A study on Indebted Place

2018 - ongoing

Limassol, CY

ac·ro·pho·bia |  ˌa-krə-ˈfō-bē-ə
: abnormal dread of being in a high place
: fear of heights
: in people with acrophobia, a physical response incl. vertigo, increased heart rate, shortness of breath, sweating, anxiety, shaking or trembling, and nausea or an upset stomach, can occur even when no danger is present

The aftermath of the 2013 Cypriot economic crisis and the mounting pressure of public debt on the Cypriot government have led to multiple and ‘violent’ construction projects in several cities across the island, primarily on the coastal city of Limassol, baiting foreign investors with Cypriot (EU) passports to purchase high-end property. Ultimately, also betting on them to save the island’s fragile economy. This status quo has motivated a research project titled Acrophobia, dedicated to studying how Cyprus’s public debt escapes the realms of finance and politics and is absorbed into daily life to hold identities, desires and futures hostage. The first chapter is a lecture that reveals debt’s simultaneously disruptive and productive undercurrents in shaping built environment, consumer behaviour and architectural imaginaries. The second chapter, still in development, focuses on debt’s relation to depression and violent language. How is debt rebranded or disguised? And to what extent can debt be considered a despotic machine? What kinds of neurosis does it produce?  Acrophobia was presented at Nottingham Contemporary, UK within the framework of the transnational research project A Natural Oasis? and at (Barcelona).

(below excerpt from a larger text that forms part of a video lecture and performance)

Tourism and banking are two of the biggest industries in Cyprus and mutated versions of both sectors are giving birth to something quite outlandish as they both also share a common denominator, speculation. The original etymology of the word ‘speculation’ meant "intelligent contemplation, consideration; act of looking,” however just three years after the words ‘Stock exchange’ first appeared in 1774, the meaning of the word ‘speculation’ was reassigned to describe high-risk investment. Quite an omen to the current global financial crisis that, from intelligent contemplation the meaning changed to high risk and quick cash. 
In 2013 Cyprus went through an economic crisis, otherwise known as the ‘haircut’, primarily as a result of Cypriot Banks purchasing Greek government bonds when they were cautioned not to and handing out huge loans to over leveraged local property companies and private entities. The crisis led to the infamous haircut whereby 40% of personal savings in accounts holding more than 100,000 euro were taken to ensure Cyprus does not default.

Many accounts in Cyprus, also a tax haven, were opened to launder money of mostly foreign investors’ questionable incomes and the EU also wanted to take the opportunity to flush them out. Yet many accounts also belonged to local business owners and individuals. The magnitude of the 2013 crisis has rendered individual debt into public debt that weighs on everyone, since every member of the public is called to take responsibility for it and help rebuild the economy. And what is debt if it is not a promise of repayment, a promise of a better future. Italian sociologist and philosopher Maurizio Lazzarato writes in The Indebted Man, “What is credit/debt in its most elementary sense? A promise of payment. What is a financial asset, a share, or bond? The promise of future value. Making a person capable of keeping a promise means constructing a memory for him, endowing him with interiority, a conscience, which provide a bulwark against forgetting. It is within the domain of debt obligations that memory, subjectivity, and conscience begin to be produced.” 1

Fig. 1 Castle Residencies, Limassol Marina, 2018

In Anti-Oedipus, Capitalism & Schizophrenia, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari argue that Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory of debt within primitive societies as outlined in his book, On the Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic (1887), lies within the human capacity to make and honour promises and it is the proper guide to understanding debt. Nietzsche explains in the early stage of human development, referring here to the penal colonies, if person A promises something to person B, and then breaks the promise, person B is allowed to inflict pain on person A. Nietzsche concludes that what B gains is the intense pleasure of making another individual suffer. In this compensation we see the ancient contractual relationship between creditor and debtor, and that extracted pain is the debt repaid to the creditor. The primitive production of scarification, is indeed, Deleuze and Guattari write, what must be called “a debt system, or territorial representation: a voice that speaks or intones, a sign marked in bare flesh, an eye that extracts enjoyment from the pain; these are the three sides of a savage triangle forming a territory of resonance and retention, a theatre of cruelty that implies the triple independence of the articulated voice, the graphic hand, and the appreciative eye.” 2

Fig. 2 Street-level construction site barrier featuring rendering of ‘The Dream Tower’ by Stylianides Group.
Photo: Denise Araouzou. 

