Migrant Identities After the Global Crisis 03/2016, Camera Austria International

“Refugees … represent the vanguard of their peoples”, wrote Hannah Arendt in her famous essay “We Refugees” shortly before the end of the Holocaust, when she, like many Jews living in exile, forever lost her home country, along with related identity-shaping histories and languages. Less often quoted is what Arendt adds: “—if they keep their identity.”1 The countries where refugees end up today usually demand integration, meaning to give up their identities in order to adopt new ones. Taking Arendt’s essay as point of departure for conceptualizing the exhibition, Anja Casser, director of Badischer Kunstverein, interweaves several discursive threads along which the group show thematically unfolds, taking up aspects like gender or language and aesthetic practices such as mapping to reflect on the many identities of “the refugee”. With more than twenty contemporary positions, the project offers insights into artistic practices that expand the notion of the documentary and its role in creating discourse for overcoming the nation state, an imaginary that Arendt, among others, used to pave the way for asserting human rights beyond citizenship.

Building on Arendt’s influential essay, Giorgio Agamben states that the refugee “unhinges the old trinity of state-nation-territory” and represents “a disquieting element in the order of the nation-state … [that] brings the originary fiction of sovereignty to crisis”.2 Pointing to a politically constructed (fictionalized) reality, artists fictionalize documentary content and are thus infiltrating deadlocked dispositifs. They reinvent the documentary, in order to create new forms of representation of the politically underrepresented, and “new paradigms of authenticity based upon the admission of subjective constructions”.3 With photography and video/film still being at the forefront of documentary artistic practices, a range of interdisciplinary approaches has emerged, allowing fictional elements to leak through a documentary facade, producing rather than just representing reality and thus influencing “beliefs, actions, events, and politics”.4

It is in this optimistic spirit that the exhibition unfolds, creating a space for rethinking migration, anticipating a time after global crisis. It does so literally with an exhibition architecture by Thomas Rustemeyer, who installed a wooden structure with panels for seating or displaying works in the main hall, providing room for discussions and events. Referencing Hannah Arendt’s phrase “In order to rebuild one’s life one has to be strong and and optimist”5, he titled it “Raum des Optimismus” (Room of Optimism, 2016). Within and around Rustemeyer’s architecture, the voices, images, and histories of refugees involve the viewer in a multifaceted dialogue about the “vanguard” that holds the potential to undermine established political modes of existence and coexistence. Presented on Rustemeyer’s displays are several video works screened on monitors, among them “Cooking with Mama” (2006) by Hiwa K, who was born in Kurdish-held northern Iraq in 1975 but has been living in Germany since 1988. He invites the viewer to observe a cheerful cooking session in which he is preparing a Kurdish dish with a group of friends, receiving instructions from his mother who remains in Iraq and is connected to the group through an online video call. She is making jokes, saying that if he is hanging out with so many beautiful girls she’s not surprised that he is not coming back. Recording a rather ordinary activity and presenting it as a work of art, Hiwa K creates an intimate and ephemeral moment for considering the permeability of cultural identities and the performative aspects that feed into its construction.

Whereas Hiwa K deploys a rather raw and direct documentary aesthetic with poetic moments emerging from everyday life, many of the works presented elaborately fictionalise the documentary content to convey their subject matter. Migrafona, an artist collective founded in Vienna, uses the format of the comic strip to comment on Austrian migration policy, migrants’ struggle for equal rights and self-determination in a xenophobic environment, and is documenting anti-racist activist work in Austria, often from a feminist perspective. Next to a large-scale illustration called “Wandzeichnung” (Wall Drawing, 2011), the exhibition offers one of their take away booklets, “Comic-Heft” (Comic Book, 2011), which are being produced to be spread beyond the exhibition space. A sort of “graphic novel” will also emerge from the Lampedusa Research Group headed by artist Armin Linke, who is teaching at the Staatliche Hochschule für Gestaltung in Karlsruhe. The exhibition features a preview of the project,6 in which a polyphonic story is developed from this material, reflecting on agency within the visual regimes enforced by mass media. Taking the well-known images of African refugees in overladen boats crossing the Mediterranean Sea headed for the Italian island of Lampedusa as a point of departure, the group questions this stereotype, collecting photographs taken by refugees themselves, members of NGOs, the coastguard, Frontex, fishermen, and other inhabitants of the island, conducts video interviews, and—in cooperation with illustrators—transfers the material into non-linear narratives dealing with alternative and subjective histories of refugees.

