Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

This is a Poem/ Αυτό Είναι Ενα Ποίημα: Graffiti, Public Space, and Poetry in the Contemporary Athenian Cityscape George Fragopoulos

Thinking of contemporary Greece is a troubling proposition for a number of reasons, if only because what the country needs now more than ever is less theorizing about its problems and more solutions. However, I would like to begin by delineating a rather simple distinction that I see at play within the current Greek crises, one that speaks, to some degree, to the problem of “theorizing” the current crises. There is, on the one hand, a certain type of financial and economic abstraction, driven by the logic of neoliberal policies, that has not only exacerbated the plight of Greece but has also, in many respects, brought it about, a kind of shock doctrine to use Naomi Klein’s term. These abstract calculations, the kind that neoliberal economics thrives on in order to veil the very real and material depravation such practices cause, are dispelled by the material reality of the situations themselves. Austerity is an abstract, almost clinical term, a concept conceived of by cold economic models and projections, often with little or no positive value for the real world. Bankers and banks, despite their claims of providing social and economic boons, are more often than not responsible for more destruction than they would like to admit. Such proposals do not and cannot take into account the very real and tangible suffering that those living in Greece, and in many other European states such as Spain and Italy, are feeling at the moment. Reality falls outside the purview of such economic models, such theorizing by the numbers; there is no room for it in the logics of neoliberal economics. There is, as Franco Berardi has argued in his essay “The Uprising: OnPoetry and Finance,” a severe semiotic problem here, one that, again, occludes and hides the very real suffering of those people who actually must live within conditions supported by the EU, IMF, the World Bank and other institutions of power. But as Berardi has argued, and as I will as well, it is through poetry that such bonds can, to some degree, be reclaimed, that the abstract deployment of models meant to harm and deprive can be made real and visible.

To claim that Greece is a country in ruins will very much play into the European and world imaginary that has always seen Greece, and other non-Western geographies, as backwards, belated, not modern enough. As long as there has been a Europe there has always been the need to “Other” Greece in such fashion, to claim it as a typography and place just outside of contemporary realities, a place of mythology but not history. It can always be claimed as the birthplace of democracy, politics, philosophy and the like, but such claims are simply a means to further diminish and marginalize the possibility of any true contemporary moment. There can be no present Greece or contemporary version, since only the archaic matters.

All that being said, there is something decidedly ruinous about contemporary Greece, of this there is no doubt, and it is a ruinous condition of the most historical and contemporary kind. This ruinous state cannot simply be theorized away; it’s very ubiquity speaks to its hegemonic reality. If anything, and the irony should be obvious, Greece, in this sense, is the most modern of nations if only because it is so archaic and ruinous. Furthermore, its plight prefigures a future to come. Slavoj Žižek has, in the past, claimed such a role for Italy, finding in the ascendance of a figure such as Berlusconi the face of all democratically elected state figures. I would amend Žižek’s claim to suggest that it is in Greece that we find, to paraphrase a famous quote from the insurrections of 2010, an image of the future. Let us also be clear: this is not symptomatic of the failure of capitalism but a result of its very success. This is the way capitalism must work if it is to thrive, even if it can no longer sustain itself perpetually. If anything, Greece is being punished for the very reason that it was acting too much like the Western institutions that now punish it instead of the pervasive belief that it’s current state is because it was too different, too “socialist.” The impossible double-bind that Greece finds itself in is of a country completely and totally of its contemporary moment and yet, paradoxically and fittingly, belated, archaic, blasted to ruinous pieces.

I mention these general points only as a means of orientating myself as a reader of certain contemporary aesthetic trends in response to the current crises in Greece. There have been many responses to the current historical moment, both from inside and outside the country, but it is with the work of two artists/poets that I wish to concern myself for the remainder of this essay. At the heart of the matter, I feel, is the notion of making tangible, visible and real the current state of things as they are in Greece. If there is a simple and reductive connection that binds all art it is this: that it allows us to better see the world as it truly is rather than as we wish it to be. Art, therefore, is not about perpetuating fantasies and dreams, but, rather, the complete opposite. It is about revelation through artifice.


The recents crises in Greece—I am refering to both the December insurrection of 2008 after the murder of 15 year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos and the recent and ongoing economic turmoil that the country is currently under—have fomented an amount of civil unrest that the country has not seen in decades. One would need to look back to the years of the dictatorship, and perhaps even further back than that, to the civil war of 1946-1949, to find comparable events.1 As with almost all moments of social upheaval, the events of 2008 were most shocking in their very visibility, where before everything seemed placid, calm, with few signs that true trouble was on the horizon. As Marinos Pourgouris has stated,

The 2008 Greek riots appeared as a revelation in the sense that they were both apocalyptic (i.e. the violence of the execution of a young student, the burning down of stores, the reported looting, the clashes between the police and the protesters, the suspension of law, etc.) and revelatory (i.e. they brought to the surface, yet again, social and political tensions, they unveiled a state of corruption and police brutality, etc.).

The economic crisis in turn has brought about a new wave of seemingly never-ending protests, strikes, demonstrations, a precarious sense to everyday living.

