Lord Byron wrote the truth is stranger than fiction; Frank Zappa that absurdity is the only reality. Hungarian photographer Krisztina Erdei could be a disciple of both propositions, with her idiosyncratic photogographs that render the real absurd and the absurd real. Throughout her work there is a sense of the private made public, yet with a humility and familiarity that remains distinct from pure voyeurism.
A graduate of philosophy and political studies, Erdei’s social curiosity informs her wide choice of subject matter – an incredible cast of people, places and things populate her frame. But rather than be defined by their content, her photographs evoke a constellation of qualities or moods. They are certainly quirky and humorous but often also insolent, stirring, poetic or simply bewildering. What are we to make of this mountain of crucifixes or the juxtaposition of a roadside llama, a box of peaches and a small boy with wings?
It is clear that Erdei seeks to understand the world through imagery, and she brings a natural eye to her work. Her visual questions are tantalising, allowing us to delight in unexpected relationships and the attention she pays to the ordinarily overlooked. Whether the scenarios in her photographs are real or fabricated, Erdei’s talent lies in creating a feeling of the stumbled upon, the spur of the moment, the lucky snapshot. Her aesthetic resonates with the charm of a spontaneous spirit. What we see is not the action of a refined, meticulous hand, but a visceral, almost clumsy, haphazard look through the viewfinder. Indeed, the artist talks of the camera as an extension of her body. (Juliana Engberg)
I was always active part of the community that I worked with. In the past years I started to create projects to not just explore but also explain different levels of social and regional differences using art as a tool to translate the problems. For me, a project is about layers of social responsibility, about a process which facilitates the communication of people living in the same place, while it also approaches the solution to the problem, the approximation of the different interests via the toolset of arts, leaving the project open and maintaining a continuous reflective attitude. (Krisztina Erdei)
Born in Szeged (Hungary) and presently living in Budapest, Krisztina Erdei graduated from the School of Philosophy and the School of Political Studies at the University of Szeged, and also studied film theory and visual education at Loránd Eötvös University (Budapest). A founding member and curator of Lumen Photography Foundation and Bagázs Association (http://bagazs.org/en ). She is currently working on her doctoral studies at Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design. Erdei is the picture editor of artportal.hu, Hungary's leading contemporary art webzine
2017- Media design manager - Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design
2015- Picture editor - artportal.hu
2017. Academy of Fine Art and Design Bratislava, Studio of Photography: Reality, Constract
2014- Moholy-Nagy Universtity of Art and Design, Doctoral Studies, Multimedia Faculty
2006-2009 József Pécsi Art Photography Scholarship, Hungary
2004-2017 Lumen Photography Foundation, founder, curator, editor
2001-2006 University of Szeged, Hungary - School of Philosophy and the School of Political Studies
Life beyond the outskirts of the city: the invisible history of the Dzsumbuj
“The traditional view of the relation between history and memory is a relatively simple one. The historian’s function is to be a ‘remembrancer,’ the custodian of the memory of public events which are put down in writing for the benefit of the actors, to give them fame, and also for the benefit of posterity, to learn from their example,” writes Peter Burke, in his introduction to “History as Social Memory.” The relevance of this approach to the historical memory, which focuses on its function to preserve the outstanding events and deeds, has been questioned increasingly frequently by historical and cultural studies academics for its bias since the 1970s. The considerations of microhistorical investigations and the acclimatization of oral history as a method of historic exploration in historical and cultural studies reveal how the viewpoints of those expelled to the margins of historical memory may not be omitted from the research conducted on historical and cultural memory. The acknowledgment of that memory, or remembrance policy, is a social construction has raised awareness of those deficiencies that result from the above-mentioned narrative methods of the traditional historical narratives. The significance of historical and cultural narratives is that they play a part in identity formation: authors like Jan Assmann, Reinhart Kosseleck, or Manuel Castells, working in the fields of identity and cultural memory, agree that this is a substantial aspect, while emphasizing the narrative nature of the memory. Thus, the identity of the individual is partly embedded in history, or in historical representation.
As known, researchers started to take interest in those who had been previously expelled to historical or cultural marginality after the disciplinary establishment of British cultural studies. It raises questions like to what extent does historical representation expose different segments of society, which segments does it accentuate, and who may become invisible in these narratives. The significance of oral history in cultural studies is that the social strata that were not given a place in the social representation receive an opportunity to tell their own stories, and by this, to formulate their own group narrative (which differs from that of the mainstream or from the majority society), as well as an identity-forming self-narrative.
