moderated by Julia Tulke,
with Myrto Tsilimpounidi, Aila Spathopoulou, Penny Travlou, and Anna Carastathis
[view as .pdf]
The Feminist Autonomous Centre for Research (FAC Research) in Athens, Greece is a self-described “space for learning, reflection, collaboration, support, exchange, knowledge production, political interventions, and trouble-making.”1 Emerging from an open discussion among a group of academics, activists, and artists, the project materialized into a physical space in the fall of 2019. Its rooms now occupy the ground-floor apartment of a neoclassical building on a quiet side street off the Church of Saint Panteleimon, the largest church in Greece and namesake of the surrounding neighborhood, whose overbearing presence is forcefully asserted by the sound of its droning bells—a sound that also punctured the following conversation.
This roundtable conversation with four of the five co-directors of FAC Research—Anna Carastathis, Aila Spathopoulou, Penny Travlou, and Myrto Tsilimpounidi—unfolded against a complex assemblage of events and emergencies, many of which remain urgent at the time of publication of this issue of Barricade.2 In the early days of March, when we gathered at the center to speak about the stakes of feminist and queer politics in Athens, feminists were mobilizing against the violent escalations playing out at the Greek–Turkish border, a new iteration of the so-called refugee crisis for which Greece has long been the European epicenter. Our conversation concluded when it was time for everyone involved to make their way to Syntagma Square for a “Feminism against fascism” protest and performance. The sense of solidarity and anger that brought several hundred protesters to the streets that evening also carried over into the third Athenian International Women’s Day celebration at the end of that same week, an event centered around expressions of solidarity with migrant and refugee struggles and demands against gendered violence. Shortly after the March 8 protest, prompted by the rapidly escalating global coronavirus pandemic, Greece, like other European countries, entered into a period of institutional lockdown, completely shifting the terrain and conditions of political activism.
In this space of disruption, FAC Research, along with other institutions and collectives in Athens, has been recalibrating its work and presence in the city along a feminist politics of care: opening up space to collectively think through the political implications raised by the state of government-mandated quarantine, rehearsing forms of protest beyond physical proximity, and building new networks of social solidarity based on mutual aid. In a statement from March 16, they offer: “Solidarity with our friends with compromised immune systems. Solidarity with all people who don’t have a home in which to ‘stay home,’ or for whom ‘home’ is not a safe place. Solidarity with people trying to survive in camps, detention centers, and prisons. Solidarity with people all over the world whose lives are seen as disposable.”
Weaving together several registers of critique—of academic institutions, regimes of knowledge production, leftist activism, borders—and forms of embodied practice—feminist pedagogies, performative repertoires of protest, modes of appropriating urban space, approaches to translation—this conversation speaks to crises both current and historical, local and transnational, discursive and material, tracing the contours of a feminist project grounded in knowledge from below and aimed at “unleashing our collective capacities for creativity, resistance, and care”—a project that is all the more urgent in the contemporary state of emergency.3
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Judith Butler at the assembly: Feminist autonomous research and the deinstitutionalization of knowledge production
JULIA TULKE: How did the Feminist Autonomous Centre for Research come about, both as an idea and as a space, and what does “feminist autonomous research” mean to you, both as a collective and with regard to your individual academic trajectories?
