The Hemsbach Protocol turns artistic lens on refugee crisis

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The surge of refugees heading to Germany is relentless. Now from my perch in Berlin, I'm awestruck by the Germany I'm experiencing -- watching waves of volunteers pitch in to help.

They are donating mountains of supplies and clothing, playing with children or hosting refugees in their own homes. For a Canadian, it is a stark contrast to what is playing out in my country of citizenship vs. the country where I am currently based. I was in Syria 15 years ago. I wonder what happened to the people I met. I wonder that every day.

I was pleasantly surprised, recently, to discover that Canadian artist Darren O'Donnell spent half his summer visiting a refugee holding centre in Hemsbach, Germany.

The centre, Luisenhof, was once a seniors' home and was converted by local authorities into a special locale where 80 refugees (hailing from Gambia, Kenya, Nigeria, Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia and elsewhere) and two artists live. It is an integration project like no other.

O'Donnell was there as part of a project commissioned by Thomas Kraus, who heads the culture office of the Metropolitzen Region of Rhine-Neckar, nestled in southwest Germany around Heidelberg. O'Donnell had previously collaborated with Kraus on other projects which have travelled the world, including All the Sex I've Ever Had.

Kraus wanted to bring international artists to Luisenhof to see what would happen. O'Donnell -- whose work is done through his organization Mammalian Diving Reflex -- decided he would spend the month of August living there along with Mammalian youth representative Chozin Tenzin. The summer stay is the start of O'Donnell's development for The Hemsbach Protocol. He will be back for a six-month period to create a theatre project to be launched in September 2016.

Tenzin reflected on his own experience as a migrant from Nepal to Canada as "a walk in the park compared to some of the refugees that I have met in Hemsbach."

"What shocked me the most was that the majority of the refugees that I have met was within my age," said Tenzin, who's now in his first year in university. "In Canada, the majority of the people I know who are my age are still living and getting assistance from their parents but these refugees left everything behind and have to start their life all over again."

O'Donnell's time at Luisenhof in August is meant to set him up for a return in February 2016. The Toronto-based artist spoke to rabble.ca about his summer stay about The Hemsbach Protocol, set to launch in September 2016.

What attracted you to do this project that is so specific to refugees?

I was impressed by the way that the people who were running the show in Hemsbach were approaching the problem. They were facilitating connections between the then newly arrived refugees and people in the town, by bringing in, among other people, a marathon trainer who worked with some of the young men, and having them to his home for spaghetti. They also quickly formed a committee of citizens who agreed to adopt the refugees, some, in fact, literally. People were rolling up their sleeves to help out in many interesting ways. The biggest question that no one was really addressing, however, was employment. So I offered to attempt to do that through a series of art projects in collaboration with the refugees that would pose the question: how do we get these guys jobs and how do we do it quickly? Those questions are nowhere near to being answered, but we're building up a team of locals to work with us to answer that question. We are building this team by using artistic and creative interventions to develop relationships, friendships and love. So, we launched the whole thing by creating a cooking contest between teams comprised of town residents and refugees, who were given mysterious ingredients from all of the various countries represented (Germany, Gambia, Kenya, Nigeria, Macedonia, and Kosovo). It was a beautiful event.

 Darren O'Donnell

Photo: Darren O'Donnell

So what things did you do at Luisenhof?

We socialized with the people who lived there, just trying to get an idea of their routines, what they did, what they talked about, what they wished they were doing. We also attempted to knock on the door of every business in town and introduce ourselves and asked people to help us solve the problem. We did a press conference, explaining to journalists what we are trying to do. We gave a presentation to the Luisenhof residents, to explain what Mammalian is, what we want to do, and how we think we might do it. It's difficult to explain Mammalian to those who are well-versed in contemporary art practice, let alone a bunch of 25-year-old Gambians with no exposure to a lot of the ideas behind the company. We went swimming in the local lake a lot with the residents. We played with the children who are at the facility. We also spent a lot of time with the city administrators, eating, talking, sharing ideas, etc.

The other thing we are trying to do is build a creative team that can be based in the region, focused first on doing creative presentations about the work we're all doing together. This will hopefully provide some occasional work for the refugees, as we all work together to produce this project and get it on the road in other parts of the country. The premise will be: this is what we did in Hemsbach, this is what worked, this is what didn't, this is how you can do the things that worked in your community. This presentation will, hopefully, be a training ground in basic event production skills for anyone who wants to continue working with us.

What kind of discoveries did you make being an artist-in-residence there?

This is not our project, it's a civic project and the civic administrators are really the ones on the ground. And this does not in any way mean that they are power brokers in this situation -- they are not -- they are in the middle of this, very much stuck in almost as much ignorance of the entirety of the situation as the refugees themselves. We're collaborating with the mayor, and we have to watch his back, and trust his judgment. He's trying to keep a lot of people happy, so he needs to be very strategic in what he's doing and we need to really trust him.

The refugees are told where to go in the same way the town has been told. Neither side has much of a choice in the matter, so they're in some ways stuck with each other. The mayor (who used to be a social worker in charge of refugee cases, so he's got experience with this) is trying to extend as much generosity as he can, while keeping an eye on the temperature of the populace, so as to head off levels of resentment. How we position our project, how loud we trumpet our activities and how exactly we roll it out is something we must do with the leadership of the mayor. That's an interesting position for an artist who might prefer autonomy, but autonomy in this case is completely inappropriate.

 Darren O'Donnell

Photo: Darren O'Donnell

So, what did your time in August do for your future return in February 2016?

I need to find a researcher who is an expert in the employment landscape in the region, so I can figure out what might be the best chances for these guys. I also want a German immigration expert helping out, and keeping an eye on what's going on. I decided that, immediately upon my return, we will create a presentation at a nearby theatre festival that is on the subject of migration. At first I thought it was too soon, but the festival has assured me that they only want a preview, that they'll give us two weeks to prep and we can do whatever we want.

So my plan is to bring a team of refugees, we'll stay in a hotel for two weeks, and we'll go to the theatre every day and come up with some kind of party/event/happening/encounter/good time between the refugees and the audience. If we kick off my return with that kind of a thing: with a trip to another city, a stay in a hotel, a fun encounter with a supportive public, and a bit of an honorarium, then I think I will have established my credibility. I can make things happen that are fun, generate a bit of cash, and continue to hammer at this question of integration and employment.

From there, I don't know anything except that we will have a final presentation in September 2016, but it should not end there, with that presentation hopefully touring. Then there's the question of continuing the work we've started in figuring out how they can be employed. We have to continue with whatever comes out of this.

How does the social experiment that is Luisenhof inform you about ideas, issues of refugees and integration?

What is happening in Europe right now seems to me to be exceptional and that we're witnessing an epochal shift toward a whole new kind of Europe, one with the confidence and resilience to allow itself to be changed by this encounter. It's hard to see above the small circle of my immediate experience, but the willingness to be affected and altered by the presence of the refugees seems to be phenomenal. I met people who adopted a young refugee they've only known since November -- a refugee from a country deemed "safe" by Europe, so this is even more striking, since economic migrants are generally frowned upon. This young man is their sole heir and will inherit two large properties in a nearby area. These people are prepping him now to inherit both the wealth, but also the responsibility of that wealth. That's change.

June Chua is a Berlin-based journalist who regularly writes about the arts for rabble.ca.

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