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After Brexit, A Haunting Reminder Of The Perils Of Isolationism

For her graduate project, RCA master's student Jelka Kretzschmar built a broken wall embedded with the audio recordings of migrants.

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On Tuesday, June 23, the day that U.K. citizens cast their votes on the Brexit referendum, German designer Jelka Kretzschmar presented her project, Pick up the Pieces as a part of the Royal College of Art graduate show. It was a fitting day for the debut: Kretzschmar's project, a sonic installation that takes the form of a broken wall, is a blatant critique of xenophobia and isolationism, and the walls and border control that represent them. "There was a strong reaction" on the day of the opening, she says.

The next day the mood at the exhibition had changed to somber. The U.K. had officially voted to leave the European Union, a decision that many consider to be fueled by Islamophobia and nationalism bordering on tribalism. For Kretzschmar, it was an unfortunate illustration of the ideas her project sought to address.

Pick up the Pieces is made up of a 22-foot-by-10 foot plaster wall with a hole in the middle, surrounded by gray-painted foam rubble. Behind the wall, speakers play a cacophony of recordings on top of each other so the sound is muffled and indistinguishable. The individual rocks below, however, are embedded with their own sound system—MP3 players or a bluetooth speaker—that people can pick and listen to. All of the recordings are of refugees coming from countries like Syria, Kazakhstan, and Tanzania. Either narrating their own stories or conversing with Kretzschmar, they spoke of everything from fond memories of the smell of coffee or cooking food, to the sound of helicopters overhead and bombings next door.

The idea for the project came to Kretzschmar about a year ago, when she was back in her home city of Berlin volunteering at refugee camps. She started recording the people she met at the camps who had just been displaced from their homes, interviewing them about their situation and their most distinct "sonic memories"—memories that involve music or sounds—of home. As the project developed, she also started asking people at the camps to tell specific stories of their cultural heritage. For the final batch of interviews, she traveled to her interviewees' new homes after they were placed.

As her graduate show approached, Kretzschmar, who was getting a master's in information and experience design, realized that the Brexit referendum vote would fall on the opening of the show. She decided then that the physical installation that would house the audio recording would have to be a broken wall. "The whole piece development came up at a time when I was really angry with how the U.K. and Europe were choosing to handle migrants," she says. "Given the political situation in the U.S. and U.K., and with the European Union trying to build up borders and fences—the political situation was something that I felt had to be embedded into it."

Kretzschmar plans to expand the audio portion of her piece after graduation. This summer she will continue to work in refugee camps in Spain, France, and Germany and will continue to record people's stories. She's also planning to create pop-up radio stations at refugee camps where people can share their own stories on the radio waves, without her curation. As for returning to London, she says she'll have to see. "Everyone [at RCA] feels really united right now," she says, noting that the school has a significant international student population. "I'm worried less about the actual action than about its motivations and the trust in community that disappears when a reaction like this happens."

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