In 2009 we were invited by Brut Wien to develop a contribution for X-Wohnungen Wien, a site-specific project that created two unique tours through the „Stuwerviertel“ in Vienna. Each tour consisted of seven performances, events or installations that inhabited and responded to a series of private apartments.
The following report outlines our artistic process.
We first came to the Stuwerviertel in June 2009 for a short site visit, to get a feel for the area and start to understand the context in which we would be working. While we were there we started looking for potential spaces and people with whom we might like to collaborate.
One day we stumbled across Engerthstrasse 223, a house that provides over 100 asylum seekers with a temporary form of accommodation (for up to two years). The scheme was established by the Ute Bock Foundation, who also run the small charity shop in front of the house, donating clothes and household items to those living in the area.
On entering the house you are struck by the blackened walls, the residue from a previous fire. In places attempts have been made to paint over or wipe away the soot, somehow fitting for a place in which the past still haunts the present. It is an unpredictable site, alive with the constant comings and goings of those that live there. It is as thick with stories as it is with people.
After initial and understandable caution (it is not uncommon for the police or social services to call by without warning) the house feels open and welcoming. We made contact with three of the households; Hasan and Milana Demilchanov’s family from Chechnya, Peter from Nigeria, and Jamal Belhaows from Algeria, alongside his Slovakian girlfriend and their two children. They were simply the first people we got talking to, either standing in the hallway or knocking on doors. We quickly started to enjoy one another’s company.
Three months later we returned to Vienna for a three-week period of continued research and development. We hoped that we could work with Jamal; a confident character you felt could deal with an audience and whose reasons for taking part went beyond friendship or a feeling of obligation. After marathon attempts to contact Jamal (who had temporarily moved his family out of the house due to an invasion of cockroaches), we finally sat down and agreed to work together. The following days were spent getting to know Jamal, his family, and the context in which they live. We explored a variety of possibilities for X-Wohnungen before eventually agreeing on the onion chopping experiment.
23.09.09: Induced intimacy and the chopping of onions
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Jamal is a cook. As we got to know Jamal he started to proudly teach us how to cook Algerian food. For Jamal onions are the most important part of any Algerian recipe, and was always quite particular about how they should be chopped.
It is perhaps not surprising that our initial contribution to X-Wohnungen was based on a moment we shared while cooking together, in which we all found ourselves crying as Jamal chopped some onions for the evening meal. This created a degree of intimacy that we had not experienced before, and provided us with one of those ‘moments of potential’ that we had been waiting for, and consequently the realisation that waiting for such moments is quite absurd.
“Als sich die Tür in der Engerthstraße X öffnet, empfängt uns ein Schwall aus Zigarettenrauch und brennendem Zwiebelaroma. Nicht lang und mir kommen die Tränen.”
Barbara Köppel, ORF/FM4, 24.09.2009
Together with Jamal we invited the audience to help us chop-up an enormous pile of onions. Jamal led the proceedings, bringing guests to the table and clarifying the task in hand. Over the course of ten minutes our audience would inevitably start to cry.
In some way this action seemed to explore our relationship and the creative process we had with both Jamal and everybody else that we encountered while preparing for the project. We initially made contact with people for the purpose of working with them, which in turn became a form of temporary friendship that was both real and induced. Could the same be said of our audience? They may have cried, laughed and enjoyed a certain form of intimacy, but on what was this based? We wanted the audience to consider their position within the entire X-Wohnungen experience, as they travelled from house to house and immersed themselves in a series of private, and at times personal, situations.
Maybe the tears also questioned what we would expect from somebody living in a house like this (or from an artistic response to this predicament), or did they hint at something about the situation that Jamal is in and the philosophy that he lives? Jamal’s family do have reasons to cry, but what is it you want, real-life heart-wrenching stories of children being taken away or families left behind? You can’t tell the stories that really make you cry, and how much can we sympathise anyway? Was this activity about the irrelevance of the moment, our inability to deal with, relay or directly affect this narrative? (And that even this irrelevance was not truly understood)
It is perhaps fitting that our audience took the smell of fresh onions with them on the remainder of their journey, playing on the (Austrian) stereotype that all immigrants smell of onions. The audience were marked as foreigners, and so were we. After an entire evening chopping onions it took two days to get rid of the smell.
