posted on: 1 February 2017
Promised Land Symposium – Short Summary
Central Saint Martins, London, 3 December, 2016
On 3 December 2016, C+C co-organised a symposium called ‘Promised Land’ with the Goethe-Institut London. The event was one of a series of events, screenings and a commissions called PROMISED LAND that have been addressing current shifts within European politics, raising debate about the challenges, responsibilities and consequences these present.
In the years immediately following World War II, political union was seen as an antidote to the extreme nationalism that had fuelled the conflict. An integrated Europe promised open markets, freedom of movement, and justice upheld by the European Court. The vision is being threatened by the rise of nationalist movements, the tightening of borders, the proliferation of refugee camps and the displacement of people fleeing conflict, extreme poverty and ecological disaster. Distrust and fear are mounting.
What are the ramifications for art and artists? What insights and ideas are artists bringing? How can we move forward at a time of extreme uncertainty?
‘Promised Land’ began with a screening of Christoph Schlingensief’s Foreigners Out!, a work from 2002 which documented the response to Schlingensief’s shocking installation of a refugee compound outside the Vienna Opera House based on the Big Brother television series. The ensuing public outrage and media fracas served Schlingensief’s goal to reveal the dangerous rhetorical strategies of the Austrian nationalist party.
Seeing the root of Europe’s problems in nationalist thinking, in her keynote Professor Ulrike Guérot spoke in favour of establishing an inclusive, de-territorialised European Republic. Europe can only be fixed, she stipulated, by abolishing the current nation-state paradigm. Disregarding regional nuances including the urban-rural income divide, the EU pits countries against each other based on economic performance. To truly succeed, Europe can no longer be tethered to its market, nor to the political needs of its individual states. Instead, Guérot proposes that sovereignty be returned to its citizens through the creation of a true republic: a political system which allows for equal social, financial, and legal representation, featuring a House of Representatives elected by individuals.
Emeka Okereke, founder of Invisible Borders and the first artist to speak, levelled a critique against the idea of Europe as a bastion of human rights, instead linking the migrant crisis to the “imposed cartographies of colonialism.” Free movement is the key to fundamental rights, Okereke asserted; “without movement, there can be no exchange.” Reflecting on tense or serendipitous encounters from Cameroon to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Okereke considered “how to become, via your presence, an object of useful agitation.”
“We find ourselves at a time where goods, information, and images can move very fast, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult for most people to travel and cross borders” noted the artist Tobias Zielony, whose work at the Venice Biennial 2015 depicted migrant activists in Germany. Documenting their marches, protests, and downtime alike, Zielony revealed the diversity of interests that brought migrant groups to Europe — whether they were fleeing homosexual discrimination (punishable by death) in Uganda, or threats to their lives due to political agitation in Sudan.
If Zielony’s photographs aimed to turn the journalistic image of ‘refugees as passive victims’ inside out, Nikolaj Bendix Skykum Larsen’s audio work, commissioned for Promised Land by the Goethe-Institute London and Culture+Conflict, sought to explore refugees’ victimhood more deeply, fictionalising a Western European man’s fraught escape from his country. “I wanted it to be a really unpleasant experience,” said Larsen; by “placing the listener in a horrible situation together with [his] protagonist,” he hoped to invoke Western empathies towards the physical and psychological traumas of those undertaking dangerous journeys by sea.
“In Europe’s Lampedusa(s), there is the projection of an invasion of the European Union that is simply not taking place”, asserted Dr. Giacomo Orsini in his lecture, Promised Land for whom? In his research, he found that 80-90% of those making an unauthorised border crossing into Europe are asylum seekers with a legal right to enter, while the vast majority of people living irregularly in the European Union entered with a regular visa and subsequently overstayed it. “It’s an appealing discourse,” he continued. “The obsession with an imagined invasion misrepresents what actually happens at the border, while there’s scarce interest for empirical data. The EU only hosts 6% of the world’s refugees — and the idea of Europe as a promised land where everyone aspires to come indicates a new Eurocentrism.”
In her lecture on The Art of Migration, Nanna Heidenreich rooted today’s critical migration thinking in the globalisation discourse of the 1990s. “Today’s crisis is not one of migration but of the European project,” said Heidenreich, pointing out that large-scale movements of people across the globe have occurred across history. Migration, she urged, ought not to be considered marginal; instead, it ought to be seen as a movement at the very centre of society.
Heidenreich critiqued the connection between art and activism, seeing the two as deeply interconnected yet ultimately unwilling to negotiate on each other’s terms. Yet the three artists following demonstrated a sensitivity often missed in political discourse about immigration and the right to live where one wishes. Accent Elimination, a three-channel video by Nina Kachadourian, saw the artist and her parents read through a script about the Katchadourians’ origins first in their own accents, and then in each other’s, working with an “accent coach”, With humour it showed the differences in how speech is constructed across cultures (the individuated words of Armenian, versus the American’s near-slurred flow), and how simply by changing an accent stereotypes are undermined.
Artist Bisan Abu Eisheh spoke about his participation in a project in southern Italy, highlighting not only success but the importance of analysing failure — the lack of time and the sudden use of English language, which the participants did not speak, leading to a confusion between the artistic dimensions of the project and the difficult reality. To conclude the day, Phoebe Boswell delivered a narrative about her time at a residency in Gothenburg. “There’s this thing about drawing which allows you to ‘physicalise’ empathy,” she said, clicking through images she had drawn of daily life in this highly segregated Swedish city. In doing so, she described the many minute feelings of affinity and of isolation, referencing James Baldwin’s Stranger in the Village to describe differing registers of alienation — what it means to feel welcomed, versus an outsider, and how those distinctions are often blurred.
“When home can’t be a physical place, it becomes people, your actions, your activities. That can exist anywhere,” she continued. “Through my work, I find ways to go ‘home’. That ‘home’ is definitely not a place, but a feeling of understanding something better.”
Alexandra Quicho, 2016
Christoph Schlingensief, Foreigners Out! (2002)
Nina Katchadourian, Accent Elimination (2005)
Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen, Quicksand (2016)
Philip Scheffner, Havarie (2016)
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