Urban Digital Narratives

Urban Digital Narratives: A Workshop and Symposium in Athens

Workshop: Locative Media: The Street with Μartin Rieser and Eύα Κέκου — April 13, 2011

Symposium: Urban Digital Narratives — April 15; 10:30 am – 6:30 pm :: E.I.E. Eθνικό Ιδρυμα Ερευνών,V. Kostantinou 48 Athens, Greece.

Workshop on Locative Media:  An exhibition/ experience that brought together locative
mobile artworks in a street locations in central Athens.   The locative project was part of
a workshop in an inner city street personal stories and was constructed and developed by
volunteers using Empedia software to construct trails triggered by GPS or QR codes.
Documentary experiences of place and the communities in Athens, were fleetingly revealed
at different positions in the chosen street. The video stories for display on mobile
phones in the actual streets were  created in thepublic engagement workshop in the city.

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Bangladeshi boy

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Gypsy family



Digital Urban Narratives was realized through a collaborative workshop in the Gazi-Keramikos district of Athens, which constructed a locative route via collaboration with another mixed group of students and architects, artists, photographers, videomakers and computer scientists from AIT (Athens Institute of Technology)

The chosen area of Gazi-Keramikos was a very mixed inner city area, where gentrification had created a pleasure zone of clubs and cafes surrounded by established artisan communities and migrant communities to the North. These disparate elements faced multiple problems, above all – a sense of powerlessness in the face of the ill-formed status for recent migrants and of displacement by rising property prices and rents in the south of the area, together with an influx of noisy and youthful revelers, with hedonistic values into conservative working neighbourhoods.

 Naturally tensions were created between these disparate groups, and we found an underlying reactive anger in the settled Greek community, which compromised the project in its final stages. Lakhou Street traverses the area around the metro station. It had been radically transformed during the previous five years, with old buildings, houses and warehouses being converted into modern bars, cafes. Leonidou Street still maintained a residential character. By succeeding Lakhou Street and traversing the neighborhoods of Keramikos and Metaxourgio, it helped us trace the transformation in urban character along its length, almost in the form of a history.

“After the Olympic games and given the absence of a program or plan to answer the pressing issues of a Mediterranean metropolis in transformation, the centre was almost abandoned to its fate. As a result, for many years now, the city has resembled a ship tossed helplessly on stormy seas. As central Athens grew in the characteristic manner of a disordered Mediterranean city, the market forces privileged the creation of entertainment zones and we saw phenomena of arbitrary and ruthless commercialization by unrestrained private developers, instead of the creation of well-planned residential areas for the middle classes. The displacement of local inhabitants appeared as a clear trend[1], but in the long run it did not prove particularly advantageous for the upper middle class and their aspirations; instead, it created profits for short-term speculators and especially, the owners of nightspots and black economy enterprises.”[2]

At first the workshop progressed happily, with its very mixed group of participants from design, architectural and arts backgrounds–some experienced practitioners and some post-graduate students. Multiple and complex narratives were recorded in audio-visual form, sourced from all the disparate social groups in the neighbourhood, who were photographed and interviewed after giving consent. It was only during the final stage of the project when QR code stickers featuring video story characters were posted up in the neighbourhood south of the metro, that one elderly Greek’s wife objected vociferously to his image being made public and forcibly made a citizen’s arrest on a participating filmmaker! This was in spite of the subject having given consent. It revealed a deep well of suspicion and anger and a community closed against outsider interventions, no matter however well-intentioned. Although an isolated incident in an otherwise successful project, it showed how close to the surface hurt and suspicion exists in these challenged and displaced traditional communities.

However, the population composition in Metaxourgio is still rather mixed. Old residents with a working class background reside in the antiparohi buildings next to immigrants. The members of the Roma minority live in the low-rise, not well maintained buildings, while the high class gentrifiers renovate architecturally interesting buildings. The bohemian gentrifiers either live in apartments next to immigrants and old residents, or in the well-maintained picturesque housing stock. The Chinese community has developed and many Chinese shops have opened in the area, mainly specializing on clothing trade, designating parts of the area as the Chinatown of Athens, while many Arabic delis and restaurants are in close proximity.[3] It is a striking feature of the area that the playground of affluent young Athenians, lies cheek by jowl with successive immigrant waves and the traditional white Greek remnants.


