Published On: zo, jun 1st, 2014

Essay: Chaos in crisis – can squatted buildings be a solution to Greece’s social ills?

Greek protestors in Thessaloniki (The Guardian)aloniki on 7 September

Antropoloog en redacteur Herbert Ploegman bezocht vorig jaar in Griekenland de ‘School voor het leren van vrijheid’, een door kritische stedelingen bezet gebouw in Thessaloniki. Hij signaleert de behoefte aan nieuwe gewoonten, organisatie- en levensvormen en bevraagt met de huidige gebruikers de juridische categorie van (il)legaliteit. Dit essay wordt gepubliceerd in samenhang met het Perduprogramma Politieke Lente dat op 15 juni 2014 zal plaatsvinden.

 

At one of Thessaloniki’s busy main roads, between post-war buildings with shops, apartments and restaurants, the “School for the Learning of Freedom” is found. ‘The school’, as my Greek friends call the place, is a squatted fin-de-siecle villa dating from 1897, on the east side of Thessaloniki’s city centre. It has long been the property of the Greek Orthodox Church. For some time it was a school; then deemed unsuitable for that purpose, upon which it was to be subcontracted to be furnished as an entertainment space. However, the building remained unused for six years. The surrounding community repeatedly expressed the need for a school during this period. Subsequently, on the 5th of June, 2010 the building was squatted. Since four years it has been utilized as a free social place in which all kinds of social events were hosted in the building and its surrounding yard.

Beyond the call of the surrounding community, this squatted space can be seen as dealing with needs felt by a growing group of citizens. The privatization of multiple public institutions, the radical social reforms and far-reaching austerity measures exercised by the Greek government, under pressure of the IMF and EU have brought many citizens in a highly precarious situation. Notwithstanding, or rather due to the marginal position of the squat, it seems to offer opportunities for finding new habits and living arrangements against a background of sustained crisis.In this essay, through the story of my visit to this place in November 2013, I will discuss how this comes about and how it is relevant for understanding the Greek situation – and beyond that the European situation. But firstly I will introduce the setting a bit further.

Coming from the busy main street, one enters the building by the stairs up to a heavy front door; and finds oneself in the spacious lobby. Further on a bar and café, a shop, a classroom and the soup-kitchen (with daily prepared low-cost meals) are found. Upstairs, more classrooms where music, sports and dance lessons are held, as well as language courses for migrants, foreign languages, psychology and other courses. There is a volunteer-run library, and also a shop, where products like olive oil, coffee and jam are sold, but also homeopathic remedies, soap, detergent and toilet paper. The direct trade between local producer and consumer that is increasing exponentially in Greece is embodied in this shop and also in the vegetable market that is held in the lobby on Wednesday nights. The organization of the squat is based on a weekly democratic meeting in which the course of events and the organizations’ mission is discussed.

During my visits, the bar and café are crowded, and seem to attract a varied group of visitors. Besides Greek youths I hear some students talking in English. Some people in their forties are also present, as well as some senior citizens, who seem to come from various social classes. My friend Anna, who introduced the school to me, used to often work bar shifts here. She is frustrated about the large amount of visitors that only use the free lessons and the cheap meals offered without volunteering. I refute, arguing that it still means that many have been exposed to the spheres of influence of ‘the school’ and its objectives and ideas. While ‘the school’ might be viewed as a marginal project, it seems to have become an important place to many.  However, some of the organizers are up for trial for squatting, and the sale of products directly from producer to consumer is also considered illegal. When I ask some of the volunteers if I can take a picture of the shop, I am told to show neither them nor the prices of the products. “The state is always searching for reasons to file cases against us because of the activities we initiate”, the volunteers tell me. 

How this illegality is crucial to the way the squat is present in the urban fabric appeared to me through a blotchy writing on one of its walls. “Nobody is illegal”, it said, but the words were scored out. Underneath, a corrected version: “Nobody is legal”. On this wall not only two contradicting juridical statement were made. It seemed to concern a broader ontological question that encompassed all of its readers, and even the building itself. In the juridically excluded zone of ‘the school’ I found myself in a space in which the workings of the world were questioned on the wall like on a chalk board.Although the rejected statement was scored out, it was not erased. It remained visible as a criticised alternative. The combination of incorrect statement and its correction disclosed some of the rifts in the experience of reality – similar to what the material presence of the squat does in the urban fabric. No single coherent reality is communicated and held up here, but rather, the discontinuities in our self-conceptions and world view are highlighted.

