Whatever you do, don‘t call us the new Berlin

Athens is the New Berlin has become a common press tagline recently. Vallejo Gantner, the former director of PS122, one of New York’s contemporary performance institutions and Fotis Kapetopoulos, one of the Greek diaspora and an arts manager, went to Athens to see if the city really is going through a creative regeneration.

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BY FOTIS KAPETOPOULOS AND VALLEJO GANTNER 

Artists, collectives, new bars, farm-to-table restaurants, startups, and alternative music venues are amassing in Athens. Abandoned buildings, the scars from what Greeks simply call ‘the Crisis’, are turning into cultural spaces and homes for startups.

Once tagging and brash political statements are now impressive street art. Artists from Mexico, Bali, New York and the cities of Western Europe are making Athens a new base. Is Athens the New Berlin? No, it is Athens. But, something is happening.

Over 30 million tourists visited Greece in 2017According to the World Tourism and Trade Council, seven percent of Greece’s GDP $US14.7 billionis derived from tourism. 2017 will end as an “all-time record year for Athens tourism”, with more than five million visitors.

“The talk coming out of Athens is of new ideas in the arts and start-ups; of a new pulse – is it real? Gantner asks.

Can Athens avoid the traps of gentrification? Worldwide, there is a conversation around creative industry-driven economic urban rejuvenation– but in the medium to long term, it may ignore a host of negative outcomes.

“You see more from the outside, but it’s better that someone talks about you than you talking about it” says Nikos Trivoulidis the Development Manager of the Benaki Museum.

Benaki museums include collections of Ancient Cycladic, Byzantine and one of the largest Islamic Art collections in the world, as well as a new contemporary space.

“I am astonished at how many things we’ve done despite the lack of money in Athens.”

“We are agents of change, we have always been independent, we do not follow specific government agendas,” Trivoulidis says.

Stressing Benaki independence, Trivoulidis talks of how they agreed to a Jean-Paul Gaultier fashion exhibition inspired by Medieval Greek costumes yet refused a major perfumery’s very seductive money as, “it did not fit the Benaki ethos”. He also points to the Turkish Airlines sponsorship, which regardless of the disquiet went ahead.

Old money is also coming back to Athens as shiny new cultural institutions appear. The Onassis Cultural Centre, a new €560 million complex includes a concert hall, theatres, exhibition spaces, and studios. The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre, extending over 210,000 square metres was a snap at €760 million. Designed by Renzo Piano, it houses the National Opera and National Library within a vast park full of landscaped, hollow signifiers. The shelves of the library remain strangely bare.

Onassis and Niarchos, as major philanthropic institutions, are the giants in the city, presenting, programming and making grants.

However, these foundations’ billions are managed outside Greece through complex offshore holding structures. Few here trust government. The state has retreated from much of Athens’ cultural and civic life.

It regulates and adds more taxes on the citizenry and small business,as it plays catch up for years of bad management. But with the state’s absence also comes freedom. Institutions are now forced to explore new avenues in their quest for sustainability.

Snowx blind

National Theater of Greece director Stathis Livathinos has a vision for experimental programming in a stalwart traditional theatre institution. Georgina Kakoudaki, the education director of the Epidaurus Lyceum Hellenic Festival says the Festival “once focused on tourism” but is now invested in “pedagogy, Greek performance and international contemporary theatre”.

Athens starts at 9am and ends at 4am. The city has its own distorted symphony made of diverse music from limitless bars and cafes, car horns, vendors’ shouts, people talking, dogs barking, scouters and motorbikes.

Psyri, previously a poor, inner city neighborhood is now a hipster hub. The hole-in-the-wall bar, Cantina Social, renowned for alternative music and heaving late night parties is burrowed in a secret courtyard. Embros, an abandoned warehouse, is a performance space run by a collective presenting theatre and performance, dance and alternative music.

One of the group who initially took over Embros, Gigi Argyropoulou, an artist and curator went on to cooperatively initiate the occupation and curation of Green Park, a former genteel café, now shuttered and abused, in a once elegant city park.

“We broke in during summer pretending we were from the Ministry of Works, we cleaned Green Park, used electricity illegally and the event produced itself,” Argyropoulou says.

“Life here is good, we do what we want, but it’s hard to know how an artist can live only from Greek income.”

“We had over 300 presentations and we broke down categorisations by having established artists, new artists, community activists, immigrants and refugees” she adds.

She shows us the photos, action, people, lectures, forums, actions, presentations, dance and more, an ethereal part of history now. We drink our mastic in a bar 300 meters away from the dilapidated Green Park site, a world away, as we continue talking.

Daniel Wetzel a co-director of Rimini Protokoll is an artist who’s made Athens his home. The group’s Evros Walk Water presented in May, was built on narratives from young refugees in Athens and a loop of John Cage’s 1959 Walk Water.

“I am astonished at how many things we’ve done despite the lack of money in Athens,” he Wetzel says.

Yolanda Markopoulos the director of Mind the Fact, festival engaging refugees, homeless and low-income families, headed an artists’ occupation of an abandoned multi-storey building in 2007.

“The Crisis gave us freedom, no one was telling us what to do,” she says. “Pakistani, Afghani, and Bangladeshi refugees stayed in Athens because of how we involved them in the project” Markopoulos points out.

Anarchist xCentral Exarchia

Ioanna Valsamidou a co-curator of the festival says that she can’t remember “the city being so alive as it is now”

“The over fifties, those who lost everything, can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel” she says.