[1] The majority of the Christian community consists of elderly people, who claim that most of their friends and former neighbours have left the area because they could not tolerate the loud noise from clubs during the night hours

[2] Tzirtzilaki,Eleni (2011) Athens : A Mapping of Contrasts Greek Left Review <http://greekleftreview.wordpress.com/2011/01/12/athens-social-ecology-and-territorial-justice/>

  [3] ibid

[4] “The History of Gazi – Athens.”  PlacesOnLine – World Travel Guide, Tourist Information, Hotel, Travel and Vacations. <http://www.placesonline.com/europe/greece/athens/landmarks_and_historic_sites/the_history_of_gazi.asp>.Web. 10 Apr. 2011. >

[5] Alexandri, Georgia, THE GAS DISCTRICT GENTRIFICATION STORY thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirement for the degree of Master of Science in Sustainability, Planning and Environmental Policy

[6] ibid

[7] Crandell, Jordan Operational Media, CTheory 1/6/2005<c theory.net> accessed 21/11/11

It is not surprising that Athens has recently become the focus of resistance to the imposition of draconian neo-liberal disciplines on its economy and that it remains the flashpoint for any future European economic crisis and the space where the contradictions of the market and its effects on the contemporary city appear in their acutest form. The uses of Digital technology can highlight, augment and interpret these contradictions, giving voice to the dispossessed, though ultimately their solution remains a political one.

While media arts using locative tools have naturally tended towards urban environments and been drawn from either game or Situationist orientations, I am more concerned to develop a theory and practice of situated and embodied arts related to a broader spectrum of ambulant practice, referencing backwards to the earlier art forms, but making use of the new digital affordances. What I think we could postulate now is that there exist two domains of locative practice-the “digital tame” of social media, online consumer culture and most digital arts, and the “wild” where addressing critical conditions in the “real” world – poverty, disempowerment and engaged locatedness– have yet to find a meaningful voice in pervasive digital media. The two projects may have had a flawed documentary methodology, given the imperatives of time and their combined artistic direction, but they were genuine attempts to document and present local voices in as unfiltered a way as was possible.

Gazi in particular gave rise to resonant examples of inner city migrant lives. One boy found pushing a supermarket trolley filled with scrap was literally marooned. His father had died in India the week before. He had no passport, home, relatives or other means to earn his living. His narrative contrasts cruelly with typically upbeat travel guide information:

In recent years the Gazi has been repaired, restored and re-established as an entertainment district due to its proximity within the center of Athens.  This transformation has brought an influx of art exhibits, musical festivals, and numerous bars and restaurants to the area.  Gazi is home to the Technopolis which is a 30,000 square meter industrial museum of modern architecture that plays host to many different kinds of exhibitions throughout the year.  In the past ten years, Gazi has also become the gay village of Athens which was formerly located in Kolonaki and Syngrou Avenue.  Gazi is an up and coming neighborhood that continues to grow in population as the area continues to be reformed and new more expensive housing is built.[4] The history is further complicated by a complex clash of immigration policies. In the 1970s Muslims were seen as a source of cheap Labour,

During the 1970s the governing dictatorship decided to employ Muslims from Northern Greece to the Gas factory. These were the first Muslims to reside in the area; they rented abandoned houses, whose landlords had left the area. However, the existence of an ethnic minority led to further outward migration of the local population. Additionally, during the 1980s the social- democrat party (PASOK), which was in power, offered ethnic minorities the opportunity to work for the public sector. Hence, many Greek Muslims migrated to Athens, and rented abandoned buildings in the Gas neighbourhood, in order to gain proximity to the existing Muslim community.[5] Whereas in the 2000s Greece became a soft entry point for migrants and asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Iraq, whose right to entry in the EU led to Greece being used as a catchment with no exit and no government aid.

“Above all, immigration has played a determining role in the transformation of the city centre. Initially, internal migrants arrived looking for shelter and set up their coffee shops, groceries and associations. They gathered in and around Omonoia Square, met their kin and with other members of their social group to subsequently disperse around the city. After 1990, there are new arrivals. These are displaced urban nomads who had been moving around in emergency conditions. They start arriving from different locations. Due to its geography, the city of Athens was to become one of the main entrances of migrants directed towards Europe. Once more, we see the creation of gathering places, coffee shops and groceries, restaurants, Internet points and phone call centres. By contrast, there is still no official reception policy for immigrants and asylum seekers. All they are faced with is a system of brutal arbitrariness.”[6]

A technocratic imposition of austerity has been imposed on Greece, ignoring the democratic call of the now deposed Papandreou for a referendum on further austerity measures, which, no matter how calculated his call, laid bare the nature of the EU project and its real imperatives. The stories collected during the two projects are a snapshot of a country whose basic systems are breaking down, where dysfunctionality and resistance are the emerging urban behaviours in a broad swathe of the public.

As Jordan Crandell speaks of the new ‘computational culture’, described as “a machine-aided process of disciplinary attentiveness, embodied in practice, that is bound up within the demands of a new production and security regime.”

The challenge in this Brave New World

“ … is not only to endeavour to understand this operational construct, but to understand the forms of opposition to it that are emerging in the globalized world. For the operational is only one “window” onto reality. There are other orientations that counter it, and for which, by its very nature, it is unable to account. It is powerless to envision terms of engagement that do not operate according to its logics. It can only assign them to the realm of the barbaric or irrational: that which lies outside of its license on reason.”[7]