The Curious Case of Actors Arrested on Stage in Athens’ Theater of the Absurd
“ACTORS ARRESTED WHILE REHEARSING,” was the headline in a number of Athenian newspapers on the last day of September 2013. The articles reported that the arrests had taken place in a derelict theater, known as EMPROS, and that the two men were charged with having “violated state seals, disturbed the peace, and repeatedly occupied a public building.” In the greater context of the catastrophe that has befallen Greece in recent times, this sounds like a quaint, inconsequential incident. Yet, in our time of crisis, large truths and great ironies reside in the smallest perturbation, under the tiniest of undulations. The arrest of these two actors offers the patient observer important insights into the heart, soul, and bottom line of today’s Greece.
A BELATED LA DOLCE VITA
Greece had its La Dolce Vita moment decades after Italy. By the time it arrived, in the 1990s, an aesthetic akin to that captured in Fellini’s classic movie had been rendered impossible by the intervening triumph of a Berlusconi-esque ‘lifestyle’ culture.
Unlike Italy, where the post-war clash between the partisans and the fascist forces fizzled out into a murky political struggle, in Greece a similar wartime conflict evolved into a vicious civil war that never really ended until the 1980s. 1 So, while Federico Fellini was training his camera on Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni, casting an ironic eye on the birth of a southern European version of what John Kenneth Galbraith had described as The Affluent Society 2, Greeks were bracing themselves for the machinations that would lead to the 1967 neo-fascist coup d’état. The combination of the long-lasting ill effects of the devastating civil war and the ongoing political repression kept the lid on any expansion of the ‘landscapes of pleasure’ that even the petit-bourgeoisie could aspire to elsewhere in Western Europe. Only when the veil of civil war had been fully lifted, some time after 1980, did the possibility of mass indulgence arrive—even though it would not blossom fully until after the recession of the early 1990s was over.
The global recession of 1989–1993 dampened spirits considerably and further delayed Greece’s La Dolce Vita moment. Nevertheless, 1989 was not just the beginning of a recession. It was also the year the Greek state broadcaster’s monopoly ended abruptly and a plethora of channels sprang out of nowhere. 3 Athens alone found itself bombarded by fifty television channels and seventy radio stations to choose from. Paradoxically, the greatest loser from this media explosion was diversity. Economists have a theorem that claims to demonstrate how ice cream vendors will converge at a beach’s central point, rather than spread out and concentrate on different segments of the beach market. 4 The theorem seems to have been confirmed in the experience of the Greek private media after 1989: almost all the television channels converged to a ‘mid-point’ of mindless Berlusconi-inspired, lifestyle-crazed, aesthetically preposterous shows!
Once the global economy shifted gear, after 1993, and the re-elected socialist government made progress in putting Greece on the ‘glide path’ to Europe’s monetary union, our roaring 1990s were well and truly under way. By 1997, it had become clear that we would be allowed into the Eurozone. Interest rates tumbled (from the heights of 20 percent to a measly 3 percent) and the purse strings were loosened. Our version of La Dolce Vita, regrettably without Fellini’s irony to keep a watchful eye upon it, could no longer to be denied. Fuelled by newfangled credit lines, credit cards, rising stock prices, the ubiquitous real estate boom, as well as by a healthy dose of irrational exuberance imported mainly from the world’s financial centers, certain areas in downtown Athens’ turned into places of nightly pilgrimage.
Psyrri is a formerly petit-bourgeois residential suburb that had fallen on hard times and had turned, by the 1970s, into the domain of various small businesses, workshops, and cottage industries, with very few residents remaining. In the late 1990s it transformed once again as the ground floors of the buildings housing the workers and their machines were rented out to restaurateurs, club owners, and to anyone with a cool idea for some new hangout. The fact that the Acropolis is visible from almost everywhere in Psyrri, taken together with the radical absence of complaining residents, explains the meteoric rise of the area as a prime entertainment district.
