Postcards from Berlin – Public Art for our Age of Anxiety

A public art project collaboration turned book – Postcards from Berlin, from Timelapse

In our age of anxiety and with the rise of extreme nationalism and xenophobia globally, Turkish academic and writer, Elif Shafak has urged a need for greater “emotional intelligence:” “(w)e need to talk about anxiety, fears, expectations, hopes, frustrations. It’s okay to have all of these feelings, and together we can find a better way forward than the way suggested to us by all of these populist demagogues.”

Today, the UK has the legacy of the so-called “hostile environment” policy which turned banks, employers and landlords into immigration officers, resulting in treating, “every immigrant as an illegal unless they could prove otherwise — and then often rejected their proof even when it was overwhelming.” Particularly targeted, in what became known as the ‘Windrush Scandal’ were immigrants born in former British colonies, especially, from the Caribbean, who were legally in the country as citizens under the British Nationality Act 1948. As well as cases of being threatened with removal, detained, denied medical care, at least eighty-three were wrongfully deported.

Immigration enforcement raids have been conducted with disproportionate severity and/or force. Under the amended Licensing Act 2003, s.179, immigration enforcement officials claim the right to forcibly raid any restaurant, hotel or other licensed premises to investigate suspected immigration law breaches. No cause, evidence, warrant or named senior authorising person need be provided. Two-thirds (63%) of those arrested for illegal working are Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani or Chinese with, “the inference for other nationals working illegally, especially if they were not employed in restaurants and takeaways, was that the likelihood of being arrested for working illegally was low and the likelihood of removal was negligible,” according to a review by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration.

The UK participates, too, in a European “hostile environment” policy whereby the rescuing of migrants in the Mediterranean is not only neglected but opposed and, also, criminalised. Pia Klemp, a captain of a rescue ship from Sea-Watch, responsible for helping to save hundreds of migrant lives, has been charged with aiding and abetting illegal immigration in Italy after arrest in 2017 and faces up to 20 years in jail if found guilty. Carola Rackete, another rescue ship captain, was arrested in June, this year, after bringing 40 migrants into port in Italy but was released. Rescue NGOs risk fines of up to £50,000 if they enter Italian waters. In 2014, the British government revealed that it will not fund any planned EU search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, arguing that saving lives incentivises illegal migration and increases deaths. The EU has suspended naval patrols after disagreements over how to share responsibility for those rescued at sea.

The UN estimates that 2,275 migrants drowned or went missing in the Mediterranean in 2018, at an average rate of six people a day. This was down from the over 3,000 who died in 2017. Approximately, 700 have died so far this year, with up to 150 people dying, including children, in an incident in July when two boats capsized off the coast of Libya. The UN commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi called for European nations to resume search and rescue missions and for an end to migrant detentions in conflict-ridden Libya.

The situation has been described as a “moral crisis” for Europe and one that has deep historical roots. 100 years ago, in 1919, racialised violence erupted in port cities in the UK, fuelled by high post-war unemployment, Mobs targeted, in particular, black communities, including seaman who had served on British ships during the war. The government were under pressure from wider social unrest, as police, soldiers and workers went on strike. A voluntary repatriation scheme aimed particularly at black and mixed race men was introduced. The Home Office informed authorities in Liverpool, “while it is not possible to deport compulsorily any coloured men who are British subjects it is considered desirable that so far as possible all unemployed coloured men should be induced to return to their own countries as quickly as possible”.

Postcards from Berlin brings together the artwork of four very different ‘migrants’ to Berlin as part of a project lead by Brits, Tim Free and Brian Neish, a writer and artist team who collaborate under the name, Timelapse. They reached out to photographer/filmmaker, Abdulsalam Ajaj who is amongst the 6.7 million Syrians to have fled the civil war in Syria, which has entered its eighth year since the pro-democracy uprising of 2011. Ajaj arrived in Germany from Damascus as a self-taught photographer and digital artist in 2015. Also joining the project was Slovenian-born, Veronika Ban who settled in Berlin, in 2009, having studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice.

Whether resident or visitor, refugee or migrant, it is clear that all the artists, who largely worked independently before bringing their work together, experience and are concerned with a sense of alienation. How the alienation manifests is, however, very different for each artist and provides suggestions about personal histories, as well as commentary on modern urban life.

The distorted and blurred light of Ajaj’s work appears to go beyond social alienation to the temporal – as the city escapes beyond sight and humans and other features are barely identifiable. Veronika Ban’s colourful collage work of shadowy figures and signs suggest a world of exclusion, secrecy and memory. Brian Neish’s works juxtapose vivid close-ups of walls with images of built structures. There is beauty and comfort in the “noble decay” of the walls – a pause from troubling existentialism, offered by stillness and attention.