There is an impressive, locally generated energy of the young and fired up. However the veterans, those that lost, and those still inside the institutions convey the cynicism of the betrayed.

Barbara Dukas, from the National Theatre of Greece is doing what she can.

“I produced The Persians by Aeschylus in Iran and had to undertake delicate negotiations on issues like, is it Iran or Persia? And, what of the role of the women in the work? It was successful, but here, I struggle due to insufficient resources… but there is something happening… you two are here…” Dukas laughs. She laughs and jokes. This is a reaction of rehabilitated self-reliance and healthy Greek scepticism, two sides of the same coin.

Jim, a tired middle-aged real-estate agent, makes the same commission from selling seven apartments as he did selling one before the Crisis. Yet, he’s now selling apartments again this time to Greek Diaspora from the US and Australia, Israelis, Germans and Chinese for a third of the cost in their cities.

He warned an Israeli buyer wanting to buy in Exarchia – the Anarchist friendly neighborhood – that riots erupt between Anarchists and police sporadically. His buyer said, “Great it reminds me of Haifa but without the bullets”.

Gentrification is an uneven, and unpredictable beast in Athens. It always seems on the horizon – but real estate value doesn’t roll in vast waves as it does in other markets. Huge tracts in Metaxourgio – a poor central neighbourhood was bought by a developer running a clear Soho/Dumbo playbook of moving artists in the apartments for cheap, so as to build value. Alas, to no avail. Perhaps it’s early days, or just Athens is too fragmented, making it hard to discern a pattern.

Athens is about sharp contrasts. Fashionable bars and cafes a street away from older, impoverished Greeks bedding down on the street. Young entrepreneurs and artists are finding opportunities.

However not all in the arts sector welcome the new spotlight on Athens as the benefits fall unevenly.

Vasilis the owner of Bios Romantzo Centre has for the last 18 years run a multi level contemporary arts and performance center in the historic of Romantzo magazine building.

“The BBC, The Guardian, everyone comes here to ask about resilience.” Vasilis is tired of the Crisis-born “fetish for Athens”.

“Whatever you do, don‘t call us the new Berlin,” says Gabriella Triantafyllis the Programming Manager of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre.

Triantafyllis says that no state subsidies from 2010 to 2016 have resulted in “performance values and skills seriously dropping”. This is an area that the Foundation hopes to impact on.

Scratch the surface and some cynicism about the long-term sustainability of the arts becomes clearer. Veterans identify gaps in capacity in both artistic and institutional endeavours.

“Discussions of the creative economy forget the arts, we can have lots of new restaurants and bars but that’s not enough.

“Look at Psyri, you can’t have a neighborhood of just cafes, bars and clubs,” Triantafyllis says.

A choreographer, who wishes to remain anonymous, broke into tears when she spoke of “exhaustion,” of “losing spaces”, “of the poverty” and the lack of resources. The craving for institutional recognition by artists, and some form of reward is difficult to shake.

Unlike New York’s PS122, which began by artists breaking into an abandoned public school on New York’s Lower East Side and is now a major, private and publicly support institution, Athens’ occupations are energised, political, but temporary. They begin, explode and fade into history, a little like Athens has over the millennia.

Trying to find Green Park in the mistreated Pedion to Areos Gardens at dusk we see what look like fireflies. The flashes however are lighters heating pipes of Sisa, ‘the poor person’s coke’ a dangerously toxic meth. The cops roll in on their motorbikes and the addicts scatter like the living dead.

Next to the park is a sports stadium where young African and European Greeks students play together. Training in discus and javelin creating a retro-future multicultural tableau.

Athens is about sharp contrasts. Fashionable bars and cafes a street away from older, impoverished Greeks bedding down on the street. Young entrepreneurs and artists are finding opportunities.

Maybe the Greeks’ instinct for freedom and enterprise has kicked in. Like many things in Athens, living in the moment is not a choice.

Is it enough? It’s difficult to predict. But things are happening for the first time in a long time.

 

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5 responses to “Whatever you do, don‘t call us the new Berlin

  1. Interesting article. Wondering though: how can gentrification, flagship cultural institution development and airbnb be contained without policy actors present?

    To me, it feels very much like the development of Berlin where under a similar policy-vacuum (after the wall fell) artists moved in only to be replaced by rich (compared to average artist) international and local yuppies buying up the place making it less livable and affordable for everyone. As a consequence, despite Berlin still being a “creative” place compared to Australian capitals, it is becoming incredibly difficult for artists to continue to make a living and to be able to afford living and working there.
    Athens has a great opportunity, but without progressive policy they’ll suffer the same fate, I guess.

  2. hmmm….. a rather telling indicator is the ‘age factor’ . People I know in Athens, who are artists or work in the arts sector – who are older, have families to support etc, are not as optimistic about the ‘ New Berlin’ story. However, due to the economic crisis, property in Athens is cheap, and as is the case every where in the world, artists tend to turn up where it is more affordable to live and work. Lots of young energy, lots of activity and art popping up everywhere is always a good thing – I hope it really does become a renaissance of art practice in Athens

  3. Great article. As someone who has lived in Athens coming from Australia long before the crises, it was always a great artistic city. After growing up in Australia, and then living for 13 continuous years in Athens I became a human of the world, I learned what art is really about. I was in my 30s and still a child. Greece and especially Athens was the catalyst for my maturity not only as an artist but as a human being, I began to understand the complexity of the world we live in.
    This article gives me great joy.

    1. Don’t be an ass Rob…
      Greek people pay a lot of taxes and work more hours in comparison to other EU citizens. So, read the article and stop being so mean…

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