SITES OF CONVULSION
As an autonomous collaborative platform that fosters critical examination of hospitality and conflict, HEKLER has invited its community members to develop and reflect on sites which have been recently invested with new political and social meanings.
As this is the result of multiple conversations and exchanges, we would like to acknowledge the work of the listed contributors as well as the creative and intellectual input of two more members of our community, Bisan Abu-Eisheh and Dena Al-Adeeb. Together, and as multiple voices, we approached Eurothanasia as a conceptual process that affects our bodies, communities, and collective histories. We took a transnational approach to map the different ways in which civic squares and public monuments mirror, inflect, or resist dominant political imaginations of space.
We take as self-evident that public arts and civic design can enact localized governmental desires. They idealize a particular civic identity—one that excludes those on the edges of politically defined citizenship and humanity. Yet, it is their political function as a cordon sanitaire that grants them a particular agency—as sites in which citizenship is articulated, they offer a singular site for a radical collective imaginary. The recent murder of George Floyd (as just one example of state violence against Black Americans), and the retaking of the streets by thousands of people across all 50 states in the US and globally, testifies both to the possibilities of radical collectivity and its sited nature.
New local histories are being created through sited processes of erasure and revisionism. Caterina Stamou reflects on the recently introduced anti-protest bill in Greece. In relation to “The Great Walk of Athens,” she looks at the ways in which the site is used to revise local histories, ultimately justifying the reduction of civil liberties. In Tehran a Loud, Farideh Sakhaeifar commemorates Iran's 2009 Green Movement, inviting us into a cityscape and a history of resistance denied by the government. Lena Katharina Reuter takes us to Berlin’s Rosa Luxemburg Platz, analyzing it as a reflection of the complexity of varying popular demands for freedom and justice. Often easily conflated with univocal calls for social justice, protests such as this complicate our understanding of grassroots movements.
Gestures in rewriting history exceed the systematic erasure of prior regimes of thought. Recent controversies surrounding the preservation and signification of highly visible monuments -- monuments variously seen as national, international, and local treasures -- reanimate long-held debates on history and its geographically-bounded nature. For example, the Hagia Sophia in Turkey is entering yet another incarnation under the neo-Ottomanist aspirations of the Erdoğan regime. Divested of its previous role as a world heritage site, its conversion to a site of worship is characterized as an ‘endless feedback loop,’ as Shimrit Lee writes in this assembly. Darko Vukic poetically broaches the ways in which a public art work, The Monument to the Revolution, a social realist mosaic frieze in Ivanjica, is susceptible to multiple readings of the political life and cultural memory of the city’s working class.
Sites of Convulsion is a short exploration that looks at our lived realities under varying political regimes. They permit the analysis of the state and its dissidents, its regimes and the edges of its control, and the ways in which the state imagines itself vis a vis the citizen and vice versa. Both backward facing and future oriented, these sites seek to anticipate cultural memory as they manage our past. As cited civic interventions overburdened with symbolic meanings, they condition people’s imagination of freedom, but, as our writers point out, they cannot contain it.
- Nataša Prljević and Rashmi Viswanathan
HAGIA SOPHIA AS AN ENDLESS FEEDBACK LOOP
by Shimrit Lee
There is a feedback loop between monumental spaces and the political regimes by which they are claimed. When, on July 10, 2020, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan proclaimed that Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia will be converted into a mosque after 85 years as a museum, he effectively threw a wrench into that feedback loop. And yet, if we approach Hagia Sophia as a palimpsest, peeling back its historical layers like an onion skin, we can begin to see the multiplicity of competing religious and political meanings that have always defined it as a convulsive site.
The Hagia Sophia was built as a Byzantine cathedral and converted into a mosque when the Ottomans conquered the city in 1453. At the time, Ottoman sultan Mehmet II made quite a few “edits” to its architecture and decoration—adding two minarets, emptying the space of its relics, crosses and icons, and removing the bells from its belltower. Fast-forward nearly 500 years and Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern, secular Turkey, turned it into a museum. Since 1985, it has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The monument was once again inscribed with new meaning: that of liberal humanism.
