An Elephant in the Room / On the Balcony: Performing the ‘Welcome City’ Hamburg
In January 2015, I moved to Hamburg to start a new job at the HafenCity University Hamburg. I was 39 years old. After finishing my PhD, I was working as a freelance cultural producer, lecturer and writer; I also organized a weekly German language class in a reception centre for refugees in Berlin. Since this time, I became curious to find out the way in which my own approach to arriving in a new city corresponds to the situation and strategies of others who have recently arrived; equally, to those who have lived in Hamburg for a longer time but without a feeling of having arrived. My move to Hamburg was in no way comparable to the situation of somebody who left their hometown due to civil war or extreme poverty. I have no experience of war, abuse, torture or traumatizing events. I write this article as a white, gender-conforming woman from a fairly upper-middle-class background, with an international education and a work contract—albeit part-time and temporary. I am privileged ‘as hell’! The research I do is therefore bound to reflect those privileges.
In January 2015, I moved to Hamburg to start a new job at the HafenCity University Hamburg. I was 39 years old. After finishing my PhD, I was working as a freelance cultural producer, lecturer and writer; I also organized a weekly German language class in a reception centre for refugees in Berlin. Since this time, I became curious to discover the way in which my own approach to arriving in a new city corresponds to the situation and strategies of others who have recently arrived; equally, to those who have lived in Hamburg for a longer time but without a feeling of having arrived. My move to Hamburg was in no way comparable to the situation of somebody who left their hometown due to civil war or extreme poverty. I have no experience of war, abuse, torture or traumatizing events. I write this article as a white, gender-conforming woman from a fairly upper-middle-class background, with an international education and a work contract—albeit part-time and temporary. I am privileged ‘as hell’! The research I do is therefore bound to reflect those privileges.
Hamburg, like any other big city in Germany, is characterized by increasing super-diversity and polarization. This often leads to cultural and political conflicts, nevertheless brightened by excitement and expectations for a better life. The recent influx of refugees adds momentum, relevance and urgency to the question of how to live together and explore new modes of exchange and learning, of conviviality, hospitality and solidarity. In 2015 alone, more than 20,000 refugees arrived in Hamburg. These people come in addition to the many people from ‘elsewhere’, already living here for decades, often doing badly paid and largely invisible work: caring, cleaning, cooking, tailoring, waxing—a fact too often neglected in the discourse about the so-called refugee crisis.
After the initial enthusiasm and subsequent disenchantment with the German Willkommenskultur (‘welcome culture’), and in opposition to the predominant and restrictive integration paradigm with its essentialist notion of citizenship and naturalization (Einbürgerung), I wanted to find out what constitutes a contemporary practice of hospitality. How to create community, make kin and think-with other beings under circumstances where many people, not just refugees, inhabit multiple worlds and questions of identity and belonging are less defined by territory, family or birth? Can a city be welcoming? What does a ‘Welcome City’ look and feel like? Can you feel at home among strangers? What are the potentials and limits of hospitality as the central concept when thinking about how to live together in a super-diverse society which continues to consider migrants to be strange?
Inspired by a novel by Massimo Carlotto1—about his years in exile, in prison and under persecution—I thought to explore the mostly unspoken rules for living and settling in a new city; the rules that you are supposed to know or which you did not even know existed. Which skills and what kind of knowledge are necessary to act and be considered a citizen of Hamburg: to ‘show-up’ on the city stage of Hamburg? Further, I wanted to better understand how artists/researchers, working with performative methods, can prefigure or suggest new forms of citizenship that have yet to be invented. This means to also investigate my own performance (as citizen).
The actors of citizenship are not necessarily those who hold the status of citizenship. If we understand citizenship as an instituted subject-position, it can be performed or enacted by various categories of subjects including aliens, migrants , refugees, states, courts and so on. (Isin 2009, p. 370)
This shift—from the moving to the acting subject, from mobility to the ability of crossing geographical borders and normative frames—draws attention to the fact that prefabricated categories of citizen and non-citizen do not exist as neutral, pre-social, fixed identities, but only in relation to one another. Citizenship is in a permanent state of reconstruction and reinvention—by the state as well as by non-state actors who challenge, disavow, play with, supersede, if not entirely obliterate, supposedly clear-cut roles and responsibilities, social conventions, standard protocols and normal procedure. Citizenship, in the words of Etienne Balibar, is ‘ubiquitous’ (2012, p. 443) and therefore can be—might be—enacted potentially everywhere.
