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Island: Between Connection and Segregation. Late night thoughts: An email conversation

by Yiorgos Hadjichristou, Despo Pasia

Island: Between Connection and Segregation

An email conversation

Through email exchanges in the course of a week a discussion was developed between Despo Pasia (DP), museologist and Yiorgos Hadjichristou (YH), architecture professor. The discussion revolved around the notion of the island, both in its geographic and metaphorical sense. How does living on an island develop patterns of connection or segregation between the island and other places? At the same time, do these kinds of processes grow within the island itself?

Urban Gorillas:

Cyprus has often been perceived as being at the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East. Following British colonial rule, its passage to statehood in 1960, the subsequent events of 1974 that led to the division of the island, and its succession in the EU in 2003, Cyprus has entered into new, multiple social, artistic and political processes in search for identity.

Within this context, can you comment on the emergence of independent voices in the period following the independence of the island?

YH, March 18th,Monday 1:16 AM

Independence seems to be a lengthy process. Independent voices can be heard echoing within the still remnants of colonial structures: beyond the traditional architectural cores, the contemporary urban stage has been set by the British. The introduction of colonial planning regulations introduced a western way of thinking and forced traditional architectural typologies, including the prevailing courtyard organization, into extinction. Thus, it not only stifled any sort of development or evolution of traditional architecture but it abruptly disrupted any kind of continuity from tradition to contemporary urban scape.

Unfortunately, these new regulations implemented by the British were adopted by the young Republic of Cyprus and 57 years later, are still in force. Due to the fact that, until recently, most Cypriots were educated either in the Great Britain or in one of the ‘mother-lands’ (Turkey and Greece), alternative voices and attempts towards creating urban scapes according to local perceptions and needs were mostly silenced. It might have been an existential attempt to connect and create mental and cultural bridges between the segregated islanders and the mother-lands or the prevailing western cultures, through which identities could be suffused with the ‘Imported’, the ‘Foreign’, the ‘Other’. The vast radical financial, social, political and environmental changes on the island, together with the emergence of a vibrant academic and artistic scene have shifted this murky situation into a more critical approach. These, along with the increasing need for a substantial dialogue with continental cultures, have triggered opportunities for the creation of more independent thoughts and voices to be uttered.

 

DP March 19th, Tuesday, 12.25 pm

I think that the condition of moving between being ‘connected to’ and being ‘segregated from’, finds an intensified expression in the case of Cypriot islanders. This is not due to a single factor, but to an interplay between, size, geographical position, history, culture and the relatively recent colonial experience, to mention only a few. I agree with Yiorgos that the aftermath of the rupture in architecture instigated by colonial rule is very much a lived experience even today. Colonialism created ruptures in more ways than one [1]; bearing in mind that this is of course also true of other former colonies , we could extend Yiorgo’s description to the social, political and cultural condition of the island as well.
The reason I was saying that moving between segregation and connection has been quite an intense experience for Cypriots is because in search for what may be ‘a Cypriot identity’ within the colonial era and, subsequently, within the post-colonial one we have many times felt and appeared indecisive, dazed and confused. Attempting to connect to the two mother-lands (Turkey and Greece) has not been a unified experience for all Cypriots, neither politically nor culturally. At the same time, wishing to ‘speak back’ to the colonial centre in its own cultural and linguistic terms has happened both in order to connect and to separate the ‘local’ self from the ‘colonised’ one to various degrees. The very fact that Cyprus is such a small place makes these tensions even greater: social relations, political and cultural affiliations are very much confined by the family. Or at least were until roughly ten years ago… The changes Yiorgos has already mentioned led to the gradual yet steady emergence of critical thinking and of a ‘new and vibrant art scene’ in the country. [2]

True, the sea separates an insular space from a continent. It also connects the two. It seems that during the past ten years or so Cypriot islanders ‘cross the sea’ in order to tune in to the metropolis(es) of art, but they also ‘cross back’ in order to re-define the degree and nature of that connection and separation.

