A migrants’ guide to the Galaxy: Occupying public space

by Nelli Kambouri and Pavlos Hatzopoulos

The text will attempt to follow routes, stops, marches, breaks, heterogeneous frequencies of movements, encounters that took place or that didn’t in the setting of the Nea Smyrni square located 1.5 km south of the centre of Athens. Main carriers of those movements are migrant street vendors who are users of this square on a permanent basis and the individuals and groups who took part in the ephemeral occupation of a public building in the midst of the square, called the Galaxy.

The Galaxy

The Galaxy is the only closed building inside the perimeter of the Nea Smyrni square and forms part of its initial design. The building is constructed in a way that muddles, but at the same time, highlights the demarcation of the inside and the outside. Its three sides are formed by glass partitions that open and close, whereas the back side is made of cement on the first level and a glass partition on the second. Its interior is formed by a large geometrical space spread on two levels, while in the basement there is a large room with minimum ventilation and light. The exterior is formed by rectangular artificial lakes and open cement areas that are mainly covered by vertical sets of café tables and chair seats.[1] The vertical and horizontal lines of the building, as well as the open view weave a “striated” space.[2] Through the extended transparent partitions, the inside and outside are integrated in a unified closed space. The history of the Galaxy is determined by the logic of integrating the inside and the outside that its striated architecture imposes.[3]

Figure 1: Galaxy, the building, at Nea Smyrni square

Since the date it was built, in 1969, the Galaxy has become a construction site, a café, an under construction municipal cultural centre, a café once more, a construction site, a municipal cultural centre under construction once more, a café under construction, a construction site once again. On 14 December 2008, the Galaxy was temporarily transformed into a space under occupation. The immediate call that the occupation circulated, directly expressed the desire for the Galaxy to become “a center of coordination and action” for the diffusion of the December insurrection. The call was followed by the participation of the occupation in multiple dispersed actions that were organized in Athens.[4] The Galaxy acquired an assembly that managed all the issues concerning the occupation, a march took place in the streets of Nea Smyrni, public events were organised in solidarity to those who were imprisoned during the December insurrection, discussions about public spaces and police violence took place, an anti-information newsletter was published and distributed in the streets of Nea Smyrni, and the assembly began to publish resolutions.

At the same period when the dispersal of the activities of the occupation in the urban space began, the participants readjusted the relation of the occupied building to the external space of the square. All the glass surfaces were covered with fabrics, cardboards and posters: the visual contact with the outside was interrupted, though in a casual and ephemeral way. For those who were in the inside there was no open horizon anymore, their gaze could not penetrate the boundaries of the occupation. Through this ephemeral closure, nonetheless, the occupied space opened to a logic of the smooth- where the desire for a nice view was constrained and the vision of proximity was reinforced.[5] The open horizon was replaced by graffiti that could only be viewed from a very close distance, creating a new boundless environment. In the interior, participants were sleeping overnight inside the building spreading out to the upper level but also to the dark basement of the building.

Back then, the building seemed like a shelter–cave covered and protected from the external space of the square. The transformation of the building did not aim at entrenchment, but it was undertaken in an off-hand manner, as if the external public space of the square were unimportant.[6] The Galaxy was transformed into an asymmetrical space, standing in discordance to the rest of the square: a common place of ephemeral habitation and of dispersed political action. Occupied temporarily as if it were a cave, it formed users whose primary desire was not to mark the occupation as a spatial point of reference within the city, but to draw multiple trajectories for the dispersal of the December riots. The multiple desires of the occupiers began to map a city that did not rely anymore on “vertical and horizontal lines”, that did no longer imply the movement “from one point to another” but the constant “change of directions”.[7] A smooth space, which “someone can occupy without having to count”.[8]

Two months later, the assembly decided that the Galaxy would no longer function as a squat. Only one person kept on living in the basement for “practical reasons”. The aim of this reversal was “to open up the building to the people of Nea Smyrni” and to regain its initial transparency, whereas the actions of the occupiers began to focus more and more on renovating the interior of the building and on organising open events inside it. The glass windows recovered their transparency while the unity of the outside and the inside space was redefined. This “opening” was imprinted in the resolution of the assembly entitled “The Galaxy concerns all of us”, where the desire to transform the occupation to a “self-managed public space, of non commercial character” was expressed. This opening signaled the creation of a limit, a boundary between the commercial outside and the anti-commercial inside.[9] This resolution was immediately printed and distributed and then continued to be distributed around the square, while it was permanently placed on a table in the space of the occupation with the aim of collecting as many signatures of support as possible.

