If you stepped into the spaces of TBA21–Augarten in Vienna from March to June of 2016, you would have been welcomed by the sound of sanding paper on wooden surfaces, wood sticks rattling, and machines printing, surrounded by a mist of chatter and laughter and music buzzing from mobile phones or the radio. You would have been invited to join the ongoing production process of the Green light lamp by people sitting or standing around six large worktables or, depending on the day and time, taking part in one of various activities, such as the weekly theater gatherings and seminars or daily screenings of films by Neil Beloufa, Basma Alsharif, or Marine Hugonnier. Maybe you would simply have come in for a coffee or tea and chat in one of the communal areas. If you were particularly lucky, your visit might have coincided with one of the evening dances, carried by Arabic or Persian tunes and formidable hip swings, or with lunchtime, when food from Syria, Austria, Eritrea, Germany, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Nigeria was prepared and served daily by changing self-organized groups at Augarten’s Kiosk. You could have seen one half of the group attending daily German classes, sometimes held outside in the shadow of big trees in the park, or become a participant in one of the workshops initiated, for instance, by the Lebanese sound artist Tarek Atoui, the artist Ahmet Ögüt and his experiential learning platform The Silent University, or RAQS Media Collective’s Shuddhabrata Sengupta and his experiments in “world making” through storytelling and video production.
Green light - An artistic workshop and Green light - Shared learning were developed as open fields of collective production in the making, led by a group of thirty-four participants who had arrived in Austria over the previous twelve months from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia, Tajikistan, and Nigeria and open to anyone who wished to join. Surrounding the continuous Green light workshop as a nexus of modules and activities, Green light - Shared learning was conceived as an alternative educational model catering to plurality, and it posed an array of questions and propositions: What if cultural and public institutions opened themselves to interpersonal and intercultural shared learning methods? Can novel perspectives and alternatives to prevailing socio-pedagogical and integrative measures be identified that cater to a multitude of cultural, social, personal, and linguistic histories rather than squeezing them into a phantom Leitkultur?
The artistic and discursive expressions relating to the shifting statuses arising from Green light and Green light - Shared learning are embedded in European societies’ migration politics and its shortages: thematizing migration through a “deficit approach” and discourse of problematics. The other possible approach—which supports equal opportunities; participation in terms of social, economic, political, and cultural rights; and essentially reciprocal process—is, however, hardly noticeable in this discussion. The project answered to a double-bind systematic default: a lack of future possibilities for those who slip through the loopholes of the governing legal system and the construction of internal borders that enforce social, economic, cultural, spatial, and personal marginalization.
Endorsing the art institution as a place for critical pedagogy by, for instance, providing the democratic conditions of education, Shared learning asks how one could, in a collective effort, create spaces and methods that recognize nonhierarchical value systems of equal expression, argument, and knowledge. Shifting expertise from social workers and state institutions to artists and cultural stakeholders, this educational experiment’s aim to establish a dynamic of sharing knowledge, which besides, or instead of, disseminating the hegemonic value system allows for a more flexible practice that also considers current issues and the needs of the participants. How do we allow for relations and understandings to unlearn conditionings of privileged social systems that prejudice behavior toward and expectations of the “other”?
The Plural of We
The modules and events of this three-month experimental curriculum were manifold. And so were the methodologies of challenging understandings of “we.” Who is included, who stands outside of particular constructions of groups or communities? How can an ephemeral interaction constitute a larger disruption in internalized social and cultural habits?
Green light reimagined the rules of acting together reciprocally and through cohabitation: in the daily Green light workshop or in German classes and cooking sessions or in weekly initiatives. The latter included Displaced, in which students and teachers from the Faculty of Architecture at the Technical University worked with physical and process-oriented productions; History(ies) of Migration, in which members of the Department of Social Design of the University of Applied Arts organized reading and debate groups over tea and homemade sweets; and the Austrian artist Johannes Porsch’s invitation to a “theater without theater,” in which the participants acted without the guidance of a story but collectively worked with the given situation and circumstances.
The participating artists tried to conceive of alternative educational models and approaches to knowledge production through interpersonal activities, striving to take another subject’s perspective and position through enacting, narrating, and recording. They reflected on education without an emphasis on the production of expertise. Learning from one another means believing in the arrivals as individuals and actants who can significantly shape societies and selves. It manifests itself in room for the personal element, those “unpredictable” elements that may be forces of destabilization and re-creation of systems, as Olafur Eliasson reflects in his conversation with Andreas Roepstorff.
Ahmet Ögüt, to cite an example, was invited to present and activate the methodology of the Silent University, a “solidarity-based knowledge exchange platform” with curricula developed by refugees and migrants for refugees and migrants, as a means to reactivate knowledge, professions, and studies that can no longer be practiced due to the members’ status. Answering to the fact that most asylum seekers are forced into inactivity and boredom and cut off from their accustomed social lives, Ögüt had planned to research and discuss alternative educational systems in Austria with the Green light participants. A synergy of coincidental visitors, Ögüt, and the participants resulted in a still ongoing weekly gathering known as the Talent Space, in which students at the local communications college and former Green light participants at Augarten share and foster talents, knowledge, and resources. Alarabi Rabhi was a carpenter back in West Sahara, and Ali Azouky worked as a book illustrator and cartoonist in Syria. More than a year after having arrived in Vienna, neither has had the chance to practice his profession, as they are held in a gray zone of legal status and social borders. The gatherings at Augarten provide one of those rare spaces in which the status of “refugee,” “asylum seeker,” “migrant,” or “Austrian” are not of primary importance, and novel kinds of “we” can be woven beyond origins, nationalities, or religion and continue to flourish.
