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Michael Danner

Migration as Avant-Garde

„Refugees driven from country to country represent the vanguard of their peoples— if they keep their identity. “
– Hannah Arendt, We Refugees (1943)

The sun is sinking into the ocean in a postcard-perfect view, a watermelon is being sliced up on the beach, and a gold blanket glitters in the summer heat. Yet Michael Danner’s photographs subvert our expectations and counter our clichés of a sojourn on the Mediterranean. Almost imperceptibly, they displace our inevitable associations of idyllic vacations and reinterpret summer, beach, and sea to show the threats of a humanitarian catastrophe. In the settings of our vacation fantasies, twenty-first century refugees on the coasts of Morocco, Tunisia, Spain, Greece, and Turkey are confronted with danger, loss, and death. Such gold survival blankets have been a symbol for Europe’s refugee crisis since fall 2015. According to the UN, over 70 million people around the world are currently seeking refuge—more than ever before.

Michael Danner takes a political and anthropological approach in his work, in which explorations of conflict regions and their history play a central role. His long-term conceptual documentary project with the seemingly provocative title Migration as Avant-Garde (2008–2017) is a moving, critical, and rousing work about Europe’s borders. Danner’s surprising juxtaposition of the terms “migration” and “avant-garde” stems from his reading of political scientist Hannah Arendt’s essay We Refugees (1943). Beginning with her notion of flight as a radical act of self-determination and faith in progress, Danner’s project examines different forms of migration, including freedom of movement within the EU, labor migration, emigration, flight, and displacement. Migration as Avant-Garde deftly brings together numerous visual commentaries on the current global situation while allowing viewers to make their own interpretation and avoiding explicit depictions of desperate situations. Danner’s project is a counterpoint to the conventional journalistic narrative of news photographs. Uninterested in simply informing or deliberately shocking his audience, Danner weaves together his own images, archival photographs, and quotations from Arendt to form a visual dialogue about one of humankind’s oldest actions: moving from one place to another.

C/O Berlin is the first institution in the world to exhibit this project, for which Danner received the Dummy Award at the Fotobookfestival in Kassel in 2018. The sophisticated book design makes use of layers and collage, and the exhibition translates this approach into three dimensions, with framed photographs, projected images, and designed fragments of text.

Michael Danner (b. 1967 in Reutlingen) is a German photographer who has worked for a number of magazines and agencies. Since 2016, he has been a professor of photography at the University of Applied Science Europe. He studied photo design at the Fachhochschule Bielefeld and photography at the University of Brighton. Danner has shown his work at international exhibitions including Fotofestiwal Łódź (2019), Darmstadt Photography Days (2018), Fotodoks Munich (2017), and Hereford Photography Festival (2010, 2004). Back in 2005, he took part in the group exhibition Born in the Sixties at C/O Berlin’s former location in Linienstraße. He has received support from Stiftung Kunstfonds (2012) and was awarded a grant for contemporary German photography from Museum Folkwang and the Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach-Stiftung (2018). He was nominated for the German Photobook Prize in 2014–15 and received the Dummy Award at the Fotobookfestival in Kassel in 2018 for Migration as Avant-Garde. The book was published in 2019 by Kehrer Verlag. Michael Danner lives and works in Berlin.