But can the untranslatable be voiced at all? How to articulate the leftover inexpressibles of translation? Is it perhaps to be glimpsed in a back-to-front crazy word, an image’s shimmer, the flick of a gesture, the intimacies of voice, in listening to its silences—an attentiveness that opens onto an erotics and ethics of the other beyond its untranslatability? (Maharaj 1994)
Theatres are among of the most vibrant public institutions that have instigated discussions on issues of diversity and difference in Germany in recent decades. Already in the 1980s, public municipal institutions, such as the Theater an der Ruhr in Mülheim or the Ballhaus Naunynstraße in Berlin have initiated critical artistic collaborations with migrants from Europe and beyond. Shermin Langhoff, former director of the Ballhaus Naunynstraße, now director at the Maxim Gorki theatre in Berlin, has been instrumental in advancing the notion of a so-called “post-migrant theatre,” by which she refers to a theatre that problematizes an already diversified plural and cosmopolitan society (see Langhoff 2012). More recently, she announced the establishment of an “Exile Ensemble,” addressing explicitly the need to take statelessness seriously in German public theatre and to provide new forms of training for exiled artists and actors (see Langhoff and Laudenbach 2016).
Germany’s extensive public funding for municipal or federal theatres often allows these institutions to work on projects over longer periods of time than smaller independent groups. As public institutions, German municipal theatres often work closely with public authorities and councils, allowing—at least in theory—for more direct lines of communication and influence on policy-making or issues such as social housing and integration strategies. Theatres are thus, on the one hand, venues for artistic creation and aesthetic experience, but also key sites for the construction of critical political expertise and theoretical interventions in public discourse on migration and otherness.
Beyond the sustained social critique and important institutional space that German public theatres offer, contemporary German theatre and the free performing arts have been engaging in a number of aesthetically and theoretically significant ways with migration and diversity in Germany today. In 1980, for example, the Italian émigré director Roberto Ciulli, his dramaturg Helmut Schäfer and the stage designer Gralf-Edzard Habben founded a unique city-theatre in the Ruhr Valley city of Mülheim: the Theater an der Ruhr. As a public-private partnership institution, the theatre allowed its director to set up a pioneering series of international exchanges and collaborations designed to create a “bastard theatre” without national boundaries and for artists ostracized from their own countries. Already in the early 1980s, Ciulli and the theatre travelled to and hosted marginalized artists from precarious regions of the world, giving refuge to politically persecuted groups, such as the Roma Teatro Pralipe, which fled Yugoslavia in the mid-1980s before the Yugoslav wars. As Shermin Langhoff (2016) described it in a recent interview, theatres such as the Theater an der Ruhr or the projects conducted by Ariane Mnouchkine at the Théâtre du Soleil stand in a tradition of being “places of exile” (Exilorte) that host those that have fled (their) nations. As part of their International Theaterlandscapes series, the Theater an der Ruhr has over the last thirty years not only integrated the refugee Roma theatre group; it also became the first Western theatre to visit Iran after the 1979 Revolution, leading to intense collaborations and exchanges between artists in Iran and Germany.
One particularly noteworthy episode regarding theatre and statelessness in the international project history of the Theater an der Ruhr is their involvement with a Roma theatre group that fled from pre-war Yugoslavia. In September 1983, only three years after the establishment of the Theater an der Ruhr, the ensemble was invited to the Seventeenth International Theaterfestival in Belgrade (BITEF), where they won their first international prizes. Their ensemble already had strong connections to Yugoslavia, since a revered actress, Gordana Kossanović, had joined the ensemble in 1981 and played the lead roles in the Theater’s first play, Lulu, that same year, despite “not speaking a single word of German” (Ciulli, personal communication). This first international recognition, writes theatre scholar Frank Raddatz in a thirtieth-anniversary Festschrift on the Theater, “gave them the necessary backing when it was still a hotly contested institution in Germany” (2006, 88). In 1984, the city of Mülheim renewed their funding for the newly established theatre and, in 1985, it was invited to Athens with their adaptation of Sophocles’ Electra to partake in the first European Capital of Culture campaign. Their performance impressed one particularly important audience member: former actress and then first female Minister for Culture of Greece, Melina Mercoúri. Following the performance, on 10 December 1985, she wrote to the then West German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher to recommend the Theater an der Ruhr for further international funding. That same month, in 1985, the Theater became the first West German ensemble to tour through Yugoslavia, showing their plays in Belgrade, Subotica and Zagreb, outside of pre-existing festival structures.
