The topic of immigration has dominated the recent European Parliament election. impactmania’s new program with University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) will look at the world’s current people movement, whether that is motivated by economic- political- or climate changes.

Between 2011 and 2017, Germany welcomed 500,000 Syrians, making it the fifth-largest displaced Syrian population in the world according to the Pew Research Center

The acceptance level of the new status quo has been less reassuring. Both from the state and the public, the response to the now presumably 700,000 refugees has turned colder in the last years.

A number of individuals and organizations are doing their best to help the new arrivals settle in and find ways to build a new home, even if it is temporary.

One of these people is the Swiss-born artist Barbara Caveng, who started her initiative, Kunstasyl in February 2015. With the inhabitants of the residential home for asylum seekers and displaced persons at Staakener Straße in Berlin, she tried to find ways to navigate the complicated situation of building a home and community for those far from home.


Barbara, my colleague, Sebastian Schumacher, interviewed you a few years ago about the Kunstasyl initiative. How do you look at the project four years later?

Kunstasyl was a first project for me that brought me so close to people during a long period of time.

We had this big show at the Museum of European Cultures in Berlin.

We worked for four months, with 25 peoples, and developed the whole exhibition landscape, which became one of the most successful exhibitions in history for the Museum of European Culture.

What did visitors encounter?

We decided to work with mattresses. The quality of the [asylum centers’] mattresses is very, very bad and very painful for people. We took parts of these beds and transformed them. A mattress and bed can become a boat. If you stand them up, you can give them the shape of tents. It’s provisory architecture, people inventing huge installations. We also transformed parts of the mattresses into waves.

A wave made by [people’s] mattresses must be an overwhelming image.

Exactly… and very frightening. The group [of displaced people] was presenting the exhibition—everybody in the exhibition talked for him- or herself, which is very important. Because we are always talking about things we don’t know about.

You mean: we speak about other people’s experiences?

We, in Europe, talk about life experiences we didn’t experience. We decide what is good for people who had to flee and we don’t give them a chance to express themselves. It’s very hard to build up a common society if we don’t listen.

We go on with talking and we are not ready to listen to others, it’s very hard if they just have to follow us. I’m completely against terms like integration, because the integration is all from our view. The ideas we have about societies—we say, “You have to fit into this idea.”

It will not be possible to progress in social development if we just force people to become like us.

Are you saying we collectively need to rethink society?

Exactly. We have to talk about a European society. We have a good foundation, but we should not say, “That’s it, finished.”

At the time, it was very interesting because I was working in a rural area. I recognized that I forgot society in that landscape. I would call it very closed. People are not really against migration but there is a tendency to be against it. These societies developed so slowly.

You must recognize that it’s really fearful for a lot of people. They’ve only known a very homogenous way of living. Now all of a sudden we tell them, “Your lives are going to be dramatically different. A group of people from outside your community is going to live in your neighborhood.”

Of course, we have to talk about what kind of vision you have of society. What kind of vision you have of living as a human being and being on this planet? The borders of national states are reinforced in Europe. I’m really sad about this and disappointed. In 2015 there were 1 million people coming newly to Germany. [Germany took in more refugees in 2015 than the U.S. has in the past 10 years.] 

The society fought for it, behaving like human beings. Then civil society was very strong.

Now nobody wants to talk about it again. Of course, people are tired.   People have all these fears. Will they take my bag? Will I have less than I have now because they take from us?

Why are these issues important to you?

It’s a very good question. I think this topic has always been part of my life because I was born in Switzerland. I was born at a time when the Swiss were known as the good ones. I grew up with the feeling the world is good.

The responsibility my father taught me: we, Swiss [people], have to know where we are from—our roots, but we are cosmopolites. Now we say global players, but at that time it was this kind of expression.

That means taking stock of the world, of the planet. At age 13, I did my first long trip by myself. I was very lucky, because wherever I went I had my Swiss passport. I’ve always been welcome when I visited different spots in the world. A very big part of my learning is through personal encounter, through physical presence. You can’t learn about the world from books only.

Give me an example of what you learned on your travel.

My last trip, January 2019, was to Iraq.

A friend fled from Iraq to German in 2015. I wanted to see his country. I went to visit some of his family members who are still living in Iraq because they can’t leave the country.

In 2011, I was in Syria, and through the project I also went to Kosovo, Albania, Bosnia, and Moldova. These are all places that people are leaving to come to Germany. I wanted to see the places, to feel, and to have an insight.

This exchange was so important for my personal education, for my understanding of the world. I met so many people who were living in the most desperate situations. And I admire them for the way they try to survive and what kind of values and principles they keep in their life. How they try to keep their beauty.

How did you see that manifest when they come here? Give me an example.

The most important for each human being is dignity.

The first thing we do is to take away their names: we call them refugees. After the lives they have left behind, we are taking their names. This will really kill people. I want to vote out the term ‘flüchtling’ in German, extinguish it from official use of language.

You can introduce people by saying: he, she, the child who had to flee. Then it is a person who has a name, dreams, and a profession. This person could be me…it could be me.

Yes, it could be us. In the U.S. we have seen climate refugees now, right? We may all be migrants at one point or another.

We’ve forgotten, but we are. That’s maybe the main problem, that we have forgotten that we are all migrants.

