SSHRC Report from performance: passing through encounters, Berlin, Aug. 30 – Sept. 01, 2016
By Ayumi Goto
Submitted to: Ashok Mathur and Peter Morin
The original motivation for the performance, passing through encounters, was to engage directly with the many asylum seekers passing through Berlin. The performance was to make opportunities to ask asylum seekers about their experiences face-to-face, to break through that fifth wall of emergency-mediated information of migratory struggles and unexpected turns.
Unbeknownst to myself until my arrival in Berlin, I too had been so heavily influenced by the crisis-ridden tonality of news coverage regarding refugees in Europe. My imagination had me expecting a groundswell of movement across city streets, claustrophobic overpopulation of refugee centres, and clear enmities between longstanding locals and those seeking temporary and/or permanent shelter. What I encountered instead was a city trying in many ways to come to a better understanding of those who were passing through, primarily from Syria, but also from many parts of Southern and Northern Africa. Upon first impressions, Berlin is a city that proudly if somewhat complacently boasts the successful integration of Vietnamese refugees, quietly disdains Turkish migrants, and is grappling with the current presence of refugees from unimagined places.
After spending the first few days running through the different districts in Berlin, I came to better appreciate the variegated histories of emergency and survival in the communities that I passed through. Only then did I realise that the consequent performative challenge was to not contribute to the emergency and panic-stricken rhetoric that dominates in the news. Rather, the original objective needed to transform into building temporary shelters of reflection in places that in the past had faced volatility and political duress/demonstration. I decided to set up the possibility for passing through encounters in three distinct locations in which I had spent time to observe the surrounds and social dynamics: Oranienplatz in Freidrichshain-Kreuzberg, Winter.Spielplatz near Nollendorfplatz in Schöneberg, and outside of galerie oqbo in the Mitte district near the infamous Bernauer Strasse.
Oranienplatz had been the location of asylum seekers who had set up a demonstration camp in 2013. Mostly of African origin, the protestors demanded the abolishment of lagers or refugee camps, the cessation of all deportations, and the right to study and work (http://oplatz.net/about/). The camp was demolished in April 2014, and many of the demonstrators opted to move into hostels (http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/controversial-oranienplatz-berlin-refugee-camp-demolished-1444043). Now, there are no visible traces of the temporary camp, and the plaza is frequented by those who look to be regulars living in the apartments nearby. The plaza straddles a bustling working class restaurant and bar area and a swiftly gentrifying portion of Berlin.
Nollendorf in Schöneberg is one of the biggest gay districts in Berlin. On the second day of a run through the city, I had come across the Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism. Situated across the street from the famous and much-frequented Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the Memorial to Homosexuals was occluded from street view and a far cry from the grandeur of the Jewish holocaust commemoration. Yet, the physical similarities of the cement blocked-ness of the two would have memories ricocheting off one another. Unlike the Jewish memorial, however, where the cement blocks were uniform and indistinguishable were it not for their varying heights, the Memorial to Homosexuals was a singular pillar with a window on one side into which passersby could peer. Inside of the window, a video of two men kissing intimately cycled through perpetually. In witnessing the contrasts and similarities between both memorials, I was compelled to think of communities that often are discounted or overlooked due to their size, political unpopularity, social mores, and/or the refinements that go into tidying historical accounts of atrocity. I wished to understand how a community that had historically experienced such extreme and perhaps much hidden persecution would consider the current waves of migration through their backyards. I sat at Nachbar near the park in Nollendorf for a couple of hours, watching people coming and going, deciding that this too would be a good location to reflect upon immigration and forced movements.
Finally, I had intended all along to do a performance in front of galerie oqbo, however as more time was spent there, the historical significance of choosing this location became clearer. The gallery sits on Brunnenstrasse, which runs perpendicular to the infamous Bernauer Strasse. The latter road was part of the Berlin Wall, a spot notorious for escape stories in which many died in their attempts to cross over the multiple barricades that divided east from west (http://www.the-berlin-wall.com/videos/escaping-on-bernauer-strasse-534/). Today, the Berlin Wall Monument is housed there, and replicas of the walls have been erected, where many visitors pace back and forth to read the didactics about the 38-year history of a divided Berlin. Currently, the district of Mitte, in which the gallery is situated, is one of the most multicultural areas in the city, with a large migrant, refugee, and racialized presence. As with other parts of Berlin, Mitte is a place of multiple existences and stories of people moving past, through, and up against one another.
