OUTWARD INCARCERATION, INWARD ESCAPE
VOURLA: WHOREHOUSE AND PRISON
THEN AND NOW
The building complex of the state whorehouse and subsequent prison, in Vourla, Drapetsona, spans a century of the urban history of modern day Athens. In 1876, contractor Nikolaos Bobolas builds the state whorehouse in Vourla which shelters and contains the unbridled activity of sex work around the port of Pireas (pic.1). At the end of the 1930s, the building’s use as a sexual marketplace is abandoned, in order for the prison to be housed there during the occupation (pic. 2) The prison held various different kinds of inmates. In one wing the criminals, in another drug addicts, in a third political prisoners, members of the Communist Party. Later, the incarceration of members of the Left was predominant, who had engaged in illegal activity during the civil war and afterwards, during the period of the persecution and execution of the political rivals of the post-civil-war regime. “Pireas’ Judiciary Prisons”, operated in Vourla until the time of the dictatorship and in 1987, the disused building was demolished.1 Today, on the plot of the former whorehouse-prison complex, stands an unfinished set of apartment blocks (pic. 3). The collapse of the bank system of home loans in the crisis has left the apartment blocks of Vourla half completed and uninhabited, a ruin of current city-planning history. The elimination of every trace of the previous history from the grounds with the demolition of the Penitentiary and the erecting of the new building complex operates as a kind of return back to the origins: The haunted construction becomes the counter-monument of the previous state, of the repressed history: by repressing its recent history of institutionalized libido and political persecutions, the city capitalizes on the urban subsoil by erecting a ghost building. The condition of non-habitability is a founding requirement for every monument. Unfinished apartment blocks, without memory of being inhabited, become the monuments of a previous state which they have, simultaneously with their construction, at the same time deleted from the city’s historic ground. The libidinal momentum, sexual and political, that momentum which has activated the building of modern day Athens, has left in its wake freshly created ruins. The incomplete construction in the Vourla locality is history’s true monument, like the garment drying on the line, of a body which will not live to wear it again. This is the small picture of Vourla. In the large picture, a significant percentage of the buildings of Athens remains uninhabited today or with their ownership in question or with foreclosure imminent because of outstanding debts, at the same time as the homeless, both greeks and otherwise, proliferate on the edge of public life. More homes without residents and more residents without homes, in the same city, together.
TOPOLOGY OF HETEROTOPIA
Through Lacan’s topological trope of extremacy,2 the history of the city planning of Vourla may be illuminated as follows: At the time of marketing of sexual services, in the brothel’s rooms, on the beds of the sex workers, the male libido is discharged through bought sex. The city’s conventional life represses libidinal activity, sex, singing, transgressive fraternizing, in a policed area which is simultaneously inside and outside of the city: through the fortification wall a libidinal outside is tumultuously preserved so that the prison’s outside, the city itself, may be at peace and supposedly free3 preserving its normalcy and non-transgressiveness as the official condition of urban living. The condition of heterotopia as Foucault defined it, describes this topolody of outside, within-the-interior of the urban field. In a like manner, or so it now seems from a distance, in the lacanian topology of psychic space, the innermost recess of the psychic is occupied by the exteriority of the object of desire. The further in you go, the further outside you are, and the more outside, the further in you return, in a perpetual loop without beginning or end.4
INCARCERATION IN HETEROTOPIA
Utopia may be described as a hypothetical state of residence, worthy of nostalgia without however the possibility of being experientially breached. It remains a theoretical case which, the more one approaches it, the more it recedes. For that reason, the radical dissociation of utopia from the empirical world makes us suspicious: all this seems to carry an unacknowledged derivation in theology. Yet, heterotopia is suddenly described as a state worthy of nostalgia to which experience does provide access. We do not know and it would be of no consequence finding out what experiences of Foucault’s in half-dark, transgressive and unspeakable urban spaces enabled him to define heterotopia at a time when every trace of utopian reverie, every teleological political delusion had dissolved in thin air. Nevertheless, it’s as if the targetted use of the concept of heterotopia still in our days, extends the life span of utopian revery in the midst of a dystopian reality. The sense of urban subjects who engage in politically active dreaming that there is no exit and no way out in relation to the dystopian interior of the world of immediate experience can be stood on its head once it is replaced by the notion that heterotopia is already here: It is here as an existing filed of exteriority in the face of generalized incarceration. But is it so?
