Interview with Almir Koldzic for Perfoming Borders
Alessandra Cianetti: Almir, your are the Co-Founder and Co-Director of Counterpoints Arts and your work has been focusing on ‘developing creative strategies for making refugees and migrants’ contributions become more recognised and welcomed within the British arts, history and culture’. How did your commitment and work with refugees start, and why?
Almir Koldzic: I can’t think of one single point in time when I started being interested in displacement. But it must have started with books and literature. I do remember a moment during my studies in ex-Yugoslavia, where I am from, when I came across an excerpt from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. He was talking about exile, about leaving what he called the traps of language, culture, religion, and I remember as a young men being really impressed by it, loving the sense of freedom and willingness to act and question the status quo that he was describing there.
A few years later, in 1995 I came to London to study English literature and wait for the war in Yugoslavia to end. My interest in exile and displacement developed in a more personal way at that point, and has continued to grow ever since.
My first professional experience in the field of arts and displacement was around an exhibition that I initiated while working for the Red Cross in 2005. The exhibition, entitled ‘Insomnia’ was inspired by the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers who we were seeing at the Red Cross at the time. We defined Insomnia as “the inability to access the place of rest, safety and recuperation”. The idea was to invite artists from different backgrounds and experiences or imaginings of displacement to respond to the theme. We also wanted to invite different audiences to use their own experiences in order to relate to refugees and migrants. As part of this exhibition, LADA helped us develop an extensive live art programme. It worked on every level and marked the beginning of a long-standing partnership and friendship between our organisations.
Since ‘Insomnia’ in 2005, I have worked on a range of related projects, exhibitions and initiatives, including developing the identity and the strategy for the Refugee Week; setting up a network called Platforma Arts and Refugee Network; and most recently co-founding Counterpoints Arts – which is fully focused on engaging with refugees and migrants through arts and cultural programmes.
AC: Counterpoints Arts’ mission is ‘to support, produce and promote the arts by and about migrants and refugees, seeking to ensure that their cultural and artistic contributions are recognized and welcomed within British arts, history and culture.’ Counterpoints Arts follows three main strands: ‘enabling’, ‘producing’, and ‘learning’. How do these streams of projects work and intersect? What results do you think they have had so far? Are you happy with the way they have been ‘counterpointing’ the current public rhetoric about (/against) refugees’ voices and needs?
AK: Counterpoints Arts was set up in 2012 and as such is a relatively young charity, although quite a few of the projects now sitting under the Counterpoints Arts umbrella go further back in time. For example, The Platforma project I mentioned earlier was set up in 2010; Refugee Week UK started in 1998 and so on.
What Counterpoints Arts enabled us to do was to create an agency dedicated to arts and cultural approaches to refugees’ and migrants’ experiences. This was important for us because in the past we were developing arts projects within different organisations, (e.g. Dublin Institute of Technology and Refugee Council), often happening on the margins of these organisations, as their missions were broader and less concerned with arts. By setting up Counterpoints Arts we were able to better define our vision and belief that arts has a huge role to play in the context of migration and integration – that it obviously has a capacity to delight and surprise but that it is also an incomparable way of telling human stories; of generating empathy; of reaching beyond policy- and advocacy-based work; of getting people to interact and communicate across difference.
Our three streams (‘enabling’, ‘producing’ and ‘learning’) work and intersect in a range of different ways. Principally, the enabling strand is about building infrastructure and networks across the country that can support emerging talent and new projects in this field. The production strand is about showcasing and “main-streaming” some of that work; and learning is about creating spaces for shared learning and improving practice. All of this is done with a big range of partners from across the country.
As to the question of whether we are happy with the results, of course there are great moments – exciting new artists and ideas; new projects, collaborations and events; feedback from audiences and funders – that make us happy and remind us why it is worthwhile to do what we do. But all of this is framed by a larger context, including by what is happening across Europe and Syria right now, which makes it difficult to linger on successes or indeed be sure about one’s achievements.
