From the life raft: Refugee images find fitting home

By Harry van Versendaal

A wrecked yellow dinghy washed up on the rocks of an unidentified Aegean island, wet clothes hung out to dry on the branches of a tree next to the sea, a lost Iraqi passport. “Caesura,” as the name of Demetris Koilalous’ multimedia project a bit cryptically suggests, seeks to capture that deceitfully quiet lull in between the tumultuous before-and-after in the lives of its unintentional protagonists: the millions of migrants and refugees that have undertaken the perilous, often lethal, crossing to Europe from Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.

More than two years after it was first showcased at the Pireos Street annex of the Benaki Museum, and as the Old Continent braces for a fresh refugee crisis sparked by turmoil in Afghanistan, an adapted version of the award-winning project is currently on display at Shedia Home in downtown Athens.

It certainly is a fitting venue. The cafe and cultural hub, which first opened its doors in 2019, is run by Shedia – Greek for life raft – a street magazine launched in the midst of the scathing financial crisis that saw homelessness and unemployment skyrocket. The magazine is sold by and in aid of homeless and jobless persons.

The two sides agreed to join forces after Shedia had published an interview with the photographer on the Benaki show. The parallels between the plight of refugees and homeless people were hard to miss.

“Τhe photo exhibition acts as a vehicle to bring these two situations together: of the person who has lost their home and the person who has lost their homeland,” Koilalous says.

The project includes landscape photos, staged portraits and out-of-context pictures of personal belongings left behind by people on the move, all images that Koilalous shot in 2015 and 2016 along the Greek border. He does not grapple with the political or historical dimension of mass migration, but rather seeks to explore the impact of uprooting and displacement on the human self. And the man is pretty effective at that.

“Caesura” has been shown at Athens Photo Festival, Les Boutographies in Montpellier, Cardiff’s International Festival of Photography, PhotoIreland, and Kolga Tbilisi Photo. It has won prizes at the Santa Fe Photo Festival, at the Kuala Lumpur International Photo Awards, at Head On Photo Awards and at Life Framer.

The show on Kolokotroni Street is the inaugural one in a series of similar exhibitions to be organized across the capital and the rest of the country as organizers aspire to communicate the identity and the work of Shedia with a wider audience.

Although the core will remain true to the Benaki show, Koilalous plans to tweak the narrative and structure of each individual exhibition depending on geography and timing, and occasionally include previously unpublished works.

The images will be available for sale, while a significant portion of the proceeds will benefit the work of Shedia.

The Shedia Home show will wrap up on Sunday, September 26 with a panel discussion on the relationship between identity and individuals’ personal belongings – one of the key themes running through the project. A psychologist will be tasked with unpacking the connection, as a refugee and a homeless person share their own painful experiences of being forced to give up their treasured possessions.

‘Who’s to pay for the societal costs?’

By Harry van Versendaal

Wendell Wallach is uncomfortably pragmatic about the potentially negative effects of artificial intelligence. “It’s not that we lack ways of ameliorating those effects, it’s just that the simple will to do so is not there,” he says during a Skype video call from his home in Connecticut.

Αs a lecturer at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics and a senior adviser to the Hastings Center, Wallach has grappled extensively with the ethical and governance challenges posed by AI and other emerging technologies.

Speaking ahead of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation’s 2021 Nostos Conference: Humanity and Artificial Intelligence this Thursday and Friday, Wallach warns that tech and political elites have failed to take effective measures to contain the looming dangers of AI, including an accentuation of biases and injustices.

Far from monitoring the innovation coming from the tech labs in Silicon Valley, he says, “we are allowing those who invest in certain technologies to reap the rewards without any responsibility for the negative consequences or the undesirable societal impacts of those technologies.”

However, notwithstanding his self-understanding as a “cup-is-half-full” academic, Wendell is optimistic that the unsustainable conundrum we are in can trigger an existential rethink about our trajectory as humans.

“We have built a world that, if we don’t act in a precipitous manner, will be robbed of a future comparable to ours regardless of how much money we can will to our grandchildren,” he says.

Μy understanding is that the good ΑΙ versus bad AI debate is now obsolete. Μost would agree that AI is both good and bad. What are your main concerns regarding AI and where do you see the most promise?

Well, my main concern is that we neither have effective governance to ameliorate potentially negative consequences of AI nor do we really have an effective engineering agenda focused on that. There is of course talk about AI for good and human-compatible AI, but I think these are all relatively weak instruments in comparison to some of the negative effects of the revolution which we’re in the midst of. It’s not that we lack ways of ameliorating those effects, it’s just that the simple will to do so is not there. Meanwhile, the will to speed up the development of emerging technologies enriches many people financially, particularly those who have stocks or significant ownership in tech businesses. AI is being weaponized and becoming central to the new forms of defense, whether that’s cybersecurity or more kinetic warfare in the form of lethal autonomous weapons. Now that isn’t to say that there aren’t hundreds of ways in which AI can improve life for some people. AI is certainly a driver, accelerator and amplifier of research in biotechnologies toward addressing health concerns, and for scientific discovery more broadly. It helps us, in some ways, to think through the ramifications of climate change and has contributed toward the development of vaccines. Nevertheless, I think the overall trajectory at the moment is out of whack and we aren’t taking effective measures to right that trajectory.

AI tends to concentrate more power and more control where it already exists, such as state authorities, the military, police or tech giants. Is that correct?

Yes, it is correct. And it’s not just AI. AI is central to the digital economy; and it’s the future of the digital economy. The digital economy has made many of us wealthier during the pandemic while hundreds of millions have lost their livelihoods – if not their lives. So I do think we are actually exacerbating structural inequalities through the digital economy, and this will continue because AI and other emerging tech enriches some of us sometimes at the expense of others. My take is that there are of course many ways in which artificial intelligence improves people’s livelihood and ameliorates some forms of inequality, but the overall effect is not positive. It’s not just in these specific areas of reinforcing biases or injustice. It’s also in the way that it’s altering the human condition. It is altering the human condition in several respects. One is, it is providing more and more powerful tools to manipulate human behavior, playing on unconscious cognitive capabilities of humans. All the tech companies are studying that in great depth. This gives additional power beyond those that have traditionally been utilized for advertising and propaganda purposes. It is also part of a narrative that I think is weakening human agency, not only in the manipulation of behavior, but in the suggestion that artificial intelligence is and will quickly evolve to have better decision-making capabilities than humans. This empowers a narrative that we should be giving agency to the artificial entities – such as lethal autonomous weapons – the ability to make decisions that will be a way of abrogating or alleviating the actual responsibility of those who deploy the artificial intelligence systems. It will also again be weakening human agency with the suggestion that humans will not be as good decision makers as AI. The overall trajectory, whether it’s true or not, built upon this is a narrative that AI can be more intelligent than humans in all respects. We’re not there yet. I’m among the skeptics, as to whether we will actually realize that.

It has been suggested that machine intelligence will be the last invention that humans will ever have to make because once we reach that point, machines will, at least in theory, be better than we are in coming up with new inventions.

If that is the case, which I would like to dispute, I think intelligence is something much more than the property of an individual or a machine. It also raises this profound philosophical question that we hear in different ways as, then what’s the function of humans, what are humans good for, what will be our role in the future, or are we actually writing our own death warrant?

You say AI reinforces biases. Can more data solve this problem?

Better data potentially could solve the problem. Bias is largely a result of the fact that we are building upon existing data that has traditional forms of bias built into it. And, therefore, as the old saying goes, “garbage in, garbage out.” So if an AI is deriving output based on imbalanced, or distorted data, then it’s going to give a distorted output. Human experts working with an AI algorithm’s output can learn to be relatively sensitive to the information involved and the biases that may be inherent within the data. That sensitivity might be improved through data analytics looking at the input data, but there are all kinds of other problems: Data can be distorted by adversarial attacks from bad actors who perhaps have some intentional reason to not want the data as it exists to be utilized or want to make sure that the data is biased. Bias is the most obvious example of how AI enters into traditional forms of injustice and inequality.

Do you think that part of the bias issue and, more generally, the problematic data issue has to do with the lack of diversity within the AI and the tech industry at large?

