Europe Now Festival in Amsterdam – My keynote speak

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Mapping intercultural networks

Postmigration, theatre and artists of Color

Introduction

Thank you Chris and thank you Rast Theatre and Podium Mozaik for inviting me to this very interesting Festival. As Chris already mentioned/ In fact, I organised a conference with the Goethe-Institut London two months ago on “Postmigrant Perspectives on European Theatre” in London where Chris and Saban and other people from the Europe Now Project participated. Before I give an overview on the intercultural network, let me begin with my own research.

I am an independent researcher working at the moment for a project which explores the role of independent theatre in contemporary European theatre. My subject is the influence of migration on European Independent Theatre. In my research I analyse structural and aesthetic impacts of migration on the national theatre scenes of Sweden, the UK, Netherlands, France, Switzerland, Austria and Germany. Beside the regional scenes I focus on European Theatre – OR whatever European Theatre could mean. The choice of countries for my research I made for several reasons. I wanted to include the different social and political circumstances of the particular European countries which influences artists with migration background and their art. And I wanted to include artists from different time periods which are given when you compare the development of black artists in the UK and for example the very young theatre makers in Austria.

Although I would say that there are very special national-based developments for the artists and the theatre, there are huge similarities between the European countries when we have to deal with what could be the “postmigration condition”. I will come back to the concept of postmigration and postmigration perspective.

So for the mapping of the – what is called here – intercultural network I will start with an overview on the different political conditions of the European Country. I will then take the example of Germany to describe the political and social circumstances under which the cultural production of artists with a mixed background arose. And since I am a scholar and you have the opportunity to see very good productions from all around Europe I will give a more theoretical view.

Politics in Europe

The intercultural performing arts in Europe vary in their consistency of presence, duration and shape. The European countries have defined the change of their countries in different ways: they call it multiculturalism and separate ethnic communities and cultures, they divide between the majority culture and the national culture of origin of the immigrants or it is called cultural pluralism based on strands of different cultural codes that intertwine and create something new. These different definitions derive from different national self-understandings of power, place in the world, culture and of the position of others, which framed thinking and policy-making in the era of nation state building and colonialism. In the post-war era of decolonisation and post-colonial migration, the legacy of these conceptions has shaped the way the countries came to terms with the realities of the diverse societies.

One of the main distinction in immigration lies between the colonial history of the European countries. For instance Great Britain gave citizenship or the rights of settlement to immigrants from the former colonies and Germany recruited labour as a temporary stop-gap measure. Despite the fact that Germany has a colonial history but refused to deal with that for a very long time. Anyway, this kind of policy-making – either if it is a corporate multiculturalism or a civic republicanism, an ethnic nationalism or the Gastarbeiter system – has shaped the European societies. Nowadays the effects of all these political systems are the same: inequality of representation and self-representation and the inequality of access and possibilities to institutions for ethnic minorities and immigrants. During the last two years I realised that I no longer work on migration but rather on racism. The body of the artists and actors are racialized and stereotyped by many ascriptions. Talking about intercultural or postmigrant theatre we also need to talk about racism. One of the main reasons of new storytelling is to overcome the stereotype images of immigrants or people of Color in the mainstream society. To do theatre under the postmigrant condition means to bring political theatre.

So when I was asked to give an overview on the urgency, necessity and quality of intercultural networks in European Theatre, I immediately thought of the urgency of an historical and political overview to make to understand why there is a need to create a network. We have to think the artistic work in the context of institutionalized and structural racism to see the urgency of it.

So I decided to give a brief overview on the German history of theatre work of artists with a so-called migration background because I can show how the appropriation of the discourse of migration was implemented. I think the German context can offer a good example and I am pretty sure there are a lot of similarities to the other European countries.

Migration and the appropriation of the discourse

Since the beginning of immigration to Germany there were artistic movement by the immigrants. Even though it wasn’t recognized at that time, there are documentation which show that the so-called guestworkers tried to participate but been detained by the political circumstances. The immigrants organize themselves in communities, they came together for literature circles and theatre groups. But the German government declared cultural participation of Foreigners as part of the duties of their home countries and therefore the German government didn’t gave them any governmental-funded support for their artistic work. Many of the artists had to team up with non-governmental organisation like christian and social organisations. And due to the shortcoming of funding, the possibility of experience and therefore professionalising as an artists and most of the time a lack of German language they remained in the off-scenes of the cultural sector.

So until the beginning of the 21 Century the German government was focusing on getting more rid of the immigrants than to make efforts for their involvement into the German society. But after almost fifty years of migration and with one fourth of the population with other ethnic background the government finally declared Germany as a Country of Immigration. The new citizenship act in 2005 brought a change of paradigm into the politics by recognizing the change of the demographic and the growing of the ethnic diversity in Germany.