Three months after this trip, an intense letter exchange filled the folders in the archives of the Theatre Studies Collection of the University of Cologne, where I conducted research on this topic in 2014. Ciulli reacted to Mercoúri’s letter and wrote to Foreign Minister Genscher, describing his theatre’s experiences while travelling through Yugoslavia. He suggests how his vision of a new form of international theatre exchange could synthesize the theoretical and practical problems of political art. International festivals are a good start for political activities, Ciulli writes, but what would really be needed are new structures to enable continual collaboration. He broadens the scope of his letter—“It seems to us that this proposal could become a firm building block of a unified European cultural politics”—linking back to a discourse on theatre as a cosmopolitan practice (or even a “bastardo” theatre) that Ciulli and his founding colleagues have been proposing for decades (Tinius forthcoming), before focusing on his own institution. “The unique structure of our own new theatre and our unorthodox connections to diverse artists in Europe,” Ciulli concludes, “is made for the organization of thematically connected seminars, lasting co-operations, and urgently necessary dialogue between hitherto unconnected groups regions, and theatre-makers.” A small team composed of authors, directors, dramaturgs and academics, he explains, should accompany them to participate in audience discussions and seminars on international theatre with local representatives of the theatre scene in each country. This, he writes, is what he and the Theater an der Ruhr understand as the synthesis of theoretical and practical theatrical labor.
Although this letter exemplifies Ciulli’s competence and courage to move between the artistic and the political spheres, he did not wait on political patronage from Germany. When Ciulli formulated these thoughts, in spring 1986, he had already begun a dialogue with artists and politicians from Yugoslavia, without any German state intermediary. He had also already organized a joint tour through the FRG and West Berlin. This cooperation between German and Yugoslav theatres kicked off with a spring festival, in May 1986, in the park of the Theater an der Ruhr, in Mülheim, intended for Roma and Sinti families in the Ruhr valley who had taken refuge in Germany from ethnic violence in their home countries. During all those months, in early 1986, Ciulli corresponded directly with the Foreign Minister of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (which collapsed in 1992 with the Yugoslav wars). The minister appreciated Ciulli’s efforts. Since many Yugoslav artists aspire to connect with German theatres to escape discrimination and poverty, he wrote, the government promised to help.
Between February and April 1986, with minimal financial means, Ciulli invited two professional theatre groups from Yugoslavia to Mülheim and went on tour in various repertory theatres around Germany—among others in the Ballhaus Naunynstraße, in Berlin-Kreuzberg, which has now become a well-known performance venue for post-migrant theatre. In preparation for these guest-plays, a critical letter was sent from the civic education (Volksbildung) department of the Kreuzberg arts council (Kunstamt) to the German foreign office, addressed to Foreign Minister Genscher with a carbon copy going to Ciulli. This letter stated that the Kreuzberg arts council, “as a cultural institution in the multinational borough Kreuzberg,” has a serious interest in organizing theatre for migrants. Usually, however, “local residents from Yugoslavia, despite being the second-largest minority in the borough, were only ever provided with ‘folkloristic acts.’” The efforts of the Theater an der Ruhr to bring professional theatre from Yugoslavia were therefore commended by the Kreuzberg arts council as a laudable project that deserved recognition.
During this tour, one of the invited Yugoslav groups, the Roma theatre Pralipe from Skopje, staged various performances of Soske (“Why?”), a play about the history of violence in the Romanes language. The tour culminated with the Roma Spring Festival, which included a public debate on contemporary political theatre in Yugoslavia, organised in Mülheim and attended by over 500 Roma families and interest groups from the region.