There is perhaps no more appropriate example of heterotopia than that of Vourla. A spatial arrangement appropriate to a military camp with the raised external walls and the inner typology of side by side placement and repetition, was fit shelter for both whores and political/penal inmates (pic.4). Always under state supervision. The incarceration of both whores and prisoners had a punitive intent. There are testimonies that the women weren’t only voluntary occupants, who were there in order to engage in sex work, but that they had been forcefully brought in, after being apprehended for misdemeanours vaguely related to their sexuality.5 The women’s incarceration as the result of the incrimination of their sexuality itself is analogous to the incarceration of the political prisoners as a result of the incrimination of their political being itself, their politicization. The sexual and the political are two irreducible aspects of the bodily. Through the dark and unseen area of the unconscious, sexuality and politicization emerge raw in order to take on, en route, the form of a demand for the subject’s freedom. Both the incarcerated whore and the incarcerated citizen/ political prisoner, are jointly subjected to the condition of their enclosure for the sake of the others. My imprisonment, as a whore and as a political prisoner, guarantees your freedom, the freedom of the other outside the prison, outside of here. The whore’s customer is the reverse side of the one who becomes a customer of the political prisoner’s rhetoric and promises. The common trait of those imprisoned, women and political dissidents is that they have both made the same “mistake”. They wish to exercise their freedom, sexual and political, in opposition to normalcy. Normalcy is the mechanism of the naturalization of repression. The political and the sexual, indissolubly hidden in the dark of the unconscious are asking at every moment to reap their revenge. Heterotopia becomes interesting when it stops being presented as the experience of another real, non-normal space and as another, non-normal alternative experience. Heterotopia starts to define the boundaries of difference when it reveals the routes into the dark and scorching magma of the unconscious. From a topological point of view, in short, heterotopia does not determine a horizon of difference to the real out there but can determine the channel of access towards the deep interior: that of the unconscious. To recall the freudian topology of the unconscious: There, the route is discernible from the outside world towards the soul’s inner recesses via a kind of burrow, something like a unnatural appendix. The process of repression in the passage of the desirable that comes from the outside world via the tunnel directly into the dark underworld of the unconscious. And it is literally an under-world, i.e. situated in the lower part of the body, the one Freud represents as a locale of the psyche in his famous diagram (pic. 5).
However, the way the topology of the psyche is described by Lacan, the strange and remarkable event that defines it is this: The more one infiltrates the psyche’s interior and reaches into the dark core of the unconscious, the more one enters into the indomitable world of the outside. What is at the innermost reaches of your soul, the priceless object of desire, is outside, unreachable, distant. For that reason, perhaps deceptive. It helps to better understand this if we consider the model of the earth. A launch into the stratosphere, no matter how cold and foreign it may seem, preserves the overview of the lived world down below. On the contrary, the descent into the dark magma, the earth’s interior – of which we only get a glimpse in volcanic explosions, before the lava dries on the ground – is a sinking into the ultimate outside. Burial practices, those time honored funereal rituals lack nothing by comparison to the promises of rarified utopian socialists and any other descendants of platonic idealism.They are rituals of conciliation with the ultimate exterior hiding in the earth’s resistant, unknown inner being.
THE BED, THE WHORE, THE COMMUNIST
The whore inside the brothel is associated with the figure of the lover (pic. 6). Sometimes he just remains a protector and a pimp, living off her work. At other times, she marries him and returns through him to the external world. At yet other times, she is left with a child for her dowry, an “illegitimate” growing up with her inside the refuge afforded by prison. Her bed is her only instrument of work, of breast feeding and child rearing, of resting and dreaming.
The nightmare of the political prisoner is reflected off the surfaces of the cell and returned to the bed of slumber. In the most extreme cases, for the inmate on death row, every night is the last night before his execution. The announcement of the order is continuouslly postponed. Time outside the “heterotopy” of the cell is more dreadful than the time inside of it. And yet, in the prison’s interior, in the bed inside the cell, a dream is protected and growing. It does not concern the inmate’s personal destiny but the destiny of all of humanity. This projection might make the incarceration a stoical redemption. The “heterotopy” of the prison is simultaneously for the witness/(martyr?) protection from death’s coming but also a stoical wait for the world’s redemption. The bed of the prisoner is the field of an ambivalent wait.
A BOTTLE OF BEER
In 1955, twenty seven political prisoners decided to escape by building a tunnel from inside a cell to the nearest place outside the prison wall (pic. 7). Escape was expressly forbidden by the Communist Party, hence this action was a double disobedience. The tunnel was indeed dug under the bed of political prisoner, A. Bardzokas. From a topological point of view this might be considered as the tunnel itself of repression in reverse: from the dark unconscious (whose?) towards the light of fulfilled desire, towards their own freedom. And so it was. The burrow was dug with patience and at extreme risk (pic. 8) The escape was successful. In the description of the escape by an inmate much later, it is noted:
“After we got away, I went into a smallgoods store and had a beer. It was the best beer of my life”. 6
Pleasure is the newborn daughter of freedom. The true event, the unrepeatable moment is this: After the escape from incarceration and before the nearly certain arrest. Certain insofar as the prisoner was condemned for his act either by the state or the party, whoever turned out to be the final judge. A bottle of beer signifies the moment of redeeming pleasure, as we have all lived it or seen it in spring ads with summer around the corner. The singular event is this for another reason as well. Outside the inside is not the outside but a new inside. Inside the world which the fighter wants to change in order to find himself outside. I can almost hear the waiter, as he pops open the beer, saying to the escapee:
“All that struggle, my friend, and all those sacrifices just so you can find in the world that you want to change, what is already there: a cold bottle of beer… you could have tasted it without all that struggle. And without the uncertainty that tomorrow you might be back in prison or in front of the firing squad”.
