Writer Vesna Maric reflects on There There’s piece, ‘Trigger Warning’ , presented as part of ‘Who Are We?’ programme at Tate Modern.
How does Britishness become, well, Britishness, and what does it, in fact mean to be British?
There There, a two-part artistic project from Romania and Serbia, have endeavored to explore that idea through the curious mix of stereotypes about Eastern Europeans and British village fete games.
When they first arrived in the UK, seven years ago, Dana and Bojana found themselves overwhelmed by the number of ready-made prejudices about their Eastern European origins; in fact, they say, they didn’t even consider themselves Eastern European until they arrived to the UK. ‘We found ourselves burdened by this common heritage that we couldn’t escape – and that’s quite harrowing. And we started to think about national identity, of what it’s like to be labeled a foreigner, and what it actually means to identify yourself as an immigrant. Things you don’t think about normally, unless you actually emigrate.’
Their piece, Trigger Warning, based on the anxieties around post-Brexit Britain, breaks down stereotypes about Eastern Europeans in the media and in political discourse by placing them into the light-hearted environment of popular games. So there’s ‘Snatch a Job’, which is all about hooking a rubber duck out of a gummy pond, the Wheel of Benefits, and attempting to get an EU passport by chucking five teabags into a tea pot from some two-metre distance – a feat, which, having attempted it, I must say is not an easy one. I say this to them; the games are not easy! ’That’s the whole point,’ say Dana and Bojana, ‘all this stuff they say comes easy to Eastern Europeans isn’t easy at all. It has nothing to do with the reality in which we live.’ But why games?, I ask. ‘Well, the idea of being identified as an Eastern European and having all these characteristics and intentions stuck on to you by the media, is like adopting a role. And when we play games we take on a role, so it seemed like a natural way to go about exploring these stereotypes. Also games are all about being welcome to participate, and suddenly, after Brexit, we don’t feel so welcome anymore.
So the game idea is something of a paradox. It’s also a great way to hook the audience in, people like games; when they first see the games, they don’t think it’s going to be about immigration. And when they start, they realise that they have been hooked. And they have to think about their ideas. We have invigilators from Eastern Europe who can perhaps tackle these issues and talk about them, share their opinions with the participants.’ And indeed, the atmosphere is lively, lots of laughter goes on while people try to snatch those jobs and get the benefits; but once the meaning behind the games is uncovered, an uncomfortable pause sets in for many. The stereotypes stand bare, meaningless, ridiculous. ‘Trigger Warning’ performs its trick well – the initial joy is replaced by a set of prickly issues.