Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

1. The challenge of space – experiences of Guernica Youth

Space in an artistic sense is not merely a matter of definition; rather it poses the question whether or not space can be filled in such a creative way that the real space is forgotten and the images created begin to alter the sense for space. Picasso was one of the painters who had learned from an early stage on what this means. Still, when asked to paint a mural for the Spanish display at the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne (Paris International Exposition) in the 1937 World's Fair in Paris, he stood in front of a sheer insurmountable challenge. Interestingly enough, Picasso's atelier in Paris gave him like a floor plan the idea as to what size he could cope with. The canvas he finally used covered the entire floor of his atelier. There are interesting descriptions on how he managed to bring about this most amazing mural, starting with sketches and finally hanging it up so that he had climb up a ladder to reach the upper part.



                    Picasso's atelier at Rue de Grands Augustins in Paris



              Picasso's Guernica

An empty canvas

In 1995 Kids' Guernica in Japan initiated the idea to let children paint on a canvas having the same size as Picasso's Guernica, namely 7,8 x 3,5 m. This was done in commeration of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. In 2005 the NGO Poiein kai Prattein in Athens took up contact with the people like Takuya Kaneda organising Kids' Guernica, and send Thomas Economacos and Maya Fischer along with a newly creating mural called The War is Over to Ubud, Bali where they celebrated the 10th anniversary of existence of this movement. Out of this developed eventually Guernica Youth to emphasize more the European dimension as well as the fact that aside from smaller children, there are often youth involved in these kinds of actions. This youth has other needs and a different outlook on what they can do on such a huge canvas. For it is time to insist on own ideas while often in conflict with social norms. 

The use of such a space poses a huge challenge for every artist, but not so for children and youth who take on this challenge with ease. Spyros Mercouris, brother of Melina Mercouri and special advisor to Poiein kai Prattein in Athens, aptly said, that little giants in painting have followed Picasso, the giant in painting. Consequently some lessons can be learned from how they use space which manifests itself in the murals they have painted. By now, there exist more than 250 around the world.

As for age differences making a difference, this was reflected upon by Picasso. He stated that we stand to lose our imagination when growing up, and then we have to learn all over again to be like children who are free in their imagination. By implication, it means to be free in the imagination allows for quite another use of space. The German term most appropriate to describe the attitude children display is 'unbekümmert', that is as if they are not bothered by anything. Later on inhibitions enter their minds and as adolescents the world seems split between conventional norms to which one has to adapt and inclinations to push through own viewpoints in the most radical way. Worse off are adults if they have lost their imagination. They end up arranging things in space without making sense due to a lack of an imaginative way in how to deal with things, and more importantly with people.


One term to be used, if use of space is to make any sense, that is 'logistics'. It is already demonstrated where chairs and tables are placed. Immediately can be seen if they leave enough space for people to walk around the table or if the table does not block the door. Logistics expresses simply a strategic way of ordering things in space. It can be a creative way, but not necessarily. For this to happen, something else is needed to be realised: the art of using space to create more space. It can already be experienced by putting a mirror or a painting on the wall and compare that with the situation when there is nothing but a naked wall. Sometimes small touches can make all the difference. It means letting even some things interfer with the wish to go a straight line. In one case it can be a nuisance, in another it stimulates still further and a different use of the space.

Logistics has also to do with keeping a sense of proportionality between the big and the small e.g. how to regulate in traffic the relationship between bicycle riders and cars. Altogether the creative use of space depends upon things not being predetermined so much that nothing can be altered in the space.

In a wider sense, the creative use of space reflects an order of things as analysed by Michel Foucault, but which makes hardly sense in a world which tends to confuse so many things out of mere commercial interests. The latter are inclined to deceive and to play games but not to order things which would make sense to people in a straight forward sense. One reason for this is that the games being played function only if the senses can be outplayed by an abstract order called the iterative process, and which leaves but an either/or choice, if one wishes to proceed further.The worst choice is already made at the very beginning: to play or not. Only wise men like the Polish poet Zbiegniew Herbert would state that he does not play any games.

The hard order of things, alone underlined by the heavy use of materials like cement, make public spaces be unfriendly. Too often they are determined by all kinds of people working for certain institutions, and who are in turn advised by all kinds of experts. Everything ends up usually reproducing something low in quality and amounting to a thoughtlessness, so that many spaces make no sense at all.