AC: In terms of artists you have been collaborating with, I can see that you have a wide range of contributors from many art practices and to go back to the focus of this blog, Live Art, I can see that you have been collaborating with Natasha Davis, the duo There There, and as part of dis\placed 2015 with Richard DeDomenici and the Live Art Development Agency on the panel ‘live art and dis\placed’ chaired by Lois Keidan. What do you think Live Art interventions add to the explorations, research and projects Counterpoints Arts run? What drove you towards this approach to addressing refugees’ voices? Would you mind to telling me a bit more about the artists you have been working with?
AK: We work in different ways and with different artists and we often work collaboratively.
One example is our collaboration with Richard DeDomenici, whom I met almost ten years ago, when he was looking for support for his refugee boy band project. At first I thought his idea was crazy, but after an introduction from Lois Keidan I had a few conversations with Richard, and we all then ended up working on what became the ‘Fame Asylum’ project and documentary by Channel 4.
What I loved about Richard’s approach is that it was brave, provocative and funny – which is not often the case with projects that relate to refugees. He also had a clearly defined audience – a young female demographic who like cheesy pop and who can influence their parents through pestering.
I also loved the fact that Richard pissed off lots of people on both sides of the refugee debate – those who were protective and/or found his approach exploitative and those who were simply against refugees. He managed to provoke some great conversations and responses without ever offering a simple answer – including whether the project was a good idea at all.
We have also worked with and supported Natasha Davis for a number of years now. It has been great to see how her worked has continued to evolve while identity and migration have remained her great concerns and inspirations. Her approach to “participatory auto/biograpy” has opened all kinds of wonderful conversations and responses at our various events where she has performed. She also has a beautiful way of talking about and interweaving her art and exilic experiences – to the extent that we find her a great ambassador and model for emerging artists.
In terms of other art forms, we have done a few projects where more established British artists were brought to collaborate and perform with emerging artists from migrant and refugee backgrounds. Last year, for example, we organised an event at RichMix featuring Akala, who is quite an eloquent and well-spoken UK hip-hop artist who has quite a big following among young politically engaged people. He performed with a Palestinian band Katibeh Khamseh and that really worked. It was a huge deal for Katibeh Khamseh, who were suddenly performing to an audience of four hundred young people in London.
We also work with artists through commissions – for example we commissioned architect and artist Natasha Reid to develop her ‘Embassy for Refugees’. It ended up being a structure she built on the Southbank, by the river, where we organised a range of conversations and performances, including the launch of the annual UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) report.
We have also just commissioned our first six-month residency, a collaboration with the Royal Holloway University of London and Kayo Chingony, a writer and spoken word artist and DJ who will be using the residency to produce new work around themes of migration and activism.
Going back to the live art aspect of our various events, including ‘Insomnia’ which I mentioned earlier, there was always a clear sense that live art performances were bringing a new dimension to the event. It was literally about enlivening it; about bringing and engaging audiences, inviting them to take part in an experience; about bringing down barriers, as most often there is no stage or barrier between you and the performers. Which means that you have to do something, to act in order to either engage or ignore.
I will generalise here but I find that live art has a great potential to develop and embody different ways of telling the stories of refugees and migrants and to engage new audiences in the creative process of “representing” these experiences. However, as non-experts in this field, we do rely on the support of experts, and it has been our great privilege to work over the years with LADA, who have become our trusted partners and friends over the years.
AC: The second focus of performing borders is Europe. 2015 has been the year when the migratory movements towards Europe of people fleeing wars have been labelled the ‘Refugees Crisis’. We have the Jungle in Calais, the debate about Brexit, queues of people hoping to be granted asylum in the UK. In your opinion, is there a co-ordinated response by arts organisations to addressing this crisis or do you think is more a matter of single artists’ practices or arts organisations’ projects that are actually addressing this issue? What are some interesting realities in terms of both artists’ practices and arts organisations in Europe at the moment for you?
AK: As far as I know, there isn’t a co-ordinated response by arts organisations even though there are lots of conversations about it. More co-ordinated efforts do exist in the advocacy, human rights and policy-based fields, where there is a better-developed infrastructure. But in terms of the arts world, it is much less organised. As far as I can see a lot has been done by individuals, responding spontaneously and often quite beautifully and innovatively, with lots of passion.
