DR ATHENA HADJI

GRAFFITI AND STREET ART AS A PHENOMENON AND CONSEQUENCE OF URBAN CRISIS: THE CASE OF ATHENS
INDEPENDENT SCHOLAR FELLOW: JUNE 2018 – MAY 2019

Dr. Athena Hadji is an academic (B.A., University of Athens, M.A. and Ph.D., UC Berkeley), contemporary art curator and a published and award-nominated author. She has taught Archaeology, Anthropology and History of Art in Greece and beyond for over a decade. Currently, she is working toward a contemporary art group show that will air in the Fall 2018. As an academic, she is the recipient of prestigious fellowships and awards from the Fulbright Foundation and the Alexander S. Onassis Foundation, among others. As a curator she was selected for the NEON/ Whitechapel Gallery Curator Exchange Program, also her Summer 2017 contemporary art show was granted a NEON exhibition fund. As an author she has been shortlisted for two national awards and was granted a literary award from the Municipality of Rhodes for her latest novel The Sea Fled. She has collaborated with many cultural institutions and organizations. She has accepted invitations to lecture at selected institutions internationally. Dr. Hadji publishes extensively on art, archaeology, anthropology and beyond. She is co-editor of Space and Time in Mediterranean Prehistory (Routledge, 2013). Her most recent interdisciplinary contribution, linking Early Cycladic Art and the neurosciences appeared at Quaternary International in 2016. Her fiction works include three published novels, short stories and literary criticism articles.

The proposed project is a thorough critical presentation and in-depth analysis of the contemporary street art scene in Athens, Greece, combining the methodology and insights of art history and (urban) anthropology. My interest in the project sprang from a long-term theoretical involvement in the everyday – mundane – practices, whether in prehistory (as part of my archaeological research agenda) or contemporary life and culture (as part of my anthropology teaching and research). The current situation in Greece, especially Athens, amidst a financial crisis that spread across the south of Europe (from Spain to Cyprus), but struck Greece especially hard in the past decade or so, is ripe for a comprehensive and balanced anthropological inquiry into the politics of the present – as well as past political stances, not solely official politics, but also, mostly, the political (under)currents that mandate the average citizen’s stance and attitude. Nowadays, more than ever, the necessity for a reconsideration of our relationship with the city emerges in its urgency. Athenian graffiti and street art until recently lugged behind developments in the international metropolises (Berlin, New York, London). However, during the past few years, the so-called “crisis years”, admittedly a time of widespread degradation, abandonment and desertification of the city, street art has emerged as a fertile power of expression with political, social, and romantic axes. Graffiti artists and writers, as active members and agents of the urban space, echo the heartbeat of a city that insists on living and holds on to its right to live in ways sometimes spasmodic, but always deeply human.

Abstract

The proposed project is a thorough critical presentation and in-depth analysis of the contemporary street art scene in Athens, Greece, combining the methodology and insights of art history and (urban) anthropology. Politics plays a crucial part in the bloom of an otherwise underground endeavor that has, however, come into the mainstream as of late. My interest in the project sprang from a long-term theoretical involvement in the everyday – mundane – practices, whether in prehistory (as part of my archaeological research agenda) or contemporary life and culture (as part of my anthropology teaching and research). The current situation in Greece, especially Athens, amidst a financial crisis that spread across the south of Europe (from Spain to Cyprus), but struck Greece especially hard in the past decade or so, is ripe for a comprehensive and balanced anthropological inquiry into the politics of the present – as well as past political stances, not solely official politics, but also, mostly, the political (under)currents that mandate the average citizen’s stance and attitude. Nowadays, more than ever, the necessity for a reconsideration of our relationship with the city emerges in its urgency. Athenian graffiti and street art until recently lugged behind developments in the international metropolises (Berlin, New York, London). However, during the past few years, the so-called “crisis years”, admittedly a time of widespread degradation, abandonment and desertification of the city, street art has emerged as a fertile power of expression with political, social, and romantic axes. Graffiti artists and writers, as active members and agents of the urban space, echo the heartbeat of a city that insists on living and holds on to its right to live in ways sometimes spasmodic, but always deeply human.

