A Virtual Hug From London to Calais


The Facts

The “Jungle” was a refugee and migrant camp located on the outskirts of Calais in northern France. At its peak it was one of the largest refugee camps in Europe, with 10,000 people living on-site, many of whom were young men and unaccompanied minors seeking to cross the Channel and be reunited with relatives living legally in the UK. The “Jungle” had its own shops, restaurants (one was famously reviewed by the late culinary critic, AA Gill), schools, boxing clubs, churches, mosques and a theatre called Good Chance.

BFT began informally mentoring Good Chance’s co-Artistic Directors Joe Robertson and Joe Murphy, at the naissance of the company at the suggestion of Trustee David Lan. Natalia and Nicolai first travelled out to the “Jungle” in December 2015, together with Maria Alyokina, one of the founders of Pussy Riot, to meet Good Chance in-situ together with the many hundreds of people they were working with at the theatre. They made many return visits over the following months up until the “Jungle” was officially ordered to close in 2016.

The Artistic Actions

A Virtual Hug from London to Calais

The Virtual Hug performance was conceived by BFT’s co-founding Artistic Directors together with the Belarusian creators of the Tesla suit. Using tactile technology, the Tesla Suit creates full immersion virtual reality (VR) to simulate body contact with another person without any direct physical interaction.

Using this cutting-edge technology, BFT asked people back in London to share virtual hugs with people in Calais and vice versa.

As Natalia Kaliada said at its launch: “BFT are interested in the role of the contemporary artist in the geo-political landscape, so for us “the hug” is both an artistic act as well as a political act. It turns virtual reality on its head, to highlight how it can connect us more closely to reality and to one another, rather than just enabling our desire to escape reality.

The action also turned the application of VR on its head by liberating it from a commercial context and instead applying its potential to serve the idea of humanity overcoming physical borders and giving back human dignity to people in need.

People and possessions photo project

Belarus Free Theatre asked people in the Good Chance theatre to bring one particular object that they brought from home with them, with the idea of taking portrait photos with their chosen possession, to facilitate a wider discussion about individual identity, home and memory. It mirrored the approach BFT takes in their theatre productions, by putting a personal story into the epicentre of creation.

Visual art project on identity and displacement

A painting project about the human body, identity and displacement conceived by BFT’s co-founding Artistic Directors and Maria Alyokina, all of whom have personal experience of displacement in its many forms. This workshop focused on artistic expression and sharing of these personal stories.