„This isolates the whole academic and artistic community“
Misagh Azimi is a student whose application for a visa to the UK was just recently denied – with a very questionable justification. The head of the Institute for Computermusic and Electronic Media (ICEM), Thomas Neuhaus, described it as „Unbelievable! How can a ‘civilized country’ get away with something like this?“ [translated from German] on the institute’s website. akduell-editor Lorenza Kaib talked with Misagh about his experience, the consequences those actions have on the artistic world and how the Brexit might probably worsen the situation. This interview was conducted in English in order to reach a broader public.
ak[due]ll: You’re a student at the ICEM. What have been your experiences with the Folkwang so far, how do you like it here?
Misagh Azimi: Yeah, that’s my sixth year actually. I studied my Bachelor there and now I’m in my second year of Masters. I mean, I changed a lot of universities and that was like the point where I said ‚Okay, I want to stay here, cause I have all the things that I want exactly‘. No university is perfect but this was like mostly what I always wanted – and that’s the reason I stayed here.
akduell: So Essen is kind of your base right now?
Misagh: Exactly. I work a lot here, I teach a lot here. It used to be Freiburg, but not anymore. I lived there for a year. Since I moved here all the contacts changed. It’s actually a quite big scene here in Nordrhein-Westfalen – not as frustrated, full and crowded like Berlin, Hamburg and so on. It’s pretty good here – for all the artists.
akduell: On what kind of music is your personal focus?
Misagh: I do a lot of projects at the same time and as a composer you need to be able to write a lot of music so you can first of all earn money but then to experience different genres, different areas of music. But basically I’m very focused on electronic music right now. Also I work with a lot of institutions, write music for theaters and performances, stuff like that. For them I do also orchestral music for big and small ensembles.
akduell: ‚Party music‘ or coming from the art context?
Misagh: Both. It begins with adjusting some knobs on a synthesizer and it just makes some sounds and you go with it. If it’s a dance track, go with it. If it’s some abstract artistic kind of thing, you go with it. I’m actually pretty open to see what happens.
akduell: Recently the British Immigration Office refused your visa application – what happened and how did you receive the notification?
Misagh: I kind of assumed it was going to happen – after Brexit. I wasn’t that optimistic, but even though I was kind of shocked and very disappointed. So what happened was that I got an invitation from the Greenwich University in London to go to a colloquium where they wanted me to show my audiovisual works that I composed two years ago. It’s a three channel-video with four channel-audio. I was really proud of it, I did it for my final Bachelor exam. They invited me and I then thought, Okay, I can just go there and attend the colloquium, exchange some ideas with people‘. An artistic opportunity for me and also for our institute: presenting the music and art that we do there.
And then I googled if I need a visa for that and I found out that I do. I applied for it, all the required documents were there. The Folkwang University paid for all my travel needs. So when I went to the embassy I already had my ticket, my hotel and also the money that I had to give them for the visa process. Everything was paid, there was nothing else – just, like, five pounds for fish and chips in London when I am there. The other thing was that they wanted to know if I come back, so I showed them my registration at the University and also my contracts here as a music teacher. I have to be here for the classes, I wanted to go for four days and then come back.
I showed them that I earn money myself as well. I lived in different countries in the past ten years and I have a clean sheet – I have no criminal records, nothing. So everything is supposed to be all right, I thought. Then I waited for twenty days what is actually longer than usual, they do it usually in 15 days. And after that they sent me an email that my application was refused because they were not sure if I could pay for my travel – which was already paid – and also they were not satisfied with my ‚intentions‘ for traveling to the UK. Even though I attached the invitation from the colloquium. And I also applied as an academic, not as a tourist. The second reason was they didn’t know if I will be back here after the travel.
akduell: In your statement on the ICEM-website you said that the „process seems very discriminating“. Do you think all this was more about your Iranian passport?
