Hospitality in times of displacement
It is a cold, grey December morning and I am on my way to pick up Tanja Ostojić from Heathrow airport. I am traveling on the Piccadilly line, half empty carriage, thinking about London and me. It wasn’t love at first sight, that is for sure. The first time I visited London was in 2005, just one week before 7/7, to do a performance as part of the exhibition Insomnia, an exhibition about experience of refugees and displaced individuals. It was a hot July week, the streets were filthy. Everywhere was incredibly busy and I felt that the city was a bit too much for me… I left relieved to be off to tour a show in rural France for three months and didn’t really think about coming back.
However, here I am, 12 years later, in London, again looking at displacement, at stories of migration and misplacement. This is a very critical and important moment for the UK, Europe and the world. Six months have passed since the Brexit vote, Trump has been elected as president of the USA and the world is a very hostile, inhospitable place for people on the move. Heathrow is flashy, clean, perfect, a haven for shoppers and travellers. I feel profoundly misplaced, leaning on the metal rail between taxi drivers and company chauffeurs, holding a handmade sign saying ‘Misplaced Women?’. Not a personal name on my sign, not a company logo, just a question. Do I wait for someone to come, or do I wait for my situation to be resolved?
When I was developing the concept for my residency with Live Art Development Agency, my thoughts were constantly with the people in flux, those who were crossing or waiting at borders for days, sometimes months. Vivid memories of my childhood in war-torn Yugoslavia emerged. I remembered my school friends who were refugees from Sarajevo; my work in refugee camps during the Kosovo crisis; the lines for bread and milk; cars left without petrol in the middle of the road. More than 20 years has passed, but my body clearly remembers the fear, and at the same time the braveness, the openness to share, to give, to be there for one another. Many people opened their homes to refugees and family displaced due to war, despite being impoverished and affected by the war themselves.
It is important to discuss displacement along hospitality. Derrida introduces hospitality as a radical concept that offers alternative ways to treat others. His central argument is based on the ‘aporia of hospitality’, which, according to Derrida, has two main elements: one of owning and being empowered by that ownership, and another of giving ownership away and being vulnerable. I thought that it would be an important part of my research and creative journey to host an artist, someone with a similar history to myself, and to open a creative dialogue about hospitality and displacement. Tanja Ostojic’s project ‘Misplaced Women?’ was a natural choice.
The project works with the Derrida’s aporia. Tanja hosts a safe space that allows her workshop participants to open up and share their experiences. It also requires that they present their ideas immediately, by performing them in a public space. This brings us back to Derrida’s discussion of the etymology of the term ‘hospitality’, which is related to hostility, since the root hospes is allied to the root hostis, which interestingly means both ‘stranger’ and ‘enemy’. Thus, hospitality, as in hostilis (stranger/enemy) + potes (having power), originally meant the power that the host has over the stranger/enemy. And indeed we see the hospitality of Western European societies being defined by imposing power over the ‘strangers’, defining them by impossible standards, borders are re-erected, walls are rebuild, communities are ostracised.
According to Irina Arishtarkova, hospitality is a radical relation, especially when compared with tolerance: it provides a framework to account for the treatment of others with limitless attention and expectation, and it entails an active gesture of welcoming, greeting, sheltering, and in many cases, nourishing. Tanja Ostojić operates within this framework, opening a hospitable space during her performance workshops. Participants are welcomed and guided, acknowledged and their ideas are nourished. Anecdotes are shared, objects are transformed, pictures are circulated. During the two days of the workshop, I felt that we tapped into each other’s experiences of displacement and loss. Hospitality became performative, it was about slow decision making, about the labour of hosting others, and the handling of unexpected outcomes. There was a willingness to contain and to produce space for the Other out of one’s own flesh and blood, we all walked together by the canal, performers and audience at the same time. The days melted into one long discussion about what displacement means today. For me, the small acts of hope and care that each participant made created a ripple strong enough to go beyond the current climate of hostility.
ARISTARKHOVA, I. (2012). Hospitality of the matrix: philosophy, biomedicine, and culture. New York, Columbia University Press.
DERRIDA, J., & DUFOURMANTELLE, A. (2000). Of hospitality. Stanford, Calif, Stanford University Press.
Elana Marchevska is London Based Artist and educator of Macedonian origin.