Moving Forward in Circles: A Drift through the City of Athens
Story by Giuliana Grippo
For ten days in March 2022, together with curators Elena Azzedín and Clelia Coussonnet, and artist Corinne Silva, we explored the city of Athens as a case-study reflecting on environmental justice, the threat faced by nature in public and common spaces, and the conflicts present in the city’s human and non-human ecosystems. Working together for the first time, our 10-day journey including field trips, meetings, moments for group and individual reflection, and interaction through non-verbal communication, has highlighted the importance of interrelatedness in our practices.
The importance of encounters
While many cultural workers have started questioning the rationale behind regular mobility, we did realize throughout our experience in residency how much our sector – the arts and culture, is highly dependent on international exchange. This made us further think about the possibility for regenerative mobility, or for working in local projects while still being in relation with other contexts.
We met with Chryssa Kapartziani, a crime lawyer and a researcher whose work focuses on Sociology of Law, especially law in relation to environmental issues. One of the topics in her current research is to think about legal rights for natural elements, such as forests, caves, icebergs, lakes, as well as contained ecosystems. Through Chryssa, and the specific public spaces of the city she walked us through, we have been considering how nature could obtain such legal rights, what it would mean, how to achieve this, and in which ways changing legal frameworks towards this goal could serve as inspiration in other fields of collective living. Through Chryssa, we learned about a law created in Ancient Greece for the preservation of the commons which stipulates that everyone can access natural spaces freely. In today’s context, it means that as an inhabitant you can go to court to request such access (an NGO is also entitled to do so as long as public interest is part of its mission). Chryssa emphasized that most changes in legal frameworks and culture come from legal actions established by citizens.
Interdisciplinarity: Law & Culture
The encounter with Chryssa allowed for a comparison between disciplines – namely law and culture. Could art research and/or production lead to policy changes too? Should it strive for it or not? What about art’s possibility, unlike law, to operate outside of the system? Interdisciplinarity offers different perspectives to approach the environmental crisis. Legally and artistically, it feels important to answer the two following questions: How can we open up generative spaces versus extractive ones? How can we move forward to a generative relationship with nature? The Athenian rivers of Pikrodafnis and Ilissos became a landmark of our stay, embodying our questions: with the first crawling discreetly into the city’s gaps with an NGO attempting to clean it up, and the latter semi-covered and almost dried out.
Natural entity & Digital entity
As certain marketeers would have us believe, we are moving towards the “promising” Metaverse era. However, the ecological impact of the Metaverse is not yet being measured and, even less, regulated by law, despite the evidence of its impact on our planet.
Nature in all its forms (a river, a tree, a particular biosphere, etc.) existed before our social media accounts, and before we were worried about our airspace being crossed by drones. Yet, we are failing to recognize its multiple forms as legal entities and, because of this, we are also failing in protecting them. After all, isn’t a digital entity as intangible and porous as a natural one? If we can now begin to consider that digital entities need a legal framework, then why are we so reluctant to consider natural ones in the same way?
At this point of the conversation, we started wondering how one can determine the health of a natural element considering that, as a natural entity, it is in a constant state of change and, moreover, its life moves on a different time cycle than ours. A slower time: tree time, river time, which us humans find difficult to comprehend. Mutation, deterioration and death are all part of our natural cycles. But they unveil in gradual processes. Conversely, we now understand “unhealthy” to mean anything in the natural world going through a drastic change in a “short” period of time.
Imagining new ways of harmony and coexistence
Fragility and vulnerability entered our conversations during the whole trip, addressed from many different perspectives, also during sensorial activities. Bodily practices and non-verbal communication games helped channel these feelings, and our reflections on the uncanniness of living in a deteriorating environment. We were aware of how present the topic of spirituality was for all of us, and how it kept appearing when discussing ecological issues and common/public green spaces in the city. Greek mythology was also omnipresent: almost every person we have been in conversation with shared a tale of hybrid figures, half-animal half-humans, and of shapeshifting, alongside stories of snakes, aqua-terranean characters, and strong female figures like Athena and other goddesses, who accompanied us throughout the trip. From the same stories, we heard different versions which infused our imaginations.
Finding balance in the Commons
In our exploration of environmental justice and the frictions that occur in urban space where the natural and the human-made meet, we reflected on how to find balance. Rather than a resource, the commons appeared to us as a process, a set of social relations by which a group of people share responsibility for, and for which rules need to be defined, including possibly a change in the legal framework. We wondered if commoning could be scaled up from the popular model of the community garden to influence the workings of a metropolis: able to tackle questions of housing, energy use, food distribution and clean air? Could the city be reimagined as commons, or is commoning the realm of tiny acts of small collective groups and resistance? We have seen how the economic crisis in Greece has led to a resurgence of commoning in Athens, like with the Navarinou park. Yet, how to ensure the sustainability of community-led initiatives in the long run? Who will carry the responsibility when the momentum of rallying fades away?
The UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, aka the AARHUS convention, has provided a platform to access every European initiative on environmental issues. Lawyers such as Chryssa and initiatives such as Client Earth demonstrate the power of legal practices in changing dangerous policy in relation to environmental issues of all kinds.
Our opinions remain divided on whether art’s purpose is to create social change. What we have taken from our time together is an awareness of the richness of experiencing different approaches on the same topic, of cross-disciplinarity, and the change the trip has produced in each of us, which we now take back to our own respective practices.
This story is an edited version of the narrative report written by Giuliana Grippo (April 2022) in relation to the project ‘Collaborative artistic research in Athens on environmental justice and the threat faced by public, common and liminal spaces in an urban context’, carried out in March 2022.
Join the conversation on social media!
- Mobility in the arts and culture is necessary, yet we all wonder how to do it in a sustainable way: how do you balance the need for mobility while protecting the environment?
- How does interdisciplinarity influence your work? Do you feel mobility is necessary to achieve more connections between disciplines?
#environmentaljustice #sustainabilityandmobility #commons #cultureforpolicychange