but the sea kept turning blank pages looking for history
- On the State of Refugeeness -

8th, 22nd & 23rd August 2014

A project by “To Whom It May Concern”* & Anna Jäger

SAVVY Contemporary I Richardstr. 20 I 12043 Berlin-Neukölln

Design (c) Elsa Westreicher


8th August 2014: 10am - 1pm

“Wer hat Angst vorm schwarzen Mann”?
On the Politics of Fear, Psychopathology and the Mobility of Bodies

Panellists: Damani J. Partridge, Eben Louw, Natalie Ofori, Patras Bwansi

“Niemand!” (nobody!) is what children in Germany shout as loud as they can when playing a popular game that starts off with the question “Who is scared of the black man?”, before they run off and try to get to the other side without being touched by the child who plays the black man.

This game is just one of many hints one may quote to pinpoint the historical rootedness of a fear that accompanies debates around asylum seekers as well as immigrants in Germany. This panel seeks to contextualize the anxieties that the issue of asylum seekers evoke and the specific historical and sociopolitical background of those fears. While most public discourse focusses on the refugees, their reasons to escape and their behaviour, very little is said about the way their image is used to serve a variety of political agendas (including left and right wing politics) and how their depiction systematically (and often unconsciously) produces and perpetuates a fear that has little to do with the individuals who seek asylum themselves.

The panel will investigate the interrelation of asylum politics and anxiety, the way that the affective politics of fear enable and restrict movement, how this fear might become a “technology” of the refugee's dehumanization (Ahmed, 2004) and the way it is related to particular bodies and impends their mobility.


8th of August 2014: 14.00 – 17.00

The right to reside with rights: On the nation state, citizenship, and 'cosmopolitics'

Panellists: Akinbode Akinbiyi, Damani J. Partridge, Brigitta Kuster, Benjamin Zachariah

In her seminal 1949 essay The Rights of Man: What are they? (Es gibt ein einziges Menschenrecht) Hannah Arendt hit the nail on the head when she made the case for a right superior to what is conventionally known as human rights, i.e. the right to have rights: ‘There is only one single human right’, as other rights ‘change according to historical and other circumstances, there does exist one right which does not spring ‘from within the nation’ and which needs more than national guarantees.’4 In this attempt to re-understand, re-formulate, re-configure what could be a 'human right' enjoyable by all, independent of their religion, race or national affiliation per se, but strictly just by the mere fact of being human, Arendt situates these rights within communities. Implying that basic rights like freedom of speech, the right to own property, of life, liberty, movement etc can only be imagined if one has the access to a community. The right to have rights is thus a call for communities, nations etc to grant access to their communities/ citizenship to those, who for what ever reason, have lost their own communities, i.e. a right of asylum. Only then can one start talking of human rights.

The French philosopher Etienne Balibar drills the screw even deeper by coining the twist the "right to reside with rights". Balibar points out that “"right to reside with rights" contains a strong tension (...) between two "polar opposite" aspects, which the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights already expressed when they spoke of the right to acquire a nationality (or not to remain "apatrid") and the right to change one's nationality.”5 As well as “freedom of circulation and right of residency (or settlement) - which indeed is a 'principle,' like the freedom of opinion or expression, or the freedom of enterprise are 'principles' - that is, call for institutionalization, therefore limitations, conditions, and regulations, provided these regulations do not, in fact, reduce them to nothing.”

In this session we will deliberate on the notions of human rights, on the concept of the nation-state today, on the limits of citizenship. An effort will be made to scrutinize the concepts of cosmopolitanism and cosmopolitics. As Balibar put it “the issue of cosmopolitics today is no longer one of an ideal alternative with respect to the real nation-state and its Machtpolitik, but becomes increasingly one of organization of already existing transnational processes, and the subjection of their current violence to an expanded and renewed notion of the rule of law.”