I think that’s a part of it. I think there are inherent characteristics of those who are attracted to jobs in the industry, but I don’t think it’s just that. I think the deep learning algorithm may be implemented by a researcher who knows the field very well. And the data set has been assembled not by people within the tech industry, but by the history of research within that field. So I don’t think we should overplay the imbalances in the male-dominated techno-enthusiastic orientation of the engineers in the field. But obviously when you’re talking about issues of race or gender having other eyes on both the data input and data output and the way in which the algorithm is designed would certainly improve the state of ethics.

Do you think that the proliferation of ethics panels in tech companies is just a smokescreen to ward off what they’re really concerned with – i.e. more regulation?

That’s a difficult question. I would say I have not seen much from those ethics boards to make me feel that they are anything other than that. Not that there aren’t companies who would have liked to at least address some of the ways in which they are being ethically challenged. So, I don’t question whether Google or Facebook might not want to eliminate, let’s say, lies or mistaken information. But will they do so at the expense of their growth? And can they do so or does a fiduciary responsibility override even what might be good intentions. This isn’t to say everybody is bad out there, or that the tech companies are just engaged in ethics washing. But, yes, they are fearful of regulation that will interfere in their ability to innovate in the ways they want to innovate. And, they’re very active in the cult of innovation that suggests that anything that interferes with innovation is bad. We are allowing those who invest in certain technologies to reap the rewards without any responsibility for the negative consequences or the undesirable societal impacts of those technologies. So who’s to pay for the societal costs created by all the damage coming out of misinformation on social media? It’s certainly not Facebook who’s paying for it. Democracies are suffering, citizens are not getting vaccinated because they believe a lot of dishonest information online. There are intense societal costs, and they’re not getting addressed. Governments don’t have the money to pay for it either, but they certainly aren’t making the companies responsible for those societal costs in the way they have tried to do with, let’s say, chemical companies and other industries whose implementations are socially destructive or might cause potential harms.

Is the existing legal framework enough or do we make more laws and more regulations?

I think even more than laws and regulations we need effective governance instruments that can set good policy standards. Right now, laws and regulations have problematics in them too. They get static and as the technology changes they don’t change very easily. There’s a dramatic lag between the implementation of a technology and our ability to put ethical, legal oversight in place. We also lack effective cooperative frameworks to think through what kind of ethical, legal oversight is necessary. Is it laws and regulations or does it need to be something a little softer? There’s such a thing as soft law which is standards, laboratory practices and procedures. The strength of soft law is that it’s a bit more flexible. You can throw it out if circumstances change. The weakness is that it’s often unenforceable. We perhaps need different kinds of governance regimes where, for example, if those deploying a technology violate existing soft law standards, then they can be prosecuted for violating the public trust. We aren’t going to be able to keep up with the laws and regulations on every consideration. But we do need some way of ameliorating the harms.

What can the average person do in the face of all this?

The average person needs to get more educated and needs sufficient digital literacy. For their own self-protection, people need to know when they’re being manipulated or scammed and what measures they need to take to protect their privacy or their rights. I believe they should also take a little time to see who are the good faith brokers out there, who are the people who they generally trust and are trying to move society and the deployment of emerging technologies in positive directions. If they could find ways to support those who are acting in good faith, that would be a great help. One problem at the moment is that we have a lot of good ideas out there, well-intentioned people, but most of them can’t find the resources and time to do their work. When they for example try to raise capital, they often have to compromise their integrity in order to get that capital. So, yes, maybe they can get some money from the tech industry to work on certain problems but probably not to work on other problems, which are likely to be the ones that the tech industry is most fearful of.

Are you optimistic that the harms can be contained?

I came out of the womb as a cup-is-half-full person. I outline so many things that can go wrong and some people get a bit depressed when they listen to me. I admit that I’m not always giving the full story, I’m giving a particular take on what’s going on emphasizing what can go wrong. But my optimism is not about the present trajectory. My optimism lies in the sense that perhaps we are starting to get it: fires in Greece, fires in Australia, fires in Brazil, fires in California. Vicious once-in-a-century hurricanes are alerting people to the fact that global warming can no longer be debated; climate change is happening. I hope that the pandemic represents a little bit of a time-out and a recognition by the public, and maybe even those with resources and capital, that this is a really dangerous moment in human history. We have entered a precarious time and the world order can unravel in a lot of different ways, whether that’s the collapse of a leading democracy or whether that’s the burning down of a major city or a pandemic that is just ultimately not controllable. My hope is that it’s telling all of us that it’s time to act, even if some of our actions are insufficient or a little naive. Even those who have become wealthy, sometimes at others expense, are starting to get the message when their grandchildren call themselves “the doomers.” Their grandchildren are wondering whether they have a future. So hopefully that message is getting through to those who are in a position to do something, that perhaps we have built a world that, if we don’t act in a precipitous manner, our grandchildren will be robbed of a future comparable to ours regardless of how much money we can will them.

Can such an awakening take place by relying on the same tools, like social media, for example, which are being manipulated by algorithms and so on?

I believe that there is a moral compass in us, that there is a capacity, whether it is a soul or it’s something like a soul that says, “This is working, this is not working,” and can figure out appropriate pathways, presuming that’s our intention. I’m hopeful that the mass of humanity understands that this has to be our intention, including the people of good intention who may have contributed to the problem.

Tesla Bot

Tesla CEO Elon Musk last week said his company is working on a humanoid robot and that it will build a prototype “sometime next year.” What is your take on that?

Manufacturers have been using robotic devices for decades to perform dangerous and repetitive tasks in the assembly of automobiles. In his typical flare for drama and hype, Elon Musk announced that Tesla would be building humanoid robots for similar tasks. Why? Why should they look human? One can only surmise that this is another example of Musk’s mastery at gaining attention and publicity as he positions himself and his companies as the most advanced in the world. However, he will realize, as have many other companies, that truly useful humanoids that function as promised are hard to build and seldom fulfill expectations beyond the ability to perform a few tricks and tasks for which they were specifically designed.

Making AI that can be trusted

By Harry van Versendaal

“Few people in the world know better than I do what it’s like to have your life’s work threatened by a machine.” Garry Kasparov’s admission, in his latest book, “Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins,” encapsulates the existential threat posed by artificial intelligence (AI) to its creator. But since February 10, 1996, when IBM’s Deep Blue beat the world champion at chess for the very first time, AI has become an intrinsic part of our day-to-day lives – even if we don’t always realize it. By the time you read these lines, you’ve probably unlocked your phone with facial recognition, gone through your algorithmically curated Facebook feed, or even started a new series on Netflix, recommended on the basis of your previous choices.

A three-day conference organized by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) seeks to redefine our understanding of AI, to the degree that is has been shaped by pop culture and its dystopic – and rather too anthropomorphic – depictions in the realm of sci-fi, with HAL 9000 in “2001: A Space Odyssey” or “The Terminator.”

But that’s not all.

“We don’t only want to talk about artificial intelligence, but also about how artificial intelligence is connected to that thing we call humanity; how it will change the way we see ourselves as human beings,” says Stelios Vassilakis, director of programs and strategic initiatives at the foundation and also one of the curators of the SNF Nostos Conference 2021 “Humanity and Artificial Intelligence,” which will take place on August 26-28 at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center (SNFCC) in southern Athens.

“We’re not talking about a simple technology. We’re talking about a technology that has the potential to completely redefine what it means to be human – with whatever positive or negative consequences that may have,” he adds.

Apart from Kasparov, another 50 or so experts, academics, artists and futurists will be presenting their views and predictions on how AI will transform the human experience, but also the impact it will have on the societies and economies of the future, on the nature of work and the arts.

Vassilakis believes the conversation is long overdue. “Technology is moving ahead at warp speed and the people who handle these tools – as is usually the case with technology – are not taking a moment to think about the consequences,” he says.

Some people are trying. Cases like the removal of two researchers from Google’s AI ethics unit within the space of a few months reinforce the impression that the oversight of research and development departments at Silicon Valley’s tech giants is lacking to say the least. In any case, the ethical issues involved in AI are already very well documented and many of them reflect the all-too-human weaknesses of its designers.

“The algorithms contain bias because algorithms are made by human beings who are biased,” explains Vassilakis.

According to a 2019 study by the University of California, Berkeley, an algorithm that was used by US hospitals to allocate healthcare to some 200 million patients a year systematically discriminated against Black people. Algorithmic systems are also used by companies and educational institutions for evaluating candidates, by banks for assessing their customers’ credit ratings and by law enforcement for predictive policing.

