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Issue 180

Making Sense

How the crisis in Greece is prompting young Athens-based artists to find new spaces for communal reflection

BY James Bridle in Critic's Guides | 11 JUN 16

Everyone knows the story of the Greek crisis, of the Syriza-led government’s battles with the European troika, of the regional collapse which has deepened a global one, and of the divisive rhetoric on both sides, which has served only to intensify the suffering of the least well off in Greece and beyond. The stereotyping of the European south; the characterization of the Greek people as either lazy or hedonistic, passive or riotous; the flamboyant behaviour of politicians; the repeated shocks and deadlines: all have created a drama only matched by that of the refugee crisis – a crisis which Greece alone, the European country most affected by it, has mostly resisted conflating with economic security. As tensions continue to rise, the space for clear-headed consideration and alternative articulations is diminishing at the very moment when it is needed most.

It is this narrative of ‘red lines’ – of constant advance and retreat, of upheaval and collapse, of ‘problems’ that have ‘solutions’ – that the collective Depression Era has, over the past few years, sought to both document and complicate. A group of more than 30 Greek artists, photographers, writers, curators, designers and researchers, Depression Era was formed by photographer Pavlos Fysakis in 2011 and, since then, has shown its work in major exhibitions and biennials, as well as online. Fysakis’s own contribution to the group’s archive is the series ‘Nea Helvetia’ (2011), which depicts the Attica region surrounding Athens – which he terms ‘new Switzerland’ – as the opposite of one of Europe’s wealthiest nations: a landscape of polluted beaches, graffitied walls and dreams reduced to posters on bare bedroom walls. Many of his fellow photographers in the group take a similar line, from Harry Kakoulidis’s monumental, unfinished building projects to Yiannis Hadjiaslanis’s night walks through a riot-battered Athens. Dimitris Tsoumplekas documents the ‘Texas’ bar while Dimitris Rapakousis explores a single street in the centre of Athens that is now labelled a ghetto.

Spyros Staveris, from the series 'High Society', 1999-2001, photograph. Courtesy: the artist and Elika Gallery, Athens

But, in case you think this is an all-too-familiar representation of crisis at its most grime-streaked and distressing, there is far more behind these images than opportunist ruin porn or nihilist exhaustion. What is at work is a collective attempt to reframe contemporary Greece and rewrite the easy narrative of its situation as either one-dimensional or inevitable. Many of Depression Era’s images hint at other readings of the cityscape and the situation, other progressions along timelines that are both longer and orthogonal. Taken together, Lukas Vasilikos and Vaggelis Tatsis’s family histories, and Olga Stefatou and Giorgos Moutafis’s accounts of migrant struggle, suggest deeper networks of solidarity that predate – and will, no doubt, outlast – the contemporary situation. Yorgos Prinos’s outtakes from the Olympics and Spyros Staveris’s depictions of society balls set Greece’s pre-crisis high life uncannily at play among the images of ruin and collapse: as part of the same process, with the same emptiness and desperation. By asserting the unreality of the early 2000s – a time of stock-market euphoria, public games and general excess – the reality of the present is brought into question, too.

As tensions in Greece continue to rise, the space for clear-headed consideration is diminishing at the very moment when it is needed most.

Irony and refusal also have their part to play. Georges Salameh infuses his ‘geological’ take on Athens with subtle humour: steel barriers take on the form of classical monuments while dustsheets overprinted with Aegean-blue tourist posters sag and separate to reveal the patchwork scaffolding beneath. Zoe Hatziyannaki’s extreme close-ups of government buildings blur into incoherence. Chrissoula Voulgari simply rejects representation itself as invariably tainted: ‘Athens will not be photographed,’ she writes on Depression Era’s website, ‘The city demands the invention of new recording apparatuses.’

Yiannis Hadjiaslanis, Mouseio II, 2012, from the series 'After Dark', 2012-13, photograph. Courtesy: the artist and Kalfayan Galleries, Athens-Thessaloniki

Making sense – or, in the pictorial mode, making clear – is the core artistic invocation of the crisis. As Hatziyannaki told me in April: ‘There is a lot of confusion around information now. In a very short time, as a country, we had to get into a different mode of thinking and of understanding words, and what had happened to us. And this is happening in the world of images, too.’ For Petros Babasikas, who writes many of the group’s texts, this confusion is personified in the collective itself: ‘We embody the crisis, too. We lack clarity in our conversations and work because of constant anxiety.’ But in the online mission statement for Depression Era he declares: ‘Our first objective is clarity.’ By which he means not the clarity of neoliberalism but simply the ability to see ‘with clear eye in the blurry air’ the situation Greece finds itself in today. Not a moment of crisis, but an era: a new reality in which images have become as disordered as the world they consistently fail to represent.

At the other end of the photographic spectrum is Ruins magazine, which Christos Petritzis launched in Athens in January, funded by his personal savings. It also insists on seeing clearly, identifying in its introduction ‘a certain kind of photography […] a motif of straight-up compositions characterized by visual clarity’. Petritzis told me that he thinks this directness is a response to a period in which ‘we are used to the “poor image” of the meme and the social medium, and the visual clarity that comes with the printed page is a kind of departure from seeing things in lo-res, constantly bombarded by stimuli’. Ruins is, on the surface, a fashion magazine, but its essays explore fashion as another image-based response to the crisis: a critique of the dangerous industrial processes used to produce pre-stressed and abraded denim sits alongside interviews with trans artist and activist Paola Revenioti and author and critic Jeff Derksen. The latter’s After Euphoria (2014), a collection of writings on globalization and culture, is echoed in the first issue’s tagline, which runs throughout the magazine: ‘growth – euphoria – crisis’.

