Displacement and the creation of emplaced activism: Public interventions on the walls of a European border city
━━━━━━━━━ Pafsanias Karathanasis and Konstantina Kapsali
Recommended citation: Karathanasis, P., and Kapsali, K. (2018). ‘Displacement and the creation of emplaced activism: Public interventions on the walls of a European border city’, entanglements, 1(2): 52-61.
Slogans, stencils and other unauthorized interventions in public space are the results of a spatial but also a visual practice, which is common in activist cultures, especially in urban settings. Such interventions express, on the one hand, the activist presence on the island and, on the other, they are representative of the sociopolitical and spatial context in which they are produced, and in which they are viewed and experienced by the public.
Using video to approach the activist public interventions on the walls of Mytilene gives us the opportunity to produce a rich audio-visual account of those ephemeral add-ons on the public walls, but also, an account of the landscapes in which they appear. By producing a record of those ephemeral interventions, some of which might already be whitewashed, we contribute to a documentation of the activity on the walls and other surfaces of the city that relates to the so called ‘refugee and migration crisis’, as well as of the resistance to the ‘hotspot’ technologies of the humanitarian governance. Moreover, video offers a way to record and present those interventions in relation with the landscapes in which they appear. We argue that every writing, slogan or stencil is always in-place, or, in other words, that each of these interventions acquire their meaning always in relation with their urban environment.
Urban landscapes, however, are not simply ‘clean’ surfaces where those interventions appear. Landscapes interact and shape the ways in which those writings act on the everydayness of the city and affect the sociopolitical relations formed within the city. Thus, through a video-presentation we do not only approach the spatial and visual practice of activist public intervention by presenting some of its results on the walls of the city, but we also turn to the mutual interrelation between those writings and the complex sensorial and sociopolitical cityscape of Mytilene.
Image 1: Half erased writing at the center of Mytilene that reads “Fuck Frontex”. The ‘cleaning’ of the results of the activist presence on the capital of Lesvos is a practice that the authorities use in order to promote the idea that the ‘Refugee Crisis’ is over and the city is back to the pre-crisis normality.
Image 2: The same half erased writing, as above. Here we present a view of the writing in-place; a view that includes the landscape in which the writing appears: at a wall of a central park, located next to the Municipal Theater at the sea-front of Mytilene, an area where the writing is viewed by hundreds of people every day.
Displacement and the “Refugee and Migration Crisis” in Lesvos
Displacement is a process that affects the places of departure as well as the places of arrival. One such place of arrival has been the island of Lesvos in the northeast Aegean Sea. During the recent “Refugee Crisis” the eastern Aegean Sea, as a border of the E.U., confronted massive flaws of displaced people. From summer 2015 to spring 2016, hundreds of thousands of displaced people crossed the Aegean on their way to central Europe, causing an emergency situation that Europe had not seen since the Second World War. Lesvos was placed at the center of this influx, and thus at the center of the emergency.
The urgency caused by the massive influx to Lesvos, led to the arrival of different actors: State agencies and European authorities, like Frontex – the E.U. border control agency, inter-governmental organizations, like UNHCR and International Organization for Migration, several international and local NGOs as well as, activists, and volunteers. All these actors played a vital role in the reception of the displaced, forming, on the one hand, official and unofficial support networks and, on the other, new technologies of border security and humanitarian governance.
During the last three years, the island of Lesvos has become a field where the ‘hotspot’ technologies of migration management have been tested out and a new deportation regime has been set up. This, however, had as a result the consequent rise of a resistance and support movement, based mainly in the capital of Mytilene.
Focusing on the slogans and the other unauthorized public interventions on the walls of the area within and around Mytilene, we address the transformations in the sensorial everydayness of the small city and the creation of a landscape of resistance and support.
Landscapes of resistance and support
Landscapes, as Barbara Bender argues:
are created out of people’s understanding and engagement with the world around them ‘the world out there’” (…) “They are not a record but a recording, and this recording is much more than a reflection of human agency and action; it is creative of them (Bender, 2002:103).