22nd August 2014

10.00 – 13.00

On Welfare, Histories of Entanglement and the Ethical Dilemmas of Humanitarianism

Panelists: Napuli Langa (Activist), Joshua Kwesi Aikins (Activist, Researcher/ Universität Bielefeld), Adam Bahar (Activist), Kamal Aljafari (film maker)

While affective politics of fear of refugees and their dehumanization are often used in political discourse to restrict movement, humanitarian and “leftist” discourses often depict immigrants as tremendously human and in need of care and help, in order to enable their movement (Papastergiadis, 2006).
This panel aims to investigate the interrelation of the two approaches in order to take a critical stance on the appropriation of refugees in humanitarian (“care”) discourse and practice and the complicated history and ethical dilemmas of contemporary humanitarianism. While the altruistic efforts of famous personalities or major development organizations have been under scrutiny for a while, the critical stance on humanitarianism in the realm of refugee issues seems to be lacking.
Drawing on both Foucault and Agamben's notion of “biopower” the panel will contextualize the unintended consequences of compassion in the world of immigration politics and the ways in which liberal and humanitarian ideas risk to gain acknowledgement on behalf of others, while perpetuating a paternalistic logic. The panel will look into the ways in which regimes of care risk to “end up reproducing inequalities and racial, gendered, and geopolitical hierarchies” (Ticktin 2013) in order to think of a critical and revised approach towards the issue of care and refugees.
The notion of welfare will also serve as a starting point to think about the entangled histories that are at the core of many – especially economic - refugee movements in order to question the ahistorical un(self)critical discourse surrounding the cause of refugee and immigration movements.



22nd August 2014

13.00 – 15.00

D/Remonstrare – On the right to empathize

Panelists: Berenice Böhlo (Lawyer/ RAV), Thomas Wüppesahl, (BAG Kritische PolizistInnen), Alexander Bosch (Amnesty Polizei), Stefan Redlich (Spokesman/ Police Berlin)

“I am on their side, I completely understand the problems of refugees, but I am just doing my job. I am not allowed to take a position in such issues,” remarked an almost frustrated police officer - one of the 1720 police officers who built a human wall around the Gerhart-Hauptmann Schule in the Ohlauerstraße Berlin - in their efforts to evict the 40 refugees that sought refuge in the school.
In the heat of such events, a lot of legal realities are either unknown, ignored or purposefully glossed over on various camps. According to §63 Bundesbeamtengesetz and §36 Beamtenstatusgesetz each civil servant has the right to remonstrate. A civil servant like the police is even obliged to scrutinize orders not only on legal, but also on ethical bases.
Another § that became famous in the last weeks was §23. The supreme federal authority may - for legal and humanitarian reasons or to safeguard the political interests of the Federal Republic of Germany – issue foreigners/ refugees from specific countries a residency permit.
This session will bring together legal specialists and activists to shed a light on the German judicial system with regards to the situation of refugees. The session will grant the possibility of informing various camps, i.e. the police, refugees, protesters, sympathisers, and co. about one's own rights within a civil society. The participants of this session will, metaphorically speaking, facilitate the sweeping out of important legal paragraphs that might have been willingly or unwillingly swept under the carpet.



22nd August 2014

15.30 – 17.30

Workshop I – Legal Questions

Participants: Berenice Böhlo (Lawyer/ RAV), Thomas Wüppesahl (BAG Kritische Polizisten)

After the theoretical session on the rights to remonstrate, the 'Bleiberecht', and other 'hidden' paragraphs in the judicial jungle, a practical session will be held. In this session, lawyers, legal specialists and activists will be available for question and answers. Invited specialists will cover the areas of deportation, working permit, accommodation, residency permit, etc. A focal point of this session will be to explore the possibilities of civic empowerment for refugees and their supporters. Where can one get support if one comes to Germany as a refugee? Whom can one consult if one gets into racial or other unpleasant scuffles? What does one need to do to resist deportation as a refugee? What can one do as a 'legal' citizen to support the so-called 'illegal'? How can one contribute financially, morally and legally towards the refugee-course?



