What Are Our “Commons”?
From Theory to Practice
A COMMONS Action Day in the pedestrian zone on Fokionos Negri Street.
The commons is, in the first instance, nothing more than a dynamic concept, an intention, the willingness to create a life-in-common. Can we imagine a city that is different from the one we have known in the past, a city that is actually constituted by its inhabitants? Can we think of a “we” that overlaps with the “I”? Would you like to find out more about the Action Day and get an idea of the different projects and groups involved? How can we envision new forms of social change and novel ways of appropriating public space?
By Mary Adamopoulou
On the afternoon of 10 July, temperatures in Athens were soaring and most residents had fled to one of the local beaches: the chances were slim, then, of finding any Athenians in the pedestrian zone on Fokionos Negri Street in the heart of the Kypseli district. And you certainly would not have expected to see a group of people sitting down around a table under the trees to play a board game.
Four teams of two at “battle stations”: five girls and three boys were laughing together – they listened carefully as one of them, Jannis, explained the rules. It looked like they had known each other for ages. But actually, that wasn’t the case at all. The fact that Georgia and Elias, Jannis and Marisa, Eleni and Manos, and Melina and Maria happened to be sitting at the same table was a matter of chance. It was basically the internet that alerted them to the role play: its focus was on infrastructures in their community, urban open spaces, and dialogue in the city, and they wanted to be involved.
Game pieces, dice, and roles were handed out. The group included some local government representatives, business people, ordinary citizens, and members of various NGOs. The game was ready to begin. Who would succeed in best using the vacant buildings in the neighbourhood in a way that everyone could accept? One argument came after the other and tempers frayed, but there was plenty of humour all round, and more and more passers-by paused to watch, listen, and ask what the game was all about. It was the second time it had been played in public, after being launched as a pilot project at the Serafio Sports and Community Complex in Athens. As the game’s creator – architect and researcher Yannis Zgeras of Open Lab Athens – explains, “It is a participatory game that proposes a completely different model for managing urban open spaces, where the opinions of members of the public matter, and the needs of each neighbourhood are taken into account.”
While the four groups were “fighting” over the most beneficial use of public space for the local community, a few metres away three girls were patiently queuing in front of a cubicle that – if it had been positioned anywhere else other than in the middle of Fokionos Negri – could have been a toilet. As we got closer, it became clear that our first impression was not that far removed from the reality. This was the Public Lavatory of Thought, a project involving a partnership of three different institutions: the Department of Cultural Technology and Communication at the University of the Aegean, Open Lab Athens, and Ludd. On the floor of the wooden cabin was a miniature toilet bowl made of mirrored glass. A tablet was mounted above which visitors could use to spontaneously respond to questions and record their answers or simply listen to the answers that had been left by other people. In thematic terms, the primary focus was on how much our lives have been changed by the isolation experienced during the pandemic.
The board game and the “toilet” are both part of the “What Are Our Commons?” project, which is being run by the Goethe-Institut Athen and the LUDD Makerspace as well as an array of collectives, groups, and artists including Open Lab Athens, Commonspace Co-op, Participatory LAB, Ap’Ousia (“Absence-Essence ”), Inter Alia, Question Answering Machine, Wikimedia Community Greece, and CLOUDS FOR COMMONS.
“We decided to take part in this project because a library like the one at the Goethe-Institut does not just represent a pooled body of knowledge; rather, it is a social space fulfilling a critical function. It ensures the cohesion of the social fabric and promotes the spread of ideas and values such as democracy, solidarity, collectivity, and equal opportunity in the public space, especially in the post-pandemic period,” explains Nikoletta Stathopoulou, library director and head of the information department at the Goethe-Institut Athen.
The initiative was part of the international project run by the global network of Goethe-Instituts entitled “The Practice of the Commons”, which set out to find answers to questions like “What are commons?”, “What is commoning?” and is striving to develop a set of guidelines on how the Goethe-Institut can support the commons movement. It endeavours, among other things, to design projects that are open and inclusive and to foster democratic and collaborative decision-making processes.
On the way to Kypseli Square we made one more stop to meet with the Ap’Ousia pedagogic action group, which devises and conducts educational and cultural programmes for young and old alike. It was getting ready at that moment to welcome the children who had signed up to redesign their neighbourhood so that it would meet their needs, investing their imagination and building their own collective model of the Fokionos Negri pedestrian zone out of recyclable, natural materials.
A little further along, Wikipedia, the most popular online encyclopaedia, “revealed” its secrets in a workshop offering participants instruction in how to write a new entry or edit an existing one. They could then author their first article on urban commons themselves.
We had to look around the square a bit before we discovered a second installation put in place for the Action Day, another “cabin”, this time in the form of a telephone booth: the Question Answering Machine. It is modelled on a public telephone and can be used to listen to people’s experiences and stories relating to the neighbourhood and its inhabitants. This installation, which is the distinctive work of American artist Jonah Senzel and architect and multimedia artist Katerina Magarini, had been accessible to visitors since the early morning of the “What Are Our Commons” Action Day. The day also included the workshop “My Neighbourhood During the Heatwave”, where the level of discomfort people experienced in the urban public space was collectively mapped – a workshop organised by Commonspace and Participatory LAB in collaboration with CLOUDS. There was also a role play presented by the non-profit organisation Interalia: this reflected on the position and role of citizens directly affected by environmental problems deriving from the excessive exploitation of natural resources.
When we got back to the place we had started, the board game was coming to an end, and people were already gathering to take part in the discussion forum that had been scheduled. The panel of invited speakers comprised architect and activist Stavros Stavridis, a professor at the National Technical University of Athens, Lila Leontidou, professor emeritus of geography and European culture at the Hellenic Open University, and Iris Lykourgiotis, assistant professor in the Department of Architecture at the University of Thessaly, with journalist Yannis Orestis Papadimitriou acting as moderator.
In the meantime, the organisers erected the CLOUDS FOR COMMONS pop-up installations/constructions – as the LUDD collective’s modular, participative systems are called – to create a polymorphous honeycomb around the speakers’ table. Mechanical engineer Manolis Levadianos, the co-founder of Ludd, explains the collective approach as follows: “It is a participatory, polymorphous work based on a completely different model of management.” Adhering to the principle of open source, its primary goal is to connect people and communities.
The discussion went on for more than two hours and drew in numerous passers-by: examples from Madrid and São Paulo were brought in to give a thorough sense of the radical transformations that urban public space is going through, while pointing up the fact that the pandemic has brought to a halt citizens’ movements and initiatives championing the rights of residents in urban open spaces.
Following the interesting debate conducted in small discussion groups, the evening came to an end shortly before 10 pm.