For the Theater an der Ruhr and its ensemble, these initial collaborations and efforts to bring Yugoslavian theatre to Germany were all part of their First International Theaterlandscape. From the very beginning, Ciulli and his ensemble understood theatre as a way to act politically by facilitating artistic encounters. Their work was pioneering and was soon noticed among the cultural politicians in the state and on a national level. In the light of escalating tensions in Yugoslavia, the cultural ministry in Düsseldorf urged the Foreign Office in Bonn to further their support for the international work of the Theater an der Ruhr: their activities were described as “a reinvigoration of German-Yugoslavian cultural dialogues in times of need that should become an official state-recognized cooperation.”
In 1991, Ciulli invited the Teatro Roma Pralipe from the Macedonian capital Skopje to Mülheim for a second time to continue their collaboration. That same year, Macedonia declared independence and Albanian nationalists further destabilized the situation for Roma. Both theatres agreed that it would be too dangerous for the Roma ensemble to return to Macedonia and, as a consequence, established a unique structural partnership: the Roma theatre was integrated into the Theater an der Ruhr and their plays became part of the Theater’s repertory. Already in November 1992, they initiated the project “Culture Against Violence: Movement of a Different Germany” and toured through fifteen German cities—among them epicentres of right-wing extremism—with the provocative slogan “The gypsies are back!”. After each performance of Federico García Lorca’s Blood Wedding in Romanes (Ratvale Bijava), they organized a seminar to discuss “foreignness” and xenophobia in schools, theatres and cultural centres (see Kermani 2001). One critic wrote in his review of a performance in Chemnitz, East Germany: “These Roma don’t want asylum; they want to be heard. They want to play theatre, in their own language, which the audience doesn’t know. And we still understand them” (Detje 1992, 57).
In 1998, the Roma theatre won the prestigious Lorca Prize of the acclaimed International Theatre Institute (ITI), in Berlin. By this point, the Theater an der Ruhr had created an infrastructure and an environment that facilitated sustainable encounters between German and non-German artists. Though no cooperation on this scale took place again, the Roma structural integration became a model for all future projects. From the late 1980s until today, the Theater would become a new home for those Yugoslav actors that had left their country.
Ruhrorter: “Refugee Theatre” at the Theater an der Ruhr
More recently, in addition to its function as a mostly public city theatre producing postdramatical restagings of the classics (including Büchner, Beckett, O’Neill, Schiller, Shakespeare, etc.), the Theater an der Ruhr collaborated with Kurdish theatre groups and initiated a local project on Syrian refugees called Café Aleppo. This political work has not only affected the institutional structure (requiring more flexibility for guests and international visitors), it also created a particular ethical and aesthetic style of theatrical production that negotiates the political implications of collaborations with stateless or refugee actors and artists. Alongside their frequent organization of public fora on refugees and statelessness in Mülheim, Ciulli and his international technical and artistic ensemble have created a “theatre of images” (Innes and Shevtsova 2013) that translates its critical cosmopolitan theatre philosophy into a stage language that I have analyzed and discussed further elsewhere (see Tinius 2015a). There is one particular group that has emerged in and out of the theatre, however, that merits particular attention in the context of an engagement with statelessness and the current refugee influx in Germany.
On the fringes of mainstream newspaper reviews and major theatre festivals, and in the economically and socially desolate post-industrial Ruhr Valley, in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, a provocative new refugee theatre collective has been engaging with the issue of migration and difference for the last four years. The project is attached to the Theater an der Ruhr and institutionally as well as artistically supported by it. This project, called “Ruhrorter” (literally, “places/people along the Ruhr”), was founded by the director Adem Köstereli, the founder of freelance performance collective cobratheater.cobra, Wanja van Suntum, and now also includes directors Dijana Brnic and Maximilan Brands, as well as the designer Julia Rautenhaus and the author Alexander Weinstock.
