24 October 2015

Athens: The Apocalypse?

The devastation of the Greek economy has been an absorbing saga over the last year. Beyond the brinkmanship and bailouts, many Greeks have had their lives and livelihoods torn apart. Courier went to see the impact on a workspace for creative startups in Athens.

Am I confident about the future? No, no, no. We have no idea what’s coming next,’says Vassilis Haralambidis, founder of arts and events production organisation Bios. He’s sitting in Romantso, Bios’ shared workspace for creative startups, live music venue and cafe-bar. Opened in 2012, it’s a 10 minute walk from the city centre in the gritty downtown district.

It’s 18 September 2015, two days before the latest round of national elections (the fifth in six years). The vote was called after a third EU bailout package and a new round of austerity was accepted by the government.

Bios, meanwhile, is reflecting on one of the most uncertain summers in its 13-year history and contemplating its chances of survival. The mood in the building is sombre but defiant, mixed with a palpable sense of anxiety over its future hanging in the air. The outlook is vastly different to three months ago. Romantso was finally running smoothly and at the profitable rooftop bar of Bios’ eponymous other venue (opened in 2002) business was good.

But everything completely changed at the end of June, when Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ Syriza government became the first in the western world to miss an IMF loan. A referendum on the repayment terms followed, the banks were closed and capital controls kicked in to prevent the complete collapse of the country’s banking system.

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Everyone froze

The events stopped Bios’ general manager Gabriella Triantafyllis in her tracks. She was in the middle of scheduling the events for the following season at the Bios and Romantso buildings when the news struck.

‘We all froze for a week,’ explains Triantafyllis. ‘Nobody knew what to do.’ The controls meant Greeks couldn’t take more than €60 out of their accounts a day, leaving many fearful their money was no longer safe. With the country gripped by financial uncertainty, hopes of bumper summer drink sales at the bars quickly disintegrated.

The controls also prevented international acts from being booked: the ban on sending money abroad meant deposits couldn’t be paid to the performers.

New schedule

The entire schedule had to be reworked, switching to Greek acts only. It was a huge hit to an organisation famed for pulling in overseas bands and theatre productions.

With no money allowed to leave the country, monthly payments for web and email hosting from the likes of Google and GoDaddy were refused, so many Greek websites were taken down. Paypal suspended all operations in Greece and even buying office supplies from Amazon was no longer possible.

Greek startups and creatives were suddenly cut off from the outside world. Although the amount of money they are allowed to withdraw has now been relaxed, international transfers are are still impossible for most, with no indication of when the ban will end.

Pushing on

The atmosphere in Romantso is however more positive when Courier arrives in September than than it had been in July. A small music festival was held the previous weekend, attracting 1,000 attendees.

‘After everyone pausing for the week, the consensus was that we should try and keep going as normal. Standing still definitely isn’t the way to go,’ says Triantafyllis.

The locals swing between defiance and apathy in the face of the twists and turns of the crisis. Hopes for the election, the second in just eight months? The default response from most is laughter.

There’s a feeling no government will be able to fix the county’s problems, resulting in a loss in belief that it’s even worth voting. Tellingly, the result was re-election for Tsipras, but with 10% less of the country heading to the polling stations.

‘There was a lot of hope when Syriza came in,’ says Triantafyllis. ‘But so far Tsipras seems to have

done the complete opposite of what he promised and called a referendum that achieved nothing but more uncertainly.’

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Still floating

‘We’re not confident, but it’s not about confidence, confidence makes you relax and sit back,’ adds Haralambidis, describing the current situation. ‘We’re like a small ship in the ocean, but still floating at least. You just try and keep the wave in front so it doesn’t hit you in the side and throw you over.’

It’s of little surprise that Haralambidis takes this line. After all, against the advice of just about everyone, he took the lease of the then derelict Romantso building in 2012, the same year the country’s government made the largest sovereign debt default of any country in history.

‘Ever since we started out we’ve had to find new tricks to survive and grow,’ he says. ‘The situation now is no different, it’s just another thing to overcome.’

Romantso: Bios’ creative co-working space

Romantso is packed with 21 studio spaces for creative startups. Run on an incubator model, it offers affordable space, all amenities and a ‘light touch’ mentoring scheme, along with an exhibition space and photography studio. There’s also a public cafe-bar, performance venue and nightclub.

Opened in 2012, Romantso takes it name from a once thriving magazine from the ’60s and ’70s, the print works of which once occupied the space.

Bios itself was founded by graphic designer Vassilis Haralambidis in 2000 as an arts and music organisation that started out by putting on electronic music festivals in the guise of Barcelona’s Sónar. It also carried out a large amount of design work for a range of clients including the Athens 2004 Olympics.

It’s first venue, also named Bios was opened in 2002. Initially concentrating on audio-visual raves, it was the first to host a laptop based electronic music performance in Athens. In the mid 2000s, notably as the founders began to get older, and more clubs and electronic music venues began to pop up, the team switched to concentrate on theatre, performance, live music and art.

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Transforming Athens’ rotting district

Step north of the centre of Athens, the tourist filled plaza cafes and ancient architecture rapidly fade away, replaced with junk shops. Enter the edge of the downtown district, the roads and pavement begin to fall apart, with the patches of damage and potholes becoming increasingly larger. Rubbish lines the streets.

Then suddenly it looks as if you are in a small Indian town — if it weren’t for the Greek graffiti and occasional drug addict, dealer and Russian prostitute. The corner shops, electronic stores, barbers and restaurants are all Indian or Bangladeshi owned, taken over by migrants attracted by the cheap rents. Many buildings are abandoned and near collapse.

Romantso sits at the heart of this. The area, known as Gerani — which it so close to the city centre the Town Hall backs onto it — seems to have been abandoned by the government, allowed to rot from the inside. There were regeneration plans outlined before the economic crisis but these have since disintegrated.

It was something Haralambidis had noticed during the decade he had spent walking through the district to work. It had become darker, more abandoned, increasingly forgotten, a place you wouldn’t want to walk alone at night. He’d also noticed the empty Romantso building, and often pondered the possibilities of the huge place.

Then in 2012, he finally took on the lease. As well as bringing new life and creativity the area through hosting startups and events in the building, the hope was to engage with the district and help develop and clean it up.

Twice a year the team put on a festival, named Gerani after the district. It’s designed to engage both the locals and attracts people from across the city. They put on yoga and swing dances in the crumbling streets, even parties in a sketchy abandoned underpass.

A guide to all the local Indian and Bangladeshi restaurants is handed out, providing the owners with their busiest weekends of the year. During the most recent festival, Romantso based bag designers Lommer and fashion designer Euangelia, set up stalls and window displays in a once popular department store that had steadily declined along with the rest of the area.

The startups in Romantso describe how the area has changed since the building first opened. Simply having a bustling space that’s constantly full of people and lit up 24 hours has transformed the street. An increasing number of artists and designers have moved their studios into the area. A second bar has even opened around the corner.

‘Competition is always healthy, it shows the area is developing and means more exciting things can happen,’ says Bios manager Gabriella Triantafyllis.

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