So there we stood in a circle holding each other’s hands: Virginia (studying architecture), Niki (a psychotherapist), Roi (an artist) and myself. What exactly would have happened after the initial circle remained Roi’s secret, since this was supposed to be the beginning of a theatre workshop led by him. But not many other of the two dozen people watching us were interested in getting involved, the sun was shining on the rose garden in which we were standing and then the yoga class occupied the lawn. They had booked the space, and Roi hadn’t. Which is why the theatre workshop didn’t take place. It didn’t matter so much to me, because I made the acquaintance of Roi and the others anyway, and we talked for some time about the experience he had gathered in working in the Augsburg GRANDHOTEL COSMOPOLIS. He worked as a teacher in Israel and has been involved in this singular „social sculpture“ that has evolved in the centre of this rather small Bavarian town for some years now. In a building that used to be a retirement home but was out of use for several years, a group of committed people initiated a social experiment, an open intercultural space that is without example in Southern Germany.
The GRANDHOTEL is a mixture of hotel, refugee accommodation, workshop space for artists, social centre, café and many things more, but in a nutshell: A space in which people, whoever they are, wherever they come from, are welcome. Roi offers this workshop once a week, not only for refugees living in the accommodation, but for anyone interested. One of the titles his project had so far was „GoingBeyonMyBorders“ and he explains that this title not only referred to the refugees who took part, but to everybody: Identifying and crossing individual borders and examining the transformation process that goes along with it. His method is very individual and hard to categorize, one of the things he points out is the fact that the group usually doesn’t speak in the two-and-a-half-hour sessions. A restriction which, as he says, is frightening, especially to German people, because making do without language, relying on physical contact and other senses in order to communicate is anything but usual in our culture. So the big challenge in this work with heterogenous and fluctuating groups of participants, many of them traumatised by the events causing their flight, is to find a common ground, a safe space that is protected and open at the same time.
And while I am talking to him, I begin to understand that this is the principle on which the entire GRANDHOTEL is grounded. It is the „Open Day“ of the social sculpture today, and although everything that is happening in the big building seems somewhat chaotic, there’s an atmosphere of welcome that pervades the beautifully decorated rooms of the hotel. A space for meeting, getting to know each other, without pressure, without dictates, as equals. And within this open frame, encounters and transformation can take place – on an individual level, but also on an artistic level.
Undoubtedly, it is a nightmare to organise the running of this place with many volunteers, no secure funding and the aim to operate by direct democracy. Kathrin, one of the main organisers, tells me that there have been many times when they were afraid to have to close shop, but miraculously, the story still goes on, and in the meantime the GRANDHOTEL COSMOPOLIS has the reputation of being a flagship project both in the field of integration and culture. So much so that they are actually hosting a vast international congress this summer which is both continuing the everyday work they are doing (consisting of many local initiatives, but also research travels to countries of origin of refugees), and networking with national and international guests that are coming to Augsburg to learn from the model developed here. For me at least, today’s visit was very much an encounter and a transformation of sorts, and will serve as a very positive input in PHONE HOME, my upcoming project. Naturally, such a thing as an „Open Day“ with a huge number of strangers wandering around in the corridors disturbs the protection usually provided by this homely place, so it is little wonder that, as Roi points out, not many of the refugee inhabitants showed up. I wouldn’t have done. All the more grateful I am for being allowed to visit and get to know the GRANDHOTEL.
Area of application: General disorientation or at least a sensation of being lost in Suebia.