Initially conceived of as a single theatre project hosted by the public city-theatre of Mülheim, the Theater an der Ruhr, it soon established itself as a semi-independent theatre and arts collective. Since 2012, it has collaborated with the Theater an der Ruhr and successfully attained significant municipal and state funds for a three-year trilogy of plays, installations and artistic interventions in site-specific locations in the city of Mülheim—a former refugee camp in the industrial harbour, in 2014, and a former women’s prison, in 2015. It is currently on its way to completing its fourth consecutive year of theatre and participatory art installations, taking place in an abandoned commercial store in the empty high street of Mülheim an der Ruhr, drawing the attention of politicians and local residents. The project is regarded as continuing the longstanding attention to a transnational understanding of art at the Theater an der Ruhr, articulated in different iterations by the founders of the institution. The notion that theatre speaks primarily to artists, intellectuals and interested members of the public— and not to national canons, curricula or political agendas—motivated the political work of Ruhrorter as well as that of the Theater an der Ruhr. In frequent conversations or visits to rehearsals, the founders of the Theater an der Ruhr as well as its ensemble recognised the aesthetic and ethical agenda of the Ruhrorter project: both the Theater an der Ruhr and Ruhrorter share the view that one should conduct theatre with refugees by working through common understandings of bodily experience, corporeal movements and aesthetic reflection rather than recounting authenticating tragic stories of national wars or serving an agenda of national cultural integration according to the German notion of national guiding principles (nationale Leitkultur), which still pervades political rhetoric, art funding and school curricula in Germany.
I accompanied the Ruhrorter project for nearly a year during my doctoral fieldwork on theatre in the region before joining the collective as an external academic collaborator and observer upon completion of my thesis. Since 2013, I have been invited to partake and write about their rehearsals, funding processes and to host public events. It was intriguing for me that the artists of the Ruhrorter collective and the creative directors at the Theater an der Ruhr decided that my perspective on the refugee trilogy should feature in the project, too. They suggested that I could become involved, not as an artist but as an anthropologist. My initial concerns about becoming too entangled in the project were countered by them: “No, no,” they insisted, “it is precisely your presence as anthropologist that will make this collaboration interesting—your observation and critical distance to what we do underlines our commitment to reflexivity.” Eventually, I became part of the funding applications as an “accompanying anthropologist.” I did not object, since it was a rather apt description of what I was doing and since I anticipated that this would yield interesting insight into the exchange and collaboration of artistic and anthropological expertise on this project (see also Tinius 2015b). This form of artistic research collaboration is similar to other developments in museum studies (see Macdonald and Basu, Exhibition Experiments, 2007), STS (see Niewöhner 2016), and ties in with recent discussions on the relation between the anthropologist and the artist as informant/interlocutor/collaborator (see Sansi, Art, Anthropology and the Gift 2014).
Ruhrorter is distinct among the various artistic initiatives dealing with refugees and diversity in Germany in its emphasis on art, ambivalence and fiction, and its rejection of the idea that it might “represent” the “authentic” plight of the participants and their experience as refugees. Instead of merely documenting and re-creating the experience of the asylum seekers that partake in the project, the Ruhrorter group challenges the notion of an authentic actor-character in its performances and installations. Actors and participants are not invited to “play themselves” or to “share their stories,” but the project facilitates months-long rehearsal processes in which participants “learn to unlearn” the often internalized roles they have come to assume. Roles taken by participants are often negotiated over months of improvisation and would not be, for example, a Roma street musician, but work through scenes and encounters between otherwise ambivalent and anonymous figures: a couple, a mother and a son, a ghost or a postman.
The project rehearsals—which never begin with a play script, but rather take shared experiences as their associative starting points for improvisation— became both a space for collective interaction and a form of practice whose aim was imaginative reflection on what it meant to be a creative subject in society, rather than a subject to society. This aesthetic approach to theatre making with marginalised and vulnerable subjects aims to explore how long-term artistic reflections on experiences of otherness can bring about both individual and collective change; not through action, but by creating the possibility for imagination of the otherwise. By creating a space for alternative imaginations of the status quo, and by embracing difference and pluralism, the concept of performance problematizes negotiation and process, rather than propagating fixity and identity.
