There we all were, twenty applicants waiting for up to three hours for individual interviews for the Open Design Course (ODC). This is a course that presents the possibilities of open source computer programs specifically to refugees and asylum seekers. And as we waited, we paced around, gathering into small ever-shifting groups, in the large and looming studio spaces of an ominously named Kunst-Toren in Ghent. We did not know each other, other than perhaps recognizing a mutual sense of solidarity and fraternity in this moment of expectation and unknowing. Something also stemming from and reflecting the many legal and practical difficulties facing most there. The individual interviews were necessarily brief, but it was in terms of the lingeringly spontaneous and specially open outpouring of stories and worldviews exchanged beforehand, in the time waiting, that was so memorable on so many levels. If I had not been chosen for the course, then those few hours of conversation and exchange before the formal interview were in their own way rewarding and enriching enough.
During the subsequent two months of the course, both in terms of the unique epiphanies but also difficult machinations it generated, I was often reminded of the work of the groundbreaking Swedish artist Öyvind Fahlström. Especially in terms of witnessing the way things could so miraculously fall together in quite captivating and novelistic ways, and also, just as miraculously, to watch at times how things would fall apart and become quite chaotic. Like in one of Fahlström’s politicised and performative board games, we the players, the course participants, had to re-figure and re-boost our identities according to a myriad of external and internal forces. Without doubt the political and bigger world perspective was always looming in the background, and, such aspects led inevitably to participants engaging in quite errant and intense communicative entanglements or outbursts. Even our work space was much like an installation sized board game with its large factory windows, chaotic array of equipment and technical debris spread across tables, and the all-round chipboard walls with various homemade ethnographic, linguistic charts or other diagrams produced via specialist guests, were precariously displayed. Most of these charts and diagrams would randomly, routinely and quite theatrically fall off the walls like huge sheets of bark, and this was due to the lack of any adhesive method effective enough to withstand the coarseness of the chip-board wall surface. As the course progressed there were moments of contention and confusion about the way everything was proceeding, and central to this were questions of whether the course was fulfilling the technical expectations and goals it had originally promised. But what I think was not fully appreciated in terms of such questions or criticism, was in recognizing how the participants had established and maintained throughout the course a very special communicative and fictionalizing collective of sorts. One comprising of a diverse and eclectic set of individuals wishing to reinvent themselves in various ways and to various degrees. Organically and laterally modes of dialogue and anecdotal exchange were quickly and inventively initiated that allowed different viewpoints and worlds to prevail and coexist together quite apart from anything that was taught or transmitted formally in the course.
Study for World Model (Garden)
Perhaps in response to this dynamic mixture of worlds and the vacillating expectations it produced, I had a niggling and persistent urge to write fictionally about the course. It was if we were all fictionally and spontaneously bringing everything into existence, designing a world through verbal systems and patterns that had become a kind of collective idiolect, one made of a multitude of different voices and perspectives. Yet I felt I could not straightforwardly act upon this urge to fictionalize, to write fictionally, as it arose out of a sense of being within a work of fiction but also wanting to address quite real issues directly underscoring everything therein. Questions and issues that reflected a real sense of displacement and crisis that the participants were constantly facing and dealing with. Perhaps this desire for fictionalization had a generative function, in that it offered a means of filling in the blanks and gaps of reality;where events and experiences cannot otherwise be readily explained or described, they can instead be brought to light, and to the design table in this case, fictionally. The most mundane, the most extraordinary, and also the most difficult or painful experiences acquire levels of equivalence and interdependence in realms of fiction making and story-telling. And thereby allowing a different logic to dominate reality rather than that of instrumentality and rationality, and as such, present the way to make sense of highly contingent or difficult events by changing and rethinking patterns of meaning. Fiction, put simply, places the world in dialogue with itself. Where I am going with all this, and especially in terms of this course for refugees and asylum seekers? For it was the daily activity of spontaneous dialogue and exchange of perspectives in this course that offered such a prismatic and collage-like platform for thinking about design. Of doing this in relation to each of our own predicaments and expectations. Much would arise out of the daily outpourings of stories and fictional gestures that could then be harnessed and scrutinised further in regards to thinking about designing things or events in new and particularly radical ways. There were many valuable moments within the course where the whole notion of design as both a critical and liberating activity was brought to the fore. But the most relevant and long reaching aspects in this regard, and in relation to any real aspirations of offering an effective sanctuary and support system for the participants in terms of a refuge, was in proposing to adopt and develop attitudes towards design quite outside standard industrial models or horizons; and that these alternative design attitudes or approaches must be based on achieving levels of individual self-satisfaction and autonomy exclusively through collaboration and dialogue.
It is then in terms of qualities of fiction, of uncertainty, and of the special proclivity or openness for engaging in dialogue cultivated between the participants of the course that the notion of a Post ODC Collective (see banner attached) especially seems viable and inspiring. As a fiction and dialogue generating entity it might adopt the goal of designing and naming not what is possible, but, and more to the point, what seems quite impossible, and to do this from within a special set of fictionalizing impulses and modes of dialogue already operating between the course participants.
