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.