The opening signified the beginning of counting. The occupation of the Galaxy began to count the signatures in its support, as well as many other numbersl: How many signed for the continuation of the occupation, how many took part in the weekly meetings of the occupation, how many showed up in the event for the free public spaces, how much money was collected in the manifestation of solidarity and support for Konstantina Kouneva, how many beers were in the bar, how many skewers in the fridge, how many and which collectives participated in the occupation. The occupation of the Galaxy was now trying to regain visual contact with the outside space of the square, to regain at least its confrontational relationship with the outside, to “count in order to occupy space”, to form a spatial point of reference for the struggle for de-commercialization and for the freedom of public spaces: a striated space “where someone counts in order to occupy”?[10]

The free Galaxy and the African pirates: encounters

The treasure hunt

In the context of the opening of the occupation to the space-time of Nea Smyrni square, some attempts were made to communicate with the migrants – vendors of the square. This communication started with a game for children – a treasure hunt. The game began with a group of children discovering a forgotten letter inside the Galaxy. An African had left it there just before his departure:

“It is dark and I am sitting alone in Nea Smyrni Square. I have wondered in many places until I arrived here. The seas I have crossed were wild and our ships were not always the strongest. But we were brave and fearless. I came to Greece illegally, like all pirates do. I wasn’t scared. I liked Nea Smyrni Square at first because it is full of water and you could see far away. It reminded me of the sea. I stayed here for a year selling my pirate goods to whoever passed by. It is time, though, for me to leave, to move on to other more hospitable waters. Like in the open sea, here as well, in the square there were many enemies who hunted us down all the time. This was no life for us. They asked for permits, passports, and we had to pick up our merchandise and run far away whenever we saw them coming. I leave but I am hiding my treasure in a place where our enemies cannot find it. My comrades hold the first key to the long journey”.

The group of children took the letter and exited from the building looking for the comrades of the pirate in order to ask them about the treasure. They were migrants, mostly Africans, street-vendors, who have a permanent daily presence in Nea Smyrni Square during the past few years. Their main business activity is selling of pirate CDs and DVDs, as well as other pirate products.

At some point the children’s group arrived at the wall of the under-construction subterranean parking at the boundaries of the square, where the migrant-vendors usually gather. On the wall that is usually covered by advertisements there was also a map of the world. The children asked the pirates to show them the routes they followed in order to come to Greece and the migrants gave them an envelope that contained a story – the clue for the next course to begin. On the map that was placed among the advertisements some of the migrants showed the routes that they followed in order to come to Greece, some came from England, others from the Caribbean. Not all of them were African pirates, after all.

The day before the game, the organizers asked the pirates to write some words in their language. One of them called his mother to ask the word for flower in his local dialect. Although his mother told him what the word was over the phone, he would still not remember it. Finally, the words-clues were written in English and French.

During this game, two different forms of alternative production of the space of the square met. Although both of them questioned the existing boundaries and organisation of public space, they were not necessarily compatible. On one hand, the distributed movement of the migrant-users in the open space of the square, seeking for customers and, at the same time, trying to avoid the control of the local police. On the other hand, a static space of occupation that is trying to resist the increasing commercialization of public space and creating zones of anti-commercialization inside it.

The project of the anti-commercialization of public space that the Galaxy occupation assumed stands in contrast with that of vending of pirate goods. The economy of the pirate business activity itself is not striated, though. The fake products, the unbranded products, the CDs and DVDs that have been digitally copied and sold in the street are not registered, taxed, controlled. The economy of piracy, on the contrary, is based on the reproduction of the product for potentially innumerable times making it thus something that cannot be officially counted.

