Pedion tou Areos is one of Athens’s largest public parks, and perhaps its most controversial. Its name is a direct translation of the phrase Field of Ares, a term used since antiquity to describe an area reserved for the military. The original Field of Ares is of course the Campus Martius in Rome, and there’s also a Champ du Mars in front of the military academy in Paris and another in Saint Petersburg. In a similar fashion, the area in front of Athens’s old military academy — built in 1857 after a design by Ernst Ziller — was reserved for use by the cadets, hence it got the name Pedion tou Areos. In 1934 its 27 hectares of land were turned into a public park in the style of the English Garden that included a memorial to the heroes of the 1821 War of Greek Independence. Since then, this military-field-turned-middle-class-divertissement has been filled with war monuments in the memory of Greek and foreign soldiers. The park’s entrance is also home to the city’s largest royal monument, namely a statue of King Konstantine I (1868-1923) looking down on Egypt Square rush hour from his high horse.
Today, Pedion tou Areos is a rather misunderstood park. Largely abandoned by the state and with a major renovation plan reportedly (and quite evidently) left unfinished in 2010, the park is now a place where locals jog and walk their dogs in the morning and cruising gay men carefully avoid junkies staggering under the lampposts at night. The two churches inside the park are used regularly for mass and ceremonies, and the adjacent 1st of May Square is a popular gathering place for locals, especially migrants playing cricket and pensioners killing time over their backgammon boards. The dynamics within the park inevitably affect its surroundings: the dodgier and more unkempt the park becomes, the more abating properties lose their value and neighbours complain. The fact that a large public university, a private art and design college, an old anarchist squat, a prestigious Art Deco condominium and a four-star hotel also border the park only adds to the complex tug of war between interests — where unfortunately the park and its denizens are the rope.
It is within this sensitive context that the Onassis Cultural Centre in Athens came to realise the main component of its fifth Fast Forward Festival, which is organised annually as a generous opening of the organisation beyond its base on Syggrou Avenue to the city. The festival presented contemporary art, dance, theatre and music in 15 venues all over Athens, and activated abandoned buildings and some unusual locations (for example it organised the first contemporary art exhibition inside the Acropolis Museum). The project at Pedion tou Areos was led by Russian collective Chto Delat in collaboration with Ukrainian artist Anton Kats; titled “Park Fables”, the project sought to activate the park and facilitate dialogues between its communities through a series of activities, performances and the setting up of a temporary, narrowcast radio station. A team of Greek researchers facilitated the process and documented the history and evolution of the park, and provided the artists with the necessary information and context to execute their ideas.
Despite its extensive programme of events and being the central element of an entire festival, Park Fables unfolded inside Pedion tou Areos discreetly and unobtrusively. Even the main pavilion where the radio discussions and workshops took place was such an open and inviting structure that became a hangout for locals and visitors alike. A nearby sound installation by Alexandra Koumantaki and Periklis Lazarou played a soothing soundscape through speakers standing around a defunct fountain, with sounds generated from data collected from plants. Chto Delat also used the 1821 Heroes Memorial as the site of another installation with banners bearing historic quotes zigzagging down the so called Avenue of Heroes and the modernist Telecom Tower in the background.
In order to keep visitors informed about all these activities and the different works dispersed all around the park, printed collateral had to be produced. To that end the organisers commissioned Athens-based branding and design agency busybuilding to design the visual identity of Park Fables together with a newspaper, park map and posters. Inspired by the festival’s main theme of alternative views on archaeology as a way to imagine the future of cities, busybuilding visited the park several times to collect “visual samples” from the site in order to use them in its creative process. The result of this fieldwork was the creation of an entire alphabet consisting of letters and symbols found exclusively inside the park.
The alphabet was then brilliantly used to create different versions of a logo, as a way to symbolise the many voices and different communities that meet and overlap within Pedion tou Areos. This unique site-specific alphabet was used everywhere, from signage during the events to posters and banners pasted all around Athens to promote Park Fables. The newspaper containing articles by the research team, the artists and guest authors, and was being handed out for free at the project’s main pavilion. But the real star of the whole project was Mavroula, the dog of a homeless woman living in the park. It is the dog whose portrait was used on all communications for the project.
The whole idea of turning Mavroula into the protagonist and narrator of Park Fables was at the same time brilliant and tone-deaf. Because although Mavroula proved to be an adorable mascot for an admittedly sensitive private intervention into public space, turning her into a symbol seemed to be a perhaps too indirect way of talking about the homeless and the destitute living in the park without really addressing the issue. Now that the project is over, all the banners have been taken down and the park is returning to its normal pace, the real Mavroula is still hanging out near the statue of Athena by Alexandras Avenue, barking at her homeless owner as she’s crossing the street every morning to meet her. And just as Mavroula’s fabulous billboards and front-page photos are gradually disappearing from the city, so does the footprint of Park Fables evaporate from Pedion tou Areos.