MYRTO TSILIMPOUNIDI: In terms of the Feminist Autonomous Centre for Research, I think the abbreviation—FAC Research—is really important for us. We all come from institutions and, speaking for myself, I came from the neoliberal paradigm of UK institutions, where it was extremely difficult to be an early career scholar and at the same time have any other aspect of your life there. At some point it became pretty obvious that this was not the kind of knowledge, or production of knowledge, I wanted to contribute to. So this is, for me, the idea of “autonomy.” In Greece, autonomy from the state is really important. I always say this, and every time it hurts to say it: The Ministry of Education is here called the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs, which gives a different meaning to what autonomy from the state should imply. Curricula, in universities at least, are in many ways checked by the church. Gender Studies, in the two universities where they exist, are, what is the appropriate word . . . misogynist, I would say. Feminist Studies, where they exist, are more or less connected to a second wave feminism, and Queer Studies are almost nowhere to be seen. Feminism, for me, has a longer story, because, when I returned here from a decade in the UK, I realized that there were many feminist collectives and groups that were doing amazing theoretical work. They were reading Judith Butler at their assemblies! For me that was incredible, that level of engagement with theory, and how that theory was shaping and shaped in turn by the experience of their activism. The understanding of “feminist,” in terms of the research center, goes back to questions of knowledge: What counts as “research,” who has the right to produce it, reproduce it, and so on. So we kept on thinking: What would it mean if this kind of knowledge that is produced on the level of groups and collectives were treated as legitimate?
AILA SPATHOPOULOU: As Myrto was saying, FAC Research began as a discussion between some of us almost three years ago. It’s something that we have been talking about for a long time, and for all the reasons Myrto was mentioning: frustration, disappointment, not feeling a sense of belonging. I’ve approached it more from my involvement in refugee and migration studies, so I think, for me, that’s a really important aspect of our research and how we formulate this research within such a context of borders and migration. And, for me personally, the feminist aspect came only recently, just in the last year, from spending a lot of time with Anna and Myrto, but also from reflecting on experiences in my PhD research. I think a crucial moment was the murder of Zak.4 We we all kind of hesitant when to start the Centre, how to start it, what kind of form it would take, and then suddenly an urgency apeared to organize and get it started. The crisis played a big role also, how we were both experiencing it and challenging the idea of who and what is actually in crisis, whose crisis it was.5
PENNY TRAVLOU: For me, the idea of discussing the Feminist Autonomous Centre came at the moment that I was personally questioning my academic life. Working full-time in a British university, I felt very isolated in terms of what I was doing in my school and my department, which is the department of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at the University of Edinburgh, where just now, only last month, we started talking internally about issues of diversity and gender, we being the usual suspects of course—women—and then as a labor of care. So when we were discussing the formation of the center as such, it came at a very good moment for me to reconsider ideas I had concerning where I was in the academic context and what was missing in terms of education and pedagogies. Feminist approaches to pedagogy were quite interesting to me. And, with reference to Greece, our discussion about setting up the center came at the moment of many different layers of crisis—crisis in quotation marks of course, because this can be seen as constructed. Here we have a society that is very misogynist, anti-feminist, anti anything that is different, basically. Schooling is very specific in Greece, in the way that it constructs specific identities, such that if you don’t fit within these, then you cannot find where you are. And obviously Zak, although I didn’t have a personal connection, definitely stuck with me, regarding how things are coming to a state of emergency and that this place [FAC Research] needs to happen. And lastly, there’s the issue that within the leftist movement, which is largely misogynist, feminist voices and LGBTQI+ voices have been very much alienated and isolated, even marginalized. Obviously now things happen in a different way, but even three years ago this was very evident, very visible. So, for me, these aspects really got me interested, as well as knowing some colleagues on a personal level, having discussions, and getting to know the others.
