BY Jörg Heiser in Opinion | 23 OCT 15
Featured in
Issue 175

Civil Service

The refugee crisis and the pitfalls of artistic responses

BY Jörg Heiser in Opinion | 23 OCT 15

I live in Berlin’s central district of Moabit; it’s a 15-minute walk from Angela Merkel’s Chancellery and five minutes from the desperately under-staffed government office where asylum seekers must register. In recent months,it’s been chaotic: desperate families – many of whom camp outside the building – have had to wait for days on end to sign their application in person. If it weren’t for the activities of humanitarian organizations and private individuals, the chaos and suffering would be much worse. Amidst such despair, it’s hard to see how art could be relevant. By that I don’t mean the usual threadbare criticism of art’s decadence and expendability in the face of ‘real’ issues. Quite the contrary.

To start with, many of the people I know who are writers, sculptors, theorists, publishers or exhibition-makers have connected through social media or joined aid organizations in order to do something about this human catastrophe. They have helped to bring food, water and other much-needed items, such as mobile phones or nappies, to asylum seekers. Some have organized a multi-language refugee phrasebook to be distributed at Berlin shelters, Croatian border checkpoints and Greek islands. A satirical writer I follow on Facebook has changed the subject of her status updates from ribald jokes about art-world types to organizing convoys of cars to transport refugees from the government-funded misery of camps in Hungary.

When it really counted, all of these artists, writers and curators – not content with leaving everything to an overwhelmed or dysfunctional bureaucracy – stepped up to their responsibilities as citizens of a civil society. Their involvement with the arts wasn’t a hindrance: far from it. They made use of their international networks, their language and production skills, as well as their collective ability to reflect and report on the events. But even if they posted about their activities online, it generally didn’t feel self-promotional or even art-related. It was really about the issues at hand: what was needed where and when, and how to motivate people to join in or to donate. I am humbled by these efforts and I feel a certain sense of pride about these colleagues and friends, many of whom are living on relatively low incomes. All of these actions fly in the face of the cliché about the art world being full of self-centred specialists, blind to the social realities around them.

By emphasizing that these colleagues acted as citizens, I’m not implying that they couldn’t react as artists. But it’s important to distinguish this kind of practical activity from a phenomenon that has probably best been described by the head of local organization, ‘Moabit hilft’ (Moabit Helps), which has been supporting refugees in the neighbourhood for years. During one of their bi-weekly public evening meetings – probably in the hope of getting some of those present to think twice – he declared he was slightly weary of having to spend a considerable amount of his time and energy warding off ‘artists’ projects’.

Don’t get me wrong – I certainly don’t want to dismiss all interventionist, ‘relational’ projects regarding refugees. But what the remark highlights is that there is a problem with the sort of narcissist pseudo-help that is blind to the basic question of what support is actually required. There is a type of person – and they don’t only roam the art world – who tends not to ask what they can do to help, but instead demands that somebody work out what they can do that will make them feel good about helping.

This phenomenon of people attempting to co-opt a good cause for their own sake reminds me of what I like to call ‘the love betrayal problem’. In literature, a roman-à-clef  hinges on the thrill of exposing real people with whom the writer had a close or even intimate relationship – in a sense, it depends upon betrayal. Ideally, that betrayal is offset by literary genius or, at least, by the fact that the people in question deserved no better. But in the same way that the betrayal of intimacy or friendship for art’s sake runs the risk of thriving on the kick of exploiting real vulnerability, so does ill-conceived artwork ‘dealing with’ refugees.

In art, it’s important to consider how the scene depicted or the situation engendered is ethically coded. The artist Santiago Sierra, for example, has created many works that tackle the distinction between ethics and aesthetics in a purposefully bitter, sardonic manner. Six People Who Are Not Allowed to Be Paid for Sitting in Cardboard Boxes (2000), first shown at Kunst-Werke in Berlin, involved six asylum seekers sitting inside small boxes. The title refers to the fact that, at the time, German law didn’t allow asylum seekers to earn money. (In recent years, the restrictions have been gradually softened, though not lifted.) When Sierra’s work Eight People Paid to Be in Cardboard Boxes, Guatemala City (1998) was restaged in Hamburg in 2013, a local performance-artist duo hijacked the piece and brought West African asylum seekers into the exhibition to sit inside the boxes, while asking visitors to donate money through slits in the cardboard. The irony is that the pair’s artistic interest in refugee issues was a one-off: before and since, they’ve made work about sex therapy or right wing terrorism.

So, what kind of artistic response to human crises doesn’t feel phoney? There is no straight answer but, in any case, too many efforts result in a form of ham-fisted symbolism, at best serving as balsam for liberal guilt. The current Venice Biennale, which closes on 22 November, includes a prime example of this type of work: Vik Muniz’s Lampedusa (2015), a vessel the size of a gondola shaped to look like a paper boat, made from an Italian newspaper with headlines about hundreds of refugees that have drowned off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa. Also included in the biennale is a shocking, shattering masterpiece of on-the-ground investigative journalism: a 52-minute film by the anonymous Syrian collective Abounaddara, Syria: Snapshots of History in the Making (2014). Documenting events in the war-torn country, it gives voice to traumatized kids as well as death-defying oppositional minds caught between the frontlines of the Assad regime and Islamic State – voices that otherwise have largely remained unheard in regular news reporting. In its own way, Adrian Piper’s work in the biennale, The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1–3 (2013–15) – even though it has nothing expressly to do with art’s response to humanitarian crises – also feels like the right kind of proposal with regard to people’s personal responsibilities as citizens, whether they work in the arts or not. It involved asking people to sign contracts stating lifelong commitments, such as: ‘I will always do what I say I am going to do.’

I saw a work recently at Hauser & Wirth in Zurich that might initially have seemed to be a rather slight gesture; however, it made me pause in my tracks. Martin Creed had simply sprayed, in black letters, the word ‘refugees’ across the large window that faces the street and on the adjacent white cube wall (Work No. 2489 REFUGEES, 2015). There is a real tension between the machinations of the art world and the world at large, and here it was literally marked. It’s our responsibility, whether we are artists or not, to act as members of a civil society, and to do what we say what we’re going to do, especially if it’s as straightforward as helping to provide food and shelter.

Jörg Heiser is director of the Institute for Art in Context at the University of the Arts, Berlin, Germany.