Presented on a large screen in the dimmed middle room of the three-part gallery space, Mario Rizzi’s thirty-minute film “Al Intithar” (The Waiting, 2013) forms the centrepiece of the exhibition. The film portrays the daily life of a young widow and her three children from the Syrian city of Homs, trying to set up a daily routine in order to put up with camp life, trying to make the “waiting” bearable. The film was recorded during a seven-week stay at Camp Zaatari, a refugee camp in the Jordanian desert. Built in 2012, this growing camp has quickly developed features of urban life and is likely to become a permanent settlement, a politically non-defined space where ten thousands of Syrian refugees are holding out surrounded by Jordanian tanks—prospectively a dead end for the lives of millions with Europe shutting down its borders for good. The portrayed are “real” people that Rizzi met in the camp. There is no interview situation, though; the dialogues are caught on camera with close-ups, yet there is no looking into the camera. The montage is reminiscent of cinema: thus, these refugees are evolving into somewhat “fictional” characters—“Al Intithar” could easily be mistaken for a feature film.

In “Videomappings: Aida, Palastine” (2009), Till Roeskens also takes the viewer to a refugee camp, the Aida Camp in the West Bank where thousands of displaced Palestinians live. He uses mapping to reconstruct personal histories. Drawing parts of the camp and its surroundings on a white sheet of paper, the inhabitants report about camp life and violent encounters with the occupying forces. Recorded on video, the drawing hands rendered invisible, the mappings are accompanied by the narrating voices, like that of Mahmoud Issa, who tells the viewer about a trip he took to the Israeli city of Barsheeba to see a girl, skirting around the barbed wire and a checkpoint where a bullet shot by an Israeli soldier luckily missed him. Only present with their voices and stories, they stand for a faceless, anonymous generation bereft of human rights. Portraits without faces is also what Eva Leitolf presents in “Clearing” (2011–12), a series of large-scale photographs showing empty beds in front of scribbled-on walls, only the captions providing hints to the individual story: “Elias S. was housed from 8 February until 12 July 2012 in Room 99, Munich Reception Facility for Unaccompanied Minor Refugees, Bavarian Barracks Site”. Leitolf took the photographs in so-called “Clearing-Häuser” (clearing houses), temporary housing for underage refugees in Germany who have left their homes and families, often suffering from PTSD and existing in a space in-between, their legal status yet to be defined.

Sounding through a megaphone installed above the entrance of Badischer Kunstverein are melodies of the daily Islamic prayer “Azan” as interpreted by the muezzins five times a day. Azin Feizabadi’s sound piece “Third-Party Effect of Fundamental Rights: Between the Legal Entity ‘I’ (Natural Person) and the Legal
Entity ‘I’ (Juristic Person)” (2013) features cut-up excerpts from the Fundamental Rights of the German Constitution. Pointing to the growing and alarming Islamophobia in Europa fuelled by a new right-wing populism, he reminds passers-by poetically of the fact that fundamental rights as anchored in the German Constitution—among them freedom of faith, freedom of speech, freedom to work—do not only apply to non-Muslims. Originally commissioned for the
“2. Berliner Herbstsalon”7, in Karlsruhe, located in walking distance to the German Constitutional Court, Feizabadi’s work asserts an especially explosive force.

In times of global crisis, as suggested by Agamben, the refugee is more than ever a “central figure of our political history”8. Making stateless and displaced people the central subjects of their documentary work, artists respond to this thought and contribute to a continuous flux of shifting geopolitical, cultural, and individual identities. Along with projects such as the “Berliner Herbstsalon”, Casser’s exhibition helps to set not only the tone but also the many tones with which the developments of a world demanding drastic change can be negotiated and dealt with, contemporary art being a meaningful field of action.

1 Hannah Arendt, “We Refugees”, in Marc Robinson (ed.), Altogether Elsewhere. Writers on Exile (Boston, London: Faber and Faber, 1994), p. 119.

2 Giorgio Agamben, “Beyond Human Rights”, Open Journal of Social Sciences, 15 (2008), p. 93.

3 T.J. Demos, The Migrant Image. The Art and Politics of Documentary during Global Crisis. (Durham/London: Duke University Press, 2013), p. XXI.

4 Erika Balsom, Hila Peleg, “Introduction: The Documentary Attitude”, in ids. (ed.), Documentary Across Disciplines (Cambridge MA/London: The MIT Press, 2016), p. 13.

5 Arendt, “We Refugees”, p. 110.

6 Lampedusa: Photo Stories from the Edge of Europe will be published in cooperation with Spector Books, Leipzig.

7 Organised by Shermin Langhoff with Aljoscha
Begrich, Çağla İlk, Antje Weitzel, Maxim Gorki Theater, Berlin, 13. – 15.11.2015.

8 Agamben, “Beyond Human Rights”, p. 93.

Wir Flüchtlinge. Von dem Recht, Rechte zu haben, Badischer Kunstverein, Karlsruhe, 22. 4. – 12. 6. 2016