ANNA CARASTATHIS: I’ll just add that the idea of an autonomous center that validates, as was previously mentioned, knowledge from below, and attempts to bridge a rather deliberately crafted gap, not only in Greek institutions but internationally, between what are seen as academic forms of knowledge and practices that are in some ways instrumentalized or incorporated in those knowledges, but having first divorced the academic from the political on a very practical level, or even on a bodily level, was a huge concern for us, one that I think those of us who had worked in neoliberal institutions elsewhere had already experienced, and those of us who studied in Greek universities experienced in a different way here. The aim was to create a space where such a gap would not only be bridged but that a new model for producing and circulating knowledge would be created. In that sense, we saw the idea of opening a space as very important, because all these movement knowledges that were mentioned earlier were, from my perspective, generally small self-organized groups that occasionally would come together but generally worked in isolation from each other, and they had real difficulty maintaining their everyday organizing given the absence of space, and given their marginalization in various movement spaces that were male-dominated and, even if anti-nationalist, hegemonically Greek. The other, I think, important aim, which relates to the multiply discursively constructed crises, is the question of people’s exclusion from academic institutions, from education generally, and the ways in which those exclusions track broader inequalities and oppressions and exploitations in the society. We were concerned and we’re still trying to figure out ways in which we can first identify those barriers and then mitigate them, while at the same time, and on a much smaller scale, offering some kind of alternative for pedagogies that are not represented in institutions locally, and that are minoritized in institutions worldwide, pedagogies which put at their center the experiences that oppressed groups have and take this as the basis, or as the foundation for generating knowledge, theory, research agendas, and so on. We want to try to give real, practical solutions to people’s experiences of exclusion. There is massive talk about a brain drain in Greece, which of course coincides with a silence about the people newly arriving in Greece and the huge difficulty they face in having their education and qualifications recognized and in continuing on with their education if it’s been interrupted due to displacement. Our hope is that through a center such as this, we could run educational programs, and also research projects, that would give people who have a desire to continue their research or continue their studies a place in which to do this, a place which is deliberately anti-racist, deliberately LGBTQI+ affirmative, feminist, and conscious of the ways in which class divisions shape our participation in various social institutions. So, yes: “feminist,” “autonomous,” “research,” these are really significant keywords that appear in the name of the center, but “center” was also very important, in the sense of providing a physical space and also a kind of hub for connecting groups that, for legitimate reasons, are divided amongst themselves, but that still, given the urgencies of the time, need to come into conversation and into collaborative relations with each other.
“We are the granddaughters of the witches that you didn’t manage to burn”: Genealogies and histories of feminist practice and theory
JULIA: How does the approach to feminism promoted at FAC Research—which, according to your website, is defined as “queer, trans, intersectional, anti-racist, anti-authoritarian, always in plural, reflexive, and internally contested”—build upon historical models and genealogies of feminist practice and theory, both with regard to what has been canonized as the international feminist movement and the perhaps less well-known Greek histories of feminist and queer organizing and thinking?
AILA: For me, personally, I’m not so familiar [with these histories]; but through FAC Research, I want to learn more, FAC Research is a space for me to become aware of these histories. Precisely for that reason, I think that FAC Research should be a space that should be approachable to people who don’t have this awareness, for whatever reason. And I would like to share this experience of becoming aware with other people as well. I think everyone should feel comfortable, it should be inclusive, and maybe translation comes into that, in the sense that some things become unapproachable because of language, or because of a certain academic level. This is something that we are trying to work on.
PENNY: Looking at our statement about our feminisms, it contains a lot of things, but to be “plural, reflexive, and internally contested” means that it’s always in process, that’s how I see it. We don’t try to arrive at any fixed terminologies. We are, rather, trying to break barriers, and, specifically within the second wave, there are many issues with boundaries, such as the issue of transphobia, for example, and other forms of exclusion. So we are trying to be inclusive but at the same time self-reflexive, to keep coming back to questioning our positions and our positionality within the Greek context and within the wider context, including dealing with race, in the sense that we are in Greece and have a Greek understanding, but now we see all these flows of new people coming and have to ask, what are their feminisms? For me, this is how I envision FAC Research responding and being a plural space for working on this, rather than saying that we have everything fixed. We are in a constant learning process, and maybe that’s part of what we are doing working as an autonomous center, ideologically speaking as well.
