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29 May 2018

For art’s sake…

By Rita Chadha

Personally speaking, I am uneasy about artists intervening and engaging with migrants. There is a tendency for this kind of artistic effort to be voyeuristic, exploitative, or just plain uncomfortable. More generally, there is always a tension between the process of providing a therapeutic outlet and galvanising political change through art, on the one hand, and the basic, essential needs of destitute migrants on the other. To limit our analysis to an either/or binary, however, is to ignore the power of art and the transformative potential of mass creativity.

The Academy Under Trees annual event, nestled in a small village just outside Berlin, would not seem like an obvious choice for a radical conference on art and migration. Yet the day-long discussion and series of interactive workshops provoked a number of personal and professional challenges.

In a gathering of at least 100 people from across Europe, there were only 3 Brits. This did not go unnoticed, among the audience and the organisers. Had we already given up on the European Project? If ever there was a compelling argument that this project should once again catalyse our energies, then this conference provided it. In speech after speech, the need for art to highlight the issue of migration went hand in hand with the need to rebuild a European Project.

Dr Rafael Schacter of University College London delivered a densely academic “Crossing Borders/ Crossing Boundaries – Marginal art in the age of migration” keynote speech, talking specifically about the role of public art. Sometimes difficult to follow, but rich in visual metaphors, his talk charmed the audience, not least with his final point about how Syrian resettlement had led to a revival of pigeon-keeping in New York and elsewhere in Western cities. Pigeons flying in a flurry of LED lights across the New York skyline was a bold signifier of proud migrant culture that had turned the tables on the artistic elite; you could actually hear the “Wows” from the audience in the background of the short film.

We then heard from speakers from Poland, Israel and Berlin in a sometimes very heated debate about the right to produce art. Directors, writers and activists came together to discuss under-investment in the arts across Europe and the transformative power of art. A stellar intervention by activist Igor Stokfiszewski placed art in the context of neoliberal visions of change and invited artists to be more radical and challenging to the power brokers.

The afternoon session was more challenging for a reserved Brit like me. Outdoors, no agenda, and a free-flowing discussion. First we heard from Arte Migrante, an NGO rapidly expanding across Italy to support new migrants into the country. Using art and especially music to bring migrants together with longer-established Italians, their ambitions know no bounds.

Arte Migrante made their approach to ‘integration’ tangible for the audience in three steps. Step 1: walk around the space, and when you come across someone, stare at them for 3 seconds. I never realised how long and excruciating 3 seconds could actually be – very difficult. The Brits accidentally crossed paths, and in that very British way, looked for a second and then focused elsewhere. Step 2, walk around again and this time when you meet someone, introduce yourself; it was striking, again, how the Brits were the only ones to shake hands. Step 3, and a personal nightmare: hug. The resulting feelings spoke a lot about our shared cultural values and their impact on us and our approach.

The afternoon carried on with speakers from Germany, Sweden, and Ireland, talking about everything from the power of storytelling as a cathartic output for children and young people (Storytelling without Borders‘ Anusha Caroline Andersson) to how to pre-empt a hard border in Ireland with knitted accessories (“My Country; A Work In Progress” by Dr. Carol Ann Duffy). 

All in all, the event combined powerful messages and searching questions to show that art could simultaneously capture the bleakness of current migration regimes, as well as the opportunities for personal and collective growth that migration itself opens up.

The Academy under Trees: A Europe of Boundaries and Borders was held on 25 May at Castle Genshagen, Germany.