Collective Initiatives & Public Interventions – public discussion, March 19 2011

Societe Anonyme’s first public event took place on Saturday, March 19, at the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art, as part of the Museum’s Project Space series of events. Even though it was a warm, sunny Saturday (which usually hampers the audience’s will to be stuck in an auditorium for two and half hours), the enthusiastic turnout of a public eager to participate in the discussion proved that the subject and list of speakers were both interesting and timely.

The conference, entitled “Collective Initiatives and Public Interventions”, included interventions by: Spiros Pengas (Municipality of Thessaloniki – Deputy Mayor for Culture, Education and Tourism), Yiorgos Papakostas (President – Department of Architecture, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki), Aris Stilianou (Adjunct Professor of Political Philosophy – Department of Political Sciences, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki), Apostolos Kalfopoulos (architect, curator, Lecturer – Department of Architecture, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Dynamo Project Space), and Marios Spiroglou (Director, founder of Sfina).

The speakers were selected so that they represent various types of institutions and initiatives, in order for a multiplicity of viewpoints to be heard. Our aim was to focus on the upsurge of collective initiatives and public interventions in Thessaloniki over the past few years, looking at how these different initiatives and interventions operate, through the examination of both the ways in which they frame the social sphere, and articulate a particular model of communal engagement.

All contributions were extremely valuable and rich in references and examples, through which common areas of interest emerged, on the theoretical and practical level alike. Some of the themes that the speakers touched upon are: the commons; the city’s role as the only environment which dictates the emergence of action in the public space; the danger of these initiatives becoming commercialized and incorporated by established structures, advertizing and the media; finally, all speakers acknowledged the power of collective initiatives in public space to imagine new concepts and areas of perception and to articulate an alternative future for the city. Foucault, Negri, Debord, Bey and Bookchin were referenced.

We would like to warmly thank all speakers, but also the public who contributed their comments to the discussion.

The following text is an attempt to briefly capture the essence of the different talks, in “order of appearance”.

After introductory remarks by Stephanie Bertrand and myself, the discussion was kicked-off with a talk by Aris Stilianou who focused on the political production of public space and on the concept of “the commons” as a result of the emergence of new political subjectivities, forms of action, organization and intervention. Stylianou referred to Antonio Negri’s definition of the people as a multitude of singularities which constitute the collective, in relation to Foucault’s proposition that in contemporary society power relations have been transformed into biopolitical relations, expanding to all aspects of life, so that life becomes the slow and tiresome construction of subjectivities, ways of existing and forms of organization and action; ultimately, life is constituted by constant experimentations and constructions which alter reality. Among these new concepts-constructions one finds “the commons”, defined as a number of resources, material and immaterial, accessible and available to all the members of a community which produces and manages them according to rules laid down by the community itself. The discussion on the commons goes beyond the discussion around the tension between the private and the public, as well as beyond the legal ramifications of property; so that the discussion on the philosophical, legal and political aspects of the commons is identified as a critique against property and profit. Moreover, the common is built through interaction, synergy and exchange between individuals. It is produced by the multitude; ultimately, it is a political plan for the multitude – aiming towards true democracy.
As a concluding remark, Stylianou briefly referred to the expanding number of collective initiatives that have been operating in Thessaloniki for the past few years and to the role that both the Municipality and the University could play in the introduction of new fields for creativity, in order to devise the notion of the common for the local circumstances.

Yorgos Papakostas referred to the quality of the city –any city, as a historical structure, in which society simultaneously produces and questions archetypes and stereotypes. From the point when the city is largely considered by its inhabitants as the only version of reality, it is also inevitably questioned as such, so that through the sequential devices of observation, the imaginary and fulfillment, and through the decisive intervention of conflict,    new realities and singularities emerge. In the late ‘60s, the British architectural group Archigram coined the term “instant city”. According to their theory, the city is mainly defined by its everyday routine, due to which it cannot imagine an alternative future; it is at that point when a huge aerial vehicle appears above the city, instigating instant, temporary commotion, following which the city seems to go back to its initial state. However, the city does not go back – the “instant city” offers the possibility to imagine an alternative future. This alternative can a) be incorporated into everyday reality, become repeated, even commercialized; b) interpreted as an extraordinary moment which was good but will not be repeated, or c) classified as a gesture devoid of meaning.
This brings us to an alternative solution for Thessaloniki: through education and knowledge one could be given the possibility to read the city differently – to ultimately introduce these extraordinary moments into a strategy for transforming the city.

