The PLURIVERSALE V opens up new perspectives on flight and migration

On behalf of WIR MACHEN DAS Hannah Newbery has travelled to Cologne to attend the opening weekend of PLURIVERSALE V at the beginning of September. Here are her impressions.

von Hannah Newbery

Köln 2016. Foto: Hannah Newberry
Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung (left) and Satch Hoyt (right) in conversation in front of the Christuskirche am Stadtgarten. Cologne 2016. Photo: Hannah Newbery

Quite frankly, I had never heard of PLURIVERSALE before, when I was asked whether I wanted to go there to write a report about its opening weekend. The PLURIVERSALE of the Akademie der Künste der Welt takes place in Cologne twice a year. The Academy, founded in 2012 and financed mainly by the City of Cologne, is a cultural institution and a production platform which – since 2014 – has been run by Elke Moltrecht, in charge of administration, and the art director Ekaterina Degot with her team. Apart from PLURIVERSALE whose projects are run by the members of the Academy and invited guests, there are also monthly salons, an online-magazine, a Young Academy and a fellowship programme.

In the program booklet PLURIVERSALE is described as a “curated event program which covers a broad spectrum of cultural disciplines and geographical regions”, and “an interdisciplinary and international series of events with a mainly non-western focus”.

The former is not unusual, but the latter makes me sit up and take note. Reading the autumn program I learn that the event takes place from beginning of September to mid-December, and it offers an impressive spectrum of lectures, performances, concerts, films, talks, theatre plays, readings and open discussions, with guests from all over the world. The idea is to offer a platform to non-European artists in particular, not least with the aim of creating a counterbalance to our eurocentric view of the world. The PLURIVERSALE does not want to conduct an elitist discourse around the Academy, but break down social barriers and thus make a contribution to integration.

During the duration of the autumn program the exhibition To Walk a Line  by the artist Katarina Zdjelar is shown in the rooms of ACADEMYSPACE. The exhibition will be changing during that time, with the artist replacing existing works by new ones and inviting other artists to place their works next to hers. They all have in common the topics language, otherness, and migration.

The PLURIVERSALE V deals with topics of migration and cultural rootlessness, and the forms of structural power bound up with them. The aim is to find out how these topics manifest themselves in concrete terms and leave their mark on the way we live together. What repercussions do the present crises in the world have on the concrete situation in the city of Cologne?

When I arrive in Cologne and walk across the square in front of the railway station, New Year’s night 2015 immediately springs to mind. The PLURIVERSALE IV, which took place in the spring of 2016, had a critical look at the repercussions of that night which had triggered heated discussions about migration politics, and revived racist arguments.  Will the arrival of refugees deepen the gulf between them and the locals, because prejudice is re-emerging, and perhaps even a new kind of colonial thinking? How are we going to live together? The PLURIVERSALE V will continue with this discussion. All the events that I will visit in the coming days have one thing in common: they deal with the stories of refugees and migrants.

Events at the opening weekend

The newly renovated Christuskirche am Stadtgarten lends a nearly mystical atmosphere to the lecture Blunted on Reality by Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, who lives and works in Berlin.  He talks about the ‘sound’ of fleeing, asylum and exile, and the music that has accompanied generations of refugees. He plays quite different musical styles, from the Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, who is a pioneer of Afrobeat, to the Jamaican singer Lady Saw, music by immigrants of various times, lament, songs of mourning and songs of happiness. With his talk Ndikung presents an acoustic experience, but also a political statement. The songs echo from the high walls of the church, which has been opened for this event for the first time after the renovation.  The plan is to make it a space where locals and refugees can meet. Ndikung’s message is clear: the refugees may have been robbed of all their belongings, they may be oppressed and exploited, but their sound, their voices, cannot be taken away from them. But what happens if that sound dies? Where does their culture disappear to? Is that the beginning of a process of conformity? Or assimilation?

The cental theme in the performance of composer and artist Satch Hoyt  is the network of sound which was taken over the Atlantic in the wake of slavery. Music was the only companion the slaves had. With a multitude of instruments like rattles and cymbals, mixed with electronic beats, Satch Hoyt creates a very special sound experience. It is accompanied by a skilfully cut film about  phases of African history, from slave ship to futuristic space ship.

