Die Bärliner - The Bard College Berlin Student Blog

Veronika doing silk acrobatics around campus (Credit: Anna Zakelj)

IKEA recently sponsored a performance piece staged by the theater troupe led by BCB second-year Veronika Rišňovská (HAST). The challenge? Create an engaging, interactive performance — in a shopping mall. How to go about such a project, in a site like a shopping mall, where interactions with strangers are typically minimal and people arrive to shop, not be distracted by theater? Veronika and I sat down to discuss her theater troupe’s creative process and performances, and the possible future of the modern shopping mall.

 

Music:

  1. “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits
  2. Excerpts from shopping mall advertisements as found here, here, and here.

 

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Anonymous woman holding #MeToo sign. (Credit: Pixabay)

The first time someone touched me without my consent, I was in middle school. I think it was in the 7th grade and I was turned to my friends who were sitting at the desk behind me, when a boy grabbed my left breast out of nowhere. I was wearing a purple sweater and a training bra that barely gave any shape to my still-growing breasts. At least, I think that was the first time. It happened a lot in my middle school; it definitely happened to most of my friends.

I tried to speak out. I told our homeroom teacher and she yelled at the boys in our class in front of the girls, telling them that this was wrong. But no real disciplinary measures were taken. Most of the boys (at least in my class) engaged in non-consensual touching, and it seemed that the school didn’t want to deal with disciplining such a large number of students. Eventually, our complaints were simply met with different versions of “boys will be boys”. They were just in “that phase” when they were discovering their sexual urges and, apparently, no one was going to stop these boys from acting on them.

Two memories from middle school stand out. The first is of a few of the more “popular” boys making fun of another, less “popular”, boy – we’ll call him Filip — because he had never felt a girl’s butt. I even remember thinking it strange that he hadn’t. I, a girl, had internalized the gendered logic that the boys in my class had absorbed and then recreated. What made one masculine was sexual power over feminine people. Eventually, Filip got this mark of masculinity, too. There was no adult around to tell them that this logic was harmful because, of course, this was the logic of the adult world as well. 

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BCB Promotional Poster for Champ of the Camp (2014). (Credit: BCB)

Mahmoud Kaabour’s film Champ of the Camp (2014)  opens up with the song of a South Asian man set against the backdrop of a modernistic building covered in glass windows. The song is called “Long Separation” and the setting is the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This sort of  juxtaposition becomes thematic of the movie: the poor migrant worker stands in front of a luxurious building that was built by people like him but that will never be a space he could inhabit. The man sings: “No one knows my unknown story.” Through the film, Kaabour attempts to tell the story of this man and many others like him in the first ever documentary about the controversial labor camps in the UAE.

On the 7th of December, BCB showed just who and what are behind the shiny skyscrapers of the Emirates. We were lucky enough to have the Lebanese/UAE director Mahmoud Kaabour at the screening to discuss his award-winning documentary Champ of the Camp with us. The documentary was filmed in the UAE labor camps that house migrant workers from South Asia who are mainly employed as manual laborers in construction. For years, no one was allowed to film in these camps as it would cause controversy for the UAE: This kept these workers practically invisible to the international community. After years of trying to get the film permits, Kaabour and his team were finally allowed to shoot this film under the guise of making a documentary about a singing/talent competition for the migrant workers organized by Western Union.

“We were talking about the labor issue without talking about the labor issue. Otherwise, [the UAE government] would’ve shut us down,” explained Kaabour after the screening. Even though its tone is neutral, just with its existence, The Champ of the Camp has given the Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers of the UAE a voice — a narrative voice as well as a singing one —  that they sorely lacked. 

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A man on his daily commute (Credit: Elisa Soto J.)*

Venezuela’s pain has grown to unimaginable heights. With the highest known oil reserves in the world, it was once the richest country in Latin America. Now, inflation soars while GDP plummets. Murder rates are at an all time high and basic medicine is barely accessible. The humanitarian crisis has led tens of thousands to leave their home. All carry a piece of that pain with them; among them, my best friend.

We met at boarding school in 2013 around the time the crisis took a turn for the worst. After Nicolás Maduro’s election that year, conditions worsened. As my friend and I grew closer, she confided in me her fears. There were feelings of betrayal and defeat, but mostly of utter powerlessness. She would stay up all night trying to stay connected. Distance takes most of your power away; the one thing you can do is stay informed. You latch onto information — reading and sharing, reading and sharing. Unfortunately, most news is bad news.

With the best intentions, 16 year-old me attempted to help. Working within my frame of reference, I treated it as I would any other heartbreak.

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Una with the partisan women in Zagreb, Croatia (Credit: Personal Archives)

Una Blagojevic, a Serbian 2013 BA graduate, has been around the world. Currently residing in Budapest, Hungary and beginning her master’s thesis at the Central European University, Una looks back on her time at Bard Berlin, then ECLA*, with great fondness. I sat down for a late-night Skype chat with Una to discuss the transformative and orienting powers of core courses, her shift from Berlin to London to Uganda to France to Budapest, and the consistent and enduring eccentricities of Pankow wildlife.**

Tell me about your time in Uganda.

My Uganda trip was quite amazing! After I left ECLA, I was planning to stay in Berlin for my  master’s, but the program I applied for was all in German, and my knowledge of German was not high enough. I also couldn’t find any scholarships to do my master’s in England, so I was quite unhappy and disappointed. And then, just totally coincidentally, a friend of mine saw that there was a safari company in Uganda looking for interns, which was a totally new thing for me because it had nothing to do with my undergraduate education at all.  

Right. After four years of doing school, this is something completely different.