And for anyone not worried enough about AI putting more power into the hands of the already powerful, the technology is rapidly finding applications in the defense industry and in the development of automated weapons systems.

“This, precisely, is where I think all the attention needs to be right now: how these mechanisms will be used and by whom,” says Vassilakis.

Intellectuals like Nick Bostrom, a Swedish professor of philosophy at the University of Oxford, warn that machine intelligence will also be mankind’s last invention as machines will become more capable than we are at inventing new things. And this, in turn, means that the future will be shaped by the preferences of AI. But what will these preferences be? Reason dictates that to achieve a relationship of safe symbiosis with AI, we must first ensure that our value system – the things we hold most dear in life that is – is hardwired into the neural networks of a machine.

If only it were that simple. For the fact is we live in a world where values are often conflicting and, in some cases, incommensurable.

“What, exactly, is our value system and who will prioritize our values when we cannot agree on fundamental issues such as climate change or Covid vaccination?” Vassilakis asks.

But before we start worrying about the impact of automated algorithms and digital super-intelligence, maybe we need to consider more immediate problems.

“I am concerned about what will happen to millions of workers who find themselves without a job because of AI. Every technological revolution so far, including the industrial, ended up creating jobs. This time, however, I believe we will see a paradigm shift. For the first time, we will have to deal with the fact that a technological revolution will not generate more jobs, but will destroy jobs,” says Vassilakis.

In his book “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow,” Israeli thinker and writer Yuval Noah Harari talks about the rise of “the useless class” and wonders what people with a conscience will do when non-conscious but super-intelligent algorithms do almost everything better.

A year after Kasparov’s defeat by IBM’s supercomputer, a music professor at the University of California in Santa Cruz named David Cope performed a live show of Lutheran chorales in the style of Bach. No one in the audience knew that the music had in fact been composed with a computer code on his household Macintosh.

The assumption irks those who want to believe that the morphological structures we call music, or other art forms, are the purest expression of human emotions, what we often call “soul.” “The question,” Cope told the Guardian back in 2010, “isn’t if computers possess a soul, but if we possess one.”

Vassilakis for his part believes that asking whether an algorithm can be creative is to ask the wrong question. The notion of creation, he argues, is relative: Even an algorithm making something is essentially “creating.” The real question, he says, is all about intentions.

“You could even say that a chicken scratch in the dirt is creative. But an algorithm can, under no circumstances, act with intent in the manner that Bach or Jackson Pollock did. And it cannot possess a conscience. That is precisely where the difference between algorithms and human beings lies.”

Thinking outside the black box

By Harry van Versendaal

“I think we got Huxley.” Since 2004, when he launched one of the first blogs in Greece, Manolis Andriotakis’ view of new media has only grown bleaker. Inquisitive, versatile and independent, he has systematically studied developments in the sphere of the internet and social media, and their impact on human evolution. His thoughts on the subject have been the subject of books, articles (he is a regular contributor to Kathimerini), documentaries and seminars.

Andriotakis recently spoke to Kathimerini via Skype, following the release of his latest work, “Homo Automaton: Artificial Intelligence and Us” (in Greek by Garage Books). The book represents his most comprehensive, but also most despondent, view of the phenomenon. Here, the 47-year-old writer analyzes machine learning algorithms’ subtle manipulation of the human mind. Monitoring our every move on the web, these programs filter and individualize the content that appears on our screens with the aim of making us more receptive to marketing content. The result, Andriotakis argues in the book, is dystopic to the extreme: a surveillance society that seeks to predict – and eventually molds – beliefs, preferences and behaviors; citizens with limited intellectual autonomy and willpower. It’s a world where the so-called “black box” elbows out the analogue man to make room for a brave new species: Homo automaton.

“Social media are not a tool of dialogue,” says Andriotakis, who took down his Instagram account, left Twitter and massively reduced the time he spent on Facebook. “If we assume that democracy, its institutions and its founding principles benefit from dialogue and democratic discourse, then all these media do not aid dialogue,” he says. “They are tools of persuasion.”

You have been studying new media since they first appeared. I have noticed a shift in your perceptions and your latest book takes a much more pessimistic stance.

Yes, there has been a shift. I don’t think I’m alone in that. The fears and concerns were always there, but 2016 came as a jolt. The election of [Donald] Trump, Brexit, but also the election here in 2015, brought to the surface not just the toxicity of social media but also their structural shortcomings. We are talking about specific platforms, specific business models. There’s a train of thought that starts in my book “The Fifth Power” (Nefeli, 2005), which talks about how newspapers based on an ad revenue business model end up having their content dictated to them. This is also happening now: Businesses, mostly involved in publishing, rely on the same business model. We’re experiencing a kind of disenchantment of social media.

The risks and hazards of social media engagement are now well documented and confirmed, even by people inside the tech industry itself. So why do you still have more people joining than quitting them?

Because they respond to a human need: the need for communication. They also offer an environment that is very attractive and very carefully designed. Their targeting is very precise, because their analysis is very precise. They are also – ostensibly – free and everyone is on there. This demonstrates their pervasiveness and structural relationship to reality. You want these tools, because this is the world today.

Do you think that the algorithms pervading the operation of social media undermine the institutions that ensure the function of democracy?

To a degree, yes, they do undermine them. Social media are not tools of dialogue. If we assume that democracy, its institutions and its founding principles benefit from dialogue and democratic discourse, then all these media do not aid dialogue. They are tools of persuasion. They claim to promote dialogue, interaction, communication, connectivity and interconvertibility. But this is a mere smoke screen, because the purpose of the AI machine and machine learning is advertising, it is commercial exploitation. From the moment that they can be used by a company to sell shoes, they will also be used by a politician, an activist or a religious leader, each to promote their own message. These media do not obey the rules that govern traditional media. Algorithms use machine learning to predict human behavior. Therefore, they undermine democracy because they do not aid dialogue, but, rather, emotional manipulation and reaction, thus building a wall between the citizen and critical thinking, transforming him or her into an automaton.

If, though, they were deliberately transformed into a tool of control, wouldn’t that be a major political issue?

Yes, it is. It’s like letting an industry control everything – and it is not just any industry, but an industry of knowledge. A free society does not center its philosophy on the manipulation of people. If you want autonomous, independent citizens, you don’t look for ways to control them but to give them the tools that will allow them to make better decisions for themselves. If you want to ensure that you have free and well-informed citizens, you will make use of these knowledge, information and communication structures. Their characteristics are so structural you can’t leave them completely uncontrolled. This is why it makes sense to have good journalism and a good education system. Otherwise, all you have is a carrot and a whip; not a mature society.

I think the issue is also philosophical, though. If we accept that there is even a degree of free will, these media make it possible, on a technical and mass scale, to take it out of the equation, so that everything, from the smallest to the biggest decisions, is dictated. This creates the illusion of choice, a virtual sense of control, when the message is, in actual fact, dictated. What we’re doing is technical intervention, pure and simple.

Who had a clearer view of the future after all? George Orwell or Aldous Huxley?

I think we got Huxley.

Is there a path to emancipation?

I believe in the power of education and intellectual cultivation. The longer we continue to question established ideas and continue to seek better-quality knowledge, and the more we keep up the political pressure, I am confident that we will not end up with Orwell’s scenario, or with Huxley’s. I certainly see elements that trouble me and energize me. I do not want my book to be viewed as a “call to arms,” however, but as a contribution to a necessary dialogue that is not happening. Because this dialogue cannot take place on Facebook, can it?

Can social media exist without the manipulation machine?

I am convinced that there can be non-commercial motives behind the networks and that in the future things may not be as they are now. It seems impossible, but a lot of things seemed impossible before they happened. Some kind of correction will happen; new technologies may even come along to change the landscape completely.

Regulation

The authorities seem fated to play catch-up with the tech industry, always a step behind developments. Can we expect Silicon Valley to self-regulate, or is that asking the wolf to guard the sheep?