Briefly stated, if there is one thing that has categorized these moments of precarity it has been their visibility and their propensity to leave behind images, graffiti, slogans, and a language that has marked the ephocal nature of the events. Kostis Kornetis, for example, has argued that much of this language, alluding to revolutionary moments such as the “Events of December” and May ’68, speak to both an appropriation and rejection of different revolutionary traditions, suggesting that those who took to the streets in December of 2008—and those who continue to take do so today—did not wish to be tied down to ideals that defined previous epochs. There is, for them as there should be for us, a certain specificity to the events surronding Greece post-2008 that should not be denied. It should also be noted, if it is already unclear, that this revelatory aspect of the last few years is not one simply regulated by and through the image. We now find ourselves loudly speaking a language that previously we only dared whisper. While it can be argued—and I would in the main agree—that most are not listening, the naïve silence of the past three decades that surrounded the ascension of neoliberalism seems to be ending. If anything, Greece’s plight might be evidence of the fact that a new conversation is beginning.


The remainder of this essay will examine the recent proliferation of protest graffiti in Athens and how it relates, if at times only tangentially, to these recent events.2 Specifically, I will be looking at a much smaller aspect of the trend, QR code-poetry graffiti, in an attempt to untangle its aesthetic, spatial and political implications. Much of my recent work has focused on the ways in which poetry can inform and shape our reconsiderations of what we broadly define as “the political,” and this essay is an extension of that line of thinking. I would like to suggest that the QR code poetry, like much graffiti, acts as a counter-hegemonic antidote to the deadening, calcifing modes of spatialization that the state tends to impose. It is no wonder that its creators insist on calling it a “game,” a carnivalesque reordering of a city’s landscape through the deployment of an aesthetic that blends graffiti, technology and poetry.

But let me define the terms under discussion: what is QR code poetry? According to the website, www.codepoetry.gr, “code poetry is a poetry game in the city [of Athens]. Scattered QR codes invite you to discover the poetry hidden in unexpected places. With the help of a smartphone you scan the found QR code and it leads you to a random poem from the constantly updated collection that is hosted on code poetry. ” And, most democratically, “Anyone can submit a poem to codepoetry for publishing, even anonymously,” although this does not guarantee publication on the website. The QR poetry-code game and idea was concieved by Thodoris Papatheodorou and Yannis Dimitriadis. The two artists and friends conceived of their graffiti under the auspices of a wager: would they be able to bring together their two true loves, poetry and technology, and create art from it? They considered many different projects before hitting on the idea of the QR codes. There are, according to an article published in the newspaper Ethnos, around 500 or so QR codes scattered all over Athens. The application process for the QR codes is simple: the two artists use a stencil outline of the QR code and spraypaint to apply their graffiti to walls. But of course before one can get to the poems one must scan the graffiti on the wall, a part of the interpertive process which I will return to later.

Labeled both on the top and bottom with the phrase “This is a poem” in both Greek— “Αυτό είναι ένα ποίημα”—and English, the bilingual nature of the QR graffiti code expresses the artists’ desire and urgency to get their message across. It also suggests a pan-national approach, one that transcends the limitations of the nation-state and the monolingual Greek citizen.3 As Kornetis has argued, this new bilingualism in slogans and graffiti is rather unprecedented and points to “an attempt [at] a tacit communication with movements elsewhere—of placing the Greek case within a wider context and paradigm.”4 While Kornetis was writing and responding directly to the events and graffiti/slogans that arose out of the 2008 insurrection, there is, I feel, a connection, if even tangential, to be made to the QR Poetry Graffiti of Papatheodorou and Dimitriadis. For one, their insistence on using both Greek and English to get their message across suggests a similar appeal to a context much larger than the “Greek” one they find themselves in. The necessity for translation and other languages is key for these writers, something that is perhaps taken for granted within a monolingual context. Dimitriadis, for example, is both a poet and a translator, and studied abroad in France. Papatheodorou also only recently returned to Greece— in 2008, no less— after pursuing degrees in the United States and England. Their understanding of the communal is one that encompasses a multiplicity of languages, nations and cultural traditions.

The urgency of their message comes across in the very public nature of the medium. Graffiti is meant to be seen by all, and even in this case, where one needs a smartphone to decode the text, its very presence as graffiti is still just as important as the poem it leads you to. Visibility and access are the keys here The democratic nature of their project suggests the same. One can find poems in both Greek and English on the site, although, so far, these are the only two languages represented. Graffiti is also, but not always, frequently subversive and counter-hegemonic, used as a means for undermining the state’s authority over public spaces. In the case of Greece, this is even more apparent, as graffiti has been further politicized as much of it is often used as sloganeering for many of the countries political parties. It is politicized and deployed in a way that one is not likely to see here in the United States.

