by Andreas Angelidakis
The first night on the island, I left camp in a paranoid fit. Suddenly there was not enough space, the beach wasn’t big enough. I rolled out my sleeping bag and slept under the stars. At dawn the glorious morning sun illuminated the fact that my wallet had been stolen. That’s what happens when you leave your camp, when you stray from the herd. Beach living is just like any other camp: there are invisible borders to cross and ephemeral property lines to mark with a wet swimsuit and an empty bottle of water. Wherever you lay your tent, that’s your home. Property is temporary and easily transferable between friends. Whoever arrives first on the island picks the ‘best’ spot, and then can pass it along to friends. You might find yourself sleeping in a tent installed months before by someone you never met, but still for these days or weeks, that tent is yours to sleep in. The beach is a makeshift community, and sometimes the nearby cafés let you use their bathroom. At night you try to keep quiet, or join in the party if there is one. It is a simple civilization, reduced to the essentials of waking up, swimming, eating and sleeping. Sex in the tent or on the beach is often an option, though horror stories of sand entering the condom abound. Otherwise everybody is happy and relaxed, if often quite dazed.
The Tourist and the Vagabond
The southern islands are always full of tourists in the summer months. Usually they rent crappy island rooms that provide single beds with ugly little bedside tables and just enough room to walk around and jump over the suitcases on the floor. This type of room has no windows, most often just a door, and next to it is another room and another door leading to another room. The price for these range from 25 to 70 euros per night, no breakfast included, and with minimal services. The people renting them aren’t in the hospitality trade as such; they are farmers or plumbers or even grandmothers. They just rent rooms for a living.
If one considers Zygmund Bauman’s definition of the post-modern man as a tourist who constantly jumps from reference to quotation in order to defy description, then his dark alter ego is the vagabond, the post-postmodern man who shifted so much he not only escaped description, but dropped out of civilization altogether. And if the tourist is the one renting the rent-a-room on the island, the vagabond chooses to drop out on the beach. He sets up in a free campsite, paying no fees and requiring no services. It’s a temporary escape from the neoliberal grid, no electricity, no money, no light apart from what the sun provides. If you need electricity, you ‘borrow’ some randomly. If you brought cans of food, you never leave the tent. But the vagabond can be well organized in order to survive. He has a reflective tent with a cotton and gauze interior, multiple openings that flap open to provide a breeze and large pieces of batik or other folklore fabrics to stretch casually over the tent for shade. Some carry solar laptop chargers and special instant-filtering bottles, inflatable mattresses and antiallergic pillows. Their outfits are mostly droopy cotton in perfectly faded blacks and burgundy; they cast their blow-up beach toys all around the campsite, they smoke their joints and listen to their ipods while pretending not to be yuppies. Often they are adrift in a sea of overpriced specialized accessories, ready for the hardest storm and the worst weather, which apparently never comes. On the island they form lines waiting to take a shower at the newly installed beach bathroom, then they walk home, crossing the little streets formed by the multiple rows of tents lining the beach. Awkwardly, their civilization is not so different from the one they escaped. In fact, they just copied what they knew already; they never bothered thinking it over when they were starting over.
In the early 90s we were cast ashore another beach. Like Robinson Crusoe, we proceeded to copy the offline civilization we already knew. Like most shipwrecked folks, we made proper houses out of banana leaves and villages out of our makeshift huts. We appointed leaders and made rules for existence. That beach was the internet, and we were the first generation to arrive there. Clueless, in the beginning we used the internet as a search engine, looking to see what was there already. What we found was banal information, phonebooks and cookbooks, dick, pussy and ass. We learned to use electronic mail and to post on electronic bulletin boards, just like we would in the lobby of our highschool. Like every new civilization it took at least ten years to see any sign of actual culture on the distant horizon. Slowly the shipwrecked citizens of the internet formed their online communities and started developing social structures. The first such structure was called the Palace, and artist Dominique Gonzales Forester proclaimed that the sound of a modem connecting to the web was the “sexiest sound in the universe”. Later came other structures: friendster, myspace, twitter and facebook, slowly introducing their own terminology. “Friending” became a form of pretending to know strangers, “following” was pretending to pay attention. “Liking” became the universal currency exchange, and it seemed we were all working to collect “likes”, useful for nothing but the pampering of our egos. A “comment” was how you could discuss a subject, and since those discussions were held in the open air Agora of the main page, it did not matter who you were having the discussion with, since anybody could answer. We all lived on walls and spent our times staring at our friends’ walls, wondering when their “timelines” would be active. Our life on this beach of the internet was called simply “Newsfeed”, and there was no room for anything old; yesterday’s posts were literally archaeological finds. Previous social networks were our lost cities of the internet. Like a beach in real life, our domesticated wall pages became as ephemeral as the flicker of a lightbulb and as solid as the facebook IPO would allow. We all wondered if we should move on to the new beach of google+, but quickly realized that that was just a fata morgana, a place that never existed, a ghost town never inhabited, except by our gmail ghosts. Inhabitation of these beaches was as unorganized as a set of tents on a sandy beach in Anafi. One day you woke up only to find half the population gone, having left with the midnight boat. Summer was coming to an end and even if you appreciated the quiet on the empty beach, you still didn’t want to be the last to leave.
Proposal for the reconfiguration of Roukounas
If we study the way tents are layed out on the beach, we notice a striking resemblance to how buildings are placed on the inhabited beaches of this island. It’s not that the tents are so orderly, even though they do follow a logic of shade, proximity and horizontality. It’s that the buildings on the island appear just as haphazardly joined, divided by invisible zig zag regulations and connected by varying widths of road. No urban planning, no system, no organization, the buildings represent a solidified version of the beach camp. Or maybe it was the other way around? Maybe the tent vagabonds looked around for clues on how to organize themselves, saw the randomly scattered Cycladic white cubes and decided to follow suit. Like on a beach, what matters is that your land is flat and soft and close to the water. You want to be close to your neighbours too, and you want to be part of a community that represents you.
Just like on the internet, we have to be able to re-imagine our communities so that they better represent us. Looking at the main camping beach of Roukounas, I imagine what it would be like if it stuck to a strict urban plan. Could we achieve a ceremonial symmetry? Could we have public spaces and temples? And what kind of civilization could take place on that field of sand and symmetry, hierarchy and ephemerality?
Would our city of tents be aligned according to the stars of the summer sky, or the ancient buzzing bbr bbrrb zzzz ggzzz murmurs of a modem connecting to the internet? Can we re-imagine society as a perfectly organized welfare state Scandinavian beach, or are we destined to exist ad-hoc in the beach camp of South eternal?