This social shift was accompanied by a new movement and visibility of artists with a mixed cultural background. The former artistic director of Ballhaus Naunynstraße Berlin Shermin Langhoff and her artistic staff created a theatrical space where they would appropriate the discourse on migration and immigrants by creating counter images. They started first with the term “beyond belonging” – a term which should overcome the ideas of national based identities and put the criterions for art above ethnicity – for a Festival which presented mostly artists with migration background in 2005. But they quickly realized that I order to overcome the stereotypes they have to stick to the common conception. In Germany every person whose ancestors immigrated at one point of the history to Germany is called person with “Migrationshintergrund” (migration background) even if the persons lives in the third or fourth Generations in Germany or sometimes because their skin color does not fit into the concept of German.

So the term “post-migrant theatre” was invented by the artists of Ballhaus Naunynstraße Berlin to address the heterogeneity of society and the diversity of experience of its individuals. They wanted to overcome the ideas on migration and integration by showing that migration no longer mean the act of migration of a minority with another ethnic background but refer to the social, political and cultural phenomenon which affects the whole society.

And to put it in a nutshell they really influenced the way the discourse on migration is defined. And what is also important is that it influenced the German theatre scene which is slowly changing. While in the last decades the German theatre was mainly dominated by white artists, since the success of Ballhaus Naunynstraße there are huge debates on racism in theatre. It is both on the lack of artists of color as well as on the use of racist theatrical devices like Blackface. And for the first time in history a women with migration background – Shermin Langhoff – will become the artistic director of a state theatre. Shermin will open the new season of the Gorki theatre in Berlin with an ensemble of artists with mixed cultural background.

New stories from a postmigrant perspective

Well, the ideas of post-migrant theatre are slowly finding their ways into the mainstream German city and state theatres. On a European level the group of European artists also came at almost the same time together to collaborate in the project “Europe now”. I won’t go into details because Rani will do that after my lecture. But what I find very interesting and important in this project is the broad network which it created and is still creating. I think while working together, this network gives playwrights, directors and producers opportunities for exchanging their experiences and developing new stories and aesthetics.

While the themes of the artists are defined mostly by the experience in the new spaces, their expression takes multiple perspectives: Seeing ‘the entire world as a foreign land’ allows for the originality of vision. Here I would like to quote Edward Said: ‘Most people are principally aware of one culture, one setting, one home; exiles are aware of at least two, and this plurality of vision gives an awareness of simultaneous dimensions, an awareness that – to borrow a phrase from music – is contrapuntal.’

Theatre is used as a space of elaborating empowering strategies of emancipation: new stories and different perspectives on the representation of reality are shown on stage.

And the artists are creating a new conception of performing arts from a multi-perspective outlook. They write about European biographies and inscribe them by translating stories of global migration. They create new perspectives on Europe that exceed the intra-European context and the Western canon. Artists of Color negotiate on stages about European societies by creating lived and dreamt utopias. These are the small shifts that add another angle of history into European theatre.

Conclusion

To come to my conclusions and describe my observation on the intercultural network across the European borders, I would like to call the circumstances under which the art is created the postmigrant condition. By postmigrant condition I want to again emphasis the point of view from which the social and political issues are explored. In the last two years I met a lot of young artists – artists of color, artists with a mixed cultural background – who are doing fantastic work – who are constantly producing and presenting and who are fighting their way into the theatre scenes and the cultural institutions. As I already mentioned I travelled into a few European countries and especially in the last few years there is a kind of empowerment by the artists. Like the uprising of the youth all around Europe there is a uprising of artists of color or artists with migration background. They no longer accept the fact that are not represented or misrepresented in the national and state theatres. They are coming together to create new platforms to develop their artistic work and to exchange their experience. Projects like the Europe NOW are important to give these artists an European platform.

So where do I see the urgency and necessity and quality of intercultural network?

I see the urgency by the social and political impacts. The society is changing and so should the theatre. It should reflect the diverse experience and lifestyles of the people it is surrounded by. I think the point why I insist on institutionalisation is because the cultural institutions are the places where the “national” culture is presented. There are these places where some kind of historical and preserved culture is shown which has nothing to do with our present society and culture. So the necessity of an intercultural network is to establish new structures but also to get into the cultural institutions. To change the view on society and represent the diversity as part of the European culture.

And finally what is the quality and the new aesthetics of the artists? The art from a postmigrant perspective opens new spaces for exploring the questions of our time. By not simply dividing between good and bad, between muslim or christian or black and white but by looking deeper in-between of the layers of our society. It is the political dimension of the arts which make theatre from a postmigrant perspective relevant.

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