Liveboat – Chapter 5: Can Art Save the World?

Last weekend, Tempelhof Field became a symbolic sea of green, carrying Plastique Fantastique’s Liveboat - Chapter 5, just one of the many installations created for Berlin’s 48 Stunden Neukölln arts festival. For two days, galleries, shops and other locations in Neukölln offered their time and space to various projects exploring global crises and asking ‘Can art save the world?’

Focusing on the ongoing refugee crisis, Liveboat – Chapter 5 was a moving artwork. As the name suggests, the installation took the shape of a translucent lifeboat, big enough for visitors to climb inside through small holes in the inflated sides. As a tiny white boat in a vast green space, the choice of location showed just how vulnerable and exposed people are when they are out in flimsy boats on the open sea. The physical exterior stood as a memorial to refugees who have lost their lives attempting the dangerous crossing from North Africa to Southern Europe, whilst the internal installation contained the traumatic experiences of survivors. For an issue that is often summarised with overwhelming facts and figures, these individual stories were a poignant way to engage people on a more human and personal level. The written accounts were placed on cushions lining the sides of the tunnels, where visitors could sit quietly to read them.

In one account, a Nigerian refugee now living in Berlin explained: “to be a refugee is not something that everybody selects. No, in just one day you can be a refugee. They (some European countries) don’t want to see us, so people are saying send them back, so people are saying they take our job, so people are saying they are criminal, also people who don’t know… it can happen to anybody.”
There is a lot of ignorance surrounding the issue, with the confusion people make between economic migrants and refugees causing hostility. However the general attitude in Berlin is largely positive, with many cafes and bars sporting ‘Refugees welcome!’ signs and several centres and charities dedicated to helping those in need. There have also been protests criticising the handling of the crisis by the EU, such as the recent demonstration organised by the Zentrum für Politisches Schönheit. In June, the same group held a funeral for a Syrian woman who died trying to cross Mediterranean from Libya. The biggest of these lifeboat accidents this year tragically took the lives of over 800 people in April. Demonstrations are a powerful tool. But art projects like the lifeboat are more reflective and encourage a different group of people to engage with the issue.

Another Nigerian man recounted “I come to Europe by force”, as he was arrested by the military and put on a boat to Italy. Although he was picked up by a rescue boat, he saw many people who were not so lucky. With everyone weak from hunger and desperate to be taken to shore, many plunge overboard in the chaos and the rescue police often have to retreat to avoid falling into the water themselves. Some European countries have therefore limited their rescue programmes, claiming that these missions are not only dangerous but encourage more people to attempt the journey. The UN and activist groups are urging countries to work together to increase their intake of refugees and establish safer passages into Europe. Although Germany has offered 30,000 people shelter through a UN scheme, this is still a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants in desperate need of help. Elsewhere in Europe the number of resettled refugees is significantly lower. Countries on the Southern coast of Europe, such a Greece and Italy, are suffering an immense strain on resources as thousands of people attempt to escape across the sea as a last resort.
The accounts weren’t just from those attempting the Mediterranean crossing. One man from Syria described his efforts to escape to Germany by land. In desperation he paid a large sum of money to travel across Europe, but was abandoned with other refugees in Bulgaria. The group was arrested and beaten, and were only offered their freedom if they could pay for it. He claims to have appealed to several charities, none of whom were willing or able to help. After several escape attempts and rearrests he finally made it to Germany – his entire journey cost him nearly 10,000 euros.

Other elements of the installation included a ‘sound carpet’ made up of extracts from Homer’s Odyssey. The ‘Chapter 5’ in the title refers to a passage where Odysseus finds himself out at sea at the mercy of the gods. It highlights the lack of control refugees have over their fate and implies the responsibility of the EU to intervene. The translucent material of the installation created an eerie effect from the outside, where the outlines of visitors could be seen as they moved around the boat. Walking within the white tunnels created a mixed feeling of peace and confinement.

For maximum impact, the installation could have been a little more accessible. Entering from the Tempelhof S-Bahn side, it took me half an hour of walking from entrance to entrance to locate it, as no specific location on the vast field was mentioned. With such an important message to convey, a few signposts would have been appropriate. For those less informed about the enormity of the refugee crisis, leaflets or volunteers providing context would have also added impact to the ‘Liveboat - Chapter 5’.
Perhaps an attempt to ‘save the world’ through art may be ambitious, but projects like these are gentle symbols of compassion, encouraging a global community. As I arrived the installation, it was uplifting to see a long queue of curious visitors of all ages waiting to enter. What an inspiring way to raise awareness and add a personal touch to one of the greatest humanitarian challenges of our times.

By Laura Bithell

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