What follows is an interview with a Syrian refugee and participant of the ODC who presently lives in the Netherlands. He studied at a university in Syria before fleeing that war torn country and hopes to continue his studies in Europe. It offers one example of the kind of stories, conversations and life experiences that were exchanged between course participants. The focus of the interview is a secret underground vault that he and a number of friends made in the countryside outside a large Syrian city. The vault was constructed especially to hold rare and important books, and, notably, it has doors that were installed with an elaborate system of homemade locks and security devices. The vaults exact location remains a tightly guarded secret but its existence and the story behind its construction present a defiantly allegorical, ontological and political position of opposition to what are the horrendously brutal and destructive forces being inflicted upon the Syrian people and culture by the Assad regime.
Q: We are both presently participants of the Open Design Course for Refugees and Asylum Seekers and on our very first meeting, on the day of interviews, you mentioned you had made a book vault or bunker that contained over 1200 books in the Syrian countryside. Can you explain something about it?
A: First I will give some background information of this monument of mine. After I was suspended from university in Syria back in 2011, I had to find a way to cope with the new reality that was left in the wake of this traumatizing event. Thus I began conferring with some individuals from my close circle of friends and we decided that I need to resume what I started in the university.
Q: Which was what?
A: It is the idea of hoarding knowledge at any cost, depending on the validity of the said knowledge and taking into consideration the preservation of it. Distrusting digitization, we have established that it is exclusive to hard copies only.
Q: How did you decide in what books were to go into the vault and how did you collect them?
A: It is a complicated process and heavily dependant on the situation. Some books we bought from a shop after some of my colleagues suggested and verified, those were instantly approved given their experience as professors and students, or the experience of their friends or relatives. A book is not approved until three of us would read and verify what is inside. Other books are trickier to acquire. We hear a rumor of its existence, we go to the owner and compensate them fairly, and hand them a receipt, that happens after we would verify the content. Some of them are quite rare so we would travel a 100km to get them.
Q: In previous conversations you referred to the vault as ‘a hive’, which reminds me of the nice fact that the word ‘hive’ is in the word archive. Can you elaborate on what you meant by hive?
A: It is from our altruism and dedication and extreme discipline that I refer to it as so. We are very well-organized, and our code of conduct is almost treated like a religious text, with everyone knowing exactly what is expected of them and their roles that they do not sway from.
Q: The books are the honey?
A: You can say that, they are considered artifacts of some sort, but also a form of honey.
Q: Can you provide a description of the vault, how it was built, what kind of landscape the vault is in?
A: The planning took us months, and the execution took us three weeks. We dug underground in an area away from urban structures, you can call it a semi-desert. Our main concern was passive defence, as we do not want intruders to know the location so we wouldn’t worry about them gaining access. The location is in the north of Syria and that is all you need to know.
Q: Is it being added to? Do people take care of it and do people access the books in it?
A: It is not a library, rather a supply cache. It is being tended to, cleaned, and only the members of this establishment are able to gain access, after applying for it by the current lore-master.
Q: What is the establishment? Without giving too much specific information.
A: It is a book club, you could say, we like to be perceived as a group too insignificant to look at, which gives us space to work freely.
Q: Do you have any historical precedents in regards to the entombment of books?
A: History told us about the Mongols invasion of Baghdad and sinking its library, the inquisition in Spain burning science books and materials that are priceless, and finally, the Russo-Iranian aggression in Syria deliberately bombing schools and libraries. Thus all good reasons to save knowledge.
Q: Can you describe in detail the padlocks you made for the book vault? How did you design and make them? Did your knowledge of physics come into play when making them? Why did you make these locks and not get ready made ones?
A: The locks are designed to be efficient enough to withstand high caliber projectiles, taking into consideration the local natural challenges. It is the work of many people including myself, developed over two months as a schematic, then a few weeks of testing in a fitting environment. We had knowledge in physics, chemistry, and mechanical engineering, mine was the general counsel and logistics mainly because they are better than me in their respective fields. Ready made locks can easily fail and their inner design is known, thus their useless. Besides, it is against our protocols and the core covenant of beliefs to buy such a symbolic contraption.
Q: One final question: Since you first mentioned the book vault to me on our first meeting it immediately caught my imagination and I have ever since often considered the more metaphoric, symbolic, mythological and historical sides to such an object and its construction. Does the existence of this book vault have such significance to you and your group beyond the more practical reasons for its existence? If so can you elaborate on this?
A: It’s significance is bound by its utility to us, therefore it’s an instrument, no matter how monumental it gets (and it is still developing), as a map or as a course of ours that any member definitely needs and is required to search through in order to unify the views and knowledge capabilities of our community.
Marcus Bergner is an
Australian artist now living and working in Brussels. His
experimental films are distributed by Light Cone in Paris and the
German Film Archives in Berlin. He has performed and exhibited work
in the field of sound poetry throughout Europe and Australia. His
most recent performance was part of ‘The Autobiographical” at
Performance aan de Laan
in Rotterdam curated by Kathrin Wolkowicz.