 

YH March 20th, Wednesday, 1.00 am

I would like to grasp on Despo’s inspiring way of putting the nature of the connection and separation in relation to the Metropolis(es) and extend this understanding to the local scale. It seems that the more our cities are replete with contemporary urban vibes, thus turning them into more of a cosmopolitan milieu, the better we overcome the negative repercussions of the ‘dividing forces’ of ethnic identities. As it has already been noted for another island city which has also been marked by prolonged conflict, spaces in the Belfast civic center , that manage to acquire new, multiple and more ‘cosmopolitan’ meanings are vitally important as they contribute to a ‘symbolic affirmation of a shared identity’ [3]; the re-branding of public art has managed to ameliorate or even efface the dividing symbols of the city.

This emerging Cypriot cosmopolitan city-culture, and the flourishing presence of universities , act as a drastic catalyst for providing connecting opportunities, as they turn Cyprus into a “globally open space, inviting cross-pollination, hybridity and fluidity” [4]. It is also true that these connections have been intensified due to the fact that Cypriot islanders are eloquently and creatively uttering their own independent voices, in their own terms. In other words, infiltrations from the Metropolis(es) and their re-workings at the local level have contributed the most to the releasing of ethnic tensions and divisions for specific groups. They have also generated lengthy ‘simmering’ processes of digesting and rethinking existing stories, thus facilitating the telling and establishing of new stories in the future. ……….

As this nurturing and re-working of cosmopolitan culture ambiance grows, the ‘buffer zones’ that reaffirm segregation become more and more porous, carved with doors that opens to the limitlessness of all possible directions rather than stitched by bridges that stretches between just two points, as they remind us that ‘the bounded and the boundary-less adjoin each other…as the possibility of permanent interchange’ [5].

 

DP March 21st, Thursday, 10.11 pm

‘bounded and boundary-less’

‘segregated and connected’…

I belong to a generation that has experienced continuous oscillations and movement between these poles (however one may choose to describe them) quite intensely. I do not mean to essentialise the condition of this island-country, it happens like in any other place [6]. Colonialism and nationalism on the other hand, can assist much more in explaining these intense oscillations as well as their institutionalisations. Museums in Cyprus are a good example at hand.

Having started as a dear product of the colonial project which had a profound interest in (mostly) the Hellenic past of the island, Cypriot museums saw themselves being turned into battlefields over the ethnic identity of the inhabitants of Cyprus. Until the present day there are state and semi-state museums which claim the people of Cyprus as a single, unified population with either Hellenic or Turkish roots. Armenians and Maronites, two other ethnic Cypriot groups, are almost absent from museological interpretations of the country.

Going back to our ‘last ten years’ discussion and as a result of that process we see a substantial number of instances whereby museums invite subversions of their previous narratives to dwell along their long-held colonial, nationalist or romantic readings of Cyprus (for example the Cyprus Museum & the State Gallery of Contemporary Cypriot Art). These subversions move beyond ethnic or religious identity as the core-element of Cypriotness, a condition which parallels exactly what happens in the art scene of the country. In doing so, (some) museums gradually emerge as what they ought to be: public spaces where identity and lived experience are being debated, not dictated, between groups that previously would not ‘speak’ to each other.

Performance art has recently provided us with yet another approach to cultivating new forms of engagement with politically charged spaces linked to Cypriot ethnic identities: Lia Haraki (2014) took on a very personal reading of a space which is unequivocally and continually being claimed for privileged use by nationalistic narratives, namely the iconic Liberty Monument in Nicosia [7]. The performance took place in the relatively safe space of the Nicosia Municipal Arts Center and involved the sculptural studies of the monument. To ‘metropolitan’ eyes, this may seem an artistic practice well used already in various instances. However, in a place where armed conflict over ethnic roots is a relatively recent experience, such moves speak volumes of the transitional era we experience in Cyprus. It is an era during which the body, the inhabitants’ body, our body, is gradually being made more visible – . Not as an inherent part of an exoticised insular touristic beach,[8] but as part of developing conversations with other bodies.

 

YH March 22nd, Friday 3.00 am

In a parallel approach, the Green Urban Lab (GUL) [9] has literally ‘hijacked’ the material presence of the historical and national identity of public monuments in order to make them available for enjoyment and active re-use [10]. Focusing on historical landmarks that are present in the collective memories of most Cypriots, GUL attempted to build its intervention on central urbanlocations by challenging their everyday use, or rather their non-use.

