Flashback: June 18th, Thursday week ago. I’m in Berlin, in the Kreuzberg district. I keep telling myself it’s work, it’s work, it’s research for Book #4 (more of which another time). Who am I kidding?
I’m strolling along Oranienstraße for a long liquid lunch with two friends at a legendary Turkish establishment called the Hasir. I’ve just reached Oranienplatz when I come upon this grave.
Seriously. A grave, in the pavement, close to the kerb, at the same spot where I hailed a taxi last night to go back to my hotel after a feed of gargle at a place that was – I think – called the Kraut und Rüben. OK, it was that kind of night.
Anyway, I’m stone cold sober now, and what kind of grave sprouts up overnight on a busy street, like one of those “instant shrines” you see after a traffic accident, hours after you took a taxi from that very same spot?
The grave wasn’t there last night, definitely not or I’d have tripped over it. Almost did just now too, in broad daylight. Yet here it is, on this sunny morning.
Somebody has gone to great trouble to pull up the paving slabs and leave a small rectangle for the mound of soil and sand. Perched in this mound are two lit candles in red glass jars – like the votive lights you’d get in a Catholic church – and a bunch of wilting flowers. And a plank at the side, like gravediggers might use.
And there’s the cross of course. A wooden one with the message “BORDERS KILL” painted crudely on one side, “GRENZEN TöTEN” on the other.
I can’t figure it out. Not right away anyway. It’s a mystery, something ghostly and surreal at the heart of the everyday. It reminds me of the Situationist slogan from Paris ’68, “Sous les pavés, la plage!” (“Under the cobblestones, the beach”).
I don’t take a photo, though you can find some professional ones here as the cops tramp the dirt down later that Thursday afternoon and take the candles and cross away. The photo above comes from Tumblr.
* * *
The same day, a Berlin-based collective of performance artists and activists called Zentrum Für Politische Schönheit (the Centre for Political Beauty) issues a media statement. It’s about a project called “The Dead Are Coming”.
The group says it will be transporting the bodies of deceased migrants to Berlin to give them dignified burials in cemeteries across the city. It claims the bodies have been inhumanely buried in mass graves – or kept in refrigerated warehouses in southern Europe.
The group wants to draw attention to the EU’s draconian migration policies. But why Berlin? Berlin has been chosen as a burial ground because the “bureaucratic murderers” responsible for the migrants’ deaths are located here, they say.
The collective says these Berlin burials have been sanctioned by the migrants’ relatives, and the first funeral took place two days ago at a Berlin cemetery:
A Syrian refugee was laid to rest by an imam, with her relatives in attendance. She had drowned when her boat capsized during the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to southern Europe.
* * *
The following Saturday, 20 June, World Refugee Day. Around 10,000 people turn out for a demo called by opposition parties Die Linke (The Left) and Die Grünen (The Greens).
Marching from the Kreuzberg district to the Brandenburg gate, some of the protesters hold up Greek flags and posters supporting the Greek people, attacking austerity and the EU’s migration policy.
One poster reads: “This technocratic, cold and neoliberal Europe that is led by Germany is unbearable.”
* * *
The following day, Sunday, 21 June. The Centre for Political Beauty has organised a very different kind of protest. It’s just as political, but it’s also artistic and unforgettable and – that word again – surreal.
They march to Angela Merkel’s residence, in order to transform the Chancellory’s lawn into a massive cemetery. A post on the collective’s website urges people to “bring flowers, shovels, pickaxes and jackhammers!”
The Centre for Political Beauty previously gained notoriety for stealing a memorial that honoured those who died trying to cross the Berlin Wall, and repositioning it along the EU border. The new “European Wall”.
And their “Water Lilies for Africa” project involves “1,000 fixed life rafts in the Mediterranean to combat the silent dying”.
* * *
So that’s what Oranienplatz was all about. It’s one of the fake refugee graves, a piece of performance art if you like, a protest, a happening, created anonymously overnight on the site of a former refugee camp in Kreuzberg, as a protest against Fortress Europe and its new European Wall.
These political art protests have a strong viral quality. Suddenly for the next nine or ten days fake graves begin popping up all over Germany. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of them.
There is an excellent “Graves for Unknown Refugees” Tumblr page devoted to these guerilla art protests. Then they begin to spread to cities in other countries across Europe: to Bucharest, Bern, Vienna…
OK folks, time to get digging.