But what do these poems read and look like? The poem below, titled “Refugees,” can be found on the Code Poetry website in both Greek and English. I’ve supplied here only the English translation, done by the American poet David Mason along with the poem’s original author, Yiorgos Chouliaras. Returning briefly to the question of the literacies involved in deciphering the poem itself, not only is there English in the graffiti itself—allowing the bilingual reader a bit more of interpretive satisfaction in deciphering the text— but one would have to be relatively tech savy to know what a QR code is in the first place and how one would go about decoding it, suggesting yet another level of literacy beyond that of Greek and English. Dimitriadis and Papatheodorou have had to defend themselves against the accusation that the use of the QR code is a further impediment to the dissemination of poetry rather than a democratizing system of distribution, a foreclosing rather than an opening.5

What makes the QR poetry code phenomenon so compelling is the manner in which space itself plays a pivotal role in the interpretive process, suggesting a complex hermeneutics of both historical and spatial valences. What happens to our interpretive logic when a poem such as “Refugees,”6 appears in a very particular public space, a public space that has recently seen riots, protests, or forms of social unrest? To what degree does the aesthetic object, if at all, speak to the spatial reality in which it finds itself? And while Papatheodorou and Dimitriadis do not make explicit connections between their work and that of the current events in Greece, Dimitriadis has said that he did consider, like many of his other friends, leaving Greece but that he decided to stay in part because he found the country’s current state to be a fertile one in terms of the arts.

But back to the poetry. Here is “Refugees” in its entirety:


On the other side

of the photograph I write to remind myself

not where and when but who


I am not in the photograph


They left us nothing

to take with us

Only this photograph


If you turn it over you will see me


Is that you in the photograph, they ask me

I don’t know what to tell you


To reduce “Refugees” to a simple spatial or even temporal reading would be to do it something of a disservice. The text exists on both of those levels, and yet also speaks to other concerns as well. Reading such a poem, for example, reminds one of Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of the stranger, a conept that Bauman reworked from Georg Simmel. For Bauman the stranger is that indeterminate figure who is both a part and apart from society. Chouliaras’s poem, however, suggests an alienation on the level of the self, the notion, perhaps, that there are no greater strangers than those we confront in our own reflections. It would not be a stretch to say that Greece, at least for the time being, has become one of Europe’s strangers.

In conclusion, I would like to turn, if ever so briefly, to examining what happens when a poem such as “Refugees,” a poem that one can already arguably be read in a “politicized” manner, appears in a public space that is already loaded with symbolism?


On the morning of April 4th, 2012, retired pensioner Dimitris Christoulas committed suicide in Syntagma square. The fact that such violence occurred only a few hundred meters away from the Parliament building is decidedly symbolic for a number of obvious reasons that need not be stated. The suicide note he left behind said he could not continue to take care of himself and his family on what little pension he had left after the recent austerity cuts. As many of the newspaper articles on our graffiti artists have already stated, there are QR codes in and around Syntagma square and its metro stop. If a QR code were scanned in or around Syntagma that corresponded with Chouliaras’s poem and were read after that day, April 4th, how would it be possible to read it and not think of that pensioner? Or to think of the many protests, the encampments even, that have recently been situated in or around the Square for the last few years? This is not to suggest, however, that Chouliaras’s poem is about Dimitris Christoulas’s suicide, or even directly about the current state of Greece. However, within that specific square, and transmitted in such a manner, with the historical, social and political strata of that space surrounding us, it is impossible to escape the particular reality of that geography. It would be difficult to read Chouliaras’s line—“They left us nothing”—and not think of that man’s death and the note he left expressing the same sentiments. What I’m suggesting, therefore, is not a hermeneutics of space, a reading of space as text: rather, I’m suggesting the use of space itself as a critical lens, a means through which to view the text itself, very much something along the lines of what Henri Lefebvre attempted with rhythms—using space as “a tool of analysis rather than just an object of it . . ..” A poem such as “Refugees,” therefore, would act more as a map, a series of coordinates within space, allowing us to locate our positions. The poem in such an instance, becomes a testament, a witnessing of the very real realities that existed and still exist in that space. But, again, this is not simply a spatial reminder but a historical one as well. Syntagma square is not simply a site of political and social importance; it can also be understood as a touristic destination, a space of little or no meaning other than as an image to be reproduced on postcards. What a poem like “Refugees” does, therefore, if recalled within such a space, is remind us of the actualities—both temporal and spatial—that exist in places that the easily reproduced image cannot. The poem, therefore, not as site of resistance but as language of resistance, and a refusal to remain silent.



1 Many have already drawn parallels to the Δεκεμβριανά (the
“Events of December”) of 1944, and while the connection is a complex one it is certainly one worth considering.

2 A recent photo essay on Time’s website by Orestis Panagiotou is an excellent example of some of the dynamic street art being produced around the city: http://www.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,2099542_2322652,00.html

3 Although, as is the case with many Europeans, many Greeks, especially the younger generation, are bi-, or multi-lingual to some extent.

4 As Kornetis goes on to point out, a lot of graffiti in and around Athens after 2008 referenced both May ’68 and the Δεκεμβριανά of 1944.

5 As a quick aside, there is also a subversive element at play here: the use of a tool, the QR code scanner, primarily used for the consumerist logic of late capitalism is now being used to transmit poetry.

6 Again, there is a certain randomness to this procedure: it could have been any one of the poems that appears on the Code Poetry website. I selected “Refugees” because it, randomly, was the first poem that appeared on the site in an English version, hence making it a much more viable text to use for the purposes of this paper.

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