As for performing citizenship, I do not really know what it is, and I know it less and less. And yet, although I am not sure about how to actually translate a performative theory of citizenship into artistic practice, I would argue that performativity offers a conceptual gateway to escape the trap of ‘othering’, of getting lost in essentialist notions of culture, considering the complications of class, race and gender. Performativity essentially revolves around matters of citation and contestation, of role and representation. It is precisely this ambivalence and process of transformation that validates a performative investigation of Hamburg as ‘Welcome City’. The aim of my three-year research project was not to arrive at some comprehensive definition of a city that is welcoming, or to establish certain criteria, but rather investigate—through practice and process—when and how new forms of hospitality, of rights and responsibilities towards the other—a stranger, our neighbour —emerge, as embodied activity, lived experience, enactment and performance. My general idea was that the methods employed will facilitate the actual happening of the ‘Welcome City’ Hamburg and also investigate the circumstances and situations, its fragility and relationality, contingency and sensuousness. Some impatience is implied here with the limitations of a linguistic frame of reference towards a more practical—if not pragmatic and materialist—route in dealing with the complexities of citizenship as one of the most urgent matters of our time. In this way, the constraints are apparent: art as research is often a desk job. Despite this, it holds ample capacity to depart from one’s comfort zone, transcending the border of the white cube, museums and galleries, the black box of the theatre, not forgetting the ivory tower of the university.
At the outset, I contacted several networks and initiatives which deal in some way with welcoming newcomers. I actively approached others who would be interested to explore Hamburg (as ‘Welcome City’). I did this by circulating flyers—in collaboration with Hamburg’s organization for refugee accommodation Fördern & Wohnen —in the official Hamburg Welcome Center. I chose likely locations for contact, such as launderettes, the New Hamburg Language Café2 and attending cocktail parties through the expat network InterNations. I invented the so-called welcome city group: a collection of seemingly disparate people who gather to discover what might constitute a contemporary practice of hospitality. Enacting the ‘Welcome City’ Hamburg was process in action, in the making. The description of the group—its aims and activities—was meant to be broad and inclusive, inviting people with or without a residence permit, on the move or on the run, residents and refugees.
The group quickly grew to more than 40 ‘members’, mostly communicating via a WhatsApp group. Meetings took place on Saturday evenings, each prepared by one ‘member’, dealing with the overall theme of hospitality from a different perspective; for example, in traditional Iranian architecture, Arabic poetry and proverbs, Argentinian milongas or the prostitution/tourism complex. We explored the nightlife in Hamburg’s red-light district of St. Pauli (men and women disguised as a bunch of Hen Night party-goers). During the Hamburg Nacht des Wissens 20153 (Long Night of Sciences) we attended a crash course on ‘International Business Etiquette: whether lunch, small-talk or dress code – learn to avoid awkward situations in an international business context’ and a game workshop titled ‘The next time the Queen comes to visit… be prepared to impress somebody important!’
Meeting by meeting, action by action, we created a kind of performative cartography of Hamburg as ‘Welcome City’. My initial ethnographic and topographic approach—of mapping Hamburg through performative actions in different locations across the city—increasingly turned to sociological questions and group dynamics that do not follow the familiar logic of community, family or affinity. I became increasingly cautious regarding matters of hierarchies and privileges, and of authorship and visual representation, especially when working with and not about so-called refugees, people with migration background or presumably marginalized groups (see Castro Varela and Dhawan 2007; Dogramaci 2013; Krause 2017).
A sensation performed.
A formal structure allowing a turning of the sensation into concrete experiences and making something happen.
A proposition of meaning—an allegory, that is, the art of meaning something other than what is actually being said. It is the art of decoding meaning, of reading between the lines, the playing and contesting of diverse language games.
