Athens Report: Documenting the debt crisis in the era of post-truth | CHRISTINA GRAMMATIKOPOULOU

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Marching through the Urban and Digital space

When I learned about Anna Lascari‘s Athens Report, a few months ago, I took a look into the digital platform and came across well known images. I had witnessed the 2008 riots, the bailout protests, the tear gas attacks, from afar, through the screen of my computer. In this regard, it felt familiar. I was used to seeing what was happening in Athens through a screen, as if I were sitting in the seat of the trolley and was watching the city roll outside my window. On the other hand, my frequent visits to Athens had given me a first hand experience of its urban grid, so I could get a more direct feel of the events.

Athens Report is an art project and an online documentary of the events that took place in Athens in a delimited time, from December 2008 to September 2015, and in a delimited space, covered by the route of the line 11 trolley. It was a time of accelerated historical developments in Greece: from the urban riots that followed the murder of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos by the police to the protests against the imposed neoliberal policies -measures that resulted in a collapse of the economy and a humanitarian crisis; the testimonies found in the platform reflect the repression but also the initiatives for artistic, political and humanitarian action.

Challenging the traditional hierarchical organization of the archive, Lascari opts for an alternative order for the narrative, a line on the map that indicates a crossing of the city, a “poreia”, a word with a double meaning in Greek: it indicates a route or a protest. Athens Report rests on both meanings, as a march through space and time.

Athens Report projects the urban landscape as a dynamic space, that opens to the digital space, as well as other conflict areas beyond the trolley line and the city limits. There are plenty of elements that build this continuum between real, augmented and digital space: the cityscape changes from stop to stop, the social fabric is being transformed in the axis of time and space, the posters that call for protests reflect the ideologies underneath.

The documentation supported by the platform is not a simple registration; the dissemination of information on digital platforms can in fact add fuel and accelerate the events in the urban space. The focus of the platform in Street Art upholds this interdependence between the urban and digital space: although popular, street art had been relatively marginal until the emergence of the Internet. Through the photographic documentation of street art projects, their dissemination across the Internet and the accessibility across the world, offered by the new technology, Street art turned into a major art movement within the urban space. Likewise, the documentation of protests and their dissemination across social media strengthened the activist movement. During the spring of 2011 protests and revolts spread like fire, from Tahrir to La Puerta del Sol and Syntagma to Wall Street. Their origins are to be found in pre-existing social and political problems -in some cases similar, in some others different- that would have caused ruptures one way or the other; however, the streaming of the events in real time helped organize actions on a global scale and accelerate developments.

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An archive of testimonies in a time of “alternative facts”

Athens Report is an archive created by the people who experienced the events and contributed with their own story through sound files, testimonies, photos and videos. The multi-dimensional reality recorded by the digital devices and displayed on the platform contrasts the one-dimensional narrative for the crisis, as evidenced by the Greek political power and the media.

At a first glance, the initiative of Athens report produces the same effect as social media feeds, where we can see the events unfolding in real time, recorded by the people who live them. However, significant differences in context give a different result:

First of all, it is important to keep in mind not only who provides the information, but also who owns it and controls its dissemination: whether this may be the authorities, Internet capitalist giant companies or Internet users themselves. Once the information provided by the users passes on to Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube, Whatsapp or any other popular platform, then it can be handled in any way considered convenient, eliminating any subversive content from users’ feeds, and promoting ‘harmless’ stories instead -kittens or ‘positive’ messages illustrated with hipster drawings. This problem is exacerbated by the content regulators of each platform, who have the power to censor pictures, texts and videos uploaded by users, prohibiting anything that seems “uncomfortable” and may trigger negative feelings to users, even if this means blocking historical photographs -the ban of Nick Ut’s emblematic Vietnam War photo from Facebook is a recent example. This pink version of reality bleeds into the users’ viewing of the world, many of whom expect “trigger warnings” in education that will help them turn their back to anything unpleasant, even if it’s historic or social facts.

What is more, the algorithms that prioritize information in social media feeds are set to project topics that have received a lot of clicks from other users and our contacts, including -or especially- fake news. The recent election of Donald Trump has been partly attributed to this distorted flow of information; on one hand, the social media put us in a “bubble” where we only hear the echo of views identical to our own, without any contradiction, and on the other hand fake news are projected as true. Likewise, it is possible for any interested groups to manipulate the top search results of critical issues, by buying Google ads or by tricking the crawler of the search engine. For example, if we search information about the Holocaust, we come across the theory that it never happened. We have transitioned into an the era of “post-truth” where “alternative facts” become a euphemism for the manipulation of users who believe that their social media feed and Google tell the truth.

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Public action within the privatized and commercialized digital space

Within this reality, the existence of a platform like Athens Report acquires paramount importance. Firstly, the documents in the archive are organized in a horizontal way -in contrast to the organization of information in social media feeds and Google search results according to popularity; the testimonies are organised according to the place and time where they occurred. The historic moment, the revolt, the extraordinary event, are given the same weight as the everyday experience of the city. Thus we get a representative reflection of a particular period in a particular place, where smaller and greater stories converge.

It is equally important that the platform is open for users who want to present their testimony. The collective building of the archive by people who wish to tell what happened in the city over the seven years in question means that they are given the power to control the narrative, with the intention of being as true as possible to the events, rather than getting a financial or political gain. The documents uploaded to the platform are accessible to everyone, not just for the few minutes they would remain within a feed update, but over time, so that the people who are interested in research can get a true reflection of what happened. It is this democratic and scientific approach to the archive, combined with the artistic point of view of Anna Lascari that gives depth to the narrative of the protagonists.

In addition, Athens Report goes against the commercialization of the digital space. Today most internet users spend their time in “walled gardens”, in social media and mobile apps that are like big malls, with a view to consumption and profit, not knowledge. In any case, the objective of each platform is to keep users within it, closing the route to objective sources of information. In contrast, during the first period of the Internet, hyperlinks created a broad and open space, a public place for discussion and education. Athens Report brings us back to the public space of the Internet, invites us to a platform where participants can learn and communicate, as they would in the city streets.

In an era where our lives are recorded and streamed minute by minute -300 million photos are uploaded to Facebook every day and 300 million hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute- it becomes urgent to engage in a qualitative approach to information and to look into historical events with a critical eye. It is a great challenge to spread the voice of participants beyond the walled social media gardens and to keep it clean from the contamination of “alternative events”. Strongly based in collective action, Athens Report is a project that generates optimism for its march through time.

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Also read in this issue: Interview with Anna Lascari: Athens Report, An interactive documentary and installation project | CHRISTINA GRAMMATIKOPOULOU

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Relevant links:

Athens Report, https://athensreport.org/

2008 Greek Riots, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2008_Greek_riots

“Mark Zuckerberg accused of abusing power after Facebook deletes ‘napalm girl’ post”, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/sep/08/facebook-mark-zuckerberg-napalm-girl-photo-vietnam-war

Frank Furedi, “Too many academics are now censoring themselves”, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/oct/11/censor-lecturers-trigger-warnings-students-distressed

Mostafa M. El Bermawy, “Your Filter Bubble is Destroying Democracy”, https://www.wired.com/2016/11/filter-bubble-destroying-democracy/

Holocaust Denial Sees New Dawn With Social Media, http://www.vocativ.com/396817/holocaust-denial-social-media/
Post-truth Politics, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post-truth_politics

“Donald Trump’s team defends ‘alternative facts’ after widespread protests”, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jan/22/donald-trump-kellyanne-conway-inauguration-alternative-facts