If I have to fill out a form, there is always this question: do you have a migration background? I am from Switzerland. My father is Swiss and my mother is Swiss. So I am not considered a migrant. They always let me go. I always call myself a first class migrant.

Migration is a beautiful term in its original meaning; it’s like hiking, just to be on the way.

What have you learned from working with so many people from so many different countries?

We wanted to find out, by artistic strategies and techniques, if it is possible to live together. Living together without dominating one another. I would say, yeah, it’s possible. But I almost ended living with the group for a year to make it work. Sometimes I was sleeping there [residential home for asylum seekers and displaced persons], and I built up very, very, very strong relationships. I really pushed my personal borders in any sense, even physically.

Give me an example.

I was just there for them. I allowed, especially the women, to touch me. And I listened to all their stories. I was like an empty can for people to put stuff inside. At a certain point, it is almost no longer possible to contain.

If you look at the different religions and people represented in the project, we had Yazidis, Coptic Christian, Atheists,  and Orthodox Jewish people

It takes a huge effort. The only rule we had in the project was to be open to everyone. Accepting others, no exception. You have to make a 300% effort.

You were ready to give yourself to make this work, but were people who joined you ready to be open to others?

Yes, but it takes time. At the beginning, we had Muslims in the period of Ramadan

Personally, they didn’t want to practice Ramadan, but they were afraid not to practice. And of course, everybody’s respecting other people’s faith and practices. But the decision should be a personal decision, not a rule by a government or social pressure.

What would be some steps towards a new society?

It has to go very deep in the structures—educational- and government structures. This huge movement of migration in the last years in Europe is a discussion about colonialism. Everybody has to look at history. We talk a lot about individual racism, but it is deep in the system and very deep in the European structural system.

As long as you’re not changing the structure of society, you’ll have islands of happiness. It’s not a systemic change. But I’m a fighter for utopia. Actually, it’s my profession.


You’re a professional utopian!

Yes, I am. A famous art critique called me an Utopist in a positive sense. It’s not enough just to talk about the realistic and practical things. You have to go farther. We have become a social totalitarian dictatorship. Are we strong enough to defend individual- and liberal rights?

Do you think this is part of progress and that the current social and political climate is just an impasse?

I’m not quite sure. If you look at the leaders in the world: USA, Turkey, Hungary, how is this possible?

Germany has a strong democratic sense. But yesterday, I read in the newspaper that one of the ministers of German government, Katarina Barley, suggested that cities and villages should apply for refugees.

What kind of a language is used here? Are we really going back to colonialism? Nobody knows how to talk about these topics.

You are concerned that if cities can apply for refugees, the next step will be: we only want people from certain countries; they have to look this way, and only 25 of those people?

Yes, you know, not from Africa, no single men.

How come Berlin is the way it is? It is so unlike other German cities.

Berlin was surrounded by the wall—people who didn’t want to follow the German system at that time, went to Berlin. You weren’t asked to join the military services and there were all these crazy ideas and concepts for living. Other parts of Germany developed strongly in an economic sense.

Berlin is still cheaper than other places; in creative businesses you have people who will say, “It’s so nice to be in Berlin, I will work for nothing.” Which is not really healthy.

But when the wall came down, it became a playground, but one on very historical ground. People started coming to the City, because everyone wanted now to see this place.

Tell me about your current project.

I started last year to work with human hair. It’s difficult, very interesting material, because it’s connected to so many things.

I called in my team to this rural area consisting of 100 hairdressers. Even in quite small villages, there can be three or four hairdressers.

Is it a social gathering spot—the community connects at the hair salon?

Absolutely, that is it. The hairdresser takes over a lot of the responsibility of how people want to represent themselves, while it is one of the lowest paid professions in Germany.

We are collecting the cut hair and I sieve the hair. We call it Haarvest, similar to a harvest in the late summer. I’m working together with a farmer who has this big bale press. We will make a social sculpture with hair.

It will look similar to a large bale of hay?

Yes, but for one bale I need 300 kilos (661.39 pounds) of hair.

Why hair? What does it represent?

There’s the DNA of a person in hair. Once you have the DNA, you can locate the person. It’s the part, which will last the longest from the human body, even longer than bones. It’s the thing you’ll find when nothing else exists anymore.

Referring back to migration, the hair left behind almost traces your travel.

Exactly, exactly. You can locate the migration path by hair. Migration was actually the starting point for this project, because a lot of migrants are hairdressers. The culture of treating their hair is different than in our culture. Men in Arabic countries, for example, go to the hairdresser daily. Also in Turkey it is very important for men to groom their beards and their hair.

It was fascinating to see the men in [refugee] centers who are cutting their hairs themselves.

I also saw young men and young women having white hair after fleeing. Hair is “seismographic.” I visited a friend in Iraq. ISIS beheaded her brother and sent a photograph of this to the family. My friend had long hair that she cut after receiving the photo. Now she has long hair on one side and short on the other. This is part of how they handle something like this and show their sorrow.

You can read a lot in hair. This makes the material extremely rich.

What does your hair mean?

Mine? My orange hair is just my hair. I think I will die with it [looking like this]. I don’t know—I love it. There is a Japanese artist [Yayoi Kusama] who is 90. She has orange hair. It is not that we want to look younger; it’s a completely different concept. Maybe, as long as I have this hair, I have belief in this place called utopia.