“We tend not to use the term ‘refugee crisis’, because we don’t see it as a new crisis,” explains Áine O’Brien, co-director of Counterpoints Arts. “It’s been ongoing, globally, for decades, in many different ways. But our consistent position is that arts and culture can play a vital and dynamic role in engaging with this reality.”
Counterpoints was founded in 2012, and through a programme of mentoring, co-producing and commissioning work, the organisation has a track record of supporting artists who engage with the migrant and refugee experience.
Last month it organised the six-day initiative, Who Are We?, at Tate Exchange, which brought together artists, activists and academics to prompt questioning about our cultural identity in today’s context of conflict, migration, displacement and divisions.
While the refugee crisis may not be new, it has escalated since 2015, when over a million refugees and migrants attempted to enter Europe. Since then, fraught debates on the causes and consequences of the crisis have ensued, and the British government has been accused of failing to meet its legal and moral obligations to the millions of displaced people.
The issue remains contested and urgent. Last week, the UN urged countries to take a less isolationist approach to address the movement of people crossing the Mediterranean Sea, highlighting an ongoing lack of clarity about where responsibility lies for tackling the crisis.
Artists’ responses to this situation are as broad and complex as the crisis itself. Recent high profile examples, like Tracey Emin’s donation of 80,000 euros towards supporting a refugee to study or Ai Weiwei’s installation of a 70 metre-long inflatable black boat, fail to capture the more nuanced and innovative ways in which artists are engaging with the crisis.
“It was very distressing to read and hear the pejorative language used by some politicians and sections of the media in response to the accidents,” she says. “Where were the tributes? Who was telling these people’s stories? Why were we not identifying with them?
“I decided to make some work to bridge the distance that I could see widening between people who are displaced and those of us living in safety.”
The installation, included as part of Who Are We?, consists of thousands of tiny, origami boats, made from paper that O’Donoghue hand-marbles in her kitchen. Each boat represents someone who has died in their attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea.
Two years since she started Dead Reckoning, O’Donoghue continues to use data from the International Organisation for Migration’s Missing Migrant Project to inform the piece. Now numbering over 10,000 boats, it serves as an ongoing physical and visual reminder about the scale of the crisis to both those who encounter it and O’Donoghue herself.
This refusal to forget is a key driver behind Baltic’s current group show, ‘Disappearance at Sea – Mare Nostrum‘, which continues until 14 May 2017. Including work that spans sculpture, film, photography and installation, the show explores the significance of the Mediterranean Sea within the refugee and migrant experience.
“I wanted to bring together a set of works which draw attention to the disappearance in the sea, to forgotten voices,” says curator Alessandro Vincentelli. “We are wilfully ignoring the reality that this is a very deadly journey, particularly the route from Libya to Italy. We know that what happened in 2015 was a humanitarian catastrophe, but it’s been almost bulldozed out of the picture by political rhetoric.”
Vincentelli is keen that the show reflects the variety of strategies artists are using to engage with the situation. “Some works, like Forensic Architecture’s Left to Die boat project, are quite factual, about datasets,” he says. “I wanted to balance these with pieces which had emotion to them, like Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen’s installation, End of Dreams.
“I was also drawn to projects where artists are collaborating with geographers, with human rights campaigners. They want to make things visible, and they’re finding new, cross-disciplinary ways to do it.”
In Displaced Witness, design collective Embassy for the Displaced and creative practice ScanLAB Projects worked together to create a virtual reality installation, using footage and interviews they collected in Lesvos last year. Because of its proximity to Turkey, the Greek island is a key target destination for many refugees and migrants seeking to reach Europe.
Through the use of ScanLAB’s 3D scanning technology, people can access an immersive, multi-sensory experience – including touch – of the arrival point for refugees in Lesvos.
Matt Shaw, co-founder of ScanLAB Projects, explains their intention: “Much of our work focuses on the idea that we can capture and transplant an exact replica of space and moment. In Lesvos, we were aiming to observe the landscape effects of the crisis, the scars that are burnt into the land that act as evidence for human suffering.
“We hope people have a more genuine reaction to what they see, hear and experience, more so than in a medium they are saturated with, like film, video or image.”
Incoming was shot using a now-banned military camera that detects thermal radiation from a distance of up to 30 kilometres. The three-screen film installation documents the journeys of migrants and refugees from countries including Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Mosse spent two years making the piece, working on location across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.
Originally intended for surveillance purposes, the camera ruthlessly depicts movement in monochrome and slow motion. As a result, we are plunged into a strange world populated by glowing, ghostly figures, which is accompanied by composer Ben Frost’s eerie electronic soundtrack.
Throughout the 52-minute film, we roam through locations, shifting between scenes of life and death. A mass of people sit precariously atop a truck, slowly swaying with its motion, the heat sensitive camera revealing the thinness of their clothing; we see medics’ desperate attempts to resuscitate hypothermic children rescued off the coast of Lesvos, hearing snippets of their confused dialogue before fading into black.
These are in stark contrast to depictions of the everyday practices that people continue with amidst the instability of their journeys: a man in the middle of the Sahara Desert finding the time and space to pray; children playing outside in a refugee camp.
Stitched into a disorientating whole, the scenes, both oddly familiar and utterly strange, manage to avoid being sensational, while powerfully conveying the complexity and horror of the crisis.
As artists push their practices into new territories to begin to untangle this multifaceted situation, relationships with individuals and non-arts agencies are often inherent to their work. Amp Art’s touring installation, Refuge/e, is a replica of a makeshift shelter commonly used for homes by displaced Syrian families in Lebanon. The project will be at Baltic, Gateshead between 13-17 April.
Built with UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) New Arrival kits and local materials, the shelters endure temperatures between -15 degrees and 40 degrees. There are estimated to be over one million displaced Syrian people in Lebanon, with around 17% living in temporary shelters akin to Refuge/e.
