We listen to a student presentation on Eisenhüttenstadt, one of the first socialist planned cities. It now hosts a refugee camp.
It's name is Eisenhüttenstadt – one of the first true planned socialist cities. Located in East Germany, it was built around a steel mill and provided everything that people would need for leisure time, economic needs, work, necessary architecture, everything. It was supposed to be a kind of utopia – it was founded in 1950 and, by 1988, it had a population of 53,000. Today there's almost half that.
Students from Viadrina University, the institute hosting our Viadrinicum program, decided to go there to research another planned city that cropped up in recent years: a central immigration institution which operated as a registration center for people seeing asylum. A refugee camp, basically. Not unlike the one I was sleeping in just a week and a half ago in Denmark. People go through the first steps of the asylum process in a building formerly housing a riot squad, located twenty minutes from the center by foot. The place was designed for 500 residents before being upgraded for 1085. There were 670 when the students were doing their research.
There were between ten and fifteen of them with different interests, coming from different graduate programs with different BA degrees behind them. They were self-organized, the three representatives tell us. Looking to see what connections there are between the city and the camp. The city continues to shrink. Why is the camp here? How do people feel on either side of a very real dividing line? Do locals meet refugees or are they cut off?
The students took photos and then gave disposable cameras to local folks and people in the camps, letting them take pictures from Friday until Sunday. Then they were interviewed about their choices. Why they did what they did, how did they feel. The students took videos, audio statements from folks and from the city. They spread them out across two rooms in Viadrina and we shuffle between them. We hear some voices.
"I felt like a journalist, ha! I like taking pictures."
"Sometimes I just tell myself I'm living in a hostel, or in the university."
"I saw a little girl and I said hello and she ran away. She hid behind her mom. You understand?"
"We don't go to the city. I haven't gone to the city."
"We wake up, we do nothing, we go to bed."
"We live like prisoners – if they find out we have a cell phone they tap that. We have no privacy. We can't talk to our families because we know that everything we do is monitored. That's why I say we live like prisoners."
"Wait," one of our guys says during the Q&A we have after. What does it mean that you give them polaroids? It gives everything this nostalgic glance – everything, aesthetically, looks very fine. Have you thought about the implications of that? That these look aesthetic and not like simple documentation?
Then others chime in. What was the aim of the project? Did people have the right to edit their own photos? I see you here, I see you all over the project, and what does it mean that these people you interview are still absent? Why does everyone complain, why don't they recognize positive things in their position? Are people saying things that we don't want to hear?
In the discussion after we walk through their material, everyone in the group is quick to enter into the tensions. Who is the exhibition for, and what material will be excluded? The first was in Neukölln, a trendy part of Berlin where the audience will very likely be quite specific.They tell us that if they go back to Eisenhüttenstadt for another exhibition they don't know if they would include the material implying the townsfolk are racist. Some ask if they have a right to withhold that. Others ask if they have the right to hold a mirror up to the town and then leave.
I don't know if the students felt attacked by our questions – I hope not. It's a debate they opened up with their very work, which is a kind of success. But these are questions that everyone here has to (and has, I'm sure) ask themselves. What responsibilities do we have when we document people? What are the ethics involved? Do I have a right to represent someone? How much of me, in the end, is swimming around in the work I collect from others?