Spread from Ruins, issue one, Autumn/Winter 2015-16. Courtesy: Ruins, London; photograph: Martina Lang

As Petritzis is quick to point out, this triad is not an immutable trajectory: the words don’t have to come in that order and one might be used to leap-frog over another. Hannah Diamond and William E. Wright’s editorial, also entitled ‘Euphoria’, depicts heavily airbrushed youths in a shimmering quartz desert, and could as easily be a message from a utopian future as the pre-crash boom. The ‘wide-open horizon of the future’ that Ruins envisaged as so tantalizingly close in Athens in the summer of 2015 is still out there, but it requires a new alignment of resources – and new ways of working – to bring it back into sight. 

Ruins is, on the surface, a fashion magazine, but its essays explore fashion as another image-based response to the crisis.

Ruins is produced between Athens and London in a none-too-subtle echo of the position many young Greeks, artists or otherwise, find themselves today. Its contributors are global – a reality represented in a group interview by the broken grammar of a Skype conversation, which is eventually replaced with emoji-strewn Facebook messages. Despite these difficulties in communication, it’s the distance between correspondents that makes dialogue and progress possible: the clichéd views of Athens in ruins are countered by Hyun Lee’s calculatedly touristic ‘postcards from Australia’, a country where ‘everything is getting upgraded all the time’, but where the mining industry’s cycle of boom and bust threatens both the natural landscape and long-term economic stability. The crisis is merely unevenly distributed, for now.

Cover of Ruins, issue one, Autumn-Winter 2015-16. Courtesy: Ruins, London; photograph: Martina Lang

As the images of this new era come slowly into view, an emphasis on collaborative work underpins the search for clarity. In conversation, Depression Era has many definitions: a collective, a conversation, a political group, a party, a network of friendships – but definitions are less important than what is done. Through private discussions and public workshops, the group aspires to assert agency over a situation in which they have been stripped of it. For photographers used to working alone, the opportunity to meet and discuss their practices in relation to the current situation is the most useful outcome: without the present crisis, such meetings would not occur, nor would the regular workshops the group organizes for other artists and students, sharing skills and engaging young people in making their own images.

The economic situation is mirrored in the proliferation of artist-run spaces across Athens, where empty shops and offices allow for flexible studio accommodation. 

The economic situation is mirrored in the proliferation of artist-run spaces across Athens, where empty shops and offices allow for flexible studio accommodation in the absence of more formal provision. Many of these spaces present not only the work of the directors and of their invited artists, but also collaborations with local residents, in which existing work is adapted or new pieces are created in response to the situation. Set up by Chrysanthi Koumianaki, Kosmas Nikolaou and Paki Vlassopoulou in 2012 as a studio and gallery, 3 137 hosts several visiting artists a year, who each present work at the end of a long process of discussion and collaboration. Nikolaou told me that this approach is part of an effort not to promote a particular style but to create a community and an atmosphere ‘because we are in the process of working out our own identities, too’. When Nikolaou recounts the list of his partnerships over the last few years – from Kunsthalle Lissabon in Portugal to neighbourhood fanzine Kypseli – he seems surprised at the number.

Lenio Kaklea, Arranged by Date, a Guided Tour, 2016, documentation of performance at 3 137, Athens. Courtesy: the artist and 3 137 Gallery, Athens; photograph: Fanis Kafantis

In the same vein, Lenio Kaklea’s solo dance performance Arranged by Date, which debuted in 2012 in France, took on a new form when it came to 3 137 in January this year. Through a fragmented monologue and contorted movements, Kaklea expresses her exasperation on discovering that she has forgotten the PIN code for her bank card and is thus cut off from both economic existence and the certainty of her own memory. The performer’s physical and mental alienation attempts to expose the vicissitudes of capital, as well as the complicity of her own body and mind. At 3 137, the work transmuted into Arranged by Date, a Guided Tour with Kaklea continuing to perform her own intense, wrenching choreography while, in Greek and English, Nikolaou narrated the story of the lost PIN and Kaklea’s subsequent realization of the codes and cards that dominated her everyday life. As the event proceeded, the audience was led up to the mezzanine of the gallery and Kaklea disappeared from view. The performance fell silent, the emphasis shifting onto a series of archival photographs and cards bearing abstract figures pinned to the walls. The audience was invited to rearrange these at will, making their own connections between the artist’s archive and the affinities they inspired. In contrast to Depression Era’s serious and engaged documentary-building, and Ruins’s glossy accelerationism, Kaklea and 3 137 seem to be positing a third approach to economic and societal trauma: an open space in which personal experience and communal reflection are given equal weight and the noisy, competing narratives of the crisis can be rethought and rewritten.

James Bridle is a British writer and artist living in Athens, Greece. His forthcoming projects include an installation at the Oslo Architecture Triennale, Norway, a solo exhibition at Galleri Image, Aarhus, Denmark, and a digital commission for Serpentine Galleries, London, UK. His work can be found at booktwo.org.