Rooted in Photography, my art practice is process led and deals with material culture, also incorporating elements of sculpture, performance, collecting and anthropology.
In 2016, on a self-funded research trip to Guadalajara, Mexico, I discovered a significant amount of clothing that was related to a current socio-political issue of transit migration via train routes. It was a topic that naturally engaged with my practice regarding the use of space and articles of clothing, while simultaneously provoking a new direction in my work.
Preliminary research images:
Two train tracks run through the city, the freight trains that run on these lines are referred to as El tren de los desconocidos (The train of the unknowns). Also known as El tren de la muerte (The Death Train) and La Bestia (The Beast), these trains are boarded mainly by Central American migrants who are attempting to traverse the length of Mexico, in the hope of illegally entering the United States to find work. It is estimated that every year between 400,000 and 500,000 transit migrants board the trains attempting to reach the U.S.
The train tracks, the proximity of the clothing left there and the socio-economic reasons that the transit migrants are forced to navigate the space are all highly relevant to my Them series. I am fascinated by how people use space, particularly in ways that push the boundaries of our understanding of such spaces. My practice investigates and reflects these transient, liminal spaces. Them is not concerned with recording the individual person in a detailed specific way, rather it takes an interest in the individual as part of a group, a mass, unknown and undefined. In Mexico the migrants are both marginalised and victimised; incidents of rape, murder and kidnapping have been regularly recorded. Furthermore, they are constantly under pressure while in Mexico to keep moving, to remain transient. In this sense, my practice is a form of social anthropology of material culture; the recording of people and shared experiences via belongings, an examination of the relationship between people and things.
Each time I explored an area of train tracks in search of clothing, I took a camera and a light. I had not done this before as I normally collect clothes without recording the environment. The decision to do this was not taken lightly because taking all the equipment to Mexico and carrying it around in a potentially hostile environment with temperatures of 36 degrees was a major consideration.
Once I came across an item of clothing that had been left by the tracks I photographed it before removing the item to take back to the U.K. My intention was to create images that were both documents of a space, landscape photography and evidence of activity, with a visual reference to forensic photography.
The first part of my major project was highly successful, I collected 35 kilos of clothing and I met lots of extremely helpful people who are willing to help with my project on my return to Mexico next year, hopefully. Thanks to A-N for their support, without the travel bursary this progress would not have been made.
With help from the A-N Travel Bursary, I traveled to Monterrey in Northern Mexico, where I co-ran a four day workshop in one of Mexico’s main Museums of Contemporary Art, MARCO, with artist Marysa Dowling http://www.marysadowling.co.uk/ The workshop was titled The Portrait As transformation. During the sessions, with photography as an underlying theme, we discussed and worked with portraiture, self portraiture, collaboration, masking, performance, costume and location.
The workshops were a great success and the participants produced many highly creative and accomplished images.
The workshops were also great in being able to discuss my project with the participants. I was able to gather more information about spaces that I was not familiar with, so again local knowledge was vital in ensuring the project’s success.
In Saltillo I met with local artists and art students from The University of Coahuila, we visited the train tracks and I held a short workshop where I introduced my working processes. During this workshop I was shown areas of the train tracks that I would not have known about if I had relied on my own research alone. I collected clothes and made some images. It quickly became evident that introductions and meetings with people who have local knowledge of the tracks is vital in ensuring my project is a success and also maintaining my personal safety – at particular times in the day, cartel activity was high in the area of tracks we visited, therefore knowing the times to avoid being there was key.
Following this activity we returned to the University, where I held a professional practice talk to artists, students and members of the public.
In May of this year, after receiving the A-N Travel Bursary, I returned to Mexico to begin my major project as an addition my my Them series.
After a day of acclimatisation, I began the process of visiting the train tracks and collecting items of clothing. The cities/areas I collected clothing from on this visit were Guadalajara, Saltillo and Monterrey.
I must add that this collecting stage would only have been possible with the generosity of both information, transportation and time of certain key people.
In Guadalajara, Pablo Mateos a research anthropologist and also a friend was a huge help in explaining the topography of the area and thereby we were able to effectively locate items of clothing due to the trains being boarded in areas where it had to slow down as it negotiated the bends on the tracks. Pablo also had a great deal of knowledge regarding the transit migrant situation in Mexico, this kind of local and national knowledge was vital for both working efficiently in the extreme heat and in maintaining a sense of safety in these areas which are potentially dangerous. The danger is posed by drug cartel activity, not by the migrants who are attempting to travel through Mexico.
While collecting the clothes, we came across a previously unseen activity in the form of bundles left on the tracks by migrants. The various bundles we found contained items such as money, brightly coloured ribbons, corn, seeds and usually a dead animal (bird or fish). We were unsure of the reasons behind this activity. Pablo summarised that this activity may well indicate that some of the transit migrants come from Caribbean Islands such as Haiti, where religious practices such as Santeria exist. I have personally witnessed a similar activity in Cuba where animal sacrifice occurred in cemeteries. Whatever the origins, this activity became fascinating and relevant to my project as it indicated that the people who travel on these tracks and also that the tracks themselves are in a state of liminality; a place where both meaning and interpretation is unspecified.