These novel configurations of “we” underlay subtle daily processes of translation. They are ways of finding understanding that exceed linguistics and challenge dominant idioms in a play of similarity and difference, as suggested by the Polish sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman:
Translating is not an idle occupation for a limited circle of specialists, it is the texture of everyday life, the work that we perform each day and each hour of the day. . . . The possibility of universalism lies precisely in this common capacity to reach an effective communication without possessing in advance common meanings and interpretations. Universality is not antagonistic with differences; it does not require a "cultural homogeneity," or a "cultural purity," much less the kind of practices that are evoked by this ideological notion. . . . Universality is only the capacity of communication and mutual understanding, which is common to all groups, in the sense of "knowing how to proceed" reciprocally, but also knowing how to proceed when confronted with others who have the right to proceed in a different manner.
Two further examples from Shared learning may illuminate such simultaneity of mutual understanding and the untranslatability of irreducible difference. For his workshop, the artist, composer, and musician Tarek Atoui, who has been fostering collective approaches to composition and improvisation, arrived with his self-made instruments and a couple of ideas about what could be done in a short period of time with a group that he did not know and could hardly anticipate. In a project catering to the diversity of the group, Green lighters and interested participants recorded their environments with microphones—the park, the city, activities within the institution, instruments, speech and chants, the making of Green light as well as interviews and conversations—in teams. On the second day the sounds were composed into a collective acoustic experience: a sound piece of manifold listening abilities and acoustic encounters, with a narrative loosely divided into three parts: “journey,” “arrival,” and “Green light.” Toward the end of the piece, a conversation between inscribed visitor Veit and Green light participant Murtaza Azimi emerges. Veit asks Murtaza what the Green light means to him. Murtaza answers that when he saw the Green light for the first time it triggered memories of diamonds. He continues to tell the story of his journey from Afghanistan to Austria with a stop in Iran for several months, where he worked under rough conditions in a diamond mine to keep himself and his younger sister afloat. Now the Green light represents a sense of the future for him.
In his workshop titled “Memory and Mobility: On What It Means to Get Up and Go,” Shuddhabrata Sengupta equally facilitated engagement with the transformation of memories, connotations, and concepts. Stories, testimonies, and poems on concepts of “future” or “light” were captured in self-made videos. The intimate narratives by Anas Aljajeh, Qasim Tahmasebi, and Tawab Baran stemming from this encounter can be read in this volume and were shared in front of a large crowd of visitors at 15 Acts of Participation at TBA21–Augarten (an open event featuring various presentations by Green light participants and invited guests that contextualized the project). Tawab’s poem voices the despair that is the heritage of Afghans: “I fled but now you say I should return,” a line reads. The seventeen-year-old tries to make understood what it feels like to have been forced to leave one’s home under hardship and not be welcomed in the new place. Sixteen-year-old Qasim reveals that the only memories he has of his childhood are those of fire, blood, and war. After months and years of traveling to Austria, he now has room to imagine a future that is not war but that is, however, very uncertain.
Strangers as Enemies as Neighbors as Co-Citizens
Since the inception of Green light, when “Refugees are welcome” seemed the sentiment of the majority in European receiving countries and large crowds showed overwhelming solidarity with the arrivals—welcoming them with clapping hands and encouraging words and spending hours at train and bus stations to offer clothing, water and food, translation services, and housing—the public mood has shifted. Today the borders are closed again, and the camps have been moved back to the edges of Europe. Today the welcoming culture is largely regarded as irresponsible, integration as failed, differences as insurmountable.
What the French philosopher Étienne Balibar describes as “rapid transformations of the status of borders” seems to be amplified and epitomized by the right-wing ideologies in Europe and elsewhere. Borders are not understood merely as architectural fences or walls but are of a legal nature, manifested as police actions or taking more sophisticated forms in social and cultural everyday life. Balibar writes: “I see citizenship not as a fixed notion, as a permanently open problem, which has already been subjected historically to mutations, collapses, and redefinition. In recent discussions concerning the new functions of borders and their relationship to Europe's becoming, not exactly a ‘sovereign’ entity, but rather what we might call a ‘space of exception,’ it has been a question not only of the fact that ‘borders’ tend to become really dislocated, if not ubiquitous, but also of another characteristic which has to do with the inversion of the relationship between the ‘border’ and the ‘stranger/foreigner.’”
Imagining the stranger or foreigner as produced and reproduced by multiple, dislocated borders that are not stable, Balibar here evokes an understanding similar to Sandra Noeth’s account in this publication, in which she refers to boundaries as moveable, volatile, changed or in relation between selves and others: “Borders are spaces in their own right—they are always in a state of becoming, always unfinished. Permeable and porous, visceral and felt, the border is situated in—it is part of—my body. (…) The movement of the border is restless, disquieting. Oftentimes it is creeping, gradual, accumulating, delayed, anonymous. Often it is perceived much later, like an echo in the rhythm of life. Like a continuous state of displacement, unfolding slowly.”
The moments and events of subtle transformations, shifts of perspective and status between self and other triggered and nourished within Green light and particularly Green light - Shared learning counter restricted views on translation implied in mass education as well as integration measures. They describe vital and conflictual daily practices of communication and understanding, of taking someone else’s point of view, that create disturbances in a well-versed system. They confirm that individuals are not being reduced to their place of origin or immigration status but are regarded as co-producers, and maybe co-citizens, in an act of constantly rebuilding processes of kinship and configurations of “we.” These are processes of unlearning—comprising the realization that internalized, institutionalized, and socialized othering and bordering can be reversed if we recognize our own situations and contributions to subtle structures of domination and are thus able to take another subject’s viewpoint. This is where Green light and Green light - Shared learning are anchored, finding their most meaningful contributions to rethinking integration as a reciprocal participatory process.