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(Image: ‘Liquid Violence,’ 2018, by Forensic Oceanography. Photo: Wolfgang Trager, courtesy of Manifesta 12, Palermo.)

A short film shown in Laura Potras’ installation ‘Signal Flow’ (2018) documents the interactions of migrants, housed at a reception centre in Sicily, waiting to hear if they can remain in Europe. During the day residents can come and go relatively freely (though options for where to go seem limited). Footage shows residents climbing over the centre’s boundary fence to hang out on a nearby road; passing the time dancing, playing football and – in one instance – getting measured for some clothing. In the front seats of a car and on some plastic garden furniture two middle aged white people (Jehovah’s witnesses I think) read passages of the bible with mainly young black people in a troublingly didactic fashion.

I find the film touching for a number of reasons. It shows friendship, and some conflict, emerging in imperfect circumstances. It gives a glimpse into the mundanity of the reception centre yet shows inhabitants doing their best to make a life there. They are not just migrants but individuals who sing, dance, get bored, make friends and want to learn. Still the work prompts a conversation with a friend – artist and filmmaker Lucy Barker – about the ethics of representing potentially vulnerable people as the content of art. Is there a risk that the artists are like the Jehovah’s witnesses, thinking they’re doing good but actually using people for their own agenda? There’s a tension inherent in making work that on the one hand could have an awareness-raising or advocacy aim but on the other plays a part in forming an artistic identity or furthering an artistic career.

I wondered, then, what strategies do the artists in Manifesta 12 use to deal with this tension? Returning to the question I posed in Part 1: how is it possible to adequately represent migration in art, and what’s the purpose of doing this?

Many of the artists in the exhibition use documentary conventions. ‘Talking head’ interviews crop up a number of times, most straightforwardly in Erkan Ozgen’s ‘Purple Muslin’ (2018) which is comprised of interviews with refugee women from Northern Iraq. Also in sections of a film representing The Peng! Collective’s ‘Fluchheifer.in.Become an Escape Agent’ (2015) which sits oddly between appearing as a documentary or promotional video for a project that invited German citizens help refugees and migrants enter Germany. I presume that the interviewees – purporting to be migrants and ‘Escape Agents’ – are actors (both because of the manner of delivery and the need to protect real participants). Perhaps they are working with real testimony and re-voicing it, but it’s hard to be sure.

(Image: ‘Wishing Trees,’2018 by Uriel Orlow)

Documentary conventions are frequently undercut. In a section of Uriel Orlow’s ‘Wishing Trees’ (2018), to-camera interviews with three young migrants from North Africa are displayed on large flat-screen TVs with English subtitles on a smaller, adjacent screen. Why are the subtitles separate? – necessitating a slightly awkward act of looking back-and-forth between text and image. What if I miss a word or gesture and fail to see the whole story? The structure of the work built in an awareness of partial understanding and incomplete translation of another’s experience.

Notably too, Orlow’s work shows the migrants beyond their most vulnerable point. At least partially settled in Italy, a further screen shows them working as chefs in a Palermo kitchen. Moreover their testimony forms part of a wider work that uses 3 trees to connect divergent stories into a constellation that is not specifically about migration but about struggle and recognition.

John Grierson – credited with being the first person to provide a definition and theory of documentary in the 1930s believed in film’s power to reveal previously unseen truths about the world. The aspiration to depict elements of reality can be socially purposive – supporting activist or advocacy uses. Yet the idea that unmediated access to reality or ‘truth’ is possible has since been widely critiqued. Filmmaker T. Minh Ha, opening her article ‘Documentary Is/Not a Name’ writes: “There is no such thing as documentary – whether the term designates a category of material, a genre, an approach or a set of techniques. This assertion – as old and as fundamental as the antagonism between names and reality – needs incessantly to be restated, despite the very visible existence of a documentary tradition.” [1]

(Image:‘The Body’s Legacies. The Post-Colonial Body’, 2018, by Kader Attia. Film still, courtesy of Manifesta 12, Palermo.)

One ‘truth effect’ of documentary imagery arises from its use of photographic media, with recorded footage taken as evidence of events that occurred in front of the camera. This is addressed, in part, in Kader Attia’s ‘The Body’s Legacies. The Post-Colonial Body,’ (2018) (a film plus small sculpture made from a cracked piece of wood). The film is constructed around interviews with four protagonists described in the exhibition blurb as: “descendants of colonised people or slaves.” I only watched around a third of the 60 minute film so cannot give a full picture, but in one affecting section the philosopher Dr Norman Ajari discusses the role media images play in anchoring events in the public imagination. Specifically he deals with surveillance camera footage showing police beating up Théo Luhaka – a young, black, French man. For Ajari the footage shows an instance of police brutality and this seems patent here. Yet Ajari discusses the possibility that viewers may draw different conclusions. Some will see the police response as proportionate following the police account that Luhaka started the altercation. Ajari’s point – as I understood it – is that to challenge or re-frame erroneous interpretations of events it’s important to recognise what they are founded upon. To simply censure an individual whose beliefs you disagree with is less productive than addressing the conditions that led to their view.

I didn’t catch everyone’s names but think that each interviewee (like Ajari) holds a position as an intellectual or cultural commentator in France. They switch between reflecting on their individual experiences and wider societal analysis. Shown as straightforward talking-heads,part of me felt that the critique of representation given in interview comments could have been extended to the visual presentation of this work. At the same time another part of me recognised the importance of seeing non-white commentators as such talking-heads. This need was emphasised by other interview comments discussing how black bodies – when depicted on screen – are often represented as soiled or degraded. I remained unconvinced, however, about the filmmakers decision to include some of the surveillance camera footage of the attack on on Luhaka. It could be argued that the footage is already widely circulating. But showing it again felt like a further violence.