Made by local and international activists, but also by people on the move, often under the cover of the night, public unauthorized interventions express messages of support and they are public declarations of radical political agency and action. Transforming the landscape into a recording of displacement and resistance reflects the ways in which displaced people and radical activists understand and engage with the “world out there”. A world of militarized border control, refugee identification, reception and detention centers, and deportation regimes.
Emplaced activism and its traces on the walls
Unauthorized interventions on the landscape of Lesvos are the results of what we call emplaced activism. An activism born on this island out of the urgency of the current ‘crisis’, but also, emplaced here as a result of the interaction and collaboration between local and international activists, and those refugees and migrants who as ‘life seekers’ (Pallister-Wilkins, 2018:2) resist the ‘bare lives’ (Agamben, 1998) of the refugee camps and the hotspots. Writings on the walls, as traces of this activism, indicate different radicalized practices, such as hunger strikes, public protests and demonstrations in support of those to be imprisoned or deported, and occupations, both of buildings, to house people outside the hotspot, and of central public squares, to demonstrate the inhuman conditions of the Moria hotspot.
Following the geography of those unauthorized interventions, we move from the walls of the city center to the outskirts of the capital and finally around the area of the Moria refugee camp. Thus, on the walls of the lively city center, slogans and aestheticized stencils, made by international and local activists, communicate in Greek and English, political messages and demands to the locals and visitors who frequent the streets, the cafes and the market.
However, more than bearers of the messages themselves, those interventions are indexes of the presence of a radical movement. A movement against acts of racism and human rights violations, that uses its rough and aggressive aesthetics to transform the sensorial everydayness of a city in which the authorities seem to care only for returning to a before-crisis normality or to express xenophobic reflexes.
Once outside the city, on the way to the two official refugee camps, we observe writings on the walls of two abandoned industrial buildings, which were occupied by activists and asylum seekers between 2016 and 2017.
Half erased slogans on the walls of the now evicted occupations, act as a recording and a reminder of the collective, self-organized attempts for the creation of alternative residential and social spaces as well as spaces of resistance; resistance to the European fortress policy, to the ‘hotspot’ technologies of the humanitarian governance, to the NGO philanthropism, and to the private and public actors, who evict them from their property.
In contrast to the more aestheticized political interventions within the city, those on the outskirts seem as written declarations of the asylum seekers’ frustration towards all those actors.
Approaching the refugee camp in Moria, we encounter a welcoming note, which is revealing of the living conditions inside the largest Reception and Identification Center of Greece.
Escaping “prison Moria”, claiming “freedom of movement”, and resisting deportations have been major demands of the emplaced activism on the island; demands expressed in demonstrations or in, often, violent contestations and recorded as slogans on the public walls.
Image 10: A simple but very powerful writing on a wall at the center of Mytilene, that express the liminal and vulnerable condition in which the asylum seekers find themselves because of the ‘geographical restriction’ to the islands. This restriction is imposed by the Greek authorities (as a result of the EU-Turkey statement), to every asylum seeker on the Greek islands until the decision on their asylum application. During waiting for the decision, these people are technically within EU, but actually they are restricted in the 5 islands with Reception and Identification centers.
According to Greek and European authorities, the 2016 E.U-Turkey statement, and the consequent drop in the number of arrivals, signaled the end of the ‘Refugee Crisis’. However, Lesvos and the other Aegean islands with ‘Reception and Identification Centers’ –widely known as ‘hotspots’– became liminal territories for the people who reach their shores. According to the ‘geographical restriction’that was imposed as a result of the statement, the asylum seekers cannot leave the islands until they have an answer from the authorities on their applications – a process that can take more than a year. In this way, Lesvos became a liminalarea where people, while technically within the E.U., were not yet able to reach their desired destination; their desired new life. Stuck in-between the lives they left behind and those they can only imagine.
