Archive | June, 2012

Polypolis Athens – a game to re-imagine the city

25 Jun

Polypolis Athens by Sarcha (school of architecture for all)

Saturday 23rd June, Jeremy Bentham Room, UCL

Polypolis Athens is ‘a mindset-shifting board game in the centre of Athens’. People are invited to sign up to one of the four roles – unemployed, investors, shop/small scale manufacturing owners, and land/property owners – and participate in the game where they will ‘enter into an agonising and agonistic struggle to reset the city’s human, physical and natural resources’. The crisis has transformed the urban fabric of Athens, in the game, we would have the opportunity to re-shape it in radical new ways from below.

I was fascinated to be transported to a corner of Athens to learn what was happening there and through drama, act out and discuss ways of reimagining and remaking this small space. It sounded like a great way to learn about, explore, and resist the economic crisis in a collective, interactive, and fun way. However, sadly, for various reasons, the game didn’t quite play out like this. Rather than shifting mindsets and radical ideas – the board game played out like a horrifying repeat of the status quo.

This was for two main reasons I think. Firstly, although the whole concept of a game in which people are supposed to discuss and debate the materiality of their city is pretty radical – the game’s structure and content contained problematic elements which perhaps encouraged the players to act/behave in certain ways. The man who was orchestrating the game set out the scene for us. This was a ‘troubled’ neighbourhood, with ‘problems’ such as drug addicts and the unemployed. We needed to find ways to deal with and overcome these problems. He went through the different sub-groups of the unemployed – ‘homeless, immigrants, drug addicts, skilled ex-employees’ and elaborated a little on each. When he reached drug addicts he simply said dismissively ‘well, they are defined by their activity’. Labelling people by one aspect of their identity does not seem a particularly good starting point from which to try and remake the urban environment.

 Clearly the area was being totally misrepresented, told from this distorted privileged, parochial middle class perspective, but this seemed to set the terms of the debate. One of the Guardians (Guardians were academics of political theory, architecture, and economics who could give advice to the players) did speak up shortly after this introduction pointing out that it had been given from middle class privilege and was condescending – but it seems his protests were in vain.

As well as the way in which the area was presented, the different ‘roles’ seemed to restrict people’s sense of possibilities. I guess the fact that we even had ‘investors’ and ‘land owners’ was part of making the game more realistic. But by being identified solely as a ‘drug addict’ or ‘immigrant’ led people to fall back onto prejudiced stereotypes. There was one particularly uncomfortable moment when the ‘unemployed’ were appealing to the ‘investors’ about how they really wanted to work. Perhaps complaining about the use of simplistic categories is unfair – surely it was up to us, the players, to interpret these as we wished. So, an investor could have given up this ‘job’ and decided to support organising amongst the immigrants for their rights.

This leads us onto the second main reason for the game unfolding as it did. Our lack of imagination and in some cases outright prejudice. Although the group of landowners were advocating organising into a cooperative this was the only hint of any sort of organising in a collective way in which ideas of private property and profit were challenged. This idea then got lost and we were back to appealing to investors, with token gestures about ‘helping’ the unemployed. One of the investors spoke of ‘rationing people in the area…we would like to ration the unemployed and drug addicts because they are the problem’. (It turns out that the man who said this is actually a developer in real life, his comments therefore reveal a lot about what development actually means). At this point, I turned to the person sitting next to me and remarked that this was social cleansing. Yet I could have done more. I wasn’t playing a main role as I’d signed up too late. I was relegated to the role of ‘observer’ and so I kept to this – observing, horrified, as Athens was remade in its neoliberal image. But there was nothing stopping me from contributing my opinion to the players.

My disappointment at how the game had played out was shared by the Guardians who gave feedback at the end. One academic remarked that they had omitted to talk about commonness, another that they hadn’t thought about particular ways in which they could use the space, and one summed it up wonderfully to the unemployed, ‘you allowed yourself to be compromised – it’s a game, you could have started squatting everywhere and had a revolution’. Precisely. The streets were ours, but beyond demarcating where we would ‘live’ and ‘work’ we failed to come up with much more. What about spaces for fun and leisure. What about our own food production. What about viewing the unemployed and drug addicts as people capable of doing things for themselves and others and not as some group set apart from society. What about holding space in common rather than allowing someone to extract profit from it. Instead of any of these, we simply replicated the exact conditions which caused the crisis in the first place. But fortunately this was just a game, maybe next time we play it, we’ll up the stakes. 

Sex ‘education’ in Barking and Dagenham and the demonization of young women

10 Jun

(correction to original post – I mistakenly thought that the second sex ed poster was an initiative of Barking and Dagenham council. It turns out that the theatre company ‘Chain Reaction‘ is responsible for the offending poster. ‘Chain Reaction’ receives its funding from the council and so I suspect that the council commissioned these posters and let Chain Reaction take the ‘credit’.)

