junction as the official memorial of the Aktion T4 is discussed. The most active example is available here (in German).
[2] Details about this and other projects concerning the memory of Aktion T4 in this place can also be found here (in German).
[3] In here.
[4] This and all the other information concerning Klein’s installation Transition – Berlin Junction can be found in a short explanatory video available here.
[5] BRECHT, Bertolt – Changing the Wheel. 1953. The complete poem and an explanation about its political meaning is available here.
[6] The removal of Serra’s Tilted Arc from the Federal Plaza in NYC was extensively covered by both generalist and specialized press. For a detailed account of the events and its consequences to the art critique, refer to: DANTO, Arthur – Tilted Arc and Public Art, 1985. In: DANTO, Arthur – The wake of art: criticism, philosophy, and the ends of taste. London: Routledge. 1998. pp. 147-151.
[7] SERRA, Richard. 1998. In an interview with Mark Simmons. Available here.

Berlin and Santa Comba Dão

Gummlin, from the series Das Denkmal. Sibylle Bergemann, 1984. Source here.
[Untitled]. Author unknown, 1975. Source here.
Any resemblance is purely coincidental. It is rather unlikely that Sibylle Bergemann (1941-2010) had the headless statue of Salazar (1889-1970) in mind when she aimed the lens of her camera at the plaster molds of Marx and Engels.
The picture on the left is named “Gummlin“, in a reference to the small settlement in the north of Germany where the artist Ludwig Engelhardt (1924-2001) sculpted what would become a famous Berliner monument. The photograph belongs to the series “Das Denkmal” (“The Monument”), that documents the several phases of the execution and installation of that monument, the Marx-Engels-Forum.
The image on the right is a photograph of exceptional quality taken by an unknown photographer, documenting an odd episode that marked the democratization process in Portugal.In addition to the visual similarity, these two images have a lot more in common to tell us, namely, the three dimensions upon which one can interpret public artwork: Memory, Identity and Action. But, even though they are paradigmatic of these three dimensions, the two monuments also prove the limitations of such classification.

[Monument to Salazar]. Author unknown, ca. 1970. Source here.
[Unveiling ceremony of the Monument to Salazar]. Author unknown, 1965. Source here.


Signed by the sculptor Leopoldo de Almeida (1890-1975), the statue of António de Oliveira Salazar was erected in 1965 in Santa Comba Dão, in front of the local courthouse and next to the parish church. Although it was installed while Salazar was still the governing dictator of Portugal, the statue answers mainly to a posthumous logic. For being his birthplace, the small town was the ideal setting to edify a memorial to the Portuguese statesman, a kind of warranty to the memory of a man who was seen as the saviour of the fatherland and upon whom fell the entire merit of the national union – even if it had to be “proudly alone” in that merit. Hence, it doesn’t seem to be innocent, this sharp, formal reference to the monumental statue of Abraham Lincoln,[1] the notable American president responsible for the union of the United States in a time of civil war. It seems evident that, for the Estado Novo regime, Santa Comba Dão would effectively work as its own kind of Lincoln Memorial, a pilgrimage site for the future generations of Portuguese proud of the great patriot. Curiously, the posthumous feeling of the sculpture would become rather ironic three years after it was unveiled, when an accidental fall from a chair marked the beginning of the end of this dictator.

[Installation of the statues of Marx and Engels]. From the series “Das Denkmal“. Sybille Bergemann, 1986. Source here.
It was this very same logic that motivated the installation of the sculptures of Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) in East Berlin in 1986. With the opening of the Marx-Engels-Forum, the state paid its respects to the founding intellectuals of the great economic utopia of the 20th century in the capital city of their native country – even though they were both born in what, back then, was known as West Germany. With the headquarters of the communist government of the GDR as their backdrop and facing the iconic TV Tower, the respected revolutionaries could now proudly admire the system that they idealised. It was a recognition of the importance of their contribution, and evidence that their forecast was right when they stated that Germany was ready for the revolution. The memorial logic of both monuments lacks no big explanation. One can only remark on the formal adequacy to the respective ideologies and politics of the honourees: while Salazar sits atop an unreachable granite plinth, Marx and Engels let themselves be touched on ground level, in a kind of tacit commitment to the proletariat. For being fatherly figures of their respective governing ideologies, both monuments express a strong identitarian character. But here things start to split asunder.

[Aerial view of the Marx-Engels-Forum]. Hubert Link, 1987. Source here.