This method has been detectable in art projects already since the 1970s. For example, the British Stuart Brisley made an attempt to create an alternative account of the identity-forming historical narrative of those living on the margin of the remembrance policy, within the framework of the Artist Placement Group. In Peterlee New Town, one of the towns freshly established after the war to support the mining industry, Brisley tried to create an art project, which would help the inhabitants to form a community by exploring their shared history, and by experiencing their collective memory. For Brisley, the living memory was delineated based on the work of the just started Hackney Writers Group (oral history). The artist was working with the ability of the local community to cooperate and act consciously, as one community, as well as to represent their interests. It seemed that their shared historical and cultural memory was an important asset for this: it offered the possibility to create a common history, which could “develop [...] their own awareness of [...] the community,” making it possible for the participants to start thinking consciously about their problems, and to use their opportunities to take action. In accordance with APG’s concept, Brisley thought that the artist could act as a catalyst in the community.
Another similar art project is an early work of Stephen Willats from 1978, the Sorting Out Other People’s Lives. The project was presented in 1979 at the Whitechapel Gallery under the title of Concerning Our Present Way of Living. For Willats, “a work of art can itself constitute a model of human relationships.” Willats took a survey at the Mile End Road social housing project in the East End of London, with the intention to improve the conditions for the residents. In the course of the surveys, he unearthed a lot of problems that were rather difficult to see for the decision makers of the authorities. Willats was also aiming to strengthen community thinking and to provide assistance. Besides the questionnaires, the author also took several photographs. As opposed to the cliché, stereotypical images presenting poverty as an inevitable attribute, his photo documentary consisted of images that showcased it as an adversity affecting one segment of society, resulting from decisions made above their heads, instead of an unchangeable vulnerability. The characters are not displayed as passive, helpless victims but as active people who are able to act for the sake of change, despite their limited possibilities.
The participation of Krisztina Erdei in the project entitled Dzsumbuj – A város peremén (Dzsumbuj – On the Outskirts of the City) and in the work done as its continuance show several similarities to the two above-mentioned examples.
For the reconstruction of the Dzsumbuj’s history, the A város peremén group uses the historical exploration method of the narrative together with such areas of archive research which, as Aleida Assmann puts it, consider the official memory to be not a text or a trace but irrelevant “waste matter” from the aspect of remembrance. For a long time, the history of the Dzsumbuj had not been a transparent element of the narratives, even though it is an organic part of the overall picture of an era. Krisztina Erdei and the other members of the research team, all coming from different scientific backgrounds, recorded narrative life interviews with the residents in order to explore this story, and reconstructed the history of the building complex from newspaper articles (contemporary issues of Fővárosi Közlöny [Budapest’s official journal] and Népszava), archive photographs, and the interviews taken with community service people working on the premises.
This kind of exploratory work done in artistic research is an interdisciplinary area of cultural anthropology. Willats’s and Brisley’s projects cross the borders in similar ways; yet, by now, this has become common practice in artistic research. One important thread of the project is the reconstructed history of the building complex. Krisztina Erdei’s objective is to tell a story, which has a location-specific identity-forming function for a portion of the population. Thus, one of the merits of narrative historical reconstruction using grassroots oral history lies in that it is a representational experiment for a segment of society which records the “self-narrative” of the people involved, that is, the residents of the Dzsumbuj, reconstructing their own historical and cultural identity in which the place of residence plays a significant part. As several interview subjects pointed out, this is one important foundation of their social exclusion: should it be revealed that they are the residents of the building complex, people would not trust them enough to offer them a job. However, in this aspect, belonging to this community results in such a substantial self-image, an identity, which enters the social relationships with a full awareness of the exclusion and the prejudices.
Thus, Krisztina Erdei’s work is also an attempt to compensate for the negative self-image resulting from belonging to the building complex. And this is not only directed outwards, towards the viewer, but it is also a work that is an imprint of the people belonging together, the presentation of how the residents of the building complex are able to actively surpass their own limitations despite the negative discrimination they experience due to their situation. At the same time, she tries to enumerate the disadvantages resulting from the structural disparities, considerably limiting the break-out points. Yet, the image, representing the people having lived in the building complex before its demolition as being passive victims or abusing the social security system, is partly compensated by the specific stories.
The other thread goes beyond the reconstruction of the residents’ stories, or the alternative narration of the historical narrative forming the community’s identity, taking seriously the represented people. In the course of the long years working together, the artist followed up with several families even after the demolition of the premises. Everyone knows that the mere demolition of such a building complex and the changing of the living conditions do not necessarily mean the end of the disadvantaged situation. This is what we see in the supportive follow up of Venus’s life after being evicted from the building complex, or in the difficulties of a family we can read about in one of the texts, regarding the replacement apartment (“Darálós” [Grinder], 2018).
