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Courtesy of LIFE SPORT

Why grey sweatpants are funding an art gallery in Athens

LIFE SPORT is selling the Athenian aesthetic staple in an attempt to fund a new art movement in Greece

Today we are more aware than ever before that our clothing choices are political. It’s true for all garments, but particularly for the ones with complex social history, such as sweatpants. It’s the attire of riot, of working class youth, of hip hop legends, of violent masculinity, of La Haine, of urban drifters and slackers. The fact that a simple piece of jersey can expose so many boundaries and hierarchies in society means that it has powerful creative potential. This is exactly why LIFE SPORT collective, based between Athens and Berlin, has chosen sweatpants to create a project that blurs the lines between the worlds of the street, art and fashion.

LIFE SPORT was born out of the daily observation of Athenian streets, where a huge number of people in the city, regardless of age, gender and social roles, prefer grey sweatpants to any other kind of clothing. The collective had long been documenting people wearing grey sweatpants as a way to engage with the city and a continuous visual study of a previously unknown environment and soon moved to producing its own sweatpants as a way to fund its work with artists and exhibitions. The original LIFE SPORT sweatpants were inspired by a pair of grey Nikes from the 90s, a time when Nike produced garments in Greece before moving to Asia. By producing their sweatpants in Athens, LIFE SPORT invests in its local community but also pays a tribute to the changing landscape of production and retail which has an unavoidable impact on the place.

Born out of the need for change within the art system – with its limiting framework of gallery spaces and art institutions – at the same time, LIFE SPORT is also about the role of art in shaping the broader social landscape. In times of austerity in Greece and ferocious cultural funding cuts in the UK and US, making art should not be a luxury for the few. LIFE SPORT shows that tools for activist art can be discovered in the every day, and that we can be witty, not cynical, and that anything can become a vehicle for change, even sweatpants.

Below, we spoke to LIFE SPORT about Greece’s ‘crisis’ narrative, cultural tourism, and sweatpants as a lifestyle.

“It has always been about opening up the conversation and creating alternatives to the formats that exist. We believe in creativity and artists, not the art industry” – LIFE SPORT

Why grey sweatpants? Is it a story more about Athens – or something more global? 

LIFE SPORT: It started with an observation in Athens but it's definitely global. Everyone wears sweatpants but not everywhere feels like it is a philosophy. It's not just a trend and sweatpants really are an integral part of the Athenian landscape. For us, they have become an artwork and a conversation. There are so many different brands and non-brands circulating. Some of which have motivational quotes such as 'be strong' or 'fellow women's power'. Sweatpants are a lifestyle – mainly one of comfort but they also carry an attitude of resistance and being exempt. 

Looking at your logo which is two palm trees, the ideas of leisure and South immediately come to mind. Was this your intention?

LIFE SPORT: Yes, it's about those things. Palm trees represent the South, holidays and being a tourist. In a way we embrace the idea of being full-time tourists, even in our own local. It allows for keeping an overview and a slightly distanced perspective, as well as not getting complacent. Palm trees are as generic as sweatpants. But there is a story to the logo that involves another art project we are doing, Caribic Residency, which is a conversation rather than a physical place that takes artists out of their usual context. The palm tree on the sweatpants is an appropriation of the logo and it was our intention that LIFE SPORT could perhaps be a means to fund our activities with Caribic.

Sweatpants are in a way a very political garment often associated with working class youth, unemployment, riots, and disorder. Are you interested in the politics of sweatpants?

LIFE SPORT: Sweatpants allow for everything and that's their politics. It's not about what they are but about how they are worn. They are all the things you describe and more, but we don't have to put a label because sweatpants are highly absorbent. They are inclusive of everything. Wearing sweatpants, we become part of a shared identity united by a clothing item with room to stretch and expand to accommodate all. They are a reminder that all our voices make the same sound even if we are not saying the same thing. Also, sweatpants don't carry a stigma in Greece. They are rather invisible and therefore quite free, and not just lazy or radical. We see them as versatile and elastic, the fabric as much as their content. Sweatpants wearers disappear in the mass, yet there's an element of resistance by jarring with notions of 'work' and the expectations of productivity and making yourself utilisable.