I could expand on the ways materiality is involved in these processes, and also on how this space is important to Greek citizens in precarious life situations.5 However, the sense of urgency that I felt present in ‘the school’ was catalysed by an example from my own Dutch context: The “We are here” motto of a group of paperless people that became associated with the ‘Vluchtkerk’ in Amsterdam.Although illegal, they clearly manifest themselves in the public space throughout this motto. The excludedness of illegality has in both the Greek and the Dutch case been materialized into objects in people’s realities – and not without contradictions. However, it is exactly this contradictory character through which it makes a strong appeal to the senses and the affect of the observer-participant.That which had no name or place is suddenly made real at a place, and demands to be dealt with.

However, due to the fact that in this illegal space rifts and incoherences are acknowledged, I would suggest that simultaneously entrances to new genres are possible; avenues that would be unthinkable within conventional systems.I borrow the term genres from Lauren Berlant, who has done profound studies of corroded life designs that exist in the contemporary American and European context, but which, as scripts for ‘the good life’ form the only option for people to shape and imagine their lives in positive terms. She understands people’s life worlds as determined by such a double bind: not being able to get rid of what is harmful.

The importance of finding new genres and life designs is more urgent in Greece than possibly anywhere else within the European and American context. The Greek state seems to be immersed by the double bind that Berlant discusses; on the one hand national debt exhausts the country, it’s citizens and the legitimacy of the Greek state. However, alternatively, there seems to be no future out with membership of the European Union. Greece cannot split with its’ partner; the EU and Greece are entangled in a clutter of unreliability and self-interest. Yet, 11 million Greek citizens, particularly those in precarious situations, have to make sure that they survive this condition of sustained crisis, and find ways to continue living in this impasse. I suppose that this necessity is one of the causes leading people from various social classes to visit the ‘School for the Learning of Freedom’.

In a Dutch documentary, Tegenlicht, about bottom-up initiatives in Greece, the prominent Czech economist Tomáš Sedlácek suggests that the country, like in antiquity, is ahead of the rest of Europe.10 Although a dramatic statement, it is worthwhile to consider processes in Greece from this perspective. As a result of this, it is possible to learn lessons from the Greek situation that could be applied in times of austerity elsewhere. In her article Austerity, Precarity, Awkwardness Lauren Berlant offers another valuable insight, when she discusses the film In the air by Liza Johnson. In a deserted town, apart from a group of junkies, only a group of children remain active that visit a circus school. In an empty building they collaboratively stage a show. Berlant writes:

“They embody not socially necessary labor time or normative intimacy, but something simpler and often unbearable in ordinary time–socially necessary proximity. The analogy between all persons in a world abandoned by capital, by public interest, and by any notion of world-building that we can see in any of the town’s buildings becomes the condition of the convergence; and the space that some individual or corporation probably owns becomes the commons made by movement”.11 

A comparison with a non-legally run initiative like the ‘School for the Learning of Freedom’ seems, in a capital-forsaken setting like contemporary Greece, to be highly relevant. In my opinion, the blending of people from various backgrounds in this ‘school’ displays a necessity for new habits, organizational forms and life designs. Also in the Netherlands, where social and cultural achievements mainly come to be perceived in economic terms, more and more precarious life situations develop, and there is an urgent need to find new entrances where other doors become closed.

Within a horizon where the self and its needs are not met, a place where the recognition of distress, discontinuity and the necessity of sharing is present seems to be of great urgency and relevance. Such notions, possible in alternative settings, converge with the values presented in The queer art of failure by Jack/Judith Halberstam.12 Halberstam argues that failure should not be taken as a loss, but rather as a modus in which other values than success are central. This might be helpful when dealing with the loose ends that appear alongside rifts and incoherence, as well as with the temporal and unregulated character of these rifts, such as these appear in the context of a Greek squat, and may also be observed in world wide movements such as Occupy.13 The processes that are negotiated in the “School for the Learning of Freedom” might be considered as experiments and practices of this kind, that may lead to new habits and living arrangements.

