Migration is a heated topic. To say the least. It’s certainly one of the quagmires of our time. The effects of mobility, or should I say our reality, has pushed us to rethink our self-perceptions — both at the individual level, and at the collective level of nations. With increasing weaponization of migration in political discourses, many artists, as highly mobile and critically-minded (or ‘woke’) individuals, have sprung to defend the human side of migration.
On the subject of forced and voluntary movement, two artists deserve our attention — Bouchra Khalili, the Morroccan-French artist based in Berlin and Oslo, and Ai Wei Wei, one of the leading artists of our time who also happens to be based in Berlin at the moment. Both artists use film based on interviews to highlight the human experience of migration. And they both try to challenge our understanding of borders.
First, let’s talk about Khalili. Khalili is known for using video installations and for her deep interest in, and commitment to, history. Because of the latter, her work felt familiar to me, and I became an instant admirer of her endeavor. Highlight — endeavor. Let me explain this bit later.
I was first introduced to Khalili’s work at the Lisson Gallery in London sometime in the spring of 2017. This exhibition showcased her work on illegal migration and political minoritihood: The Constellations Series (2011), The Mapping Journey Project (2008-2011), Foreign Office (2015), and The Archipelago (2015). By the time they arrived in London, they had already toured around major art galleries and museums across the US, Sweden, and France.
In both Khalili’s explanation and numerous reviews of her work, we are told that the main point of her projects is the precariousness of political geography and borders. To an academic like myself, this was an obvious statement. But perhaps this is precisely what artists are supposed to do. To translate into visual media what seems obvious to the excessively educated. Nevertheless, this exhibition felt too simple. It was only upon further rumination, Khalili’s conceptual challenges became more interesting and important.
Despite dealing with the stories of movement, Khalili insists that these projects are not about migration or identity. Rather, they are about the lives and experiences of her protagonists. But she is also deeply concerned with space. Not only does she use maps, but she also visits deserted places that hold significant historical meaning in her digital film, Foreign Office (2015). The film deals with the period (1962-1972) during which Algiers became the ‘mecca of revolutionaries’, drawing in actors from Africa, Asia, and America.2 These transnational revolutionary organizations included the International Section of the Black Panther Party, Mandela’s ANC, and the PAIGC (African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde). The core questions Khalili raises in this piece read like an abstract of an article accepted at highly esteemed peer-reviewed journals:
‘Taking as a starting point this forgotten past of post-independence era and internationalism, Foreign Office, invites to reflect on history and its transmission, and on emancipation as essentially linked to poetry.’
‘Foreign Office thus forms a combination of fragments in which “montage”, orality, translation and poetry suggest an alternative historiography of utopias to reflect on potential gestures of resistance for the present time and potentially for the future’.3
In my opinion, this was the best part of this exhibition and it is one that historians should definitely watch when it is on view again. Khalili mulls over history — the occurrence in the past and its remnants in the present — as well as the act of remembering and delivering the past. Especially for global historians, who work with space and scale, Khalili’s beautifully chilling execution of the ‘hollow dissipation of utopia’ can provide a source of inspiration.
The main focus of this exhibition was The Mapping Journey. It is composed of four double-sided screens with a headset attached to each side. In total, these screens tell eight stories of eight different illegal migrants. Against the background of a standard map, each individual — numbered from 1 to 8 — recounts his or her journey while marking their route to Europe.
By zooming on the nameless hand and fidgeting lines, Khalili introduces an ‘alternative project of map-making’.7 What matters here for Khalili is the personal geography of illegal migrants that exposes the arbitrariness of political borders. The screens’ double-sidedness adds to this thesis. These stories are not singular; there are many political minorities fleeing their home and borders are challenged in countless ways. But of course, not all borders can be crossed. Some appear in these stories as the ultimate enemy, as we are taken to moments of capture, confinement, and dispatch. Despite these struggles, most of the stories ultimately arrive at hope — that taunting station of pending utopia.
