Amna Mawaz Khan
Bodies in space, of space, and bodies of work
A city is a tempo-spatial body that holds many bodies within itself. Intricate at times, blatant and plain to the naked eye, are the webs that join bodies within streets, monuments, buildings, gutters, green spaces, and airways – in the nooks and crannies of this larger body.
Within this body, in this case the city of Heidelberg, are spaces and relationships that give shape to communities that reside within it. Heidelberg, also known as a knowledge pearl, is socially, economically and psychologically shaped by the presence of its university and other educational institutions, start-ups, and touristic attractions.
Universitätsplatz, Altstadt / University Square, Old Town
Our excursion group, consisted of students and academics from Heidelberg, Kathmandu and New Delhi. We shared an intensive week experiencing Heidelberg, putting forth questions that highlighted commonalities to other spaces or completely new elements of Heidelberg that we were confronted with. We were invited to open our senses to the urban sphere of Heidelberg. Our time together was packed with activities and explorations, so I will condense how I understood the entanglement of knowledge, commoning and the city of Heidelberg, and on a more minute scale, our group within this space. In order to do this, I will liken the excursion to the following metaphors: an experimental laboratory, a dissonant archive, a choreography, and a dynamic collective.
As an experimental laboratory, we were guided, and explored residential projects, like the Bahnstadt, where the project aimed for sustainable, environmentally-friendly yet modern living, or the many kinds of converted US-Army barracks. Notable among these were the Hagebutze and the Collegium Academicum, where forms of common living, learning and building were being practiced. Coming back to the urban space as a body, alternative projects such as these can be seen as potential growths that are spreading into the cells of the body. Far from being cancerous, these experiments are attempts at propagating the idea that life can be lived beyond the individualistic, capitalist hegemony. Nevertheless, these experiments are currently in nascent phases, and very often are forms of mobility that are in themselves gated and framed, and barely alter the prevalent segregation within the urban scale. Despite this, refreshing methods of consensus building and shared responsibility to space and community fuelled our collective imaginations about commoning.
As a dissonant archive, we explored the old part of Heidelberg, the Altstadt, that well-curated space that aims to preserve itself as a romantic, tourist attraction, set against the backdrop of the castle. The group was taken in a flurried walk to discover the “Stolpersteine” brass cobblestones laid in memory of the Jews who were persecuted or murdered during the Nazi genocide. Universitätsplatz was examined multiple times – and every time, the technique of witnessing was altered. One such technique compelled of us to look at things that were otherwise “hidden.” The group was sensitized to feelings and context beyond the conspicuous and linear Square – it was a site of contestation, dating from the medieval witch trials, to more recent mass book burnings.
History extended temporality, and was felt viscerally, and perspired within our group. Throughout the week-long excursion, I actively sensitized myself to the segregation, liminality and inclusivity within groups, and what effect it had upon ways of living and feeling in and out of place.
During the visit to the Bahnstadt, once a railway site, now a modern, eco-friendly urban residential complex, the group divided into smaller groups, digitally mapped the area, adding to the archive of the urban space. This form of archiving by “outsiders” was a nuanced form of engaging with urban geography.
The guided tour of colonial Heidelberg commenced in the sprawling garden of the Völkerkundemuseum, a museum with a chequered as well as persecuted history. It was here that the topic of colonialism was commonly exchanged by all members of the group, as well as our spirited guide. Our collective archive was peppered with a rather uncomfortable incident, where the owner of a controversially named bar tried to dissuade the group from believing what our guide felt about the place. Our collective was reminded of how layered and conflicted perceptions within a given space may be.
Quotes collected after the colonial past tour
When thinking of the city as an archive, I reflected upon what is actively/passively memorialized and what is forgotten. The memorialization of certain urban spaces, is intertwined with the creation of heritage sites. There is no doubt in the power embedded within the framing of heritage sites. That is why it was interesting to briefly look at the Sinti and Roma Documentation Centre as a site of remembrance for the Sinti and Romani people who fell victim to Nazi brutality. This is a potentially conflicted site, because of its proposed design, that stands in stark contrast to the romantic façade of the Old Town. This façade is in turn, crucial in the revenue generation of Heidelberg as a marketed commodity. Tourists flock to the Old Town and the Castle, and as one member of our excursion pointed out, “The Castle is put up like a set in an old western. It is propped up for romantic consumption.”