All three locations were chosen because, while in the past they had experienced much tumult, they are currently relatively peaceful and quiet. I purchased all of the materials for the performances in Berlin, except for my Mother-in-law’s, Perin’s sari, which was central to the public interventions. The process of preparing for the performance and carefully decorating each paper cup with Perin’s sari was really a means to distract myself from the rising anxieties and nervousness of ‘just showing up and setting up’ in such unfamiliar areas. I was very nervous about not being able to speak German and not knowing the unspoken social rules of making an acquaintance. It seemed like such a grand political leap from poorly speaking or outright miscommunicating to asking people about their views on migration and asylum seekers. During the preparation, my mind was ridden with great doubts and questions about one’s right or privileges to arrogate their presence to make a public intervention in a strange land. What exactly was the intervention? Would this performance cause harm? Moreover, I began thinking about the different types of certainties upon which one makes the decision to do a performance: the certainties of making a connection, of expressing an intention or idea, of self in a specific space and time and historico-political context. Yet all of these became questionable and uncertain in terms of the last type, that is, certainties of the self. At this time, my own understanding of identity formation and conceptualization of the self is that it is ever-shifting, deeply affected and changed by the currents of time, space, and social complexing. The Ayumis in urban and rural Canada or on certain Indigenous territories across this continent are very different from each other and especially from the one who plops down unannounced into an unknown place for a very short, nearly nonexistent while. It began to dawn on me that the impetus for the performance, and the purpose for the interventions, needed to be motivated by uncertainty rather than certainty, to meditate on the vulnerabilities of not knowing as a point of trying to create deep engagements with others.
As mentioned above, I set up a temporary house, first laying out the strikingly vibrant teal, silk material over a bench or sitting stones. I then walked around the perimeter of the sari as if to make an imaginary wall. Following that action, I set up a green tea service, setting out a teapot, a single porcelain cup for my use, and several paper cups onto a make-shift tray. Finally, I re-walked the perimeter of this temporary ‘house’ and mimed at opening two windows and a door. At each opening, I breathed out, as if pushing armfuls of wind outwards. Then I returned to the tea service and waited.
On the first day, in Oranienplatz, my face was highly made up, my hair plaited in two ‘cutesy’ buns, and my strategy was to smile at passersby until people decided to stop. Because of the park layout, and my own shyness, I decided just to sit and wait. Many people passed by but did not stop. However, one man, who later described himself to be a motorcycle delivery guy for a local area pizzeria, stopped by three times to drink tea and talk. He had many ideas about how the media builds hysteria to try to divide permanent Germans from influxes of migrant workers and refugees. He pointed out that Berlin state elections were about to take place and how the politicians would use the subject of migration to rouse fear and xenophobia and a sense of heroic rescue in the general population. He then speculated about deeper discussions not covered in the media very often, such as the causes of the refugee crisis, and how Germany might be accountable of world political and economic dynamics for these unexpected waves of refugees in the first place. It was my intention to develop enough of a conversation with people to ask them to write on a piece of basting fabric, their final thoughts on refugees and migrations in Germany. I would then iron them onto the sari so that their parting comments would be visible for the next day’s performance, and permanently attached to the fabric. Overall, upon completion of three hours at Oranienplatz, from 4pm to 7pm, I wondered if perhaps I had been mistaken often for being an advertisement for Japanese tea sales and thought to adjust my strategy for the next day’s performance.
In Schöneberg, I had planned to set up the house in an empty plaza at the end of Gleditschstrasse, not knowing that on Wednesdays, the plaza itself houses a large farmer’s market. It threw me off a little bit, and I was embarrassed, because on that day, Stacey Ho, a Vancouver-based performance artist who was also in Berlin for the same show, had generously offered to document the intervention. I meandered around a bit before settling upon some stone steps in Winter.Spielplatz, a small fenced in park across the street from the market. Many people were eating their lunches and enjoying the hot weather. At this performance, I wore less make-up and plaited my hair into a simple bun. This time, I also decided to walk up to people and offer tea. Almost all accepted, and perhaps around 70% would come over with me to talk about refugees and migration. One family was drawn over, and I learned that the father had come from Iran, and that he had left before the country fell into chaos. He returned about ten years ago to accompany a friend, who had been jailed in their home country for several years, then managed to escape and eventually arrive seeking asylum in Germany. According to my new acquaintance, the friend wanted to make peace with specific places in Iran, including the site of his incarceration, so together they made a documentary of that journey. At the park, I also spent a long time talking to a woman and her teenaged daughter. The daughter was very critical about the representation of people from Syria as ‘refugees’. She thought that it created too much of a hero or rescue complex in people of Berlin and that she wished that Syrians could be seen on par and not as part of a crisis. She mentioned having several friends who had come as refugees, but that the lived experience of going to school, hanging out after classes and on weekends, broke through the initial barrier of political categories. The mother too was contemplative about witnessing those around her, both welcoming and unreceptive to unexpected newcomers. She said that the world and Berlin was a constantly shifting place and with it came very heterogeneous living environments, with people coming from such diverse historical, cultural, and political contexts. She talked about the need to develop friendships that allowed for disagreements on religious and cultural practices, otherwise it often would become too easy to shut whole communities out of one’s purview. Overall, Stacey’s presence as photographer really shifted the dynamics of social engagement. It was clear that some type of performance was taking place. Furthermore, the location and the timing (noon to 3pm) of performance were significant in drawing in people who had come to relax and lounge in the last vestiges of their summer holidays. My biggest regret on that day was to not properly engage with a woman who was a single mum. Her child, a toddler, kept coming close to the tea service, until finally the mum and I briefly introduced ourselves. She was very shy, spoke mostly in German with a bit of English mixed in, and seemed like someone who might not often engage in this type of interaction, but she even returned with the intention of talking at greater length after leaving to run errands. When she returned, I was in a long conversation with a recent Ph.D. graduate from Humboldt University, so she quickly left. I should have taken the time to get to know her better. On this day, many people wrote their parting thoughts on basting paper, and that evening, I ironed them onto the sari.
