BY Alice Rawsthorn in Opinion | 12 AUG 18
Featured in
Issue 197

An Italian Design Duo’s Work to Empower Migrants and Refugees

In a quiet mountain town in Trentino, Italy, the duo Brave New Alps is providing skills and support to precarious migrant communities

BY Alice Rawsthorn in Opinion | 12 AUG 18

‘Inhuman and desperate’ is how a local priest described the living conditions of the thousands of migrants who, for years, have flocked from the Mahgreb or sub-Saharan Africa to the southern Italian city of Rosarno hoping to find work picking fruit on nearby farms.

They have also faced racist abuse and physical violence: from a drive-by shooting in an abandoned factory where hundreds of fruit pickers were sleeping to clashes with mobs of vigilantes armed with iron bars. The bigotry and brutality have intensified in recent years as tens of thousands of asylum seekers have landed in southern Italy, prompting activists and humanitarian groups to intervene.

Among them are the Italian designers Bianca Elzenbaumer and Fabio Franz, whose practice, Brave New Alps, was formed in 2005 and has been at the forefront of experimentation in design’s use as a tool of social, political and environmental change ever since. Located in Nomi, a quiet mountain town in Trentino, Brave New Alps has worked intensively with migrants and asylum seekers in the area. Its work culminated in a collaboration with six of them on the construction of a resource centre, the Hospital(ity) School, which opened in Rosarno this summer to provide Italian classes, health care and, eventually, legal advice to migrants and refugees.

‘Design is what we use to respond in practical ways to a situation or a concern we’re enmeshed in,’ explains Elzenbaumer. ‘It’s a way to get a sense of empowerment by becoming active and contributing to taking a situation into our hands and shaping it and the futures it allows us to imagine.’

Other design groups are also addressing the refugee crisis. The Italian graphic designer Fabrizio Urettini runs Talking Hands – a series of skills workshops for young, male asylum seekers in Treviso in northern Italy. Laura Pana, a Romanian social designer, founded Migrationlab, which organizes projects across Europe to help refugees settle into their new communities. Like them, Brave New Alps has sought to provide urgently needed practical support, while reframing the debate on migration. Its projects serve as timely illustrations of the challenges and opportunities of working with people in desperate and fragile circumstances.‘The political situation in Italy is incredibly scary and has led to the fear of – and among – migrants,’ says Franz.‘Bianca and I see the arrival of people from other places as opening up and enriching communities, but we need to create permeable communities that will tool up and empower them.’

‘Brave New Alps provides urgently needed practical support, while reframing the debate on migration.’

Franz and Elzenbaumer met in 2002 as design students at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano in South Tyrol. Born in Germany, Franz moved to Nomi as a child, while Elzenbaumer hails from Olang, a popular Tyrolean ski resort. They were lucky to have studied at the university at a progressive time and under a professor, Kris Krois, who encouraged them to explore politically engaged design.They adopted the name Brave New Alps as students after spotting the title of an Italian edition of a (boosterish) German photography book on Alpine tourism, Le Nuove Alpi Coraggiose, literally, The New Courageous Alps. The moniker is also a tribute to Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel, Brave New World. For their thesis, they researched the social and ecological consequences of mass tourism in the Alps, but both considered leaving design after graduating in 2006. Elzenbaumer did a year of voluntary social work with drug addicts and began a masters degree on peacebuilding and conflict mediation: ‘It was then that I realized how strong the design tools I’d acquired were, in terms of thinking through issues and interacting with disempowering situations.’

They flung themselves into design research on environmental and community issues. One project mapped the impact of toxic waste on southern Italy. Another explored the conditions in Palestinian refugee camps on the West Bank. The logistics of their practice were similar to those of politically engaged artists, as they moved between residencies and curatorial commissions, supplemented by research grants and teaching income. ‘People often saw us as documentarists or researchers,’ notes Franz. ‘But we were – and are – interested in treating design as a testing ground and an experimental field.’

In July 2015, Brave New Alps decided to settle in one place to embark on CommunFare, a longterm project conceived to strengthen a community by reinforcing its shared resources, and chose Nomi. They began by organizing debates, walks and screenings for fellow change-makers in the hope of forging collaborations on issues such as securing community ownership of land and property. However, as more and more asylum seekers moved northwards from southern Italy to the Alps, the focus increasingly shifted to migration.

An artist from Talking Hands embroiders a wedding kit, 2018. Courtesy: Talking Hands; photograph: Francesco de Luca

In the nearby city of Rovereto, Brave New Alps began collaborating with two social co-operatives that were managing the Quercia residence, a former hotel being used as an asylum seekers’ shelter. They developed QuerciaLAB – a community-maker space consisting of cooking facilities, a gym and a workshop with sewing machines and woodworking equipment donated by the German manufacturer Festool. QuerciaLAB opened in October 2016 and provided useful resources for the city’s residents and the shelter’s occupants, only to be closed six months later by the local government, under pressure from the far right.

By then, Brave New Alps had been approached by Mamadou, a Bolzano-based activist collective whose members were running Italian classes for fruit pickers in Rosarno and wanted to establish a semi-permanent resource centre there, the Hospital(ity) School. A modular wooden structure was designed by Area 527, a trio of architects based across northern Italy. Brave New Alps secured a rent-free building on a Rovereto industrial estate for six months, where the components were fabricated by a group of six asylum seekers, two of them former QuerciaLAB participants, from wooden formwork panels donated by the Austrian company Mayr-Melnhof Holz. Five were trained carpenters: Haruna Barr from Gambia, Douglas Imasuem from Nigeria, Samuel Kwokam Funtim from Cameroon, Ablaye Mboup from Senegal and Komivi Sowanou from Togo. The sixth, Thierry Lucien Mbouli Obama, had studied civil engineering before being forced to leave Cameroon. Work began in October 2017 and finished six months later, when the Rovereto construction crew headed south to assemble the school helped by Rosarno-based asylum seekers and the local fire brigade.

The Hospital(ity) School opened on 1 May 2018. Its development proved less politically complex than QuerciaLAB’s, but was impeded by the precarity of the asylum seekers’ circumstances. Three of the six were relocated during fabrication, making it difficult for them to continue. ‘Their situations change so rapidly, that you can start a collaboration thinking you can work with someone on a daily basis, and they’ll suddenly be moved two hours away,’ explains Franz.

He and Elzenbaumer are now applying the lessons learnt from QuerciaLAB and the Hospital(ity) School to a new endeavor, The Forest –  a community academy, which will occupy a long-empty building next to Rovereto railway station. Brave New Alps have signed a nine-year lease on the site and plan to run classes, workshops and events on a collective basis with a network of people from the area. The pair are determined to protect the project from political pressure by funding it independently through donations and bartering.

‘Doing everything together all the time with consensus decision-making is hard,’ says Elzenbaumer. ‘But we practise design in a humble way that dethrones the designer as the expert. Showing our vulnerability is important, as is recognizing our privileged situation as white Europeans who grew up and studied in a stable environment, and creating solidarity by activating our privileges to challenge inequalities.

Published in frieze, issue 197, September 2018, with the title Make and Do.

Main Image: Hospital(ity) School, 2018. Courtesy: Brave New Alps; photograph: Guillermo Laurin

Alice Rawsthorn is the author of Hello World: Where Design Meets Life (2013) and Design as an Attitude (2018). She lives in London, UK.