ANNA: Building on that, I think that very often in political organizing, and this is not particular to feminism, the basis of collaboration or the basis of unity is sameness, the convergence of ideology or particular identities or experiences that are seen as crucial for political action. The idea seems to be that, in order for us to act together as a group, we have to share certain things in common, be they identity categories or political ideologies or lived and historical experiences. And one can understand why this takes place and why this is prioritized, but, on the other hand, this question of sameness always harbors the danger of exclusion, the danger of a false unity around sameness, the presupposition of which is the suppression of existing differences, even within a nominally unified group. When we were discussing what we had in mind to do here, we wanted our starting point to reflect the differences among us and the differences of the imagined community that we are part of, and not to see these differences as an impediment or as a barrier to coming together and to collaboration—which, admittedly, is easier to say than to actually do, because in practice that means a particular relationship to conflict that we are still very much struggling to come to terms with. But that’s the idea. And I think the notion of research gives us an opening that might not be there for groups that have a more narrowly defined political agenda. Research is about an openness to challenging perceived ideologies, even ones that we ourselves subscribe to, and to understanding the world through a multiplicity of perspectives and our positionality within this world through processes of reflexivity and exchange and debate and dissensus. This is something that the feminist movement, and feminist movements globally, have tarried with since the outset. One could write a history of feminist movements—even those that are characterized as belonging to first wave or second wave, which are homogenized as identitarian and intolerant to difference—or of feminist thought, which sees the subject of feminism as always under question and always under erasure. And we take on that trajectory in speaking about feminisms as always in plural and internally contested, which is of course easier said than done, and a process that is often painful and exhausting.
JULIA: I do want to get back to the issue of history for a moment, because I know that you recently ran a community course which produced a lot of research seeking to excavate histories of Greek, and perhaps specifically Athenian, feminist and queer organizing and life. I’d love to hear more about what it means to work towards making visible such histories, in a context where feminist and queer politics and theory are perceived by many to be newly emergent phenomena.
ANNA: The community course was called “Let’s Talk About ‘Sex,’ Baby: Histories and Theories of Gender and Sexuality,” and there were multiple inspirations for it.6 The proposal to do this course on this topic came from one of the people who co-taught it, Bessy Polykarpou. She had just completed her master’s thesis research talking with activists who were active in the post-dictatorship period and trying to map what we would now call LGBT activism through their narratives, through semi-structured interviews. I had done, for my master’s thesis, research with activists in LGBTQI+ organizations and collectives from 2010 onward, tracing the discourses that they were using, with a particular emphasis on how the notion of intersectionality manifested in their activism. And we made an attempt to link a theoretical discussion about sex, gender, and sexuality to a more historical retrieval through the method of oral history in the post-dictatorship period until 2010, applying an inquiry-based teaching method. The participants in the course each did an oral history with someone who was a participant in feminist or lesbian or queer movements, or who had some lived experiences of homophobia, transphobia, sexism within that same historical period. What came out of it was this quite interesting interconnected story, incomplete and fragmented, that, to my knowledge at least, doesn’t exist anywhere else, and that we’re trying to now look at more systematically and on a grander scale, to start an oral history project focused on this period, and ideally earlier periods as well, but the difficulty is, of course, that this generation of narrators is either very elderly or have passed on. Out of this came a conference, and also a publication that we’re going to put out hopefully in the next month, comprising the narratives as well as commentary by the researchers who elicited them.
MYRTO: For me, this question of history was always a big issue. I belong to the generation who left, who went outside Greece and discovered queer politics and was all too happy to engage in the struggle, and then came back to realize: Oh, but we’re not queer here. So again, this is an issue of translation: how “queer” got or didn’t get translated into the Greek activist context, outside of its theoretical significance. So, for me, this recent oral history project was really important in order to connect and learn the stories, in really oppressive times, of feminist struggles that existed here, even during the military dictatorship, even during the civil war. Connected with that kind of knowledge—I don’t want to use the word history, because it has a certain aura, it is a heavy word—there is this really beautiful slogan in Greece: Είμαστε οι εγγονές των μαγισσών που δεν κάψατε.
ANNA: “We are the granddaughters of the witches that you didn’t manage to burn.”