The purpose of performative action is to capture what is already given—the city, its citizens—as well as to inspire what may follow, what is not yet there. They presume that performance, embodied and repeated action, in the words of the American sociologist Norman Denzin, ‘is a way of knowing, a way of understanding, a way of creating critical consciousness’ (2016, p. 12). Based on my own curiosity, questions and sensations, and through the sending out of invitations and producing minor irritations, I drafted a series of experimental set-ups. These set-ups each had a conceptual or theatrical frame for dialogue, mutual exchange, encounter and performative action, navigating the fine line between knowing and not knowing, or rather, the very process of knowledge production. Here, German philosopher of science Hans-Jörg Rheinberger’s theory of epistemic objects helps achieve terms that embrace both: continuity and transformation, citation and contestation, original and cover-version. Rheinberger’s theory examines how new ideas come into existence. He argues that new ideas in science emerge not simply through a single experiment, but by the repetition of experiments that demonstrate a process of continual adjusting and contextualizing in order to attain a comprehensive body of knowledge. In seeing my project in relation to this theory—as a series of experiments with formal structure—it is clear some parameters changed (location, guests, hosts, subject, time, communication medium). He refers to this not-yet-formulated body of knowledge as its epistemic object: ‘A basic unit of experimental activity combining local, technical, instrumental, institutional, social and epistemic aspects’ (1997, p. 238). Accordingly, the ‘Welcome City Hamburg’—as epistemic object—is to be investigated and, at the same time, produced through an experimental system of performative actions. Rheinberger’s theory also shows that experimental systems are, by definition, initially imprecise. Even within the more or less strictly regulated experimental systems that he describes, ‘one never knows precisely how the set-up differentiates’ (pp. 79–80). An epistemic object has to be precise enough to generate knowledge and carefully imprecise enough to incorporate unexpected results of experiments. Repeated action, resulting in sensitive readjustment and iteration, is key, more than the single—disruptive, heroic, provocative, spectacular or supposedly subversive—action. Indeed, there was a song, Gym and Tonic by the band Spacedust (1998), continuously in my mind when working out the experimental set-ups, actually a cover-version of Jane Fonda aerobics instructions—‘2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 8 and back. 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 8 and back. Work it out! Come on, now!’4
When Hamburg’s first mayor, Olaf Scholz, presented his new book Hoffungsland (‘Country of Hope’, 2017), he explained that ‘we’—meaning the city and the citizens of Hamburg—were simply not prepared for the huge influx of refugees in 2015. The question of how ‘we’ might accommodate such dramatic changes and better be prepared for the next, always unprecedented influx of future refugees, however, was left unanswered. Futurologists from the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research refer to Japanese foresight methods on science and technology, such as always testing new items and supposed innovations in practice—like, for example, a vacuum cleaner. No sooner said than done. Accordingly, during the ‘presentation weeks’ of the graduate programme ‘Performing Citizenship’ in May 2017, I opened a mobile ‘BürgerInenbüro’. I then invited an inflatable elephant to stay at my place, delivered by AIR promotion, c. 2.5 metres high, powered by a 200watt electric fan that was permanently on. I created a highly artificial and yet real-life experimental situation in order to gain some first-hand experience and insights about how to prepare for those who are yet to come. In other words, this research set-up was conducted in anticipation of future migration due to global warming and possible species extinction. What happens when the proverbial elephant enters the room? How might we accommodate and communicate with radically different beings when language cannot reach? Who counts as human? Whose lives count as lives, and what makes for a life worth grievance and protection?
The following gives an account of events and subsequent empirical findings. I include a verbatim transcript of the WhatsApp chat with S., a member of the ‘welcome city group’ from Afghanistan. At that time, he was living with his wife in a temporary container accommodation for asylum-seekers in Hamburg-Billstedt.
03.05.17, 09:37:50: Paula Hildebrandt:
I have a guest now. Do you want to meet? Can I bring him/her?
03.05.17, 09:37:50: S.:
Yeah sure my pleasure
Meeting and greeting the elephant caused great excitement and curiosity, at least in the beginning. Everybody was amused, friendly and helpful when I asked for advice, assistance or a plug to inflate the ‘guest’. This initial positive reaction, however, did not last long. It lasted for the exact duration of a selfie.