“Die Gäste im Schanigarten des Café Alzheimer fragen: “Woher seid’s ihr?” Nicht von hier. Diese Worte liegen auf der Zunge, die den Dunst vom gemeinsamen Zwiebelschneiden mit Jamal hartnäckig in sich aufgesogen hat. Ja, wirklich, nicht von hier.”
Der Standard, ‘Verlaufen in der Venediger Au’, 24.09.09
Chairs and pans were borrowed from the neighbours and word soon got around that something out of the ordinary was taking place. An onion-related mythology of assumptions and questions started to emerge. We placed a ‘free onions’ (Gratis Zwiebeln, البصل الحرة, Libre oignons, бесплатный луком, Cebollas libre) sign on the door and distributed fliers that invited other inhabitants of the house to interrupt the proceedings and collect some nicely chopped onions, making sure that none of the produce went to waste. One of our visitors brought his collection of published poems, which were then read to the audience. It was a surreal moment, listening to over-emotional love poetry with oniony tears flowing down our cheeks.
As the evening progressed Jamal started inventing stories in response to the audience’s questions, some of which had a certain relevance or irony (he is, I suppose, a seasoned storyteller). He started explaining that we were chopping onions to cook a giant goulash that would be served to the entire neighbourhood, then that this goulash would be transported to Africa, and later decided that it would be sent to China. People reacted very differently to the idea that it would be sent to Africa, than they did to China.
One of our favourite aspects of the event would come each time those that left Jamal’s flat passed those that were waiting at the door; Wet eyes meeting dry eyes. Questions were asked, both silently and audibly, why are you/they crying and what is waiting for us inside? What we hadn’t expected was how quickly our eyes became accustomed to the onions. We stopped crying after the first fifteen minutes.
We were also surprised how our audience sometimes didn’t seem to think conceptually or contextually about the activity that was taking place. They immediately wanted to know what it was all about, without giving themselves time to absorb the event. It made us realise just how generous it is to let an X-Wohnungen audience enter your private space, laden with expectations and adhering as much to the rules of the theatre as those of a real-life social encounter. We had audience members for whom the event seemed to work, and those for whom it may not have worked, respectful individuals and disrespectful individuals. Jamal certainly coped best with the situation, without him it simply wouldn’t have worked.
All of this took place during the dress rehearsal for X-Wohnungen, and despite some reservations we planned to continue chopping onions and producing tears for the next four days.
The following afternoon everything had changed. After almost 11 years living in Austria, during which he had become a father to three children, Jamal had his application for Asylum turned down. Jamal clearly had more important things do be doing than chop onions for X-Wohnungen, and was in no state to welcome visitors into his house. The family went to stay in a friend’s house for fear that the police might come and take Jamal away, while we were offered the keys to the house and told we could continue to use the space. It was clear that our contribution for X-Wohnungen, our position and our role within the project, would change considerably in light of these events.
Although Jamal’s presence was no longer possible, we still maintained contact. We decided that we wanted to follow his story in real-time, each evening responding to the previous 24 hours of Jamal’s life; A work in progress that would evolve each evening, in many ways reflecting the unpredictability and instability of the site. The following diary tracks this development.
24.09.09: Day 1
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Day 1 was a response to our initial onion-cutting event, placed within the new context that was now affecting both Jamal and our own artistic process. The video that brut had filmed of the previous day’s performance became the basis for a discussion exploring our relationship with Jamal, X-Wohnungen, reality and art. A small bowl of onion soup was served to the audience, cooked with what was left of the chopped onions from the day before. One of our guests christened the soup ‘Tränensuppe’ (soup of tears).
All of the guests were photographed in Jamal’s absence, part of a portfolio of documentation that we presented to him at the end of the week.
PHOTOS coming soon
We were starting to gain a reputation in Engertstrasse 223, as residents asked what we were planning to do with the onions that night. One girl came down from upstairs with her baby sister and sat in on the evening performance for almost an hour. Our story was also turning into something of a talking point amongst the brut crowd, as rumours spread regarding Jamal’s whereabouts or the latest real-time developments. “Is it true that he’s gone into hiding!” people were asking us excitedly. A real-life drama was becoming a form of entertainment/sensation, maybe because it was more real than anything else that was taking place. Meanwhile the team thought it was ‘cool’ that some people hadn’t believed our story, and we wondered what we needed to do so that people did.