Tim Free’s stream-of-consciousness text responds to each image, meanwhile, and suggests a traveler searching for something evanescent: “…An invisible presence in a free city. The compulsion to reinvent, if only for aesthetic pleasure or to invoke a tsunami of likes?” He ponders on the relation between past and present as he ‘walks’ the streets in the images and of his own experience of Berlin, observing: “…the healing of wounds and a new pragmatic generation, ready for their time in the sun…”

Postcards for Berlin is not the end of the story, of course. Migrants lay down roots and, as artists, strive for new expression. Notably, Ajaj has moved from abstracted images of light to telling stories of fellow refugees in Germany and recently has been capturing ‘naked interventions’ by volunteers that present the naked body in public places. Participants and artists have spoken about experiencing a new connection with their city and their bodies through such actions and activism.

There is an important anxiety not visible in these artworks, naturally, and that is the “intellectual insecurity of Alternative Right Nationalism,” referenced in the preface to the book version of the art project. As much as the insecurity of recent migrants, we need to engage with the fears of ‘natives’ too, if our age of anxiety is not to disintegrate our society. Postcards from Berlin is a valuable project and shows us how our fear of certain conversations might be overcome.

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A public exhibition of Postcards from Berlin is planned for 2020.  To find out more about the project and other Timelapse works, visit: http://www.timelapse95.com or @timelapse95

The artists

Abdulsalam Ajaj

Abdulsalam Ajaj is a Berlin-Neukölln-based artist who works with film and photography. He settled in Berlin in 2016 having left his native Damascus, Syria, during the ongoing civil war which arose from pro-democracy uprisings in 2011 and has descended into a fragmented conflict involving various fundamentalist militant groups and international powers.

Ajaj was educated at Jawdat Alhashimie High (scientific branch) and studied Archaeology and Museums, University of Damascus, Syria. He is a self-taught photographer, retoucher and graphic designer with further education in Germany from Weißensee Kunsthochschule, Berlin and UDK Art performance workshop for Professional Berlin.

He and his collaborator, Mischa Badasyan, have received international attention for their naked public tableau works, including the photography collection, Weil Ich Dich Liebe (Because I Love You) – a series of images of volunteers posing nude in Berlin’s metro stations. Having unsuccessfully sought permission for the shoots for several years, the artist/activists went ahead with the project without permission. Badasyan has suggested that the experience helped participants reconnect with the city and their own bodies.

Veronika Ban

Veronika Ban was born in Slovenia in 1985 and is of Slovenian-Italian heritage. She has a background in dance and theatre and wrote poetry before focusing on visual arts. She has worked with collage, murals, painting, sculpture, film and performance. She spent time in Barcelona working and performing in a “squatting socio-cultural centre” before formal study from 2004 to 2009 in Venice at the Academy of Fine Arts. She has lived in Berlin since 2009, where her daughter Teodara was born.

Ban’s is concerned that: “Art should be a mirror and should give an option of perception to reach the truth about life, however it is colored, personally or politically, whether it speaks about emotions of an individual or about the society we live in…”

Ban says of her approach, “(t)he main symbol I’ve always used for describing the society are bricks. Bricks are like particles, together creating something bigger. As in life, moments create time, experiences compose life stories, and individuals make society… For example, in music we have melody which is composed of musical notes. However, in my artworks you can find many different symbols speaking about secretes of life.”

Brian Neish

Brian is a full-time artist based in his home county of Derbyshire who, alongside Tim Free, is creator of the Timelapse public art projects. He is fascinated by painted surfaces and the exploration of time and experience – “noble decay” – through the layering of paint, colour and texture. It was in 2010 that Brian became a full-time artist. Prior to this he worked as a Senior Lecturer in Art Education at LSU College of Higher Education and the University of Chichester. This followed his time in Primary Education specialising in Art & Design. He originally studied at King Alfred’s College, Winchester where he graduated in 1985 with a First Class Honours Degree in Art & Education. He also completed a post-graduate year of study in 1990 at Dartington College of Arts in Devon.

Tim Free

Tim Free is a London-based writer and actor with a background in theatre, music and performance. As a writer, he is strongly influenced by social history and the Mass Observation Movement, a social research organisation started in 1937 with the objective of capturing everyday life through volunteers and, in some cases, paid investigators. As well as exploring ideas and history, Free seeks to “try and capture the essence of the event, thereby giving the material a vitality that might lend itself to later reading and interpretation.”

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