How to make protest effective

We need to do more than march from A to B if we want political change.

It’s so difficult to say anything that hasn’t already been said about the crisis in Europe. This past Saturday, I watched closely as Portuguese rallied in enormous numbers against the foreign imposed austerity measures. The energy of tens of thousands filling the streets is momentarily intoxicating as ever, especially when they sing Grandola, Vila Morena, a song charged with revolutionary energy and optimism. But as soon as the last verse is sung, the crowds begin to demobilise; videos, photos and memories are the only evidence that there was even a protest of such scale. Because the next day, as the political leaders remain indifferent, the discussion already switches to the next austerity measures and the next bleak economic headline.

This has played out countless times in each crisis hit country in the eurozone. The social anxiety of the public spills out onto the streets as anger and then recedes back into anxiety. Then, a sense of defeat sinks in during the following weeks and months, until the latest provocation of yet more sacrifices transforms that anxiety into yet more protests by thousands of angry, crisis-fatigued citizens.

I think the reason for this is obvious, though I suspect many who attend, promote and organise these protests don't want to hear it. The protests aren't to challenge the government, but only to probe the government's resolve. When the government's resolve proves to be unshaken, since there is no policy alternative within the current framework of the Troika, there's nowhere to go but to return to that state of social anxiety. The point A to point B marches play it safe, expressing their demands but not setting out an objective that is to be reached through various tactics. I would call it public relations but I think organisers of protests like Que Se Lixe A Troika on Saturday sincerely believe mass marches every few months can stop the austerity. I'm here to say that this is a miscalculation.

It’s easy to see how opposition to austerity will eventually triumph, the policies undoubtedly cause tremendous economic and social damage. Each round of cuts and tax hikes align more people against the government and the international creditors known as the Troika. Inevitably, the protests in Spain, Greece, and Portugal has swelled with each passing year. But this slow grind of declining legitimacy for governments in southern Europe has great risk. As we can see in Greece, a neo-nazi party, Golden Dawn, has surged onto the highest stage of Greek politics, now polling 3rd overall, this as its militias violently attack immigrants on the streets. Spanish society, if eroded by a similar amount of austerity, could see regional and cultural differences hardened. Portugal, with no parliamentary far-right in existence, could be tempted by similar extreme nationalists in the years ahead as frustration with mainstream parties grow.

There is a clock ticking away in Europe, but it isn't necessarily counting down till the day when the streets banish the troika's authority. Rather, this is a clock ticking down to when that far-right menace erupts to break up the European project on its own terms, all the while fanning once-dormant national rivalries. This isn’t without precedent in Europe. It was during the 80s that another federation of nations, Yugoslavia, was subject to fierce austerity which provoked strike action like we see in Europe today. But they fell short, and by the early 90s, nationalists would assert themselves and give Europe another bloody chapter of warfare and ethnic cleansing.

The forces opposed to austerity must set political objectives, and deploy tactics to reach those objectives. This doesn’t have to mean preparing for insurrection and the siege of congress like some in Spain are organising for. In Portugal, daily mobilisations could replicate the success of the recent protests in Bulgaria. With the right-wing coalition government in Portugal plotting further austerity to the tune of 4 billion euros in cuts, the urgency should be widely shared. The streets must themselves become political actors, not merely a visualisation of the discontent politicians see in any monthly political survey. There has to be a willingness by anti-austerity forces to fail, to overplay their hand. It doesn't require the approval of the whole country or hundreds of thousands of people to get involved. Even thousands, if they are committed and share common purpose and tactics, can achieve a government's resignation. Those thousands shouldn’t be hard to find amid the misery that exists across southern Europe today.

This is a cross-post from David Ferreira's blog Igualitárista

A demonstrator at Saturday's protests in Lisbon. (Photo: Getty.)
Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.