Leaf After Leaf
The beginning of this second year of the PhD programme corresponded to that of my secondment at State of Concept (SoC), a non-profit contemporary art institution founded in 2013 by art critic and curator iLiana Fokianaki and based in the neighbourhood of Koukaki, Athens. Arriving at the space to meet iLiana and her team, I was welcomed by Kapwani Kiwanga’s solo exhibition, titled Deposits. As stated in the press release, the work of Kiwanga deals with the ‘opacity of resistance’, forming transhistorical links between epistemologies, techniques, and mundane acts of resistance. Among the artworks on display, the video Vumbi (2012) stuck with me over the following weeks, as I moved around the city. In the work, the artist is recorded while meticulously cleaning the leaves of a tree, along with the surrounding area, all covered in orange-copper dust. Slowly but persistently, the artist scrubs leaf after leaf as various ordinary actions take place in the background. Through the repetition of this simple gesture, Kiwanga sheds a light on the importance of acts of care as acts of repair, on our relation to nature, along with the significance of everyday actions and their role in the production of space and a sense of belonging.
While listening to artists, curators, and professionals here in Greece, I have often returned to this image, drawing a parallel between the obstinate cleaning carried out by the artist and the effort and social commitment of many art workers who are trying to reclaim and secure a space in the national cultural context, characterised by the leverage of big private players and the systemic lack of public financial support and infrastructure.  In the wake of documenta 14, Athens started to be branded as an international capital of contemporary art, attracting gallerists, artists and cultural workers who decided to move to the Hellenic capital due to its dynamic cultural environment and lower costs of living. This represented a major boost to processes of gentrification and real estate speculation that were already in place. Though keeping the focus on the artistic and cultural sector, it would be inappropriate not to consider the political and social context in which these subjects operate, marked by deep financial crises, austerity measures, the dismantling of the welfare state and oppressive policies. Within this context, the dynamic artistic landscape, in which art spaces are constantly springing up (and closing down), should not be seen as the reflection of a thriving sector but as part of a flawed system in which spaces emptied or abandoned due to the economic crisis are occupied by artists and collectives who find in self-organisation a ways to promote their work, often relying on personal funds and voluntary labour to produce reputational and human capital and improve their position. Still, as communities and individuals have to substitute for the state, this also led to the emergence of many interesting experiments in organisation and production. Although it might be inaccurate to talk about the opacity of resistance, for political images and claims fill the local urban landscape, in some of these interviews, practices, and projects, it can be recognised in some of these art practices the necessity to reclaim social space and foster a deeper sense of belonging (even through mundane gestures), experimenting with new ways of working and being together. Far from wanting to romanticise or overlook the ubiquitous precarity, vulnerability, and self-exploitation that generally underlie artistic work, in this blog I want to briefly present two of these experiences.
Communitism is a community-run sociocultural centre whose activity is based on the principle of reclaiming and reviving abandoned or under-utilised urban heritage buildings through commoning practices. Located in Metaxourgheio, a neighbourhood that has undergone various gentrification processes, the building hosts an art project space, a small cinema, an incubator for communal initiatives, a free shop, artists’ studios, and a workshop, all open and accessible. Trusting in the ability of space to produce behaviours, the project is based on community-building and reciprocity, for working together is seen as the, means by which people can get to know each other, exchange, and develop bonds that sustain the maintenance of space and its ecosystem. As summarised during the presentation, the state of maintenance of the building is a mirror of the community inhabiting it. Still, the sustainability of the project in terms of human and emotional resources is a major leitmotif, and it became even more crucial during the lockdown. As the well-being of contributors is often not a primary concern in these type of projects, being more oriented and sensitive to what lies ‘outside’, it was particularly significant to learn about the ways in which the members of Communitism conducted a long evaluation concerning the self-regulation dynamics developed within the organisation, which led to the testing of a new type of managing system. The move towards greater professionalisation and an hybrid decision-making processes, in which the non-hierarchal and open structure intersects with the creation of smaller but interconnected groups, is an interesting decision, which deconstructs the dogma of pure (but often only apparent) horizontality. Furthermore, another key issue concerns the fragile balance between what they called ‘cultural activism’ and the risk of becoming gentrifying agents, that unwillingly contribute to the disruption of the local social fabric. For this reason, over the years the community has been trying to contrast as much as possible the absorption of the project by the dominant artistic system, deciding to not take part in big events or set up specific partnerships, while taking clear political stands and hosting social and political collectives to use the space.
