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.



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.