During the day, Psyrri was teaming with machinists, printers, button-makers, carpenters. Once the sun set over the overlooking Mont Parnes, a ‘change of guard’ transformed Psyrri into the Athenians’ playground. The narrow streets and the tiny piazzas would suddenly be strewn with tables, the air would become thick with a blend of live and canned music, hordes would swarm around seeking the newest and coolest bar, or would just walk around (like “unjust curses,” to coin a Greek saying) soaking up the atmosphere. It seemed as if the lifestyle on our television sets had found a mirror image on the streets of Psirri to reflect upon, to grow stronger, more real.
Soon, alongside that dual, time-sharing community, of morning workers and nighttime revelers, three more ‘tribes’ claimed Psyrri as their own. Paperless migrants (who were also attracted by the suburb’s central location and lack of whining residents), drug dealers (magnetized by prospective customers drawn to the area by low-capacity drug rehabilitation centers), and, lastly, a small but sturdy band of artists, anarcho-syndicalists, and assorted ‘utopians’ who thought that Psyrri offered a sanctuary from the nearby suburbs populated by people who, unlike themselves, wanted to be part of the rat race. Finally, for a brief moment, a fourth tribe appeared on the scene: well-to-do professionals (including art gallerists, architects, fashion designers, etc.) moved their offices and businesses to Psyrri thinking that its gentrification was a matter of time and enticed by the much lower real estate prices, compared to the nearby pricey suburbs, like Kolonaki, that they had moved from.
Meanwhile, the ‘utopians’, who had established their hangouts well before the onslaught of bars, clubs, lifestyle, young professionals, and the drug trade hit Psyrri, were discomfited by the increasing commodification of the area. The rising rents, the uppity architects, and the sad sight of migrants being co-opted into the drug trade irked them. Nonetheless, a tense truce broke out between these groups, with the ‘utopians’ content to live during the day in the open and to recoil at night (as the usual hordes of invaders arrived) inside their individual pens and shared haunts.
Central to Psyrri’s human geography was a listed building that, once upon a time, housed the printing presses of EMPROS (which translates to “Forwards”); a noteworthy newspaper set up in 1933 that is now long gone (it produced its last issue in 1985) and virtually forgotten. In 1989, after the state had taken over the title deeds to the building, listing it in the process as a significant specimen of industrial architecture, the property was leased to a theater troupe, Morfes (or Forms), which turned it into its home. “Empros Theatre” was thus created and served as an important drama hub, until the final curtain descended in 2007.
For five years EMPROS was vacant, falling prey to the pitiless vagaries of time. I recall sighing every time I caught a glimpse of its deteriorating façade on my way to our vitalspace.org offices nearby. Along with hundreds, if not thousands, of buildings owned by the state in the greater Athens area, EMPROS was sitting empty, decaying; a silent and depressing bystander in the midst of the daily bustle of the surrounding small businesses, the drug trade, and the nightly explosion of lights, music, and indifferent humans.
Then came Greece’s implosion in 2010. By the autumn of 2011, austerity had evolved into depression, both of the economic and the psychological varieties. Each of the two ‘shifts’ were affected severely. The daytime ‘crew’ suffered as orders for buttons, furniture, ornaments, metallic assemblies, carpets, etc., dwindled, like everything else has dwindled across the breadth and width of Greece’s recessionary social economy. Meanwhile, after each sunset, the daily gloom took its toll on the Athenians’ propensity to let their hair down in Psyrri, or elsewhere for that matter. While many clubs, bars, and restaurants kept their doors open, and Saturday nights remained alive with the familiar ‘soundtrack’ of Psyrri nightlife, it was all a shadow of its former self.