Since its inception, collaboration and knowledge exchange have been integral to the project, and the artists’ research trip to Lebanon last year was supported by the UNHCR. Until shortly before, Pete Target, one third of the anthropological art collective, was working for UNRWA – the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees. The trip enabled Amp Art to learn from Syrian families, so they could replicate the shelter as accurately as possible.
“It’s got to feel fragile,” says Georgia Haseldine of Amp Art. “Every family we spoke to had to renew all the material every two years or so. They’re constantly saving up to buy new wood, new plastic, and always evolving their building practice.”
Inside the installation there’s a soundtrack comprised of interviews the artists conducted with the families, and brass and plaster casts of their typical possessions, providing people with an immediate insight into the living conditions of the refugees.
“The moment when it clicks is normally when people think about privacy,” says Target. “Because it’s one room where you sleep, cook, eat and live. And they think ‘Oh actually, how long could I live with my whole family, possibly extended family, in one room?’
“We’re also trying to convey that these are people’s homes. When we visited them, we always felt so welcomed, so looked after. People took a lot of pride that they lived in places where they could welcome guests.”
Refuge/e extends well beyond the physical shelter. It comprises a programme of events and performances from displaced artists, and Amp Art are providing training and employment for two refugees, Hassan and Bira, who spend time with visitors in the installation.
Many of the projects are underpinned by connection and dialogue, where people have the opportunity to unpick their beliefs, ideas and assumptions around the refugee and migrant experience in a non-confrontational space.
“We’ve definitely had people who are very unsure what they think about refugees, especially refugees coming to this country,” says Haseldine. “But I think that our shelter provides very tangible things for them to latch onto: where does the electricity come from? How is the shelter made? All those practical questions really help to engage people.”
Similarly, with Dead Reckoning, the tactile nature of the artwork prompts questioning. Says O’Donoghue: “It takes me more than 14 hours to install the work, so it seems natural to ask members of the public to help me. As we work, we talk about how and why I make the piece.
“We go on to discuss the myths surrounding the refugee crisis. These gentle, and sometimes difficult, conversations are an intrinsic part of the project.”
Artists are also carving out a vital forum for refugees’ and migrants’ personal stories, which are often lost within the constant flow of statistics and headlines.
Filmmaker Tomo Brody was volunteering in a refugee camp in Calais when he decided to make Humans After All: Voices From Calais, currently part of ‘Mare Nostrum’. The documentary includes testimonies from 65 men, women and children, who talk about why they had to leave their homes, their journey, and their experience of the refugee camp.
As they talk, you see only the interviewees’ hands, lending them anonymity and dignity. Speaking in their own language, their emotions are expressed through the tone of their voice and the gesture of their hands, creating a very fundamental connection between storyteller and listener.
The quiet simplicity of the piece is powerful and moving. It provides a space away from the din and spectacle of media coverage, to understand and contemplate these individuals’ realities.
For O’Donoghue, this ability to sit with the discomfort of the situation is something she hopes to nurture through Dead Reckoning. “The refugee crisis is not an easy subject to think about for anyone, myself included. It’s complex, distressing and uncomfortable to acknowledge the West’s collusion in it. Many people say they find it’s too difficult to know how to begin to help and so they turn away.
“The thought I’ve kept hold of throughout though, which spurs me on to make this work, is that those lost are all someone’s son or daughter, neighbour or friend. In 20 years’ time, I do not want to look back and see that I’ve done nothing to help.”
As the crisis unfolds, artists will undoubtedly continue to be compelled to respond. This often involves improvising beyond the edge of their practice, and negotiating a line between activist, campaigner and storyteller to offer alternative perspectives on the situation.
As O’Brien says: “Sometimes new ways of working come out of adversity. With that you have to think very innovatively, very creatively, not just about how you’re going to survive, but also how you’re going to produce new work to respond to these tumultuous times that we’re all in.”
CORRECTION: This article originally stated that artist Pete Target used to work for the UNHCR; he actually worked for UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees.
1. Bern O’Donoghue, Dead Reckoning, Who Are We? project, March 2017, Tate Exchange, Tate Modern. Photo: Richard Williams; Courtesy: Bern O’Donoghue
2. Djorde Balmazovic/Skart Collective, with Fuad Sulejman, Abdul Rahman, Amadou Mohamed, Samatar, Maps, 2013-2015. Part of the group show ‘Dissapearance at Sea – Mare Nostrum’, Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art. Gateshead. Photo: Mark Pinder; Courtesy: Baltic
3. ScanLab Projects & Embassy For The Displaced, Displaced Witness, 2016. Part of the group show ‘Dissapearance at Sea – Mare Nostrum’, at the Baltic Centre For Contemporary Art. Gateshead. Photo: Mark Pinder; Courtesy: Baltic
4. Richard Mosse, Still frame from Incoming, 2015–2016. Three-screen video installation by Richard Mosse in collaboration with Trevor Tweeten and Ben Frost. Co-commissioned by National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, and Barbican Art Gallery, London. Courtesy: the artist, Jack Shainman Gallery, New York and carlier|gebauer, Berlin
5. Amp Art’s touring installation, Refuge/e, Bira and Hassan outside the shelter at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Courtesy: Amp Art
6. Bar Elias informal settlement, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. Photo: Amp Art / Georgia Haseldine
7. Tomo Brody, Humans After All: Voices From Calais, film still. Courtesy: Tomo Brody
Lydia Ashman was one of five a-n members who participated in the inaugural a-n Writer Development Programme which ran from June 2015 to March 2016. For more information on the writer programme, and to read more of the writers’ work, visit the programme’s blog on a-n.co.uk or use the a-n writer development programme tag