Monday, September 7, 2015

A funny thing happened on the way home, or Platform 8

I sometimes work as a critic. I am learning that this is a very complex role, involving shaping a written reponse from a total chaos of culture, social relations, economics, institutions, ethics, critical and performance traditions, and so on. You are never good enough - after all, your analysis can't possibly take in everything. All you can do is take a position, and try to write - I guess - actively. You become reliant on a particular, mystical kind of poetic energy - a channeling of this complex mass into some sort of articulated statement, something 'good'. Whatever that means. Something which helps, I guess.

There are times when this task is very difficult. It requires, for one thing, an endless, exhausting self-critique: 'is this position correct? Can I argue this?' Mostly, the end result will be an assumption anyhow, based on my limited understanding of 'stuff'. Which leads to one subsequently asking - what's the point? If it's just going to be a claim anyhow - if it's just an opinion, then why do the work at all? Why bother sweating over tiny details, staying up at night thinking about a particular social or ethical problem, punishing yourself because you didn't get an actor's name correct? Why bother - if it's inseperable from the hate speech posted on the next blog?

There are no clear answers to this, and indeed, I ask myself these questions regularly, especially in the context of today. This is very much about capitalism, the global system and what it is doing to people. I am aware, and I have been told, that for a critic, my writing is more than usually subjective, more than usually activist, more than usually non-neutral. It takes a particular position, that position is informed by certian phenomena and a certain reading of the global system and its local manifestation in politics, the ways in which both are oppressing people, and by its ultimate compromise of being written by a writer-perfomer(-director).

What has suprised me since I began writing this blog is the lack of objections. You would think that someone writing from a subjective position - in fact, with little or no instutional authority - would be cut down fairly quickly. The opposite has been true. People have, for the most part, been, somewhat worryingly at times, agreeable. Performers, especially, have taken things I have said about their work to heart, but not as negatives - as shortcomings of their own. I know this because they have told me. Even when I have claimed to them that, no, they must be mistaken because the response was so personal, so based on my own specific critical frame - they have (mostly) corrected me.

If this sounds like self-flattery, I cannot explain to you how useless it all feels when faced with a Metro Station filled with refugees. Part of my critical stance, and also my art work, maintains that the future is defined by massive-scale humanitarian crises, caused especially by climate change - but other factors stemming from the new, self-erasing ethics of capitalism. This is not an opinion. If you want, you can also do this research, or I can argue it in dialogue. In short, although you can put it different ways, capitalism removes excess time, excess energy, and excess money from people, in order to force the individual to comply with its dominant ideology, which can then be manipulated, and prevent them from ever acting collectively and changing their conditions. Not a new idea - but it hasn't become less true in the last two decades, although it has all but disappeared from public discussion.

For reasons to do with this, as of two years ago, I no longer fly in aircraft. For reasons connected with that, on my way back from leading a performance critic's workshop as part of Patos OFFiranje festival in Serbia, I found myself starting at a veritable landscape of refugees in Budapest Keleti train station.

In other circumstances, I would have laughed at the irony, because I had just finished four exhausting days at the festival, engaged in endless critique with the other critics of the workshop, endlessly turning over the positions regarding the political, ethical, social and cultural context of Serbia - its coming ascension to the EU, multinationals seeing this as an opportunity to open factories now to take advantage of low labour costs, much as they did in the more western part of Eastern Europe 15 years ago, only faster. Why certain performances in this context were good, and why they were not. I would have laughed, becuase there could not have been a more ironic and accurate representation of this horrific context in which the human being finds itself today than the metro station outside Keleti, where over 1,000 refugees killed time whilst trying to work out what to do next. Absolute victims of this global system and its functioning.

Earlier, I had read about the protests by accident on the train from Belgrade. Feeling the samaritan urge, I warned three Australian backpackers nearby. They had been playing a game of 'screw, friend, or marry' - as far as I know, a specifically Australian game where a group of younger women nominate a male peer, and then select which of the three they would do with him before launching into a justification of that particular choice. Not the least superficial of games - still, these were human beings, kinsmen even!!, I had overheard they were on their way to Keleti. They, like me, don't speak the language. I should say something, at least.

So I told them what I knew, and they made appreciative noises in return. I also mentioned it to two British girls, who had been impressive in their earlier staring down of a Serbian ticket inspector who had tried to charge them again for a ticket, and who had been relentlessly passport-checked because of their dark skin. We were all getting off at the same station in Budapest (the train didn't go directly to Keleti), which, it turned out, was a failry dreary Hungarian suburban stop. They lacked the courage to get out at this stop (to be fair, we didn't even seem to be in Budapest) so I waved them goodbye, trying to reassure them with a casual smile as the train pulled away to its third Budapest stop, and began walking to the other train station.

I hadn't decided what I would do, and I also didn't know the situation. The news report I read had said that Budapest Keleti had been shut down for a few hours that morning, that refugees were being denied travel and being kept out of the station, and that they were now protesting with a heavy police presence. I was experiencing that strange mixture of personal and collective concern - that absurd, paralysing feeling that comes with individualism, something like 'I sympathise, but I hope I don't miss my train'. There are mitigating circumstances here - I was exhausted, I hadn't slept the night before, had enjoyed 8 hour train-ride #1 and was just looking forward to 8 hour train-ride #2. Calls to action can't be controlled, but still, sometimes you are just more ready for them than others.

As I walked towards the station, things seemed surprisingly normal in downtown Budapest. Perhaps not so surprisingly, I thought. Refugees are not new to Eastern Europe - they are not treated with the same novelty as they are in Australia. Migration - the concept of entities moving to different places to life, as opposed to seeking refuge - is also embedded in the cultural history of Europe, sometimes to the point where the actual national borders themselves seem totally arbitrary. This was the case before the EU as well, and if there is an argument for the EU's Schengen Agreement allowing free movement between these countries, it is surely that it is just a formalisation of the reality already experienced by most Europeans. It's not so much the crossing of borders that's a shock - it's the fact that they exist in the first place.

Rounding the corner to Keleti, there still seemed precious little evidence of any activity. Could the articles have been embellished? Surely thousands of refugees make more disturbance than this? Even when I approached the station itself, there was a simple - ok, pretty large-scale - demonstration going on, with police lined up out the front of the station. I watched for a little while, and looked around. A surprisingly social atmosphere seemed to exist. A mixture of desperation and persistence was etched onto the faces of people. They were sitting around, swatting the occasional fly, some chanting, others just waiting.

"Ain't no going in that entrance" said the two blue backpacks in front of me.I agreed. So I took the quickest 
route towards the side of Keleti, through the metro underpass.

I had never seen a 'landscape of people' before. Maybe on television, when there's a military parade, or in a film, when there's a battle scene - like when Scarlett O'Hara is looking for Atlanta's only doctor in Gone with the Wind and finds herself picking her way through a path of wounded soldiers in the main street. But both of those versions are romantic - this is reality. The correct description for me, when you encounter this and are not really prepared for it, is overwhelmed. The eye is met with a thousand cries for help at one time, a thousand desperate energies, all needing immediate attention in some way. It's not like at a football game, where you can just focus on one player, or a ball. It's staring at a reality you don't have enough humanity to physically process. Like trying to install all of Adobe Suite, except that you're a 386 with Windows 3.11.

I'm paralysed for a moment, but only for a moment. Because I quickly understand that it's all too much, that I'm in many senses too unprepared - and too unknowledgable - to effectively intervene. I walk between the blankets and the lying people, and across to the other side. It's like I'm crossing some kind of void.

As someone who follows these things as part of their work, I do a lot of reading about refugees. I read a lot of opinions, a lot of facts, a lot of rhetoric. I imagine myself in that situation - avid readers may know that I was even once in a similar one myself, although in no way comparably desperate - and I understand, on some basic, human level, how human mobility functions today. How borders work, how the global political system works, how migrants flows occur and why, how different countries categorise and politise refugees and migration. How it's all supposed to work, based on the UN Refugee Convention of 1951 and the firm resolution at that time that this very catastrophe would be prevented, and then how it is manipulated in practice today. I reach conclusions about why it is like this. Not surprisingly, they are cynical.

No amount of reading prepares you for people. When reading, you can really control a situation. You can guide your thoughts, you can steer away from stuff you don't like. You can build your own narrative from the 'suggestions' of the author, or various authors. If you don't like it, you can read something else. Today, there's plenty to confirm your thoughts. There's no need to be challenged.

People, on the other hand, are walking balls of pure chaos. And a whole lot of them coming from a warzone 5,000km away via routes in which they are totally vulnerable to exploitation, death, and rape, are extra-chaotic. In this case, you can't select your narrative. Your narrative comes to you - like it or not.

I rise up on the other side of the metro, and I see the side opening of Keleti. Unlike the front entrance, it's being casually guarded by a handful of police. They're standing around, occasionally making a comment to each other. I know enough about how the police work in Berlin to know that the casualness is only a facade - a placebo to keep people calm.

I look back, and there's some aid workers down there chatting with each other, holding a bag. A kid comes up and pulls at it. The aid worker relents, sharing the bag with the kid, who dives in. Suddenly there's a swarm of kids around this bag, tearing at it. Apples spill out onto the floor, going everywhere.

I look away. There's a certain dignity even children should be spared, I figure. I reach into my bag and pull out an oversize loaf of bread I carried from Serbia, and look at it. Suddenly there's a kid beside me, and he grabs it before I can say anything, and runs off. I turn and walk away without looking. Desperate people don't need my social interaction. They need bread.

The police size me up as I walk through their cordon with a carefully-but-not-too-carefully designed carefree air, expertly honed, I am aware, from years of training gained from living in the first world. To my surprise, they don't even want to see my passport. Then, once again, I remember not to be so surprised. I'm white.

I head for the front of Keleti. Looking out through the backs of the police, through Keleti's massive German bahnhof-style windows, I see the masses of people protesting behind the line of police. Through the chaos, through the drum beat, the unified chanting, I noticed how organised they are, how peaceful. How non-violent. I imagine how hard it must be to do that, when the situation is so depererate. How exactly do you make a peaceful, organised protest, when your wife and child are down in the metro, barely surviving after a 5,000km journey? How do you even keep your reality together?

I look around. The Hungarians, remarkably, seem to be largely going about their daily business. Just one girl is looking at the protestors as well, paralysed, like me. Like me, thinking about how she is behind this line of police - and not in front of it. Like me, thinking about the train she needs to catch, but hopelessly spellbound by the humanity of the moment. Like me, thinking about how easy it would be for the protestors to decide enough is enough, and to storm the building. And perhaps like me, thinking that this would be pretty damn justified.

I sit down and listen to the chants for a while. Why is this happening? I say to myself. I feel this paralysis acutely. I know that the way to remove it is to join the protest - not to hide behind police. I know that action is the only answer. I know that sitting behind the line of police and trying to feel something is exactly the kind of thing that graduates you from someone with the energy to change the world into someone who has made their choices, and can't go back. My first-world protection mechansim is overwhelmed. There is only really one possible path, and that's to join the throng, to make the journey with them, and to hope that our faith and trust in each other will get us through.

I look at the departures board. My train to Berlin is boarding.

I pick up my two bags, slowly turn my back on the throng, and go to platform 8.

Endnote: about 8 people were gently removed from my carriage in the early hours of the morning by Dresden police. "This is the end of the line", they were told. My passport was not checked, and I arrived in Berlin.

Please come together and support those fleeing desperate situations, as they are victims of a circumstance that is totally beyond their control.

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