This text is written with doubt in my own sense of a situation, with confusion in the face of my local experiences of these events in relation to the larger dynamics at play and with the desire to confront my own doubt and confusion. This subject is one I might not have chosen to speak of but one that I have been asked to address, in the face of recent events. What follows is a series of anecdotes, of personal experiences that occurred around a particular location in Athens. As anecdotes have a limited scope simply marking personal encounters and thoughts, negotiations in the temporality of a here and now.
Throughout September I began this article many times and failed to find a way forward. I felt I had nothing new or interesting to offer. Then in late September I met Mohammed, who was coming from Afghanistan passing through Athens on his way to Germany. Born in 1992 Mohammed has two children and a wife that he left behind as he set off for this long journey.
I met Mohammed in Green Park, a building on the edges of the park Pedion tou Areos in Athens occupied by a group of cultural workers last June. The space hosted cultural events during June and July and then it was closed during August. During August and early September, the nearby Victoria Square was constantly populated by refugees hoping to depart Greece for Europe. The Square was not designated as a camp and so there were no facilities. Since Green Park was closed during August the semi-public garden outside it seemed apparently unused and therefore began to be used to meet the needs of the people in the square for a place to defecate. It became a toilet without sanitation facilities.
A conference under the title Institutions, Politics, Performance was planned to take place in Green Park from 24-28 September with theorists, artists and cultural workers from both Greece and abroad contributing to an extensive programme of talks, papers, performances, artworks and concerts. As we started to prepare for the event in mid September it became questionable whether that space in its current state was viable as a site for the conference.
How could the needs for the space as renegade cultural site ever be balanced against the needs for the site as a toilet for the refugees/migrants? The two conceptions of the space were simply incommensurate. As the limits of the space contested our intensions, we started to clean the garden. The small number of committed "volunteers" and the limited time available made our task seem pointless, even more so as more people came to use the garden as toilet while we were cleaning it. We tried to discuss the situation with those who came, pointlessly as we couldn't understand each other, and we couldn't offer them alternatives. The situation seemed like a 'hole in the water' to borrow a phrase artist Eirene Efstathiou coined during the conference when she spoke of artistic strategies in times of crisis. Late one afternoon a couple of days before the opening of the conference as we were cleaning the garden, a young man stood on the border of the garden seemingly unsure whether to step further. I/we looked at him and he looked at me/us. Or should that be the other way around? Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson offer the term "border as a method" and argue that "we understand method to emerge precisely from the material circumstances at hand, [...] [that] requires a research process that continually accounts for and reacts to the multifarious battles and negotiations, not least those concerning race, that constitute the border both as an institution and a set of social relationships".1
I started my little prepared speech about the garden and the lack of water or sanitation and that the space was in use and not abandoned as it had seemed and... He smiled. No other reaction. Standing on the border simply watching. We continued to work, he continued to watched. From time to time I looked towards him. He smiled back standing at the same place. At some point he crossed the border of the garden, came close and took the tool and began to shovel. He spoke no English, no Greek and we spoke no Afghan. Names could be exchanged. His name was Mohammed.
The small group of us and Mohammed cleaned together until it was dark. Mohammed showed me his 'paper of appearance' issued by the Greek state. A photo, name, date of birth. Place deported. He was born in 1992. He said he was leaving tomorrow for Macedonia on his way to Germany. We agreed on what it was possible to clean and what was not. He stopped from time to time to explain to toilet seekers why they shouldn't use this garden. I only picked out one word Afghan since he kept using it, Irani, that I thought it means refugee. At the end of the day we offered to pay him but he refused. We insisted on paying him something. He refused again. We all looked at the garden and how little impact we had made. We prepared to leave. Mohammed seemed to indicate he would come again tomorrow. Perhaps we had misunderstood his departure timings or perhaps he changed his plans. Mohammed turned up the next morning and cleaned with two other dedicated comrades.