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“Do It Yourself”: Crisis and Monopolies
Thoughts on Cultural Imaginaries and Infrastructures

Empros Theater, Athens
Empros Theater, Athens | Photo (detail): © Tatiana Mpolari / Eurokinissi

In Greece, new experimental cultural practices were established in the 2000s, especially as a result of the economic crisis from 2010 onwards. Gigi Argyropoulou takes a look at the resulting processes of improvisation, transformation and the resulting mutual relationships. How do newly created improvised practices develop and change? What conclusions can we draw from this?

By Gigi Argyropoulou

Imaginaries, city plans and laws have often been contested by emergent movements, improvised uses and “do it yourself ” (DIY) organised practices. In the context of the Greek urban landscape, the planned and the unplanned, state policies and resistances, micro-arrangements and imposed agendas have been co-existing whilst also contesting each other. The lack of sustainable infrastructures and centralised planning often leads citizens to actively engage in an attempt to practically question how space and city life are configured. According to Urban Geographer Tim Ingold, the first question one has to ask in order to orientate oneself in the environment is: Where am I?

This question of situatedness is a recurrent one as citizens and cultural workers improvise, trying to re-orientate themselves in a changing landscape. During the last twenty years, and while the Greek cultural, urban and social landscape has been undergoing radical and diverse transformations, this negotiation with “tight places” and this critical situatedness seem to have functioned as evolving practices that have consistently given rise to DIY structures, spaces and practices. This reinvention of methods and practices can even be discussed spatially as imaginaries and infrastructures appear to continuously re-inform each other. However, the sense of uncertainty in an increasingly unstable and precarious landscape gradually affected such improvised practices that seemed to remain vulnerable and discontinuous.

The Beginning of DIY

In the early 2000s, a series of experimental practices by young theatre makers appeared on the system’s periphery. Unable to access established cultural venues and production mechanisms, these young theatre makers often worked collaboratively and situated their work in unexpected locations, unknown and found spaces. They invented their own distinct methods of promoting, funding and staging the work, they created their own DIY economies of practice. During the years 2000 - 2010, formal institutions and state structures seemed to be affected by these emerging practices as the cultural imaginary began to gradually change. At the same time, cultural systems and infrastructures failed to develop appropriate forms of sustainable support, or cultural policies that would respond to this changing situation. As a result, the underlying conditions of labour became more and more precarious, and the landscape of this expanding artistic sector gradually appeared to be dominated by multiplicity, overproduction and confusion.

The Importance of Arts in Times of Crisis

Against the above landscape, and since 2010, the economic crisis challenged imaginaries of progress, togetherness and effectiveness, and the performing arts saw the emergence of a series of collective contexts. As the crisis deepened, social frameworks, funding structures and infrastructures collapsed; in this climate, DIY collective structures and solidarity networks appeared as the antidote to policies of extreme austerity. The emergence of community assemblies, medical clinics, social kitchens, medicine exchange networks and legal aid hubs self-organised by citizens offered new ways of thinking about political participation. At the same time, and while the limited funding for the performing arts ceased, cultural workers seemed to question the limits and aims of their practice. Once again, the appearance of DIY performances in new sites, flats and public spaces created new economies of work. Diverse cultural or political experiments took place that questioned what is considered “appropriate” political or cultural practice. There was a return to forms of political theatre, direct activist interventions and acts of cultural critique. A salient example was the reactivation and occupation of Embros theatre by Mavili Collective in November 2011. This initiative sought to practically produce structures in response to the cultural landscape of the last decade, challenging notions of inclusion and what art can do in times of crisis. DIY structures in Embros and in other emergent cultural spaces and occupations in Athens experimented with modes of theory and practice, improvising and testing performance tools and performing structures and bringing together diverse audiences in unexpected, surprising and informal forms.

Private Investors as Solution

The DIY infrastructure of the first years of the crisis remained precarious and failed to expand into a survival strategy in the landscape of the crisis. At the same time, Athens attracted many visiting cultural workers, artists and writers who wanted to observe or document this shifting cultural landscape. Few wealthy private institutions and foundations appeared, offering a rich programme of artistic work to Greek audiences and one of the very few possibilities for paid work to Greek cultural workers. The malfunctions of the previous State infrastructures were now bypassed by ostensibly efficient private structures that demonstrate top-down curatorial management, social sensitivities and functional logistics. During these years, and following wider global trends, a new imaginary began to develop, in which private infrastructures became the only antidote to the crisis and austerity.

In response to this changing landscape, a DIY Performance Biennial titled No Future took place in Athens in the summer of 2016. Taking place in a cultural occupancy in the heart of the crisis, the project was open to diverse attendees and constantly affected by the urgent needs of its surroundings. However, the event appeared insufficient to produce sustainable change in the cultural landscape of the crisis and to interrupt power regimes. It rather functioned as an exercise on how a collective DIY infrastructure might operate and affect cultural production and imaginary.

Emergent practices of improvisation offer ephemeral strategies of instituting in between “tight places”. Moments that emerge in relation to the strictures and needs of a specific landscape, previous actions and methods, and shared desires bear the potential to propose collective ways to practically rethink infrastructures and imaginaries. In refusing to accept that “this is the way things are done”, such moments and practices of improvisation might give rise to new structures, tactics and forms. Yet, it cannot be denied that by their very nature such practices are also impotential, precarious and insufficient. In these bleak times of monopolies, derivative fascisms and pervading precarity, studying such moments of disorder – across different locations – and their critical dynamics might open up new ways to engage with questions of effectiveness, situatedness and continuity, contesting political methods and curatorial and performative tools for strategic invention into power regimes.

This text has been modified and edited from the original version that was published in Journal of Greek Media and Culture (Volume 3 number 2) under the title “Dramaturgies of change: Greek theatre now”.