The Feminist Autonomous Center for Research (FAC) is a community-based feminist research centre born in Athens in 2019. It is open to all subjectivities, especially to those traditionally excluded from the hegemonic space. Its methodology relies on collective work and transdisciplinary and multiplies outside the physical space of the Centre by establishing transnational collaborations with other collectives, groups, individuals and communities ‘in struggle’. The activity of FAC is based on researching, understood as a tool for the autonomous production of feminist knowledge, and thus opening a space for reflection, collaboration, political intervention, and unlearning. By opposing the idea of learning as a disciplinary, regulatory, and hierarchical institution, based on performativity and competition, the interest in research reflects an understanding of education as a universal human right. The activities undertaken by the Centre are numerous and are divided into: Community Courses, research projects, a feminist library and the realisation of publications, a summer school as well as the organisation of events, conferences, and exhibitions. Going against the modernist idea of the neutral institution, FAC positions itself with respect to specific political instances and events, offering its own spaces and communication channels to the local social movements. The critique of official institutions is also accompanied by the search for political and financial autonomy, both from public and private bodies, to avoid external control and influence. The activity of the Centre therefore relies on the contributions of its members, through a modular membership programme for which everyone is asked to independently chose the fee based on their financial situation. Through this model, FAC tries to offer an alternative structure to that of the State and the neoliberal creative industries, in which the students or users are seen as consumers, extraneous to the process of creation and dissemination. As stated on its website: “Our feminist conception of autonomy disrupts the dichotomy between ‘public’ and ‘private,’ seeking to foster self-determination particularly for groups that are epistemically oppressed in academic institutions. […] Breaking with the neoliberal logic of There Is No Alternative, we are, in practice, asking, what might it mean to create an alternative to hegemonic institutions of knowledge production?”
As I write this blog post, the SoC team is busy preparing the upcoming solo exhibition of Irini Vourloumis titled Care-full Notes. Taking place just a few months after the artist’s death, the exhibition aims at presenting the multifaceted production of Vourloumis, positioning it “in a period that marks perhaps the first historically tangible moment of financial emancipation for Greek women artists”, while exploring the archive and the practice of archiving as a gesture of care. The exhibition operates as an introduction to the second phase of The Bureau of Care, an interdisciplinary research programme about the ethics and politics of care initiated in 2020, under the title Coalition of the Care-full, materialising in a period of collaborations with artists, curators and thinkers will run until 2024. Inaugurated by the collaboration with the collective Temporary Academy of Arts (PAT), this represents the beginning of an interesting experiment in the direction and management of SoC, which I invite you to follow.
In conclusion, I want to share that besides these cultural experiences, this month I had the opportunity to observe the constant work of resistance, organisation, and relations of local feminist collectives, as Συνέλευση 8 Μάρτη (March 8 Assembly), in preparation of the feminist general strike on March 8th and in relation to several severe cases of violence and abuse. A string of occasions and events in which groups come and stand together, weaving an essential network of alliances and support.
 In April 2020, as a reaction to the first lockdown in Greece and the lack of State support for art professionals, Greek art workers gathered under the name of Support Art Workers. The group operates through interconnected subgroups and a Coordination Assembly. With a strong focus on labour, cultural policies, and working and living conditions, SAW has carried out a series policy initiatives and political actions, also in collaboration and support of other social mouvements. Website: https://www.supportartworkers.org <last accessed 24/02/2022>
 State of Concept, Irini Vourloumis, “Care-full Notes”, press release, https://stateofconcept.org/exhibition/irini-vourloumis/ <last accessed 24/02/2022>