Companies are ahead by virtue of what they are, but they are not working in secret; there is no conspiracy. They are obliged by law to submit their patents to the regulatory authorities. The results are made public and after that it becomes a power game based on the degree of pressure exercised on the regulatory authorities, the political forces, to ensure a type of immunity. There are also rules that have been bypassed by the tech industry because it is obviously an industry with enormous promise of profits and enormous investments. They are also favored by a techno-utopian dimension, by the investment of an enormous amount of hope in the digital world.

Are you at all worried that the surveillance mechanisms developed and implemented to contain the spread of Covid-19 will stay with us after the pandemic?

I see no reason why the contact tracing apps developed during the pandemic should stay. The real tug-of-war is with facial recognition software, predictive policing and biometric data. I think that if anything good came from the pandemic, it was raising a little bit more awareness about the positive dimensions of these technologies. Without these incredible tools, databases, processing capabilities, speeds, I do not think that vaccination development or the pandemic management would have succeeded to the degree that they have.

It is interesting that while private companies – in the West at least – know more about us than our own government, personal freedom activists continue to protest against governments. Why is that?

Because it is the governments that should be controlling these companies. They should be setting some kind of limits on them, but they’re having a hard time with that. That’s how democracy works, though; it’s a power competition.

Portrait of a photographer

By Harry van Versendaal

As radical and influential a man as he is a photographer, Spyros Staveris is also surprisingly modest and softly spoken.

We met on the occasion of the release of his book “There Is Nothing Behind a Photo,” published by Polis during the lockdown. It consists mainly of work from the second half of the 1980s, after his return from Paris and before he became involved with Greek and foreign magazines. It was a transitional phase for Staveris, who was still exploring his identity and leanings.

The images in this collection are accompanied by notes he made at the time, much like a journal which, he says, paints a “more authentic” portrait of the photographer himself.

Mapping a discursive course between the lumpen fringes and the lifestyle of Athenian socialites, Staveris went on to earn a reputation for his portraits of abnormals (in Foucault-speak) but also of celebrities.

Drawing on a surfeit of experiences packed into some three decades, Staveris spoke of the inspiration and motivation behind his new book, his process and today’s image culture.

You have not been stationary during the pandemic. The new book is proof of that.

Artistically, I put down my arms some time ago in photography. What I mean is that I did not feel that I had anything new to say and I did not want to start repeating myself. It would be really hard for me right now if you said, “Go take a portrait” – a real chore. At some point I just started using my phone to photograph my wanderings, just like everyone else does.

One might assume that a mature and established photographer like yourself would look down on that trend. Do you do it because everyone else does it, to see what it’s like? Or do you find it somewhat liberating?

That’s it exactly. I wanted to try a new medium that I saw gaining a place in modern reporting. I also wanted to feel the freedom the phone gives you – to shoot whatever, whenever it draws your attention.

Are you put off at allby the sheer volume of imagery, the direct sharing on such a massive scale, the narcissism of selfies? Many claim that photography is being debased by the process.

I don’t see it that way. That it has become so democratized is great. People are learning to train their eye. I also see something very tender in it, especially with youngsters and their selfies. I don’t have an elitist attitude to the issue.

Can you explain the book’s title? It’s poignant but also contradictory given that the images are accompanied by notes and text.

The entire book came out unwittingly; it was unexpected and unintentional. And the title was kind of a separate thing. I felt it suited the book because it puts you in the paradoxical position of anticipating what it could all mean, through the stories in the book.

Was there a purpose to all this?

What I wanted and what I ultimately accomplished was a portrait of the photographer through the photographs and their accompanying texts. Readers see someone they didn’t know. The fact is that many people, at first especially, thought I was a complete freak; others thought I was some brilliant intellectual – which I am not by any means. They had this erroneous image of me. And I think that a more authentic portrait of me emerges from this book.

What criteria did you use to develop the book?

I noticed at some point that I had writings that suited particular photographs, so I started putting it all together and forming the bones of a potential book. The succession is random, but I wanted it to have a sense of continuity, variety, perhaps even rhythm. And they are all black and white because I am referring to a time when I shot in black and white, before I got into color, which the magazines demanded.

The writings are based on notes you took when you got back home every day, right?

Exactly. It was a time when I felt incredibly free, because I was free of cares, and it was my habit at night to keep something like a journal describing the things I’d done and people I’d seen. It was something that lasted just for that decade, roughly. Because later, after I become involved with the magazines, photography took on a different intensity that did not allow me to sit down at night to write. It’s a real shame, because I met a lot of interesting people later and it would have been very useful to have notes on these encounters, which I now hardly remember.

Could these photographs be shown on their own, without words?

I think many of the photographs in this book could stand alone, or even beside others, because a photograph takes strength from the one beside it too.

You studied in Paris, where you also watched a lot of films. Did that influence your work?

Definitely, though I didn’t realize it of course. Back then I wanted to do something with cinema, but I never found the channel, the way, so it just stayed that way: a desire. I watched Walter Ruttmann’s “Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis” one day and I felt that this is exactly what I had been trying to do all those years, even though I did not have it as a specific reference in mind. The portrait of a city, basically. There was a spell when I was not considering becoming a photographer at all; I just took photographs for the pleasure of it. These here are photographs from a transitional time when I was doing different odd jobs and had just emerged from a period of intense political activism in the wake of May 1968. Myself and many of my contemporaries found ourselves a bit lost at the time. Even though there were opportunities in Greece in the 1980s to get mixed up in things and stay politically engaged, the overall framework was somewhat disheartening. And it was in this condition that I discovered the city, discovered Athens.

Later, as a photographer proper, you moved in the fringes, but also at celebrity parties. Where were you most in your element?

I felt comfortable everywhere. Whether you take me to a club or a hotel room with a transgender woman and her boyfriend, or the social scene I did then. If you are curious about things, about social phenomena, about the different categories of people, I think this curiosity makes you see everything, not from a distance, necessarily – because you can have feelings about what you’re looking at – but it allows you to move around comfortably everywhere. If there is anything that comes across, I think it’s a greater tenderness for the marginalized than the socialites.

Celebration of vanity

You refer to curiosity as a driving force. Can the process of photography change the photographer? Can it give them greater courage?

It’s the camera that gives you courage at first. But I became a different person by working with and meeting people who basically helped me find myself. I’m talking about the 2001 period with Stathis Tsagarousianos, which was pivotal. Until then, I had been doing classic, Magnum-style photo-reporting. But something different started coming through at some point, something I was only just discovering myself. I started photographing differently: freer, more dynamically, perhaps in a funnier way.

When you started doing celebrity and lifestyle photography it was something unfamiliar. How did you sell it?

I didn’t need to sell anything. Tsagarousianos was running Symbol at the time and because there was an explosion of events, the stock market and all the rest of it, he suggested that we also do something with society pages, but in a different way. Walking past a photography shop, I spied a 6×6 [medium-format camera] and thought about how it would allow me to change direction. It was cheap, Japanese, and I used it to start shooting for the society pages. And it did take me somewhere else. Even the medium can make you change direction. And, of course, we didn’t take the photographs other society photographers were doing, your typical portraits and the gowns.

Was there something about the predominant forms at the time that you wanted to challenge?

No, I just wanted a more journalistic style. And funnier, in a way. Isn’t it all really just a big celebration of vanity? So, that’s what I had to show it as.

How do you capture such an atmosphere? Do you do research? Location scouting? Do you have to experience it?

There aren’t many luxuries in portraits, in Greece especially. You’re sent somewhere and you have three minutes to get the shot. You have to be on your toes. You turn up at a house and have to scan all the corners immediately, see what possibilities it offers, put the person where you will get the most information. I always tried to do this with portraits and this is something the 6×6 allowed. I didn’t take close-ups; it was always a face in its proper environment. As far as research is concerned, all the reading accumulates in you without you knowing it, together with all the things you see.

Describing your encounter with Dinos Christianopoulos in the book, you say that photography is like choreography. Would you care to explain?

You have to move a lot, be agile. You can’t set up your tripod in one spot and the person across from it and say, “That’s it.” You need to try different things and make the person move as well. You’re a bit like a choreographer.

Ultimately, is a photograph a construct or a moment?

Isn’t it both? I imagine it’s both.

Finding peace in troubled waters

Hanan (left), now a swimming instructor, seen with her younger brother Sidar at a community pool in Wolfsburg, Germany.

