Five Questions for... Vanessa Berry

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Interview by Sara Bellini:

We love zines, maps, psychogeography and archives, which is why we really wanted to speak to Vanessa Berry. She started making zines in the 1990s and is the creator of the long-running Disposable Camera, the last issue of which was published a few days ago. Besides making zines Vanessa writes a psychogeography blog Mirror Sydney, exploring “the marginal places and details of the city of Sydney” and in 2017 she also published a collection of essays and hand-drawn maps with the omonimous title.

Vanessa’s work is equally autobiographical and historical, exploring her personal relationship with place and memory as well as the stories that belong to a specific place. In the case of Australia where the pre-colonial memory of the island has been highly disregarded, Vanessa always writes “with acknowledgement of the Aboriginal lands”, reminding us that we should always be respectful of spaces that we share with others and that many others before us have respectfully preserved.

Vanessa’s newest project is a book of essays on place, memory and relationships with animals and the 20th anniversary issue of her other zine I am a Camera.

What does home mean to you?

My connection to the physical environment is strong and deeply-felt and always has been. I attribute this to being a quiet and introspective person, an observer who has always felt a kinship with the environment around me - its objects, creatures, details, changes, daily rhythms - as much as with other people. I do a lot of work at home, in a small and cluttered room amid piles of books and papers, and this is probably where I feel most at home. Although writing is also a kind of home for me, if you see me with a notebook open and I'm writing in it, know that this is when I feel most connected with the world. Perhaps that's what home means to me: feeling connected to where I am, wherever that be.

Which place do you have a special connection to?

My mental map of Sydney is made up of many such places I feel a special connection to. Generally they fall under the categories of anomalies, places of respite and places of solace. In the latter category there's a particular headland overlooking the Pacific Ocean that I go to at times of significance or difficulty. The city's eastern edge is a long stretch of coastline, scalloped into bays and beaches between sandstone cliffs. The approach to this particular headland is a stretch of parkland which rises up to a rocky outcrop. I sit on the grass and watch the magpies which patrol it. A group of them live here, and whenever I am there I see them moving across the lawn, heads cocked, listening for insects under the soil. One time, when I was sitting on the rocks, they assembled in front of me and all started singing, which felt like a gift from them and from this place, which never fails to make my spirit feel lighter.

What is beyond your front door?

Having lived in the same house for almost a decade, this scene is now permanently established in my mind's eye and I could describe it to the utmost detail, however I will keep it brief: a low brick fence with a crooked front gate made of wrought iron shaped into hearts and curls. Beyond this, lining the street, is a row of native fig trees. Directly across from the house is an olive-green metal box a few metres long which I like to imagine holds the street's secrets, but is actually an electricity substation. At the corner of the yard is a hibiscus tree which is often in flower. People like to pick them as they walk past and I don't have the heart to tell them that once you do, the flowers close up very quickly.

What are you reading / watching / listening to / looking at right now?

I am writing this answer on a plane which is flying over a scene below where the land meets the sea in an outline of bays and rivers, and the sun has dispersed to an orange glow on the horizon. I'm listening to the new Gwenno album, Le Kov. Tucked into the seat pocket in front of me is How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee and an issue of Elementum. My watching, for now, is all out the oval frame of the plane window, thinking about the ocean below, the atmosphere above, and how it feels to be suspended in between.

Vanessa Berry's blog
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Printed Matters: NANSEN Magazine

As small independent publishers of a small independent journal, we are always interested in the work of like-minded folk, especially if the subject matter relates to our own investigations of people and place. NANSEN Magazine is a new project from an old friend of ours and tells the story of migrants of all kinds. Their first issue was published yesterday, and we caught up with editor and publisher Vanessa Ellingham to find out more.

Hi Vanessa! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, and what inspired this new magazine?

I’m a journalist and editor, originally from Wellington, New Zealand, now living in Berlin. I’ve been here for four years, but before moving to Berlin I lived in Copenhagen for a year with my partner, who’s Danish.

