April 10-15, 2018
University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts
Photo Courtesy of the Artist
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Dictaphone Group

Stories of Refuge

Follow the story of three Syrian refugees who fled the war in Syria and sought refuge in Munich, Germany. Each was given a discreet camera and asked to film a day in their lives in the refugee camp. The installation is outfitted so that the audience watches these films while lying in bunk beds, as if characters in the unfolding scenes.

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About The Project

Video Installation

Follow the story of three Syrian refugees who fled the war in Syria to seek refuge in Munich, Germany. One was injured during a demonstration in Syria and fled the country on a boat that sunk at sea, killing half of its passengers. Another walked from Syria to Turkey with children in hand, while their young relative was battling cancer with no access to clean water. The third was smuggled in a truck filled with chewing gum. All of them paid enormous sums of money to smugglers who cared nothing for their lives.

Tania El Khoury and Petra Serhal from Dictaphone Group met with these three refugees in Munich, gave each of them a discreet camera, and asked them to film a day in their life in the refugee camp. El Khoury’s interviews with these refugees about their journeys serve as the soundscape over the footage they created. The installation is outfitted with the audience watching these films in bunk beds like those used in refugee camps, a utilitarian aesthetic in the most intimate of spaces.

Stories of Refuge is presented as part of the INTERSECTIONS initiative. INTERSECTIONS is a program of the University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts, which seeks to build bridges between visiting artists and Houston’s Muslim and non-Muslim residents, with a focus on University of Houston students. INTERSECTIONS is made possible in part by the Association of Performing Arts Presenters; Building Bridges: Campus Community Engagement Grants Program, a component of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.

Originally commissioned by SPIELART Festival, Munich.

Artist Words: An Exclusive Interview with Tania El Khoury of Dictaphone Group (November 2016)

Mitchell Center: Was there a specific moment when you decided to make Stories of Refuge?

Tania El Khoury: My collaborator in Dictaphone Group, architect and urbanist Abir Saksouk, was in Munich before me and there she met a wonderful Syrian man who helps refugees out by translating for them. His own story of arriving in Munich and how he quickly taught himself German was inspiring and extraordinary. Later, when we were asked by SPIELART festival to create a piece in the city of Munich, Abir suggested we meet that same Syrian man. We don’t remember how the actual idea of the installation came to us but we were sure we wanted to tell the stories of refugees in Munich as this was our only connection to the city.

Mitchell Center: What instructions did you provide the refugees about filming?

Tania El Khoury: We asked to film a day in their lives. We wanted them to direct those scenes, narrate them and decide what to show and what to omit. We wanted them to own their narrative rather than having an artist walks into their intimate spaces and decide how to “dramatize” it.

Mitchell Center: How did you meet the people who made the films?

Tania El Khoury: We met many Syrian refugees in Munich. A lot of them were not comfortable with the idea of speaking out about their journeys or about their reasons for leaving Syria. It was back in 2013 and people then were still worried about regime backlash. Finally three people agreed on working with us after they got more comfortable and friendly with us.

Mitchell Center: What do you see as the audiences/visitors role in experiencing Stories of Refuge?

Tania El Khoury: The audience activates the installation in Stories of Refuge. When lying down on bunk beds, they become characters in a scene. The piece invites them to think about intimacy, privacy and safety in the daily life of the refugees as they hear their stories. It also invites them to connect with them through writing messages and leaving them under the pillow.

About The Artist

Dictaphone Group is a research and performance collective that creates live art events based on a multidisciplinary study of space. It is a collaborative project initiated by live artist Tania El Khoury, Petra Serhal and architect/urbanist Abir Saksouk.

Tania El Khoury creates interactive installations and performances in which the audience is an active collaborator. Based in London and Beirut, El Khoury's work has been shown in five continents in spaces ranging from museums to cable cars. She is a co-founder of Dictaphone Group, an urban research and site-specific performance collective in Beirut.

Petra Serhal is a performance maker and actress. She regularly collaborates with artists and filmmakers. In 2010, she started her collaboration with Dictaphone Group. Petra is interested in the performativity of the choreographed body, the representation of the violated body, as well as creating interactive spaces with the audience. She recently published an essay entitled, Beware of the Image in Ibraaz.

Abir Saksouk is an architect and urbanist. She has been involved in several research projects in Lebanon, including the history of informal suburbs, the social production of shared spaces in the city, and more recently housing rights in Beirut. She is interested in exploring how community engagement could be employed in planning and actively shaping the future of cities. She is also co-founder of Public Works Studio (2012).