On a local level, the museumification of Hagia Sophia in 1935 was one of many symbolic actions taken during the early years of the republican period that articulated a new vision for the nation state, in which religion would be strictly controlled by the state. This vision of so-called “Turkish-Islamic Synthesis,” combined with the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s, laid the foundation for the subsequent rise of Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Erdoğan’s announcement has prompted a range of criticisms. Art historians and conservationists worry about the preservation of the site as a historical and archeological treasure. UNESCO has sounded an alarm, slamming Turkish authorities for making the move “without prior discussion.” Greece, which sees itself as the heir to the Byzantine Empire, has condemned the decision as “deeply hurtful.” (It doesn’t help that a long-running dispute between Greece and Turkey over the exploration of natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean Sea is also heating up again).
For Turkey, the proclamation reflects more than just a simplified battleground between secularists and Islamists, religiosity and cosmopolitanism. On one level, it can be seen as an assertion of Turkish national sovereignty. This logic complicates the EU’s designation of the site as “universal heritage”—a defensive argument that is reminiscent of attempts by Western cultural institutions to evade repatriation claims by former colonies. Turkish officials have also been quick to point out EU hypocrisy: there are several mosques in Greece and Spain that have been converted into churches.
On another, more local level, we can place Erdoğan’s announcement into a longer pattern of “Neo-Ottomanism,” in which the AKP draws on discourses of the past in order to legitimize contemporary neoliberal discourse and cultural policies. In the face of a looming economic crisis in Turkey and ahead of snap elections, the ruling party is throwing a bone to its constituency. By “making the Hagia Sophia great again,” so to speak, the AKP is once again clothing its economic policies in the robes of political Islam, and using identity politics as a distraction from high inflation and unemployment rates. (As historian Isaac Hand pointed out to me, Erdoğan’s move can be compared to President Trump’s intent to construct a sculpture garden to honor “American heroes” as a distraction from the mass protests over the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minnesota).
As a monument, museum, and religious site, Hagia Sophia is an open signifier—claimed at once by nationalists, Islamists, conservationists, and liberal humanists. As monuments fall across the world, and others, like the Hagia Sophia, are re-signified, we must ask ourselves how feedback loops of power are written and rewritten, and how they can be interrupted and reimagined.
FREEDOM BETWEEN ACCELERATION AND STAGNATION
by Lena Katharina Reuter
False reports and ideologically distorted theories about the origins and repercussions of coronavirus have spread with the same incomprehensible pace and reach as the virus itself. These messages circulate in physical space as well as in the echo chambers of the internet through populist media and individuals. Under the heading Hygiene Demonstration, an ambiguous crowd gathers publicly each week to demonstrate against the government issued corona safety policy, which apparently in the protestors’ opinion leads to a slow abrogation of the constitution. While at the first glance different motivations for the protest can be identified, a closer look at the arguments reveals a heterogeneous political milieu within various participants. Thus, an esoteric view, which sees an impending vaccination dictatorship in connection with the virus, is joined by strong secondary anti-semitic perspectives or anti-democratic conspiracy theories. Together, they blur into a hybrid populist and right political ideology. As the protests continue the far-right commentary is noticeable.
Hygiene Demonstration took place every Saturday from March 28th until May 16th at Berlin's Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, a square named after a social democratic symbolic figure. What happens when right-wing and anti-democratic protestors use, occupy, and even translate democratic and socialist symbolic places for their politics and argumentation? The last trace of the event is a graffiti at the top of the square - the words freedom (Freiheit) and resistance (Widerstand) are written on the ground. Here the language which aims at social freedom and justice, as well as the democratic right to resistance, is co-opted and understood in a different manner. After the conglomeration of varying demands, the claim and the call for freedom remains. The virus poses a problem for the right-wing argumentation, because it does not represent any of their symbolic images of the enemy and the current situation puts the right-wing in front of the task to re-contextualize its own position. What is called resistance for freedom is a demand facilitated by existing rights to individual freedom (freedom of movement, freedom of expression, etc.) usually dismissed by the right wing position as neoliberal and individualistic. Here this right is activated to convey that the freedom of all citizens is in danger.