This project’s emphasis on theatre as a public forum for reflection on diversity and otherness continues the artistic mission of its host institution, the Theater an der Ruhr. For the last thirty years, it has sought to instigate a public discourse on the role of the “stranger,” the “other,” not as peripheral figures of society, but as constitutive of German and, indeed, European countries. Its many multilingual productions with actors and groups from different parts of the world—most recently with the Turkish ensemble Kumbaraci50—try to provide a corrective to the idea that any one migrant, refugee or otherwise member of a society can be “authentically” known. Its practice underlines and explores the potential of retaining traces of untranslatability. The Theater an der Ruhr and the Ruhrorter group provide a glimpse into some of the possibilities of engaging otherness and difference in current discourses on migrants and refugees through a critique of authenticity in art.
Studying Migrant Theatre after the Nation
How might this project illuminate wider issues about the negotiation of otherness, migration and authenticity in Germany, or Europe, at this point of supposed “crisis”? In fact, few reports on migration across Europe and the Mediterranean go without variously invoking a current “migrant” or “refugee crisis.” As a short-hand for the mass-movement of people into European national territories, such terms risk cloaking an important underlying issue of authenticity and otherness. This “crisis,” decried by politicians and pundits alike, it should be noted, is as much a European and German identity crisis—that is to say, a crisis of national self-understanding—as it is any other form of crisis. Since the 1990s, critical migration studies have undergone a fundamental shift away from notions of diversity that assume, as the opening quotation states, “the immediate visibility of all elements of multicultural community to one another.” As the anthropologists Manuela Bojadžijev and Regina Römhild note in their 2014 article “What comes after the ‘transnational turn’?” [Was kommt nach dem »transnational turn«?], to classify migrants and social diversity along lines of ethnicity, nationality, gender creates a problematic “migrantology” (“Migrantologie,” 10).
The migrantological approach criticised by Bojadžijev and Römhild neglects the variously complex background of migration and migrants. Writing about diversity in Britain since the 1980s, anthropologist Steven Vertovec uses the term “super-diversity” to refer to the “dynamic interplay of variables among an increased number of new, small and scattered, multiple-origin, transnationally connected, socio-economically differentiated and legally stratified immigrants” (2007, 1024). Second, such problematic “migrantological” approaches that classify diversity according to what I would describe as an authenticating of otherness—only something classified is authentically other—begin from an assumption of a host-identity rather than from a perspective of difference that recognizes the complex and shifting historical essentialization of European national identities. Perhaps, as Bojadžijev and Römhild suggest, we ought to “demigrantise” migration research and instead “migrantise” social research (2014, 11).
Anticipating the theoretical advances in contemporary scholarship, the theatres presented in this article have been working on alternative notions and approaches to understanding subjectivity and subject-formation “after the nation.” Shermin Langhoff’s project of creating an “Exile Ensemble” at the Maxim Gorki Theatre Berlin, for example, uses the term exile rather than refugee to create a historical link between artists fleeing from Syria in 2016 and, say, Brecht, Benjamin or Thomas Mann, who also lived in exile but did not enter history books as “German refugees.”
The Theater an der Ruhr, over its thirty-five-year long history of collaborations and co-productions with artists from precarious regions of the world, has conceptualised theatre as a form of transnational zone of exchange that functions through aesthetic criteria and not national or ethnic ones. Diversity and difference, then, becomes not an issue of irreversible identity, but of constitutive belonging: how do I create a sense of self, of home, of relocation, in another country and language—but by using my body, voice and gestures? These sorts of questions have been driving its collaborations with artists from Syria, the former Silk Road, Iran, Turkey or Chile. Motivated by a drive to speak to those artists who felt alienated in their own countries by nationalist rhetoric—Turkey’s current crackdown on the autonomy of intellectuals is a sad recurrence of the urgency of such projects, the Theater an der Ruhr aimed to cultivate an aesthetic cosmopolitanism. As its founding director Roberto Ciulli put it in an interview: the real audiences of a cosmopolitan, post-national theatre are those people who, alienated by nationalist rhetoric, felt like strangers in their own countries.
