“The Tourists” began in 2015 as a collective effort by the group Depression Era to respond to History-in-the-making: the wave of refugee and mass migrations from Asia and Africa to Europe – their human, social and political states of emergency – and the simultaneous increase of global tourism in the Mediterranean – its investments, distress development, collateral conflicts and cultural patronage. In the seventh year of a social, financial and political crisis, we felt that these two converging, opposite global currents were shifting our place in the world, our identity as citizens and our focus as artists. We wanted to restructure our agenda, through collective and political action, making new images and texts beyond the social and urban landscape of the Greek Crisis.
At the time we were engaged in a debate about art and activism, partly initiated by the 5th Athens Biennale but also ongoing within our group since 2011. We joined long discussions and witnessed serial misunderstandings among activists who had no time for cultural exchange and artists who did but ended up reinventing the wheel. The conversations became polarized, echoing contemporary public discourse. One could either be for or against, purist or vandal, critic or doer. The term “Tourist” came up, signifying a simulator of social involvement, but also pointing to a feeling of anxiety, alienation and impotence to frame History in anything more than a postcard, slogan or tweet. In the Athenian Crisis Supermarket, every broadcast was becoming a trailer. Stuck between the 21st and 20th Centuries, we were looking forward to a future that was already behind us.
The structure and agenda of “the Tourists” were sharpened, in 2016, among many cultural initiatives deployed in Athens in the expectation and confusion generated by the public programs and opening of Documenta 14. After many crisis tours, interviews and presentations, the sense of alienation and disconnection grew. Everything was framed within the ‘for or against’ conundrum. History was being written by others but also reinvented and mutated by this dialectic. We disagreed on how to keep responding to the crisis. This was a political issue. Some picked a side in the argument; others focused on exposing a false dilemma; and others wished to leave it behind. We did not overcome our disagreements, but recognized our fellowship in them. We kept working together.
Meanwhile, some members of Depression Era were on assignment in the North Aegean. They created images from the limit condition of an archipelago that claimed many lives, whose inhabitants reached out to thousands of refugees. They witnessed a surreal holiday season, the network and emerging economy of undocumented travel, the manifestations of bureaucracy and extra-territorial power, the human cost of decisions made behind closed doors; then, as winter came, the failures of documentation, aid and the rule of law; emergencies at unthinkable non-places on the border; dreams for a better life on the other side. These images became the foundation of “the Tourists:” seemingly idyllic landscapes containing the debris of unspeakable violence, or framed from an impossible point of view; portraits of men, women and children in alien places, strangers in their land, tourists among ruins, stateless in the middle of nowhere, indolent and conflicted, numb and active, resigned and resisting. Ambivalent, they seemed to belong to tourism ads or disaster news-streams. We were conditioned by media to recognize them as either one or the other.
Our project seemed to be taking place in a longer timeframe than political emergencies and cultural events. [1] “The Crisis” had become a token, blunt and abstract, a term we would wearily and casually refer to but no longer discuss or question: a curtain past which we couldn’t see. It begged reconsideration, hybridization, subversion. Individual research on Crisis Tourism, Journeys to the East, Mass Tourism as a consequence of WWII, and Northern reconstructions of the South made “the Tourists” historically relevant. Phrases were coined: “South is the New North.” “Currently Based in Athens.” “Emerging Economy.” “Happening Now.” “We Did Nothing.” “You’ve Got a Great Future Behind You.” Keeping an anti-media stance and multiple artistic, often contradictory political positions – as critical vandals, subversive classicists, both for and against – we tried to disrupt our historical conundrum, beyond “the pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will." [2] This concluded in a subversive tourism campaign.
The campaign, titled “Make Yourselves at Home,” posted images and slogans on Athenian walls and in social networks, intervening in public space. [3] Aimed at a global audience seeking beautiful holiday landscapes or a safe theatre of crisis, and an Athenian audience conditioned by mass media, it broadcasted “Emergency, Politics, Sea and Sun; Heroes and Fools; Tweets and Spolia; Art and History; Tourism and War." [4] It intensified the contrasts between depth and postcard, exhibition and sale, idyll and tragedy. It is ongoing.
The violent, untenable landscapes, the figures and fragments of alienated heroes, the veiled Northern tapestries, postcards and photo-ops taken from the distorting lens of the South, are also images of a global crisis of governance, capital and power. They evidence an important shift within our group. Apart from documenting the landscape of Depression Era, we are also, and perhaps more so, describing its subject: a citizen behind the isolating curtain of the Crisis.
Exiled, transnational and contradictory, a tourist navigating an alien land, this person inhabits 20th Century structures and retroactive laws in a 21st Century reality – beyond progress, in growing class divides and failing public and environmental safety nets. S/he is indebted beyond balance, precarious, stoic; hyper-connected, collaging and tweeting, a multi-lingual person of few words speaking in multiple riddles, gestures, pictograms.
Of all the epic and dramatic figures in the Antikenmuseum [5] – tending to reconciliation or breakup, motivated by rage or nostos, love or jealousy, past an age of happy endings – who could represent this transient hero? Rather than Achilles, Odysseus, Kassandra or Medea, a pair of unexpected adolescents from a not-so-distant fiction comes to mind: Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke and Ashitaka. These exiled, idealist warriors are mediators. They speak few words yet act to change their hyper-accelerated, polarized, endgame worlds. Their narratives are rhizomatic, formalized, ludic, mosaic. They are children of the Anthropocene, “born to this world without being blessed," [6] forging new relationships between nature and culture, background and foreground, wall and image, story and sign. Mononoke and Ashitaka are reflected in many of the portraits of “the Tourists,” and, perhaps, obliquely, in our own portraits of children. Their motivation, beyond hope, is clarity. They voice a basic aspiration of our project: “to see with eyes unclouded by hate." [7]

Petros Babasikas
Athens, June 2017.

[1] An agreement was reached between the EU and Turkey on March 18 2016; Europe acquiesced to bolt its doors and the unprecedented current of people crossing from Asia Minor to the Greek islands moved to other, deadlier Mediterranean passages.
[2] A phrase of Antonio Gramschi lucidly repurposed by Katerina Gregos, curator of the 5th Biennale of Thessaloniki which we joined and helped jump-start the Tourists, in early 2015.
[3] The creation of a sidewalk museum and a digital commons have been Depression Era’s central goals since 2014. This was a small step toward them.
[5]  The contemporary art exhibition “The Decline of Heroes,” curated by Kateryna Botanova for Culturescapes Festival, embedded within the archaeological exhibition “The Greeks and their World: Identity and Ideals,” at the Antikenmuseum in Basel.
[6] Hayao Miyazaki, Empire Online Interview, on Princess Mononoke. http://www.empireonline.com/movies/features/hayao-miyazaki
[7] Hayao Miyazaki, “Princess Mononoke,” Studio Ghibli 1997, dubbed in English 1999.
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