The final performance was on a park bench just outside of galerie oqbo. This performance took place between 9am-12pm. For the final day, I wore the least make-up and my hair was plaited into two braids which were then linked together at the nape of my neck. Again I sat alone; many people passed by, looking but not stopping. For some, it seemed as though that park bench was a regular resting place. One such elderly gentleman came by, and motioned to sit on the bench. We sat next to each other in silence for quite time before I instigated a conversation. He did not speak much German, and I learned that he was long-time immigrant from Turkey. Using Google translator, I also learned that he did not enjoy living in Berlin. When I explained through the translator the purpose of the installation, that is, to learn about people’s views on immigration and refugee movements, he abruptly rose from the bench and left hurriedly. That interaction has really stayed with me. Another woman’s interaction deeply affected me. She was very frail, being assisted as she walked very slowly with a walker. I surmise that she had cancer, and her assistant said that the woman was very ill. I am guessing that she had been watching me from one of the apartments above, because she and the care worker came over to the sari with purpose. She did not stay for very long and she could not accept any tea, because it would interfere with her medicines, the care worker explained. On basting paper, she wrote in German, “we should all live in peace.” Her engagement made a lasting impression, about the importance of meeting people at where they are at in their lives. It was so moving to witness this woman, whose physical state did not quell her desires to make her political views known, nor did it suppress her interest in those around her. As with the other two performances, at the end of the three hours, I closed the house down by miming shutting the windows and doors, and gathering breath back into the temporary house. However, in the final performance, the inhalations of breath were accompanied by hand motions to wash the sari as if it were hair to be enfolded with the wind from outside.
All of the collected comments were ironed onto the sari, and it was installed alongside the tea service and the red suitcase, in which all of the materials had been carried.
Among the ongoing reflections that have arisen from these interventions, one consideration that continually arises is to contemplate the success of a performance. Putting this more crassly, perhaps many performances are judged in terms of audience numbers or the amount of monies made. In this case, really, very few people in a city with a population of eight million would have even accidently come upon one of the interventions. Yet, although it might be too premature to state with too much confidence, it would seem that I have made long-term friends with a couple of those random passersby. Such unexpected intimacies could not be preconceived, one of the many humbling outcomes of doing public interventions. I’ve also wondered about what would constitute a failed performance. As I was madly running about in preparation, at times in a desperate state of trying to become more knowledgeable of the city and its history, it crossed my mind on several occasions that it might not feel right to do a performance at all. As a site-, space-, place-, and time-based performer, it is as much likely that something does not feel right, and that in some cases, to do a performance is more disrespectful than to refrain. Would the non-performance or ‘non-production’ of the process of forming something then be tantamount to a failure or is the forced performance a greater failure?
Another thought about passing through encounters has emerged as a direct result of the performative interventions. Initially, I had speculated about what exactly was being intervened. In thinking about the many people I met, the several who stopped to have tea and conversation, and those who talked very deeply about issues of forced migrations and waves of refugees passing through Berlin, I am starting to see that one of the biggest interventions had to do with my heart and ideas. The face-to-face encounters shrank the scope of ‘truths’ posited by the international and local media regarding human movements. The conversations intervened with my solipsistic over-emphasis on building states of emergency where there is perhaps none or very little in relation to the care or attempts of caring that surrounds. The media then suddenly has much less power than is frequently imagined. This power or control of population through the media can be quickly contracted in the course of a meaningful conversation. While in Berlin, I began reading “A Woman in Berlin,” a book published under an anonymous author, known only as a journalist, who had diaried the final days of Nazi rule and her every day experiences, as Russian troops marched into the city centre during final days of World War II. In part of the woman’s reflections, she talks with much disdain about propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbel’s newspaper pronouncements about how the Nazis were winning the Great War, even as German citizens in the city were starving, escaping attack, and queuing for food rations and information from the outside world. Her reactions to Goebbel’s rhetoric show the impotence of the media to determine a state of affairs or a state of mind. Her habit of reading these articles whilst humorously and angrily resisting their content is a reminder to me that when I read articles about world events, crises, atrocities, warlords, I have always failed to imagine her voice, her perspective, her agency. There is great power in how writers of fiction and non-fiction, poets, and artists, who are themselves at many if not most points in their lives the random passerby, make an effort to present often hidden points of view. Berlin becomes a different city traversed on foot than it is imagined from afar. I am currently rereading Walter Benjamin’s “Childhood in Berlin,” for his own story and writings have haunted me for many years. What will emerge in the interfaces of a man who imagined his idyllic past amidst a brutal near future and a woman who imagines a present beyond Bejamin’s own future only to return to it again?