Migration as Avant-Garde

Ahead of the launch of The Home & Migration issue which is due to drop later this month, we wanted to share a shortened piece by Wes Foster on Michael Danner’s, Migration as Avant-Garde, ahead of the launch of his exhibition at C/O Berlin.

Migration is a constant process. As sure as it is that tides will ripple against shores, people will come and go. Rome was built by migration: empires are created by the clash of cultures. This constant movement will never really dissipate – as humans, we are naturally inclined to move to where we can be safe. In the last century it manifested itself as a movement for finding work, and in more recent years mass migration has become an escape from war ravaged countries. Despite all the media attention, and the way in which controls and checks, calls for a full country are ratified, we don’t, especially in the UK, see that much of it. We obviously have the long entrenched generations that have moved over in the course of decades, but the detention centres, the border gates, the security checks are all out of eyesight.

Through Migration as Avant-Garde, Michael Danner begins to look at this process. Not, admittedly, in the broadest of senses, but as a document of what is happening now, and how it being processed. More and more migration is caught between two worlds as the divisions between third and first world grow. Data is now everything – humans are reduced to becoming numbers. Whereas in past times, immigration control was primarily superstition, or an unwanting of other cultures, or misguided suspicion of disease. Reasons are still rooted in the same inherited fears, but instead have been finessed into these arguments of countries being ‘too full’, stretched. Perhaps that is something more to do with the state of welfare in the neoliberal age (but that is an argument for another day). 

“Refugees driven from country to country represent the vanguard of their peoples— if they keep their identity.”

– Hannah Arendt, We Refugees (1943)

* This is a shortened version of the article that will feature in the Home & Migration issue that is due to drop later this month. You can order your copy Here.

Samos Volunteers, Samos stadium, football play by refugees and volunteers on Saturdays

The sun is sinking into the ocean in a postcard-perfect view, a watermelon is being sliced up on the beach, and a gold blanket glitters in the summer heat. Yet Michael Danner’s photographs subvert our expectations and counter our clichés of a sojourn on the Mediterranean. Almost imperceptibly, they displace our inevitable associations of idyllic vacations and reinterpret summer, beach, and sea to show the threats of a humanitarian catastrophe. In the settings of our vacation fantasies, twenty-first century refugees on the coasts of Morocco, Tunisia, Spain, Greece, and Turkey are confronted with danger, loss, and death. Such gold survival blankets have been a symbol for Europe’s refugee crisis since fall 2015. According to the UN, over 70 million people around the world are currently seeking refuge—more than ever before. 

Michael Danner takes a political and anthropological approach in his work, in which explorations of conflict regions and their history play a central role. His long-term conceptual documentary project with the seemingly provocative title Migration as Avant-Garde (2008–2017) is a moving, critical, and rousing work about Europe’s borders. Danner’s surprising juxtaposition of the terms “migration” and “avant-garde” stems from his reading of political scientist Hannah Arendt’s essay We Refugees (1943). Beginning with her notion of flight as a radical act of self-determination and faith in progress, Danner’s project examines different forms of migration, including freedom of movement within the EU, labor migration, emigration, flight, and displacement. Migration as Avant-Garde deftly brings together numerous visual commentaries on the current global situation while allowing viewers to make their own interpretation and avoiding explicit depictions of desperate situations. Danner’s project is a counterpoint to the conventional journalistic narrative of news photographs. Instead of simply informing or deliberately shocking his audience, Michael Danner (b. 1967) creates a visual dialogue about one of humankind’s oldest actions: moving from one place to another.

C/O Berlin is the first institution in the world to exhibit this project, for which Danner received the Dummy Award at the Fotobookfestival in Kassel in 2018. The sophisticated book design makes use of layers and collage, and the exhibition, curated by Dr. Kathrin Schönegg, translates this approach into three dimensions, with framed photographs, projected images, and designed fragments of text.

Michael Danner (b. 1967 in Reutlingen) is a German photographer who has worked for a number of magazines and agencies. Since 2016, he has been a professor of photography at the University of Applied Science Europe. He studied photo design at the Fachhochschule Bielefeld and photography at the University of Brighton. Danner has shown his work at international exhibitions including Fotofestiwal Łódź (2019), Darmstadt Photography Days (2018), Fotodoks Munich (2017), and Hereford Photography Festival (2010, 2004). Back in 2005, he took part in the group exhibition Born in the Sixties at C/O Berlin’s former location in Linienstraße. He has received support from Stiftung Kunstfonds (2012) and was awarded a grant for contemporary German photography from Museum Folkwang and the Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach-Stiftung (2018). He was nominated for the German Photobook Prize in 2014–15 and received the Dummy Award at the Fotobookfestival in Kassel in 2018 for Migration as Avant-Garde. The book was published in 2019 by Kehrer Verlag. Michael Danner lives and works in Berlin.

‘As all public institutions, C/O Berlin has an educational function. The task of every cultural institution – in Germany and abroad – is to mirror and to discuss the developments present in society and politics. Especially photography has always been seen as a documentary and artistic medium that reflected cultural and political movements. As an exhibition space for photography, we endeavor to engage with the history of the medium and its current relevance in various fields. This also includes the usage of photography in our society and thus the engagement with the topic of migration, which has always been present but was especially visible during the European migrant crises in 2015.‘ (Dr. Kathrin Schönegg, Curator C/O Berlin).

See more from C/O Berlin Here.

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See more from Michael Danner Here.