On the whole we were not convinced that this was the most appropriate way for us to work. It was not only the wrong forum for this kind of debate, it also failed to utilise the skills of interpretation, communication and provocation that we try to employ as artists.
25.09.09: Day 2
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In collaboration with Sarah Youssef & Mag. Wilfried Embacher
We knew that Jamal was going to Caritas in the morning to seek advice. Realising that we still knew relatively little about the process of asylum in Austria, and what options were still open to Jamal in his current predicament, we followed in his footsteps and visited a lawyer who specialises in asylum. We recorded a short ten-minute interview, which was later provided as an audio tour to Jamal’s apartment during the evening performance.
A petition was left on the table with the heading, ‘Ich fordere die lebenslange Aufenthaltsgenehmigung in Österreich für Herrn Jamal Belhaows’ (I support a lifelong residency permit for Mr Jamal Belhaows in Austria). 33 people signed the petition, between 70% and 90% of our visitors. The petition responded to a visitor the day before who left us with the words “liebe Grüße an Jamal” (love to Jamal).
One audience member turned out to be an expert on asylum and offered to provide Jamal with one or two contacts that might be able to help him. Perhaps this justified our presence more than anything else. Another nice (and somehow appropriate) moment came as the batteries on one of our Mp3 players packed up and two people had to walk around the apartment together, attached to a single ipod.
On the whole we had a better feeling about what we were doing on day 2. We were responding as well as relaying. It was still uncomfortable (but understandable) hearing audience members as they took in the stairwell “oooohhhh totally fucked-up”, “rustic”, etc, or taking snapshots of the apartment in the absence of Jamal.
The 26.09.09 was Jamal’s birthday.
26.09.09: Day 3
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The previous evening Jamal had spoken for the first time with his father about what had happened, a man who, as the perceived head of the family, plays a central and decisive role in Jamal’s life.
We decided to play on this situation. We provided our audience with a short biographical text that described the situation Jamal was currently in (as much as were able to share), before asking them to phone a member of their family for advice, to help them decide what they would do next if they were in Jamal’s position.
The activity stretched the performance (and an ongoing process of dialogue) outside the confines of the apartment, as audience members initiated a series of long-distance interventions, while possibly reflecting on the relationship they have with their immediate family. The introduction of foreign family dynamics into the space caused a displacement that seemed (from the outside) to detach the audience from their surroundings.
At the end of the third day we had mixed feelings. Despite generating dialogue regarding the issue of asylum, and exploring our inability to truly understand the impossibility of Jamal’s situation, it all felt a little inappropriate. A serious situation became a game, reminiscent of phone a friend on who wants to be a millionaire or the controversial ‘Big Donor Show’ in the Netherlands. We were left wondering if it may have been better to concentrate on the relationship we each have to our father or mother, rather than reveal the entire story.
Statistics/44 Suggestions from our audience
x9 Look for a good lawyer
x9 Seek help from an organisation such as Ute Bock or Caritas
x5 Get married
x5 There is no solution
x4 Go to France
x4 Other (become famous/run away to Mexico/etc)
x3 Seek help from the church
x2 Bring your girlfriend and children to France
x2 Run away or go into hiding
x1 Go back to Algeria
Later that evening Jamal paid us a visit and we took the opportunity to talk him through what we had done so far. It was reassuring that he seemed to appreciate and felt comforted by our efforts. He especially liked the petition from Day 2.
27.09.09: Day 4
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On the 4th and final day we decided to lock the door to the flat. Jamal had told us that it wasn’t his home any more, and we were feeling increasingly uncomfortable when visitors would take snap-shots of the interior, or rummage through what was left of Jamal’s presence. (The way we are drawn towards) this form of voyeurism would become the subject of our final response.
We relocated to greet our audience outside the house and gave each visitor a choice, they could either sit down and talk with us about the project, or explore the house, in the knowledge that it provided accommodation for asylum seekers and that Jamal’s application had just been rejected. Inside the house they could use a ladder that we had placed in front of Jamal’s door to peer down into the flat (Jamal always left the small windows above the door open to allow for circulation). Those that decided to explore the house received a small souvenir, a small square cut out of Jamal’s wallpaper.
60-70% of our audience entered the house. Many people asked us if they could do both, to which we would answer no (although in reality there was nothing really stopping them – the house is always open).