Notes and references

1 The following website offers a short description and also pictures of the space: http://www.demotix.com/news/1733146/squat-libertarian-social-place-school-learning-freedom#media-1733161; last visited at 30-05-2014

2 In Utrecht, the Netherlands, Casco (Office for Art, Design and Theory) hosts an exposition that relates to the themes discussed in this essay. More can be found at: http://cascoprojects.org/?show=&entryid=577; last visited at 30-05-2014

3 Judtith Butler’s thoughts on excluded zones as ‘constitutive outsides’ and ‘uninhabitable zones’ are relevant on this matter, as excluded zones through which delineated classifications are made functioning problerly. Butler, J. (2011 [1993]) Bodies that matter. London/New York: Routledge: p. xiii  

4 In their book Qu’est-ce que la philosophie? Gilles Deleuze en Felix Guattari state that art, science and philosophy are able to cause rifts in the previously thought and the already existing, offering new perspectives from this point. Although a rift in an existing worldview would only last shortly, and is said to be concealed by new conventions and reappropriations of the pre-existing, such a fissure in the experience of reality is a chance to escape the previous status quo. Deleuze, G. en F. Guattari (1994 [2009]) What is philosophy? New York/London: Verso: pp. 203-4

According to Marcel Vellinga (amongst others), the building is not only an architectural object or a symbolic site for the forming of a subject, but a space in which its materiality counts as co-constitutive for the shaping of communities. Vellinga, M. (2007) Review Essay. Anthropology and the materiality of architecture. American Ethnologist 34(4): pp. 756-766

6 The Refugee Church or literally: The Flight Church

With this reversal of the classic anthropological role of ‘participant-observer’ I want to stress the move from an imagined distant, disengaged stance towards a position in which body and senses are all addressed to relate to the present realities. Additionally, as also Tina Rahimy made perfectly clear with respect to refugees (for instance appearing in Western countries), there are no positions of ‘observer’ and ‘observed’; but only participants. Verrips, J. (2006) Aisthesis & An-aesthesia, in: Orvar Löfgren and Richard Wilk (eds.), Off the Edge. Experiments in Cultural Analysis, Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, pp. 29-36; Rahimy, T. (n.d.) Vluchten is meer. Posted at http://www.inholland.nl/NR/rdonlyres/DC63A366-6234-42BF-97EF-A95D7A40AC6A/0/EssayVluchtenismeerTinaRahimy.pdf; last visited 25-05-2014

The significance of a recognition of these rifts is also reflected in the weblog writing of the School for the Learning of Freedom, where it says: “The way modern cities are built and configured is incident to a lifestyle based on labour exploitation, spectacle and consumption. Places left for us and our needs, places where people can meet, create, interact, and establish relations of solidarity and comradeship cease to be. The intensification of everyday life reveals that even our personal time and space is formed according to the mainstream consumption, entertainment, listlessness and individualization patterns.” http://sxoleio12.wordpress.com/; last visited at 30-05-2014

9 Berlant, L. (2011) Cruel Optimism. Durham/London: Duke University Press

10 VPRO Tegenlicht. Het antwoord op de crisis komt uit Griekenland. 2 september 2013, http://tegenlicht.vpro.nl

11 Berlant, L. (2011) Austerity, Precarity, Awkwardness. Posted at http://supervalentthought.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/berlant-aaa-2011final.pdf; last visited at 30-05-2014

12 Halberstam, J. (2011) The queer art of failure. Durham/London: Duke University Press

13 Comments on the worldwide Occupy movements point to such issues. They suggested that the momentum of these protests was over. The slow but steady eviction of the protesters from Beursplein, the square in Amsterdam, seemed to be a materialization of such a reading. But also the Greek ‘antagonist movement’, that published a book in 2011 about crisis and revolt in Greece (which had its culminating point in December 2008) questions how the organizers were only able to a limited extent to give a follow-up to the protests of that moment and were hardly able to involve organized social life in the protests. https://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occupy-protesten_in_Nederland; last visited at 30-05-2014; Vradis, A. en D. Dalakoglou (2011) Introduction. In: A. Vradis, en D. Dalakoglou (Eds.) Revolt and Crisis in Greece. Oakland/ Baltimore/ Edinburgh/ London/ Athens: AK Press & Occupied London: pp. 17, 19

About the Author

- Herbert Ploegman is antropoloog en redacteur bij Perdu en Tijdschrift Kunstlicht. In 2011 studeerde hij af aan de Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.