Since Green light works with refugees, it is important to mention at this point. that the term refugees is enormously misleading. The participants are either refered as people with ongoing asylum seekers or internally in a more playful-ironical way as “fugees” .
There is a certain procedure behind recruiting the regular participants of the workshop. In Europe asylum policy is implemented almost everywhere by civic society or institutions that are non-governmental. The state sets the rules, but the rules are realized by NGOs. NGOs take care of accommodation, search for adequate integration projects and care for sustenance. You can find the reason behind these structures in another blog-entry.
The first Green light workshop at the Biennale is also written with 40 regular participants, as it was already the case in Vienna. (1) Since Vienna is the only reference the author got, it must be taken into account that the observations and experience arise from this very background. To avoid misunderstandings, the author was not involved in the overall conceptualization, but started as a translator, slash project coordinator.
TBA21, the institution which implements the project in cooperation with the Studio Olafur Eliasson approaches the NGOs in charge, in order to recruit the participants. The idea is that the NGOs know potential interested parties better than the art institutions. An Open Call is composed, containing the hard facts. The NGOs approach the people, they see on a more daily basis and from which they think they could be interested.
The asylum system in Italy is more centralized. Maybe a consequence from the long enduring experience with migration in general. Two roof organizations are responsible for people who still have open asylum procedures: SPRAR and CARA. In theory CARA is responsible for the first six months, after people arrive in Italy, and SPRAR takes care of the rest. In practice the fields of responsibilities blur, because there are more asylum seekers in Italy, than accommodations available for them all. The number of accomodations was Elderlies, physically or mentally sick persons have priorities, so the young and healthy asylum seekers end up on the street selling umbrellas, bags or sun glasses. So if you ever wandered, who those people are… now you know..
So, the potential candidates are told about the projects, and about the circumstances. From the application papers one can read that two indications are overwhelmingly put to reason why they are interested in a project like Green light: (1) they are somehow already interested in arts, (2) they want to get to know people. And if you ask yourself if any of them know what the Biennale is, who Francesca van Habsburg or Olafur Eliasson is, the correct, generalizing answer here is: no.
So what happens is that we have a group, that almost every time represents the group of asylum seekers that is predominate in a country: In Vienna the group of Green light was totally different than in Venice: there was one group with unaccompanied Refugee Minors, almost everybody had Afghan background, this meant that they were either born in Afghanistan or in Iran. The other group was a group with Arabic-speaking from Syria, Iraq, Somalia. The Arabic-speaking group was quite older, and many of them had already family and children. Most of the recent migrants to Austria actually came from the European Balkan route from Afghanistan,
In Venice most of the applicants for asylum come from West Africa. They live in the industrial terma ferma of Venice, in Mestre, Marghere and Tessera. Here more than ¾ of them come from Nigeria, Gambia, Senegal, and Ghana together. (In Vienna there was only one participant from Nigeria.) This does not mean, that there were no other countries present in the first group of the Biennale: two young chinese women, 3 young afghans, one female pair of siblings from Iraq and one male pair of siblings from Syria were also a part of the first group.
Women are always rare. This has a lot to do with the fact that for women travelling over the sea is considered to be man-terrain. It is considered to be to dangerous, so the male partners of a family travel first in order to bring the women to Europe afterwards, in a more safe way.
Now, that the ethnical mixture of the group is introduced, the next step must be to forget this again. Media loves to play with percentages and numbers, so does the field of social sciences. But one thing that Green light has shown, is that these numbers barely say nothing about a group, who want to wok or experience something together.
What I have experienced is, that the only reason, why it could be important, where somebody comes from, is due to labeling, which influences the sense of self, thus the feeling of self-esteem, and in addition to that what somebody things that he or she can achieve. Like a chain of consequences, which becomes visible in the workshop. But this is only then valid, if the candidate identifies himself with that kind of labeling in any way.
In addition we had less Muslims in the first Green light group than one might suggest. Most of the Nigerians, for example, come from the Christian parts, where they are persecuted by civil racket groups who support Boko Haram, for example.
I remember, as an example, on of the Afghan boys in Vienna, let’s call him Karim, he was talking to me, depressed and lonely as he was, he said something like: “when I go out, on the streets they perceive me as an Afghan, and I know they do that, because they avoid me. I know what they think about Afghans.” He felt like there must be a legitimation that the Austrian society has resentments and prejudices against Afghan. First they lead the discourse, they can set the rules of manner, so if Afghans are perceived as bad, than because they must have done something to be bad. So then this must apply to him. What Karim was talking about, can be perceived maybe as self-pity, but this interpretation would conceal the structural circumstances, which confirm on a day-t-day-basis what he thinks about himself. Karim is an Afghan. His country is in war since decades, and Afghan people are also killing other Afghan people. So you either die in Afghanistan, or you go to the neighbouring countries, where you are treated like mud. Pakistan does not anyone in anymore, and Iran send them into the Syrian. Syrias state of civil war is accepted in Europe. Iraq is conceived as a stable state, and Afghanistans has allegedly regions that are considered to be safe. In practice this means, that Afghanistans has least chances to stay in Austria or in Germany. How shall Karim feel, if he is once reduced to a migrant and asylum seekers, and in addition to one, whose life is not as much worth, as a Syrian or Iraqi one. He can easily be sent back to that hell it just takes a second, in which a glimpse takes place.
And Karim knows that. So, in case, Karim understands himself as an Afghan, I understand what he is talking about. The next step must be to deconstruct this in head again. Karim can only have the slightliest chance in his life, if he starts a progress to forget about himself that he is only an Afghan. One must remember im, that first of all he is what his parents gave him for a name. He is a complex personality, who did and learned many things, before the moment he understood what it means to be Afghan in this world. If it works finally depends on how strong you can get through him, and what he is going to do with that knowledge.
But there is also the other part of the medaille: As soon as he does that, he is endangered to label others the very same way. Of course some could have a bad experience with people from certain ethnicities and have prejudices thus, but this happens more seldom than one might think. In fact, we had only one participant, who explicitly said that he would not like another religious group.
An social worker knows this situation, and anybody who deals with asylum seekers will share the same disillusioned moment with each other hearing something like this from one of the persons who try to flee prejudices themselves. It is not easy to understand which reaction is adequate in this very moment, because there can not be a general “righteous” way. In order to deal with such resentments, one has to understand the concurrently true factors constituting political education. It is not enough only to understand, why someone thinks this way. At the same time one has to take the maxime that peple are the same as granted. If one just begins to defend the equality of every human being it just leads to an ideological conflict between “humanists”/ or “do-gooders” and “xenophobia”. It is an ideological fight you put yourself in, if you take the statements much too serious. Taking it serious leads to weighing the other opinion as much as the own one, and then the fight is lost, because in times where every opinion is a legitimate opinion, there is no preferences in how co-existent must look like in order to get the best out of it. So you take the achievements of humanism for granted, and then you can percede understanding why the other thinks that all Christians, Muslims, or Buddhist must be bad people.
If you don’t take it serious, the irrationality behind generalized hatred will expose itself. By arguing in rational terms , you help only support the hatred or the mistrust being rationalized.
Experience has shown that the generation gap is a larger issue for achieving something together, than the cultural background. The cultural background and upbringing seems to blur through interaction and relativizes itself through direct interaction again. But age can not be overcome.
by Anahita Tabrizi