The freedom of moving through borders

Sep 07, 2015

A concern for the politics of geography and the reality of migration informs the work of Tímea Anita Oravecz. For this blog post, Curatorial and Research Fellow Laurel McLaughlin speaks with Oravecz about the the possibility of migrating across political and ideological borders, and her own moral imperative to empathize and support other migrants. Informed by her Hungarian identity, her work interrogates the agenda of the European Union as concerns inclusion and exclusion, and the human necessity to explore "elsewhere."

Laurel McLaughlin is a Curatorial and Research Fellow at Slought, and a graduate student at Bryn...

Timea Anita Oravecz, Performance documentation of Wishes flying up to the stars, 2010

Timea Anita Oravecz, Performance documentation of Wishes flying up to the stars, 2010

I'm interested in the transgressory aspect of your practice with migration, the fact that you had to forge documents and lie – how did this shape your identity as a migrant and affect your practice?

Yes, each time I went to another country I had this cross to bear. I needed to earn money in order to survive. In Austria for example, I didn't have a permit to stay or work, so I had to do both illegally. Everyday I was in a state of paranoia. In order to have the visa, you needed papers and a substantial amount of money in your bank account (which covers the whole cost of your life for one year; that amount was the same as the cost of my parent's flat in Hungary). I couldn't even apply for a work permit while I was a full-time student because it was forbidden. For two years I lived and worked illegally. I had to and it was very risky.

In my three-channel video Cosmopolitan, the work from 2009, I talked about this. It was in 2004 when Hungary became an EU member, but we didn't have the right to stay in Western Europe immediately. We didn't have the same rights as the other citizens from EU countries. At that time I was in Italy, and I won a prize to research in Berlin as an Italian student. To get my monthly scholarship in Germany I needed to have an Italian bank account and for that I had to have my home residency in Italy. I also needed health insurance that would be valid in the EU. At the end of my studies in Italy, I did not have health insurance anymore and it wasn't possible to get it without paying fees. So the only solution was to get an EU insurance card (I thought) from Hungary where it was possible to get it for payment; but for that I had to be resident in Budapest. But to be resident in Budapest and in Venice at the same time is illegal! They told me that I had to decide where I wanted to live. So the only solution was to lie and tell the authorities that I was living in Budapest. I never said a word about my life in Italy.

In Cosmopolitan, I explain these difficulties that contradicted each other during my residencies. For sure it is not without to risk to declare all of this in my video work, but I wanted to point out that the EU is not a real UNION (maybe just in the economic way) but surely not for the people who want to move freely and live among the EU countries.

Your piece Camping Europa from 2014 involved developing close communal ties with migrants from Africa– what did you observe and how did your practice respond?

In my piece Camping Europa, I was inspired by observing the immigrants from Africa living in the middle of the Kreuzberg district in tents. They started camping there as a protest against the law that restricts their movement within Germany to a maximum of 50 km around their assigned zones. They also protested for their right to stay in Germany and to work, study, and resist deportation. But things did not change and they stayed there for one and a half years. The district inhabitants supported them, but they were opposed and attacked by the Neo-Nazis.

Many of them arrived through Lampedusa in Italy, where they received two hundred Euro from the government in order to leave Italy. So then they came to Germany. But since they entered the EU in Italy they could not ask for refugee status in Germany. They just wanted a normal life like everybody else. After one and half years of protesting they only got temporary housing. So actually nothing was solved, nothing changed. I knew them for two years and sometimes I helped them and bought them food. I even made a video with them and many people participated, but in the end I never showed it. The concept was to show the difficulty of getting a German visa when one doesn't know the language. I researched the German laws concerning political refugee status and I gave them this text and asked them to read it in front of the camera. But it was so difficult for them; they could not even begin to read the text. In the end, it seemed almost ridiculous - mostly because they also themselves would laugh about it. I decided not to show it because my intention was not to make a joke of them. Maybe one day I will see this video differently, but I thought that at the time, it would be not right to publish. It was my intention to show their difficulties, but it was much more extreme than even I thought.

What are some solutions to the questions that you raise about migration – do you think it begins on a cultural level or political level?

Yes, it's a very big topic. In Germany and in my country, Hungary, there are so many problems. The actual Hungarian government just built a huge wall on the border between Hungary and Serbia to keep migrants out, for instance. It is happening so soon after the Berlin Wall, which Hungarians helped to take down. In that time of 1989, Austria and Hungary opened their borders to East Germans. So I just can't believe this now. It's a shame!