Finding alternative accommodation, or just getting around the city with this somehow disproportionate guest turned out to be extremely difficult. Due to Road Traffic regulation § 22 StVO, the maximum height for vehicles is 4 m. Therefore, it was not possible to fix the elephant on top of the minivan that I had transformed into a mobile citizen office. To bring my ‘guest’ to some watering point, the elephant had to be deflated and folded back into the box. Again, upon reaching a sightseeing spot—for example, Elbe beach—the citizens of Hamburg were unanimously very friendly with regard to the inflatable elephant, but only until restaurant owners raised concerned that someone might stumble over the cable for the fan. A joint theatre visit was not possible due to safety precautions, but the elephant was allowed to wait in a rehearsal studio. Hospitality, in other words, is based on the ‘priority of affirmation’ (Seshadri 2011, p. 127). It requires a first ‘yes’ or, even better, a first: ‘yeah, sure, my pleasure’. Encountering the absolute other—who has no name or a family name—is based on an ethical imperative.
03.05.17, 09:39:58: S.:
I see a white elephant behind the window
03.05.17, 09:40:23: P.:
03.05.17, 09:40:34: S.:
Is that your domestic pet?
Hosting an inflatable elephant is hard work, but also good company. When inflated, the elephant provided a kind of shelter, and conveyed a feeling of calm and security. Furthermore, an inflatable , as a pet, is unconditional in its affection and loyalty. However, the inflatable as temporary guest also severely disrupted well-established routines, familiar comforts, my way of doing things. Simply moving around my tiny flat became cumbersome, and required me having to crawl under or squeeze past the elephant. Which also produced uncomfortable questions: Are you ready to share your bed with a stranger? Is it cruel to accommodate my ‘guest’, if only for the night, in the bath tub or outside on the balcony? Who has the power to pull the plug and respectively terminate the visit?
I felt trapped in a situation of continuous moral dilemma. Deflating the elephant each time increasingly produced feelings of discomfort and grievance, akin to an act of killing—the sight of the collapsing body, its tail, ears and trunk resuming the form of plastic junk. In other words, yes, it is possible to feel empathy for inflatable material—empathy less in the sense of compassion towards or feeling for, but rather feeling with another body (whether human or non-human). And no, a ‘guest’ is not a pet.
03.05.17, 09:52:07: P.:
Would you host the elephant? For how long?
03.05.17, 09:56:12: S.:
Mmmm as long as I find another place for it
03.05.17, 09:57:14: S.:
Or as long as I can take this burden on my shoulders
The photo (Fig. 1) shows the inflatable elephant on the balcony, and therefore provides evidence that there are limits to taking this burden on my shoulders—what Jacques Derrida described as the impossibility of absolute and unconditional hospitality (Derrida and Dufourmantelle 2000). Not even on the very first day of its stay, was I able to offer unconditional hospitality. Ultimately, it was the sensual experience—the smell of heating plastic, the touch of the rough surface and the noise of the electric fan—that triggered my subsequent action: the eviction of the elephant to the balcony.
03.05.17, 09:57:41: P.:
03.05.17, 09:57:46: S.:
Or send it back to India or Africa
To be honest, I also googled ‘African or Indian elephant’, and what difference did that action make? I realized how little I actually know about elephants, their family structures, living conditions, dietary needs and, besides, was it a he or a she? Would a real elephant on my balcony snack away at my Japanese maple tree? Or should I rather feed the elephant with sugar cubes, remembering Benjamin Blümchen? There was no custom of hospitality here; no rule, no tradition, no expert advice or online forum to consult about how to turn an invitation into a conversation, a gesture of hospitality into an act of engaging with a stranger. Put differently, hospitality includes a dimension of not knowing. However, thinking beyond knowing, facing the limits of your own knowledge, might also constitute a positive beginning. According to Mustafa Dikeç, ‘[t]his is where hospitality poses itself, at the very beginning, at the point where one starts to think about it, placing one at the threshold of knowing, pointing beyond boundaries’ (2002, p. 230).