MYRTO: So there is this connection and this realization: “You existed. Sorry, we didn’t know about you. We thought there was nothing here.” I am speaking for myself here, but I think many people in my generation felt like they had to leave in order to explore their sexuality, or explore other aspects of their identity that were really being oppressed here, even inside Gender Studies.
PENNY: I fully agree. And if we’re talking about an older generation—I am a little bit older—this was something that was not visible. I’m of the generation that was the first to get into sociology, that’s a relatively recent field here. And geography didn’t exist, so I left Greece in order to study geography for my PhD, which tells you something about the state of social science and academia in general, where there was no space for anything, let alone Gender Studies. So the history, for me, is almost missing. I know fractions of the feminist movement that was very institutionalized. We had the feminist movement recognized by the social government in 1981, and then there were smaller groups, which were more in the periphery but still contributing to a very particular way of being and defining feminism in Greece. Everything that is emerging now in terms of queer feminism is very recent, I can even name the people that were part of, not even the LGBTQI+ but the gay movement, who opened up the conversation about gay men being recognized by legislation. So these things are very recent in our history, it’s post-dictatorship and even post-80s. Talking about tracing the history of feminism at FAC Research is very specific, as you see with the community course and the attempt to recognize and read these stories that had really been hidden in various cracks in modern Greek history.
MYRTO: I recently did the oral history project about queer organizing. I can tell you that the first queer collective started in 2004.
PENNY: Yes, so it’s super, super recent. And I remember very well how it was taken by those of the wider anti-authoritarian movement: What is this now?—not taking it seriously, essentially. It was very marginal.
MYRTO: This basically explains why people in the movements were reading theory a lot. Because with everyone we talked to, there was nothing there, so we had to read books in English to basically engage in some act of translation and, in that way, bring some issues to this context.
- FAC Research, “Our CV,” https://feministresearch.org/our-c-v/.
- The fifth co-director, Carmen Zografou, was unable to join the conversation due to a work deadline but took part in the process of collaborative editing that the text underwent.
- FAC Research, “What the FAC?” https://feministresearch.org/what-the-fac/.
- Zak Kostopoulos, also known by his stage name Zackie Oh!, was “a queer activist and drag performer committed to raising awareness about HIV.” On September 21, 2018, Zak was brutally beaten to death by a jewelry shop owner and a mob of civilians and policemen. The incident happened in broad daylight, on a busy street in the center of Athens. At present, Zak’s murderers remain free, with criminal charges pending. The case of Zak has galvanized queer and feminist activists in Greece and beyond, and become the focus of a number of high-profile campaigns, most notably the Justice for Zak movement, supported by Amnesty International, and an investigation by Forensic Architecture. See Athena Athanasiou, Vassiliki Kolocotroni, and Dimitris Papanikolaou, “On the politics of queer resistance and survival: Athena Athanasiou in conversation with Vassiliki Kolocotroni and Dimitris Papanikolaou,” Journal of Greek Media & Culture, vol. 4, no. 2 (2018): 270-71; Amnesty International, “Demand Justice for Zak Kostopoulos,” https://www.amnesty.org/en/get-involved/take-action/greece-justice-for-zak/; Forensic Architecture, “The Killing of Zak Kostopoulos,” https://forensic-architecture.org/investigation/the-killing-of-zak-kostopoulos.
- While after 2008, Greece became the epicenter of the “economic crisis,” in 2015 the so-called “refugee crisis” was declared, turning Greece into the “hotspot of Europe.” More recently, in October 2019, the current Greek government began speaking of a “migration crisis” threatening Greece, arguing that those who are arriving at Greece’s borders are “economic migrants” and not “real refugees.” For us at FAC, it is important to challenge categories that become reified as identities through the discourse of “crisis.” See also Anna Carastathis, Aila Spathopoulou, and Myrto Tsilimpounidi, “Crisis, What Crisis? Immigrants, Refugees and Invisible Struggles,” Refuge 34, vol. 1 (2018): 29-38.
- FAC Research, “Community Courses,” https://feministresearch.org/community-courses/.