23rd August 2014


Space politics and Spatial Justice: appropriating and constructing spaces

Participants: Noa Ha (Researcher/ Center for Metropolitan Studies TU Berlin), Hazem Alnamla (Researcher, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies), Volkmar Nickol (Architect, GHS), Natasha Kelly (Anti-racist activist, spokesperson GHS), Raumlabor Berlin (tbc - Architects), Katharina Rohde (Social Designer, Curator, Urbanist)

“Today, more than ever, the class struggle is inscribed in space”2. There is a politics of space because space is political. Making a distinction between espace perçu, espace vécu, espace rêvé Henri Lefebvre in his La production de l’espace – and later in Espace et Politique – explained how space is a social and a political product, how it is historically configured as a social formation and a mental construction3. Justice philosophers as John Rowls and Iris Marion Young have introduced the concept of “Spatial Justice”, pointing at the need for an equal geographical distribution of society's wants and needs.
Space is inclusive and exclusive, and practises of marginalization can be seen as spatial politics: since the ancient tradition of scapegoating, or the medieval use of keeping out of the walls of the town the sick and “dangerous” people, the outsiders and the non-homogenized persons have always been relegated to a space pushed out of the public gaze, a space of darkness. On the other hand, it is interesting to note how the rhetorics of colonialism were reclaiming the need for a “Platz an der Sonne”.
Within this session the speakers are invited to focus on spatial politics and on the spatial struggles of refugees, understanding them in the light of a social and historical perspective. Refugees' life is too often relegated in a limbo, in a temporary state of souls awaiting entrance into the Western society, a timeless condition in which they may feel to be trapped indefinitely. Anointed persons, not “illuminated by the blessing” of European citizenship, they are relegated to non spaces, to territories of forgetfulness or of ghettoization.



23rd August 2014

13.00 - 15.00

Crafting Worlds. Autoprogettazione and Making Things Happen

Participants: Raumlabor Berlin (tbc- Architects), Le Van Bo-Mentzel (Architect, Hartz-IV design furniture), Sebastian Daeschle (Cucula), Maiga Chamseddine (Cucula), Malik Agachi (Cucula) , Saidou Moussa (Cucula), Ali Maiga Nouhou (Cucula) , Moussa Usuman (Cucula)

The meaning of space and the practise of the commons is adapted and transformed as it is perceived and lived by social actors and groups. When space is not given, everyday Voyages of Exploration into the territory of heterotopias are necessary. Crafting is a fundamental ingredient for the building of an own environment and the plotting of own worlds: projecting is the only way to avoid to be projected!4 In 1974 Enzo Mari was publishing Autoprogettazione 1974, a manual offering nineteen designs using readymade cuts of timber, to build tables, chairs, bookshelves, and even beds, radically criticizing and open-sourcing the home furnishings industry. His designs usually required nothing more than a hammer and nails, following the principle that “by thinking with your own hands, by [making] your own thoughts you make them clearer”, that “the task of transforming is the only course through which knowledge may be obtained.”5
This panel is an occasion to reflect on the necessity of self-initiative, participation and autonomy as a tool of resistance for marginalized communities and for asylum seekers, but also – more in general – on critical design practices as strategies of thinking against the omnivorous market system; on design as critique, following the Italian Radical Design’s lesson of the 1960s and 70s, highly critical of prevailing social values and design ideologies. Together with Cucula, the Berlin based Refugees Company for Crafts and Design that has provided some former refugees from Oranienplatz an occasion to escape the vicious circle of not getting a working contract because not having the right to stay in Germany, we are dialoguing with Enzo Mari 40 years after the publication of Autoprogettazione and inviting speakers, practitioners and theoreticians to delve into the process of making (rather impossible) things happen.



23rd August 2014

15.30 - 17.30

Workshop II – Thinking With Our Hands. (Practical design/ construction session)

Participants: Sebastian Daeschle (Cucula), Maiga Chamseddine (Cucula) , Malik Agachi (Cucula , Saidou Moussa (Cucula), Ali Maiga Nouhou (Cucula) , Moussa Usuman (Cucula), Raumlabor Berlin (tbc- Architects), Philipp Misselwitz (Architect, City planner/ Urban Catalyst)

The theoretical session Crafting Worlds. Autoprogettazione and Making Things Happen will be followed by a practical design and construction session. In accordance with Enzo Mari’s concept of using few tools like hammer and nail to create new worlds, this session will invite designers, architects, town planners, refugees and their supporters, etc to exchange some basic construction tips. Building, transformation, creating with one’s own hands is hereby not only a “course through which knowledge may be obtained”, but also a course through which knowledge can be shared.


