[April 19 2016]
Without a doubt the refugee crisis is the “hottest” topic of the year. Discussions, opinions, and calls to take action are echoing through parliaments, cocktail parties, Greek islands, the Middle East and, last but not least, gallery openings.
Populists as well as idealists alike are raising their voices for a call for action. And while decision makers and the general public are tangled up in a web made up of laws, financial restraints, fear, laziness, and political interest, the culture sector may occasionally be creative and financially independent enough to find a loophole.
“Green Light,” a workshop created by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson that currently takes place at Francesca von Habsburg‘s TBA21 at the Viennese Augarten, is a charitable project in the realm of the art world addressing the refugee crisis.
Until June 5th the TBA21 has invited a group of 35 asylum seekers and whoever else wants to participate to a manufacturing workshop and shared learning program that offers a number of educational events including German classes and drama courses among an array of miscellaneous seminars.
At its core the project is about manufacturing polyhedral “Green Light” lamps, consisting of a frame made of wooden sticks tied together with strings and plastic joints made from recycled yogurt cups which are finally fitted with a green LED unit. The lamps work as individual pieces or may be used as “bricks” to create bigger objects. Various constructs made of these “Green Lights” are decorating the entrance of the project space. The participants are assembling about 15 units a day. They can’t be purchased, but come for free with a donation of €300. All the money comes to the benefit of TBA21’s partner charity organizations.
The fact that the lamps can’t be sold legally underlines a crucial problem for refugees in Austria that is kind of circumvented for the period of the workshop. Since asylum seekers don’t have a working permit, they can’t receive wages for their labour, but they may get food and education instead. Thus, for legal reasons, the lamps are not sold but distributed as a “gift” for donors.
Apart from the economical aspects, the frustration that comes from not being able to do work and the lack of gaining a sense of achievement from being productive is doing a great harm. The sensation of creating something and being part of an optimistic, productive project, is one of the key contributions “Green Light” offers to its participants, who were mostly fleeing from destruction and hopelessness.
Aesthetically and theoretically, all aspects of the project are highly conceptualized and oozing with metaphors and symbolism. Everything is well thought of, and while the green light is obviously a sign for “welcome” (I mean its not red, right?) the lamp, may theoretically be used as a brick to build houses, even cities or “a whole world”, as Eliasson states.
He calls the project space a “reality machine” and locates “Green Light” on the periphery of the Art world. It is an attempt to make people realize that they don’t need to step out of the real world to step into the art world. “Instead”, he says, “they step into the art world to step closer to the real world”. Francesca von Habsburg told me that, depending on the place, setting up the workshop would approximately cost no more than €100.000,00. Hence she and Eliasson are hoping to be able to scale the project, to take it to other countries and cities through collaborations with fellow art collectors, philanthropists, and other institutions.
While I am listening to Mr. Eliasson and watching the slightly fordian way of how the “Green Light” lamps are assembled and how a couple of cute 3D printers are in a kind of robotic meditation slowly spitting out green plastic parts, my mind starts to drift off: I imagine a not too far future where overqualified immigrants are sitting in gigantic ateliers doing simple, specialized labour, producing large quantities of decorative commodities in the name of art, without receiving any wages, apart from cultural education. Wow! And Jeff Koons as well as Damien Hirst are the final-bosses of the Universe. Okay, time to wake up.
Leaving stupid jokes, irony, and theoretical discourse aside for a moment, there is one word that would probably sum up what is actually, currently happening at TBA21. That word is “FUN.” At least that is the one common denominator articulated by all the people related to the project that I have spoken with. And enjoyable exercises are extremely worthwhile, especially for refugees who haven’t had so many recently.
It’s just inspiring to see how this heterogenic flock of people mixes and how different realities are clashing.
Von Habsburg, who just came back from a long trip to Argentina is struggling to hold back her tears during the welcome speech, while Fathima, a jolly Syrian woman in her late 40s, is cracking jokes, handing me the bullet that was recently taken out of her leg.
Ibrahim, a young dentist from northern Iraq is telling me, with an action hero attitude, how he took to flight after escaping from terrorists by jumping out of their trunk. Horrible stories are sharing conversation space with first world problems. Everything is slightly abstract. Asylum seekers from various countries are hanging out with hipsters, social workers, and whoever visits the project space. They are talking about Dr. Martens, terrorism, family issues, and girls and boys. They build lamps with each other, cook together, play football. They have disputes, disagreements; they share jokes and skills.
However, “Green Light” does definitely constitute fertile ground for interaction and ties diverging aspects of a shared reality together.
I think one of the most essential dimensions of the project is the considerably long time frame. It takes time until strangers are getting comfortable with each other. The idea that “you have to relax in order to release” is key for Eliasson. Conflict arises and may be solved. There is space for argument and maybe for resolution. Culture shall nurture a being together without necessarily being the same.
Whether the refugee crisis will be just another fad for the art world remains to be seen. For now we can only thank Olafur Eliasson, Francesca von Habsburg and all the others involved for their efforts and hope that many will follow their example.
On view until June 5th, 2016 at Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary –Augarten, Atelier Augarten, Scherzergasse 1A, Vienna.
Text and photo Philipp Draxler