Misagh: Yes. I strongly believe that. As soon as it just got out people started saying their own opinions about [the notifications], talking about ‚it is racism‘. It’s not racism. It’s just basically some political decision, that’s it. It has nothing to do with racism or moral. It’s just how the world works right now.
akduell: You mean the changing bureaucracy right now in Great Britain?
Misagh: Everywhere it’s changing. I mean, the process began actually about ten years ago. So everywhere the governments are trying to make it safer. The safety and freedom of some persons can cut the safety and freedom of another person off. Basically what happened is the British decided to go out of this Union, they decided to make themselves safer and they’re just cutting everybody else out. I’m actually very sensitive about this subject now because I think this is gonna happen also to maybe some German people after Brexit, it’s going to be the same story. A dear professor of mine, Michael Edwards – who is British and teaching at ICEM – he said that he has had this problem for almost ten years teaching at a university in Scotland. He invited guests from different countries and a lot of them couldn’t come. This is just isolating the whole academic and artistic community there – and also maybe here – that doesn’t allow people to exchange ideas, it just makes everything harder. It’s harder for me because I have an Iranian passport, but it’s gonna be also hard for the Europeans in a couple of years with Brexit in stock. I’m 100 percent sure that it has something to do with my Iranian background and also with the post-Brexit immigration laws forced in the UK.
akduell: You wrote in your statement about an upcoming meeting with the university here. What will be your next steps, do you consider getting into legal actions?
Misagh: Into legal action – that’s also some interesting thing. There is no right for an appeal, you can’t make an appeal. And they stated that because they privatized the whole thing. So the visa application goes back from London to Germany, to Düsseldorf. And I just have to pick it up, that’s it – which is also very discriminating. It doesn’t matter to me any more because I’m not gonna get to the colloquium, there’s simply not enough time for that. So legal action to just get me through is pointless. I just want people to hear it, I just want people to consider it because a lot of them think that some Iranian guy living somewhere wanting to go to London‚ Okay, he can’t go – it doesn’t matter‘. But as soon as somebody like me who has a different background as an artist that has published stuff, he can maybe use his voice to just help in the future two or maybe three people who might have the same case. If I can do that, this is enough for me. The university and I, we want to publish a couple of articles on different platforms on the internet and also magazines. We haven’t had the meeting yet but I imagine that there will be a statement coming out.
akduell: So you get support from the Folkwang University?
Misagh: 100 percent support from all the professors – and the staff also. Everyone is behind me, because the matter is so ridiculous. I’m very thankful for that because that makes it all easier. Just mentally, to know that there are people who think like me is actually very supportive.
akduell: The Folkwang University is a highly international institution. Are you aware of other students having similar troubling experiences with getting a visa?
Misagh: No, I have to say that Germany is pretty generous when it comes to visa. Or at least it has been until now. There is some stuff going on about the universities not being free anymore just for the international students.
akduell: You mean the fees for the non-european students in Baden-Württemberg?
Misagh: Exactly. I have one case on my mind, somebody who couldn’t come to Germany because of the visa. She was from a south american country. But that was solved and now she’s here. Other way around, going outside of Germany I have actually no cases on mind. But from the region where I come from we don’t have many students here at the Folkwang. And it’s actually also a new thing where people are not allowed to go places, with Brexit and Trump. For America it is the same thing: Iranians are banned to go there since Trump came to power.
akduell: But you don’t plan to go to the US?
Misagh: I promised myself that I will not go there as long as Trump is president. I would do the same with the Iran because I’m totally not satisfied with the political system – but my family is there so I have to. But I’m a person that has to show some resilience when stuff happens, I can not just walk around and pretend everything is cool. If I see something I will always say something – and that would just turn into complicated stuff. I’m going to go on tour next year and there are a lot of places where I might not be able to go to. So when we will have booked everything and then they don’t let me in, for an artist that is one of the most bothering things ever because you already did the work that you had to do to create something that you want to show to people. And then somebody comes to you and tells you you’re not allowed to present it just because you were born in the wrong country by accident – life’s just a genetic accident, that’s it. This is bullshit. And that is what’s just happening in my mind right now.