By Harry van Versendaal

At 17 Hanan has already managed to conquer one of her biggest fears: water. A Yazidi refugee from northern Iraq, she nearly drowned in 2015 when the overcrowded rubber dinghy she was in was swallowed by waves on the perilous crossing from Turkey to Greece. Five years later, now working as a swimming instructor in Wolfsburg, Lower Saxony, Hanan is teaching her younger brother the basics of strokes, before his memories of trauma rise to the surface.

“I came across a newspaper article which said that a large number of refugees drowned in public pools in Germany because they did not know how to swim,” Nele Dehnenkamp, a freelance documentary filmmaker, says during a Skype interview from her home in Berlin.

“I thought, so many people, particularly young children, cross the Mediterranean and they don’t know how to swim. It must be so horrific for them to overcome this fear,” she says, discussing her short documentary “Seahorse,” which is being screened at the ongoing Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF23).

Dehnenkamp, who has a background in sociology, began researching community pools around the country that are tailored to refugees. That’s when she came across Hanan. With her graceful and collected demeanor, the wide-eyed girl with the long dark hair immediately stood out among her noisy peers, she recalls. Auspiciously, the girl was keen to open up about her experience.

“I did not have to convince her at all. Hanan has a very strong interest in telling her story because, for her, it’s a way of healing. Every time she tells the story, it gets a tiny little bit easier to do that,” the director says.

Brutally persecuted by Islamic State (ISIS) militants, thousands of Yazidis, an ancient religious minority, were forced to flee northern Iraq. Hanan, together with her grandmother, her mother and her five siblings, spent a year at various refugee camps in Turkey before landing on the island of Lesvos in the eastern Aegean. They managed to reunite with her father in Germany a few months later.

“Greece is very present in her memories, because when she saw the Greek shore, she knew she’d survive. This feeling of survival is in her very much tied to Greece,” the director says. “One of her biggest wishes is to actually return to the place that she first set foot on in Europe, and swim in the sea,” she says.

Hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees used Greece as their gateway to Europe in 2015 and 2016, until the European Union struck a deal with Turkey designed to stem the flow. Thousands have died on the crossing.

Trauma

Survival and the challenges of assimilation are two of the themes that play strongly in the subtext of the 16-minute film, where Hanan and her young brother Sidar are seen communicating in German. The predominant ones, however, are memory and trauma.

“Trauma… there is a lot of horror tied to it, but also beauty,” Dehnenkamp says. “It comes from coping with trauma and managing to overcome it. It also lies in the pride Hanan takes in having been through all that and having learned how to swim,” she says.

The film’s title was originally inspired by Germany’s first swimming badge, Seepferdchen (Seahorse), which is recognized across the country as proof that a child can stay afloat in the water – like a seahorse. While researching the project, she found out that the part of the brain named after the Greek word for seahorse, hippocampus, because of its shape, is its memory center.

“It struck me that memories which are stored and archived in the hippocampus are usually tied to very strong emotions. Traumatic memories are connected to the amygdala, which is the area associated with fear in the brain. Extreme emotions, like the fear of drowning, are recalled more easily and they will most likely stick with you for the rest of your life,” she says.

Six years after Chancellor Angela Merkel’s famous statement “Wir schaffen das” (We will make it), which marked Germany’s open-door policy to refugees at the peak of the influx, Dehnenkamp is annoyed that most of her countrymen seem to understand the crisis as something that occurred in 2015 and is now over. “This is simply not true. For the people who crossed the sea, these memories will stick for the rest of their lives,” she says.

“This is, in a way, what I really wanted to show with this film: Going to a public pool in Germany to learn how to swim is the most everyday thing that you can do here. It’s what everybody does around the age of 6. But the child sitting right next to you may have a very good reason to be afraid to get into the water,” she says.

Germany took in around 1,000 Yazidi refugees under a special relocation program in 2014. It is now home to the largest Yazidi population outside of Iraq. According to a study published in 2019, almost 80% of Yazidi women in Germany said they had been raped by ISIS fighters; and half of them said they became pregnant as a result of rape.

Dehnenkamp says the country’s political class is mostly reluctant to acknowledge that the refugee crisis has had a long-term impact on German society. Doing so, she explains, would be recognizing the psychological trauma that many of the newcomers have endured.

“People have this idea that, ‘OK, you survived this life-threatening trip so you should be fine. You’re here, you’re safe.’ But it’s more complicated than that. And I think politicians have not yet taken that into account,” she says.

Empathy

In 2015, shocking images of Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi’s drowned body lying face down on a Turkish beach placed worldwide attention on the refugee crisis. The photograph also “haunted” her mind, Dehnenkamp says, describing it as one of the main events that galvanized her into action. Today, she is optimistic that projects like her documentary can have a similar effect on other people.

“I do believe that building empathy really helps bring about social change. I do hope that when people watch this film they will understand that an escape to Europe is not just a several-hour trip across the sea, but a lifelong challenge that you have to cope with,” she says.

“I cannot undo what she went through,” the filmmaker says of Hanan. However, she hopes that the documentary can serve as a platform for Hanan to tell her story. “She feels that all the ordeals she went through went unnoticed. And I don’t want her to feel that way,” Dehnenkamp says.

But the refugee girl is not the only one looking for healing, it seems. Dehnenkamp admits that watching the little boy Sidar, seen in the film hesitating in his orange floaties on the edge of the pool, gives her a feeling of guilt. “I feel guilty for letting [the refugee drama] happen as a European society,” she says. “It takes me back to the image of Alan Kurdi. Children are the most innocent beings out there; they should not have to go through all this,” she says.

Dehnenkamp says the traumatic memories currently hidden inside Sidar’s brain could well surface over time. “One day, he’ll probably ask, ‘Why did I have to go through all that?’” she says. “I have no answer to that. The least I can do is to document this and make sure it did not go unseen.”

You can visit the film’s official website (in German), with details on Hanan’s journey to Germany, here.

‘I do believe that building empathy really helps bring about social change,’ Berlin-based filmmaker Nele Dehnenkamp says. [Dominique Brewing]

Urban explorer weaves a fresh narrative for Athens

kauffmann

By Harry van Versendaal

Defined by Athens, Nikos Vatopoulos has certainly worked hard to give something back to the city where he was born and raised. His prolific work as a journalist, writer, amateur photographer and urban activist has influenced contemporary perceptions of the Greek capital.

Vatopoulos would be the first to agree that Athens is not by any measure endowed with the picture-postcard beauty of its European counterparts. Fraught with contrasts and contradictions, this sprawling metropolis resists any straightforward classification.

“I used to be a staunch aesthete, offended by Athens’ shortcomings,” Vatopoulos says. “But I have since broadened the criteria by which I consider something beautiful or ugly. I am interested in what is interesting and in why something is there in front of me and in whether there is a way for it to go away if it bothers me,” he says.

The shift seems to convey a quasi-existential understanding that the aesthetic and cultural mess that is Athens needs to be embraced if one is to ever feel comfortable here. It’s an admittedly more mature and pragmatic outlook, more in line with the ideal of a city as a living system, a constantly changing whole that resembles an incubator of narratives and emotions such as those captured in his latest book, “Walking in Athens.”

The 181-page volume, recently published in English by Metaichmio, is a collection of articles written for Kathimerini newspaper where Vatopoulos is chief cultural editor. Vatopoulos, a keen-eyed street wanderer-turned-archaeologist of the present strolls the capital’s emblematic boulevards and meandering backstreets documenting robust and humble buildings, neat houses and crumbling ruins. In the process, he chronicles the succession of human lives, cultural changes and civilizational shifts. It is a gentle albeit thoughtful exercise.

Born in downtown Athens in 1960, Vatopoulos moved toward adulthood as the city’s urban and social transformation was in full swing. It was a highly optimistic period which however bequeathed the capital with a controversial architectural legacy (though one that the writer does not shy away from). Now standing at what appears to be the close of Greece’s brutal 10-year crisis, Vatopoulos refuses to give up his optimism about Athens. The financial meltdown has naturally left deep scars on the urban fabric, yet it has, at the same time, impacted the urban mind-set in a positive manner.

“The new generations that come to the fore will come to see this crisis – with the worst of it seeming to come to a close after a 10-year cycle – as a major rift in the city’s evolution,” he says. “It is important not just because of its absolutely obvious downward spiral but also because a large part of the residents of this city redefined their relationship with the urban environment.”