The right-wing in Hungary is probably afraid of the unknowns. For many years, all ex-communist countries were isolated from the rest of the world and never needed to deal with migration. Why would anybody want to come to Hungary? Hungarians themselves also wanted to leave. Is it something totally new for Hungarians, and the people will need time to get used to it. The only thing that could help to solve this stupid hate is to create personal relationships, which would change everything. It's on a cultural level with empathy.

Probably everybody has a solution as to how stop the migration, but some of the countries form the EU and other capitalist countries around the world have exploited places like Africa for hundreds of years. These EU countries should consider it their responsibility to help these people. Investments in an African future, and helping their economies grow, would provide people with local hope. But this this is the opposite of their economic interests, so probably they won't do it.

Given these bureaucratic struggles with migration, what was the reaction to your piece Time Lost, the piece showing your passport, when you installed it in billboard form (in 2008)?

Well Hungary has become a transitory land in the last few years, people come here as part of the EU in order to go somewhere else. But before, not so much. I had a show in 2006 with a Serbian artist Katarina Sevic and we had similar themes in our work (without knowing it). My work was based on experiences as a Hungarian abroad for many years and hers focused on living in Budapest as a foreigner exactly from the same time when I left. It was called Packing Case, 2006 the exhibition, and in that time there weren't any other Hungarian artists working with issues of immigration. The billboard showed a huge personal visa on it. I also wanted to exhibit something that wasn't in the Budapest thematic. But now, with large amounts of immigrants arriving in Europe, it's something that we have to confront urgently. I also showed a huge personal visa on a billboard in 2014 as another project.

Your dealings with migration are influenced by your Hungarian identity – could you describe your national sense of identity, which you investigated in your piece Socreality, 2003?

Socreality was an earlier piece, and it later also became the title of my final thesis for the Academy of Fine Art in Venice. The video was made using the motif of Western "reality shows;" but ironically, my "reality show" was made in Hungary in the 80s and mid 90s. I wanted to show everyday life during communism, showing the real life of the people within the Socialistic Regime. I had this wish from when I used to live in Austria, Spain, and Italy when everyone asked me about those those times. The people born in a western context thought that socialism was something good (especially in Italy where communism was fighting back against fascism); people often thought that it was something super romantic, that it was nice that everyone had the same possibilities. I always told them that yes, everyone had the same (more or less), but everyone was also poor. The video was shown in many places, and it was one of my first works. I used recorded pieces from the TV daily news and propagandist films from the Hungarian film archive. They were films about how "good communist people" should live their lives. It shows happy families in block-houses; happy pioneers at the school. It showed a lie that we should've desired. I used those archival videos and inserted my personal childhood photos into them. I discovered that the life of my family perfectly corresponded to the model of a typical socialist family without realizing it before.

You critique the EU bureaucracy and contradictions implicit in the law, and you've mentioned that you ultimately want to be free of dependencies on nationalisms—do you see yourself as a nomad? Do you see this as a type of utopia?

It seems that we are free, but we are actually not free. I am an intellectual nomad and I left Hungary in 1998 and I've lived in five countries. It's generationally a tendency to move around, especially for artists. It's something special about our generation. My parents couldn't do that, but our generation can "freely" leave to work and live. At the same time, regulations were inflexible with this idea in the EU.

Your practice intimately engages with the discourse of migratory aesthetics – a merger of the local and global within an artistic format. How did you begin to work with this idea?

In all my work I am looking for freedom and I am very conscious of this. Like when two years before I got my first contract to rent my flat where I live now —it was the first time that I had something permanent after sixteen years of moving around Europe and the US. With this flat, comes a lot of paperwork and contracts for electric, gas, water, telephone, internet and so on so sometimes I want to just run away. It's like my collages where I tried to escape from reality, and to wish to be somewhere else. The urge to leave is both Eastern European and also an instinct in globalization. So we can escape trauma and poverty. But now I feel the need to escape from the everyday existence of things and bureaucracy, which just makes my life more complicated. I wish to be out of the material world and out of consumer society as much as this age will allow.

Do you see your work as a type of healing, or escapism?

I heard all these things as a child about nomads and heard also about Catholic pilgrimages too, but I was never very interested until 2009 when I went for holiday in Spain. I joined a pilgrimage on someone else's project and I was curious if maybe I would become a believing Catholic at the end of the journey. During this month when I was walking 800 km crossing the whole of Spain, I thought a lot about the history of the ancient Hungarians and their nomadic past. I kind of thought of myself as an intellectual nomad also before, but for many years I just focused on the physical act of moving through the borders. From that time forward I also investigated shamanism, the ancient beliefs of the nomadic people who moved freely between parallel universes and unknown dimensions that today we call "imaginary journeys." I understand that maybe that kind of journey could be a solution for contemporary people in their everyday material lives – giving them a kind of freedom or just something to believe in.

