The unwritten story of Athens is being incessantly carved onto the same sub-stratum. Continuous layers of inert matter, stock, asphalt, limestone, sediment and settled smog gather on top one another. Monuments turn into foundations of insignificant buildings. Everyday flows and practices leave their traces behind them. Democracy obstructs all breaks, openings, interventions, projects and public space itself. The city pushes against its edges by landfill, coverup, erasure and forgetfulness. The pressures from the city’s edge come back to haunt the center, with a vengeance.
A second, ephemeral story is written on this entropic sub-stratum: thousands of chewing gums stuck on bitter orange tree trunks, Lord Byron’s signature on Poseidon’s Temple at Sounion, couples’ initials carved on wooden benches, political slogans smudged in elevator cabins, graffiti plastering neoclassical buildings: a constant, living murmur of markings, rifts, meaning and desire in a place that cannot express those through its architecture. The city is literally sinking, a few centimeters per year; it vandalizes itself in order to speak.
Athenian street art may contain interesting and indifferent designs. Discussing it in terms of makeup or defacement is beyond the point. Its importance depends on the observer’s clock and her willingness to deal with pattern rather than form, oral rather than written language. The universal value of Pompei’s obscene carvings blasts the texts of Adolf Loos to oblivion; ornament may be as criminal and our urge to scribble on a wall as barbaric as our long-lost ability to memorize and deliver a 1,000 line epic poem. In a city covered by the ruins of Modernism, architecture and writing may be reconsidered as arts and sciences of articulation: of history, everyday life, of program and of a wished-for, future city.
There where the surfaces are rough, brimful, obsolete, a line may be written, a pattern painted and a design marked to maximum effect. Excellent street art thrives on good ruins. Even there the power of the collage is short lived: ruins attract all kinds of tourists, and tourists attract developers who in turn attract more graffiti. The great historic steamroller of the city’s 3rd Republic – landfill, coverup, erasure and oblivion – is standing by to move in, working always democratically, that is, only horizontally.
In a Future Archaeology, amazing portable mass scanners will be tracking and tagging Athens’ buried memories; graffiti may be the code and key to activating great collages (and architecture will work in the vertical axis, leaving the sub-stratum untouched). Unearthing walkscapes, voices and local stories, these x-ray machines may operate via luminous, meticulous drawings, probing the deep Athenian palimpsest, creating, through their screens, a much more open city.
An earlier version of this text was published in Kathimerini, Arts & Letters, July 26, 2010, 1.