In this aspect, the history of the building complex is not unique; urban regeneration programs actually have deep theoretical roots. The Dzsumbuj was a building complex set up for social apartments on the corner of Illatos Street and Gubacsi Street. The housing project was built in 1937–39, after the demolition of the slums there, and the apartments were meant to improve the living conditions of the people having lived in the slums. As the condition of the 28–50 square-meter apartments with no lavatory or bath started to deteriorate, the composition of the residents, who had come from a poorer segment of society to begin with, also started to change. After the 1980s, the fluctuation among the residents of the building complex was referred to as the cycle of misery. Budapest initiated its urban rehabilitation plan in 2005, which included the demolition of the Dzsumbuj (besides the also controversial plans related to the Corvin District). Rehabilitation, in this case, meant the liquidation of the neighborhood and moving its residents to other social apartments. Its complete history shows many similarities with that of the housing projects from the end of the 19th century, which are considered to be the first modernization projects of this kind.
One well-documented example is the demolition of the slums in Bethnal Green, East London, where new apartments were built for the workers, establishing the Boundary Estate, the first residential district of the world owned by the local government. The plans of the residential district were based on Charles Booth’s ideas. The main idea was that by restructuring a district, the communities living in them can be “cured;” although, Booth also pointed out that the poverty of the workers was not a result of their laziness. The anomalies of such top-to-bottom, authoritarian methods of resident exchanges, which disregard the very residents, could be detected in this case as well – including that the new apartments were not given to the local residents but they were literally forced out of the district. The Corvin District plan follows this latter pattern: the local residents did not receive an apartment in the rehabilitated (more expensive) neighborhood but further away, somewhere else in the district, in more modest circumstances, separated from the members of their former community, dispossessing them of the helping, preserving power of the community as well. The history of the Dzsumbuj, which had already been referred to as slums, is a little different in that it was only at the time of planning the demolition that the area was intended to be rehabilitated for the residents, but during the realization of the plans they were offered social housing or money, whichever they chose, and with the demolition of the buildings they also lost their former community.
Krisztina Erdei started her work during the slow process of evicting the residents by documenting their life stories, in which representation does not show images serving to raise empathy with those in misery but reveals an experimentation which is documentary by nature, yet matches the self-image of those represented. The Dzsumbuj and the stories, micro-stories of the residents, constitute a rather varied picture, based on which Erdei is able to present this neighborhood categorized as slums as a community with its own peculiarities but still being a living community, while she is also trying to avoid a kind of ethnographic approach.
In the material of the exhibition, one can observe the long-term follow-up of some ex-residents of the building complex and the personal revelation of individual lives beyond the statistical data. The various news articles do mention the anomalies around the moving out, but the artist presents the problems in a tangible way, instead of merely enumerating the facts. Even the news articles make it clear that the evicted people had to face new hardships, even though they were provided higher category housing, with full bath: the higher overheads meant an extra burden to their customary lifestyle, further complicating their disadvantaged situation. However, Erdei’s representation sheds light on some of these specifically absurd situations as well. An example is the story of the family presented in the text for Grinder, 2018: after moving out, they received an apartment where the weak sewage system was resolved with a grinder toilet. The resulting electricity consumption was such a financial burden on the family that they were unable to meet, so they were ultimately left completely without electricity. The story points to an example of the disadvantages resulting from the structural inequalities, which are all over the place but are still invisible for those who are not familiar with this way of life and income level, like all the well-intentioned local government officers. Wilatts’s above-mentioned arts project had similar objectives: to visualize, relate, conceptualize those problems that could possibly be counterbalanced by the local government, if those concerned had any way to reach these forums. In the exhibition, the installation format helps the visitors gain a partial experience of this situation.
The main theme of the visual material of the exhibition is Venus’s story, who was among the last people leaving the building complex. The artist got acquainted with Venus during the project. In a way, the story of this young girl has a symbolic significance in the line of events that are different for each resident but still point to the situations resulting from their marginalized status. One part of the photographic installation presents determining moments in Venus’s life: the court warrant requesting her family to leave the building, the loss of her mother, and the derogatory circumstances of the funeral. In this aspect, the photographs represent the impossible situation emerging from her being disadvantaged with the accuracy of a documentary. The other part of the series modulates this picture in two aspects: on one hand, it explores how stereotyped visualization (drug addict, lazy, welfare abuser) puts the people living in extreme poverty to the role of incapable victims, who are unwilling to change their fate. On the other hand, it points out those structural disadvantages which cannot be considered to be their own fault and which make it almost impossible, despite any efforts, to break out.