In short, the challenge in use of space is not merely a physical one, but whether or not adults can become free again in their imagination, and learn together with children how to use space creatively. It is a huge question in need to be answered. A great hindrance for finding an answer is already given when people cannot conceive possible new uses of space, and instead end up insisting things have to stay the way it has always been. It goes without saying, public spaces require a constant re-investment, if they are to stay alive and accessible to everyone. For nothing is a given, and spaces can be transformed in no time, if neglected. Alone a walk up Lycabettou Hill, a green area in the midst of Athens, shows this since benches are broken and trash cans overturned, while trees seem to have grown old as if they no longer wish to live. It means simply a place is no longer alive when there is a certain tension missing. That can be compared to the human body kept together by such a tension. Like a well tuned violin, the strings vibrate to a simple touch, in order to stay in tune with life. Practically even these simple criteria can be used to appraise any space as to whether or not it is neglected, or else used in a creative, that is non destructive way.


Affinities to certain space

People do develop over time special affinities to certain spaces. It may be a bench from where they can look at the harbour, or it is a preferred play ground for children since it exists behind the church which seems to offer more than mere protective shade when it is hot. All these kinds of affinities indicate that space can be linked to identity and continuity versus discontinuity. That is a real issue.

For instance, the Irish city of Galway was developing so fast already in 1997, that the local people revolted against the introduction of ever more business plans without heeding the need to respect cultural heritage. The latter includes a bench in a park from where everyone does enjoy a view of the city and the sea. Once gone, people felt deprived. Hence they vented their anger at all the changes since they no longer recognized the city they knew as a child and more importantly with which they had come to identify with over time. Thus changes in urban spaces brought about by a new business centre which drives out all the small shops has to do with how to keep a continuity of identity despite these changes driven often by abstract business models which have no regard for such small details as to what has meaning to local residents.

Naturally there can be differences in meaning between local, regional, national and international spaces, a local square very different from what is the United Nations Square in New York. As this is crucial for understanding further use of space, that topic shall be taken up later.


Use of space when painting a peace mural

The painting of murals can take place in different localities, with the canvas usually laid out on the floor in a space large enough like Picasso's atelier to hold something like this. Preferrable is naturally a space where the canvas can be kept without fear to be spoiled when absent. That space can be a top of an apartment on its roof as was the case in Sao Paulo, the inner court yard of the Municipality of Zabbar, Malta, the garage deck of the refugee mural in Berlin or some other convenient place. When the mural of Poiein kai Prattein was created, one day the canvas was taken to a kindergarten and laid out on the forest floor nearby due to the need for some shade. Before that the canvas was underneath an apartment on stilts for allowing cars to be parked there. So use of space encompasses already a flexibility but under some conditions. Aside from that use of the same sized canvas does mean some common experiences can be translated into guiding principles on how to learn and more importantly know how to share such a space on a canvas having the same size as Picasso's Guernica:
















        The mural of Poiein kai Prattein, 2005: The War is Over


Experiences made in Tripoli, Lebanon

In 2007 immediately after the war between the Hebollah and Israel with children forced to stay at home since the streets were unsafe. Here a mother allowed her two daughters to paint on the walls in the house. It was a prelude for the mural which was to follow.


"Enough. We want to live." Tripoli, Lebanon 2007

Iman Nouri-Mourad, the woman who coordinated this action in Tripoli, desired to reclaim the vitality of Lebanese culture. Hence the title of the mural says it already: “Enough! We want to live.” Yet at the same time, she realized we live in a kind of "schizophrenia of peace". There is the youth returning from surfing and going into a music bar, while across the street a bomb can go off anytime. Nowhere is this better expressed in this symbolic figure which is half a skeleton, half a Lebanese woman dressed in traditional rich colours.



There followed another mural mainly coordinated by the daughter of Iman Nourad-Mourad and her partner at school, a blind girl from Lebanon.


 "Together we build a better society", Tripoli, Lebanon 2009

“Together we see better” expresses as well what hindrances blind people experience in all kinds of spaces. This can be said, generally speaking, about people with special needs. The so-called 'normal' citizen does not even realize how cumbersome are steep steps for someone in a wheel chair, or what difficulties have to be overcome when getting in or out of a bus. A lot has been done in the meantime to alter this situation, and conditions vary. In Lebanon, there is a belief that it serves no purpose to teach blind people how to use the white cane since the roads are anyhow in impossible conditions. At the summer camp where this mural was painted, the 25 seeing children taught the 25 blind ones how to use the white cane. The initiative for that came from the one blind Lebanese girl who was studying with the daughter of Iman Nouri-Mourad in the United States, and had developed there the buddy system.