23rd August 2014


Dance Improvisation by Ahmed Soura

Poetry by Christian Filips

but the sea kept turning blank pages looking for history

- On the State of Refugeeness -


The figures are astonishing! At least enough to prick awake sensationalism. So too are the images that are omnipresent on TV screens and the daily tabloids. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, about 18,000 people have made the journey over the Mediterranean Sea since the beginning of 2014. Upon good weather conditions, it is said that some 4000 people take this trip into the unknown within 48h to get into Italy. It is estimated that some 20,000 people perished upon their attempt to get into Lampedusa, and the memory of the 387 people who drowned near Lampedusa in October 2013 is still fresh in our memories. According to Amnesty International, most of these deaths could have been prevented, if the coastal police would have intervened timely enough. An accusation which implies that the interest to prevent illegal immigration is stronger than the duty to rescue the desperate at sea.
Similar figures are heard of in the Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceurta, and it is alleged that 30.000 African refugees as still waiting for their chances to get into the EU.
These ‘facts’ and figures have become ‘normalcy’… a state where people are no longer seen as human beings but as refugees, and where the discourses, this regarding, are often captivated by national political interests with less space for humanitarian interests.


Those refugees who succeed in getting into the EU or other European countries are usually caught up in either the dungeon of the un-personed, i.e. sans papier, the plight of migration management and asylum seeking or even unlawfully detained – a strategy aimed at deterring others from wanting to follow suit. Sandwiched in larger economic, political and sociological discourses between European nations as to what to do with this influx of refugees, the fates of individual beings, the reasons as to why one would want to leave his home on such a dangerous trip etc, are often ignored. And it is not uncommon that some of the refugees succeed in getting into asylum homes (and not immediately deported to their countries, or somewhere else in Sahara desert) are welcome by enormous protests and even attacks by the locals. According to Amnesty International, those refugees that finally get into Europe after enormous odysseys are mostly treated like criminals, subject to punishment, and so too are their helpers. This state of non-acceptance in societies brings along a vicious circle illegal employment, labour exploitation, abuses, crime... the infrastructure of the underground.


The production and propagation of information and discourses with regards to the refugee situation, as championed by the media, the academia, lawyers, politicians and refugees themselves are more often than not caught up in stereotypical frames or are blocked in boxes accessible only to individuals of one of the aforementioned groups. Same applies for the cultural sector, within which the fine art sector mostly prefers to keep its distance from such discourses.

The project but the sea kept turning blank pages looking for history, whose title is a paraphrase of a line in Derek Walcott's “The Sea is History”, is an attempt to bring together artists, art theorists, architects, philosophers, sociologists, lawyers, economists, politicians and people called refugees at SAVVY Contemporary Berlin to deliberate together, and exchange on the state of 'refugeeship'. A point of departure for this project will be Hannah Arendt's reflections on statelessness, displacement and being a refugee. As Marieke Borren elaborates in her paper Towards an Arendtian politics of in/visibility: On stateless refugees and undocumented aliens, 2008:

“I read her (Hannah Arendt) account of the predicament of the stateless as featuring the simultaneity of two pathologies of political action and citizenship: public invisibility and natural visibility. (…) The world as the space of appearances provides the locus where individuals appear vis-à-vis others, i.e., where they perform deeds (action) and are seen; where they articulate opinions, judgements, and stories (speech) and are heard. For Arendt, public visibility and natural invisibility constitute the criteria of sound political action and citizenship.”

