Multicultural Germany Class: Week 7, Staging Diversity

This post is part of a series in which students reflect on their discussions in the UC Berkeley undergraduate seminar “Multicultural Germany.” This week’s summary is by Jennifer Lau

Museum exhibitions and culture commemorations served as the primary focal point for this week’s examination of institutions of multiculturalism in Germany. We began with a debate on the Carnival of Cultures, an annual celebration in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district that has been around since 1996. Additionally, we were blessed with the added presence of guest lecturer Professor Deniz Göktürk, who authored one of our texts “Spectacles of Multiculturalism” and spoke about her experience with the Project Migration exhibition in Cologne. Lastly, we surveyed migrant culture as an allegory of the global market through the lenses of the Heimat Kunst exhibition.

An imported festival that does an admirable job in staging diversity, the Carnival of Cultures has grown into one of the most popular street festivals in Berlin with more than half a million spectators that have come to watch 120 different groups from more than 70 countries. However, the event itself is quite controversial as it has the tendency to unintentionally promote exotic fetishism, cultural appropriation and ignorance towards the plights of immigrants. To what extent are these cultures being instrumentalized to draw people to the event? We scrutinized the celebration and the text, “Spectacles of Multiculturalism,” through the perspectives of 4 groups: the organizers of the carnival, Kanak Attak (an activist network), Julia Naumann (a news reporter) and Johannes Rau (German president from 1999-2004). Naturally the organizers of the carnival and President Rau would praise the event as a way to promote cultural diversity and reduce anti-immigrant attitudes. Considering the Carnival is a multiple-day merriment with food, music, alcohol and even a parade, participants tend to put aside prejudices for some fun. On the other hand, Kanak Attak and Julia Naumann see the festival as highlighting differences among each group and selling cultures to mainstream Germany as entertainment. Although it is part of human nature to appropriate and imitate, it becomes incredibly problematic when actors have to fit themselves into pre-existing, German-approved political situations instead of shaping their own way.

Over the years, museum exhibits and archives have made a valiant effort to preserve and display the collective memory of labor migration in Germany. Professor Götürk was involved with the Project Migration in Cologne and shared pictures of the far away exhibit. Project Migration was one of the two exhibits (the other in Berlin’s German History Museum) about migration in Germany during the year 2005, when new immigration laws came into affect and immortalized migration. The exhibition was a collaborative venture between a group of scholars (cultural anthropologists to be exact) from Frankfurt University and DOMiD (Documentation Centre and Museum of Migration). What resulted was a mix of art installations, an array of daily life objects, grey literature and historical texts highlighting the social history of migration as an institutional representation. But is creating a museum the proper format to display migration? Migration is an influx of changes and musealization puts the subject on a pedestal, not to mention restricts its visibility and accessibility.

Another exhibition, “Heimat Kunst,” tried to present a different perspective on the cultural productions of migrants, but Hito Steyerl criticized it as an example of how migrant culture is used to promote Germany in the global market. With the whole issue of Green Cards for skilled laborers, especially in the IT sector, migration has now become a commodity that Germany can hawk to make a profit. Does minority culture enrich German society or its Gross National Product? Is it politically correct to have migrants act as cultural ambassadors for the nation when they are denied civil rights and adequate representation?

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