Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Questions to be put to the Collective of 'Depression Era'

One question to be put to the organisers of this exhibition is why they called the demonstrations 'riot porn'? It risks not taking that protest serious. Even worse, by dismissing this form of protest, they appear to be condenscending towards those who stand up for what they believe in. Many took to the streets to protest peacefully and they wished to discuss policy related matters in public, so as to change the system in a just, equally collective way. Out of it was born the key concept the collective of photographers has borrowed as well, namely 'the commons'.

If delineation from how others deal with the crisis defines the context of the exhibition, then it poses the crucial question about the underlying concept of this photo exhibition calling itself 'Depression Era'? The question comes to mind when perceiving what seems to be the driving force behind the exhibition. Critically judged, the exhibition seems to amount at best to a kind of acquittal of those factors which have contributed to the crisis. By the same token, it dismisses those who try to up-end this one sided equation with always the young, the old and the migrants being the first to suffer the consequences.

There must be some reason for this kind of acquiescence? If not some attempt at redemption to promote peace between the different social forces, then what motivate the collective to exhibit these photos? Surely they will be driven by many values but in risking to overlook critical factors which do make a difference on how the crisis is perceived, aesthetics will prevail over any clear naming of the political failure behind this crisis.

Alone if only scant notice is given to the real crisis by a few photos while the rest proclaim a kind of aesthetical success as if they have found a way out of the crisis, then at best some illusions are being evoked. It becomes most evident when the crisis is used as a marketing tool, in order to gain name and reputation.

The exhibition itself poses the question to whom these photos on exhibit give a voice to as opposed to whom is being silenced in the process? This can be introduced by way of delineating themselves from others as indicated by use of certain terms such as  That danger is inherent once the photographers begin to represent the crisis many go through in Athens and Greece. If that is the case, then it becomes crucial to note what the photographers observe as to what else has manifested itself.

Can a photography project inhabit a city in crisis?

There is made a curious claim by the collective of photographers that this project can inhabit the urban and social landscape:

"The Depression Era Project inhabits the urban and social landscapes of the crisis. It begins as a collective experiment, picturing the Greek city and its outer regions, the private lives of outcasts, the collapse of Public systems, the emergence of the Commons and snapshots of the everyday often under the radar, in order to understand the social, economical and historical transformation currently taking place in Greece. It seeks to do so with as clear a gaze as possible. It understands, in its double meaning, that entropy, disaster, uncertainty and insolvency are also states of mind, ushering us to an era where the notion of progress, the idea of growth and the reflex of looking forward to a future are no longer dominant modes of perceiving and creating in the world."

If the text had started with the Depression Era inhabits the urban and social landscapes of the crisis, the project could have taken a critical stance. It would have allowed to let the imagination question a city landscape having become a different place. No longer full of happy people some photographic observations thereof could easily establish that the crisis did not inhabit the entire city. Crisis implies not all in society but only a certain social strata has been hit. The outcome thereof is a loss of equality and social cohesion. Also life choices play out more dramatically amongst the young than those who have two thirds of their lives behind them. Still, the latter determine many of the structures and institutions and therefore uphold treatment of reality in a highly outdated way of thinking. What plays out between different generations is, therefore, decisive, at the same time highly problematic.  

Setting the terms

Obtaining, collecting and putting photos of the crisis into a mosaic is a huge task. It poses at the same time the crucial question whether or not they managed to set the right terms at the start.

This project takes us past the age of happy endings.  It navigates, with open-ended innocence, a world of deepening humanitarian crisis, ruin landscapes, insecurity, cracked democracy and an everyday culture of mediated hopelessness. Our first objective is clarity, in the historical, political and social blur of the present. A collective storytelling experiment emerges, connecting significant instants and documenting untold stories in a mosaic of images and texts.