Kids' Guernica - Guernica Youth project in Tripoli, Lebanon August 2014

The mural is called “To remember you need to forget” when confronted by tragic events and memories while daily life has to continue somehow. The mural is a response as to what happend on August 23, 2013 when 2 mosques (Takwa and Salam) in Tripoli were bombed. It was called the "biggest and deadliest" bombing in Tripoli since the end of Lebanon's civil war. 50 people were killed and more than 1000 were injured in this bombing. Amazing is how the youth, all students of a near-by design school, together with three children, sought to heal a wounded space. Quites the opposite from what is the official cultural policy, for example, in Germany with its emphasis upon 'never to forget', as it is the case as well in Israel, they questioned in their own way the memory work not instilled by the educational system, but brought about through empathy for those who have been killed. They did paint grave stones with the names of those killed inscripted on them. But they developed as well a new symbolic language to overcome this cruel truth. And with it they came to the conclusion in order to remember you need to be able to forget. Still questions remain, linger on, what happens to spaces marked by terrorist attacks?


Space in Europe for refugees

Today European space is associated not so commonly with a common research programme although that does exist as EU terminology, but fore mostly with 'closed borders' as suggested by the term 'fortress'. It signifies a huge turn-around, indeed a set-back in European integration based until recently on openness. Borders have been closed by Austria, Hungary, and many other countries, in order to keep the refugees out. Only countries like Greece or currently more so Italy still receive waves of refugees who venture in unsafe boats across the Mediterranean. Most telling is a cartoon which derives its symbolic language from Picasso's Guernica.


In turn, the migrants experience all kinds of confined spaces. It starts with make shift camps on Lesbos, but also in down town areas of Athens. They use often blankets to delineate some private space.


Photos by Tanjana Tsouvelis



More often tents cannot be termed in an overall sense as inadequate housing. This is due to a lack of all normal facilities, including sanitation and food preparation facilities.

However, some of them were lucky when they arrived in Berlin, for they were accommodated in a former four star hotel called President. Of interest was that little vandalism was noticable as all felt more or less respected by the environment. It says something about the quality of space making a difference. Despite many having more than six persons in one room, due to having put into them high beds, they were there happier than most other refugees who were forced to stay in huge halls like the ICC or Tempelhof airport were similar conditions prevails as in Athens at the former Hellikon airport terminal.

President Hotel, Berlin


They used for painting the mural the upper deck of the former parking garage. There the mural was laid out for eight months, from January to August 2016. In the end, the mural told the story on how they got from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere to Berlin. The mural documents the dangerous voyage across the Mediterranean Sea but ends on a happy note with all looking out of the window of the school they attend.


    Flüchtlingskinder / Refugee children in Hotel Präsident, Berlin 2016

There is something of utmost importance what Michael D. Higgins, now President of the Republic of Ireland, articulated at a conference held in Athens 2000. He links it to the overall term of 'diaspora', for if space is denied to the others in need of safety and shelter, then the self has also no longer a place called home, never mind a country. It means all of us have become a part of a world wide diaspora.

 "We are in exile from a moral sensibility, from an untrannelled cognitive aesthetic, from even a memory of homo ludens. Slaves of an international economy, we mourn in exile from our spiritual home, for a reflective life. For us space is changing in such a way that territories have no meaning. We live, we are told, in diasporic public spheres. Our need for a moral philosophical framework is then all the greater so that we might actively communicate. Useful in the short term to the knowledge economy we are losing the elements of a creative society." 

Michael D. Higgins, May 5 - 6, 2000

It means without public spaces in which we can express our 'moral sensibility', we shall be without cognitive aesthetic, without memory and therefore devoid of a reflective life. What is needed to overcome being mere tolerated persons in diasporic public spheres is a strong philosophical framework to facilitate that kind of communication which supports and encourages 'moral sensibility'. Otherwise, so the conclusion of Michael D. Higgins, elements of a creative society shall be lost. This was said in 2000 at an event dedicated to "freedom of expression." Since then, the situation in Europe has gotten far worse.

An important question has been raised by Artist Anka Landtau in Denmark after having worked together with migrants of all ages to discover a dream of normality might be to return to one passion  father and son can share: the love for Juventus football club. So she imposed upon Picasso's Guernica a text in German:

Text: Do we understand really, only because we can carry in front of us a huge, historical picture of horror? Our glances meet at one point to which we can flee because we can make a picture of it for ourselves. But what about the reality of the other? With our parallel lines, our guidelines, our paths, our border lines?