On the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 2011, a group of artists, architects, and local residents issued a statement announcing their determination to occupy the vacant EMPROS space and to re-energize it as the “Free, Self-Managed, EMRPOS Theater.” It was the result of an interesting coalescence between the Psyrri ‘utopians’, who had never harbored an interest in joining the artistic mainstream, locals who recognized an opportunity to reclaim their neighborhood, and artists, architects, musicians, actors, directors, etc., who had been part of the mainstream but who had, suddenly, found themselves virtually (and metaphorically) on the street—once the troupes, galleries, orchestras, architectural offices, etc., that were employing them before the ‘catastrophe’ had gone bankrupt.
Over the following ten days, EMPROS came alive like never before. From morning to well after midnight, a full program of meetings, concerts, and plays kept the building booming with argument, music, and theater. These splendid ten days in EMPROS’ history did not vanish into thin air. For a whole year, more than 500 Greek and foreign artists, activists, academics, and musicians appeared in EMPROS and interacted with the most diverse audience a city can muster. No one paid a cent, except for voluntary contributions deposited in a box by the auditorium’s entrance, and everyone claimed to have been enriched by the experience.
The state eventually responded to the defiance of its property rights predictably. A bailiff appeared, under police protection, to seal the building and end the occupation. Even more predictably, this move had the opposite effect to what the authorities had intended: it gave rise to an even larger coalition whose purpose was to defend the “Free, Self-Managed EMPROS” from the encroachments of a hitherto absent state. Institutionally, the bailiff’s attempt to seal EMPROS resulted in the formation of an open assembly that spends countless hours debating even the most trivial of aspects of EMRPOS’ management. As the May ‘68 generation remembers well, the price for self-managed democracy is countless hours of nitpicking, debating, and getting seriously bored. But then again, it may be, as Churchill once intimated, better than all of the existing alternatives.
What had happened to trigger the state’s interest? ‘Greece’s Bailout terms’, is the three-word answer. Put simply, in an attempt to reduce the loans that were to be extended by Greece’s creditors to the bankrupt Greek state, so that the latter might repay its… creditors, the Bailout agreement specified that €50 billion should be raised through the privatization of state property. This number, €50 billion, was simply pulled out of a hat, baring no connection to any proper market valuation. In any case, even if the Greek state’s sellable properties had once upon a time a market valuation of €50 billion, after the bottom fell out of the real estate market and the stock exchange (due to the most savage recession in world history), by 2011 these properties were next to worthless.
Regardless, the government felt intense pressure from its creditors to pretend to be in the process of selling off these assets, so as not to be found in breach of its obligations. To allow a building, like EMPROS, simply to be taken over by a gaggle of artists and musicians, under the glare of television cameras (that had taken a Europe-wide interest in the EMPROS phenomenon), was to be seen as being insufficiently motivated to proceed with its privatization commitments.
By September 2013, the title deeds to EMRPOS were transferred from the state’s property management office to TAIPED: a specially created public organization whose stated purpose was to amass the title deeds of all properties for sale before auctioning them off and using the proceeds to repay the Greek government’s eager creditors. Unlike the docile, sleepy, public property management office that had controlled EMRPOS until then, TAIPED was fashioned in the image of a Rottweiler ready and willing to pounce upon any usurper of our creditors’ property rights.
The writing was thus on the wall. In the same month, September 2013, TAIPED had EMRPOS sealed once more. The difference was that, this time, when the occupiers broke the seal, TAIPED had the police raid the building with an order to arrest anyone found within and to charge them not merely with trespassing but, legally far worse, with having violated the “seals of the state commissioners”—even if those arrested were not the same people who had broken the ‘seals’ the previous night.
As for the fact that no investor was ever interested in spending real money to buy EMRPOS from TAIPED in its present state (listed and decrepit as it is), it was entirely beside the point. In the Greek sector of Bailoutistan, money and real economic arguments are irrelevant and only masks and shadows count; only not the masks and shadows of creative theater but, rather, those that rule the roost in the European Commission, in the European Central Bank, in the corridors where our clueless rulers imagine they have real power.
In short, the backlash that led to the arrest of the two actors on the EMPROS stage last September was all about pretense. How very apt in view of the actual setting that the forces of state repression chose to exercise themselves on!