What compelled you to write these pieces? Was it a quest for a beauty or the desire to make a record of things that are being lost?

It was mostly an effort to understand this city, I would say. Even though I was born in Athens, grew up in Athens and my entire life is intrinsically linked with this city, I always felt there was room for me to go even deeper in understanding how it has been shaped and what makes it tick. I suppose that curiosity was my trigger, an enormous amount of curiosity about Athens, which obviously comes with an enormous amount of love. I want to understand it because I love it, so I think that this article series was the next stop in my relationship with Athens. I wrote about more obvious subjects in the first few years, but the series later led me to discover the unseen city – that is what interested me most; locating those reserves of a bourgeois culture (note: Vatopoulos uses the world “astiko,” which he defines as a kind of bourgeois, metropolitan culture, but without the baggage of class) that are usually not so apparent. If you don’t go looking for it, this treasure won’t just appear of its own accord. And I believe that Athens has a stock of buildings that basically illustrates its cultural evolution and is right there; we just have to see it to incorporate it into the city’s greater narrative. Athens’ modern story is enough for me; I am very interested in it.

In your book you talk about a new watershed in the city’s history: before and after the economic crisis. Do you believe this outlook will prevail in the future?

I do. I believe it has been a major watershed. I am part of a generation – like many other generations, of course – that has been defined by 20th century milestones. I believe that as the events of the 20th century move into the past, the new generations that come to the fore will come to see this crisis – with the worst of it seeming to come to a close after a 10-year cycle – as a major rift in the city’s evolution. It is important not just because of its absolutely obvious downward spiral but also because a large part of the residents of this city redefined their relationship with the urban environment. This is the important part, the psychological shift. And this, of course, has left a mark in the form of neglect. But apart from this, I believe the crisis gave the city space for a new beginning and in this regard I am somewhat optimistic about its prospects.

Where does that optimism come from?

Well, it’s partly who I am as a person, always positive and open to things, but I do believe that there is a critical mass of young residents that care about this city. Even those who cannot invest in the city in any way – be it economic, educational or in some other way – are ready to be useful as citizens. This may not be visible yet, but there is a greater proportion of mostly young people who want to be part of the city’s evolution than there was in the past. They also have a much sophisticated point of view.

What would be the glue to keep this city together – if it even needs such a thing?

Abolishing stereotypes, re-establishing the notion of Athens in a way that entails civic pride and inclusiveness. I believe that there needs to be plenty of social space in the new narrative for Athens; space for identity-shaping and for the city’s residents to redefine themselves. It is futile to approach Athens in terms that belong to the 1990s; it is unrealistic. Athens needs to develop a metropolitan identity, but with social cohesion – that is the most important thing.

Speaking of cohesion, is the absence of aesthetic cohesion a boon or a bane for the city?

I have vacillated in this regard. I used to be a staunch aesthete, offended by Athens’ shortcomings, but I have since broadened the criteria by which I consider something beautiful or ugly. I am interested in what is interesting and in why something is there in front of me and in whether there is a way for it to go away if it bothers me. On a recent tour of Neapoli and Exarchia I made an unplanned stop in front of two buildings from the 1980s that are, objectively, extremely ugly. I told my group: “Observe these buildings, because they too are a part of Athens’ reality. In order to understand Athens we need to also make room for them in our minds.” This is regardless of whether we like them or not, but this is an entirely different conversation.

Do you think that Athens struggles under the weight of its history? Does it need a new identity in which its Classical heritage is simply a part rather than a symbol of unattainable heights?

I believe in Athens’ continuum and I think it has been very bad for the city that new Athens has been cast as the result of the “darkness of the Turkish occupation,” a chasm that is nothing more than a notion, a construct of the modern age that rejected centuries of the Ottoman era (calling it post-Byzantine no less – another outrage) and which completely overlooks the period of Frankish rule (I bet only a handful of Greeks know that Athens once had a Catalan administration), etc. There is, however, a very interesting trend toward seeing Athens as a historical continuum, from the pre-Classical age to the present day, with fascinating peaks and troughs, of course, and all of which contributes to what we see and mainly to what we feel about Athens.

What gives you greater pleasure: a new, beautiful structure or the restoration of an old one?

I have never thought about it. I will say the former; the construction of a beautiful new thing. This is the greatest vote of confidence you can give to a city’s future. New beautiful buildings mean that people are envisioning their lives in this city in a much more succinct way. By no means do I dismiss the latter, though.

Which is your favorite Athenian street?

Patission. It may be because I grew up there, but I think that it exemplifies Athens’ urbanization in a very distinct way, while it also gives me this combination of joy and sadness.

Do you feel uncomfortable when you see a tourist walking around the “wrong” parts of Athens? What is this city’s biggest problem?

I used to, yes, quite profoundly. I am more relaxed about it now. But I also think that a lot of foreign tourists have changed too. I see many – and I don’t mean the mass tourism lot that’s obviously here just for a good time, which is also fine – who are interested in what is going on around them, who are not looking to stay in their comfort zone or for the obviously beautiful. I recently saw two tourists who weren’t lost walking along Liosion Street – they were having a wander and the look on their faces was very interesting.

Has any particular urban regeneration project from among the many that are put forward every so often caught your attention?

I believe the Rethink Athens project really should have been carried out. I think it would have helped Athens, added a lot of trees and fixed Omonia Square, which is a major issue. We Greeks are very swift to say no and very reluctant to sit down and talk.

Nevertheless, I read that the new mayor invited you for a discussion about the city. Did you make any suggestions?

Yes, we had dinner, but it was part of a busy schedule of many meetings with Athenians. What I told him – and he appeared interested in the idea – was about rooftops, which also have to do with the climate and with the city’s appearance. I think it’s a major issue. If you look out at Athens from Lycabettus or the Acropolis, you see that there has been no thought given to how rooftops could contribute aesthetically and ecologically. The many options provided by technology (you can have swimming pools, gardens, new-tech tiling, etc) in combination with incentives and tax breaks could transform Athens completely within five years.

You have already published dozens of articles, books and albums, organized exhibitions and founded the now-defunct Saturdays in Athens urban activist group, all about the capital. What else can we expect?

I want to keep writing books. I’m working on one now that will be published this fall, again by Metaichmio, which is my take on 23 Greek cities, an essay on the country’s undervalued urban space. I am an amateur photographer and would like to have a show, while I would also like to write a big book about Athens that would be about the city and people from my generation, about buildings and books, people and movies.

As Golden Dawn nurses wounds, far-right newcomer surfaces

greek-solution_web

By Harry van Versendaal

European Parliament elections gave observers of the far right in Greece something to smile about as Golden Dawn lost nearly half of its votes compared to the previous EU ballot in 2014. But it was not all good news. As the neo-Nazi party nursed its wounds, the ultranationalist pro-Russia Greek Solution (Elliniki Lysi), a newcomer, staged a surprisingly strong showing, taking 4.18 percent of the vote and one seat in the increasingly Euroskeptic EU assembly.

Support for Golden Dawn dropped from 9.4 percent in the 2014 European Parliament elections to 4.88 percent on May 26. The party’s candidate for Athens mayor Ilias Kasidiaris won 10.53 percent compared to 16.12 percent in the 2014 local elections, while Ilias Panayiotaros, running for Attica regional governor, took 5.59 percent compared to 11.13 percent five years ago.

Inner-party friction appears to be a key reason for the decline of the country’s dominant far-right party. It was most recently illustrated in the decision of leader Nikos Michaloliakos to ditch the party’s three incumbent MEPs and put Yiannis Lagos, a Piraeus MP from Golden Dawn’s old guard, at the top of the party’s EU ticket.

“This sort of party depends on a tight inner circle to survive. Such cohesion can only be ensured by a strong leader,” says Vassiliki Georgiadou, a political scientist at Panteion University who recently penned a genealogy of Greece’s far-right parties.

One of the three EU deputies, Eleftherios Synadinos, left Golden Dawn last year, accusing the leadership of nepotism and corruption. Synadinos, a former army lieutenant general who went on to set up his own nationalist grouping, said he was requested to regularly submit a chunk of his MEP salary to the party coffers.