Philosophical framework for the nation state

Since the 19th century and the formation of the nation state, the political sense of space reflects the existence of sovereign states all of which claim to have sole jurisdiction over that specific territory and therefore the Right to draw sharp borders. It made Brecht say first comes the passport, and then the human being. Space means the recognition of the person as a citizen depends upon that person recognizing that state as his or her sole sovereign. It is equally related to belonging or not to the state, and not as in the past to a tribe. Hand in hand with this development goes also the Right to having identity on the basis of possessing property.

In Hegel's philosophy of law, someone without property had not identity, but had to work for it, the own labour force the only capital to be used in exchange of money when working as the sole chance to gain in identity. Hence someone not working and therefore not contributing to the wealth of the nation was immediately stamped as a criminal or in lesser terms as a bum, outcast, a nobody. Out of the latter is derived the sense of the homeless who is without property, and in a much deeper sense without space in which he or she could move freely.

Belonging or not depends as well on whether or not the general possession can be claimed by a collective will. This is a most uncertain proposition as there are many confusions between private and public property, but also between 'property' (in German: Eigentum') and 'possession' (in German: Besitz'). If the space belongs to the state, it shall not be clear if that means it belongs to the people.

What makes it so much more difficult to realise decisions in terms of collective interest is that property law grants the owner certain Rights over anyone else. James Clifford described a trial about who has the Right to determine the use of the land: the collective decision making process of indigenous Indians or the private property owners who wish to be left alone and do what they want on their property while the municipality should only be concerned with certain services like rubbish removal. This confusion begins to play a role in politics to date.

For when people want to keep out strangers of their community, they want to re-claim the territory as if it no longer belongs to them. Hence the Left party in Berlin at the municipal and state election in September 2016 had a poster stating 'the city belongs to us'. Taking possession as if reclaiming territory suggests taking things again into own hands would be a solution for what recent developments have brought about. It is a vague suggestion on how to safeguard the integrity of the territory but with deep racial implications when meant to keep strangers out.

With this problem of property/possession as determination of behaviour, or the Right to do whatever one wants within one's own land, goes a notion of freedom which disregards other principles. One of them is that no one can possess the earth as untouched nature meant to be free from any such claims. Nature meant not to belonging to anyone specific or general. Even today there is as pointed out by James Clifford a difference in how indigenous people and Western people beginning with the colonisers relate to nature, and therefore to staked out territories. Indicative is an Indian saying about the white man: you need only to show him a beautiful spot on this earth and the first thing he has in mind is to put up a fence. We know what difference it makes not to be inhibit in our sight by fences when looking into the landscape. That is not the case, for example, in Ireland, where the land is divided up by walls running everywhere to substantiate these private claims but also to keep sheep in and others out.


Cultural landscape

There is also the term 'cultural landscape' to describe a specific way of how a landscape has been shaped over time by certain activities by men and women. One example are the terrace farms on steep hills in the Greek landscape. Small plots of land were created to make possible the planting of vegetables and other kinds of vegetations. This transformation of a natural landscape reflects a certain synthesis between man and nature, but it says not all. For many of these terrace farms are today abandoned insofar agriculture has altered its disposition due to new technical and other means on how to farm today.

Culturally speaking, space will be defined by what prevails in the local area. Mostly these are folklorist traditions, and reflect a way of living which combines many things: style of houses, special products and various rituals which manifest themselves as local tradition. Historically speaking, these local places experienced as well a transition once there was a move away from collective farming and towards private farming. Some variations were introduced with cooperatives allowing for what has become known in the economy as 'joint ventures' and shared responsibilities.


Political iconography - spaces remembered through monuments

At state level, identity with the territory is linked to how officially national memories are being upheld and therefore what narrative prevails. Here a real linkage to the peace murals can be drawn as they end up telling quite a different narrative when compared to national versions. Of interest is as well the studies of political iconography of monuments which do differ between national and local ones, as much as many examples of monuments exist in Europe since they retain memories of First and Second World War.

