Interview with Johannes Kuhn and Lukas Yves Jakel: Insecurity As a Method
Humans are said to be creatures of habit. This saying refers to routine behaviours that are hard to abandon, having become established over longer periods of time. As well as influencing our everyday actions, such habits may also exist in the world view shaped by our personal and cultural contexts. Calling this into question is not easy, but also in design, reversal and subversion may be effective means of drawing attention to social wrongs, highlighting alternative views or developing practical improvements.
What if Europe were to grasp the current so-called refugee crisis as an opportunity? This issue is being investigated by Johannes Kuhn and Lukas Yves Jakel, two media design students at the Baden-Württemberg Cooperative State University, in their finals project, a fictitious but very effectively designed aid campaign named “RescEU”, in which refugees are portrayed as helpers and intend to convey values of empathy, goodness and generosity to Europeans. We asked the pair about their project, the means of subversion and the role of today’s media.
Where did you get the idea of including the topic of refugees in your finals project?
Too much fear. Too much populism in the pub. Too much “Wir sind das Volk” [We are the people]. Too much resentment. Too many cute cat videos. Too much of Horst Seehofer. Too many fences. Too much racism. Too many dead. Too little humour. The discussions in politics, society and the media were driven from the beginning by populist sentiments. The abuse of asylum on a massive scale is propagated and interchanges with the image of a poor refugee in need of help. Even the word “refugee” degrades these people to small, destitute and backward beings who come over the sea wearing their wellingtons. And we don’t agree with this attitude. So we are taking back space in the media to contradict this – to depict a positive vision.
Why did you decide to deal with the subject in a subversive way?
“Smombie” [smartphone zombie] and “refugees” are 2015’s words of the year. This surely reveals something about the current social debate. Much has been said, yet the arguments are strongly driven by emotions and fears. As a result, we see two entrenched positions of “citizens in high dudgeon” on the one hand and the “welcome culture” on the other.
We believe that the refugee situation is too important a subject to give rise to bitter seriousness. The ease of a satirical approach has the power to bring about a change in society. People have to turn things upside down and adopt a new perspective.
“RescEU” demonstrates that the refugee issue is a massive opportunity for Europe. The organisation is fictitious. But the aid is real. And this is how we describe migration itself as subversive. There are many people who are coming to us for different reasons. These people will change our society whether we want it or not. Refugees will become the saviours of the European Community. The role of the volunteer has changed.
How did your contacts with Africa for supporting the campaign come about?
Fokn Bois are two artists from the Republic of Ghana. They describe their music themselves as “gospel porn”. For them, everything extreme is porn – sex, war, church, and politics. Their music is highly political yet never serious. And what can be more subversive than gospel porn?
We made contact with these two through the Norient network, a global network for sound and media culture. Thomas Burkhalter has been working since 2013 with M3nsa and Wanlov the Kubolor, the Fokn Bois, on the film project “Ghana is the Future”.
Migration is always a theme in their lyrics. We found this particularly exciting because they could tell the story from a different perspective. The Fokn Bois showed us an increasingly self-aware Africa. The generalised image of the “refugee” in Europe has a paradoxical look when you confront this culture.
To finalise the project we flew to Accra, the capital of Ghana, to spend 10 days there. We experienced great understanding of the deprivation in Europe whilst there. With the Fokn Bois and a local theatre group, we managed to shoot the film.
What role and power do you attribute to the media when it comes to communicating subjects like the refugee crisis to the general public, and being able to present it both negatively and positively?
From the beginning, the refugee debate has been dominated by opinions. When the photos of the dead boy on the beach went around the world, we opened our arms and, now, since the tragedy in Paris and the incidents on New Year’s Eve in Cologne, we see all Muslim men as potential criminals.
There is no mistaking what power the media has. Based on the sexual attacks in Cologne, it is easy to see how the actions of individuals are exploited by the media. There is a wave of media reports that try to outdo one another with new figures and alleged facts. Everyone wanted immediately to believe that “a thousand north Africans” in Cologne had carried out their nefarious deeds. A thousand; that is the figure of fairy tales. Just like the devil’s three golden hairs. Or the seven dwarfs. Or the thirteenth fairy. This feeling of insecurity in society plays into the hands of right-wing populists and forces politicians to blind actionism.
This insecurity became the method for “RescEU”. A few logos, a few official stars and a legitimate aid organisation is born. 10,000 refugees on Munich’s main station turn into 10,000 new helpers in the crisis area. The specific issue of false information and the view from the opposite perspective attracts attention and discussion. It also demonstrates the kind of responsibility the media bears, the immense influence it can wield over society and politics.
For you as media designers, the media also constitute your tools and canvas. How, and for what purpose, do you see yourselves using media in the future?
Within the “RescEU” aid campaign, there are still lots of people who will make their way to Europe. The organisation can only stop its work once the global community has grown together.
We see designers as an intermediary power between people and cultures. As far as we are concerned the different media form tools of communication. The inspiration comes from everyday life – which builds up a close connection between society and design. It is important to us to handle this role responsibly.
At the moment, we are working on a concept about alternative ways of working. We are looking for the maximum of inspiration. And where can this be greater than on a trip? We want to address design projects with the influence of various (design) cultures and the spatial freedom. The aim is to start the experiment in summer 2016 with our mobile studio.