On Friday night the Kurdish author Bachtyar Ali gives a very impressive lecture about the philosophical meaning of the experience of fleeing. Bachtyar Ali is one of the best known novelists and poets of the autonomous Iraqui Kurdistan. His work comprises novels, poems and essays. He has been living in Germany for the past 20 years, but writes in Sorani, his Kurdish dialect. Der letzte Granatapfel is the first of his novels that was translated into German and has just been published.

Fleeing is a sensitive topic, Bachtyar Ali begins, especially for a former refugee like him. It is not an easy topic, because one can no longer talk about it in a neutral way. To answer the question why the Orient seems to be in a state of permanent crisis, one needs to understand that colonialism at the beginning of the 20th century has brought with it a kind of modernization in the Orient that was very different from European modernization. In Europe modernization did not take place without a radical change in thinking. In the Orient the ideas of the Enlightenment could not be integrated with modernization like they were in Europe. Modernization in the Orient focussed on the administration and on the institutions of the state. Bachtyar Ali concludes: ”I think modernization without enlightenment can only end up in a totalitarian view of the world and totalitarian regimes.”

Stefan Weidner in conversation with Kurdish author Bachtyar Ali. Cologne 2016. Photo: Hannah Newbery

If you want to explain what fleeing means, he says, then you also need to talk about the homeless state of the displaced person (he calls it ‘Heimatlosigkeit’ in German). Fleeing means continually crossing borders. Whilst globalization has only guaranteed the safety and freedom of movement of the citizens of capitalist countries, a refugee in his status of a displaced person enjoys neither freedom nor safety. A refugee represents an antithesis to ‘normal’ persons who have their place in society, a home, a job. The refugee has no place in the system. Refugees can be killed, drowned in the sea, without anybody being punished for it. No system can exist without exclusion, Bachtyar Ali adds, and refugees are such an excluded group.

At the end of his lecture he talks about integration. He describes how important it is in the Western world to be visible and transparent, to have a complete curriculum vitae. Often refugees, after years of flight, cannot present such a perfect c.v. Naturally, it is not good when refugees completely reject Western culture, but total assimilation and denial of their origins is equally undesirable. The relationship between strangers and non-strangers should be newly defined, for their mutual benefit. If this is not done and no effort is made to overcome this strangeness and reserve, there will always remain a latent danger of fascism. (Bachtyar Ali has published an essay about these thoughts in the journal Fikrun wa Fann of the Goethe-Institut.)

After the lecture follows a discussion with the author Stefan Weidner, member of the Academy and chief editor of Fikrun wa Fann. Asked whether refugees come to our country expecting Europe to be Paradise, Bachtyar Ali replies that the refugees are looking for a safe place, not for paradise. They have lost something, and will always be searching for what they have lost.

Seldom have I listened to such clear and reflective thoughts about fleeing. The audience is visibly moved. A quotation by Bachtyar Ali, which can be found in the introduction of the program, stays with me especially. A definition of the refugee and his potential impact on society:

“The refugee is a person who is defined by his relationship to place, but is not limited by it. Because no matter where the refugee actually is, he carries with him a second place, in inner place: his memories, his fears, his hopes. There is a tension between these and the refugee’s old and new realities; they harbour a subversive potential that also infects the societies to which the refugee has fled.”

In contrast to Bachyar Ali’s lecture the concert by Mazzaj Rap Band seems like a thunderbolt. Perhaps that was the effect intended by the curators. The band combines traditional Dabke music and song with American rap. Rap was banned in Syria.  In 2012, Mohammad Abu Hajar, the leader of the band, fled Syria after being detained and tortured. He is now continuing his work in Berlin. His texts criticize the Assad regime, the restrictions on freedom, detainments. More recent songs also deal with the failed revolution and flight. One can feel their rage and despair. The concert is accompanied by videos presenting the translations of the Arabic texts, and film material of the war in Syria.

After the lecture and concert a large group of people is sitting together under the trees of the Stadtgarten. We do not talk about what we have learned this evening, but about the present situation in Germany, and how annoying it is having to keep struggling with the slow and tedious bureaucracy. When I mention that I grew up in Switzerland a heated discussion starts about the advantages and disadvantages of Direct Democracy, and about the frustrations of people in Germany about not having a direct influence on the government’s affairs. We really do seem to have some luxury problems, I think on my way home that night.