Many monuments end up glorifying war or they tend to silence the atrocities which have been committed. Only few can bring about some sober reflections about the reason for war. One example for the latter is the grave of the unknown soldier in the Hofgarten of Munich. A counter example would be the so called 'Völkerschlachtdenkmal' in Leipzig. It was build thanks to donations by the people, hence its name 'monument of the people'. Designed to commerate the victory over Napolean, it was only opened in 1912, and immediately used to entice people to be fervent supporters of Germany entering World War I.

Again it is of interest the cultural imprint when murals are painted. For instance, the ones painted in Germany end up being much more metaphysical since they depict peace as being above ground while war equally to hell is underground. Or else there is a tendency towards declarations of apocalyptical character in reminder of Dürer and the role of violence which played already a decisive role in the transition of the Renaissance in Italy and its use of space to what became in Germany a sense of insecurity. It meant the territory was unprotected, best symbolized by death riding through villages to leave a horrific trail behind.

After Second World War, these reminders are still virulent. But as the Shoa monument near Brandenburg Gate in Berlin depicts, official state policy has made culture into a task to retain memory of the Holocaust, so that the key credo become never to forget the atrocities which were committed in the name of Hitler's policy seeking 'Lebensraum': space to live. Obviously lessons had not been learned out of what happened between 1914 and 1918, or how the new nations were brought about like Germany in 1871, namely by war. Above all peaceful space had already been abandoned before Second World War, as much as nature was devastated during First World War which left the earth scarred forever, as evident in Verdun.


    "The other: enemy or friend?" Gezoncourt, Nov. 12, 2010

In the mural which the children and youth from Gezoncourt painted, there is as well an internal space made explicit by children looking out from the mural. Behind it is the huge question but how to deal with inner fears after the experience of Verdun in WWI?

The mural of Gezoncourt addresses still another important matter: in what sort of space is the other perceived? This includes Cavafy's poem about “Waiting for the Barbarians” and continues with the poem by Amir Or, “The Barbarians are amongst us.” Indeed, it is difficult to problematize today's dilemma of how to recognize the other in public spaces. Not only in Israel but everywhere else at times no one knows if the other waiting for the same bus might be a suicide bomber. Public spaces in Europe after what happened in Paris, Brussels and elsewhere are considered now to be most vulnerable. Instead of trust which allows people to intermingle openly, there is now much more mistrust and even misgivings, so that public spaces can also be experienced as hostile places. Such an impression curtails any creative use of space.


Abstract order of things

Of interest is that children and youth express and address another aspect of space when it comes to their use since they experience most of the time space being filled by cars in the streets or else at home by all sorts of consumer goods, so that there is no real empty space being made available where they could unfold their own creativity.


               108th Elementary School of Athens

The mural of Athens School 108 is a good example that it might be needed to abstract first from what is given in the immediate space, in order to overcome space over crowded or else filled up with too many things. By learning to abstract, the children come to realise this is a way to reach a new order of things, given confinement of space. And even the new order appears to be still a chaos, at least it is now a beautiful disorder. It is a space within which children and youth can move more easily than in those spaces regulated by stiff principles and things which supposed not to be altered.    

Why is war stronger than peace?

Alone the contest for dominance over space circumscribes war, see Aleppo and the devastation of an entire city. (artistic examples of the need to re-create peaceful spaces: Raphael Vellas Drawings or Azade Koekers “Abandoned cities”). In view of recent developments, a lot of efforts are under way to declare all kinds of spaces (streets, surroundings of monuments, entire city quarters etc.) into nuclear free or peace zones. Most recently, the New Yorker reports about the painter Si who talks in his paintings about the appetite for war. (Art Spiegelman, "An Early, Graphic Novel about Man's Appetite for War", New Yorker, Oct. 26, 2016). He departs still from the deep impressions Second World War left behind in those who survived it.

Guernica Youth seeks to answer the question: why is war stronger than peace? It is a question posed by Juan Gutierrez who was for fourteen years director in Gernica. He called the institute 'conflict transformation' rather than peace research centre, since he believes the sources of conflicts are hardly ever resolvable and therefore the utopian goal of 'never war' is unrealistic. Rather the art is to channel these sources of conflict into creative outlets like offering to street gangs fighting each other every night instead a street basketball tournament. Hence out of a combination of peace murals with their narratives and the stories which Juan Gutierrez collects under the theme of peace threads, different memories can come into play. The purpose thereof is not leave simply standing general negations of peace as if everything is black and violent, but to refute them by showing resistance and exceptions to war do exist. The latter gives non violence quite another dimension. It is a part of the lessons to be learned out of the experiences made within Guernica Youth.

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