In September 2013, Greek police arrested Michaloliakos and more than a dozen senior party members following the fatal stabbing of anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas by a party supporter. A month later, Parliament voted to cut off state funding to Golden Dawn on the grounds that its chief and several lawmakers were charged with involvement in a criminal organization. The move deprived Golden Dawn of a major financial resource – an estimated 873,000 euros that year. The number of Golden Dawn’s local organizations gradually dropped from 75 to around 50. Analysts say the impact of that move underscored the significance of institutional checks against political extremism.

“We saw Golden Dawn lose momentum as soon as the institutions took action,” says Georgiadou.

At the same time, judicial proceedings have evidently limited the violent activism of Golden Dawn, frequently accused of attacking migrants and leftists.

“The party could not possibly appear to confirm the allegations while these were being examined by the judiciary,” Georgiadou says.

The trial is still ongoing. The defendants’ testimonies are to begin later this month. Apart from triggering claims of political persecution by party officials looking to attain martyr status, analysts say one cannot safely predict what the impact of a potential conviction would be on the party.

One case study is Belgium’s far-right Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest), the repackaged version of Vlaams Blok (Flemish Block) which dissolved after a court convicted the party of racism in 2004. The regrouping did not prevent the party from staging a successful comeback.

Georgiadou remains cautious about drawing parallels between the two cases. “Charges against Vlaams Blok concerned racist statements. In the case of Golden Dawn, we are dealing with criminal offenses,” she says.

Observers say that even if Golden Dawn were to rebrand itself (the party has reportedly already registered the name Greek Dawn), its outlook would be dim.

“They would need to develop a second body of officials who are not so well known or popular and pass on the power to them. I don’t think that a successor suffering from such organizational shortcomings would be able to sustain Golden Dawn’s current popularity,” Georgiadou says.

New solution, new problem

While Golden Dawn took a bruising in European elections, a new force has burst onto the scene.

After electing a representative to the European Parliament on May 26, Greek Solution has set its sights on winning even more seats in the Greek House after a snap election scheduled for next month. According to exit poll data, 12 percent of Golden Dawn supporters gave Greek Solution their vote (another 12.6 percent of Golden Dawn’s voters migrated to New Democracy).

Unlike Golden Dawn, which depended on grassroots action and an extended network of local chapters across the country, Greek Solution is a top-down party built on the back of TV exposure and, some say, Russian funds (the party denies the allegations). Born in Germany to Greek emigrant farmers, its 53-year-old leader Kyriakos Velopoulos was elected as an MP with Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) in the northern port city of Thessaloniki in 2007 and 2009 before joining the ranks of center-right New Democracy between 2012 and 2015. Velopoulos, a former journalist, is widely viewed as a snake oil peddler for selling items such as “letters written by Jesus” or hair-growth potions on fringe TV programs. His shows are rife with wacky conspiracy theories. In March, he claimed that last summer’s deadly wildfires in eastern Attica were part of a Zionist plot to facilitate the transfer of Chinese exports to Western Europe.

“He should not be underestimated as a mascot,” says Georgiadou, drawing parallels with Giorgos Karatzaferis, who recently stepped down as leader of his TV-based nationalist LAOS party that has failed to recover following its fatal decision to support the Greek bailout in 2012. “Velopoulos is a nucleus. If more pieces are added, you’ll get a mosaic,” Georgiadou says.

Amid the fake news and conspiracy theories, a steadier pattern appears to be emerging, including a Greek-centered analysis of the world, opposition to the European Union, a call for a return to a national currency and an emphasis on national, self-sufficient production. Speaking after European elections, Velopoulos laid out his Orbanesque vision of “a Christian Europe without Islamists.” He added that Greece should lay a minefield and build a wall along the northeastern border with Turkey to stem the flow of “illegal migrants.”

Done deal

Analysts are cautious about the extent to which Greek Solution was boosted by opposition to the name deal signed in June 2018 between Greece and what is now the Republic of North Macedonia, despite the fact that the so-called Prespes accord dominated much of domestic politics over the past year.

“I am not even sure that the Prespes deal remained an issue during the pre-election campaign,” says Georgiadou. “The issue served a strategy and then ran its course,” she says, adding that although played up by the media, reactions were in fact marginal, also in northern Greece.

Figures indicate that hardliners were not rewarded by voters. New Democracy candidate Katerina Markou, a fervent critic of the agreement, performed poorly in the Euro poll, collecting just 29,781 votes – ending up very far behind the party’s top vote-getter Stelios Kymbouropoulos, who garnered 419,759 votes.

If the agreement had had a meaningful impact on the outcome, analysts say, that would also be evident in SYRIZA’s performance. But that did not happen. Exit poll data suggest that the issue failed to galvanize SYRIZA’s left-wing voters. An estimated 5 percent defected to smaller parties left of SYRIZA, including former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis’ DiEM25.

“Prespes is a spent issue. I do not think anyone will invest in it anymore,” says Georgiadou, adding that its trajectory was reminiscent of the clash between the state and the church in the early 2000s after a reformist PASOK government decided to remove religious affiliation from identity cards and to force a referendum on the issue.

Fresh competition

Despite its unexpected showing in European polls, Greek Solution has already been hit by three resignations in the runup to the national election, indicating that the political substance that glues it together is not of the enduring type. However, if the party makes it into Parliament next month, access to state funding would enable it to better consolidate itself also by developing a network of local organizations.

“It may well prove to be a flash party, or not. It’s too early to tell,” Georgiadou says. “One thing we do know though is it will be treated differently from now on. It will be seen as a competitor.”

Peeling the orange

velden

Hans van der Meer/Hollandse Velden (Dutch Fields)

By Harry van Versendaal

If you’re lucky enough to fly to Amsterdam on a cloudless day, your gaze will inevitably be drawn to the unusually geometrical, handmade mosaic that is the Dutch countryside. Endless stretches of rectangular fields are demarcated by a dense network of drainage ditches and roads. Space has never been in abundance here. The Dutch have never had the luxury of wasting the tiniest bit of land. About a quarter of The Netherlands famously lies below sea level. Hard work, inventiveness and team spirit were required of the people if they wanted to keep their feet dry.

This spatial singularity is often considered as the origin of the consensus-based decisionmaking process of the Dutch, known as the “polder model.” In his book, “Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football,” which was recently made available in Greek (Diavlos), the English author and journalist David Winner argues that this very condition was at the root of what locals call “totaalvoetbal.”

Developed by manager Rinus Michels and spearheaded by Johan Cruyff in the late 1960s and early 70s, Total Football was a ground-breaking system based on speed, stamina, technical skill and intelligent use of space. “Total Football was, among other things, a conceptual revolution based on the idea that the size of any football field was flexible and could be altered by a team playing on it,” Winner writes. “In possession, Ajax – and later the Dutch national team – aimed to make the pitch as large as possible, spreading play to the wings and seeing every run and movement as a way to increase and exploit the available space. When they lost the ball, the same thinking and techniques were used to destroy the space of their opponents.”

The game had to be effectual but, most importantly, it had to be beautiful. Cruyff, who transformed Ajax and later Barcelona both as a player and manager, has often been likened to Rembrandt, Vermeer and other Dutch masters. Fascinated by his elegant, ballet-like stride, Rudolf Nureyev always said Cruyff should have been a dancer. Former Arsenal striker Dennis Bergkamp, one of the most technically gifted players to grace the Premier League (ex-Newcastle defender Nikos Dabizas probably still has nightmares of the Dutchman’s pirouette goal 17 years ago), was often criticized of lacking that killer instinct. “I suppose I’m not that interested in scoring ugly goals,” Bergkamp quipped – a statement that sums up “totaalvoetbal” philosophy yet is, at the same time, a very Dutch way of disguising weakness as moral superiority.

Winner’s writing is reminiscent of the system’s architecture. The author jumps back and forth from history to social change to the arts and to architecture, enriching the theory with interviews with ex-players and managers, as well as anecdotal passages. The only steady reference is Cruyff, the talisman of the Total Football revolution (sportswriter David Miller famously described him as “Pythagoras in boots”) whose unconventional personality and ideas shaped modern football as well as the personality of a nation.

In his effort to develop an attractive, holistic theory, Winner appears a bit too tempted at times to discover meaning and symbolism – like when he draws parallels between former Feyenoord midfielder Wim van Hanegem and the curved arched structures of Rotterdam architect Lars Spuybroek.

