IN HIS TUESDAY op-ed for the New York Times, U2 frontman/iTunes spammer Bono encourages readers to “think bigger” about the refugee crisis, even going so far as to suggest a new Marshall Plan. “For as hard as it is to truly imagine what life as a refugee is like, we have a chance to reimagine that reality—and reinvent our relationship with the people and countries consumed now by conflict, or hosting those who have fled it.”
It is also difficult to make artwork about this kind of crisis. After all, it’s a very fine line that separates empathy from insensitivity. One solution is to allow asylum seekers to tell their own stories. This was the motivation for Bouchra Khalili’s The Mapping Journey Project, 2008–11, which opened this weekend at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Khalili’s short films show migrants tracing their personal journeys onto printed maps. Serbian collective шkart has pursued a similar strategy, handing out blank books for refugees to record their experiences and impressions, as well as collaborating on “migrant maps,” illustrated diaries that plot routes through Europe. In other contexts, the cartoon format of these hand-drawn atlases might recall that summer-camp song about a bear hunt (“Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, can’t go through it—have to go around it!”) Except this isn’t a bear hunt. The tales shared by шkart are ones of determination, desperation, and life savings spent for a spot in a truck.
For every work that resonates, there are countless others that draw criticism, despite (or because of) their earnestness. The highest profile among them may be Ai Weiwei. In February, the artist brought fourteen thousand life jackets from the shores of Lesbos to Berlin, where he used them to Christo the front columns of the Konzerthaus. When the venue hosted its annual Cinema for Peace Gala, guests had to pass through the columns and around an inflatable dinghy with a sign advertising SAFE PASSAGE. Inside, the already glittering gala-goers received shiny Mylar emergency blankets. Ai then encouraged attendees like Charlize Theron and Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova to take selfies draped in this same protective covering, as an exercise in “empathy” and “awareness.” The gesture seemed to suggest that social-media shares could be acceptable substitutes for action.
“There’s a lot of talk in the world right now as to what is the shape of activism—what does it look like when it’s on the table,” artist Olafur Eliasson told the full house at “15 Acts of Participation,” a twelve-hour public program running from noon to midnight at Vienna’s TBA21-Augarten last Thursday. Eliasson joined TBA21 founder Francesca von Habsburg for the opening act, an introduction to the institution’s ongoing Green Light project. The three-month workshop recruits volunteers from Vienna’s refugee community to help assemble eco-conscious lamps, designed by Eliasson and sold to benefit Vienna-based charities. Chicly polyhedral and outfitted with emerald-colored LEDs (“the shade of hospitality,” apparently), the lamps are modular and can be used either individually or combined into sculptural objects. “You could build a whole city out of these,” Eliasson laughed. Of course, it would be a city of useless walls, but maybe that was the point.
“There’s that quote about how politics are creative, so why can’t art be political,” von Habsburg chimed in. “But where is that line in the sand between art and politics? I know wherever it is, I may have stepped over it a few times in the past, but I am not a public institution. I am a private individual who is struggling to deal with the situation. When I see how this country has neglected…” she paused, her voice wavering. Catching the audience’s concern, von Habsburg turned to one of the Green Light participants: “Don’t worry Paymon, I always get emotional.”
“We need to understand that we don’t step into the art world to step out of reality,” Eliasson continued. “We step into the art world to step closer to the real world.” The artist pointed out that “reality machines” like TBA21 have a unique ability to “nurture the sense of being together, without being the same,” a claim he supported by citing his frequent disagreements with von Habsburg when it came to other artworks. “The cultural sector already has a framework for inclusion,” he concluded. “The question now is how do we scale it?”
According to Eliasson, first you must drop the pretense that there can ever be a “perfect” response. “There’s always the question, ‘Am I doing enough?’ ” the artist admitted. “The moment you say, ‘Maybe I’m not the best, but I’m OK, and this is enough,’ is the moment when people can step out of fear and step into the courage of saying, ‘I’m OK.’ This is the moment when true encounters can occur.”
