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COINCIDENCIA Tour / Exhibition

Of ships and utopias

«Hotel der Immigranten» by CapriConnection ©Nelly Rodriguez

«Hotel der Immigranten» [The Immigrants‘ Hotel] is the title of the new project of CapriConnection and the author Anne Jelena Schulte, that mixes music and theater, emerged from a research trip to Argentina. The theme is the European immigration and a utopia of the Argentine collective Estrella del Oriente.

Written by Katja Zellweger

«Lejos, lejos» was the mother’s answer to everything; it was what she could express under tears, crossing the Atlantic, in that new and strange Spanish. I wonder if by «far, far» she meant the distance from the European home or to the unknown mainland? Or maybe the distance from her previous life, as the wife of an accountant and mother of five children, who, suddenly and without any preparation, had the task of making fertile a land in the subtropical north of Argentina? Actually, though, that does not matter. According to us, Europeans, us who remained home. But for those who had the courage to cross the ocean by ship towards an unknown future, the distance, the distance apart from Europe, was of great importance. Sharp longing and a semi-identification with both places were the consequence.

Many felt absolutely detached from Europe in Argentina, swept away from the memory of Europe and the rest of the world. Affirmations such as «sometimes, I really think that this is the end of the world» turn palpable this feeling of «lejos» in the scenic-musical project «Hotel der Immigranten» [The Immigrants‘ Hotel]. The German author Anne Jelena Schulte transformed these lines, drawn from interviews with first generation European emigrants, into a poetic text that forms the basis of the play. The Swiss group CapriConnection and Pedro Roth, from the Argentine collective Estrella del Oriente, pore over this material. Thanks to the support of Pro Helvetia’s Coincidencia program, the CapriConnection accompanied Anne Schulte on a research trip in Argentina. It took them to the The Immigrants’ Hotel, in the province of Misiones, in the northeast of Argentina, to Swiss emigrants and, finally, to the utopia project of the Estrella del Oriente collective, in Buenos Aires.

At the Migration archives Museum

The Immigrants’ Hotel, in the port of Buenos Aires, was the place of arrival for foreigners, who stayed there until they received permission to enter. The building offers unobstructed views of the Rio del Plata, always dyed brown by sludge, separating the migrants from Europe. Although the more than five million Italians and Spaniards make up the vast majority of the new arrivals in Argentina, still, proportionally, the Swiss emigrated in large numbers. Between 1857 and 1940 the arrival of 50,000 Swiss was recorded, among them the poet Alfonsina Storni, from Tessin, whose image is reproduced on an Argentine postage stamp, and Johan Alemann, from Bern, who founded the «Argentinisches Tageblatt», edited still today in German.

Currently, The Immigrants’ Hotel is a museum and archive. From there come the countless immigrant files that can be seen in the play. They are projected on white screens hanged on wire grid barriers. The public is crowded in the middle of this cold, barren museum that holds the files of the migration. Even though the documents contain little information, the noise of the slide projectors (images: Tebbe Schöningh) creates a very instigating fertile soil for the imagination of each image’s migration stories.

Visiting the Tischhäuser and the Senn in Misiones

At the beginning of the play, Anne Schulte and Pedro Roth, of the Estrella del Oriente, define migration as collective «human destinies», unlike individual destinies. For this reason, the actress Susanne Abelein, of the CapriConnection, acts as a support, conveying the migration stories researched in Argentina in order to represent all of them. She is accompanied by the unmistakable sound of the Argentine accordion (Jonas Kocher), electronics and voice (Christof Kurzmann) and by the trumpet noises (Leonel Kaplan), which move resolutely from plastic to melancholic. The stories overlap, similar in their tone of childhood memories, but differing in the details. «We thought we were going on a trip», sounds childishly innocent. At the same time, it is clear that it is about octogenarian people revolving their memories. Author Anne Schulte intentionally restricted herself to the first generation of emigrants. In such case the nostalgia, the reference to the previous life is more immediate – until the end of life.

The research took CapriConnection and Anne Schulte to Misiones, a subtropical province near the border with Paraguay and Brazil, where they talked to Swiss called Hansruedi, Erwin or Zimmermann, Tischhäuser and Senn. These emigrated as children in the 1930s with their parents. About 2,500 Argentinians with a Swiss passport still live in the region today. The Swiss there were considered important planters of yerba mate, the national drink of Argentina and Uruguay, drank hot and of stimulating effect. Schulte und Anna-Sophie Mahler, a member of the CapriConnection and the stage director of the play, tell about interviews filled with Swiss words and an immense gratitude of these people for finally being listened to and recognized as part of the European history. About a history completely muted under the current noise surrounding the migrations. Even though the emigration from Europe since 1850 until after the Second World War was a phenomenon of great proportions. First, people abandoned their land out of sheer material need. Press advertisements and immigration assistance worked as incentive. In a second phase, especially in the twentieth century, people from urban regions, in particular, took advantage of the chance to find material success abroad. Today, they would be pejoratively called «economic refugees». Likewise, during the Second War many Jews fled from the National Socialism.

«Proposing instead of opposing»

Pedro Roth, who from the beginning of the play is sitting at a table, painting, represents this latter group. His own migration history and how it manifests itself in the projects of the Estrella del Oriente collective is the theme of the second part of the evening. As a young man, Roth saved himself along his mother leaving Hungary, passing by Romania and Israel until arriving in Argentina. His father was killed in Auschwitz. Since traveling to Switzerland for the project, Roth has validated his Swiss passport. For the escape, a fake one had been issued for him and his mother. But it never had any use.

Pedro Roth during «Hotel der Immigranten» ©Nelly_Rodriguez
Pedro Roth during «Hotel der Immigranten» ©Nelly_Rodriguez

The theme of migration is also ubiquitous in his art, his thinking and his acting: Roth, who is over 80 years old and speaks with the pleasant melody of the Argentines, is at the same time dynamic as a man in his 30’s and has the artistic thinking of an European philosopher, having dedicated himself to the question of the human capacity for utopia. In the same «compulsive» way as he draws, according to himself, Roth also creates utopias, dreams and visions. Today, he notices how many people just accumulate anger, without turning this anger into something creative. His creed, however, is to «proponer en vez de oponer» – «to propose rather than to oppose».

Therefore, as part of the Estrella del Oriente collective, he created a ship in the shape of a whale. This has the function of catching people who want to immigrate and transporting them by ship to museums of the «first world». On the ship, the person would become, when crossing the «bridge of Duchamp», a work of art. As a work of art, they have free transit in the ports (of art) of this world, which do not want to open the doors for them as refugees. The 300 million project described by Roth is a Kafkaesque marathon in search of funding and credibility. There is no way of knowing here whether a little group of old people with artistic aspirations thought a little too big or the young spheres have unlearned how to turn their anger into creativity. A cheeky Roth leaves a clear answer unsaid – the consequence is the identification of one’s own utopias.

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