Later when reflecting upon the excursion, the city appeared before me as a dance choreography. Apart from the literal movement of bodies within space, the varying movement or mobility due to socio-economic levels, the temporalities/tempos/speeds of these movements, and the rhythm created due to the relationality of the bodies in movement. Adding to this, the formations of spaces and their relation to certain actors/ dancers, as well as their transformation; the physical levels at which the choreography is staged: who is airborne, who is doing floorwork, repetitive gyrations and twirls… when is there a plot with protagonists and antagonists, and when is this choreography one of synchronicity? The latter I felt in the seemingly spontaneous, accessible Neckarwiese, or during the movement workshop at the community dance session at Stadtwerke. The actors in these spaces, apart from our own group, practiced agency in these spaces of synchronicity. At other times, there were synchronized, whether the guided tours of Patrick Henry Village and Metropolink, or the time spent at the alternative shared living spaces like Hagebutze and Collegium Academicum. In these cases, I sensed that the veneer of curation and aesthetic mediation was necessary in the process of opening up otherwise exclusive spaces to “the outside.” Similar choices are made for on-stage choreographies – what is the backdrop, the costume, the language, the sizes and shapes of dancing bodies. All this happens, within the span of a very limited timeframe. What I find interesting in this kind of staging, is the “spilling out” of that which has not been rehearsed, and its merging into the larger choreography.
Consensus-building, an active part of all the shared living projects, can also be seen as the choreography of the project itself – that is, how does a group move or navigate when there is a deadlock, or no tempo? The rhythm of consensus-building itself, that may be a very detailed process, such as that practiced Hagebutze, or everyday improvization between bodies.
In terms of scale, when understanding relationships within a geographical body, such as our group’s within Heidelberg, I sensed that diverse yet amicable dynamic collective was sharing and shaping the space around them. The multi-positionality of Heidelbergers and those new to the city, nuanced by language, ethnicity or seniority of age, also added layered understanding of when and why a city like Heidelberg is at once a place for shared knowledge and a site of conflict. Meandering between improvisation and curation, the group members practiced patience and trust among themselves as well as with the city at large.
At times working in smaller sub-groups, all of created and collected a trove of memories. When these memories were shared in the form of group presentations on the last day, our questions on how knowledge and space mutually shape each other were further deconstructed and reformulated, fuelling a multi-sensorial dynamism that became characteristic of our dynamic collective. On a scalar level, it is this very flux and dynamism that transforms the city as well.
Amna Mawaz Khan, work intersects between art and politics. She began training at the age of 11 years, under Guru Indu Mitha in South Asian dance forms, kathak and Uday Shankar, with a focus in Bharathanatyam. From 2016-2018, she was appointed choreographer for the Pakistan National Council of the Arts. She have also written, acted, and directed theatre plays, performed in music videos and short films, and have been associated with theatre troupes Azaad Awaam Theatre, Theatrewallay and am a founding member of Laal Hartaal. She have performed and given workshops in China, India, Germany, Pakistan, Switzerland, the UK and the USA. Since 2007, she have been engaged with political organizing, alongside my saathis in Awami Workers Party and Women Democratic Front. Her work centres around urban housing rights, artistic rebellion/creation, feminist interventions, and solidarity with progressive groups and movements. In 2015, she stood for the local government elections in Islamabad, in the first women-led electoral panel in the country. She hold a Master’s degree in Pakistan Studies from Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, and taught a course, “The Aesthetics of Power/The Power of Aesthetics” at the South Asia Institute in the summer semester of 2022. Currently, she is in the second semester of the Masters in Transcultural Studies program at the University of Heidelberg.