Not that these encounters don’t face other, more tangible obstacles. “The Green Light workshop was conceived at a moment when the euphoria of compassion was at its height,” explained project curator Daniela Zyman. “Sadly, this moment has passed. There are new regulations and restrictions every day.” To counter this “process of bordering,” Zyman advocates for Paolo Virno’s strategy of “engaged withdrawal.” “If any of you practice yoga, you understand that sometimes you need to make one part of your body really strong, so you can make another part of your body flexible. We need to withdraw from certain parts of civil society’s limitations so we can be flexible in others.”
The Green Light project was designed with this flexibility in mind. Under current laws, TBA21 cannot pay workshop participants. Instead, proceeds from lamp sales are funneled into the Georg Danzer Haus, the Red Cross, and Caritas Vienna, organizations directly involved with providing food and shelter to the refugee community. As additional, unofficial compensation, the workshop provides German language classes—particularly crucial, as unaccompanied minors older than fifteen are ineligible to attend Austrian schools—and communal meals. The volunteers take turns menu planning, a little touch that is surprisingly meaningful when one considers that for the length of their processing—up to a year or more—asylum seekers are banned from earning (and thus spending) income and must eat whatever they are served at the shelters. “Someone even cooked African food,” project coordinator Anahita Tabrizi told me, beaming. “That was a real hit.” (“I missed African food?” one of the volunteers howled later, lamenting that he only ever thinks to make chicken and rice.)
Naturally, communal meals were the centerpiece of “15 Acts of Participation,” with lunch and dinner both served in the TBA21 courtyard. But rather than home in on the communities involved with the Green Light workshop, “15 Acts” took a broader look at the “processes of bordering” that Zyman had mentioned. The introduction by Eliasson and von Habsburg was supplemented with a screening of Neïl Beloufa’s Kempinksi, 2007. The film is a kind of science fiction, where figures living on the fringes of Bamako, Mali, describe visions of the future, including a scenario where buildings are made of light, and one can enter where they please. Coincidentally, Beloufa’s protagonists are lit by the lime-green glow of handheld neon lights, not entirely dissimilar to the ones made in the workshop.
Also screening was SUPERFLEX’s stunning new film Kwassa Kwassa. Shot in the Comoro Islands of the Indian Ocean, the narrative follows a boat through the stages of its construction through its eventual use as a transport shuttle to the neighboring archipelago of Mayotte. Thanks to France’s spot on the UN Security Council, Mayotte is, as of 2011, an official Department of France, and, as of 2014, an Outermost Region of the European Union, meaning that all that separates the inhabitants of the Comoran town of Anjouan from Europe is forty miles of deep blue sea. Kwassa Kwassa is rooted in a reexamination of the myth that gave the continent its name. In this particular instance, Zeus took the form of the white bull to carry Europa, the daughter of a Phoenician king from Tyre (now modern-day Lebanon) off to Crete, making Zeus, in the narrator’s reasoning, “the first coyote”—the local slang for passage providers.
Another of the “15 Acts” was the debut of selected output from a two-day workshop headed by Raqs Media Collective’s Shuddhabrata Sengupta. Young asylum seekers Anas Al Jajeh and Qasim Tahmasebi shared their own short films, expounding on what freedom means for them, before Tawab Baran took to the mic to share a poem in his native Dari. He’s posted over one hundred videos of his poetry on YouTube, tracking his progress from Afghanistan. Now that he has made it to Austria, however, his future remains uncertain. “They tell me my country is safe,” he shrugs.
Over one of the breaks, artist Atif Akin (“Act 8”) filled me in on his research into radiation as a transnational phenomenon. He also prints a zine on apricots, which he sees as an ideal model for migration flows. “Apricots can be traced from China to Azerbaijan to Turkey and Greece,” Akin informed me. “These routes have existed for centuries before us. This isn’t a new thing.” What mattered most to the artist, however, was terminology. In particular, he objected to the mischaracterization of what is going on in Europe as a “crisis.” “When you say ‘crisis,’ you delegate power to the authorities. You are saying it’s out of your hands. It should be in our hands.”
I responded the only way I knew how: I took his picture and posted it online.