The Research Idea

Art is usually considered in isolation, as an axiomatically elevated category among human endeavors. This is the justification for the discipline of History of Art. On the other hand, anthropology studies all aspects of communal human life in an endeavor to decipher norms, patterns and – in the 21st century – understand what it is that makes us distinctly human but also what can be done to prevent a downfall that sometimes feels inevitable nowadays (climate change, xenophobia, extremism in theory or in action). The proposed project brings together the two disciplines, employing the anthropological method of inquiry to study a mostly spontaneous, peculiar genre that has as of late partly entered the corpus of official Art History: graffiti and street art. We tend to restrict the use and study of symbols and symbolic manifestations of human life to the “Other” and forget at times that we too are beings living lives imbued in symbolism and acts thereof. It is especially welcoming to witness distinct disciplines converging toward the common goal of understanding the urban condition in a coherent inclusive way. For this approach, I especially espouse the phenomenology-derived «dwelling perspective» that anthropologist Tim Ingold advocates as a dynamic model for the study of the built environment, in direct opposition to the static “building perspective”. The world is at a turning point and the urban is at the epicenter of it. The study of graffiti and street art can indicate directions for future reference.

Background

Graffiti and street art have a long history, starting from scribbling on immobile surfaces (walls) or more frequently mobile objects (ceramic sherds) already in antiquity. The term itself, in its present understanding, originates from the 19th century, coined to denote these scribbles upon the walls of then newly-rediscovered and systematically studied for the first time Roman site of Pompeii. Modern graffiti appeared in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the East Coast of the USA (especially Philadelphia, followed by New York), and quickly spread in Europe. Since, it has emerged as an independent, illegal, albeit legitimate art genre and has found its way into art books, gallery exhibitions, auction houses and collectors’ possessions (the work of British artist Banksy is the most well-known case). However, perhaps due to the obscurity surrounding the legal aspect of the practice and premise of street art, academic attention was only recently drawn to it. Very few scholarly books deal with the art of graffiti, most having emerged in the past, none in the manner proposed here. There exists an impressive list of books on the subject. However, a more careful look reveals that for the most part, their focus is narrow, either thematically (i.e. how to…, focusing on technical matters and aimed at practitioners of street art), or geographically (i.e. New York graffiti), or by genre (i.e. stencil or tags or yarn art), or artist (i.e. Banksy). What they all share is a rather descriptive approach, which limits their scope greatly.

The Focus

Vanity lies in the heart of artistic intention, the artists craving to be seen and shown in an urban condition of collective anonymities. The proliferation of graffiti and street art renders a par excellence competitive community even more so. In the past few years, Athens has emerged as a global trendsetter in street art, whereas until recently it only sporadically showed signs of awareness of the international graffiti scene. This brought about a greater acceptance of the practice and reality of walls as fields of urban narratives but also a liberty in the application of graffiti and art compositions alike anywhere in the city and has generated a dialogue, sometimes debate on the artistic merit and/ or vandalism aspect of graffiti and street art. As far as the ensuing crisis is concerned, the financial aspects have been way overstressed to the expense of the ethical, cultural and aesthetic dimensions – where aesthetics is derived from ethics, in a Platonic view of human nature. The study of graffiti and street art is a hitherto unutilized tool for approaching real-life problems, such as aggression, poverty, isolation, substance abuse, violence, alienation, xenophobia, polarization, to name but a few. Besides the kind of formal knowledge we produce and provide to our students of architecture anthropology, art and archaeology about the city and the urban condition, there is another kind of knowledge; the kind that is inferred from living in the city and experiencing the (built) environment as a multisensory enterprise with a multifaceted meaning.

Theoretical Novelty

The interdisciplinary scope of the project is quite unique, as it draws equally from two distinct, albeit converging fields of academic inquiry: on the one hand, it utilizes the methods, approach and language of the visual arts and visual studies fields, drawing from the methodological toolkit of Art History, i.e. creating an iconography of contemporary Athenian street art as well as a taxonomy thereof. On the other hand, it relies heavily upon an anthropological analysis of street art , exploring its integration into the urban fabric, its socio-cultural implications and the response(s) it generates. Street art is examined, studied, analyzed and presented as a collective and powerful means of navigating through and negotiating with the urban condition amidst rapidly changing financial, social, political and above all cultural circumstances. The project delves into the mechanisms of the social memory of space, in order to unravel the kind(s) of knowledge that occurs as a result of the use and abuse of architecture, especially iconic urban architecture. According to Pierre Nora, “we speak so much of memory, because there is so little of it left”. As an inscription and processing device of information, memory is vital for the evolution of the individual and in its collective form, the making of history and the establishment of the authority that is the past within communities. Street art is usually connected with the ephemeral due to its fleeting nature; in a methodological twist, it will be studied as a means for the preservation of (collective) memory.

