By Amelie Harbisch
While there is an extensive literature analyzing the depiction of refugees (in the media and in government-issued documents), the refugees’ own agency in their self-representations remains a blind spot. The following analysis of an artistic street performance by a Berlin refugee theater group shows how the refugee actors performatively react to mainstream discourses about them.
Performing (Against) the Wall
The topic of the street theater performance is “the wall”. The performance does not have a title, it was performed only this one time. It is inspired by a scene in an entire theater play that was shown a total of six times, three times already half a year before this street performance and another three times a month after it. The four performers are dressed in overalls painted with bricks, as if they were a wall themselves. The bodily expression of the performers underlines this concept of “person as a wall”, as they are moving pressed against the wall and pretending to be held back by a wall around their bodies. Through this combination of kinesic code and contact code (movement and relation to the surroundings, Jaworski/Thurlow 2011), they seem to be trapped in a wall and at the same time forming it. The different parts impersonated are, firstly, a businessman, who wears a tie, holds a bundle of fake money and talks into a phone, repeating stock market lingo like “sell now!”; secondly, a border police officer wearing a police helmet; thirdly, a soldier wearing a helmet and holding a fake machine gun; and, fourthly, a public office servant, who holds a stamp and mimics a stamping movement while repeating such phrases as “Declined!” and “We only need skilled workers”. These roles refer to the dominant depictions of refugees in the media: refugees are criminals that have to be controlled by the police, and they are only acceptable as useful labor force.
The theatric performance refers to the discourse surrounding bordering, walls and refugees. The connection between “wall” and “refugee” has become famous in the context of Donald Trump’s plans for a border wall between the US and Mexico, but also in the visual media discourse on the erection of border fences and walls in various countries on the Balkan route during the European “refugee crisis”. Further associations are sparked by the famous photos of (attempted) fence-crossings by refugees in Melilla.
“Nobody Gives Us a Voice, We Take It”
The group I have researched is part of a theater in Berlin that is built on the idea of a community theater (anonymized to protect my sources). The proclaimed aim is to have no hierarchy. Based on direct democratic and bottom-up processes, employees and youth players decide together. The mission statement is to address social and political issues from the perspective of marginalized youths. The group consists of refugees and non-refugees working together under the motto, “Nobody gives us a voice, we take it!”, as stated on the group’s website. The concept is that of a self-organized collective with the purpose of self-expression and resistance to sexism and racism, among other things. In this context, the “ideal refugee” is a person that is proactive, political and uses art to express his/her political resistance. This ideal in itself is regularly re-negotiated and challenged by participants in weekly group meetings. Important points of discussion are the inability to fulfil this ideal because of limited German language skills and the need to avoid confrontations with the police.
Setting the Scene: Walls Past and Present
The broader historical context of the theater performance derives from two overlapping stories. First, the historical depiction of refugees in relation to walls: refugees have regularly been shown either behind walls and fences, or in the process of crossing them. This portrayal creates a greater distance between the viewer and the depicted people, highlights the perceived “irregular” character of the forced migrant, and creates an undertone of suspicion towards people who cross well-established (b)orders.
Second, Topography of Terror in Berlin and Checkpoint Charlie are the performance sites, and they have a story to tell. The group chose the Located at the longest extant segment of the outer Berlin Wall, The Topography of Terror is an indoor and outdoor history museum located on the former site of Nazi regime office buildings. Checkpoint Charlie is the best-known former crossing point between East and West Berlin and a tourist attraction today. Both sites tell stories of walls and dictatorships that have already been overcome. As tourist sites, they serve both as a place of political education and a source of revenue through folklorist displays of the past: at Checkpoint Charlie, tourists pay to be photographed with people dressed up as former border soldiers.
Conclusion: Challenging the Borders of the Political
We see here an instance of a conscious form of agency under the preconditions (scope conditions) described by Hopf (2018): A group of “liminars” are not socialized into seeing the touristic sites as places to talk about the walls that have been overcome. In that sense, they enter the field of tourism “from the outside”. The performance uses resources and implicit rules of street theater along with resources from the “refugee experience”. They display the duality of the wall: It is an object with the agency of keeping people out, defining inside and outside and establishing distance. In the performance it is also deconstructed as something created by the people on the inside.
The performers create a new understanding of “what a refugee is” by making themselves visible as explicitly political subjects. ln this manner, they counter the understanding that political participation is the exclusive prerogative of citizens. This perception is fostered in particular by the humanitarian discourse, which defines “refugees as being incapable of autonomous decision” (Schiocchet 2019), constructs bureaucratic and humanitarian agents as the only conceivable political actors (Malkki 1996), and defines refugees as “bare life” stripped of political agency (Agamben 1998).
The theater performers “reconfigure the materiality of public space, and produce, or reproduce the public [and political] character of the material environment” (Butler 2011). The aim is not to change a depoliticized place created by the historicization and marketization of the history of walls into a political place. Instead, they show that the attempt to depoliticize the question of walls is political in itself. As these results were not the explicit conscious goal of the group, there is unconscious agency attached to it (see Hopf 2018 for the fact that one cannot know all the consequences of one’s subversive acts).
What is more, the performance ironically juxtaposes the nexus of tourism, political education, and the narrative of walls long since overcome on the one hand with the experience of the majority of people that walls are very much alive on the other.
Such street performances show how refugees gain agency in resignifying the great medias’ image of “the refugee” by challenging and ironically recoining characteristics assigned to it. Because state borders and the concept of citizenship remain barriers to the official institutions of political participation, the performance also points out that “politics” are not only enacted in state-centered (international) organizations and institutions, but in the streets as well.
Agamben, Giorgio (1998): Homo sacer. Sovereign power and bare life. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press (Meridian : crossing aesthetics).
Butler, Judith (2011): Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street. Available online: http://eipcp.net/transversal/1011/butler/en.
Hopf, Ted (2018): Change in international practices. In European Journal of International Relations 24 (3), pp. 687-711.
Jaworski, Adam; Thurlow, Crispin (2011). Gesture and Movement in Tourist Spaces. In Jewitt, Carey (Ed.), The Routledge handbook of multimodal analysis (pp. 253-262). London: Routledge.
Malkki, Liisa H. (1996): Speechless Emissaries. Refugees, Humanitarianism, and
Dehistoricization. In Cultural Anthropology 11 (3), pp. 377–404.
Schiocchet, Leonardo (2019): Palestinian Refugees in Brazil between Nations and Humanitarian Tutelage [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.ror-n.org/-blog/palestian-refugees-in-brazil-between-nations-and-humanitarian-tutelage1.