Petros Babasikas, January 2014

Here they seem to follow urban development in the realization that Athens is not to be confined to the centre, but has become a network of municipalities extending themselves into outer regions. This development can be best described as an over extension of a city till it is no longer sustainable. Already Montreal in Canada has made that experience when the upkeep of the extensive infrastructure, motorways and bridges, cannot be financed any more by the municipality. Likewise when Athens 2004 hosted the Olympic Games, the advise given by Barcelona was not listened to. As a result, venues were spread around to satisfy individual mayors and their municipalities. The worst scenario of such a development is provided by Detroit: hollow at the centre with the rich moving ever further out into the suburbs. The hours spend alone on the road while traveling to work or back home is not merely a consumption of time, but absurd when even children are forced to spend hours in school buses rather than allowed to walk home. Once distances have become unbridgeable, other divides will mark the city. The crisis has made this become much more apparent with graffiti exploding on the walls of the inner city core, while in the outer regions the over built areas deprive everyone of access to still untouched nature. There is hardly anything left to mark a contrast between city and rural area. Instead the poet Brendan Kennelly had labelled already in 1995 this development to be a rur-urb with land being neither rural nor urban. Stuck in between, it makes even harder to get out of a crisis which burdens on top of everything else those who sought to gain extra quality of life during times of affluency and who lack now the financial means to undertake any serious correction of the mistakes which have been made. The question is how the photographers pick up such a theme of over extension and loss of nature?

Thematically private lives of outcasts may be depicted especially in the photo series called "I had a dream" by Giorgos Moutafis. He shows the reality of a migrant from Sudan who ends up being stranded in Athens, Greece. Other fotos show just improvised sleeping arrangements underneath trees, or else children lost in plays while their parents do not know where to go next. Giorgos Moutafis makes in his accompanying artistic statement the crucial connection between the war which makes people into migrants and the 'economic war' used as a term by especially the critical youth to characterize the Greek crisis.

However, care has to be taken not to read into outcast as meaning automatically the migrant. The two terms should not be confused for the sake of clarity. Also it is suggested in the text that an 'outcast' has a private life. This is rather questionable though understandable what is meant. Still, by the very definition an outcast has no longer a social realm in which to reflect in his private life. It is like reflecting sickness in health and vice versa. Once the opposite vanishes, then life itself becomes impossible. An outcast feels no longer being protected by a certain public order society installs to safeguard privacy. Since society has branded him as outcast, he is not only unprotected but likewise over exposed to external dangers. If it is not the police, then others chase him or cast dismissing eyes in his direction. He has no space he could call his own to experience a private life. Similar to the migrant, the outcast has no sense of belonging to society but he differs from a migrant since his exile is the consequence of a collective form of punishment by society. Migrants may flee war or else search for a way out of a threatening poverty. In short, they immigrate because they cannot exist anymore back home in the way they would want and dream about. Both migrant and outcast face a horrible existence but the outcast sees in addition no chance for being forgiven and therefore be let back into society. The banishment is so terrible that Dostoevsky considers it to be far worse than the death penalty. That is why Socrates preferred death to being exiled.

Perhaps something is hinted at when the double meaning of the term 'crisis' is being referred to, and therefore leads from reality to a 'state of mind'. About the latter more needs to be said further below.

When politics reaches a high pitch, then loud voices due to many people being extremely angry can fill the space. Despite that, the collapse of the public systems is not true in such a general form. Not only continue to operate street cars, buses and the metro as efficiently as they did during the Olympic Games, but likewise hospitals, even though under severe constraints, continue to function. It may be an allusion to the public administration, but even then the Greek state manages to uphold a functioning in its own peculiar way.

Rather something else needs to be captured insofar the moment everyone joins in a chorus all ready to accuse politicians or in general the public administration as being not trust worthy or inefficient, they develop a 'blame culture'. The latter allows for ready made answers without really thinking about the implications of over simplified claims made or whether in this way solutions can be found. Once something drives an entire society into misery, even though the burdens are unevenly distributed, then a blame culture begins flourishes and adds only to the resignation that nothing will change. In reality, a lot has been improved. One needs only how the offices for those searching a job function or how the post offices were modernized. 

Meant by this is a kind of unknown causality which leads to justifying overt actions. For instance, when people call students when they demonstrate as being lazy and they deserve nothing better than a wacking, then no wonder when the police does crack down on them. Where these sayings come from, even though the students protest against still another price increase in the public transportation system and therefore something which concerns all, there is something fishy. Likewise once the Greek crisis started to affect everyone, everyone blamed the politicians and labelled the entire administration as being inefficient. Even the Troika joined in by demanding a decrese of the number of people working for the civil service. As a result many experienced civil servants went into early retirement while the rest experienced salary cuts which amounted to 40%.

One consequence of this ill thought through intervention by means of only crude measure has been a downgrading of almost every workable relationship between administration and study makers. The simple saying is making the rounds what use are these studies, if they land only in the drawer? In reality, study makers no longer know when they get paid, while the overall amount paid has been drastically reduced and even worse is the conduct of the civil servants to the study makers. Devaluation of work being done goes hand in hand with loss of respect as if arrogance is justified but also the kind of dismissal of what others have to do in terms of urban and regional planning.