The photography series presents the scenes of Venus’s job seeking endeavors, a kind of network that provides a unique mental map of the city. It can be surprising how limited the mental city map of the Dzsumbuj-residents really is, which is itself a serious handicap for them. Krisztina Erdei, as the accompanying text reveals, helped Venus in her seeking a job by searching for the locations of the vacancies on the map, and sending her information on how to get to these places. It was during this process that she came up with the idea to create a photo series to document these places. For the photographs, she created an object made from newspapers glued together (millboard), resembling a shell. Thus, the birth of Venus creates a multilayered network of reference, from the issue of high arts and those falling out of the scope of artistic representation, through the problems related to the focus of representation, to the difficulties related to the chance of starting a life. The original plan was to photograph all locations with Venus being present, where the photographs would have been connected by herself and the shell-shaped paper object, but in very many cases, Venus was unable to show up at the agreed time, so we can see several characters on the images. In a way, this “experience of failure” also represents the problem, which does not result from the inability of the artist to help but from the fact that these people are not always able to act in accordance with their best interest due to problems rooted in their early socialization as well as their social and life situation. The exhibition does not state that artistic projects are capable of changing these conditions: it would be naivety to believe that artists can move such huge social or political capitals. Krisztina Erdei’s endeavor consisted of facilitating the formation of basic life strategies necessary for human dignity, and of counterbalancing the fact that the state or the local government is unable or just simply unwilling to fulfill its social responsibilities. However, this is just one asset of crisis management: it cannot achieve much more than continuously pointing to what roles the state or the local governments should fulfill, by increasing the situation’s relative visibility and helping the work of non-governmental organizations.
Peter Burke, “History as Social Memory” in The Collective Memory Reader, Oxford University Press, 2011. […] “Historians as diverse as Herodotus, Froissart and Lord Clarendon all claimed to write in order to keep alive the memory of great deeds and great events.”
 The research method applied by the group, the method of personal narratives, has become widely known by now, as a result of numerous cultural and historical studies research.
 Stuart Brisley, Observation 1976–77, http://www.stuartbrisley.com/pages/29/70s/Text/Observations_on_Peterlee_by_Stuart_Brisley/page:22
 http://stephenwillats.com/work/sorting-out-other-peoples-lives/. Willats is a British conceptual artist. Willats, just like the APG, has been receiving an increasing attention lately as a result of research conducted on the early social art projects that have been emerging from art archives.
 The documents are preserved in the archives of the Whitechapel Gallery, and today they represent such a historical documentary of marginalized members of the society which was not specifically at the forefront of archiving.
 We should also mention the various research-based exhibitions of the Kassák Museum, exploring the experiences, everyday life, and historical significance of marginalized groups.
 Charles Booth, Life and Labour of the People in London, London, Macmillan, 1897. https://archive.org/details/lifelabourofpeop09boot Booth published his theories based on his sociological researches, as well as police and trade union records, under the title Life and Labour of the People in London. The so-called “poverty-map” was also created on its basis: He divided the districts of London according to the social and economic conditions of the residents, marking them with different colors. Used black for the hostile, criminal groups, shades of blue for the poor and those chronically lacking something, used shades of red for categories of the prosperous segments, and the areas populated by the upper middle-class were marked by yellow. His book and his map about the social strata of London served as a background material for the redesigning of some parts of the city.
 The curators of the British pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2014, Sam Jacobs, Sean Griffiths, and Charles Holland, were the founders of the FAT Architecture, and they also presented Booth’s impact on architecture among the works of their exhibition titled Clockwork Jerusalem. https://design.britishcouncil.org/venice-biennale/venice-biennale-2014/
The Birth of Venus and Other Stories by Krisztina Erdei
Curated by Gabriella Csizek
Graphic design by ART-AND, Medve Zsuzsi
Text by Tünde Varga, Krisztina Erdei
Translation by Bakonyi-Tánczos Vera
Publishing by Orsolya Kőrösi, Robert capa Nonprofit Ltd.
Lumen Photography Foundation, 2007
Texts by József Készman and Brigitta Iványi-Bitter
100 photographs, 132 pages, 18×20 cm
Present Continous V/ Valóságkódok
Photos: Dóka Béla, Erdei Krisztina, Fekete Zsolt, Kudász Gábor Arion
Editor: Csizek Gabriella
Language: Hungarian, English
ISBN: 978 963 88529 0 8