Again, it was the physical presence and concreteness of the elephant in the room that triggered my curiosity about the ecology and psychology of elephants, how to accommodate real elephants in zoos and how to configure citizenship as a conceptual tool to advance animal rights, from an issue in applied ethics to a question of political theory and practice.6
03.05.17, 09:58:39: P.:
03.05.17, 09:58:48: P.:
Nobody is perfect…
The act of providing hospitality is full of contradictions: the guest as gift or as troublemaker, the tension between expectation and disappointment, the physical demands of another yet unknown, the existence of conventions, rules and regulations as a condition for the possibility to transform these rules. There is always a border—a threshold between guest and host—and a decision to be made about where to draw this line. Each crossing or displacing of this line involves the risk of stumbling or even rejection. There may well be contradictions and misunderstanding, perplexity and stupidity. Hospitality, as a critical responsiveness, is essentially based on the question of who is conceived as part of the family—for whom you care and share certain rights and responsibility. To whom do we owe membership and based on what criteria? What I have in mind here is to understand hospitality not ‘simply as a right, but as a sensibility that would encourage the formation of a critical consciousness as to the politico-juridical, as well as ethical and political implications’ (Dikeç 2002, p. 235). Hospitality in the sense of sensibility (as distinct from idea) is not a task to accomplish or a certain set of norms and rules to consider; rather it is an ambivalent action (in fact, a series of recursive actions). For that reason, and in order to Enacting the ‘Welcome City’ requires to be prepared for radical acts of voiding distance, of undoing our privileges and trespassing the border between guest and host, you and me, us and them. This city is built on performative acts of hospitality—action bricks. And life in the ‘Welcome City’ implies the ability, or at least the willingness, to becoming different, and of continuous transformation. It requires a renewed effort to leave traditional anthropocentric world views and rethink the human, with and in relation to non-human others—such as animals, plants, objects, environments, and so on (Braidotti 2013).
What I hope to illustrate with these explanations is that something performative actions could achieve is the creation of frames for enacting allegories and ambivalent action, temporary spaces and situations where recognition—as well as contestation and conflict—can take place. This means creating situations that are ‘performative’, insofar as they reject existing frames of reference, they decontextualize, ‘break with a prior context’, or rather, ‘assume new contexts ’ (Butler 1997, p. 147). Ideally, performative action sets itself apart from other contexts in that it implies no direct function—serving to produce minor irritations, slight shifts in perspective, and small breaks or interruptions that do not hold a specific meaning, but rather expose the very process of making meaning. The aim is less to formulate a certain position, but to put together a proposition and invitation to experiment with new ways of relating and new systems of perception. These actions can be highly allusive and difficult or, by contrast, easily comprehensible and entertaining; perhaps striking to occasional spectators, readers or listeners. At best, they attain a balance between invitation and irritation, pleasure and discomfort, seduction and confrontation, thereby leading others to venture into unexplored territory by jumping into the ‘live’ picture.
This methodology draws on a growing body of literature that focuses on inventive methods (Lury and Wakeford 2012), live sociology (Back 2012), performance research (Sabatini 2012), creative practice as a form of thinking (Manning and Massumi 2014), sensory ethnography (Pink 2009) and autoethnography (Ellis et al. 2010). Situated in the centre of critical inquiry, of performance research and writing, is the researcher herself: her body, curiosity, sensibility and subjectivity. I am my own case study, the most immediate raw material. In other words, this way of doing research is as radically interpretative as the separation between the research object and the researcher vanishes. The performative body functions as archive, compass, recording device, filter, space of resonance or flow heater; in order to condensate, evaporate, melt, sublimate or translate abstract ideas into concrete action.
