A collective of collectives
Esto Association is a design studio with an interdisciplinary practice based in the Exarchia neighbourhood in Athens, Greece. It was founded in 2021 by Markela Bgiala, Niki Danai Chania and Konstantinos Doumpenidis. Esto is a creative association of designers-artists with multidisciplinary backgrounds. The studio’s main focus is the use of design as a medium to address current societal problems and engage in political, social and humanitarian issues. Alongside this, the studio also works with clients on visionary commercial projects. Esto wants to highlight the generative power of design and the possibilities that artistic practices can open up in critical and socially active ways. For this reason, the studio focuses on collaborations with art initiatives, non-profit organisations/groups and institutions, and reaches out to the neighbourhood communities. Esto shifts between art, creative direction, curatorial and design practices by continuously expanding the boundaries between disciplines, autonomous works and commissioned projects.
ESTO Association is the only design collective in Athens, Greece, operating in the intersection of design and contemporary art. Forming a collective was a conscious choice stemming from a desire for collaborative work, but also a practical one. To be a creative practitioner in Greece’s precarious reality and running an art space is a challenging endeavour that is better shared, if not required. In this piece, we want to explore the notion of collectivity and how it manifests in the Athenian art ecosystem and its potential. How collectivity from necessity can become a generative power in the creative world and what we can do to preserve it.
Since the end of documenta 14 in 2017, which unfolded in both Kassel and Athens, a surge of intrigue has enveloped art practitioners regarding the potential of the Greek capital as a new contemporary art hub. This fascination has been met with a concurrent rise in artist-run ventures and project spaces across the city, initiatives that have sprouted from local endeavours, as well as artists abroad who found in the city of Athens an unexplored new art territory. The backdrop of Greece’s recent economic crisis created a market of cheap ground-floor spaces, emptied after the closing down of so many small-scale businesses due to financial struggles. These unoccupied spaces were almost “ideal” for repurposing them into art studios or creative spaces that opened up to the public.
Deprived of state funding and facing the hardships of economic crisis, the contemporary Greek art scene finds itself operating in non-conventional ways with a DIY mentality, relying on artists’ networks, friendship bonds, and a lot of personal time and money invested in these artistic projects to be able to exist, survive, operate, and flourish. Through these processes, ideas of collectivity and community are starting to manifest creating a contemporary art ecosystem. The notion of collectivity and the collective is a response born not only of intention but also of necessity due to the precarious conditions confronting art practitioners and creatives in Athens.
In recent years, however, the neighbourhoods that provided a haven for these endeavours are undergoing an extreme process of gentrification. Escalating rental prices as a direct result of Airbnb that has taken over the city, reckless political decisions that favour investors instead of local citizens, whole buildings owned by foreign investors, and a surging number of expats and digital nomads are some of the factors that change the identity of the city. Forming an art collective has become a lifeline for artists, often the sole viable solution for renting and maintaining a space through shared financial responsibilities.
It is interesting to see, though, how this necessity-fueled collectivity is creating new ways of reimagining collectiveand self-organised action. The imperative for artists to form collectives to afford spaces has, in turn, created a new way of thinking. In this process of collective building, they learn and discover new ways of understanding autonomy, collaboration, and the concomitant creation of a community. What are the things that one is learning through the process of creating and sustaining an art collective? What kind of knowledge is being transmitted through finding ways to collaborate, integrating horizontal hierarchies, and understanding the possibilities of collective thinking and doing?
Having to face gentrification and a precarious economic environment, these collective artistic practices are emerging to resist austerity policies. An art collective – even one born out of necessity – operates as a rejection of the radical individualism that is the cornerstone of our neoliberal era. It operates, simultaneously, as a counterpart to the big institutions that dominate the art world offering a different non-institutional understanding of existing in contemporary art. It presents an opportunity for art making otherwise. Artists and creatives are intercepting the institutions digressing from the path that connects an established artist solely with institutional recognition.
In the current situation, these art spaces are evidence of the resilience of the Greek contemporary art scene and the Athenian artistic landscape is uniquely shaped by this necessity of collectivity. It is evidence of how artists, creatives, and cultural practitioners are leveraging the concept of collectivity to not only navigate economic challenges but also foster collaborative and sustainable forms of artistic expression. This has as a result a unique nature characterising the contemporary Athenian art scene that constitutes a plethora of artist-run spaces, artist co-operatives, not-for-profit arts organisations, and other artist-run initiatives conversely to other European capitals dominated by big institutions in the arts and cultural sector.
Collectivity has become pivotal for art spaces to operate autonomously and this collaborative autonomy is something that needs to be safeguarded, preserved and advanced further. The aim now, though, is to build a network between these spaces, necessitating the expansion of collective concepts from artistic groups to art spaces. The principles of shared knowledge, co-operation, and mutual aid must extend. It’s consequential for the different small spaces to collaborate, co-organise and connect. Collaborative events, festivals, and exhibitions would bring collectives together, forming a robust base to operate sans state funding. As the economic crisis gave a new perspective into the notion and understanding of ownership and proprietorship, ESTO Association calls for a “collective of collectives” with artists gaining access to diverse resources, including shared studio spaces, equipment and mentorship, and a supportive community that nurtures growth, critique, and learning. Networks, resource sharing, and collaboration help artists surmount economic woes while enriching their creativity through shared ownership and participation addressing issues of accessibility and inclusivity within the art world.
Festival Life creates shared moments of audiences and artists, eye-to-eye