A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how art has been interpreting the European refugee crisis. I was reminded after that of a Canadian artistic initiative currently happening in Germany that has direct contact with recent migrants. It is the work of the Toronto-originating theatre/social planning group called Mammalian Diving Reflex, directed by its creator, Darren O'Donnell.
The goal of this company is not to write plays and to put them on a stage, but to create social events that bring people together. They claim they aim to "trigger generosity and equity." They do wacky things like getting children to give adults haircuts, but also deeply serious things like their current work in a small town in Germany, Hemsbach, near Mannheim.
There they have just finished a lengthy project centred around a reception centre for recent immigrants, designed to bring the newcomers and the German-born townspeople together, in an effort to find jobs for the immigrants.
O'Donnell himself stayed in the immigrant dormitory, with his co-worker Chozin Tenzin (also from Toronto), in a couple of beds that had been left vacant when some of the inmates were taken away by police. The town has about 80 recent asylum seekers staying in the holding centre, from everywhere from the Balkans to India. He then organized goofy events such as a cooking contest, for the refugees and for the German-born, in which participants were forced to use difficult ingredients from all over the world in their dishes.
The short-term goal was to facilitate interaction and understanding; the long-term goal is to leave a system of similar events in place, to continue after O'Donnell's company leaves. (He calls this system the Hemsbach Protocol.)
O'Donnell likes in particular to work with teenagers, which he has been doing in the Ruhr region of Germany since 2013. It is only coincidentally that his work there became entangled with the refugee influx to Germany. His last project there, part of the Ruhrtriennale festival, near Dusseldorf, was called "Millionen! Millionen!" – a line from the Romantic poet Schiller's Ode to Joy. (Yes, the one Beethoven used in his Ninth Symphony.) That poem is the European Union's anthem and mantra, particularly for its now painfully relevant line, "Be embraced, you millions."
The project was, like most of Mammalian Diving Reflex's things, hard to define – social outing, urban planning, performance. In collaboration with a German theatre collective called Mit Ohne Alles, they got a bunch of teenagers of diverse immigrant backgrounds to go camping for a weekend, then take careful note of each interaction. Some talked deeply, some fell in love.
The performance, crafted afterwards, was a kind of barely-scripted play in which the teenagers recreated, for an audience, some of the interactions that had taken place over the weekend, with large images projected and everyone who had participated on the stage at once. The theme was "embracing." Now that newer immigrants from the war-torn Middle East and Africa are showing up, such forced embracings will have a different edge and a different echo.
In theatre terms, this kind of practice is a kind of experimentalism called "post-dramatic," an idea of the German critic Hans-Thies Lehmann. The primary intellectual influence on O'Donnell is the work of Nicolas Bourriaud, the art curator who wrote about "relational aesthetics," the theory that stresses an artist's role as catalyst for social interaction rather than centre of attention.
But O'Donnell is just as happy to think of himself as an urban planner and event co-ordinator as an artist (in fact, he has just completed an MA in urban planning). He likes to talk about "micro-utopias" as a goal of many of their events.
Why, you might ask, was this Canadian artist, already established in Europe, addressing questions of social difference when the great new wave of migration began? You might as well ask, "Why do so many Canadian artists go to Europe to work?"
The answer is money, of course – all of this art, every single project, is funded primarily by governments and government agencies. And it's not that he discovered Germany – they found him. A cultural director there saw his group's work in Brussels, then just asked him to visit and perform.
O'Donnell says, "It's not like Canada. You can get meetings with anyone in Germany. You can meet with mayors, you can get meetings with corporate people. Social service agencies find us and fund us as well."
There are large corporate sponsors, too – and O'Donnell has had no problem coaxing giants like BASF to contribute to his initiatives. But, basically, he says, "Germany is just happier to tax themselves higher for these things."