Nevertheless, a social and democratic society requires and is founded upon negotiating between individual freedoms and social necessities for the benefit of the community. As the sociologist Nils Zurawski observes, in the current pandemic, this process of negotiating is proving to be an unexpected core experience for citizens, and the state of crisis challenges us even more to reflect on what defines society. Even though this year was characterized by a rapidity that affects the social tissue, at the same time, the political, economic and cultural apparatus was forced to a brief standstill. Within this suspension, we are challenged to think of the ongoing crisis as a fertile ground for tackling remaining individual and collective fears towards social stability.
A NON-PARTISAN POSTCARD FROM IVANJICA
by Darko Vukić
Informational noise is a cognitive hindrance. A specific way to demonstrate local articulation of logic, sense and peripheral language of ideologies. Its obsolete effect is equal to that of a historical site cleansed from any meaning to the people of this small commodity city. The Monument to the Revolution is Serbia’s largest open-air mosaic representation of social realism, an art practice submissive to the governing agenda of the time. Erected in the city center, the monument shows eight partisans and one female fighter. The figure of Sycorax stamped over the image is seen as a plot-hole for emancipatory xeno-narratives and discursive alloys with ultra-partisan potentiality. The installation of the monument anticipated future in-dustrialization of Ivanjica. The world’s first satellite station Yugoslavia, built by Mitsubishi in the 70’s and bombed by NATO in the 90’s, plugged the former state into global correspondences. We went ‘actual’ for the first time. Time was initial, but now it feels crucial: some people know how to run the time, others are doing time. The working class and the employing class have nothing in common, in all we prefer to feign indifference. Citizens are indifferent, with no formal affiliation. Ideally, they are members of the given regime, an incoherent metastasis of tautological language in use. Those who work out of economic necessity should be empowered to address the working class as its own epicenter, instead the other way around. Confrontation with this kind of problem ought to be the priority. Since the capital is succumbing to the disparity as monetization of evil via context in place, a cohesive factor is masked as a de-cohesive, oversaturated community of agents. Staging the protests rather than recalibrating the local deterministic politics will not succeed the current totality of the system and if it abolishes, it will inevitably produce another enemy. The premises for revolution are now everywhere, but the conclusions are hiding in the closet. What is neglected would seem to be too easily forgotten, slowly necro-management is taking over our landscape. Outside: There is no patriarchy! The emergency is thus a mental site where capitalist spirituality makes class unintelligible [...]
TEHRAN A LOUD
by Farideh Sakhaeifar
As I am collaging 600 screenshots taken in 2009 from Google Earth to recreate the projection map of Tehran, I think about public space and collective memory, examining government intervention in them as an act of "erasure". During the 2009 Green Movement protesters massively occupied the streets to amplify their voices and demands suppressed by the ruling authority. This collective resistance, the largest people's movement in the post-1979 Iranian revolution, continues to exist as an oral history never commemorated by the government officials.
Tehran a Loud commemorates the largest social uprising and movement that my generation has ever experienced and my first engagement in public protests, marching along with hundreds of thousands of people. After the 2009 presidential election in Iran, a series of demonstrations took place in major cities where people shared their discontent with the fraudulent voting process. The size of these protests was unique and unexpected; up to three million people attended mass protests hundreds were killed. Very little information was available from some amateur photographers amidst the crowds as the only evidence of these erased events.