Castles are imbued with historical gravity and echo the repercussions of war. They were thus chosen as spaces which could be turned from still, lifeless relics of the past into possible realms of public everyday life. . Temporary inflatable, almost ethereal, structures were inserted in their premises in order to alleviate their permanent, uninviting qualities, to deflate monumentality, and to turn them into an enticing urban space for all people. They acted as everyday structures, which behaved as parts of the built environment in order to attract ‘everyday people’ not just the museum and monument goers. [11]. A major concern of the GUL project was to ‘play upon topophobia and create topophilia’ [12] at the exact locations where diving symbols are set, and to manufacture conditions for interaction with the ‘other’.

Furthermore, joyful events were generated by participating groups, whose voices and identities were articulately expressed. These ephemeral situations created by “activities of groups that are themselves ephemeral” [13] contributed vastly to generating opportunities for people to meet . The almost immaterial presence of the inflatables was filled with diverse and fun activities, a condition which enabled a temporary liquidation of ethnic, social, gender, age and other differences, thus allowing for new stories and voices to be inscribed on space as well as memory.

In yet another context, the Kaimakli festival [9] rendered the historical neighborhood with a diverse, multicultural scent of a vibrant spontaneous series of activities. The ‘open window’ and ‘open houses’ activities pleasantly exposed the residents’ everyday lives. The insertion of an elongated inflated temporary structure along one of the streets, again, provocatively and daringly invited unprecedented encounters and activities and momentarily, transformed a realm usually occupied by cars into a social arena of interactions, a ‘Human Topography with Emerging Identities’ [14].These spontaneous, ephemeral encounters added new layers to the urban scape that are linked and interwoven with the local conditions, existing histories and reflect independent voices and resistances

 

References:

[1] Pratt, M. L.. 1991. ‘Arts of the Contact Zone’. Profession 91: 33–40.

[2] Drake, C. 2017. Why Cyprus Is Europe’s Most Exciting Art Hub Right Now. https://news.artnet.com/art-world/cyprus-art-scene-887609

[3] Gaffikin, F., McEldowney M., Sterrett K.  2010. ‘Creating Shared Public Space in the Contested City: The Role of Urban Design’. Journal of Urban Design, Vol. 15. No. 4, pp. 493–513.

[4] Skrbis, Z., Woodward, I. 2007. ‘The ambivalence of ordinary cosmospolitanism: investigating the limits of cosmopolitan openness’.The Sociological Review, 55(4), pp. 730–747.

[5] Simmel , G. 1997. ‘Bridges and Doors’. Leich, N. (ed.). 1997. Architecture, a reader in cultural theory. pp. 65-69 (London: Routledge).

[6] ­­Hadjikyriacou, A. 2017. Envisioning Insularity in the Ottoman World’­­. In A. Hdjikyriacou (ed.) Insularity in the Ottoman World (Princeton: Markus Weiner Publishers).

[7] Lia Haraki, along with Yiannis Toumazis, developed a special version of her ‘The Record Replay React Show’ (http://liaharaki.com/index.php/work/on-stage/140-the-rrr-show-2014in the context of the exhibition & project Treasure Island which took place at the Nicosia Municipal Arts Center in Nicosia in 2014 (http://nimac.org.cy/archives/81).

[8] Zacheos, M.. 2016. ‘Delivering Views # 11: From Cyprus with Love’. Paper presented at the 4th International Conference of Photography & Theory (ICPT 2016): Photography and the Everyday. International Association of Photography and Theory, Nicosia, Cyprus.

[9] Antoniou, V., Carraz, R., Hadjichristou, Y. 2015 ‘Inflating the public’. Proceedings of the International Conference on Changing Cities II Spatial, Design, Landscape & Socio-economic Dimensions.Prof. Aspa Gospodini (ed.), p. 1597-1607. University of Thessaly/ Graffima Publications.

[10] Lefebvre, H.2014. Towards an Architecture of Enjoyment. Lukasz Stanek, (ed.) p. xIviii. University of Minesotta Press.

[11] Freidman, Y. 2011. ‘Architecture with the people, by the people and for the people’.AA Musac- ACTAR.

[12] Sadler, S. 1999. The situationist city. MIT press.

[13] see note 10.

14] Swiny A., Antoniou V., Hadjichristou Y. ‘Human Topographies_Emerging Identities’. Milan Design Trienale 2016.  21st century- Design After Design- XXI Trienale International Exhibition, pp.149-154.