/ Krakow Photomonth 2016: Crisis? What Crisis?!
Crisis? What Crisis?!
At the time of visiting Krakow Photomonth 2016, we in Britain were days away from the UK EU referendum, nicknamed Brexit. So, politics and Europe were hard to avoid in any context. A trip to Poland, one of the countries most cited by xenophobes and other assorted jingoists as part of the ‘threat’ of mass-migration from Eastern Europe set to cripple the UK’s economy, was therefore quite timely. This is not to say that all Brexit supporters are xenophobes, but the campaign to leave the EU has relied heavily on a promotion of jingoism and people’s sense of Britain’s lost ‘Greatness.’
For those of you who do not know the Krakow festival, it was started 14 years ago by, as most interesting festivals are, young, enthusiastic and energetic people. For me it has always been one of the highlights of the international photography festival calendar. It is unpretentious, not commercial, accessible and always interesting and risk-taking. While many festivals are led by salaried Creative Directors, Krakow seems refreshed every year and is always surprising. The core staff, under the calm assuredness of festival Director Aga Dwernicka, maintain a consistently high level of presentation for the exhibitions, and open up many established and pop-up venues to photography for one month a year. Leaving the mugginess of British political debate for this, even for a weekend, felt like a cool breeze on an airless day.
Coincidentally, or maybe by design, the first show I visited was Paul Graham’s A New Europe at Starmach Gallery in the earthy (or up and coming) opposite side of the Wistla from the tourism and stag nights of the Old Town. I would imagine most people reading this article will know Graham’s oeuvre and will have seen his projects worked into glossy publications or in giant frames in expensive, commercial photofairs in the art capitals of the world. But here vintage prints on loan from Graham are hung from the walls on chrome bulldog clips held to the wall with nails. The work itself is well-known; a gob of spit on Franco’s grave, Hitler’s image scratched out of a photograph, young lovers in a Berlin club, a fake brick wall or a Star of David on a yellow, steel pillar scored through with a violent cross. But here, not half a mile from the notorious Płaszów Concentration Camp, this project takes on new meaning. Given the current context of European discussion, and sited so close to its violent recent past, A New Europe realises the shrill note of an air raid siren. The oddness of Graham’s reflection on the 20th century history of Europe being exposed to its current precarious outlook, feels like a warning. I get a strong sense of a change in the relevance of the work, and for me it screams ‘look how far we have come! Look what we could return to!’ It’s an horrific and sobering collision.
This theme of borders, identity and nationality seems also to run through several of the other exhibitions. But it is at its most clear through the Sputnik group of photographers’ exhibition Lost Territories – Phase Zero, which is a part-representation of their ongoing project, already spanning eight-years. Lost Territories documents the former Soviet states, which gained their independence after the collapse of the Soviet empire. Sputnik work as a collective, discussing and researching together in order to attempt to understand the current visualisations of the areas they are intending to visit, and through this process immerse themselves in the received clichés and rhetoric surrounding current understandings.
Talking to Rafal Milach after visiting the festival, we discussed the relationship of Eastern Europe to the European Union and to the UK. The UK cannot separate itself from these changes in Eastern Europe and from the tacit promises that were made as part of our involvement in the process of Glasnost and Perestroika during the premiership of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The exhibition Lost Territories – Phase Zero in some ways describes these countries’ move away from the Soviet Bloc and, in many cases, their movements towards democratic systems, including that of the European Union. The exhibition is timely, but one cannot help feeling that the greatest changes are yet to come, and that the Europe that some had hoped to become part of may be inching further away from them daily. Another decade of the group’s work will be beyond fascinating.
Other shows in the Bunkier Sztuki and in a converted multi-story car park offer a fairly bleak view of the current state of the worlds of politics, but powerful installations by #Dysturb and Werker Magazine offer some hint of youth resistance to the establishment. Werker Magazine considers the young body as commodity within the world economy and presented a wall- and vitrine-based installation of their latest edition, Werker 2 – A Spoken History of the Young Worker. One of the great debates of European politics in the free movement of labour, and this labour force include primarily the young. Beyond the middle-aged, mansplaining politics, which so dominate current debate, the young act both as a commodity and as the unheard voice. It is pitiful that those most affected by political decisions are the least likely to be heard, and Werker highlight this discrepancy.
#Dysrurb also work from a point of youth opposition, by flicking a middle finger at the established use of photography within current news media outlets. Through their cross-pollination of traditional photojournalism and urban street art production and display techniques, #Dysturb attempt to wrestle back control from the politically-biased newspapers who have so coloured our view of the world. There is an insistence to their work that is not possible in newspapers, which are always looking for the next story to sell a newspaper or to attract advertising. Their works demand more time than one would normally expect to give to photojournalism in newsprint. The sheer scale, rawness of production and starkness leave one nowhere else to look, as one is confronted and forced to consider. It effortlessly melds street art’s alternative opinions with photojournalism’s assumed authority to make something new, and, given the staleness and skullduggery of both politics and news media, new is good.
The final exhibit I visited, before heading home, was Thomas Kuijpers’ immersive installation When the Twins Were Still Beautiful, and it’s the piece that still haunts me long after my return. The work is made up of a room jammed full of Twin Towers memorabilia. The iconic towers are picture as printed mirrors, statuettes, posters, photo albums and home movies. The image of the towers is repeated so often, that one can close one’s eyes and still see the image burned into the back of one’s retinas – like accidentally staring at the midday sun and seeing spots for the rest of the day. The images and objects are mostly upbeat, but the collective memory of the towers collapsing to the streets below is so strong that these artefacts take on a sombre and chilling resonance. The objects, originally made as mementos for and records by tourists, now memorialise another history as the first in a series of calamitous events, which has destroyed any illusion of democracy and freedom for those in the West and demonised those in the East.
The festival’s title, Crisis? What Crisis?!, is a delicious irony, for the world through this lens in nothing but crisis after crisis. What on-going effect pointing this out in an arts festival will have is debatable, but one cannot deny the strength of the case for dissent made by this edition of Krakow Photomonth.
– text by Gordon MacDonald
Krakow Photomonth 2016 main programme was curated by Lars Willumeit and exhibited during 12 May – 12 June 2016. Some exhibitions continue throughout August; more details can be found on the festival website .