In creating the map with those visuals, I attempt to preserve the image of the city that I grew up in, as it is saved in my memory. Azadi (Freedom) Square, Enghelab (Freedom) Square, Vali-e-Asr Square (a reference to the 12th Shi'ite Imam), and Vanak (meaning small tree) Square have been some of the most critical places in Tehran for political and social struggles. Vanak Square is located on the northern side of Vali-e-Asr Street, a north-south ma- jor street that leads to Enghelab Street. Unlike Enghelab and Azadi Square, which embody the memories of past demonstrations and the revolution, Vanak Square hosted the people's uprising for the first time in 2009.
As I cut out streets from the screenshots that held the 2009 Green Movement, I think of Vanak Square's architectural alteration and Tehran’s history of revisionism. One of my last memories of Vanak Square is its reconstruction coinciding with the uprising. This involved the demolition of the fountains creating a flat, controllable public site. It made me wonder whether the government’s transformation of Vanak Square was meant to erase the collective memory by alienating the public from shared history and memories of the Green Movement.
Images from Azadi Square (former Shahyad Square - Memorial of Shah, the King) make me recall protesters' symbolic interventions as new sites and carriers for collective memories of resistance. With their voices in mind, I imitate the government's deliberate attack. Cutting out the streets from the screenshots for my map is as if the memories of these places never existed, leaving the void to remember oppression, erasure, resistance, and memory.
GREAT WALKS, MINOR PROTESTS AND THE DEPOLITICIZATION OF WALKING
by Caterina Stamou
In the wake of the lockdown, the pilot phase of The Great Walk of Athens, a series of urban interventions that connect Athens’ ‘commercial triangle’ through the pedestrianization and configurations of traffic signage in the city center, was introduced by its mayor, Kostas Bakoyannis. The project soon became the subject of an intense public debate due to its absence of urban planning and public consultation, its lack of accessibility for people with disabilities, the excessive waste of public funds, as well as the deterioration of traffic and bad taste. Aiming to encourage tourist and retailing growth, the Great Walk promotes Athens’ representation as Western civilization’s cradle to attract private investments around its archaeological area, a neoliberal tactic that in time silences other aspects of the city’s collective memory and intends to narrow its viability to a lopsided tourist economy.
Capitalist urbanization strategies in downtown Athens are not new. The city has already known gentrification processes that have led to unaffordable housing, displacement of the urban poor and evictions of self-organized community squats since the first years of the financial crisis. The recent application of social distancing measures results in further communal alienation. Social interaction in physical shared spaces becomes significantly moderated, something that adds to the current autocratic policies of the New Democracy government that severely attack solidarity structures and human rights. Through police brutality and evictions of refugee reception facilities, the Greek state intends to strip public space and its inhabitants of individual and collective self-determination and possibilities of resistance.
The final blow to Greek civil rights has been the new anti-protest bill introduced by Civil Protection minister Michalis Chrisochoidis. Based on a law from Greek military junta, the bill bans demonstrations that might disrupt public transport and commercial activity, authorizes police to allow or interrupt a protest and sets the “organizer” accountable for the demonstration. Despite reactions by leftist parties and social movements, the hard right’s plan to depoliticize public space was approved by the Greek parliament on July 9. As Athens’ mayor Bakoyannis poses his rhetorical question: “Can’t someone protest on the Great Walk or the sidewalk? Do they have to protest on the street?” the political, social, material and affective rights of multiple social locations are being trivialized by the neoliberal populist effort to normalize a state repression.
Walking in the city is a politicized act. As Michel De Certeau puts it in The Practice of Everyday Life: “The act of walking is to the urban system what the speech act is to language or to statements uttered.” Similarly to the way the neoliberal regime commodifies and co-opts the language of radical politics by making it lose its meaning, the urban (re)production of capital appropriates the public space to suppress its political agency. But if language is a system able to reinvent itself, what kind of mind and urban maps do we have to follow in order to create future sites of openness and imagination?
"Sites of Convulsion " was published in print issue 13, "Eurothanasia"