What’s on the menu? Schengen as geo-culinary topos

A truly European flavour...

A truly European flavour…

Since last May, Russia has its own ‘Schengen’. It’s a place where you can go for pleasure or business. It’s a restaurant in Saint Petersburg. The restaurant is located not far from the Finnish Consulate, where the owner goes to get “the cherished Schengen visa.” Hence the name. But there is more to it than pure happenstance. The reference to ‘Schengen’ is meant to evoke the cosmopolitan aura that Europe’s area of free movement is supposed to project, together with other related ‘progressive’ notions such as open-mindedness, sophistication, and freedom. This spin is not that surprising. After all, the purpose of any act of ‘branding’ is to sell a product to a customer, and thus the product should be associated with something positive. In the eyes of the management, ‘Schengen’ is supposed to do the trick.

And the trick seems to work. According to one reviewer, Schengen is “a new location for smart people.”. In terms of menu, another reviewer notices how “at first (it) seemed concise to the point of being a bit parsimonious” (these stingy Europeans!), although the overall experience is one of “visa-free satisfaction”. Schengen’s design as well is quintessential European. It has in fact a “slightly Germanic feel” but it “bring(s) together influences from different parts of Europe into an effortlessly harmonious whole”. (Well, “slightly Germanic feel” might be a bit of understatement when we look at Europe today; in turn, the Old Continent is all but “effortless” and “harmonious” these days, but you get the picture…)

From its clientele to its look, Schengen (the restaurant) thus seems to uncannily represent a microcosm of Europe’s border free area, or at least what European policy-makers would like to present outside the region. In this sense, Schengen (the restaurant) is not unique. There are other examples of businesses with topographical names reminiscent of a location that is different from the one where that business actually lies. It is arguably one of the most common practices in the hospitality industry. After all, almost all respectable cities around the world have a ‘London’ or ‘Paris’ restaurant, even if these establishments are located neither in England nor in France. The Schengen restaurant is also not the only bearing a name of topographical entity that does not actually exist. (We should keep in mind that formally ‘Schengenland’ is not a political entity that we can find on a map; in EU legal documents, the reference is still to the territory of member states). Cities are replete with hotels bearing the names of fictional locations, including mythical ones (for example, ‘Paradise’, ‘El Dorado’).

What distinguishes the case of the Schengen restaurant is that it refers to both a real and a fictional entity. The restaurant’s name in fact refers to something that simultaneously does and does not exist. In this context ‘Schengen’ is something real because, according to those who chose this name, its referent object is an existing political entity with defined ‘commonsensical’ features; however, it is also  fictional, because this political entity does not formally exist, or at least it does not necessarily exist in the way the management of the restaurant thinks it does. Ready to go to Schengen? Check its menu first, there might be surprises…

Saying ‘non’ to Schengen: or how a visa refusal can challenge the system

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A Non-Schengen ticket…

“Non, merci”. These simple words have caused a stir, embarrassing France and Europe as a whole in the process. What I am referring to is the symbolic gesture that a young Senegalese woman, Bousso Dramé, performed last week after the French consulate in Dakar had granted her a visa to travel to Europe. She really wanted to go to Paris. And she well deserved it (the trip was the prize for winning a French writing contest). Yet, she declined. We often hear stories about visa applicants, especially in developing countries, being turned down by callous European officials. Not this time. Drame turned them down. And she did not do it silently. She wanted to let the consulate officials know why she did it  – because of the way she was (mis)treated during the application process. She also wanted everybody else (in Africa and beyond) to know. And she wanted to make a statement about the humiliation that many people like her have to endure in order to get to Europe. That is why she put all her bitterness in writing, in a composed yet powerful j’accuse against a ‘system’ that she feels is profoundly unjust, which pretends to be objective but whose main raison d’être seems to be that of keeping unwanted people out of Europe.