In parallel, the inertia of the open occupation of a public building is directly opposed to the ephemeral placement of goods that allows for fast translocation and that can be constantly relocated in new spots. This practice does not only serve for the self-evident protection from policing authorities that perform checks and patrols, but also helps the more effective promotion of a product that is not counted. The migrant-vendors break the existing spatial boundaries at regular intervals, in order to sell. Simply, because they are trying to sell everywhere: in the spaces of free circulation, in the commercial spaces of gathering (cafes), even in the playground. Their commercial activity is, therefore, connected to a different strategy of production of the space and time of the city, a strategy that does not directly oppose commercialization but that contests its existing rules. The practices of the migrant-vendors push commercialization to its limits, refusing to accept that commercialized transactions must be defined according to the place it is performed, refusing to accept that commercialized must be demarcated.[11] To the strategy of “more and more extended commercial uses of public space” that represents the tendency of the commercialization of public space, the practices of the migrant-vendors represent, in a way, a strategy of “commerce everywhere and for all”, as long as this activity is pirate.

The mobility of the migrant-vendors produces smooth spaces that penetrate the official demarcations of Nea Smyrni square. Their movements are also inscribed in their ambiguous relationship to the Greek state: they legalize their presence in Greece through buying social security stamps, an expense that they can cover by selling pirate goods. Through an illegal activity, they manage to become legal. If we could map the square following the movements of the migrant-vendors what would emerge would be a “line that delimits nothing, that describes no contour, that no longer goes from one point to another but instead passes between points, that is always declining from the horizontal and the vertical and deviating from the diagonal, that is constantly changing direction, a mutant line of this kind that is without outside or inside, form or background, beginning or end and that is alive as a continuous variation – such a line is truly an abstract line, and describes a smooth space”.[12]

The migrant-vendors of the square are not, nonetheless, nomads, or at least they are not nomads all the time:

«The nomad is not at all the same as the migrant; for the migrant goes principally from one point to another, even if the second point is uncertain, unforeseen, or not well localized”.[13]

The desires of the migrant-vendors are striated. As they wrote in a collective text: “We left from there to come to Europe with the purpose of protecting our lives because our countries were not safe enough to live in”. What they desire and seek are better living conditions, opportunities, chances to become richer, more educated, more independent from political, social and financial limitations. One of them says:

“I come from Nigeria. I came to Greece because of life’s difficulties. I led a comfortable life in my country, where I owned a shop. I sold cars in Nigeria. Then I lost my job in Nigeria and I came to Greece. I had a dream: to live comfortably like every other person.”

In a way, the migrant-vendors adopt nomadic practices because they cannot fulfill their primary migratory desires. In their collective text they mention: “We looked for jobs but it was very difficult to find something. We became vendors not because we want to be in the streets but because we were searching for a way to survive.”

The desire of immigrant vendors to sell but also the efforts made by the authorities to control this desire result to an unexpected use of public space. The migrant-vendors invent and perform dispersed practices that allow them to work and to avoid control. Control, as it is applied by the municipal and state police is equally dispersed: sometimes the police ask for papers and in other cases they simply have friendly conversations with the migrants, sometimes they chase them away or check their permits and other times they just pass them by. This process creates smooth spaces that outrun the migratory desire itself and lead to ephemeral, disjointed nomadic practices.

Events in solidarity

The first meeting of the occupation with the migrant-vendors -the treasure hunt, was the beginning of a series of failed attempts for common action. In the second meeting, the square was filled with tonal sounds. In the context of anti-racist solidarity, the occupation of the Galaxy organized a a day of action in support of the migrant-vendors. The assembly of the Galaxy had just formulated a text about migration in Greece – written in both Greek and English so that it would be understood by all. The text was read aloud through a speaking- trumpet. It was repeated again and again at regular intervals, while a flyer was printed and distributed to the migrants and the passersby. The text concluded: “The migrants persecuted by war, economic and food disasters seek for a better life in the western world. We are standing in solidarity towards all migrants, not in the context of charity or pity. We stand in solidarity because we feel that we are on the same side with the migrants, that the daily oppression and exploitation we suffer, either at work or in the street, is common to Greeks and foreigners.”

The migrant-vendors did not directly respond to the call of the occupation.