Indeed, what struck me was not the question of nation-states that so many reviewers of Khalili’s work have intellectualized, but the journeys of these protagonists and the immediate reaction these stories aroused. Through their stories, we are reminded of powerful human characters — resilience, hope, and desire. While we cannot fully empathize with their tortuous and torturous journey to Europe, we see glimpses of ourselves in the anonymous through emotions and strong personal preference. #4 exclaims, ‘I don’t like Italy’ and professes that she would like to ‘go to England or Norway’. #5 from Bangladesh coyly recounts, ‘I always wanted to go to Italy since I was a boy’.
Despite these moments of recognition, I found this fleeting intimacy eerily unnatural. Sitting in front of the screen and tracing these subjective geographies with my eyes as a stranger narrates his or her incredibly personal story directly into my ears, I felt like I was peeking into someone’s therapy session. Doing a strictly forbidden act. I understood that it was the artist’s intention to remain a mere lens, to channel these stories unfiltered. She also chose numbers instead of names to shift the focus from her interviewees’ identity to their experience. In theory, this made sense. But the odd combination of intense intimacy and cold numbering produced a bizarre outcome. Isn’t one’s experience also tied to one’s identity? After all, anonymity crosses a dangerous line. It both humanizes — by highlighting the lived experience — and dehumanizes—by extracting the identity of — the subject. I left the bench not thinking about ‘nation-states’ vs humanity, but how the project felt like a graduate student’s presentation on migration. In the case of the latter, the argument on nation-states would have been made more persuasively by the sheer format of student presentations.
Khalili’s argument on the fragility of borders is more successfully conveyed in the final part of her mapping project, The Constellation Series. Here, the moving pictures of the Mapping Journey are transformed into eight neatly presented silk prints. Unlike the former, the narrative, the map, and the fidgeting black markers are simplified into white dots and lines against klein blue background. Visually, the contrast between white and blue made them look like something one could, and would, buy at Ikea for efficient interior decoration. They are neat and pleasing to the eye.
It is through such explicit simplicity that Khalili erases borders. We see bigger dots that indicate places of sojourn, and smaller, some linear and others curved, dots that indicate the steps taken by the migrant protagonist to get from point A to point B. So, while we can trace movements, geography is deleted, rendered irrelevant. Here again Khalili wants to show us that human experience triumphs nation-states and human concocted borders.
But as space is flattened out, the human experiences of her interviewees that she seeks to highlight are deleted as well. After all, illegal migrants’ stories are born out of their struggles of subverting, deviating, and overcoming borders. Sometimes they succeed and other times they fail. But these outcomes largely depend on borders. In focusing on the arbitrariness of human-concocted geography, Khalili lost the human side. This trend of vilifying borders, seen also in Ai Wei Wei’s film, made me raise my eyebrows. Surely, it is much more complicated than evil vs good. The danger of such Manichean simplification also contributes to the relatively recent fight against political correctness.
I do appreciate Khalili’s ideas. Her probing into history and raising questions are certainly applaudable. Plus, conceptualization through visual material of this tension between border and human experience is an extremely difficult task. Nevertheless, the fact that her conceptual intervention on mapping, border, and experience only came to me long after I left the gallery, and after intentionally intellectualizing it, tells me that the exhibition could have offered more. Perhaps it was too familiar for me. From start to the end, this project resembled that of migration studies (and to an extent two chapters of my upcoming book). Khalili goes to these transitory places to meet her potential protagonists. She interviews them off camera, then lets the film rolling, simply providing a stage for her subjects. There are many students across the world enrolled in migrations studies Master’s or PhD program conducting interviews and creating similar maps. But how does this exhibition differ from that of historians, using oral history, mapping, and GIS?
This exhibition left me wondering, how do we, the so-called-intellectuals, if not the excessively educated, immersed in academic discourses (this also applies to many artists including Khalili who holds two Master’s degrees), make our ideas more meaningful beyond providing a fleeting moment of intellectual intimacy for a very specific audience?
The Archipelago, taken by SJK, 15 March 2017.↩
Taken by SJK, 15 March 2017.↩
From Khalili’s website. http://www.bouchrakhalili.com/the-mapping-journey-project/↩
Taken by SJK, 15 March 2017.↩
Taken by SJK, 15 March 2017.↩