More than a memorial, this Berliner monument is a symbol. Even though the statues of the two philosophers assume a highlighted position, the Marx-Engels-Forum is an ensemble that integrates several monuments in a wide circular space. The white marble reliefs “Old World”, by sculptor Werner Stötzer (1931-2010), are the only work of the group placed in an external position of that circle. It is to the “Old World” that Marx and Engels turn their backs. In contrast, the bronze reliefs “Everyday Life of a Free Society” and “The Dignity and Beauty of Free People”, by Margret Middell (1940-), man the front of the ensemble. Furthermore, describing a delicate curve through the middle of the circle, four photography panels document the history of the labour movements in Germany.

More than promoting the ideology, the Marx-Engels-Forum sought to express the idea that socialism was something historically German. More than being prescriptive, the ensemble was illustrative, promoting the acceptance of the regime as something intrinsic to the national identity. Even before they were the fathers of socialism, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were German. In this scope, the homage delineates a mix between nationalism and socialism. It is in this hybrid of conflicting identities that these statues justly portray the problem of identity in Berlin.

The ensemble was erected in a context of loss of confidence in the regime. Few were the East Germans who believed in the ideology and the Berlin Wall was already showing signs of wanting to fall. Considering this context, the statues of Marx and Engels easily reveal themselves to be closer to a mythological allegory than to a strict mournful tribute, teachers taking time to review the material for a society becoming too lazy to even do its homework.

The group integrated an arboreal axis in the city centre and it was well-received by East Berliners who went there for family walks on sunny weekends and free afternoons. It must not have taken long for the sculptures to acquire their more familiar nickname: “the Pensioners”.[2]

Despite the obvious differences between their form and context, the symbolic approach of the monument to Salazar was, in regards to identity, similar to the one in Berlin. Following the common trend of adding famous quotes by those honoured onto monuments of commemoration, the one in Santa Comba Dão featured those quotes which best conveyed the imposing identity. “The ones that cease to fight are unworthy of living. But this won’t be said about us.” And the better known: “Everything for the nation. Nothing against the nation.” These are the statements that the photographs allow one to read more clearly. But an odd event would renovate the statue’s renown, at the same time refreshing its own identity discourse.

Along with the colonies, Portugal would also lose the head of its historical leader. In the morning of February 17th, 1975, the citizens awoke confronted with a headless statue. Apparently, it must have been through the course of several nights, “sawing some centimetres at a time”, that the monument was beheaded.[3] The mutilation of the sculpture caused a heated discussion in the town. If, on the one hand, Salazar ruled Portugal under a repressive and violent regime, on the other, he was for that no less a notable native and therefore a symbol of pride to some of the locals. Past the initial awe, the reaction of the vast majority of citizens came promptly: it was necessary to collect money in order to replace the head of their illustrious fellow citizen.

The incident concerning Salazar’s head clearly resumes the potential identity clash of public art. It is in threshold situations that identity is revealed. Probably, the statue was already suffering from the ills of invisibility that Robert Musil (1880-1942) warned us about.[4] The brass man, who before could only whisper, had to lose his head so that identity could speak louder. Within the event of the Salazar statue’s beheading, the concepts of identity and action start to intertwine.

[The monument to Salazar after the two anonymous actions]. Author unknown, 1978. Sources here and here.


One can argue whether the act of beheading a sculpture is or is not public art. Putting aside the subversive nature of the gesture, the existence of its poetic dimension is undeniable. For three years Salazar would remain headless for everyone to see, saluting whoever entered in the house of justice. But it didn’t take long before some mocking remarks were graffitied on the base of the sculpture. What used to be a respectful tribute became something more like a ‘punching bag’ for revolutionaries.

In 1978, after a new head was casted, the citizens announced the date of the ‘heading’ ceremony. The central government made public its opposition to such an event and called the police to prevent it from happening. After the citizens tried to install the head on the statue, the police seized it. “Such attitude ended up provoking a series of chain reactions that led to the confrontations.”[5] The violent turmoil that followed was only resumed some days later, when the statue was “destroyed by an explosive device that shattered it into pieces.”[6]

Never in the history of the peaceful town did the local pride so intensely suppress the national one. The experience of Santa Comba Dão duly summarizes the way in which collective identity can project itself onto heritage, simultaneously exposing the dangers it can bring.

[The monument to Marx and Engels after the anonymous action]. Author unknown, 1990. Source here.