(Image:’Untitled (near Parndorf, Austria),’2018 by John Gerrard)

An alternate approach – of absenting the body – is taken by John Gerrard in ‘Untitled (near Parndorf, Austria)’ (2018). Gerrard created a detailed virtual portrait of a non-descript section of motorway, as seen by the artist on 29 August 2015. The location was in fact the site where the bodies of 71 migrants had been found 2 days before, suffocated to death in the back of a lorry. The tranquil and slick image becomes loaded once its significance is known. The work is conceptually clever – computer rendered but seeming to be a detailed, filmic document. It made me think about the inadequacy of visual representation, of what should or shouldn’t be seen and about how images construct certain realities. But, the cerebral aspect of the work made me uncomfortable and I can’t entirely sort my feelings out about this piece. It lacked the affective, human aspect of works that included first-person testimony and I can’t decide if my discomfort results from the fact of the migrant deaths themselves, or from their artistic treatment.

Making visible is important but it is tricky. Representations are contested, partial and incomplete. There’s no guaranteed way to depict suffering and death in a manner that respects individual experiences whilst making them legible to the wider world. Still, the artists try. Artists in Manifesta use various strategies to highlight that visual (and verbal) language is not transparent. They use documentary strategies but trouble them, though spatial arrangements or unexpected combinations of material. Sometimes they use perspectival shifts between individual experiences and broader situations and in some cases too foreground the position that is being spoken from.

So, why do they represent migration? What’s their motivation? The Manifesta 12 guidebook suggests an aim for these works is to “make invisible networks visible, the abstract tangible, hence accessible and debatable.”

A final couple of artworks I want to talk about take on this challenge, of making visible in order to make debatable. They do so by working to situate or aggregate specific events within wider social processes. Forensic Oceanography’s ‘Liquid Violence’ (2018) involves tracking and quantifying instances of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean (they count 16,173 deaths from 2011-2018). As in Gerrard’s work they represents particular incidents where hundreds of people lost their lives. For example, telling the story of a migrant boat that sank in 2016 after colliding with a container ship, King Jacob, that responded to its distress call (800 passengers are thought to have died, with only 28 saved). Yet where Gerrard’s work risks coming across as a bit flip, their work feels deeply earnest. They work actively toward accountability for the deaths of migrants, mobilising survivor testimony and surveillance technology to reconstruct events. In the case of the King Jacob, Forensic Oceanography suggests that the cessation of a proper search and rescue operation off the coast of Libya led to the use of this unsuitable merchant vessel, and this failed rescue attempt.

Forensic Oceanography’s work is information-dense, it takes effort to engage with. I won’t remember all of the facts included, I could not take them all in, in the first place. But it has shifted my frame of reference. Viewers are encouraged to understand individual experiences as part of a wider picture. A sunk migrant boat is not a one off tragedy, but a result of social and political policy. Policy that could be changed.

(Image: ‘The Third Choir,’ 2014 by Lydia Ourahmane.)

Re-framing individual experience in light of wider circumstances is central to Lydia Ourahmane’s work too (though her language is sculptural and part-autobiographical). ‘The Third Choir’ (2014) – an installation of 20 oil drums, each empty except for mobile telephone tuned to an FM radio transmitter – creates an abstract, ambient, audio drone. The work, first encountered as a brooding presence, has a complex narrative that unfolds in an accompanying binder folder. The barrels are from oil company Naftal, supplier of international oil companies and responsible for 90% of Algeria’s annual income. Ourahmane had the barrels imported from Algeria (her native country) to Europe (she now lives and works in the U.K.). The movement of oil is contrasted with the strictures on movement of people (for whom the radio may provide a virtual means of escape) and art. Ourahmane writes that in the 90s during Algeria’s civil war, many artists, writers, musicians and journalists were murdered or fled when Islamist terror groups sought to stifle free speech. Today, under a fragile democracy, art is still tightly regulated for fear of its destabilising effects.

In a further layer of intrigue Ourahmane funded this project with money she received from BP (part owners of Naftal) after being commissioned to create an original painting commemorating BP workers held and killed in a 2013 terrorist attack in the Western Algerian desert. So, as well as foregrounding who or what can travel freely and who, or what cannot, Ourahmane’s work raises questions about the inter-relationship between art, money, politics and business. The indirect funding of the artwork by BP makes me think that negotiations about what art can represent, how and for whom are ongoing and always up for grabs. Art may be a niche pursuit, without mass-media impact but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. Art can be a bellwether, a kind of testing ground, and an event like Manifesta can be a place to try out thoughts, methods or strategies that may filter out into wider cultural discourse.

Mayor Leoluca Orlando, speaking at the ‘Borderless Conference’ during Manifesta’s opening weekend, responded to a question about the role of art in our fast-changing world, where ideas of state, identity and homeland are coming under increasing pressure, Leoluca said that for him – as a politician – he can instigate change but it often happens slowly. Artists, he implored, can be audacious. They can create change right now. Their means might not extend to changing the material constitution of the nation state, but they can immediately create a change in the imaginary. They can propose new social configurations and shift how we see and how we imagine the world. That is his ambition for Manifesta and I’ve got to say that at an individual level at least it’s made me see things a little differently.

[1] T. Minh Ha’s article ‘Documentary Is/Not a Name’ was originally published in October magazine, I think. The version I accessed is from ‘Documentary (Whitechapel: Documents of Contemporary Art’) edited By Julian Stallabrass.