As an artist, I always wanted to make something useful, pointing out problems. At the beginning I was working on my own experiences, but then I wanted to help others too. So I began working with immigrant groups. I was critical of material reality, consumerism, because I had lived without these luxuries and I was thinking about the simple nomadic life. I put all these ideas together and I realized that I wanted to be a kind of guide for other immigrants.

Could you discuss the relational guiding element in your work Transparent Rooms from 2010 that engaged with Russian and Vietnamese communities in Marzahn, Berlin?

Yes, I got a DAAD scholarship in Berlin in 2008 and I wanted to work with the people living in a similar suburb and district to that of which I grew up in Budapest. This East German periphery district called Marzahn was the largest social housing project built during the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik, or the German Democratic Republic) time of the 80s and it was a kind of exemplar of modern communist life. It was displayed proudly by the communistic propaganda, demonstrating the power of the DDR. After 1989 when the borders were opened, people immediately left from East Germany and went to the West. Thousands of flats were empty in Berlin; so when the first immigrants arrived, mostly from the former Soviet Union and from Vietnam, they settled in temporary residences such as Marzahn. They remained living there after they have got their papers as well.

Vietnamese immigrants already started to arrive during the DDR time as temporary exchange workers between the DDR and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (and also other socialistic countries). Originally they could stay for five years. But because of the extreme poverty that the Vietnam War caused, they didn't wanted to return their homeland after their 5 years contract. They did everything in order to stay in Germany in any cost.

I met these women who stayed, when I used to visit the local community house called "Container," which was for many years a meeting point and a second home for the neighborhood residents. It was mostly frequented by Vietnamese, Russian, and also Germans women. I started taking videos as documents of their activities during their community programs —cooking, art laboratory, wood workshops.

In 2009, I met the director of a municipal gallery in the district and she invited me for a solo show in 2010. During the same period, the Council of the District of Marzahn made decision to close the Kiezhaus Container. After Container closed down, I decided to use part of the exhibition space in Gallery M to give to the community of Container a new place to continue the activities previously held in the Kiezhaus. My intention was to emphasize the transparency of the Gallery M building, to turn it into a 'transparent' meeting point and give the activity of this local community as much visibility as possible. I aimed to raise the awareness of the inhabitants in the area about the communal situation and to provide them with an opportunity to get involved. Alongside the exhibition, I organized workshops with women of different nationalities, which sought to find a universal language of commitment, patience and tolerance, with art being the tool to recount stories of real life.

The project was conceived in three parts referring to the ideas of future, present and past. The workshops and the other activities represented moments of the present. The workshop room was visible from the outside, expressing the idea of the future potentialities for cultural interaction. At the same time, I was interested in showing the past of Container by creating a dialogue with the space of Gallery M through a series of big photographs mounted on the walls of the gallery and documenting the empty rooms of Container after its closedown. Another series of small photos featured small signs –scratches, marks, and traces – left as a legacy of the 'spirit' of these women in Container spaces.

These Vietnamese and Russian women had come to Berlin thinking that Germany was a dreamland. It was a paradox because in Berlin there was a lot of Neo-Nazi violence in the district of Marzahn. But they still considered Berlin to be a paradise (even with these gray blockhouses) when they arrived from extreme poverty. And these women all communed together, Vietnamese, Russian, and German, and they found some sort of paradise in that meeting place where everybody worked together for a common future.

I always wanted to work with immigrant communities, but I never wanted to use them. Some artists I have met maybe don't understand the complexity of that situation or are just not prepared for that kind of misery. Or even worse, some just want to be "fashionable" and are take fast pictures and videos of impoverished people abroad to make money in western countries. I have worked with immigrants for fifteen years and I always wanted to make works that would help them.

With society gradually becoming more mobile, do you think that "Transnationalism" will change society and does it factor into your practice?

Yes, I mean I am Hungarian, but I used to live in Italy for so many years. A very big part of me is also Italian in a way. I speak the language, I can cook Italian foods and I have so many friends there. It's a funny thing, that in one day I speak three languages, if not four. I have constant contact with people all over the world. People have histories and identities in other places.

What are your current projects and how do they work with or evolve from ideas concerning immigration in your previous work?

I am starting to research this idea about growing up in another place – for instance, if I grew up in the US instead of during socialism in Hungary. Would I be an artist? What kind of art would I make? It's an interesting thing to think about – not being myself. I don't know if I will be another "real person" or a fiction, but I would like to fake my past in this project. I may switch identities with someone, placing them in other contexts and histories.

Timea Anita Oravecz, Still from Socreality, 2003

Timea Anita Oravecz, Video still from Socreality, 2003