For the Dutch, of course, Total Football never really brought total success. In several crunch moments, the squad has appeared to come out onto the pitch with a self-destruct button. In the 1974 World Cup final in Munich, a combination of overconfidence and arrogance led to defeat against an inferior West Germany. After scoring the opening goal, the Dutch players began to mock their opponents with fancy footwork instead of finishing them off with a second goal – hubris of sorts. “There is still deep, unresolved trauma about 1974. It’s a very living pain, like an unpunished crime,” a Dutch psychoanalyst says in the book.

When the Oranje reached a third World Cup final in 2010 sacrificing the virtues of “totaalvoetbal” on the altar of a pragmatic, often cynical, style (the stamp of Nigel de Jong’s studs on Xabi Alonso’s chest was the painful souvenir from the Johannesburg final) the custodians of Total Football reacted to the ultimate fall of the Dutch side with a sense of self-righteous vindication. In their eyes, the Spanish tiki-taka of close-touch possession play was a more faithful reincarnation of Cruyff’s legacy.

As the young players with the iconic vertical red stripes upped the pressure on the Juventus defense inside the Johan Cruyff Arena in the first quarter final of the Champions League last month, the English sportscaster could not hide his admiration for their unique ability to create a pitch within a pitch: “It’s like Cruyff is still here,” he said. A few weeks later, what would have been an all-Cruyff Ajax vs Barcelona final would turn into a total nightmare for both clubs.

Sense and sensibility

joshua

Joshua Coombes, a 31-year-old hairdresser-turned-activist from Devon, defends his decision to join forces with a private business.

By Harry van Versendaal

AMSTERDAM – Joshua Coombes is as straightforward as he is charismatic. He raises his voice above the dance music blaring from the adjacent hall of De Hallen, a refurbished tram depot east of the city center. Toms is unveiling its latest campaign, and this 31-year-old hairdresser from Devon on the southwest coast of England speaks with palpable enthusiasm about his role in it: “I am an amplifier for people who have no voice.”

For years, Coombes would roam the streets of London after work, giving free haircuts and shaves to the homeless, posting before and after photos on his Instagram account hashtagged with his animating principle #dosomethingfornothing. In late 2015, at the peak of Greece’s refugee crisis, Coombes brought his scissors and street cuts to Athens’s Elliniko camp and Victoria Square. He has also couch-surfed across the world from the US to Mexico and Ecuador, to France and Germany. Until he received that phone call from Toms. Coombes is now one of the firm’s so-called changemakers – social activists selected to spearhead the California-based company’s new #standfortomorrow campaign on homelessness, female empowerment and social entrepreneurship.

“It is not just a campaign,” Coombes says. “They are living it. Sure, they spend money on an event like this, but they also work with people.”

The story behind Toms is more or less known, elevated as it may have been to the status of inspirational fable. As its founder, Blake Mycoskie, writes in his autobiography, “Start Something That Matters,” the idea hit him during a trip to Argentina back in 2006. The Texan, then aged 30, was spending his time playing polo, learning the tango and drinking Malbec. That was until he started to notice lots of kids with no shoes who were suffering from injuries to their feet. The spectacle spurred him to action.

He decided to import the alpargata, a local version of the classic espadrille, to the US and for every pair sold to donate a pair of new shoes to a child in need – a policy that came to be known as “one-for-one.”

“And so Blake started a purpose-driven company long before purpose-driven companies were a thing. And now they are quite ingrained in the business model for lots of companies,” says Toms chief giving officer Amy Smith.

We are sitting at a boutique hotel in De Hallen. Smith, with past experience at Apple and a nonprofit, handles questions cautiously, glancing every so often at her laptop screen. “I think a desire to do good turned into a movement. I don’t think he or anyone at Toms would say that the outward intention was to create a movement – the intention was to give back to a community and to people he saw in need,” she says. The brand’s mantra, she adds, is “Toms’ mission is to improve lives through business.”

‘Ethical consumer’

Almost 13 years and 86 million shoes later, the social entrepreneurship landscape has changed radically. Smith admits that the company, 50 percent of which is now controlled by equity firm Bain Capital, is too “humble” to claim it actually invented a new type of consumer, the “ethical consumer,” as it were. To be sure, hundreds of companies followed in Toms’ footsteps. Others offered a poor imitation. Greenwashing, a practice whereby companies style themselves as more environmentally friendly than they genuinely are, is still widespread as many established businesses, often slow-moving bureaucracies, are struggling to make a substantial transition or see no economic sense in doing so. Data, however, show that treating socially minded commerce as a fad is not good for business. In the past few years it has become something consumers ask for – and reward.

A Clutch survey published in the US earlier this year found that 68 percent of consumers said the social profile of a company was more important than price when choosing a brand or product. That share climbed to 71 percent when it came to environmentally friendly practices. In the same poll, 75 percent said they were likely to start shopping from a brand that promotes an issue they agree with, whereas 59 percent were likely to stop shopping at a company that supports an issue they disagree with.

“Your millennial and Gen Z customer is going to vote with their wallets, they are very savvy consumers, they expect companies to address issues in the world and to take a point of view for the big issues facing communities,” Smith says.

The business landscape has changed for everyone – Toms included. Standing on the event stage, global CEO Jim Alling is trying to fire up the audience with sugar-coated corporate soundbites. His enthusiasm, however, fails to disguise the firm’s concern that it has perhaps grown too big for its own good. “We can’t get tired, we can’t get boring,” he warns. Clouds have gathered on the horizon due to the brand’s limited diversification and the rise of cheaper competition. “People need to recognize we’re committed to creating a platform where positive social impact can take place, but they also need to understand that, without purchases, we actually have no ability to do that,” he says.

Can Toms expand without turning its back on its culture and core values? Smith has no doubt. She describes how the company evolved its give-back model, expanding into eyewear, apparel, handbags and coffee. In return, it provides vision-related medical treatment, the conditions necessary for a safe and sanitary birth, and safe drinking water in developing countries.

Smith says the company reached the point where it was time to take a step further. “It was the sort of pause moment, of ‘What else can we or should we be doing?’” she says. “Humanity thrives when you have opportunity for all people, when you have equality and justice, taking your piece of environmental responsibility and you provide ways for citizens to be in action… From basic needs [we move on] to basic human values, or basic support for issues that go beyond these basic needs,” Smith says, as she paints the outline of the new campaign. “It is a natural progression for our brand and our culture.”

In a rather bold move, Toms launched a campaign late last year to curb gun violence, supporting the drive for universal background checks. Some see a risk of the brand being identified with a specific political agenda – a progressive liberal agenda, in this case.

“It could become very political,” Smith admits. “We have chosen to say this is not a left or right issue, but a life or death issue – people are losing their lives in such huge numbers as a result of gun violence, because individuals did not get background checks,” she says.

Company sales have soared by an estimated 20 percent since the campaign launched.

Along with success come mistakes and criticism. A pair of alpargata are as simple as their production and supply is complex: fashion, profit, sustainability, transparency, ethics all come into play. The give-back model, its critics say, is little more than an ego boost; it only helps us Western consumers feel better about ourselves. At the same time, the practice undermines local economies by fostering dependency on outside aid. Who really can compete with a free product?

“We are always listening to the critics. We want to hear what they have to say and we want to learn from what we are doing, how we are executing and ensuring that we’re having the greatest possible impact,” Smith says. Toms carried out an extensive impact study on local communities. It opened a factory in India and enforced stricter regulations governing working conditions and the sustainability of materials. It was recently certified as a B Corporation for its social and environmental performance.

The fact remains that Toms is and will remain a for-profit company. As Sebastian Fries, one of Smith’s predecessors, said in 2013, Toms is “not in the business of poverty alleviation.” This, however, does not mean that the company has a smaller impact compared to a nonprofit with more benign intentions.

Moral compass

Coombes, for one, seems to think so. Some inside his old punk band were not too happy with his decision to join hands with a private company. He prefers a more pragmatic approach. “It is not grassroots, but it is another way of doing it. Can a bank do this? I do not think so,” he says.

He insists his conscience is clear. “Success is measured by the people I meet on the street, my interaction with them,” he says as he leaves the table for a group photo. “I’m always learning. I do not have complete solutions. I try to keep my moral compass in check.”


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