text by Kooj (Kuljit) Chuhan
A TV executive
recently told me “Asylum? You don’t want to cover that – it’s just been done
and done, over and over.” And yet, if you type <migration deportation
"digital art"> into Google you get Virtual Migrants numerous times and then
not much else of any substance. Is it that artists aren’t interested in
such a hot and topical presence? Or is it that the media has covered it
and a line can be drawn over it? Needless to say, Virtual Migrants
Creative engagement with this issue is often within limited frames of reference, generally asking ‘What rights for asylum seekers and refugees are being abused?’ ‘What brutal conditions do most live in?’ and so on.
Virtual Migrants takes a step back and asks ‘What creates the push for people to come to the UK in the first place?’ This simple question invokes a wider perspective, and begins by looking at colonial exploitation which has led to poverty, instability and conflicts in much of the world. And understanding the fact that it is in the interests of wealthy countries to maintain this dynamic, thus providing the reason why so many people try to come here! Understanding this is fundamental to an understanding of the politics of race.
This perspective allows certain unifying approaches to emerge. For example the divisions between ‘economic’ migrants and migrants fleeing conflicts, begin to disappear and become different shades of the same condition. And it helps to deconstruct the tensions and divisions between communities of ex-British colonial ‘subjects’ that arrived from the late 1950’s and those that arrived from the 1990’s. We might then demand those changes for people to neither want nor have the need to come to wealthier countries. Those of us in those countries can only ponder how our lives might have been if our ancestral countries had sturdy infrastructures and quality opportunities to look forward to. Unfortunately, the worthy fights for rights, good support and fair treatment never address the roots of the conditions that place us in this state.
All of these issues connect with Virtual Migrants’ work. So who are Virtual Migrants?
We are a loosely associated group of artists who engage with new media. Rather than being brought together by a shared sense of identity (eg as migrants), we are artistically driven (as opposed to led) by the highly charged and moving human stories, events and histories around us. And by the urge to delve into the deeper causes and links which underlie these narratives, both local and global.
To pursue this, our artistic preference is to engage with a range of artists and communities for whom these migrant issues resonate. Although a significant number of our collaborators will therefore originate from migrant backgrounds, to achieve the deconstruction of white perspectives towards alternative engagements, we involve selected people and artists from other backgrounds.
All artists, who contribute at different levels (and invariably have their own practice) in some cases become involved with the project in parallel to their own thematic base. This was the case for Keith Piper and Khasrow Mustafa. For example, the exploration of race and migration has been central to Keith’s work and one of his recent focal areas has been the issues around asylum. With other artists the project becomes an extension of their own practice even providing a new opportunity to explore such narratives. For example with the work of Tang Lin and Miselo Kunda who profoundly identify with these issues, yet direct exploration of the subject had not previously been a feature of their own work.
Over the last five years we have undertaken the massive Terminal Frontiers project mostly involving North-West based artists and people. The series of works created were exhibited in Manchester, Central London (at the ICA’s New Media Centre), Cardiff (at the British Council’s “A Sense Of Place” international conference), Glasgow, Derby, West London and finally Plymouth last year. International interest and presentation has also been generated. The installation “What If I’m Not Real”, also received critical acclaim. Produced over two years, the first year involved six artists working intensively as a group discussing and viewing each other’s stories, other artists’ works and social narratives. This immersion is central to our practice.
The subsequent project “The Next Breath” was led by Aidan Jolly (a musician and sound artist) and myself (as a digital media artist and filmmaker). It involves a number of collaborations, mainly with people categorised as refugees or asylum-seekers, and has taken place over the last two years.
In Glasgow, for example, with the young music group “4D” (whose members are from Iran, Zimbabwe, Armenia and Sri Lanka) we produced a video piece built around the daily threats and regular attacks which they experience in their estate, to which local campaigner Mohammed Asif contributed an incisive commentary. In London, work with young women from Somalia, Iraq and the Seychelles along with local artist Poulomi Desai created an abstract fictional narrative in which characters exist looking for the other half of their fragment of a personal photograph, and begin to complete their jigsaw through finding each other. Then in Plymouth the emphasis was on deconstructing the local colonial legacies through multimedia video, working with a range of artists such as the poet Khasrow Mustafa, the santoor player Marywan Mahmoud, and the actor Ramazan Mohammed.
