Syrian migration, war and populism as a catalyst for creativity. Bulgarian artist Petko Dourmana in Košice


The sincere sharing of life absurdities creates a bridge between the local population and foreigners. An open conversation about the future and the  fears and anxieties that come with it, creates hope that life in Europe can be peaceful. Humor, too, can facilitate intercultural dialogue on topics such as migration, xenophobia and populism. The international project Borderline Offensive: Laughing in the Face of Fear creates platform for that and it has encouraged several artists to create new works. One such project – Three Migrants in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Smuggler) – was part of the Art & Tech Days festival. Its author is Petko Dourmana who has been dealing with the topic of migration since 2013. The programme manager Zuzana Tóthová will also share her thoughts on it and what quite surprising will come out of the project in the following article.

Strong belief in reality-based projects

Petko began to address the issue of migration during the first wave of crisis in 2013, which broke out in his country and lasted for two years. Hundreds of thousands of people from Syria have started to come to Bulgaria, and the artist recalls it as a complete disaster: “The government realized that there was no infrastructure in place to accommodate that many people. It was cold and whole families, including mothers with children, came here.” During the communist era, some of the Syrian community moved to Bulgaria. During this period, Petko befriended many of them. This is the main reason why he started to help the incoming migrants during the crisis at the local Orient Bulgaria Foundation.

Although he studied several subjects, he has devoted his time mainly to artistic activities. He focuses on projects that are based on real events – he sees the truth in them. “Art often goes the easier way. It usually represents something that is quite clear. I’m not such an artist. I want to give my audience a comprehensive picture and, above all, an experience.” In the Borderline Offensive project, a key component is humor, which is considered an important aesthetic approach. On the question of how to approach such a complex social issue with humor, Petko replies that refugees often have nothing else left to do but to laugh about their situation. That’s  the only way they can survive. “When you’re in the middle of a sea in an inflatable boat, there is no time to blame someone or to be angry, you are helpless. Nothing can be solved in such situation. It is so absurd that all you can do is laugh about it,” adds the artist.

Migration has become a negative term, but it is not

Petko has traveled to many countries with his work and has come across different attitudes. He noticed, however, that people’s opinions were mostly influenced by the media and politicians. “We have witnessed an increase in populism and populist parties have gained tremendous power after these crises. They took advantage of the situation, divided people and gained new benefits. The Borderline Offensive project is much more important to us than to migrants. We are the ones who decide on the limits and what is right and what is not.” He adds that we should not change too much, even if we want to protect something that’s ours and we think it is right. According to Petko, Brexit is a great example of what happens if our reaction is exaggerated. At the end of the day, we hurt ourselves the most.

Apart from Slovakia, the work of this artist – Three migrants in a boat (To Say Nothing of the Smuggler) – was also presented in Sweden, Serbia and Bulgaria. Still, there’s a long tour in Europe ahead of him. So far, it has been introduced it in countries where people’s attitudes differed quite a lot. The only thing they had in common was that in each of the countries people were more against it than for it. “Migration has become a negative term, but in fact, it is not. It has been a part of this world since it exists,” says Petko.

We are not talking frankly about migration

In Petko’s installation, people become migrants for a moment. Surrounded by darkness, they watch the story of the refugees in an inflatable boat through a night-vision device. At the end, they can sit down in it and experience it first-hand. “I don’t understand why people don’t talk honestly about it. For example, the Italians were not against it, but they still voted in their election for a party that promised to stop migrants from coming in. People from Syria have the same food, traditions and even religion as Bulgarians. But they still do not understand that it is not “them”, but “us”.” This is mainly due to politics, misinformation and the overall way of how reality is presented in the media.

Petko himself says many people cry in his boat. He uses a special sound system for the installation. In total darkness, people listen to what the migrants go through on the boat with the use of headphones. Petko is interested in the feelings of the individual, so at the end, he puts the viewer into the boat and asks him to join the conversation. “I found out that people enjoy sharing their stories. They will join in after someone starts to tell their story. Darkness is a very important part of my installation, because I do not force people to show their faces, I want to hear their sincere opinions.” According to him, the greatest problem of the migration crisis is the lack of communication among ordinary people. “The fact is that you have almost no migrants in Slovakia, but you are afraid of them and against them. This is the result of propaganda and populism. The only way to stop it is to openly talk to each other. Politicians, the media and even priests have no right to tell you what your should feel and how to behave,” adds Petko.

Climate change is a much bigger problem

At the end of the interview, the artist says that finding a solution is important, but it is much more important to tackle the problem of ecology, because we don’t need anything special for it. The migration crisis starts in countries where there are wars such as Ukraine or Syria. They all started for some reason, but global warming has been a major contribution to triggering a civil war in Syria. “We can do almost nothing about war. We can only change politicians and they must change the situation. The problem is that they all focus on the duration of their mandate, so they do not try to resolve long-term global problems. For those, you have to rebuild the confidence and trust of voters.”

Petko predicts a dark future for the world. He says that on the one hand, people will survive because there are not many creatures in the world that are as adaptable as we are. On the other hand,  it will be a disaster, he adds. Climate change will result in more and more wars, such as was the case withSyria. “I know people expect nice stories, and I’m not saying that because I’m a pessimist. Addressing climate change is not about flying less or reducing meat consumption. It is about a complex change in the way we live as a society. Every industry has the power to contribute to a fundamental change. If the 100 best-known brands in the fashion industry decide to choose white as the  color of the year, they will prevent a huge environmental disaster in China. This is because it requires less water to color a white fabric than to color it black.” Thus, he says, fashion designers can choose far more environmentally friendly colors, and hence,a significantly smaller number of people can make a fundamental difference. He also considers it essential to use modern technologies which can solve these problems faster and more effectively. “We must not go back to the Middle Ages. We must not reject technology.”

How the Borderline Offensive went in Košice

In each participating country (Sweden, Netherlands, Bulgaria, Croatia, Serbia), as well as in Slovakia, three foreign artists and one local artist participated in a 10-day art residence. The goal was to research the situation and, where possible, work with groups of migrants in their communities. “The problem in Košice was that we have a really small, almost invisible community of migrants. Because they live in a country where they are marginalized through policies, they can sometimes feel like an object of research. Therefore, it made much more sense to talk about the social and political situation within the V4 group, all the more because it was a very topical issue at the time of residence. The whole V4 opposed the migration crisis very strongly,” says the project manager Zuzana Tóthová.

Several debates were held at the Open Studios Night in Šopa Gallery, but also in Košice’s Tabačka. The aim was to find out what migration or integration in Slovak society represents for people. The artists, therefore, had to meet with ordinary people. “The most critical view was raised by artist Prota from Serbia. He said that the Slovaks seemas very closed off on this topic. But his remark was basically shared among all the artists,” adds Zuzana.

Traveling theater in Slovak schools

It is very interesting when a new and completely unexpected project is created within a project. During Borderline Offensive, Dutch screenwriter Sitze Schalk and Peter Kočiš, a member of the independent Divadlo na peróne, started to work together. These days they are working on an interactive theater play about populism, political presentation and the media. “It will be a performance that follows card game principles which is run by actors. It can be performed both in theater and in schools. It is a fundamental topic and all artists have agreed that the topic of migration is most frequently used in the context of populist tendencies in Slovakia and throughout the V4.”

As part of the Borderline Offensive project, two more artworks will come to Košice. One will be exhibited at the community center on Luník IX. Another one – Museum of Real History – will be available at the Šopa Gallery on December 9 at 18:00.

Foto: Borderline Offensive, KAIR,