[...] the sensory plenitude afforded for knowledge and action by inventive methods. Such methods enable us to acknowledge that we are in medias res, in the middle of things, in “mid-stream”, always already embedded in a situation, one both settled and unsettled. (2012, p. 19)
The researcher’s presence does not preclude an analysis and interpretation of how social processes are constituted, or what consequences they produce. The researcher stands in the center of the events under consideration. In critical inquiry […], the researcher is an advocate for change, an activist , a transformative actor, a passionate participant, an agent of self-reflective action, a model of active engagement in the world. […] the researcher is not a disinterested observer. (Denzin 2016, p. 45)
Contesting the mind/body dualism, I would argue that embodied action constitutes an epistemological category in its own right and is a valid tool for conducting empirical research. It is precisely the force of performative action which allows the reconstructing and reinventing of new forms or new articulations of citizenship by intensifying the present, encouraging a coming to one’s senses in ephemeral events that become permanent. Ephemerality and permanence do not exclude but rather presuppose each other. The Farsi word for guest is mehmān, meaning ‘to stay’, and the word for hospitality is mehmān nawazi—because a guest stays only for a limited time, but the memory of that stay lingers on.
Every form of representation—in academia, politics, art and cultural production—is deeply afflicted with asymmetries and hierarchies, privileges and complications, in terms of authorship and ownership. Therefore, I would argue that actions—that is to say, practice- and process-based working methods—run counter to the wish for visible representation. A constant effort is required here to try to escape the trap of what I call ‘refugee porn’, which I define as socially engaged artists, journalists or researchers using the images and stories of ‘the speaking refugee’ to increase their own symbolic capital and gain points of distinction. The specific role and responsibility of artists doing—ethnographic, performative, sensual, sociological—research can be described as follows: to communicate and experiment with different languages and keep trying to translate this action into art. Interestingly, Etienne Balibar looks at the power of translation in attempts to overcome the untranslatability of idioms, evident primarily in two extremes of society: ‘These are on the one end intellectuals with higher education, uprooted or exiled writers and on the other end anonymous migrants who mostly have a lower position in the current division of labour and employment hierarchy’ (2012, p. 289) (author’s translation). Whoever possesses the means of academic and artistic representation is not only privileged in representing themselves—due to their ability and knowledge about the prevailing cultural codes and social norms—but also because of their access to certain institutions, speaking and publication opportunities. Performing citizenship as artist/researcher means using these privileges to transform the rules of the game; in the case of research, the procedures and protocols of citing, conferencing, exhibiting, showing, teaching, presenting and publishing, together with those who are not officially authorized or do not feel entitled to speak these languages. And part of the privilege demands the capacity to be open, kind and confused.
The ‘Welcome City’ exists occasionally and is partly fiction, if not fantasy. It is an ‘other’ city, immanent in the world of human agency, endeavour, perseverance and hypothetical possibility. It can be activated whenever and wherever the seemingly clear roles of the self and the ‘other’—us and they, you and me, citizen and non-citizen, resident and refugee, guest and host—start to blur, become unclear and need to be negotiated if not obliterated.
This city is made of actions, just as it is made of houses, cables, concrete and SUVs. It is a moving territory that consists of acts of permanent creation and recreation. Its activity is not reliant on movement, nor pretending to be on the move to a particular place,7 but rather on personal encounter and unfolding relationships that resist fixed meanings. Building a city on bricks of hospitality—concrete actions that are always contingent and ambivalent—begins with respect for each other and ultimately leads to radically rethinking ourselves, our own approach and relations towards others. It demands being present, that is, being addressable, visible and vulnerable, as our very being as citizens exposes us to the address of others, including injury, insecurity and eventually rejection.
In the ‘Welcome City’, citizens are able to decide for themselves if they want to stay or move on. It is a paradoxical community of strangers who accept each other as much as they accept their own strangeness. It is performed by individuals who know about their difficulties and paradoxes of showing up as citizens of the stage of the big city. Citizenship—that is, questions of identity and belonging—turns out to be contingent, to be negotiated, and yet founded upon what all human and non-human beings have in common—a body that exists, set apart from the prefabricated, reductive binary categories.
That is the ‘Welcome City’. No ‘refugee porn’, no charity event or zoo visit, not always entertaining, but rather challenging, contradictory, yet something infinitely more interesting.
Massimo Carlotto (2007) The Fugitive.
A café located in the Immanuelkirche—a Protestant church located in the city’s Veddel quarter.
Spacedust (1998) Gym & Tonic, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ANLySahi3fs, date accessed 5 March 2018.
Liza Minnelli (1972) Cabaret, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=moOamKxW844, date accessed 5 March 2018.
Massimo Carlotto (2007) The Fugitive.
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