“Crisis” is not only defined by the number of arrivals or by the overcrowding of the camps. Whether it is called a ‘Refugee Crisis’ or a ‘Reception Crisis’, this is a view from-the-above; a dehumanizing view of the humanitarian governance technologies.
Antonio Gramsci, in his “Prison Notebooks” ( 2011:32-33), argues:
“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.“
Even if Gramsci refers to another crisis, that of the interwar period of the 20thcentury, his argument seems true for today as well. Europe seems to be in a prolonged crisis, in which the old is dying and the new has yet to be born. If displacement is among the results of this crisis, then border control technologies, surveillance, ‘hotspots’, detention centers and deportation regimes, surely are this crisis’ morbid symptoms.
We chose to present the visual traces of the resistance to these symptoms, arguing that they are not just words and images on walls, but they can potentially be signs of a collective political imaginary towards a world of solidarity.
 Post by ‘No Border Kitchen Lesvos’ (a grassroots activist initiative) on the eviction of the ‘old squat’ in an abandoned industrial building which is owned by Alpha Bank: https://noborderkitchenlesvos.noblogs.org/post/2017/04/29/no-yoga-in-the-police-station-evicton-of-old-squat-april-28th-2017/
 See more on the “geographical restriction” to the islands here: http://eumigrationlawblog.eu/implementation-of-the-eu-turkey-statement-eu-hotspots-and-restriction-of-asylum-seekers-freedom-of-movement/.
 Many argue that after the “Refugee Crisis” Greece has been in a “Reception Crisis”, because of the challenges that the Greek authorities face in many of the camps in Greece. See for example the August 2018 report by the organization Refugee Support Aegean on the situation at the camps in the Greek mainland: http://rsaegean.org/reception-crisis-in-greece/.
Agamben G. (1998). Homo Sacer. Il potere sovrano e la vita nuda. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen as Homo Sacer: sovereign power and bare life. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
Bender B. (2002). ‘Time and landscape’, Current Anthropology, Vol. 43, No. S4, Special Issue Repertoires of Timekeeping in Anthropology (August/October 2002): S103-S112. DOI: 10.1086/339561
Pallister-Wilkins P. (2018). ‘Hotspots and the geographies of humanitarianism’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 026377581875488. DOI: 10.1177/0263775818754884
Gramsci A. (2011).  Prison notebooks, volume II, notebook 3, ed. & trans. Joseph A. Buttigieg. Columbia: Columbia University Press.
Dr. Pafsanias Karathanasis is a social anthropologist. He has a BA in Social Anthropology (Panteio Univ. GR), an MA in Material & Visual Culture (UCL, UK) and a PhD (Univ. of the Aegean, GR). His main research interests include anthropology of space and place, visual culture and political anthropology and he is specifically interested in urban cultures, in political and cultural grassroots initiatives in urban settings and in contested landscapes in cities. He has done research in Athens and Nicosia, and he is the author of the book Stencil Graffiti in Athens. Between 2017-2018 he was the coordinator of the Observatory of the Refugee and Migration Crisis in the Aegean in Lesvos, and since 2016 he is in the organizing team of the Athens Ethnographic Film Festival – Ethnofest. ORCiD: 0000-0003-2889-3317
Konstantina Kapsali is an archaeologist. She has a BA in Archaeology (AUTH, GR), an MA in Heritage & Museum Studies (Leiden Univ. NL), and she is currently studying Documentary Film Production at a postgraduate level, in the Univ. of the Aegean in Lesvos. In 2016, she received a research grant by the Stichting Fonds Doctor Catharine van Tussenbroek institution, and in 2017 she participated at the “Visual Ethnography of Cityscapes” summer school, co-organized by the Netherlands Institute at Athens and the Athens Ethnographic Film Festival – Ethnofest. Her current research interests focus on filming methodologies in archaeological ethnography.