On the following day Želimir Žilnik‘s  2015 documentary film Logbook Serbistan is screened. It is about the situation of refugees in Serbia, where many of them are stuck en route to the EU.  A distressing film which, in some scenes, is hard to bear. It is a very quiet film with hardly any physical violence. What is difficult to bear is witnessing so closely the difficulties of these people who are stranded there, their lack of chances and perspectives. The film is a protest against their forcible exclusion from the European Union, and against the restrictive European immigration politics.

Every evening the Serbian manager of a refugee camp must decide how many of the trembling men standing in front of him he can take in. He treats the refugees brusquely, inspects their rooms in the middle of the night, ticks them off when they are not clean.  One of his employees is a Syrian man who helps with Arabic translations. During a break he goes outside to a group of Syrians who did not get a place to sleep inside. He tries to explain to them that they would have better perspectives if they stayed in Serbia instead of travelling on. He himself has decided to stay; it is not easy to survive here, he says, that is true, but it is quite possible. Then he asks them: ”And how was your journey? Tell me, what is the situation in Syria just now?”

Most of the film consists of conversations. We learn first hand about the thoughts and opinions of people who are usually only the objects of reports, details about their problems and communication difficulties, but also about the friendliness of many locals towards the refugees, and the readiness to help on the part of the guests. One scene, for example, shows how a group of young African men is helping the locals clear up after a landslide.

Želimir Žilnik is renowned as an initiator of the docu drama genre. He lives in Serbia. In his talk with Boris Buden he explains that the reception of refugees by people in Serbia is often much more positive than is depicted in the media. He says he and his team have observed a lot of openness towards the refugees, despite all the many problems in the country. I wonder whether this still applies today. One year later the situation in Serbia has intensified. At the beginning of October this year refugees marched to the Hungarian border in protest against the closing of this border. Serbia has become the end of the line on the Balkan route.

I travel back to Berlin feeling enriched by the diverse and dense program of the weekend. I am impressed by the approach of the curators to make it possible for refugees, or persons whose origins are not in the Western part of the world, to depict flight and migration from their perspective, and thus allow the mainly   German audience ‘unfiltered’ access to these topics. The lecture by Bachtyar Ali especially impressed me. I met him for an interview which will be published here shortly. It was also nice to be able to sit together in an informal setting after the program events, and have the opportunity to talk with the artists, too. It would be optimal if translations into other languages, e.g. Arabic, could be offered for some of the events. Most of the events are conducted in English, a few in German.

The program for the coming months looks promising. I would very much like to go back on the 9th of December to attend the OPEN FORUM – How do we want to live together? The idea is to have a place of open discussion for everybody, about urgent questions that have come up during the PLURIVERSALE V, ideally it could also be a an opportunity for refugees and locals to meet. I recommend warmly to first read through the program, and then head for the PLURIVERSALE V to Cologne!

Želimir Žilnik‘s documentary film Logbook Serbistan was presented at the Filmforum, next to Cologne Cathedral. Cologne 2016. Photo: Hannah Newbery
During the Pluriversale V the Stadtgarten was a place where people could meet and discuss in an informal setting. Cologne 2016. Photo: Hannah Newbery
The Composer and artist Satch Hoyt during his Performance at the Pluriversale V. Cologne 2016. Photo: Roel Weenink
Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung during his lecture Blunted on Reality. Cologne 2016. Photo: Roel Weenink
The Mazzaj Rap Band gave a very impressive concert. Cologne 2016. Photo: Roel Weenink
A Filmstill of Želimir Žilnik‘s documentary film Logbook Serbistan (2015). Cologne 2016. Photo: Želimir Žilnik



Hannah Newbery, born in Stirling, UK in 1990, is an English-German editor and photographer. She grew up in Scotland and Switzerland. Following her studies in art history and photography in New York, she worked in various editorial offices, among others at the New York Times, Vanity Fair and ZEITmagazin. Currently she is living in Berlin as a freelance writer and editor and is working on a photo project about Syrian refugees. Hannah is a student of Islamic Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin.