We leave Syria accidentally, I call my friend Ahmad, whom I shared with my studio in 2019. He told me he learned to play ” Oud” by himself after he settled in Turkey, along with his father, he was in Jordan before and they left the country in a legal way.
Ahmad is still the same, his only concern is the painting, almost all the time, and then came a few additions, paper, flutes, Oud…
There is something delicate and very elegantly Syrian surrounding this artist, even the instruments he chose to use imply that. Loneliness also surrounds him, us, once we leave the country.
This is a complaint about the inevitable price we pay either way, whether we stay or leave. this is a complaint that is so close to my heart because it sounds like my country from far away and also from the inside.
There was a video, then I decided there won’t be a video, and I believe it is enough to share screenshots of some collected videos which I did not produce, one of our humanitarian organizations did.
The infographics show the major complaint vividly, if not, a lot of families were forced to displacement after the war, some of those unlucky families who lost everything and were left with nothing settled in newly freed areas, where a lot of weapon remnants were left planted around.
Now I leave you with a small video,
Children at The School
“They want a school, they want a pitch, balls, they want windows, they freeze, we want a school, to feel that we are studying, because we cannot feel it. we are cold, rain, no heaters, no fuel..”
The approved annual schedule for electricity, according to the people’s expectations, is as follows: During the spring and fall seasons: moderate cut-off hours ranging from 3 or 4 hours of electricity to 1 to 2 hours cut throughout the day. Sometimes it gets better depending on the weather. During the winter and summer seasons: As we approach the two virtuous seasons, the cut-off hours gradually increase, ranging between 4 or 5 hours, to 1 or 2 hours of electricity throughout the day. When it is very cold or hot, the cutting hours may increase to 6 or 7, 8 hours or more in exchange for an hour or half an hour of electricity…. For days….. and more….. Damascus is the spoiled city of course, and those were the expectations of its people unless they live in the fanciest neighborhoods.
Two weeks ago my parents told me that the electricity would shut down for 30 continuous hours in the village. comes back for half or one hour.
“The official “Tishreen” newspaper had published a report, on July 3, in which it explained that house rents have increased by more than 75% in the capital, Damascus, and recorded record numbers ranging between 200,000 and 300,000 Syrian pounds.
The newspaper said that the majority of homeowners ask the tenant to pay a full year’s rent, and a few ask for six months.” 1 (Enad Baladi newspaper, 2020)
This case is about an artist who lives in Damascus. She goes to her studio, far enough from her house and the city, she finds out that someone broke in. A small unprotected room on the roof of a building in one of Damascus’ suburbs. Paintings were on the ground, the thieves stole some little things and a bag of friends, tools that have been accompanying the artist since she started painting.
Taya once again returns to the studio to document her long trip there for us but you can only see the roof from the whole video, you can see the gray city from there.
I sink into her short documented memories and mess with the tools on my cellphone to edit this low-quality video, like the rest of them. I sink into her videos and remember all of the studios she rented and her stories about them, then I remember the only studio I rented in 2019, for a year and a half, being there endlessly.
We speak and treat this matter – having a studio- as if it were a house.
To have a studio means having two jobs, one to provide your art, and one to create your art. Yet imagine doing that in Syria where unemployment rates in the country among the entire adult population reached 50%, while it reached 78% among the youth. That is without getting into the details of the poverty and exploitation of the Syrian art market which barely exists except for a few. Also without mentioning the prices of materials and the generally very low income.
Above in the quote and the text lies the reason why renting a studio is a hard job for an artist in Syria, and why Taya could not get a secured place. Below, in the video lie memories of a young artist who needs a place to create, otherwise, she has no place in this world.
“This faithful man is a soldier with a monolog in the desert.
Men Men Men
Tell me about being a man in Syria”
In this collaborative work between me and the Faithful, we are not presenting the real drama, but trying to reflect on how hard it is to be a soldier in Syria even if the man is not serving in a dangerous area. We know it can last for years, and it can be a lot uglier than our peaceful visual piece.
We developed this work together remotely, facing the normal obstacles… everything…
“Compact” is the obvious name I called this short documentary, composed of documentary footage from Damascus’s biggest bus station located beneath “The Bridge of The President”, and the surrounding streets and other three short films.
Majd who is an instructor at the faculty of Fine Arts documents some minutes of his trip to the University. Later a very important addition came, three videos made by the street photographer Mohammad Nammour showcasing what is happening inside the public transportation.
The importance of the material is simply because raising a camera or a cellphone in public places in Syria is not an allowed activity, therefore to do it, while walking in the streets as Majd did, or sitting at a very close distance from other strangers as Nammour did, may have severe consequences. Without this kind of inside observation, no matter how short or reduced it is, the real suffering of the Syrian street will always be lost and unacknowledged.
In one of these videos, we see a very awkward argument between a passenger and a microbus Driver reflecting the heavy impacts of the economical catastrophe in Syria. Witnessing how the Syrian lira value is dropping continuously until it is treated like an old piece of paper that everyone is trying to get rid of.
In this video three artists based in Damascus attempt to present to you some of what it feels like, not just the traffic, but everything else we guess.
A close friend called me one afternoon a few weeks ago and asked me how and what I was doing. “I am doing great. I am currently taking pictures of benches in the train station”, I answered. This happened right after I read Chapter 4 of Sara Ahmed’s »Complaint!« in which she addresses the issue of power structures, more specifically occupied spaces. With the following quote, she primarily referred to mental spaces and invisible institutional structures that exclude and discriminate against people with certain characteristics:
“When spaces are intended for specific purposes, they have bodies in mind.”
(Ahmed 2021: 137)
However, it reminded me of classical music being played loudly in train stations during the night, spikes on balustrades and benches divided by arm rests. Those are all types and mechanisms of »Hostile architecture«. Hostile architecture describes design practices that shape public spaces to allow only the use intended by the owner (cf. Hu 2019). Through this, “a subtle expression of social division through urban design, mostly associated with the homeless” is transported (Karthik & Sanjiv 2020: 247). More specifically, hostile architecture purposefully discriminates, especially against minorities.
»Hidden Hostility« by Theresa Güldenberg & Magdalena Meißner
The art project »Hidden Hostility« by Theresa Güldenberg & Magdalena Meißner aims to create awareness for invisible design strategies by directing the view of people on the pedestrian zone on examples of hostile architecture. To achieve this, the artists selected archetypal examples of hostile architecture expressed in benches and seats and dealt with them in various installative ways. (cf. Güldenberg & Meißner 2022)
For instance, they have wrapped various materials, like barrier tape, foam material and metal wire around public seating facilities. Watching the wrapped benches, it becomes visible how either gaps or arm rests ensure that nobody can lie down or even linger comfortably for a longer time.
In addition to using different materials, the artists also employ statements, graphics and questions to draw attention to the mechanisms of discrimination and control inherent in the public furniture presented. Metal signs, which are attached to benches and seats by Theresa Güldenberg & Magdalena Meißner, play a particularly central role in conveying these statements. Phrases like “Der Feind ist der Freund dieser Bank” (Engl: The enemy is the friend of this bench) (Güldenberg & Meißner 2022) and illustrations, like the ones on the pictures below, express criticism and stimulate the pedestrians to think.
In the various installations of “Hidden Hostility,” the two artists repeatedly refer to a central point that constitutes the core of their work. Thus, they state that hostile architecture serves social control, unnoticed but aggressively expressing political power in public space. (cf. Güldenberg & Meißner 2022)
»Hidden Hostility« and »Complaint!«
In addressing design mechanisms that are politically used to discriminate against minorities, the artists take up what Sara Ahmed refers to as invisible power structures. The key point here is that these mechanisms usually remain hidden. In the case of hostilely designed seating in public spaces, this means: as long as you don’t have to spend a longer time in public, or even sleep there, you won’t be irritated by uncomfortable benches. Invisible power structures define whose feelings matter more (cf. Ahmed 2021: 169) – the feelings of supposedly “normal citizens” are more important than those of homeless people.
On closer examination of hostile architecture against the background of this argument, it becomes clear: public space becomes an occupied space in Ahmed’s sense through hostile design mechanisms. As Sara Ahmed puts it: “you notice a structure when it stops you from getting somewhere or from being somewhere: it can hit you” (Ahmed 2021: 141). This means that even if our society is claimed to be social and solidar, it systematically discriminates against homeless people.
The way Theresa Güldenberg and Magdalena Meißner approach this fact in their installations can be understood in itself as an act and expression of a complaint. In particular, the metal plaques with messages are an expression of complaint in Ahmed’s sense and, at the same time, have an activist character due to the aim of making people think. However, the artists do not complain about a specific institution and thus not to a specific person in charge, but address society as a whole. With their work, they try to invite people to hear their thoughts, pick them up and turn them into other complaints.
Reflection on hostile architecture
Understanding both, the art project »Hidden Hostility« and Sara Ahmed’s book »Complaint!« as an invitation for reflection, I took pictures of hostile architecture in my regular surroundings, as mentioned in the beginning.
In these pictures you see a train station that I frequently use – a train station that is equipped with divided benches and that plays loud music in the hallways the whole night. A train station that claims to be part of public transport, but in fact excludes people who can not afford to take trains, but intend to use it as a shelter in the public. Feel free to do the same and scan your environment with a critical eye, being conscious that hostile architecture turns our environment into an occupied space. And feel free to complain about it in a creative way.
Ahmed, Sara. Complaint!, New York, USA: Duke University Press, 2021.
Karthik, Chadalavada; Sanjiv, E. Sripadma. Defensive architecture – A design against humanity. In: International journal of advance research, ideas and innovations in technology, 2019, Volume 6, Issue 1).
I am young, white and was born into a middle-class family in the north of Germany. Based on these facts alone, I pass many marking systems, probably barely registering that they exist. For example, I started my studies right after school and even got a scholarship, I can go into a regular drugstore and find make-up that matches my skin tone and I can travel around Europe without even being asked for my passport.
To me, this sounds like the archetype of a person that could benefit from »white liberal feminism« which Sara Ahmed describes as a state “when career advancement for individual women is dependent on the extent to which they show they are willing not to address institutional problems” (Ahmed 2021: 254). Scanning my life, I see traces of »silence as promotion« – I have to admit it, although I am not proud of it. For example, I got an internship via my boyfriend’s personal, mainly male network without having to go through the company’s regular HR process. I had mixed feelings at the time: On the one hand, I really wanted to do this internship at this company, but on the other hand, it was completely against my values that no open recruitment process was taking place. I took the internship offered to me and by that I played by the rules of a mainly patriarchal system in this situation of my life, without pointing out that this system is simply not fair, especially to FLINTA*-people.
But even if I see those traces of »white liberal feminism« in my life, I refuse to categorize myself as a »white liberal feminist«. Hearing phrases like “you as a woman have the same chances of having a career as a man of your age and position”, “gendering makes the language look ugly and I don’t see the point of it” or “to me, the women I (sexually very active man) am dating, had to many sex partners already”, I need to complain and make my position in these debates clear. No matter if it is said in a personal conversation or an institutional context and even if this might cause damage to my personal position.
In several areas of my life, I feel the need to work on the transformation of institutional and systemic practices through complaint and activist work. I came to an interesting realization while reading the chapter »Complaint activism« (cf. Ahmed 2021: 283- 300). On an institutional level, I tend to skip the step of complaint, even if I know it exists, because I have had the experience that complaining, even as a group, doesn’t lead to a change. One specific example of this came to my mind: In my current study program we had an external lecturer who gave an extremely poorly prepared presentation that had not been updated in a long time, which used racist cultural stereotypes and animated us to reproduce them. Almost everybody in the class felt uncomfortable with that and we expressed that personally in the feedback session of each block seminar as well as in our teaching evaluations that were handed over to the faculty. At first, the responsible coordinators seemed concerned and said that they would have a clearing conversation with the lecturer and might not continue the cooperation. But in the next winter semester we found out that nothing had changed. The course was still held by this lecturer; the content was the same and even the final task was still the same. So, even with the lobby of about 30 students from the same program, we couldn’t stop the reproduction of institutional practices by our faculty. Experiencing being stopped by not being heard and the ineffectiveness of institutional complaint procedures – in this case, the ineffectiveness of about 30 teaching evaluations – made me realize that if I want to change something in the faculty, not complaint, but »slow activism«, as Ahmed puts it, is often my tool of choice.
Last summer, together with three current and former students of my program, I formed an initiative that wants to connect students with alumni of our program in order to foster knowledge transfer on contemporary and relevant topics. Since we cannot influence the agenda setting on the academic side, we encourage dialogue and discussion on important topics in a semi-institutional context. For example, we plan to invite students who are activists on diversity topics here in Weimar and give them a stage linked to our study program by doing so. As just explained, we experienced that a complaint about the official institution and its practices didn’t work, so we rather started activist work ourselves and developed paths partly linked to the institution by founding the initiative than continuing the complaint process.
Feeling inspired by Sara Ahmed’s »Complaint!«
Reading »Complaint!« by Sara Ahmed has inspired me to reflect on my complaint practice in several different ways, and I’m very glad I did. While reading the book, I recognized links to different areas of my life, like systemic tools and constructs I am working with, as well as personal topics that I elaborated on in my blog entries. For me, three implications have emerged from this process that shape my ways of thinking and acting with regards to complaints.
First, I experienced that using the »feminist ear«, as Sara Ahmed does in »Complaint!«, is a powerful tool. It creates a feeling of unity in shared experiences of complaints, even if they were stopped within institutions, and it is an option to express the complaint and get it out of your personal system. Moreover, by expressing the complaint, it can inspire others to take this as a starting point and proceed. As Ahmed explains this function of complaint: “How to help each other to get it out. What you put down, […], others can pick up” (Ahmed 2021: 298). This inspires me to talk about experiences of complaint more often and create a shared thinking space by doing so.
Further, I have found for myself at various points in my reading that I want to cultivate a critical eye on my own privileges. On the one hand, to ensure that my actions do not reproduce institutional and systemic mechanisms of oppression and discrimination as best I can, and on the other hand, to find points of contact where I can support others in their complaint processes, building a kind of a complaint collective.
Finally, I can say that reading »Complaint!« sharpened my perspective on complaint practices and their importance. During the reading process I realized that I was more conscious of complaints – my own as well as others. I want to maintain this perspective and not simply have my complaints stopped in the future by institutional mechanisms or warnings expressed to me.
Ahmed, Sara. Complaint!, New York, USA: Duke University Press, 2021.
In chapter 5, Sarah Ahmed explains how collegiality can stop complaints. According to her, colleagues are defended by superiors against complaints due to various private reasons – for example, they studied together, are friends or even a couple. Based on this, an invisible power structure can emerge that reinforces itself (cf. Ahmed 2021: 186-202).
These points made in »Complaint!« are reflected in a tool, used in the context of systemic coaching whenever clients feel like organizational structures prevent changes on a personal and a team level. Using the tool, the client is asked to create a subjective organization chart, by sketching the perceived relationship of the team members to each other. At this point, it is important to note that not the actual formal hierarchy, but the perceived and yet invisible power structures, as explained by Ahmed, are mapped (cf. BusCo Institut 2022) (Ill. 1).
Illustration 1: Invisible power structures (Based on BusCo Institut 2022)
After the client explains to the players on the map as well as their relations, the person is asked to mark alliances and coalitions. Alliances (Ill. 1) are strong bonds between two team members on the same level – for example, two students that are close friends – whereas coalitions (Ill. 1) are bonds between people on different formal hierarchical levels – for example, a relationship between a young academic and the head of a department. When dealing with alliances and coalitions as an affected person, there is one key point to be aware of: alliances can be softened by establishing a closer relationship with the people involved, but coalitions can generally not be softened or even entered (cf. BusCo Institut 2022).
It becomes obvious that in situations of harassment performed by superiors, alliances but especially coalitions are the reason why “their backs become doors; their hands become locks” (Ahmed 2021: 202), as Sara Ahmed writes. Unfortunately, since informal bonds are so strong that it is almost impossible “to tell them apart or to take them apart” (ibid.). Therefore, those whose complaint is stopped by the “human door” often have no choice but to leave the team or the organization.
Ahmed, Sara. Complaint!, New York, USA: Duke University Press, 2021.
Carlotta was a seven-year-old girl, living in a small town in Germany with her parents and her little brother Caspar. She was a girl with a blooming imagination who loved to wander the streets and observe. Sometimes, her dad even called her “my little daydreamer”, when she seemed to be caught in thoughts that made her forget the reality around her again.
Even on her way back from school, Carlotta always followed the same creative routines. First, she jumped out of the school door to not touch the big door threshold. She herself didn’t exactly know why – it just gave her a rewarding feeling. Just around the corner, she petted the coachman’s black stallion, when they weren’t on a tour showing tourists around the city center. Sometimes, she even fed him some of her leftover vegetables – he really loved yellow carrots. The last stop on her way home was the house of an old man called Oskar who often looked mad even though he had never been not nice to her. In his kitchen window, he had a green bubblehead that would bob its head up and down if Carlotta jumped up and down in front of it just hard enough. So that was what she did every day.She jumped as hard as she could to make the green sausage dog bob and then started laughing and dancing crazily in front of it before she finally went home for lunch.
One sunny Wednesday in March, she had just arrived at the green bubblehead and was about to start jumping when a loud drum startled her and made the sausage dog’s head nod. She felt a mixture of insecurity and anger as she turned around and saw a group of people holding signs and making noise with drums and whistles. She didn’t understand what they were doing, but she felt sad and angry, because they had ruined her play. With these feelings in her belly, she went home, threw her satchel into a corner, and sat down at the kitchen table with folded arms.
“What’s the matter my darling?”, her mum asked her. “THEY RUINED MY PLAY”, Carlotta shouted back at her. “Who are they?”, her mum asked while stroking her back and Carlotta started to explain what had just happened.
By the time Carlotta had told her story, her mum explained: “The people you saw are a group of activists, who demonstrate to make our city a nicer place for everybody. For example, if you want to take an official corona self-test, as we always do before visiting granny, you need to have a European passport. They are convinced that this is not fair, that it is discriminating, and they want to change it. They talked to the mayor and he always nodded and said “yes, I understand what you mean, we are going to investigate this further and come back to you” – but nothing happened afterward. They have already officially complained to the city council, but nothing changed and now they want to raise more attention by demonstrating. What I wanted to explain to you was: They didn’t want to disturb your game or even bully you.”
“Thanks for explaining this to me mummy”, Carlotta replied. As she understood that the people were demonstrating to draw attention to a topic and not just to be loud and mean, she felt a little bit guilty and made the decision to see if they would be there again on Wednesday the next week, to observe them again.
The next Wednesday, Carlotta basically ran to Oskar’s house after school and it was probably the first time she was happy that the coachman and his stallion were on a tour. When she arrived in front of Oskar’s kitchen window, she already heard the activists in the distance. As they came closer, she could see their faces. They didn’t look mean or angry at all this time, some of them she even recognized from her neighborhood. And she could really relate to what they were saying on their signs. For example, she read “No human is illegal” and although she didn’t know exactly what illegal was, she understood that it was something bad and she agreed that humans are not bad.
Turning her head a little, she realized that the green bubblehead was bobbing his head again due to the vibration of the activists’ drums. But this time, the bobbing didn’t make her feel like dancing. It even seemed like the sausage dog wasn’t really bobbing this time, but nodding at the protestants. “Just as the mayor reacted, from what mummy told me”, Carlotta said to herself, “He was nodding, but nothing changed.”
From thatday on, Carlotta’s view on the bubblehead had changed. She still took the same way home from school and sometimes she even had a little chat with Oskar when he was in the garden, but she didn’t jump in front of the bubblehead anymore. Carlotta even asked her mom if they could join the demonstration once in a while.