In the UK context, there is Platforma Arts and Refugees Network, which brings together groups and individuals interested in refugee-related arts. This is a project that we are running and collaborating on with a range of smaller arts organisations from across England. One aspect of this project is the biennial festival that brings together artists and practitioners from across the UK and increasingly internationally; the most recent edition of the festival took place in November 2015 in Leicester.
Another platform worth mentioning here as it has lots of creative potential is Refugee Week. It is open and democratic in the sense that we do not curate or decide what happens there. As the organisation that directs this initiative on the national level and on behalf of the Refugee Week partnership, what we do is provide resources and an overall framework and theme – inviting people to respond to it in their own creative ways.
We have seen that recently many more (arts) organisations and individuals are choosing to do something in relation to refugees – to what many people consider to be one of the defining issues of our time. This was especially obvious at our recent Refugee Week conference that attracted an unprecedented number of people interested in doing something in this context. There is also lots of interest this year from various European countries to join in and organise their own Refugee Weeks – which we are keen to support and see happen.
In terms of Europe, there is currently a lot of interest in knowing what is happening there; in developing cross-European links and working with people who are doing something particularly on the ground – Calais or the Greek islands are obvious examples. Many artists are going to places where refugees are arriving to do some sorts of interventions, which are often not clearly defined as art because some of it becomes about humanitarian support and responding to people’s needs. There has been that merging of artists and social change.
Speaking of which, last year we co-commissioned in collaboration with the Victoria & Albert Museum a piece by a wonderful Syrian/German artist, Manaf Halbouni, which was originally commissioned for the last Venice Biennale and was partly chosen because of Manaf’s involvement with the anti-Pegida movement in Dresden. The piece / outdoor installation was called ‘Nowhere is Home’ and it was a car that was full of belongings seemingly hastily loaded – his comment on Syrians having to pack their lives and leave – which we positioned at the Southbank Centre and then at the V&A.
So, I guess there are many other artists and projects around Europe commenting on, responding to and exploring related themes. There is one project in Sweden (LIVSTYCKET) that is using an interesting approach. They focus on recently arrived refugees and help them develop language skills. In the process, refugees are also involved in creative design activities – they draw, write, design, print, etc. – after which their creations are given to professional designers and turned into bags, T-shirts, and so on. I like this approach because it addresses practical needs in combination with the development of creative skills.
Finally, I can say that so far this period has produced the biggest interest I have ever seen on the topic. What will come out of this is a big question, but I hope that cumulatively all this work will lead towards some sort of change, some sort of new openness. But it is too early to say.
A lot of proposals we receive are from people or arts organisations who are engaging with refugees for the first time, so a lot of work is tentative and safe. However, what is “radical” about this moment is that all these artists and organisations are choosing to address and talk about this issue. Not long ago it was politically contagious or heavy, and people felt they shouldn’t be getting involved and that they should not mix their “art” with social engagement. Now that has changed – and that is radical.
AC: To conclude, what are the plans for Counterpoints Arts for 2016?
AK: A few highlights for this year include events at the Southbank Centre, the British Museum and RichMix. We are also looking at commissioning and working with some fantastic artists operating both nationally and internationally. And later in the year, in October, we are going to organise an Arts and Social Exchange in Dartington, which is very exciting because it will be about bringing a number of people from different sectors and worlds together to discuss the ways art and social change can intervene and work in the context of migrants and refugees. We are exploring possibilities for commissioning more artists to work across the country, but that’s the beginning of our conversation. And obviously from 20th to 26th June there is Refugee Week, whose theme this year is ‘welcome’, celebrating the incredible acts of welcome shown to refugees by communities and individuals across the UK and Europe.
Almir Koldzic is a Co-Founder and Co-Director of Counterpoints Arts. He has worked for over 12 years on developing creative strategies for engaging with refugee and migrant experiences. His experiences include leading on the development of a national strategy and identity for Refugee Week UK; initiating the Simple Acts participatory programme; developing Platforma – national arts and refugees networking project; curating and producing events, exhibitions and commissions; and developing lasting partnerships with a big number of organisations across the country, ranging from mainstream cultural organisations and inter/national NGOs to smaller arts organisations and community groups. His passion is literature. He has studied English literature (BA), Anthropology (MA) and Creative Writing (MA).
Feature image credits: Manaf Halbouni/Counterpoints Arts