Oh THAT Place participated at this year’s Vienna Design Week 2016. The ten-day “Transmigration” program showcased social design projects that encourage positive integration of recent migrants to Vienna.
This was supposed to be an article on “Transmigration”, the project contributed to the Vienna Design Week by the platform “Oh THAT Place”. Even though this is still an article on “Transmigration” and on the work of the three women who set it up, it has somehow evolved into something more personal, which is primarily due to Syrian artist Nisrine Boukhari. As I was sitting in the audience at her artist’s talk, exhausted from a tough week of work and clinging to my iPhone, which was buzzing like crazy, my tired head instantly turned towards the artist when she started to talk. Nisrine Boukhari is that kind of person you can listen to for hours. It might be because of her intonation or the way she uses her hands and her facial play, but most of all it is because of the way she talks about her work. She uses a very clear language, and she is – most importantly – not afraid to get very personal. So I am also going to be a little bit personal here. The talk focused on two of her sculptures she set up in Denmark and Sweden, but it also offered the perspective on what “home” means to someone whose home was taken away. Nadia and Elaine, two of the three women of “Oh THAT Place”, met Nisrine during their studies of social design at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. They invited her as an artist first, Nadia tells me, but Nisrine’s personal experience of being displaced from her country, Syria, which happened while she was already travelling and working abroad, established a somewhat unique setting,
Transmigration as political action
I met the women of “Oh THAT Place” almost a year ago at one of their first events. The platform focuses on the promotion of upcoming designers of different branches, and their Vienna Design Week event was a very complex arrangement of different approaches towards the notion of social design. Nadia and Elaine are both graduates from the academy of applied arts in Vienna, majoring in social design. So you could say they have positioned themselves as experts in setting up a program like that. But they not only bring the academic instruments with them to facilitate “Transmigration”; the women of “Oh THAT Place” bring to their work what is actually essential to these kinds of projects: empathy, interest and the honest attempt to ask questions like: What can design initiatives offer to the integration of people who lost their homes due to war? All of the three founders of “Oh THAT Place” have been wanderers themselves: Kasia was born in Poland and lived in Wales and Denmark before settling in Vienna. Nadia is from Australia and Elaine’s history of wandering touches China and the United States. “Every journey and every change of location was up to my individual choice”, Kasia tells me, which is why her perspective differs from the one of a person, who had no choice but to leave home. When living in a place where nationality and heritage play a crucial role in defining one’s own identity, there are however some parallels in the experience of the curators and the artist. What Nisrine wants the audience to grasp is: When your home is lost, the mind keeps wandering, and when home is lost forever, the mind does not rest.
Transmigration is a pretty strong term, and was chosen very carefully by the team. Casually I ask them, why they chose this title, not thinking ahead. The answer is very political. “It is a heavy term”, Elaine says. And this is exactly why they chose it. “It’s an extremely powerful word, which we never hear in the context of the refugee situation”, Nadia adds. Providing not only a platform to re-establish relationships, “Transmigration” leaves a lot of space for meaning and, most importantly, it has a hopeful notion to it. In the light of war and loss there is still the possibility of a new start, and the possibility to contribute one’s own knowledge, skills, creativity, ideas or thoughts to it. Transmigration does not ignore pain, but it also does not ignore opportunity.
Ignorance is bliss
While there is a vivid discourse on social design on the hands of theorists and designers themselves, I want to talk a little bit more about the political, yet personal aspect of this. I spent the summer of 2015 being irritated by how right-wing populism could be fueled by the images of people who went through hell and were trying to find a future in Europe. “Oh THAT Place” did not only curate a ten-day program, which featured grassroots social design projects, focusing on creative methods to encourage positive integration of migrants and refugees in Vienna, it also turned my attention back to our responsibility to actively participate in this process. As Elaine puts it, when I ask her why they invited Nisrine for an extensive artist’s talk: “What is especially impressive is her persistent effort on injecting empathy in her work, under the current circumstances. Her personal experience reflected in the creative vision, which added more layers of depths into the message she aims to deliver.”
Nisrine Boukhari is the living opposite of ignorance: she describes her artistic process in detail and explains the way she gets to know a city - its inhabitants, its environment, its architecture, its political and socio-demographic landscape and, most importantly, what “home” essentially means in a specific place. When feeling the constant unrest of a wandering mind, not being able to truly settle down, one might answer to ignorance with ignorance. But Nisrine Boukhari follows a radical counter-strategy, which makes it almost impossible not to find oneself in a critical position. While Nisrine elaborates on the wooden sculpture she set up in six different Danish cities, I keep wondering how many people are actually making the same effort to get involved in the stories of other peoples’ lives. Nistrine’s artistic process is not only considered, concrete and attentive, it is also an ideal template for building new relations in a new place. The more I think about it, the more exhausted I get – especially by the idea of how much effort is put into it – and how much effort people make to start a new life. “Transmigration” is one of the many initiatives that facilitate the process of simply connecting people. For the limited time it was running, it was a perfect example of how a specific context connects initiatives with each other, and how ignorance can be levered by content. At the end of the day, Elaine adds, good design goes beyond meeting the aesthetics standpoint - it surpasses functionality and elevates the user experience to education and self-reflection.
Nisrine Boukhari is a very passionate person, and also a very honest one. When taking a closer look at her work, it is obvious that the same effort she puts into her preparation, she also puts into her work, which is meaningful beyond every detail. And although she also tells stories of frustrating incidents and of xenophobic stereotypes, it is obvious that she, nevertheless, succeeds in understanding what home means to the people she meets. Because she makes an effort to do so. “Make more of an effort!”, I note to myself, feeling completely unable not to let her talk make an impact on me. Next time I meet a wandering mind, I will be more mindful, because everyone who has a place, a feeling, a region or a family which defines as “home”, is damn lucky to have one.