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Project Migration

An exhibition in Cologne documents the many-sided story of people on the move to Germany since the 1950s. By Katrin Bettina Müller

The exhibition Project Migration begins where a train rail bridge crosses the Rhine behind the central train station in Cologne. Tazro Niscino has constructed scaffolding and a staircase around the almost 100 year-old statue of the German Kaiser Wilhelm II. Up at the top, a door leads into a living room. It is Sunday and the room is full of visitors. The neck, head and helmet of the last German Kaiser rise out of the coffee table in the middle of the room. A visitor sits across from him and takes photographs. "And what exactly does this have to do with migration?", most visitors ask, about ten seconds after coming through the door.

Courtesy DOMiT, Projekt Migration

The answer is well explained on page 262 of the small exhibition guide. First of all, Kaiser Wilhelm II, grandson of Queen Victoria of England, is a good example that migration is a fact of life among the European nobility. Secondly, the rapid industrial development under Wilhelm II led to a distinction being drawn between welcome and unwelcome nations. Thirdly, the Kaiser stands for the short epoch of German colonialism. True, almost none of the visitors light upon this constellation of facts on their own. Looking at history from the perspective of migration movements, rather from that of nation states, is uncommonly exercised.

Niscino's installation is like a prologue. True, the focus of Projekt Migration is not about colonies but about the changes that have taken place in Germany and Europe since the time of the "Gastarbeiter". But it often seems as if the colonies had been internalised. In the Kölnischer Kunstverein and in the nearby empty office buildings, the migration project allows you to contemplate video installations and view interviews, archives and historical documents that more suggest than thoroughly cover the wide political and geographic context. The real documenting is found in a 900-page catalogue which assembles a multitude of approaches from academic research, documentation and art. Working together on the project are DOMiT, a Cologne-based association engaged in constructing a documentation centre and which has long sought to establish a migration museum, the Kölnischer Kunstverein, ethnologists and anthropologists from the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt and the Hochschule für Gestaltung und Kunst (university of fine arts and design) in Zurich.

Photo: Candida Höfer

As different as the narrative forms might be, what they have in common is their concern to focus on migration as the central force in social change. But such a focus is difficult as it can hardly base itself on previous styles of narration. This is why many of the contributions by filmmakers and artists also investigate the forms of narration themselves.

2005 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the German-Italian recruitment agreement, which was followed by a series of others. The oldest works on show here were created roughly twenty years later. One example is 1975 film by Zelimir Zilnik showing inhabitants of a house in Munich. They come excitedly down the stairs one by one, say their names and their jobs in German and Italian, as well as how much they pay in rent. On the one hand, the short film is a friendly group portrait. On the other hand it documents real-estate speculation that takes cashes in on the situation of the guest workers with exorbitant rents, overcrowding, ghettoising and ultimately demolition.

Photo: Candida Höfer

In another work, Candida Höfer has dedicated a large series of slides from the year 1976 to "Turks in Germany". Höfer photographed many small shops, street gatherings and families in public locations, letting the protagonists pose as if for a family album. The images document the pride of those photographed. One wonders that the shops have changed so little since then. Suddenly something else is noticeable, here and in many of the private photos in the DOMiT: how the women who came to Germany from Turkey at that time wore everyday European clothing.

Marcel Odenbach's poetic and historic video essay "Vom Kommen und Gehen" (of coming and going, 1995) is dedicated to routes over the water: sailing boats, steamships and freighters are shown in a double projection along with refugee ships and submarines that crunch through the surface of the present day. Odenbach's contribution would have a place in many other international art projects on the consequences of globalisation, for in fact art has been looking into the drifting of identities between the continents for a good fifteen years now. The dynamics of migration has become one of the major energy sources for the art business. For that very reason, however, it is all the more strange that the story is full of gaps. The cosmopolitanism of the British Commonwealth, for example, has had a a much larger effect on artistic production than the history of guest workers in Germany – as though their traces had been immediately consumed along with the products of their work. This specifically German gap is what the Projekt Migration seeks to fill.

