This blog was originally published on the CUCR blog ‘Streetsigns‘
‘A friend came to see me in a dream. From far away. And I asked him in the dream: “Did you come by photograph or train?”‘ John Berger, The Seventh Man
‘We are all plotted on a continuum stretched between the poles of the “perfect tourist” and the “vagabond beyond remedy” – and our respective places between the poles are plotted according to the degree of freedom we possess in choosing our life itineraries.’ Zygmunt Bauman, Tourists and Vagabonds
In Berlin, discarded Christmas trees amass on the sides of pavements, on grit-flecked snow. In Berlin Hauptbahnhof, wreaths with golden baubles emblazoned with the Brandenburg Gate still hang from the roof. There are fairy lights, but they are not switched on. It’s a Sunday evening in January and while not crowded, trains move under my feet and above my head, East to West, North to South on ground that was once close to a national border. In the middle of the station sits ‘No Stranger Place’ an exhibition of portraits and stories of refugees and the people across Europe who have taken them into their homes, by Aubrey Wade. Presenting the exhibition in this place of movement creates a temporary disruption in the atmosphere and rhythm of the railway station. People dragging suitcases stop to look, with concentration and stillness.
Looking at these pictures – of domestic interiors, odd couples and emerging forms of family– against the accompanying noise of constant churn, train brakes and escalators, I find myself thinking about John Berger and Zygmunt Bauman. Two great recently departed thinkers who wrote extensively about the movement of people. Berger and Bauman cut very different figures – Bauman ‘If Quentin Blake drew sociologists’ and Berger, as Rema Hammimi wonderfully describes, ‘A wizard, prince, jester, charmer, sister, rake, poet, clairvoyant all in the figure of a 70-something wrestler held together by colossal kindness’– but they were both socialist sons of the Twentieth Century who lived through its darkest hours yet continued to write and speak with hope about the future until their deaths.
For Bauman, who had been twice a refugee, the tourist and the vagabond were the two definitive types of the contemporary age. The tourist who goes and consumes wherever s/he wants and the vagabond who is pushed from pillar to post. Both figures are cosmopolitans whose lives are characterised by movement, the difference is the ‘degree of freedom we possess in choosing our life itineraries’. The theme of international movement with various kinds of pushes and pulls also runs deep through John Berger’s eclectic back catalogue, from the novel To The Wedding – where two parents traverse Europe to get to their terminally ill daughter’s wedding – to The Seventh Man, a collage of Berger’s words and Jean Mohr’s photographs covering the journeys and subsequent everyday lives of migrants moving from the south of Europe to the north in the 1970s.
In the tributes made to Berger after his death, a recurring word was ‘hospitality’, even ‘radical hospitality’. In an interview shortly before his death, Zygmunt Bauman spoke of the need to develop a ‘cosmopolitan consciousness’[i] (‘we are all tied together but the trouble is we didn’t even start yet to develop a cosmopolitan consciousness which means thinking not only in terms of our direct vicinity or environment but also understand the global connections which determine the conditions under which we live’).
I head about John Berger’s death while sat on a train. With the suburban railway lands of South East London scrolling by, I thought of the piece ‘Vanishing Points’ that I saw him perform in the German Gymnasium in King’s Cross, in 2005. The piece was a collaboration with the Canadian novelist and poet Anne Michaels and was a meditation on railways, separation and immigration (‘Thousands embraced for the last time on this earth. For so many, Union Station is the place where fathers, brothers, sons, husbands were last alive.’). While the text was published later as ‘Railtracks’ the event itself was a mixture of projections, soundscapes and performance that is impossible to fully capture on the page. ‘Vanishing Points’ reflected on railway stations as places of romance and possibility, convergence and separation, enforcement and exile in the Twentieth century but these associations rumble on into the present.
In the same year that European railway stations became once again emblematic of the brutality of borders, Nirmal Puwar and Mariam Motemedi-Fraser curated ‘Migrating Dreams and Nightmares’ at Goldsmiths. The exhibition revisited The Seventh Man and displayed artists’ responses to – and original pieces from – the book. It was impossible to spend time with those photographs and words documenting mass movement, and some of the humiliating treatment that ensued, without reading them through contemporary images of the humanitarian crisis.
For Berger, the train and the photograph were both modes of transportation. Through ‘No Stranger Place’ we are transported into a range of interiors, the student kitchen, the art-studded dining room, the high-rise studio. To Berlin’s outskirts, to Vienna and to rural Austria.
One of the pairings of locals/refugees initially encountered each other on a train outside of Berlin. Inas asked Wilhelm and Brian if he was on the right train or not, and with the help of Google translate they struck up a conversation and exchanged numbers. After continuing communication via Whatsapp, Inas eventually moved in with them. Looking back, Wilhelm describes how they had wanted to do something to help during the refugee crisis but didn’t ‘get a move on’ then ‘suddenly this opportunity was presented to us on a plate, the chance to help someone.’ Inas recalls how difficult it was to come to a new country, ‘To be completely helpless, that’s the hardest thing.’
The pairings represented in the portraits did not take place on equal footing and it is good that some of the moments of awkwardness and misunderstandings were preserved in the stories (‘Ahmed was very insecure and shy but we thought he was stubborn… he later told me he was completely lost’). However, overwhelmingly, a sense of openness and dialogue on both sides comes through these stories of emerging cosmopolitan households. For example, Chaim from a host family, argues ‘Integration is not one-sided work … we should ask this of ourselves too.’
The wider climate of uncertainty and fear that Bauman outlines (animated wonderfully here) finds its way into the stories presented in ‘No Stranger Place’ through some of the reactions of neighbours. Most notably, Uta who took Hamid into her high-rise studio flat on the outskirts of Berlin found her neighbours to be hostile, one telling her ‘we don’t want foreigners here’. Her response, ‘He’s my son, you just have to get used to it.’
These personal stories sit in sharp relief to the inward looking, mean little England being peddled by political leaders at home in the UK. Last year, it was reported that the UK aim to accept 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020 – an embarrassingly paltry number of people compared to the 484, 000 accepted by Germany in 2015, or the 2.8 million in Turkey – would not be met. For an end to the refugee crisis, radical hospitality and cosmopolitan imagination need to be taken up on an international and national level.
‘No Stranger Place’ is displayed on the ground floor of Berlin Hauptbahnhof until January 21st 2017.
[i] ‘Cosmopolitanism’ as a word comes with a lot of baggage – for example Tariq Jazeel critiques the concept as being too wedded to the idea of ‘toleration’ where a privileged agent is doing the tolerating – but here I’m reading Bauman as more in line with Delanty’s call for ‘critical cosmopolitanism’ which occurs ‘when and wherever new relations between self, other and world develop in moments of openness.’ See the introduction of this book for a discussion of this by Hannah Jones, Alex Rhys-Taylor and me.