Walking along a main road I looked up to see banners with flamingos on them hanging from a line of lampposts. On closer inspection it turned out these were mating flamingos with the text below it informing us

‘female flamingos stick their heads under water whilst mating. Whatever way you like doing it, make sure you use a condom’.

I’m no prude, I was just surprised at the sheer number of these posters – the street was pretty much filled with mating flamingos. But these feathery friends were delivering a fair enough point.

However, another poster around the corner on the high street was a lot more sinister. It depicted a young pregnant woman sitting on a bench looking very fed up with an estate in the background. Underneath the bench there were heaps of nappies and children’s toys and above the text informed us ‘condoms are free, babies aren’t’. There was just so much wrong with this. From playing on negative stereotypes of teenage mothers (see below for further discussion), to placing the responsibility of contraception wholly on young women, to determining the right to have children on wealth.

The poster wasn’t about informing young women about safe sex, it was encouraging the entire high street of Barking to judge this young woman for having a baby whilst being poor. It was about social control – young poor women shouldn’t have babies. It was hateful on young working class women.

I was absolutely horrified at the poster. I kept on staring at it in disbelief that such a thing existed. How is the council getting away with this? Rather than putting up posters demonising young women, they should be dealing with the real issues that the poster portrayed in a warped sort of way – such as poverty and the status of women.

Maybe she was sitting on the bench looking fed up because there are no parent and children services left in her borough from which she can receive support, because the grants for pregnant mothers were scrapped by David Cameron, and because the government will force her into low-paid work when her child is five rather than recognising her work as a mother. The local government is hacking away at services and is hoping to replace these with fostering judgement and hatred in the community. Young women are being failed and demonised.

You can make a complaint to the council about this advert here

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Nina Power’s book One Dimensional Woman reproduces an extract from an interview with Toni Morrison in Time magazine from twenty years ago. She offers a fantastic rebuttal to stereotypes of ‘unwed’ and teenage mothers and argues that rather than seeing them as the problem, it is the way in which we organise society. Here’s a short extract:

Q. You don’t feel that these girls will never know whether they could have been teachers or whatever?

A. They can be teachers. They can be brain surgeons. We have to help them become brain surgeons. That’s my job. I want to take them all in my arms and say, ‘your baby is beautiful and so are you and, honey, you can do it. And when you want to be a brain surgeon, call me – I will take care of your baby.’ That’s the attitude you have to have about human life. But we don’t want to pay for it.

I don’t think anybody cares about unwed mothers unless they’re black – or poor. The question is not morality, the question is money. That’s what we’re upset about. We don’t care whether they have babies or not.

Barking and Dagenham Against the Cuts First Meeting

10 Jun

I headed out to Barking yesterday afternoon to attend the first meeting of Barking and Dagenham Against the Cuts, which awesomely shortens down to BAD Cuts, to give a short talk about Boycott Workfare. They had organised an afternoon conference with talks from groups such as Keep Our NHS Public, Defend Council Housing, and the Coalition of Resistance. We then broke down into smaller groups in order to discuss jobs, benefits, pensions, health, housing, and multiculturalism in more depth and to generate ideas for local action.

I attended the session on housing and jobs, benefits, and pensions where we had some lively and inspiring discussions. It was a great opportunity to listen to people’s stories about the local area and the difficulties they are facing but also to come up with ideas together of how to resist the cuts. One woman described how it was becoming common for her to see families outside their homes with all their possessions having been evicted and that other families were living crammed into one room. Listening to stories like these really brings home the reality and horror of the cuts.

After both sessions we had generated a list of action points for local action. People seemed  genuinely interested in taking action against workfare in the local area – with workfare sleuthing and workfare walks of shame – which was great to hear. And it was empowering to have generated this list of things that we can do. Expect some activities in Barking and Dagenham soon and if you live there – get involved!

One man in particular had a moving story of how the cuts are personally affecting him – I won’t detail it all here as I didn’t get the chance to ask him if he’d mind me writing about him. He works at the local Remploy factory but his job is now under threat. He spoke of his fears of being unable to pay his rent and what he would do without his job. ‘There are no jobs out there, we’re being put on the scrap heap’. Our group came up with plans on how we can organise resistance to the closure. Keep checking BAD Cuts website and if you’re in London, get ready to hop on a train at Fenchurch street to Barking to help defend their factory!

Although the number attending the conference wasn’t too large, it’s exciting to see a new anti-cuts group form and come up with lots of action plans. No doubt, as the group hit the streets with various actions – the numbers will grow.