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.

 

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