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Saving refugees without talking to them

This summer’s best production of Much Ado about Nothing doesn’t have anything to do with Shakespeare – it’s the anticlimactic Eating Refugees action from the Center for Political Beauty. Now that it's over, Lily Kelting asks what it accomplished.

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Center for Political Beauty: Eating Refugees

This summer’s best production of Much Ado about Nothing doesn’t have anything to do with Shakespeare at all – it’s the anticlimactic Eating Refugees art action from the Center for Political Beauty. The dust has settled, the tigers are back in the zoo in Saarland, and I’ve had some time to mull it over.

First – in case you didn’t catch the giant tiger cage just off Unter den Linden in front of the Gorki theatre for the last two weeks – here’s what you missed:

Eating Refugees is about a piece of legislation which prohibits transportation companies from bringing people into the EU without a visa. This, the Center for Political Beauty asserts, is why refugees waiting in Turkish camps can’t simply get on a flight to Berlin and instead attempt to swim or take small, overcrowded boats across the Mediterranean. So the CPB offered an ultimatum to the German government – they prepared a plane with 100 refugees to come to Berlin and asked for crowd-sourcing – if the government changed the law, this plane would fly and the 100 refugees would be reunited with their families. If not, the CPB announced that a refugee living in Berlin would be sacrificed to the four caged tigers outside the Gorki as a tribute.

A clock on the side of the tiger cage counted down to June 28, öffentlicher Üntergang. But hundreds gathered, the timer hit zero… and nothing happened. Air Berlin cancelled the chartered flight that the CPB had arranged. The volunteer tribute, Syrian actress May Skaf, gave a speech from the point of view of the tigers, who claimed that they would not eat her. Let me make something clear – it was a disappointing outcome. But not – as the Center for Political Beauty’s dramaturgy suggests – because I ought to question myself and my bloodthirstiness. It’s the heavy-handedness of this reproach.

In working at the intersection of political protest and agitprop theater, Eating Refugees fails to be either effective politics or effective theater. If it was all a polemic, why not make the piece tighter and even more threatening, rather than the convoluted flowchart released in dribs and drabs through press releases? Why the strange amateurish-and-not-in-that-radical-circus-way Not und Spiele? What was accomplished here, exactly, except for bringing attention to a small piece of legislation which – to these untrained eyes – seems like small potatoes with the EU-Turkey referendum limiting refugee immigration so severely?

And then there’s an even thornier critique – the overwhelming majority of the Center for Political Beauty members are white. To put a point on it, as far as I can tell, this work isn’t being done in alliance with asylum seekers – it’s being done for them. And this kind of white-saviour-charity thing has a long and not-so-pretty history. As Lila Abu-Lhugod writes in Do Muslim Women Need Saving?: “As anthropologists, feminists, or concerned citizens, we should be wary of taking on the mantles of those 19th century Christian missionary women who devoted their lives to saving their Muslim sisters… One can hear uncanny echoes of their virtuous goals today, even though the language is secular, the appeals not to Jesus but to human rights or the liberal West.” Which is to say, the CPB might use the “plight of these poor refugees” as part of appeals to human rights, but one doesn’t need to look far to see the link to missionary and colonial pasts.

I’m not a betting woman. But if I were, I would bet that when the Center for Political Beauty become big-name, internationally famous artists, when documenta invites the Center for Political Beauty to present their work, when Audi sponsors their next project, none of the refugees associated with this project will be invited alongside, and they won’t see a cent. As Abu-Lhugod contines, “Can we use a more egalitarian language of alliances, coalitions, and solidarity, instead of salvation?”

The global refugee crisis is a humanitarian emergency in which we are all implicated. But instrumentalizing refugee stories and insisting on the audience’s guilt and complicity isn’t helping to mitigate this crisis. In these complex and uncertain times, the Center for Political Beauty presents a moral world of black-and-white, eat-or-be-eaten, in which one is either blameless saviour or complicit murderer. But as the group’s inability or unwillingness to take a clear stance on June 28 shows, the all-or-nothing world of their polemic isn’t the one in which we live.