Refugee stories written in stone

The round, glassed inner courtyard of the Alpbach Congress Centre is undergoing a “subtly dramatic” transformation ahead of the Built Environment symposium, Conor McMahon reports.

From now until the end of the Forum, seven social design students from the University of Applied Arts Vienna will occupy the space for one hour every day as part of The Great Transfer performance art piece, which aims to illustrate the concept of home for refugees living in Austria.

“There are several layers to what we are trying to achieve,” said Cosima Terrasse, one of the performers. “If we talk about a Built Environment, we don’t only talk about buildings and architecture, we also talk about people’s stories.”

The Great Transfer timelapse from European Forum Alpbach on Vimeo.

The students interviewed 13 refugees from Syria, Yemen, Iran, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Somalia. The transcripts of these interviews will be read out and inscribed on each of the 2,500 stones inside the courtyard word-by-word and in a series of lines.

“It’s very structured,” said Alejandra Loreto, another performer. “The lines, the stones. Everything was really precise so that the whole stories and the whole interviews would fit there. The lines also represent movement. Going from one place to another.”

The project adopts a minimalist approach to tackle a complex issue: “By interviewing [the refugees] about a simple description of their homes,” Cosima said, “we not only have an idea of how a home and architecture influences a thought process, but also of how essential it is to have a home and to be able to go back to it.

“By interviewing [the refugees] about a simple description of their homes,” Cosima said, “we not only have an idea of how a home and architecture influences a thought process, but also of how essential it is to have a home and to be able to go back to it.

“It’s very interesting how just a simple description shows how a culture functions differently. Small descriptions help you understand something more deeply.”

The performance comes at a time when Austria is struggling with incoming refugees: while travelling to the Forum, journalist Teresa Reiter was angered by the comments of fellow passengers, who witnessed the police removing refugees from her train.

The Great Transfer will be presented by Anton Falkeis, the head of the Social Design programme, on Wednesday, August 26 at 7pm in the Congress Centre, and again, at the opening session of the Built Environment Symposium on September 3.

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