Thinking the city through a gendered and postmigratory lens

Encounter of perspectives at the roadto_

by Sara

I am Sara, Transcultural Studies MA student at University Heidelberg. You may have read my other blogs Gendered Discussions & Rewriting the City, which aimed to review two of the workshops I took part in for roadto_ as part of my collaboration with the initiative through Cathrine Bublatzy’s seminar on post-migration since April 2019. Or alternatively you may have took part in the exhibition ‘Arrival: Stories of Many’ at Mehrgenerationhaus and seen my video-object about Hackney (London). This collaboration has been hugely interesting and a great opportunity to reflect about the shared experience of this city with some of the festival participants, my colleagues, the festival groups and activity organisers. Even though I’d been involved in public art and community events before, exploring postmigration dynamics was never the aim. The seminar’s theoretical framework has included topics such as citizenship, the creative city and transcultural place-making. I entered this cooperation with an interest on thinking of gender dynamics in the public space but my focus has shifted slightly to be thinking about (mostly) women lead initiatives in Heidelberg’s post-migration context as a so-called creative city.

I’ve had the opportunity throughout this process to engage with three women- informants who are part of three very distinct groups, all of which took part in the roadto__ initiative. One is a staff member of the Migration Hub, a network with the mission of giving space to migrant’s own perspectives[1]. The other two groups I’ve followed are the Heidelberg International Women’s Club, a membership-based English-speaking network of women living in the Rein-Neckar region who define themselves as expats living in Germany[2], and the Heidelberg Queer Feminist Collective, a mostly German collective advocating for queer feminist rights[3].

The term post-migration

According to the academics Anne Ring Petersen and Moritz Schramm[4], postmigration started to circulate in German academia as a reaction against negative uses of the term “migrant” as an external ascription of identity. From a community participation perspective, Heidelberg in particular is at a very different moment to other cities in which multiculturalism is a status quo. So it has been particularly interesting to think about it as a genuine ‘arrival city’ giving the transient nature of part of its citizen – myself one of them –, taking into account the historical relationship that Germany still has with migration, unlike the UK, as a country of hosting predominantly migrants in the context of the ‘Gastarbeiter’ [5]. It’s been interesting to hear from my informants on their thinking about what and how we define migration. International women, migrant women, expats, women from different backgrounds have all been ways in which these collectives have defined a demographic that is often hard to define without recurring to the topic of representation. Notions of difference and otherness are produced through interactions and relations between people, not in isolation – although the common notions of distinct “national identities”, parallel communities” and “ethnic minorities” suggest otherwise. Greg Nobel, for example, questions the notion of cosmopolitanism given the fact that it cannot represent the local level negotiations of the everyday in public space [6].

Who decides on who is a migrant and who is an expat?

Is language a barrier or an opportunity for integration?


Is inclusivity a ‘speaking about’ or ‘speaking for’?

Heidelberg as a creative city

One of the topics that we’ve been discussing in the theoretical part of our seminar has been the role that culture and knowledge have in establishing access to and the production of the “creative city”. In Heidelberg this is especially important due to the huge role of the university, and higher education more broadly, plays in knowledge making. But it is especially relevant looking at the way that culture, creativity and innovation operate as motors of other economic drivers such as housing and urban development. When I asked my informants whether they thought these policies were motors of gender and background diversity, they felt ambivalent about this. On one hand there for openness for any diversity to flourish and on the other there is a consciousness. If creativity can be a source of interconnectedness, in the way that Marsha Meskimmon refers to the function of art as a possible way of imagining dezinshep, a version of citizenship that transcends the boundaries of what defines conviviality in itself [7]. A key question that has come up when interacting with the people I’ve engaged with through roadto_ has been, inevitably:

How did this person get here?

Who perhaps isn’t present, and why?

Is it important to focus on what all these people have in common or in their differences?

Can creativity exist when part of a city policy or can providing creative spaces allow for further reimagining of our interconnectedness?