While the memorial in Santa Comba Dão revealed its aptitude for being a “punching bag”, the one in Berlin tried to pour oil on troubled waters. After the fall of the wall that had divided the city for almost thirty years, the Berliners also felt a momentary destructive impetus – it was to this instinct that they resorted when they smashed the concrete barrier using little more than hammers. Still, a very different intervention also emerged from that impetus. In the summer of 1990 someone added the words “we are innocent” (“wir sind unschuldig“) to the front side of the platform upon which the statues stood. The simple addition of this sentence under the figures had the power to change the way one sees them; even the gaze of those represented seemed to change. If before Engels stood in a sign of reverence to the working class, now he seemed to be doing so in order to defend, also on behalf of Marx, their innocence.

Maybe it was due to the timely declaration of innocence that the statues were spared. Or maybe because the Berliners never felt threatened by their “Pensioners”. The truth is that, during the twenty years that followed, the great ideologists persistently remained in the same place, while the surrounding landscape gradually changed. With the end of the regime, the sculptures lost almost all of their prominence, obtaining just relative enthusiasm among the nostalgic tourists that were flying to Berlin in search of its socialist traces.

[Removal of the Marx-Engels-Forum]. Theo Helmann, 2010. Source here.


In September 2010, the Marx-Engels-Forum was dismantled in order to give way to the construction of a subway line. A crane raised the heavy figures in a trajectory of 100 metres, an event attended to by the press and a few other curious individuals. According to Spiegel Online,[7] the statues will only be able to retrieve their positions in 2017. But meanwhile, officials are already discussing the possibility of rebuilding the medieval quarter that stood there before the war, once the construction works are finished. This kind of uncertainty tells much about Berlin’s attitude towards its heritage.

[Monument to the Heroes of the Colonial War]. Carlos Silva, 2010. Source here.


It was also in 2010 that the – so far – last chapter of the Portuguese monument was written, a continuation of the transience exemplified by the unspectacular public fountain that was installed after Salazar’s statue was destroyed. This time, the place was dedicated to the memory of the Heroes of the Overseas War, a campaign much supported by the dictator. After a project of the Urban Planning Office of the local City Hall,[8] the inconspicuous fountain was then transformed to integrate the new monument: the six major stages of the Colonial War were represented, six triangular plans placed across the fountain, uniting in its centre on a large engraved stone where one can read the names of the sixteen soldiers who died in battle who had been locals of the town. The names appear under two of the most renowned verses of The Lusiads, Camões’ (1524-1580) opus magnum hailing the epic deeds of Portugal in the Age of Discoveries: “And those who for their worthy contributions / Are getting released from the rule of death.”[9] In Santa Comba Dão it’s still possible to perceive the continuity which would otherwise be mistaken as a rupture from the previous approach: it’s highly likely that Salazar would have resorted to those exact verses in order to motivate the people for his imperialistic war.

[1] The comparison is mentioned in SAIAL, Joaquim – Eça de Queirós, Salazar, José Lopes, Duarte Silva e o Dr. António Loreno. Available here (in Portuguese).
[2] WHYBROW, Nicolas – Street Scenes: Brecht, Benjamin & Berlin, Bristol: Intellect Books, 2005, p. 209.
[3] Mentioned in Dão Profundo [blog]. Available here (in Portuguese).
[4] MUSIL, Robert – Denkmale In Nachlass zu Lebzeiten. Hamburg: Rowohlt Verlag. 1978. pp. 6-7.
[5] Mentioned in Dão Profundo [blog]. Available here (in Portuguese).
[6] Ibid. Available here (in Portuguese).
[7] Video report available here (in German).
[8] Mentioned in Dos Veteranos da Guerra do Ultramar [site]. Available here (in Portuguese).
[9] Free translation of “E aqueles que por obras valerosas / se vão da lei da morte libertando.” In CAMÕES, Luís Vaz de – Os Lusíadas. First published in 1572.

Here we go…

Amidst Interpretation is an expression platform about art and architecture. It comes as a natural sequel to “Memory Identity Action”, my master’s dissertation in architecture, focusing on the subject of public art in Berlin, the city I live in.
Over the two years that I spent on its making, I developed a personal fondness about the issues concerning the poetical urban practice. In this blog I’ll be posting some selected texts from my dissertation that I’ll translate, every now and then, into English (from its original Portuguese). I’ll also try to post some new texts concerning the same subject – some writings that I started and never finished – as well as some other subjects on its vicinity.

The name “Amidst Interpretation” pays homage to Susan Sontag’s seminal essay Against Interpretation. This wordplay seeks not only to question her general distrust on hermeneutics – which I also find myself to be fond of, in a way – but rather to further develop my critical positioning.

Let us see where this gets.