Photo: Doris Frohnapfel

Today many artists are looking to Eastern Europe, and the changing roles of national borders. Ann-Sofi Siden has researched prostitution on the Czech-German border, and had talks with women, customers and pimps that are then reflected in her artwork. In Berlin, Tobias Zielony has photographed young men at night in dingy cinemas and parks. They wait, sleep and show surprise at the camera's flash. Nothing indicates where they come from, but from the context of the exhibition it is clear they are male prostitutes.

Anyone expecting to find images of multiculturalism will be surprised to find the accent is placed elsewhere. The wealth of material, and the language of political management put together by the group "An architektur" document the close relationship between migration and security policy, as does the iconography of Harun Farocki's silent film. One exhibit has charts documenting the "Storming of Europe" and "Gateway Adria". Yet this employs a very different language to that used in "Camps for Foreigners in Europe" or "Mourir aux portes de l'Europe". The latter chart is one of the most impressive pieces in the exhibition, giving statistics on the refugees drowned in the Mediterranean or suffocated in trucks. The exhibition also qualifies this image of Europe as fortress, among other things with the documentary section on how the recruitment policy of the early German Federal Republic in the time of the Cold War was also a means for consolidating the West.

Courtesy DOMiT, Projekt Migration

In the room with the charts there is also a work by Christian Philipp Müller, "Green Border", which gives yet a new twist to the theme. A series of slides shows a hiker from behind. He jumps over rivers, pushes his way through undergrowth, moving step by step over a terrain. Beside the projections hang landscape signs, like the old plates and path markers which indicate the way over the little-controlled borders between Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy and Switzerland. What Müller shows as a leisurely wander through nature transforms an abstract geographical order into a bodily experience. Here you may walk, here not. Here you may live, here not. The reasons cannot be found in one's own life, they are always historically given.

In general, one thing there is a lot of is walking, walking, walking. Carrying plastic bags, the "bag people" are indefatigable. They walk on paths in the pictures of Mladen Stilinovic, who also only shows them from behind. Stilinovic follows plastic bag carriers between Zagreb's suburbs and a black market which emerged as a means of survival after the fall of socialism. The images show new poverty as one reason for the continued migration. Wolfgang Tillmans' work show another setting, the Polish markets in Berlin in 1989. Walking, walking, walking. The continual movement is also demonstrated in the music videos by Brothers Keepers and Advanced Chemistry. Bodily unrest, not arriving, being on the road or on the way somewhere is what brings together the different narrative forms and cultural idioms of Projekt Migration.

Photo: Wolfgang Tilmans

But the clearest image of the changes to everyday culture wrought by immigrants and their descendents is given by the Migration Soundtrack. And a logical continuation of the exhibition is that it be complemented by music programmes on the weekend. Projekt Migration does not stop with the exhibition itself, which is an initiative of Germany's Federal Cultural Foundation. Rather, the organisers see it as a window for informing people about current and ongoing research projects and art acquisitions. The explanatory texts on the walls do much to help provide a fresh look at history, and yet they are not entirely successful; the relationship between documentation and art is somehow too frayed, while that between the interests of the various organisers also seems unclear. But for just this reason one also gets a feeling for how much still remains untold, and the extent of the questions left open.

For example, in front of a showcase by the DOMiT archive one starts to wonder what effect migration had on the development of the countries of origin. Here we see street maps, private photos of "first cars", and their proud owners, photos of junked cars on the roadside and floor plans of houses the repatriates dreamed of owning. And once more a limited example must stand for all the others, even though by now we have an idea of the major differences between the migration cultures. "German settlements" is a documentation by filmmaker Aysun Bademsoy. The "Deutschlander" – migrants returned from Germany – live like luxury tourists in their own country, with new houses, well-equipped flats and guarded settlements on the outskirts of the cities. Above all, what they brought back with them from Germany seems to be a feeling of isolation and lost cohesion. The elderly see their time spent working in Germany as lost years, while those born in Germany often don't know what to do with themselves in Turkey. As the migrant generations tell their stories, their conflicts between seem to come alive for a moment, revealing how differently they see their own past. Here we come to see why the various narrations in the exhibition must remain so fragmentary.

Projekt Migration will run in Cologne until January 15, 2006.


The article originally appeared in German in die tageszeitung on October 7, 2005.

Katrin Bettina Müller is a freelance cultural journalist.

Translation: jab. - let's talk european