Research and Art – Closing Event Workshop
Research on migrants in agricultural labour, led by Dr Raeymaekers, presented through an art performance to open up results to non-academics (Brussels – 14 December 2017)
A darkened hall above the Royal Vlamish Theatre. The only light provided comes from three projections on the walls and a few dozen flashlights pointed on seemingly random items on the floor. A few tables with mysterious items are set up around the room. People are standing around, inspecting, talking quietly such as not to disturb the mood. A woman draws on her computer, the images appear on the projection in front of her.
It seems like an art exhibition, but it is not one, not in the first place anyways. It’s the closing event on a two-year research project on migrant workers in European horticulture by Dr Timothy Raeymaekers and his team.
After a short introduction by Dr Raeymaekers, the participants are invited to take place at one of the tables around the room. At Dr Raeymaekers’ table, we find a map of a tomato region in Italy, including the semi-permanent ghetto for the West African workers. He explains that a young Ghanaian man has been found dead in front of his hut, cause of death unknown. He tells us that this is a true story the team encountered during their research and that he’d like us to find out who killed him and why.
It’s set up like a game. We, the investigators, go from one place to the other, speak to several people involved. We find out that the water canisters used to be used for pesticides, and that there were tensions between the Ghanaians and the Burkinabe. We hear stories about prostitution, about middle-men who make money by organising workers for farms. We learn that the close-by red-cross camp, built for these workers, is empty, that the mayor of the nearby town wants to tear down the ghetto, that there might be corruption at work. We build all sorts of theories, everyone we encounter seems guilty.
After a short intermission, we’re asked to present our theories to the other tables. The mystery is resolved by Dr Raeymaekers, the (disappointingly simple, but also quite crushing) reason for his death was suicide. The young man presumably couldn’t take the pressure, the living conditions. Even though no-one actively killed him, every one of the factors we encountered partially contributed to his death.
The other tables present their work. A theatre piece is presented, a discussion round on legislation introduces their conclusions. A “game of life”-like board game explains the extraordinary lives of six West African workers in Italy.
When asking Dr Raeymaekers why they chose such a format, instead of the more conventional discussion rounds between experts in the field, he says the idea came up organically, through the collaboration with ‘Cantieri Meticci’, a theatre group, and MIC|C, an Italian arts collective, participating in the research project. The goal was to touch a larger audience, to not limit themselves to scholars, which seemed to work rather well. The form brought the day-to-day life of West African migrant workers closer, helped the audience imagine what life in these work ghettos is like.
Dr Raeymaekers admitted that his family background was rather artistic, which made him quite open to the proposals of the ‘Cantieri Meticci’. He has participated in their workshops, which has left him with a new way to approach migrant workers in Italy.
The team plans on holding a third and last event in Berne in spring 2018. If you’d like to find out more about the research, check out https://snis.ch/project/new-plantations-migrant-mobility-illegality-racialisation/ .
by Zoë Poznicek (SNIS) who participated in the closing workshop, held on 14 December 2017 at the Royal Vlemish Theater in Brussels.