Spiros Pengas referred to the Municipality’s wish to be constantly in the loop regarding what is going on in the city and to actively communicate and cooperate with groups and initiatives that operate within the urban space. However, the groups’ reaction is not always automatically or self-evidently positive. Even so, the Municipality acknowledges the decisive contribution of such groups towards the possibility of the multitude to imagine an alternative future (as already suggested by Yorgos Papakostas), especially in the case of the change of political circumstances in Thessaloniki in the November 2010 local government elections. According to Pengas, the new phase that Thessaloniki is now going through calls for action by groups that tackle social issues, in response to the current socioeconomic circumstances – similarly to the “Friends of Dimitria” model (founded by Pengas in 2008), which shows that the everyday is equally significant as “high” culture.

Marios Spiroglou focused on the dangers behind the appropriation of strategies used by alternative, non-profit groups by advertising. In relation to what the previous speakers mentioned, these actions are powerful exactly because they allow for an alternative future to emerge, beyond financial interests. Behind the exploitation by advertizing lies the risk of de-powering the dynamics of the collective initiatives.

Apostolos Kalfopoulos gave a useful, brief account of the different agents and avant-garde creative forces that operate within the public space and aspire at proposing strategies of re-shaping the collective conscience. Quoting Kostis Stafylakis, Apostolos defined the public space as the void field born through (social) conflict. Within this field, a number of agents operate through a variety of DIY practices, self-organization and improvisation, and through the use of informal networks of communication. New spaces are founded by young professionals, described as professional amateurs – definition which presupposes the redefinition of labor and leisure, of our relation with economy and social interaction). There are three main categories: creators (producers of knowledge, ideas and their applications), hubs (groups, workshops, meeting points, residences) and channels (of communication, distribution of information, networks). The multiplication of alternative lifestyles – activism, plethora of non-governmental organizations, voluntarism, blogging, social networks etc. lead to the formation of temporary autonomous zones – referencing Hakim Bey’s TAZ. However, according to Foucault, every new area of freedom automatically creates the circumstances for new forms of power. Murray Bookchin warns about the dangers of aesthetization of political intervention and of the idealized, and vague, participation.
Keeping in mind these warnings, one should not disregard the positive contribution of the actions of agents described above as workshops for the production of new social relations and for proposals towards an alternative organization of space. These actions propose new forms of cooperation, participation and representation, as well as new forms of managing the common; they test strategies and produce new concepts. Mainly, they give emphasis on the emergence of the “commons” and of the concept of the “multitude” as described by Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri.

Finally, instead of a conclusion, I think it’s only fitting to reference some brief remarks by artist Eleni Athanasopoulou. Eleni was invited to contribute her point of view, through the creation of the image for the poster of the event – this is the first of a series of posters that Societe Anonyme will commission in the future around selected activities. The artist was very generous to accept our invitation to produce the image and even more to briefly talk about it during the conference. She described the whole creation process as a metaphorical account of 4 steps that lead to the image. I am selecting some of her phrases:

Step 1: men and women who pose like statues – a statue installed in public space – a human being who poses like a statue in public space acts as a symbol for the projection of the private within the public sphere…

Step 2: 3 places – reality, the public and the private, imaginary (the imaginary represents our unfulfilled wishes and promises not kept). We live in parallel between the real and the imaginary, with different amount of control over each one…

Step 3: the power of magic thinking: the illusion that if we repeat our wishes & desires over and over again, then they will be realised… in the imaginary anything is possible, it is a safe place, a place for our own, individual narratives, for our own individual realities, a place where the public and the private are always connected, a place where we are always present, where we stand our ground, where we are the stars and winners…

Step 4: Christos Malevitsis, in his book “O Fotismos tou Anthropou” (Dokimia – Aihmi) identifies as the unifying element between fairytales, myths, religion and philosophy the fact that all four are products of archetypal formations of the soul. Any revelation of concept verifies the existence of reality. If the mythical is the world of symbols and reality is the world of concepts, then life is found in the mythical – not in reality…

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