"With clear eye in the blurry air we put this work forward, no longer looking forward to a future, to progress, to the idea of growth, but standing together in Commons, level-headed and broke, beyond the white noise of riot porn, shopping, new feudalism, speculator pundits, hashtag reportage, disaster media, analysis paralysis, photoshop urbanism and the constant crisis, straddling the red line of a divided Europe, building an ark of images and texts (a mosaic of lenses: an anti-screen: a sidewalk museum: a viewport to the shape of things to come), as the West slowly sinks into our very own Depression Era."

Petros Babasikas, January 2014

The emergence of the Commons as a critical term when it comes to use of urban space can be linked to a special component within the overall movement. They have learned out of ecological fairs and architectural projects that redesigning the city of Athens would require new spaces. Some of them have occupied Embros Theatre and declared it to be a 'common' space. More or less tolerated by the authorities, they can be evicted anytime.

The term gives 'uncertainty' a new meaning. By creating common spaces to do meaningful things in time before it is too late, they derive impulses out of both theory and practice as ongoing research. Interestingly enough the use of the term reminds of what original function could be imagined the House of Commons had in the British Parliament. Likewise those who come together in Embros Theatre, they seek to deliberate use of common resources and thereby overcome inequalities of all kinds existing in urban society caught now by the crisis.

Using the term 'commons' allows for a response of substantial criticism as to when the City of Athens perverts the term 'public' by declaring a private project funded by the EU to be a public one only due the fact that is apparently done in the name of the city. This switch from private to public and back was exercised, for example, by taking such spaces as cultural venues completely renovated with public funds when Patras was European Capital of Culture in 2006. The moment that year was over, the venues were handed back to the private owners who converted it immediately into commercial spaces. Gone was any cultural trace.

The language of the commons is a way to undo the confusion created by the fake opposite private / public. Consequently they seek to engage those using these terms to justify all kinds of projects to be implemented without regard for the opinion of citizens in a social dialogue. These are no longer a part of the structured, equally funded approach to the industrial dialogues aiming to bring together capital/workers through their respective representatives. Rather it is an outcome of civic society having been silenced for too long.

The realization of such an engagement for the Commons has been taken up by the collective of 'Depression Era' in the following way. They declare that they want to organize educational inititatives. The exhibition will be followed up by an open call to young artists as they want eventually to create an artistic archive of the crisis and through it, a new digital and physical Commons.  

Certainly it is wise to relate to daily life which continues but now under strained conditions leading on easily to depression if there are no prospects at the end of the day. When night comes and still no sign of some relief from the anxiety as to where to get from some income, then little flourishes, lest of all this feeling of being able to make it on one's own.

Being under the radar refers to still another challenge: the daily surveillance by means of cameras and listening devices which can eavedrop on any mobile phone conversation. Rather than observing daily life, it banishes life as had been described by Orwell in "1984". With security and safety two key priorities, there is a general neglect of people. As a taxidriver in London put it after the bombing in 2005, "only certain people shall be protected, but not us general folk".


Given these thematic categories outlining in which direction the photographers will tend to go to find some answers through the lens as to how the crisis looks like, they indicate the scope of what the collective of photographers tries to cover.

It touches a chord, provided it follows through the intention to show how depression looks like. It will be an art to show 'silent screams' of the unemployed, or else bring about through photos an awareness how easy it is to be dragged down by all the misery surrounding one. Yet how to photograph moods approaching the permanent state of depression? That is most difficult. It requires capturing a reflection of a state of affairs in which no one is able, so it appears, to inspire. The loss in motivation means people have given up on themselves, while they are still entangled in an old web of over dependencies upon certain things. Moroever misery prevails not merely out in the streets, but equally within a civil service which has become highly dysfunctional.

Upon a closer look the real crisis reflects a poverty of experience when it comes to dealing with the challenge of alone seeking a job which pays well enough to sustain life and which does not entail a flagrant abuse of Human Rights.

While George Orwell could write about his experiences as being 'down and out in Paris and London', and therefore got a taste of what is like to live not only in poverty, but to be forced to move on as if only a rolling stone does not gather any moss, critical reflections are needed to be updated if there is any way to come to terms with the present. This is needed since most of the people do not really know how to deal with this crisis. It includes as well those at the top and who are in charge of monetary and fiscal policy. 