A month later an open public discussion took place inside the building of the Galaxy. It was titled “Solidarity for migrant-vendors”. Before the event, preparatory meetings were held at noon -during the break of migrant-vendors, when the building of the Galaxy was closed. The shutters were down, the glass partitions were covered. A discussion began about the occupation of the Galaxy and how the migrants could take part in it. The necessary explanations were given, but many of them reacted hesitantly saying that they did not want to get in trouble, nor did they want a direct controversy against the local municipal police , that was not always against them.

The event took place with the shutters up. The texts written by the migrants were translated and projected on the wall during the event at specific, regular intervals. In parallel, there were presentations made by anti-racist groups and the Association of Migrant Vendors operating in Greece. Many views were heard and at the end the participants issued a resolution against police arbitrariness, against the confiscation of pirate goods by the police and in support of legal employment and the right to stay for all migrants in Greece. A party followed, with African beers and cashews nuts that the vendors had brought as a present the night before. The next day the following description was posted on the website of the occupation:

“The interventions of the representatives of migrant initiatives, vendors, etc as well as of the kids who sell CDs and other gadgets in the square can be described as overwhelming. We heard some of them with tears in our eyes, whereas all of their narratives were interrupted by the applause of the audience. The most characteristic line though was that of the five year old son of a comrade who at the sight of the kids from Nigeria asked: “Daddy, who are all those beautiful chocolate people?”

The striated practices of solidarity towards the migrants – that is, the recognition of migrants as victims as the above extract shows– cannot produce practices of hospitality on their own. Not even the distributed movement of the migrant-vendors that sell pirate CDs and DVDs, their dispersion into space as if the Nea Smyrni square is a smooth space – does not reproduce practices of hospitality by itself. On the contrary, the coexistence of smooth and striated spaces leads to a complex relationship between practices of hospitality and practices of xenophobia. The production of smooth spaces inside the setting of the square may not have created a space free from racist practices, but it has at least set the production of the space of the square under a new negotiation.

The occupation of the Galaxy, as well as the practices of the migrant-vendors, lead to the production of the public space of the Square, as a patchwork of smooth and striated spaces. The encounters, though, between occupiers and vendors were realized almost exclusively under circumstances of striated space, highlighting the multiple tensions and contradictions inside the anti-racist initiatives but also the migratory (collective and individual) desires and practices. In the context of solidarity, the only demand that managed to be articulated was the one for participation of the migrants in the official process of the commercialization of the square, under conditions of legitimacy and state recognition. (To be given licenses to legally sell their products and earn a specific delimited space where they will be able to sell their –unavoidably now– non-pirate products). The question (unanswered for now) is how could an anti-racist – migratory meeting in a smooth space be articulated.

The Nea Smyrni square as a patchwork

The setting of these encounters was the Nea Smyrni square. The occupation of the Galaxy as well as the practices of migrant-vendors were analysed as practices of rupture with the specified segmentations and uses of the space and time of the square. In spite of their seemingly common relation to the surrounding space, their strategies are often asymmetrical – nor can the connections between them be considered as self-evident. The habitual practices of solidarity to the migrants do suppress but, they strongly highlight, on the contrary, the difficulty of escaping from the established logic of urban movements. The subject who acts is the one of the citizen, whereas migrants, as non-citizens recognized by state mechanisms – selectively and temporarily – are part of the project under specific terms that dissuade them from participating actively in the production of space and in ruptures with existing uses of public space.

We tried to compile images of the Nea Smyrni square as a patchwork. A patchwork formed by smooth and striated spaces that are produced by migrants-pirates and the occupation of the Free Galaxy. The Nea Smyrni Square as a patchwork is a hospitable and, at the same time, xenophobic space. Smooth and striated spaces do not intersect, do not converge and do not diverge: they are asymmetrical.21 Exactly like the relationship between the migrant-vendors and the occupation of the Galaxy: in spite of their many encounters, their attempts for common action, it still remains asymmetrical.