Yes, totally different! Sometimes when I tell people that I spent a year working for a safari company they think that this was some kind of place where people go to shoot animals, and I would never do something like that. I didn’t do that and this was not that kind of company. They had some lodges all around Uganda, large lodges in the savannas of a national park called Kidepo Valley. I spent approximately four months there. It was so beautiful. I was always in nature, helping out. My tasks also included working in an office and helping with boring administrative stuff, documents, calculating budgets in Excel. I always wanted to escape from this sort of work after finishing my Gymnasium. There, in Serbia, you usually go and work or study in a department, like natural sciences, math or physics After I finished Gymnasium  I said ‘Never again!’ and then I turned to humanities. It was nice to do it again in Uganda, though.  

What was the community in Uganda like?

Even though the administrative work was boring, I was very close with the staff, helping out as much as I could and also hanging around with the guests. It was a very small, intimate approach to work, so we would all eat at a big table and they would serve us and we would all sit and talk about which animals we’ve seen and things like that. Sometimes I felt like it was strange because it was a place where very rich people would come and spend time in a ‘wonderful African, Ugandan experience’. Sometimes I was kind of not sure what to think of myself being there. But I had this great time where every day was filled with new and crazy experiences. I lived in a small hut, too, made out of wood and leaves and such: They tried to make it as natural as possible to give an ‘explorer’s experience’. I lived in one of these, and in the morning I heard animals making such crazy sounds, and, even though the hut was off the ground for security reasons, we would get woken up by screaming animals. It was always wild boars.

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“If desire [in a society] is repressed, it is because every position of desire…is capable of calling into question the established order of society…it is revolutionary in its essence…It is therefore of vital importance for a society to repress desire, and even to find something more efficient than repression, so that repression, hierarchy, exploitation, and servitude are themselves desired…that does not at all mean that desire is something other than sexuality, but that sexuality and love do not live in the bedroom of Oedipus, they dream instead of wide-open spaces, and…do not let themselves be stocked within an established order.”

— Gilles Deleuze, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia

Stencil graffiti depicting Elmahdy, in the form of the nude blog photo of herself. Its text also refers to the case of Samira Ibrahim. (Credit: Women in the Revolution)

In his essay Arab Porn (2017), the Egyptian author and journalist Youssef Rakha deconstructs an aspect of Egypt’s cultural history of the new millennium. He makes a case for how and why amateur Arab pornography acts as a political tool against the sexually repressive status quo. He attempts to account for the failures of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 by connecting the activists’ shortcomings and ultimately frustration to the nature of Arab porn, which is reflective of the Egyptian society’s approach to sexuality, culture, politics and change. Sharing Rakha’s views, I see the Egyptian Revolution as a failed one: It replaced a military dictator with a misogynistic Islamic fundamentalist one, turning the country into a theocracy that was later overthrown in a military coup to have Egypt return once more to military dictatorship.

While Egypt does not have an official porn industry, if one searches for Arab Porn, plenty of home-made, low-quality videos can be found. Through a voyeuristic gaze, Rakha analyses various porn videos (links to which are included in his book), and draws what I perceive as far-fetched connections between the amateur porn industry, the Arab Spring in general, and Egypt specifically.

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Credit: Plato and Aristotle in discussion (Credit: Raphael, from “The School of Athens”)

In the context of the two recent Liberal Arts days on BCB’s campus that sought to examine the meaning of liberal arts studies and the role of discourse within them, a recent op-ed for The New York Times titled “The Dying Art of Disagreement” was shared with the student body. In his speech, former Wall Street Journal contributor Bret Stephens details the allegedly tragic loss of ‘proper’ discourse on American college campuses, by which he means discourse which contains productive disagreements. He illustrates a world in which the ideologies of “junior totalitarian” college students engender the “bullying” of speakers they don’t like. He paints their vitriol against mostly conservative speakers as the result of an early “miseducation,” as the ugly culmination of an illiberal culture that has engendered a culture of ideological intolerance, in which those who would seek to educate themselves in higher thought irrationally bar the thoughts of those with whom they disagree. He decries a phenomenon that has been discussed ad nauseam in regards to U.S. institutions of higher education. What usually follows from these debates is an ambiguous call for the return to an alleged prior culture of ideological tolerance — a call that assumes such a time existed and ignores the fact that historically marginalized people’s voices have rarely been welcomed in the realm of this “tolerance”. Whether or not this is Stephens’ goal, his proposal ultimately amounts to a call for the rectification of the alleged “infantilization” of today’s youth in the US.

To support his arguments, Stephens calls forth his time at the University of Chicago, where he was taught the art of “interrogation.” His time there, he says, was not blemished by dogmatic instruction, but rather enriched by the freedom to interpret the texts he read with an open-mind: one could say he engaged in charitable reading before considering and potentially disagreeing with the ideas the texts presented. This form of education, so central to the project of the liberal arts, is being lost, according to Stephens. The liberal education that he received is being replaced by a reflexive, almost dogmatic opposition to those who  have unpopular opinions. At the University of Chicago, Stephens learned to “cultivate an open mind” and to “treat no proposition as sacred.”

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Stepping through gauzy curtains (Credit: Clara Fung, Institute for Art and Architecture, University of Fine Arts, Vienna)

Spatial memory is a term often used to describe the neurological process of recalling where something happened or where an object was placed. This type of memory is also used to project into the future, to plan a route to a desired location.

It is hard to consider spatial memory without invoking a poetic light. What is this intangible part of us that is tied to places and our memories of them? How is it that we can still recall the layout of a childhood home despite not having stepped foot in it in years?

The themes of the “Tread Softly” exhibit included “the city, migration, and memory”. The title is an allusion to the W.B. Yeats poem, “The Cloths of Heaven”, where he writes, “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” [*1] It considered how the cities we live in become the space in which we operate, tenderly attending to ideas of spatial memories, among others.

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