While urban plight is visible almost everywhere, more subtle is the hidden kind of poverty. For one, society strives to return to 'normality' and therefore seeks to make traces of poverty disappear. It is done for reasons of not wishing to discourage tourists from coming to Athens. Also there are many who feel shame and stay at home rather than expose themselves to the questioning eyes of the others. On top of it all police actions lead to the evictions of migrants in houses they have occupied, in order to have temporary shelter. They are taken to the detention centres or else kept in prison cells of police stations.

How a society copes with this challenge is most telling. Responses range from human kindness to the other extreme and which is called in a most telling way 'cleaning the streets' by members of Chrysi Avgi. It means literally to chase migrants on motor cycles down the street. Often enough, xenophobic forces unfold when not challenged early enough by society. Once it can be forgotten that he or she is a human being as well, then prejudices are allowed to be converted into such convictions which justify violent actions against the 'strangers' or 'xenos'. 

Without integration chances into society, daily lived reality becomes especially for the most vulnerable ones more than a challenge. A tough reality can be felt when going, for instance, through the area near Omonia square. It is a complex area composed of small side streets, hidden corridors or back alleys. There can be found all kinds of workers, traders, drug dealers, amateurs and professionals of survival. They intermingle with those working at the Central Market and with those who have come from China to set up shop.

Architects and urban planners examining this area found out most of the time the Chinese traders are 'invisible' because they are up on the first floor. Those selling things in the streets of Athens go to the Chinese traders to get their goods. Along those lines of trade and bargaining, in being hidden or less visible compared to those more exposed, it says something about contemporary urban space. Many of the areas cannot be defined as being either private or public. Rather there takes place another kind of re-designing in the use of space. New claims are made every day while old ones are just as easily discarded. Many use hidden spaces for all kinds of trading and commercial activities even if only on a temporary basis. They tend to move on before they are caught by the police.

All of these cases exemplify how difficult it is to name precisely the crisis and to show it in its various manifestations through photography. Especially when visitors come to Athens and see all the cafes full of people, they really wonder where is the crisis which supposed to have hit Athens and Greece. That says also something about the perception of poverty especially when most of the real problems are 'invisible' for the outsider. It requires a special system of categories to be able to gauge reality. Even the European Commission has difficulties since the Greek statistical services have proven over and again not to be reliable. That problem of perception is reinforce when visitors are taken to Voula or Piraeus and see in the marina endless rows of yachts and luxury boats. There is a lot of manipulation going on to trick especially the European Union to believe Greece is a very poor country.

For instance, it would have been interesting to capture how in the crisis, when protest shut down everything and demonstrators clashed with the police, the Metro at Syntagma was not shut down completely. Incredible is what happened then, for the Metro staff made it possible to transport wounded demonstrators to the next Metro station, an from there they were taken by ambulance to hospital. Alone such a humane gesture would be worth photographing, even if the exception may prove the rule of a hard suppression. It would bring out something the photographer Kevin Cooper in Belfast would consider to be most important, namely a humane understanding of the conflicts underlying such a crisis.

Even while the logic of austerity gripped ever deeper, one cannot but wonder about daily life. For instance, while standing near a street market every Saturday, there can be seen old ladies who can hardly walk, but taking home heavy bags filled with oranges. Even if an expression of bare minimum of existence, it says at the same time that not everything has broken down. It says something about the overall sense of living in a city within a state which is a member of the European Union. And every life is precious. A civil state makes sure each person has sufficient things to survive with dignity. Again the material order may be severe with many more working either hard but not earning much or else not having any work at all but still parents or grandparents with some money to spare.

A country in crisis is difficult to be appraised, if it has on top of everything else a diverse landscape rich in vegetation and therefore does have the means to produce a lot of food. There comes to mind what Seamus Heaney said just before he received the news of having won the Nobel Prize for Literature, namely 'abundance'. He said it this was the only apt word he could think of when walking along a country road and seeing how oranges have fallen off an over loaded trailer of a farmer and splashed onto the pavement of the country road.  Since the outbreak of the crisis many have left the city and turned to cooperative farming. They opted for an alternative way of surviving once they realized that the crisis meant not enough many paying jobs were left in the city, in order to be able to survive. That search for alternatives, but also sustainability in a sensible sense, says also something new has been prompted by the crisis.

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