The role of a theatre that speaks their language is, in such a situation, to beget bastards. . . . We have to take people’s fear of losing a national identity. The dissolution of unambiguous national and cultural identities is something positive. This is a dynamic process, which should not arouse anxieties. (Ciulli 2001, 88f)
The project-cum-collective Ruhrorter, an outcome of the closely knit tradition of the Theater an der Ruhr, continues this engagement with refugees and exiled artists through its postnational, non-documentary approach to theatre. Since 2012, Ruhrorter has been working on research-based, site-specific performances and interactive installations, which problematize migration and the experience of relocation in a foreign language and country as an ongoing and not at all foreign experience. Through explorations of themes like detachment, boredom and waiting, or playful forays into the complexity of family and love-relations in times of loss and separation, it has advanced a different way to think about diversity and difference beyond the nation-state: one not defined by fixed markers of difference, such as ethnicity, nationality or faith, but through common human experiences during times of transition. As a consequence, its theatrical aesthetic of what I have described as “dialectical fiction” (Tinius 2016) develops an alternative to art that authenticates the stateless other—the refugee, stranger or foreigner—through tales of self-narration. The authenticity of the other is not presented as the only way to access the experience of migration; instead, forms of commonality between the observer and the performer are created through images and scenes that rupture one’s expectations. As Köstereli, the founding director of Ruhrorter, put it during a public roundtable on the arts and migration,
if you see one of our plays because you expect a moralising tale about refugees, then you will very soon be disappointed and puzzled: but this puzzlement creates a very important rupture, ideally even a moment of reflection on what you as a viewer expect from theatre. Such ruptures of your ways of seeing (Sehgewohnheiten) constitute theatrical experience as we wish to advance it.
 She copied in Ciulli, which is how the letter came to the archives in Cologne and became available to me, thirty years later. The courage of the Theater an der Ruhr, she wrote, to confront the Greek audience with their own stereotypes about authenticity, myth and history was of the utmost importance. Source: Melina Mercoúri: Letter to Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Roberto Ciulli, 10 December 1985, in: Theaterwissenschaftliche Sammlung, University of Cologne, Inventory: Archive Theater an der Ruhr.
 Roberto Ciulli: Letter to Hans-Dietrich Genscher, 6 February 1986, in: Theaterwissenschaftliche Sammlung, University of Cologne, Inventory: Archive Theater an der Ruhr.
 This was highly controversial at the time, since Mülheim had hitherto been unable to cope with the growing numbers of migrants (Cornelsen 1986; Raddatz 2006, 54). It was only after the Theater initiated these exchanges that, for example, a centre for traumatized Yugoslav women was established in the building now used as a rehearsal stage for the Theater.
 Wolfgang Kral: Letter to the Foreign Office (Auswärtige Amt), 22 April 1986, in: Theaterwissenschaftliche Sammlung, University of Cologne, Inventory Archive Theater an der Ruhr.
 For more information on this project, see an interview with the Ruhrorter project (http://www.gar-nrw.de/content/theater-ruhrorter-interview-zum-theater-mit-geflüchteten, last accessed 27 July 2016) and the official announcement on the website of the Theater an der Ruhr (http://www.theater-an-der-ruhr.de/repertoire/caf-aleppo/, last accessed 27 July 2016).
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—. “Bilder, Reisen und Theaterlandschaft: Roberto Ciullis Theater an der Ruhr.” In Aspekte des deutschen Theaters im 20. Jahrhundert, edited by Lothar Schirmer, 127-51. Berlin: Gesellschaft für Theatergeschichte, 2015a.
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*Jonas Tinius is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation funded Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage (CARMaH), Department of European Ethnology, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. He studied social anthropology in Cambridge (UK), where he also completed his PhD entitled State of the Arts: German Theatre and Political Self-Cultivation. He is editor of Anthropology, Theatre, and Development: The Transformative Potential of Performance (Palgrave, 2015, with Alex Flynn).