Everywhere and Nowhere, migration and contemporary art

by Beral Madra


From the very Germanophile definition of Heimat which could be translated as the feeling for homeland and home at the same time, the Turkish exhibition curator Beral Madra analyses relationships between art and immigration and their limits.

[ 1 ]

Vilém Flusser, The Freedom of the Migrant: Objections to Nationalism, University of Illinois Press, 2003‬‬‬‬.

[ 2 ]

Eric Harper and Charity Njoki Mwaniki, ‘Foucault: On Home and Homelessness’, http://www.academia.edu/10313350/Foucault_Home_and_Homeless_presentation_at_the_Critical_Space_Conference_London_. Accessed January 2016.

[ 3 ]

Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, 1988, p. 11

The source of inspiration for this presentation is the philosopher, writer and journalist Brazilian of Czech origin Vilém Flusser, a refugee of WWII. His words about the concept of homeland/Heimat penetrate into the innermost core of the migrant and refugee tragedy that currently confronts humankind: “Homeland is not an eternal value but rather a function of a specific technology; still, whoever loses it suffers. This is because we are attached to Heimat by many bonds, most of which are hidden and not accessible to consciousness. Whenever these attachments tear or are torn asunder the individual experiences this painfully, almost as a surgical invasion of his most intimate person.”1

Homeland/Heimat/Patria concepts are bound to 20th century nationalism and racisms’ and their catastrophic, tragic and threatening consequences being witnessed by humanity as constant global emigrations, refugees and exiles.

What does homeland mean today in active politics? Many political parties with rightist national ideologies name themselves “Homeland Party” which implicates a dedication and commitment to homeland, places it in sacredness and exempts it of any criticism. The concept is commonly used as a unique, unchangeable identity and source, and supposed to have mostly positive connotations. Home sounds like a harmless concept when used by right-wing extremists to convince the people that they have a moderate discourse. However, a Foucauldien interpretation claims the opposite: “The home supports the operations of modern regimes of power, bio-power, procedures and technologies of self, regulating and determining the habits of the body. Thus habituating the connections between the body and the nation, they function as regulatory controls: a bio-politics that results in excommunication from the home and homeland. Home and Homeland are interlinked; the home is intimately tied to what Foucault calls the games of truth, relations of power and forms of relations to oneself and to others.2

The rights to live in a chosen country or the wish to live ruthlessly and forced immigration or the refugee problem are two sides of these socio-political and economic arguments.

In both cases, immigration is elaborated by right wing politics as challenging and precarious to the concept of homeland/Heimat since the right to live ruthlessly as a world citizen or forced immigration opens up a flexibility, elimination and dispersal in the concept of homeland /Heimat. For right wing politics, this concept combines the basic assumptions of all radical and nationalist ideologies, according to which the individual is not free as a central, active subject, but submits to a supposedly closed, homogeneous community.

What is happening now on the shores and borders of Europe is almost prophesied in French philosopher Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation (1961):

Confined on the ship, from which there is no escape, the madman is delivered to the river with its thousand arms, the sea with its thousand roads, to that great uncertainty external to everything. He is a prisoner in the midst of what is the freest, the openness of routes: bound fast at the infinite crossroads. He is the Passenger par excellence: that is, the prisoner of the passage. And the land he will come to is unknown—as is, once he disembarks, the land from which he comes. He has his truth and his homeland only in that fruitless expanse between two countries that cannot belong to him.”3

Now, witnessing the images of drifting and sinking boats in the Aegean and Mediterranean seas, we have to ask the question: What is the reason for today’s immigration, deportation and that via-politics?

From the mid 80s on, the outcome of the efforts of artists who have witnessed immigration or exile became visible and sustainable in Istanbul, Bagdad, Damascus, Beirut, Amman, Baku, Tbilisi, Yerevan, cities which embody the consequences of immigration or exile such as dystopia/heterotopia and neo-topia, all to be an extremely fertile field for artistic creativity. The artistic creativity of the migrant/exile has been observed by Vilem Flusser in his book, The Freedom of the Migrant. In fact he refers to the creativity of the migrant, rather than to his tragedy. He recognizes that suffering is a part of the migration experience, but he argues that the creativity of the migrant is due to a dialogue that develops and that “consists of an exchange between the information that he brought with him and the ocean waves of information that wash him in exile.”

Are we able to accept the emigrants living in our cities or as our neighbors within Flusser’s concept? Do we accept their creative contribution to our culture?

The answer to this question is “yes” if we consider that modern and contemporary art is densely populated with artists who where immigrants, refugees, exiles and many artists are examining, questioning and criticizing the policies of immigration, the cruelty of border laws and the corruption of illegal human trafficking.

Apart from their surrealist and majestic presence, and their relational aesthetics, the works of many artists are a daring challenge to the ongoing human tragedy that involves almost all the countries around the Mediterranean. We all know that the seas of the Mediterranean are polluted with the shameful act of human trafficking, but we are powerless to prevent it. The artist steps forward and performs a task, which not only brings the problem to the attention of the global media, the authorities and intellectuals but also relieves one’s mind in the sense that this tragedy is now decoded and exploited through art.

Contemporary art productions are a perfect opportunity for humanity to face and challenge global human migration and thus have a civil commitment and position to the ongoing tragedy. The art works try to raise questions about the sustainability of ideas of national and ethnic identity in a world where borders are becoming increasingly accidental and penetrable. They try to open discussions on traditional and post-modern societies which are now in flux, opposed by the global sweeping of networks and an excess of visual culture initiatives, despite their persistent traditional or modernist socio-political and economic infrastructures and epistemologies.

Flusser also argues that “We Need a Philosophy of Emigration”, which is still a very remote possibility within the current cruelty of global politics. He indicates that modern societies are in flux, with traditional linear and literary epistemologies being challenged by global circulatory networks and a growth in visual stimulation. He says that these changes will radically alter the ways cultures define themselves and deal with each other. Not just theories of globalization, however, Flusser’s ideas about communication and identity have their roots in the concept of self-determination and self-realization through the recognition of the other.

Exile, Refugee, Immigration is a significant topic, discussion and theme of criticism in contemporary art as well as in documentary photography; so that we can examine: Artists who are immigrants and reflect their positions and experiences in their works; Artists who created works on these themes; Photographers who dedicated themselves to this human tragedy…

In each case there are crucial ethical questions, if the victims are photographed and their despair is openly displayed…

In a very timely essay “How not to photograph the Rohingya genocide in the making…” Suchita Vijayan discusses the negotiable ethics and manipulative character of images of massive forced migrations, massacres and other tragedies4. She asks crucial questions about all the images of victims and ill-fated people, which are ubiquitous in documentary and artistic photographs. Was there consent? What do these images tell people, that they do not know already? What do they do with these images? Where should people go from here and what are the political possibilities of these images?

Thanks to Mathilde Roman and AICA
Cover: Murat Gök, Border, 2014. Courtesy of the artist

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