My year in Copenhagen didn’t go very well. I was struggling to settle in, find work, make friends and feeling pretty lonely. One of the things I did was go and volunteer at a refugee camp, where I met other newcomers in a very different situation to myself - for one thing, if I was so fed up I could just move home again, which they absolutely could not. It got me thinking about all the things we had in common as newcomers to Denmark and the solidarity to be found between different kinds of people living far from home but all giving it their best shot.

What is it about the topic of migrants and migration that interested you?

Migration has always been part of human life on earth and it certainly isn’t going to stop. I think the events of 2015 only highlighted the need for us to better understand why people leave home in search of a - hopefully - better life.

I first had the idea for a magazine about migrants a couple of years before the “refugee crisis”, when I was standing in IKEA in Berlin, having just shopped for new furniture in a new country for the second time in a year.

With NANSEN Magazine we want to introduce our readers to all kinds of people on the move and explore the personal experiences of migration that other migrants can relate to and non-migrants probably will, too.

Because migrants aren’t just refugees. We’re also doctors and artists and lovers and diplomats. Some migrants are better known for being movie stars than for their immigration status. But they likely have many shared experiences with other people who’ve upped and left home.

That’s why we focus on one migrant per issue, to go deep into their experiences so that, after reading the magazine, you feel like you’ve really gotten to know that person.

What can we find in issue #1?

Issue 01 centres on Aydin Akin, someone many Berliners will know, although most likely not by name. Aydin is a 78-year-old Turkish-German man who cycles across the city each day, demonstrating for migrant rights.

It’s an endurance protest - his trip takes three hours each way - and he’s been doing it for 12 years. But if you spot Aydin on his bike, decked out with his handwritten protest posters, his two megaphones blasting music and his protest chant, and the annoying whistle he bleats on as he rides, it can be hard to see him as anything other than totally crazy.

Turns out Aydin has some great ideas for how to better welcome newcomers to Berlin and Germany. He’s spent almost 50 years now living in Germany and advocating for equal rights for all of Germany’s migrants. He believes that giving newcomers equal footing from the get-go is the best way to prevent the anger, hate and violence that occurs when people are excluded from the societies they live in. I think Aydin’s someone worth listening to, whether you live in Berlin, Germany or somewhere else.

So Issue 01 is about Aydin and his life in Berlin. But because he’s so focused on others, and the broader migrant community, this issue spins out to explore what it’s like to be a Turk living in Berlin today. We spend a day waiting in line at the Ausländerbehörde, we chart the history of Turkish guest workers in Germany - another large group of migrants who arrived en masse by train, decades before the 2015 “refugee crisis” - we talk about Willkommenskultur and we meet the next generation of Turkish-German Berliners.

What is next for Nansen?

We plan to make future issues of NANSEN about migrants of all kinds living all over the world.

And we promise they won’t all be people working in the area of migration, Aydin just seemed like a great subject to start with. We like to be bold and a little playful - you can expect us to go beyond the melancholy of traditional migration reporting. Because there’s plenty of joy in being a newcomer, too.

But making future issues really depends on how Issue 01 sells. So we’d love to sell you a copy of our mag!

Can you also tell us a little bit about the Give Something Back to Berlin project?

At GSBTB I work in communications. I edit and manage the online magazine, which is by and about Berlin's newcomers.

GSBTB started as one answer to the gentrification taking place in Berlin neighbourhoods like Neukölln, where hip young newcomers were moving in and pushing up the cost of living, to the frustration of the locals, both Germans and other, more established migrants. GSBTB offered a platform for newcomers to be matched up with volunteer opportunities, enabling them to give back to their new home city.

We started with a Facebook post in 2012. Today GSBTB runs many of its own projects, from cooking groups to social meet-ups to art therapy, that support newcomers to get settled in Berlin. At any of our events or projects, you’ll find locals, expats, refugees and people somewhere in-between all mucking in, invested in the idea of doing something good for the city together.

NANSEN Magazine website
NANSEN Magazine on Facebook
Give Something Back To Berlin website