I just returned from a short trip to Copenhagen, my first visit to Scandinavia. Denmark’s capital is clean, friendly, easy to get around, and particularly expensive for visitors from most mainland European countries, and other parts of the world. At least this is the impression you gather from the outside in. As with all my trips, I meet some local creatives to get a socio-political glimpse into this impressive country.
C:NTACT is an independent theatre and media organisation dedicated to social and cultural education. It’s based at the Edison stage in Frederiksberg, I make my way there easily by metro from the heart of the city where I am staying. Its a superb venue with a contemporary feel in the foyer and office. Edison was formerly a power station and now has up to 300 seats and a stage for live performances. I arrive in time for lunch and Henrik Hartmann C:NTACT’s founder kindly invites me to join the team for a communal meal. Traditional rye bread is being prepared for open sandwiches, with toppings ranging from smoked salmon and soft boiled eggs to cured sausage and herrings. Its wonderful to see 10 people around a table sharing food. Some of the staff are paid but most are volunteers.
Hartmann is tall, dressed in grey attire wearing a scarf; he absolutely looks like a Creative Director. He starts by telling me that the theatre’s name was influenced by the Contact Theatre in Manchester, making me smile. Hartmann launched the theatre in 1996, and in 2001 designed a project aimed at women themed on loneliness and isolation. 100s of women wrote to him and he wanted to tell their stories using theatre. At this time Hartmann was managing another theatre close by. During this period only 2-6% of the Danish population was made up of ethnic minorities, and it was clearly evident that the Danish disliked ‘the other’. Hartmann wanted to encourage people to integrate and migrants were invited to share their stories of why they are in Denmark. Some were former African child soldiers, some Palestinians…so many stories. People did not like them for all sorts of reasons and he wanted to challenge this hatred as a theatre voicing ‘the thoughts of others’.
The theatre even now is designed to empower storytellers, migrants and refugees, allowing them to be strong, daring and confident. Hartmann explains that there are many Syrian and Palestinian refugees in the country, as well as migrants from Turkey, Somalia and Poland. He believes that Somalis are disliked the most and accused of not integrating. C:NTACT is now the biggest youth theatre in Denmark and by bringing in audiences of 250,000 a year to see free shows, encourages empathy and understanding between different people. They also use film and radio to document and tell stories, and have widened participation to include young people that are in foster or social care, are socially excluded, as well as experiences of people suffering from mental illness and sexual violence.
C:ONTACT has also used their methodology in African and Arab countries, as well as South Africa and Ukraine, often working with young people in refugee camps. The intention is not to victimise people but to give a voice to marginalised people. Yes the world needs to know that war and conflict has forced people to flee, but Hartmann believes its important that all voices are heard, including nationalists and the rising right wing parties in Denmark. I like this philosophy as too often we focus on one side, the side we want to protect and support. But its not the way to solve conflict or address equality, which is often what drives fear and hate towards the other. Feelings of injustice and division cannot be overcome by only hearing one side of a story, and this is what left wing liberals tend to forget and ignore, then are shocked when things don’t go quite in the way they had expected (thinking about Brexit in the UK of course).
CAMP, a Centre for Art on Migration Politics based in the North West of Copenhagen at Trampoline House is another brilliant venue that I have the pleasure of meeting. It’s a nonprofit exhibition space for art discussing questions of displacement, migration, immigration and asylum. I am welcomed by Frederikke Hansen, one of the founding co-directors. She takes me out into the venue that CAMP is located in, Trampoline House is an independent community centre providing refugees and asylum seekers with a place of community, support, and purpose. It is run by over 70 volunteers including artists and asylum activists. There is a buzz in the air; men and women playing ping pong, talking, sitting on couches, playing chess, someone is getting their hair cut. An elderly Danish gentleman meets me on arrival with a friendly smile and continues to welcome and amuse me during my visit, offering me tea.
Frederikke explains that Trampoline House considers the people who use the house as resourceful and not victims, there is an exchange of skills and learning such as languages as well as integration training. Empowerment is key to the centre which is funded by monthly donors, foundations and some activities that are costed such as the Women’s Club on Saturdays. CAMP is a self organised institution that began in April 2015. Both Directors are art curators that have had a focus on Nordic colonialism and feminism, wanting to see the world from broad perspectives including both the global north and south as connected.
CAMP’s current exhibition is entitled Economy of Migrant Labor – For the Right to Work. It examines the precarious living conditions for migrant workers in Denmark and their struggle for rights. 12 migrant workers have been interviewed for the arts project, who have been allowed entry to Denmark on a tourist visa, but have no rights to access a work permit, medical or social assistance. They have been forced to live on the streets and are sustaining their livelihoods by collecting empty bottles and cans in the streets that can be returned for a recycling refund. The statement recordings made by The Bridge Radio disclose the racism and political violence they are exposed to regularly, and life without social security. Ultimately the exhibition including recordings and graphics reveals how borders not only exclude certain groups of people, but also create a violent form of inclusion, that subordinates certain groups that can be exploited for their labour.
I’m pleased to connect C:ONTACT and CAMP as they do not know about each other, as I see a strong relation between both of these arts organisations for wanting to empower marginalised people and promoting understanding and empathy between people from different walks of life. Its really satisfying for me to see so much passion and commitment to encouraging diversity, and challenging racism, fear and injustice.
It also makes me think about Britain and how much sacrifice, hard work and persistence over decades has lead to equality for different ethnic groups and migrants over the years coming to the UK. For so long we have been proud of diversity and multiculturalism in Britain, whilst being aware that of course some racism on an institutional or individual level has always existed. However we also have refugees and asylum seekers passing through or settling in our cities that are not always fully seen or heard by us and this is worrying. What I fear due to recent political changes and global economic and conflict crisis, tensions are increasing between different groups within the UK as well as against other nations; fear is on the rise again. We cannot ignore the class divide, be it in Europe or the US, as this is where right wing politics are expert at having an influence and causing damage. Be it Brexit, Trump or UK elections, people often vote from their own perspective and experience and we need to hear everyone’s story. This is where art and culture have a significant part to play and I’m so pleased to see this happening in Denmark and having an impact, be it on one person or a small community.