Do you wear sweatpants yourselves and do you notice that it makes you feel differently on a physical, emotional or cultural level? 

LIFE SPORT: Yes, we wear them all the time. Sweatpants make you feel good. They are soft when life is hard. Wearing them is a bodily experience as much as a psychological training to transgress, categories and social pressures. For example when you ask yourself ‘do people take me seriously’ or ‘am I adequately dressed?’ This is good, they stretch our thinking and question the relationship we have to what we wear and what that means. We see them as part of a consciousness training to overcome restriction and prejudice, the codes of fashion and social pressures, appearance, etiquette, formality, gender, age, power, efficiency whilst being at ease with oneself. To a large extent, that's an entirely internal process. However, by producing our own sweatpants brand we feel empowered to own that mindset and being able to share it.

Your artistic practice goes beyond the traditional format of artworks in gallery space. Have you always been interested in working beyond it?  

LIFE SPORT: Yes, for us it has always been about opening up the conversation and creating alternatives to the formats that exist. We believe in creativity and artists, not the art industry. A big part of LIFE SPORT it is to allow for collaborations with people from different backgrounds. We are situated in an art context which we utilise as a safe space for experimentation and conversation. It's in that hybrid place between being a sweatpants shop and an art space where we feel most able and comfortable

Athens today is often talked about as a major destination for young artists relocating from Berlin or London. You’ve been in the city for a few years now, what is your experience of the art scene?  

LIFE SPORT: We have been engaged in living and working in the south of Europe since 2011. The ‘crisis’ narrative exports well but has been largely a projection and a label that has been applied from outside and only later been taken on as an identity within. When we came to Athens three years ago the local art scene seemed pretty conservative, formal, and far from inspiring or timely. We found inspiration everywhere except in the galleries. The local art scene, like most industries in Greece, felt corrupt.

Early on we were actively taken aside and instructed that in this town you have to ask for favours. We never asked for favours and became really independent on the back of it. By producing sweatpants, it’s a means to create alternative funding for the projects we want to do. In general, Athens needs more innovators and less imitators. The younger generation needs to emancipate themselves from the older establishment and redefine what contemporary Athens really is, gaining their own voice. The ‘crisis’ label can’t last forever and there’s definitely room for fresh perspectives, also from international cultural producers.

“Athens needs more innovators and less imitators. The younger generation needs to emancipate themselves from the older establishment and redefine what contemporary Athens really is, gaining their own voice” – LIFE SPORT

It's interesting that your project exists in the time when streetwear and sportswear are so hyped in fashion, with examples like Supreme generating so much excitement. What do you think of this obsession and have you ever thought of using it for your purposes?

LIFE SPORT: High fashion brands appropriating poor garments and selling them at outrageous prices is cynical and therefore timely. It places the emphasis on the flatness of branding and the fatigue of coming up with new stuff at an ever-increasing speed within late stage capitalism, which is a totally valid statement to make. Much of current contemporary art is cynical but at the same time that is a pretty disempowering position, the feeling that there's nothing we can do other than to passive-aggressively partake. LIFE SPORT is trying to be a bit more optimistic and emancipatory I guess – to sell Athens-produced sweatpants for 35 euros is not cynical. As a brand, we are not trying to create desire but redirect desire to what we already have and what we can do with it. We are interested in a horizontal way of working and collaborating and meeting at eye level. Perhaps it's a sign of having become more southern that we are being less cynical.. Sunlight makes you a little happier.

What is the LIFE SPORT manifesto? 

LIFE SPORT: LIFE SPORT is an optimistic project, we believe in potential, collaboration and try to focus on the positive. We are all. We are all that we have. Own yourself.

Follow LIFE SPORT here