From his point of view, the waiter is right, but the prisoner, too, would have something to say. Something that, in the distance of half a century could only sound like a smudged echo: “Yes, well, but…”
In the apartment buildings erected in the 50s and for another fifty years lived the fighters of the Left but also their political rivals. The traces of the opposition were blunted and, already within the same generation, were forgotten or covered over.
Even the resurfacing of the difference in recent years, the “new civil war without arms” is no more than a farce which we take seriously.
It is not true that the further out you try to get the further in you go. However, the unfinished apartment blocks in Vourla, the anti-monument of the brothel and the prison, of the whore and the communist, points to some unfinished business in the post-war project of modernism. A project made possible with the worker’s left arm and the employer’s right arm, the whore’s left leg and the sailor’s right leg, with the legalization and dissemination of the rembetika songs. A project of contestation and synergy, identity and difference. The unfinished business is visible in the empty apartments, the incomplete blocks of flats in the era of the so-called crisis. The effort made in the period of construction, the drawing of excess labor value and the spent libido were larger than necessary but simultaneously not enough for the project to reach a state of sufficiency and stability.
ESCAPE BED (pic. 9)
I am thinking again of the bed of the political prisoner in wing 3. I assume it is the same bed of the whore who was breast feeding her illegitimate son in the same cell, a generation previously. I assume that every bed has an escape hole, for all the air that nestles and is caught between the warm bodies and the cold bedclothes (pic. 10) I am rethinking the bed’s outline, the sceleton supporting the mattress. I am assuming that the outline-sceleton is a tall fortification analogous to the prison wall. Every enclosure presupposes an escape. Sometimes that escape project is an act of heroism, sometimes it is a fleeting dream, sometimes it is a fart. (Pic. 1)
The Vourla whorehouse complex, western districts, aerial view, 1929.
The post-war refashioning of the Vourla complex into a prison.
The unfinished coplex of apartment buildings at Vourla. (Y. Isidorou, 2015).
Floor plan of Vourla, outer wall with three wings initially for sex workers and later for penal prisoners, addicts and political prisoners (reconstruction: Vassiliki Roditi).
S. Freud, topological scetch of the pysche from the 31st lecture in “New Introductory Lectures to Psychoanalysis”. (Pic. 6)
Whores and customers at Vourla in the 30s. (archive S. Milessis).
Escapees Wanted. (archive V. Pissimissis).
Escape of 27 political prisoners through underground tunnel (newspaper Acropolis, 1955).
“Vourla: Escape Bed”, installation at the exhibition “NICE”, Zissis Kotionis, 2016.
“Vourla: Escape Bed”, detail.
1. The historical data as well as the initial impetus for the Vourla project were drawn from the research of Vassiliki Roditi for her post-graduate thesis titled “Pireas. From Vourla to Troumba. The Interweave of Sexuality and Domination in Urban Space”, University of Thessaly, 2015.
2. on the term extimacy (in place of intimacy) also see Z. Kotionis, “ Topologies of Inter-Ex/teriorities” in the collective volume Staking Claim on the Countryside (Indiktos, 2008).
3. on the relation between defining a space as an enclosure and peacefulness and freedom, see M. Heidegger Building, inhabiting, thinking (greek trns. G. Xiropaides, Plethron 2008).
4. see J. Lacan’s topological diagrams in Pierre Skriabine, “Les figures de topologie” in Jacques-Alain Miller et 84 amis, Qui sont vos psychanalystes?, Éditions du Seuil, Paris, 2001, 395-404.
5. “G.P. nineteen years of age, from Asia Minor, was brought today (1929) before the officer on duty, charged with extreme negligence in the course of exercising her duties at the home of wheat grower A.M., where she is employed as tutor of his children. After due investigation, she was found guilty and it was decided as a corrective measure that she be included as a resident of Vourla for a few days… Her incarceration is not to exceed one week and she is to be assigned to a ‘home’ with only a few women boarders.” A. Miltsos, “Drapetsona and Refugees”, http://pireorama.blogspot.gr/2012/01/1920.html
6. Tvxs, “Escape from Vourla. Not even in the movies”, July 18, 2015.