Methodology

The study of Athenian graffiti is a project I have been developing in the past five years. It involves personal inspection and photographing of original works of street art (at present, my photographic archive comprises more than 2,000 photos); interviews with identifiable eponymous artists; the creation of a taxonomic system for the typological classification of the works, and the integration of Athenian graffiti and street art in its broader socio-cultural and political context. Due to the fleeting and ephemeral nature of street art, I deem it of crucial importance to preserve the image first and foremost. Also, I am keenly interested in outreach and this project, I am hoping, will make Athenian street art more accessible to a wider public in the long term, in relation to urban space and issues of freedom of expression, principles of democracy, vandalism, urban violence and the subdued (or not so subdued) politics of the mundane, among others.

Overall, I hold that my interdisciplinary graduate training and subsequent long-term involvement with teaching and research into the humanities and social sciences enable me to successfully conceive, pursue and complete original, innovative, methodologically rigorous and theoretically substantiated projects, as evidenced by the recently published Space and Time volume I co-edited (Routledge 2013); the contemporary art group show I devised and curated and the accompanying catalog (THE BODY IS VICTORY AND DEFEAT OF DREAMS, 2017); last but not least, the diversity of scope as evidenced by my teaching and publication subjects.

Work Plan

The work will be organized as follows:

  1. selection of images from my extensive personal archive of street art and graffiti images. Copyright is not an issue (according to Greek law 4481/2017), due to the nature of the artworks studied and photographed.
  2. division of material into chapters (please note that most of bibliographic research has been completed) and write-up as follows:

Chapter 1: Introduction
In the introductory chapter, the raison d’être of the book is presented in detail.

Chapter 2: Historical overview –general (Part I: antiquity, Part II: modern)
The long history of the practice of graffiti, mostly unknown to most practitioners/ students of modern graffiti and street art.

Chapter 3: The evolution of graffiti in Greece.

Chapter 4: Contemporary Athenian graffiti.
The taxonomy and art historical analysis of Athenian graffiti.

Chapter 5: The anthropology of Athenian graffiti and street art.
Discussion of urban life and topography in association with graffiti and street art as a means of inscribing space. Theoretically, the chapter is informed by Anthropology of Space and, among others, relates issues of memory, landscape, utopia, and monumentality with graffiti and street art.

Chapter 6: responses
Responses to Athenian graffiti range from vandalism of works to appropriation by public and private institutions. Specific case studies are presented and examined critically.

Chapter 7: conclusions, where do we go from here?

NOTE: in the ensuing time between submission of this application and announcement of results, I will draft a book proposal and submit to my publisher, Routledge, for consideration.

Outcome

The proposed project has been tested in diverse audiences since 2013, from outreach seminars (URBANDALISM), to (keynote) lectures in international conferences (2013, 2014, 2015), with enthusiastic response. The project primarily targets an audience of art historians and anthropologists, especially those working with contemporary urban cultures; street art theorists; street artists; also, academics, students, artists, designers, architects, professionals in creative industries (film-making, set designers, authors, visual artists, photographers), and residents of contemporary urban places.

In a longer-term perspective, the urban sprawls are evident worldwide and projections for the immediate future included numbers of people unheard of until recently who will inhabit a single city of the kind denoted by Doxiadis as ‘ecumenopolis’. In relation to the ‘crisis-scape’ that has drastically shaped our views of our socio-cultural milieu, a new unnamed thus far, albeit not unseen, conflict emerges. Thus, in a landscape of financial, ethical, social and cultural crisis the issue at stake is how we can protect the city and its inhabitants under these rapidly changing circumstances. Medical research has shown that unloved, untouched neglected human bodies become bodies of ailment. In a direct analogy, cities neglected become ailing aching bodies. The wounded city as a resilient body is an avenue ripe for exploration. Amidst shifts – paradigm, institutional, population, climate and otherwise, education can and must act as a bulwark to the advent of the a-historical, the obliteration of memory, and the exile of the past to the land of myth. This, then, is the contribution I hope to make.