I am writing these lines in Athens, Greece, after the end of the strict lockdown in May 2020. Many of the readings and discussions I had the chance to undertake in the course of the last months had to do with how (un)hospitable the homes of many might be and what homelessness might mean when home is not only praised as a value but is also presented as everyone’s main, or only, refuge. During the same period, literature, cinema, theatre, and public performances, became more and more readily available online, and numerous museums proposed virtual visits to their public.
A reflection on what it means to host and to be hosted, as well as on the limits of the hospitality of one’s own place emerged. At the same time, the relations between hospitality and the arts seemed, once more, to be relevant in a politically challenging period. Of course, none of these issues were truly novel or exceptional. From antiquity to the contemporary era, literary and artistic representations of hospitality abound. The recent “reception crisis” stimulated an impressive number of artworks and studies which blurred, and quite rightly so, the limits between scientific research, art, and activist responses to pressing political issues. I will limit myself here to one older and four more recent examples.
One of my mandatory school readings, but also one of my favourite readings of all times, is Homer’s Odyssey. Written in the 8th century BCE, it is also known as the epic of hospitality. Reception scenes are included in almost every single of its twenty-four books and they explore various aspects of xenia (“guest-friendship”). The recurring pattern allows the hosts to learn the foreigner/stranger’s name and ask them questions only after welcoming and offering clean clothes and food. Thus, good hospitality means receiving the total stranger, whatever their intentions might be. In the same text, the limits of hospitality are challenged by the presence of Penelope’s suitors in the palace of Ithaca: self-invited guests and intruders at the same time, they are received while they attempt to replace Ulysses, the absent host, erring and benefiting from the hospitality of others. From a quasi-unconditional welcome to the abuse of reception, hospitality in the Odyssey is represented as a set of complex and potentially unsettling relations. Even if the text is already 28 centuries old, the complexity of these relations is such that they can only be identified once the very notion of hospitality is rethought far from the usual images associated with the act of quietly and safely receiving those who one more or less already knows. Hospitality is both a value and a trial, a way of being-with but also of confronting the arriving other: the foreigner, the unknown, the one who shows up unexpectedly, or even who seeks to unhost the host. Odyssey teaches us that hospitality has to imply a form of risk – a risk worth taking.
If, according to Homer, Penelope’s bedroom remained inaccessible to her suitors, this is not always the case. In 2017, during the fourteenth edition of the exhibition documenta, Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stevens (two lesbian eco-sexual artists and performers with a background in the porn industry) put together a performance entitled Cuddling Athens. The concept was simple: visitors interested in participating put their name on a list and, one after the other, they were to take their place between Sprinkle and Stevens in their bed for several minutes. The performance was playful and somehow embarrassing, at least for a number of participants, as it gave them the opportunity of not only being received in a private-public bed, but also of experiencing a moment of hospitality at the heart of a couple’s intimacy.
The decision to take up this offer of hospitality was indissociable from the will to intrude upon the couple’s bed as well as from the acceptance of certain conditions: the limited duration of the stay; the partial visibility of what was happening; some paradoxically necessary distance that was to be kept despite the bodies’ proximity; and the obligation to address the issues of corporeality and sexuality as a crucial part of this very gendered hospitality. Sprinkle and Stevens put together an almost unexpected scene of hospitality, soliciting and welcoming several participants into their exhibited privacy, all the while keeping control over their bed and their bodies. Even a hospitality as intimate as theirs, risking the anonymous welcome of a stranger, remained cautious as concerns its limits, and clear regarding its conditions. Hospitality, in that sense, is a somewhat ambiguous exercise in maintaining a distance within proximity and of remaining safe even while risking someone’s visit.
I had the chance to experience an even riskier act of hospitality a year later, during a visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art of Montreal in 2018. The exhibit that I was particularly attracted to was Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Vicious Circular Breathing. The artist conceived this installation as a transparent and hermetically sealed double glass room where the new visitors could enter in order to inhale the unfiltered and uncleaned air that had already been exhaled by the previous ones. Emergency exits, carbon dioxide, oxygen sensors and numerous paper bags hanging from respiration tubes completed the artwork. The whole mechanism reproduced the respiratory frequency of an adult at rest, while at the entrance of the piece there were warnings regarding the possibility of asphyxiation and panic. I remember hesitating before pushing the button that opened the sliding doors of the transparent room.
Two years before Covid-19, I was facing a true risk in/of hospitality: for a few minutes, I would be hosted by the potentially dangerous yet invisible viruses and other micro-organisms that the previous guests left behind them. And, beyond the question as to whether I would myself be infected or not, I would also leave something potentially dangerous behind me. The paradoxes that I faced were interesting indeed: I would be willingly hosted, in total transparency, by some dangerous unknown hosts that I would never have thought of as such. Then I, in turn, would become the invisible dangerous host to many others that I would never get to really know. In what resembled a purified space, I could choose to literally breathe in the toxicity of the other. For Lozano-Hemmer, hospitality was an attempt to merge with and become exposed to the danger of the other; receiving and being received was both accepting risk and inflicting risk; the risk here being that of contamination by the most unwanted parts of the other.
Yet this risk remained a completely voluntary one that was encapsulated in a museum. Nevertheless, in some other cases, hospitality might be about getting closer to the position of the foreigner. A few months ago, I watched a play called Les accueillants (“the ones who receive” or “the hospitable ones”) at the Municipal Theatre of Bordeaux (TNBA). The piece was the result of a project put together by the final-year students of the theatre school of the TNBA. Rather than choosing a work on the subject of migration and staging it, they decided to write their own text after conducting research with the Cimade, an association active in aiding migrants and refuges in their contact with the French administration. The project was no longer merely artistic, as it privileged work done in situ rather than in contemplation among peers. The TNBA team was hosted by those (the people of the Cimade) who attempt to facilitate the reception of migrants and refugees for whom the right to be hosted (in the form of political asylum) has not yet been, and will probably not be, recognised. In turn, the TNBA team staged their own privilege of reflecting on the hospitality offered, or often refused, to others: by writing a new work, the TNBA team unhosted themselves and closely observed some of the homelessness they would be staging.
The grey zones of hospitality were also addressed in the distribution of the roles: one of the actors played the role of a far-right municipal counsellor and that of the Eastern European migrant whose permit expires, while another played a mayor, oscillating between the will to offer some hospitality and the fear of hurting his fellow citizens’ xenophobic feelings, and that of a Moroccan migrant whose papers are not in order. If the TNBA team experienced hospitality as the administration of others’ bodies, this was nicely summarised in a phrase the spectators could hear on a video which was projected during the show; a member of the Cimade brandishes thick files filled with documents about the immigration status of migrants, saying that “the life of those without-papers (les sans papiers) is full of all sorts of papers except the paper”.
These were just some random examples of what art does, or can do, to hospitality: challenge it, or, rather, challenge our idealised perception of what hospitality might be; challenge not only the virtues that it stands for, but also the conditions on which it is predicated and the hierarchies it implies. Representing hospitality in literature and art always risks aestheticising the pain of the not-so-well-received. This is probably why some of the most interesting texts or artworks on hospitality are also those that manage to unsettle our gaze and turn it to what happens nearby: in the comfortable bed, in a glass box or among official papers.
Apostolos Lampropoulos is Professor of Comparative Literature and Vice-President delegate of International Affairs – Research at the University Bordeaux Montaigne, France.
Image credit: Ibrahim Mahama, Check Point Prosfygika. 1934–2034. 2016–2017, 2017, performance with charcoal sacks on Syntagma Square