Afterword

After constant disputes during the assemblies of the occupation, many of those who supported the “opening” of the Galaxy walked out, taking with them all the “commercially valuable” goods that the occupation had acquired. The space was temporarily occupied by a group of teenagers from Russia, Greece, Georgia, Albania and China. They did not issue any call or declaration. They did not try to organize any action, but, started, on the contrary to systematically destroy the remnants of the occupation. They claimed that they were in the Galaxy long before the December insurrection and that they would continue to be there even after the occupation ends, even if the building is torn down. After a fire erupted from an unknown cause, the space of the occupation was evacuated by the fire brigade, and the building remains closed and locked till today. According to the latest rumor, the Galaxy will become once again a municipal cultural center under construction.

Notes

[1] The Nea Smyrni square is dedicated to leisure. Amusement and relaxation are directly connected to consumption in a stereotypical way. A large part of the square is covered, though, by artificial lakes that impose limits to the expansion of commercial uses since they cannot be covered, nor can they be stepped or used for that matter, allowing for the creation of smooth openings. The water can give, as Gaston Bachelard explains, a more “natural”, more “civilized” but also a more “geometrical” sense of space, See Gaston Bachelard, Poetics of Space (Boston: Beacon press, 1969). Albeit, in this specific case, water is characterized by stagnation, artificiality and sterility (it smells of chlorine and other detergents). In other words, the artificial lakes of the square point to a notion that Bachelard could have never predicted, perhaps. Artificial water embodies a museum piece that no longer allows a narcissist (no one can see their reflection on those waters), but a voyeuristic relationship. The water rests there, in order to capture our distant gaze.

[2] Deleuze and Guatarri refer to “striated space” as a space that is established by the state apparatus as opposed to the “smooth space” which is established by the War Machine. Although the nature of these two spaces is different and conflicting, they are in a constant mix and interaction since these two spaces are not practically distinct but they enter, transform and transmute constantly into their opposite. See the discussion in the chapter «The Smooth and the Striated» in Gilles Deleuze – Felix Guattari, 1988 (1999) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (London: The Athlon Press).

[3] This is an architecture of vertical and horizontal lines, which captures the gaze and that aims to awaken vision: to highlight the beautiful vista. The aquatic element of artificial lakes constantly disorients this striated logic and circuits towards a smooth space. Ibid., 492-493.

[4]See, for instance, “Protest in Ano Nea Smyrni after these days’ events” [Διαδήλωση στην Άνω Νέα Σμύρνη με αφορμή τα γεγονότα των ημερών] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=deL57so7FdA&feature=related

[5]Deleuze — Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 496

[6] The logic of the striated was never completely abandoned, however. The transformation of the transparent building into a cave also addressed fears about the security of the occupation and marked the creation of a boundary that separated the space of the occupation from the outside.

[7]Deleuze — Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 498

[8]Ibid., σ. 477. The excerpt refers to Pierre Boulez’s concept of music.

[9]A competitive relationship with the surrounding public space was created. During the assembly meetings, the argument about initiating coordinated actions against the commercialized outside prevailed. Many of the occupiers walked out, after they were accused of having converted the occupied space into a squat and of obstructing its opening to the public space of the square.

[10] Deleuze – Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 477

[11] The most popular spot where the movements of migrant-vendors halt is a space of uncertainty. It is located across an under construction car parking, a place presently uncertain as to its use, a passage between the tram stop and the commercial shops of the square.

[12] Deleuze – Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 498

[13] Ibid., 380

[14] «Even the most striated city gives rise to smooth spaces: to live in the city as a nomad, or as a cave dweller. Movements, speed, and slowness are sometimes enough to reconstruct a smooth space. Of course, smooth spaces are not in themselves liberatory. But the struggle is changes or displaced in them, and life reconstitutes its stakes, confronts new obstacles, invents new paces, switches adversaries. Never believe that a smooth space will suffice to save us”. Deleuze – Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 500

[15] Ibid., 474-75

[16] The microphones, the projector, the stoves, the sound system, the books from the lending library, etc. in order to protect them, as they claimed.

[16] The refusal to undertake any political action plunged into despair the remaining occupiers, whereas it triggered angry reactions from those who had walked out from the Galaxy.

Special issue re-public.gr : cities in turmoil

Nelli Kambouri is a researcher at the Center for Gender Studies and Equality, Panteion University, Athens Pavlos Hatzopoulos is managing editor of Re-public

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