While public discourse and political agendas around the issue of refugees tend to concentrate on them as the loci of problems and solutions surrounding the topic, the fears and problematization of the status of “refugeeness” often have less to do with asylum seekers themselves, but with deeply rooted anxieties about “others” and migration in the German and European context in general. But the sea kept turning blank pages looking for history aims to take a self-reflexive position by unravelling the complexities of anxieties/ fears of both state and public towards refugees in a broader historical and socio-political context. But the sea kept turning blank pages looking for history will thus offer a transdisciplinary platform within the context of an art space, where the balancing act between the performing of action and the articulate of speech, where public visibility and natural invisibility, as well as citizenship will be exercised.
The project will be a 4-day session of plenary discussions, screenings, lectures, workshops and performances that reflect on the status quo and future, on the production of knowledge, on the creation and cultivation of imagery, on the role of arts in such times of crisis, on the sociological implications, and on the history we are making regarding 'refugeeness'. For 1 whole month, the art space SAVVY Contemporary will dedicate its space to reflections on 'refugeeness'.

Though Derek Walcott's poem “The Sea is History” clearly addresses the Middle Passage, the loss of history inherent to the genesis of the Caribbeans, the poem, in its contemporaneity, so aptly touches on the refugee crisis too. When Walcott writes “Sirs, / in that grey vault. The sea. The sea / has locked them up. The sea is History” one can't avoid thinking of the thousands of lost souls in the depth of the Mediterranean Sea. But it also talks of the many stories and dreams that are not only locked up in the abyss of the sea, but also the undreamt or shattered dreams of those who succeed in crossing the sea just to find themselves in detention or deportation. It is also these tragedies that caused the ocean to “turn blank pages / looking for History”.

The Sea Is History. By Derek Walcott

Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that grey vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History.

First, there was the heaving oil,
heavy as chaos;
then, like a light at the end of a tunnel,

the lantern of a caravel,
and that was Genesis.
Then there were the packed cries,
the shit, the moaning:

Bone soldered by coral to bone,
mantled by the benediction of the shark’s shadow,

that was the Ark of the Covenant.
Then came from the plucked wires
of sunlight on the sea floor

the plangent harps of the Babylonian bondage,
as the white cowries clustered like manacles
on the drowned women,

and those were the ivory bracelets
of the Song of Solomon,
but the ocean kept turning blank pages
looking for History.
Then came the men with eyes heavy as anchors
who sank without tombs,

brigands who barbecued cattle,
leaving their charred ribs like palm leaves on the shore,
then the foaming, rabid maw

of the tidal wave swallowing Port Royal,
and that was Jonah,
but where is your Renaissance?

Sir, it is locked in them sea-sands
out there past the reef’s moiling shelf,
where the men-o’-war floated down;

strop on these goggles, I’ll guide you there myself.
It’s all subtle and submarine,
through colonnades of coral,

past the gothic windows of sea-fans
to where the crusty grouper, onyx-eyed,
blinks, weighted by its jewels, like a bald queen;

and these groined caves with barnacles
pitted like stone
are our cathedrals,

and the furnace before the hurricanes:
Gomorrah. Bones ground by windmills
into marl and cornmeal,

and that was Lamentations—
that was just Lamentations,
it was not History;

then came, like scum on the river’s drying lip,
the brown reeds of villages
mantling and congealing into towns,

and at evening, the midges’ choirs,
and above them, the spires
lancing the side of God

as His son set, and that was the New Testament.

Then came the white sisters clapping
to the waves’ progress,
and that was Emancipation—

jubilation, O jubilation—
vanishing swiftly
as the sea’s lace dries in the sun,

but that was not History,
that was only faith,
and then each rock broke into its own nation;

then came the synod of flies,
then came the secretarial heron,
then came the bullfrog bellowing for a vote,

fireflies with bright ideas
and bats like jetting ambassadors
and the mantis, like khaki police,

and the furred caterpillars of judges
examining each case closely,
and then in the dark ears of ferns

and in the salt chuckle of rocks
with their sea pools, there was the sound
like a rumour without any echo

of History, really beginning.

“The Sea is History” from Selected Poems by Derek Walcott. Copyright © 2007 by Derek Walcott. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

1 See: Fanon, F. “The Negro and Psychopathology”, in: Black Skin, White Masks. 1952

* To Whom It May Concern is the SAVVY curatorial collective, which consists of Dr. Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, Dr. Elena Agudio and Saskia Köbschall. This project was co-curated by Anna Jäger.