The audio works involve a wide range of musical collaborators including Afro-French hip-hop, Kurdish semi-classical, and spoken poetry, along with a montage of found sounds and textures. Live art-performances and interactive projects also took place. All of this work, including original interactive works on the DVD-ROM section, is presented in the Exhale publication, featuring both the “Terminal Frontiers” and “The Next Breath” projects.
Crossing aesthetic territories
In conceiving the Terminal Frontiers project in 2000 myself and Aidan wanted to create a response that incorporated a range of experience, and one in which that range of experience was able to directly express itself through the works. We didn’t simply want to work as ‘Artists’ in the classic and well worn individualist sense, not when dealing with the richness of experience embedded within each of the many multiple layers comprising the subject. Rather than digesting and distilling the experiences, information, ideas and concepts towards creating a personalised vision we would involve other contributors, collaborators and participants who would become part of and guide the works. In doing this we would apply our years of experience in documenting and interpreting community concerns, oral histories and personal testimonies, along with our particular takes on audio-visual, poetic and fictional aesthetics. In other words, we would retain the responsibility of artist’s authorship, and in some cases shared authorship, but stop short of attempting some form of collective expression.
The resulting exhibition, which premiered at Manchester’s Castlefield Gallery in late 2002, was unusual in having work co-produced with school kids presented alongside work by internationally known artists such as Keith Piper. This was no accident or whimsicality on our part, rather the various works together gained relevance and authenticity towards the subject matter by including the relatively raw expressions and informed perspectives from local people, almost as if while viewing art we are also viewing a tunnel which takes us out of the art space into a grass-roots reality. This becomes a critical sensory reference by which to gauge the immediacy and perceived truth inherent within the more “considered” artists’ productions, and such a puncturing of the borders between ‘community’ and ‘high’ art can create a new sense of reality for the open-minded art punter. This was crucial for us to achieve the effect we wanted when dealing with such issues and when using aesthetics that blend documentary realism with poetic and visual metaphor, yet it baffled a number of critics despite being appreciated by audiences.
The cutting of boundaries between arts spaces and non-arts spaces was further explored during the Castlefield Gallery exhibition where we placed the portable and aptly titled “destiNation” installation in a variety of public and semi-public localities for varying periods courtesy of a New Audiences research award (full report available at www.newaudiences.org.uk). Within the overall conceptual structure of the exhibition, the function of this activity was to further migrate and explore different territories and cross both artistic and socio-cultural borders.
After the showing at Castlefield Gallery the exhibition was shown at various venues across the UK over the next few years, and also gained brief presentations in Bangladesh, Argentina, Latvia, USA and Mexico. Its 4-city UK tour from late 2004 involved galleries which each had an existing relationship with and interest in people from refugee and asylum-seeking communities, and our active involvement with these activities allowed us to quickly yet meaningfully be introduced to creative people, cultural expressions and social circumstances embedded in the fabric of those communities.
In Glasgow I met the four school kids in their early days as the band “4D”, and encountered the very racism they were talking about during filming in Shawbridge where they lived, and also hanging out with some of their mates who ended up assisting on the film. After just four days of filming and editing we showed the film at Glasgow’s UGC as part of “Document”, a Human Rights Film Festival, and the event cut through the armchair consumption of human rights narratives by presenting and contextualising events happening right now, down the road from that cinema, and with the people in the film sitting next to you.
This was the beginning of another project, “The Next Breath”, which developed organically in response to the people, situations and socio-political environments we found ourselves in. Central to the project was the desire for immediacy of expression, intensity of engagement and speed of response, along with the development of parallel audio/music and video/digital activities. We wanted in particular to explore additional ways that musical sound and moving image could be created in close proximity, cross-fertilise and come together as sister works if not as combined pieces, in which the narratives are not developed or led by either art form but each informs, prompts and layers with the other.
The intention was to create a set of works through collaborative means while retaining our interpretive coherence as with Terminal Frontiers, and for this also to cumulate into a set of narratives within which there is no central one and in which the key portrayal is defined by encountering a multiplicity of players. The Exhale publication marks the final presentation of this work as a coherent whole which perhaps finally conveys some of what Sean Cubitt describes as “the virtual placeless place of the migrants waiting room”, yet simultaneously infuses it with a passionate sense of an “other” reality in fact being everyone’s reality.
By Kooj (Kuljit S Chuhan)
digital artist and filmmaker, creative producer and cultural consultant
digital media artists and productions responding to themes of race, migration and globalisation