Not even a hundred thousand life jackets can keep Europe’s foundering asylum and refugee policy afloat. This becomes clear as you stand face to face with freelance photographer Rasmus Degnbol’s pictures from Lesbos, which recently won the main award in the “Open Category” at the Danish 2015 Press Photo of the Year Awards, held and exhibited at The National Museum of Photography in Copenhagen. Degnbol’s photographic series Europe’s New Borders won the award for offering “an entirely new angle” on the “story of the year”, as the jury puts it.
Degnbol has photographed the borderlands of Europe by means of a homemade drone. The result is a series of magnificent spectacles that present apocalyptic tableaux from a militaristic bird’s eye view: an ocean of thousands upon thousands of beached life jackets, looking like an abstract painting in orange and black. An empty lifeboat on a deserted beach full of punctured dinghies, life jackets and car tyres.
While these images are splendidly composed and hyper-aesthetic, one can hardly call them beautiful. Their view is void of horizons, literally speaking, and with their insistent focus on the traces of the masses, the crowds and the darkness they flirt with the sublime: these images depict something terrifying while we as spectators can draw comfort from the fact that we only face these terrors in a comfortable, brightly lit gallery space. The frisson of mingled horror and delight offered by Degnbol’s documentary images is annoyingly attractive, and it is hardly surprising that his photographs win awards.
However, it is harder to see why the jury states that the series offers an “entirely new angle” on “the story of the year”, unless they specifically refer to the use of a drone. Surely the sublime is very much a privileged aesthetic framework for the portrayal of the so-called migration and refugee crisis? Just think of the politicians’ endless use of bombastic metaphors from nature that effectively reduce this political crisis to a fearful encounter with uncontrolled “waves” and “tsunamis” of migrants that “hit” Europe. Or think of the dramatic arrangements of crowds, masses and darkness that dominate the various artistic replies to the crisis that have been circulating in the media, such as Ai Wei Wei’s use of 14,000 discarded life jackets from Lesbos to wrap the columns of the Berlin concert hall, Jason deCaires Taylor’s perverse underwater sculpture park Museo Atlantico outside of Lanzarote, or the rapper M.I.A.’s insistent query: “Borders, what’s up with that?” made against a backdrop of anonymous migrants in the music video accompanying the pop song Borders. If sublime images such as these appear to be providing entirely new angles on “the story of year”, it might be worth asking: New angles in relation to what, and for whom?
There was nothing sublime about the action group Castaway Souls of Sjælsmark/Denmark’s performance The Right to Have Rights! during the opening of the group exhibition The Dividing Line: Film and Performance Art about Border Control and Crossing Borders at the exhibition venue CAMP: Centre for Migration Political Art in Copenhagen in early March. The group consists of rejected asylum activists who have been placed in the “departure centre” (for which read: deportation camp) Sjælsmark north of Copenhagen, a place operated by the Danish Prison and Probation Service. Over the course of the last six months the group have arranged a number of actions protesting against the Danish asylum system and its political framework.
Employing a simple school drama format, Castaway Souls of Sjælsmark/Denmark re-enact scenes from the everyday lives of asylum seekers in Denmark: a man is stopped by the police and brought in for questioning, where he is pressured into signing documents in a language he does not understand, but which appear to concern his so-called “voluntary departure”. Another man visits the doctor at the asylum centre with violent stomach pains, but merely gets offhand advice about drinking more water without any in-depth examination. A woman and a man arrive in the camp canteen to have dinner, but are only given a half-filled bowl of soup. Unable to get a refill, they leave the table hungry.
The simple, unspectacular format of this performance underlines the routine aspects of the protagonists’ encounters with institutions and settings that treat asylum seekers as what the philosopher Sylvia Wynter would call a less valued genre of the human: illegalised “migrants” that cannot and should not expect to be treated with even the most basic kind of respect. The staging of these systematic dehumanising processes are without a dramaturgical arch, which makes the scenes stifling and suffocating in all their simplicity. Here you will find no shudder of delightful terror. Instead, by dwelling on stasis and repetition, boredom and frustration the performance draws us into the forms and feelings of the crisis ordinariness in the asylum system.
The Right to Have Rights! pulls us into challenging territory, both aesthetically and politically. Unlike the riveting dramas from the borderlands of Europe, this performance insists that we engage with what is happening right here in our part of the world, in the name of those of us who have a Danish passport or residence permit. The staging acts as a physical manifestation of Castaway Souls of Sjælsmark/Denmark’s attempt at breaking the “silence about the degrading and humiliating conditions under which we are forced to live”, as they put it in the text “Refugee Manifesto” from February this year. Their staging of the insufferable nature of everyday existence within the asylum system thus also points to the attention economy that governs the media and art scenes alike, and which always seems to privilege the sublime event over the routine erosion of the human right to have rights.
It is important to have exhibition venues such as CAMP, which dare to give priority to performances that do not throw out emotional life jackets to their audiences. The Right to Have Rights! serves as a reminder that artistic responses to this political crisis can do more than provide an aesthetic breather – they can also contribute to the struggle for the right to breathe.