Public Debt in Cyprus is 22.7bn and the Cypriot government together with property developers have created an investment program in order to pay off this debt back to the IMF and the ESM (European Stability Mechanism) starting in 2021. Buying or investing in property of more than 2 million Euro ensures investors and their family, a Cypriot passport. Now Lemesos’s skyline is mutating as almost 60 new luxury high-rise properties are under construction, meanwhile more are being approved. With the support of the Government and the Ministry of Interior, the Town Planning and Housing Department have not even conducted the necessary surveys on the impact on the environement, the quality of life, air, sewage, traffic and cost of living. As much as developers and the government are promising that these shiny new properties are beacons of the future, to many they are but permanent reminders of past mistakes and warnings of a future crisis. Cyprus has raised 4.8 billion euros from this scheme since 2013. Meanwhile Cyprus recorded a government debt equivalent to 103% of the country's Gross Domestic Product in 2018. Cypriot Nobel Laureate in Economics Christopher Pissarides, warns that the foundations for another crisis may have already been laid. “Let’s say a meeting is convened at the European Commission, and as you know a new EC president is coming in this year. What if the new EC president says they can’t tolerate this passport scheme in Cyprus anymore, that it needs to be curtailed? The bubble will burst instantly.” 3

Maurizio Lazzarato writes, “Credit or debt and their creditor-debtor relationship constitute specific relations of power that entail specific forms of production and control of subjectivity - a particular form of homo economicus, the “indebted man.” 4
To determine how deeply rooted an economic crisis is, one can look at the indebted subject and the extent to which they aim to appease the creditor, often compromising their identity and integrity. However, with identity and integrity, political agency starts to wear thin too as proven by the lack of the government’s interest in monitoring speculation and inflation. Debt has evolved over the years to emulate growth. Debt is fluid, debt is disguised and debt is intelligent.

Fig. 3,4,5 Renderings of properties by Pafilia ‘The One’, D. Zavos Group ‘Del Mar’, Cybarco ‘Trilogy’.
Credit: Respective property developers. 

Perhaps what we are facing in Cyprus is not an economic crisis but a crisis of imagination. We are blindly imitating cities like Dubai and New York because this is what we think development and growth looks like. Ultimately, a city that had the potential to do things differently, a small city of only 100,000 inhabitants, could experiment and propose alternatives or futures beyond the neoliberal model of fast and unstable growth, perhaps it is a utopic idea as Mark Fisher warns in, Capitalist Realism, “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” 5
I would even go as far as to interpret, metaphorically, the lack of imagination through the 3D renditions of several construction projects, whereby all space beyond the limits of the future building is blurred suggesting to the potential buyer (and the passer-by) that beyond this, nothing else matters. The selling point here is: Look no further, all you want is right here.

Fig 6,7. Close-up shot of MARR Tower rendering at street level construction site barrier.
Credit: pp+a architects

From the perspective of advertising, when you are selling a product that is not unique, as is the case with banking, accounting and real estate, you need to consider that communication aims solely to appeal to consumers on an emotional level (their hearts and not their heads), this is sometimes known as using an ESP (Emotional Selling Proposition). An ESP should produce feelings that connect consumers to the product, without necessarily offering anything unique other than the ability to trigger an emotional response. This is why several developers are choosing to advertise their projects using big slogans, such as “Symbol of your success”,  “Feel More”, “Before This, Life Was Ordinary”, “Own your dream”, “A new way of life”, “Define your future”, “We Build a Better Future” and 3D renditions of people who are dining, swimming, exercising, chatting and having a good time, suggesting that this could be you.