Intersectionality and gender

Gender is key in this thinking around citizenship and the right to the city and a key research interest of mine I’ve tried to think through in my conversations in the context of roadto_ is about the intersectionality of conviviality. In a post-migration context, I see it as crucial to look at gender and intersectionality as an intrinsic part of the co-production of shared knowledge and of place and community-making. Notions of difference and otherness are produced through interactions and relations between people, not in isolation. This highlights the need for more complex representations of the gendered subject more broadly that aim to see beyond dual categories of self and other. My informant from the Queer Feminist Collective is perhaps the one that is most aware of a non-binary nature of citizenship as an “embodied, responsible and intersubjective agency” forming the basis of an ethical worldmaking project [8]. One of the questions that roadto_ posed as part of their project proposal resonates strongly to my thinking:

How can different voices be heard and the invisible become visible so that representation no longer remains a privilege?

Politics of identity and belonging

I have explored in this collaboration the concept of identity that has activated these groups of women to take part in the festival and how they define themselves in Heidelberg. So what ‘home-making means to them, in the case of the international women groups, and what are their attitudes towards those who don’t identity as German, in the case of Heidelberg’s Queer Feminist Collective. The former admits that their members have chosen to move for work or for love, stating that they are mobile and have the means and ability to choose where to live. Home seems to be more of a given, therefore. For the latter, the focus is more on identity and representativity. They are an open collaborative group but admit that 80% of their founding members are born and raised in Germany and 20% of German speaking members. They are concerned with the lack of these spaces in the city. At the same time, there seems to be a strong consciousness of not wanting to ‘speak for others’ but to provide a safe space in which everyone identifying as a queer feminist can participate. Their relationship with migrant women is through collaboration rather than through aiming to represent them.

How can these boarders be transcended without the need of representation? How can this type of collaborations become more visible in a city like Heidelberg, beyond existing discourses of creativity and diversity?

Roadto_ as an encounter of perspectives

To conclude, my research throughout this collaboration has connected with a broader idea of observing society through the perspective of migration. As the academic Regina Römhild points out, the same way studying gender is not necessarily studying women, thinking in postmigration terms should not be necessarily about migrants. Postmigration research is about examining the margins migration itself creates [9]. The idea of the need to transcend the focus on commonalities to focus on what is ‘left out’ and ‘not accounted for’ has come up in my conversations with my Migration Hub informant. Attempting to understand what people have in common is not necessarily always meaningful when some existences can’t be understood by the experience of others. This only leaves us with the possibility of sharing them, without the focus having to be necessarily understanding them. One can only take into account the multiplicity of perspectives when writing a common story of a place at a certain time.


References

  • [1] Citation from Migration Hub Heidelberg website.
  • [2] Citation from Heidelberg International Women’s Club website.
  • [3] Information from Queerfeministisches Kollektiv Heidelberg website.
  • [4] Petersen, Anne Ring, and Moritz Schramm. 2017. ‘(Post-)Migration in the Age of Globalisation: New Challenges to Imagination and Representation’. Journal of Aesthetics & Culture 9 (2): 1–12.
  • [5] IDEM, p. 8.
  • [6] Noble, Greg. 2013. ‘Cosmopolitan Habits: The Capacities and Habitats of Intercultural Conviviality’. Edited by Tony Bennett, Francis Dodsworth, Greg Noble, Mary Poovey, and Megan Watkins. Body & Society 19 (2–3): 162–85.
  • [7] Meskimmon, Marsha. 2017. ‘From the Cosmos to the Polis: On Denizens, Art and Postmigration Worldmaking’. Journal of Aesthetics & Culture 9 (2): 25–35.
  • [8] Marsha Meskimmon (2017) From the cosmos to the polis: on denizens, art and postmigration worldmaking, Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, 9:2, 25-35.
  • [9] Regina Römhild (2017) Beyond the bounds of the ethnic: for postmigrant cultural and social research, Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, 9:2, 69-75.