The Migrant Workers Summit: a report

The report on the "Migrants Workers Summit" event organized by Vienne Chan, Max Grünberg, Andreas Niegl and Mi You informs readers about the thematic content as well as descriptions of the workshops and discussion rounds.

The Migrant Workers Summit took place between 15.9.2022 and 18.9.2022. The School of Transnational Organizing, an initiative under the roof of European Alternatives e.V., in collaboration with documenta Institute gathered a diverse group of migrant workers, organisers and activists representing groups such as the Berlin delivery riders collectives, the aviation industry, the Berlin Tech Workers Coalition, as well as union organization representatives and teachers and students from the Global Labour University from Kassel to create an inspiring and consensus based space in search for the lost art of organizing. Based on the experience that transnational worker struggles should be led by the migrant workers themselves, the summit was an exercise in community and network building as well as in the art of political organizing by developing collective methods of nourishing an ecology of activism and rebuilding a culture of solidarity. From the side of documenta Institute the central question was to understand what are the cultural expressions of worker struggles today, and to explore how art could play a role in supporting these struggles. Thus the summit program merged political and organizational workshops with ones focusing on artistic practices. 

The first workshop by the sociologist Bue Rübner Hansen (Uni Jena) titled “Transformative Ikigai'' critically adopted the eponymous self-improvement method, based on a Japanese concept (roughly translated as “purpose of life”), which is normally applied to individual assessments of one’s career choice. Here it was instead used to imagine a collective ecosystem of interconnected struggles as well as to think about the question which industries and services should be either abolished, transformed or expanded in order to counter the current ecological and social crises.

The second workshop entitled “Building Powerful Demands” was conducted by union organizer Kalle Kunkel. It focused on a differentiation of strategies and tactics, i.e. long- and short-term goals that have to be balanced in organizational planning. His workshop thus presented the situational potentials and limits of different political means like worker’s councils, union strikes or public political campaigns.

The artistic workshops were led by artist Alicja Rogalska, theater director and dramaturg Kai Tuchmann and artist and set designer Anton Lukas.

Alicja Rogalska’s workshop explored the potential of videos and social media as an artistic format that could be used in political context. Through discussions and practical exercises and games the participants were encouraged to come up with ways to best combine different social media platforms, formats (e.g. memes) and socio-political topics (e.g. greenwashing) in order to get their messages across. 

Kai Tuchmann’s workshop focused on collective experience and expression within a performative setting. It highlighted the way collectivity can be formed either through being together in the same space, via exercises based on movement and body-awareness, or through personal narrations and the act of listening to each other. 

The third artistic workshop led by Anton Lukas took the participants out into the urban space and engaged with the parts of the documenta exhibition in public space. The participants were asked to perform a visual mediation to sensitize them for the urban environment by mindfully experiencing their surroundings, and to think about how politics can be best communicated in this space. Next to the cardboard puppets (Wayang kardus) of the Taring Padi collective for instance, the participants further discussed the role of aesthetics in political struggle and how the visibility of political demands can be amplified through artistic expression.

The summit workshops were rounded out with a public event focusing on the topic “How to Organize Socially Useful & Climate-Friendly Labor” as well as several breakout group discussions focussing on a diverse array of topics such as the intersectional struggles of migrant workers, work conditions for organizers, technological tools for political work, the role of union organizations, funding, the need for collaborative spaces, sustainability and knowledge transfer, etc.

 The summit marks the beginning of a longer inquiry into the possibilities of how art, broadly defined, can partake in activism and political organizing. There was a clear understanding, echoed by statements by many of the participants, that art and culture are important aspects of not just life in general, but political life specifically. Many participants were interested, practiced or had studied art, music, design etc. but had the tendency to draw a line between these “personal” interests and their activism. Conversely, the artistic workshops helped to emphasize the affective, narrative and cultural aspects of political organizing that were, according to some participants, often not addressed.

The structured opportunity to experience and create art together allowed participants to connect with each other in ways and on topics that are outside of their routine. Beyond an ice-breaking effect and encountering others’ different sides, making art as a group allowed the discussion of topics that can be related but not central to their own organizing work, which may be helpful in future trans-sectoral organizing.

Furthermore, paraphrasing one participant’s feedback, they had been skeptical of what art could bring to activism, but were pleasantly surprised in the theater workshop, which opened a sense of vulnerability that is often missing in the activism space. In this sense, art has the potential to re-introduce an environment of care and tenderness, in an area known for its demands and stress. Whether this tenderness endures beyond the event remains a question, but it at least allows participants the opportunity to relate to each other differently and possibly strengthen a sense of intersectional solidarity.

Vienne Chan, Max Grünberg, Andreas Niegl and Mi You