Fig. 8,9,10 All images renderings of ‘The Icon’ by Imperio Properties on street-level construction site barrier.
Credit: Imperio Properties

The hippocampus is a small organ located within the brain's medial temporal lobe and forms an important part of the limbic system, it is associated with memory, motivation and emotions. The hippocampus is not only involved in the formulation of new memories but localising objects and people as well. In fact, the ancient Roman and Greeks developed the method of loci, first described by Roman rhetoricians such as Cicero and Quintilian, whereby this technique of memory enhancement aimed to aid orators recount texts, otherwise known as a memory palace. Neuroscientist John O’Keefe and psychology professor Lynn Nadel explain: “in this technique the subject memorises the layout of some building, or the arrangement of shops on a street, or any geographical entity which is composed of a number of discrete loci. When desiring to remember a set of items the subject 'walks' through these loci in their imagination and commits an item to each one by forming an image between the item and any feature of that locus. Retrieval of items is achieved by 'walking' through the loci, allowing the latter to activate the desired items. The efficacy of this technique has been well established, as is the minimal interference seen with its use.” 6

Fig. 11 Emma Willard, Temple of Time, 1846

If the hippocampus is where memory is created, then we could suggest that perhaps that is also where debt is engrained, together with emotions of fear and perhaps pain, as Nietzsche outlined. One can argue that people sharing a space also share a collective memory. Just as debt manufactures subjectivity so does architecture influence a way of perceiving and constructing identities and differences. Even Quatremère de Quincy who wrote the entry under Architecture for the second edition of the famous series Encyclopèdie published between 1751– 1766 proposes a correlation between memory and architecture. He writes, “Among all the arts, those children of pleasure and necessity in which man has participated to help him bear the trials of life and pass on his memory to future generations, one cannot deny that architecture must hold a most eminent place. Even considered only from the point of usefulness, it surpasses all the other arts. It sees to the salubrity of cities, guards the health of men, protects their properties, and works only for the safety, repose and orderliness of civic life.” 7
In the case of Lemesos, architecture creates space exclusively for a private life rather than for a civic life and I wonder what happens when the most prominent and largest parts of one’s own surroundings are inaccessible? We cannot memorise the layout of a building if we cannot even enter or cross it. These huge structures are incapable of hosting or accepting our memories and they remain tall gaps in our memory, colonizers of our imagination. Until one day, in a distant future, after decades of remaining uninhabited perhaps we will be invited to visit them as ruins. Indeed, most likely they will remain uninhabited because as sociologist Saskia Sassen has noted, “An empty building is more profitable than one which is lived in.” 8

Italian architect Manfredo Tafuri’s analysis of architecture within postmodernism showed that to the extent that architecture can function in a capitalist society, it inevitably reproduces the structure of that society in its own immanent logics and form. “When architecture resists, capitalism withdraws it from service - takes it off line - so that demonstrations by architects of the critical distance of their practice from degraded life become redundant and trivialised in advance.” 9 An exercise for the imagination would be to see how one could predict changes within economy, culture and politics based on the architecture that a society supports today.

1. Maurizio Lazzarato, The Making of the Indebted Man: An Essay on the Neoliberal Condition, (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2012) pg. 39

2. Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia, (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press,1983), pg.189

3. Elias Hazou, “A new bubble in the making”, Cyprus Mail, January 2019, property-bubble/, Accessed: January 2019

4.  Lazzarato, pg. 30

5. Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism,
(London: Zero Books, 2009), pg. 3

6. John O'Keefe, Lynn Nadel,The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), pg. 390

7. M. Quatremère de Quincy, “Architecture”, Encyclopédie méthodique, vol. I, p. 109.

8. Conference, Ada Colau and Saskia Sassen, MACBA, Barcelona, 5 May 2018.

9. K. Michael Hays, Architecture's Desire: Reading the Late Avant-garde (Cambridge: MIT Press) pg.3