Trampoline House: Space for Connection in Copenhagen

Starting from the end of May, against the backdrop of streets drowning in election posters, a series of cultural and artistic events emerge in the weather-wise frozen Copenhagen. It seems like all cultural operators and organizers are mobilizing themselves – and also the artists and their audience – by a more or less accidental common urge to cover the map of the city with socially sensitive issues.

The three-day-long Arts & Globalization conference, in spite of its generic title, succeeds in gripping some neuralgic issues. It showcases the collaboration of an Israeli and an Iranian artist and introduces the Palestinian Arts Court in Jerusalem. It includes a visual artist who gets beer drinkers to engage themselves in reviving the park where they used to get drunk, and features professor and curator Paul Goodwin, who – citing Marinetti – rebuffs the role of the museum in his keynote speech. Amid this trans/multi/cross/intercultural and ultra/post-contemporary discourse, comes a presentation about Trampoline House in Copenhagen, which opens its doors to refugees and asylum seekers, providing programmes that not only help them survive after their life-risking and life-saving journeys to Denmark, but also to express themselves through art – so simple, so important and yet so often unrecognized!

Tone Olaf Nielsen, a co-founder and curator at Trampoline House, fosters anti-racist, anti-sexist and de-colonial critique and action in her work. Her talk recounts an exhibition and a very ironic fashion show at Trampoline House, the attendees being often literally wrapped in the logos and robes of aid organizations. Her presentation included reflection, irony and a sense of humour. There was more to it, though – it was an uplifting experience that underlined an important shift of position: people who appear in the programmes of the Trampoline House will not be regarded as victims or research subjects. The programme coordinators here lay emphasis on a healthy approach from the very first moment. To break the social isolation of the people who arrive in Denmark as asylum seekers, they encourage mingling between them and Danish citizens, but never expose the refugees to objectification that often underlie the most well-intentioned gestures.

I memorise information, thoughts and sarcastic-ironic-reflective pictures of the house to recall them two decisive weeks later. Much happens in the coming 14 days. First I attend the Copenhagen Stage Festival and get to know a fascinating, multi-faceted, and, of course, multicultural district in Copenhagen: Nørrebro. Soon after, national elections take part in Denmark, resulting in the highest support ever for the right-wing Danish Folkeparti (Danish People’s Party). The Venstre (Liberals) take over the government after the Socialdemokraterne (Social Democrats) with the promise of keeping migrants at a distance.

Nørrebro S-tog (local train) station looks like London’s Soho, with its contrast of decent buildings, scruffy shops and public spaces with mixed purpose. A couple of minutes’ walk takes me to the Trampoline House, which turns out to not be a whole building, just the first floor of one, possibly with industrial use in the past. As I enter the building a young woman in hijab teaches or shares something in the very first room and I realize the huge windows allow one to see through almost the whole venue. Walking through the corridor that leads to the main office and the public area, I take a hasty look into the simple and neat kitchen – shiny counters, good machines, two men cooking in companionable silence, seemingly with lots of confidence and experience. Tone, the curator who spoke a couple of weeks ago at the conference, on a stage with huge pictures projected behind her, is sitting now in an office with the doors wide open, so engaged in her work that I hesitate for long minutes to approach her. Some people hanging around in the public space play table tennis, share coffee and tea and ask me if they could pour me some. As a new arrival, I do not dare to answer affirmatively, for some reason still waiting for the approval of Tone, who seems much more buried in eyebrow-frowning issues than a couple of days ago.

Tone tells me that a lot of researchers and journalists arrived after an April boost caused by an unexpectedly successful exhibition. They swift in, swift out, look around, take pictures and leave in haste, with their story. ‘No research field’: I hear again the sentence that was echoed so many times during the conference. I had actually blushed the first time hearing an asylum seeker grabbing the microphone and reminding us the whole humanitarian endeavour we are talking about that aims at him and many others so ironically lacks exactly the human side, human face, uniqueness of them, who accidentally are the ones forced to seek new places to protect their bare lives. I cannot remember that person’s name – so above I had to label him again, against mine and his will and best intentions.

It was a moment more powerful and awakening than thousands of pages carefully written reflections. It’s easy to recall it here, in the house, with people coming and going, sharing a cigarette outside, sharing occasional words, shaking hands, talking about tiresome official paper issues. Just laughing. Just wearing a T-shirt that proudly says Kurdistan in the chest of its owner. Ruffling the hair of that giggling 4-year-old passing by them. Just hanging out with all the others.

Tone tells me I can stay for the last house meeting this season, before summer vacation starts, but it starts in more than an hour. She invites me to introduce myself to the people here and let them decide if they want to talk to me at all. A fair enough challenge. And I like the idea of being a bit tested by the circumstances. So I sit down on a sofa in the corner and get absorbed by the place. No rush, no task, no particular aim, no forced talks. Sitting alone. Wink at the 4-year-old. Try to read in gestures when words do not help. Listen to the bouncing ball.

Someone takes a seat at the opposite corner of the sofa. We nod awkwardly. Then comes his friend. They talk, they laugh, a third person joins and gives them some advice and direction where to go with which paper and when and how to proceed. Half an hour remains until the house meeting when someone joins us on the sofa. He shakes hands with his friends, and then suddenly turns to me. We shake hands, tell our names. Then a short session of burlesque retrospective introductions unleash our childish selves – we reach out our hands, sit up slightly, tell our names, sit back. The next moment we repeat with the next one, chuckling over the so obviously delayed introductions that are now crammed in half a minute time.

Soon, in waves, people gather from different parts of the building in the first room I saw when I entered. We sofa-performers join the group together, now a flock. While a manager orchestrates the meeting with a very firm hand, writing some buzzwords on the blackboard, the aroma of aubergine and curry and jasmine rice sneaks into the room, and the two silent cooks bring in the huge pots full of that spicy bouquet.

The gist of the meeting: finding ways to prove to the “blue people” from Parliament (the Liberals), that we all can work and produce and pay taxes and be useful for society. At least Copenhagen is ‘red’ (as the majority of the votes went to the Social Democrats). Someone stands up and shows a postcard written and left on the threshold of the house by the company from the second floor. The letter is a bit long and complicated to translate. Not so easy to get the main message – they are sorry about the elections and heartily welcome this community and reassure them of their support. A short bewildered silence. Hesitation. And then smiles here and there in relief.

I sit back on the sofa afterwards. A nineteen-year-old boy from Eritrea joins me. ‘You have the same name as my father does,’ I tell him very confidently. We agree to meet up later and talk. The next day, as I see his name written down I realise that I misheard him, his name just sounds a bit similar to my father’s first name. We will probably start our next conversation with a big laugh about the misunderstanding. So desperate to relate, I created a common thread when it wasn’t necessary: Trampoline House provides the space for that to happen naturally. We could have talked about his long walk through the Sahara, or the spicy lunch, or who would play first with the giggling 4-year-old.

When I look back to that moment, I remember he was so taken aback by the coincidence and I was so insistent. I wonder if he believed the day before, while sitting on the sofa, that I was actually right.

I did.

The Migrationist, July 9, 2015