Drame’s gesture has made me think about other symbolic performances that target Europe’s visa system, in this case using art as their main ‘weapon’. What I have in mind is what Milevska  calls ‘Non Schengen Art’[1]. The common theme addressed by non–Schengen artists is the impact of the Schengen border regime on the everyday life of Eastern European citizens (those holding passports of countries that are not yet Schengen members). In order to present their work in Western Europe, these artists (themselves citizens of ‘Non Schengen’ countries) need to obtain a visa. To challenge what they perceive as a clamp down on their freedom of expression, they conjure up performances, objects, installations, and video or photography projects that are clandestine attempts for finding a way to trick the political system and bureaucratic procedures. These performances are often based on illegal tactics that mirror the creative ways in which would-migrants try to sneak across Europe’s external borders, such as faking passports, bribing officials, avoiding surveillance cameras, overstaying visas, white weddings, etc. Their criticism of the Schengen regime, rather than overt and outspoken, is evoked by their actions. They are not just representing an illegal migrant in their art; they are performing it. Thanks to these performances, art becomes part of everyday life. But the artists’ objective is not to reify the ‘everydayness’ that Schengen represents, but to disrupt it from within.

The Serbian author Tanja Ostojić, for instance, in her performance Crossing Borders, realized in 2000, the author illegally crossed the border between Slovenia and Austria. When she crossed the border, Slovenia was still a non Schengen country, and its borders with the EU were heavily fortified. According to Ostojić, the journey was possible only because of the help she received from her Austrian friends who accompanied her in the treacherous trek across the Slovenian-Austrian border. The final objective of the work of Ostojić and other members of the Non Schengen Art movement is to unveil Schengen’s exclusionary underpinnings. Their artistic performances thus engage with ‘the system’, if only as a means to debunk it from within. This is precisely what Drame’s ‘spectacular’ gesture seems to be doing. The power of  a ‘non’…


[1]  Milevska, Suzana, “Non-Schengen art: the phantasm of belonging”, paper presented at the UCL school of Slavonic and East European studies 7th annual international postgraduate conference, Inclusion Exclusion, University College London 16-18th February 2006

Schengen blues: critical (musical) notes on Europe

Schengen bluesThere’s something about Schengen that makes it a favourite subject of creative types of all stripes.  What this ‘quid’ consists of may elude us non artistically inclined mortals. After all, what can be so exciting about an utterly dry catalogue of rules regulating travel in and about the Old Continent? Apparently, a lot. The reasons why Schengen has become a source of artistic inspiration, however, are not necessarily as benign as some European policy-makers (especially those who still hail this policy initiative as one of the finest achievements of European integration) would like us to believe. Indeed, Schengen is often the artistic target of trenchant criticism, especially because of its exclusionary practices vis a vis selected individuals (i.e. the unwanted non-Europeans). This critical streak permeates the entire spectrum of the performative art scene. Musicians play a big part in this anti-Schengen chorus. Europe’s free travel area seems to touch a (metaphorical) cord with this category of artists. After all, is there a better way to voice your opinion (and be heard from afar) than through your own voice, especially if screamed out of your lungs? The latest example of this increasingly popular musical genre (‘Schengen blues’?) that I have recently come across is from the Spanish crooner Raphael (by the way, why would the author of 60s’ hits such as “Cuando tú no estás”, “Mi gran noche”, “Tema de amor”, would pen a song – in French, alas! –  on a topic such as Europe’s border control regime is a question that definitely warrants further investigation…). The song, simply titled ‘Schengen’, poetically evokes the painful experience of the typical migrant living in the Old Continent. The result is a rather depressing portrayal of Europe…

(…)

Tellement de nuits sous la paupière
Tellement de forêts abattues
Même sous la mitraille et le fer
Moi je leur ai rien vendu
Et que même dans l’espace Shengen
Ils ont pas voulu de ma peau

Ce que j’ fais là moi
Je sais pas
Je voulais juste marcher tout droit
Ce que j’ fais là moi
Je sais pas
Je pense à toi depuis mille ans

(…)

(NB: full text and English translation are available here)

A fish called Schengen (border)

 The picture here is an aerial view of land art installation by Polish artist Jaroslaw Koziara as a part of the Land Art Festival on the field between Horodyszcze (Poland) and Warez (Ukraine), which took place over the summer of 2011.  Apparently not only humans try to cross European borders. ..

http://prosrc.corbisimages.com/stock-photo/rights-managed/42-29280312/land-art-project-jaroslaw-koziara

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