Art for Coexistence. Unlearning the Way We See Migration

Christine RossArt for Coexistence. MIT Press, US, 2022.

By Christine Ross



…The artistic calls ask viewers to reconsider migration as a coexistence in urgent need of repair and reimagining, one that must be fundamentally rethought in its relation to citizenship—or what the legal scholar Dimitry Kochenov designates as “citizenship’s inherent racism, its deep and chronic exclusion of women, and its upholding and reinforcing of class divisions between the haves and haves-not.”20 Contemporary art, in short, is inviting us—again, citizens mainly but not exclusively or uniformly from Europe and North America—to unlearn our preconceptions and assumptions about the refugee or migrant “crisis.” Unlearning is about learning to see the crisis more critically and more disobediently as transformable. This is certainly the experience I had while writing this book.

These calls are performed in the most compelling artworks responding to migration today, including works by Banksy, Lyne Lapointe, Laura Waddington, Isaac Julien, John Akomfrah, Binta Diaw, Richard Mosse, Florian Schneider, Forensic Oceanography, Teresa Margolles, Guillermo Galindo, Kader Attia, Candice Breitz, Ai Weiwei, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Tania Bruguera, Bouchra Khalili, Angela Melitopoulos, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Tuan Andrew Nguyen, Isuma, Olu Oguibe, Stan Douglas, Decolonizing Architecture Art Research, and Kent Monkman. The artists considered here work mainly in Europe and North America, the continents where their artworks predominantly circulate, but most of them are either former refugee(s), immigrants, or children of immigrants—some living between countries or binationally, some in Mexico, Cuba, Vietnam, or South Africa while also in the United States or in Europe, some having left China but now living in exile in Europe, basically of Europe and North America but having established long-standing relationships with migrating beings—or Indigenous artists born in Canada and Black artists born in North America or in Europe, whose larger history has been significantly conditioned by the forced displacement of people structuring various colonial systems. Long-term encounters, interculturality, internationality, and (im)migration as well as deep history have made these artists particularly responsive to the prevalence of migratory injustices.


Let us look briefly at a few works to introduce the book more concretely. Consider Laura Waddington’s Border (2004)—a low-tech video showing Afghan and Iraqi men just outside the Sangatte Red Cross Camp (1999–2002), a refugee camp located in the Pas-de-Calais department on the northern coast of France, as they attempt to cross the channel tunnel to England at night, narrated and filmed by the artist with the camera’s shutter wide open to compensate for the lack of light, creating images on the edge of dissolution that materialize the precariousness yet autonomy of migration (figure 0.3); Bouchra Khalili’s The Mapping Project Journey (2008–2011), a series of suspended screens projecting video images of standard geographical maps whose cartography is redrawn by migrating travelers, their faces remaining off-screen as they trace and relate their hazardous journeys throughout the Mediterranean Basin—stories perceptually interrelated by viewers as they circulate between the screens (figure 8.1)…


These works elaborate calls. They address viewers who more likely belong to the richest economies in the world, inviting them to engage perceptually, sensorially, sensibly, cognitively, corporeally with the distressful conditions of migration that they are suggested to be a part of. They are a call for historicization: they situate the forced displacements as a prolongation of colonialism. They are a call for responsibility: they seek migratory justice, wanting us to become aware of our role in the repressiveness of migration and wanting us to put an end to its violence (for example, Forensic Oceanography’s reconstitution approach, elaborated to make the EU accountable for the nonassistance of people in distress at sea). They are a call for empathy: the artists are voicing or depicting their own empathy (Waddington, Lapointe, Ai, and Iñárritu in particular); they want us to feel empathically the suffering of citizens-on-the-move. They are a call for storytelling: viewers are invited to participate in the unfolding stories by listening to the migrants’ voices and performances. In short, the works mentioned here—like every single work examined in this book—express the challenge to better understand the destructive and potentially more life-enhancing interdependences between citizens dispossessed of mobility rights and citizens with mobility rights… the main argument of the book is threefold: contemporary art from Europe and North America is critically responding to migration (it exercises what Forensic Oceanography calls a “disobedient gaze”29 on the deceptive yet standardized representation of migration as illegal or as a problem “from elsewhere” that landed advertently in Europe and North America); its main response is to disclose migration as a dark coexistence between citizens-on-the move leaving the untenable living conditions of some of the poorest and most politically unstable countries worldwide and affirmed citizens of some of the wealthiest yet increasingly unhosting countries worldwide…


This investigation will take the form of a dialogue among the installation, political philosophy (notably the work of Sabine Hess, Bernd Kasparek, Jacques Rancière, Hannah Arendt, and Giorgio Agamben), responsibility studies (Roger Silverstone, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and Iris Marion Young), as well as other relevant migratory artworks by other artists (Ursula Biemann, Chantal Akerman, Laura Waddington, and Florian Schneider). These studies and artworks will help clarify the notion and practice of responsibility and responsible care, teasing out the requirement to acknowledge the autonomy of migration, even in borderzones where that autonomy has been substantially incapacitated.


Dialogues can be established between artists and citizens-on-the-move. The strong borderworks made in the late 1990s and early 2000s, namely Ursula Biemann’s single-video Performing the Border (1999) and Chantal Akerman’s film and multiscreen video installation From the Other Side (De l’autre côté) (2002), captured the lives of individuals living along and across the US-Mexico border so as to convey the embodied experience of Mexicans attempting to pass to the North. Shot on location and consisting mainly of interviews and testimonies, the works were haunted by the injuring and death of those who didn’t make it as well as by the endangerment of women in these specific borderzones. They elaborated innovative aesthetic strategies—the video essay in Biemann’s Performing the Border (figure 3.6) and the tight rows of monitors in Akerman’s From the Other Side (figure 3.7)—to preclude a unified view of the whole. The contact the artists established with their subjects, their subjects’ families, border patrol agents, and legal representatives had the advantage of documenting conversations and voices of contestation, embodying Gloria Anzaldúa’s poetic vision of border cultures as mixing voices from the inside and the outside.39 As Bertha Jottar—the first protagonist in Biemann’s video—declares in the opening shot, “There is nothing natural about the border; it’s a highly constructed place that gets reproduced through the crossing of people, because without the crossing there is no border, right? It’s just an imaginary line, a river or it’s just a wall”: borders are performed by people who have a story to tell about the difficulties of such performances. Let us also recall Border (2004) by Laura Waddington—a low-tech video evanescently showing Afghan and Iraqi refugees next to the Sangatte Red Cross Camp as they endeavor to cross the channel tunnel to England at night (figure 0.3). The work results from Waddington’s close connection with some of these refugees during the early stages of the European migrant crisis—she was next to them in the fields as they attempted to flee in 2002 and when they protested against the camp’s dismantlement that same year; she films them nocturnally from that perspective, producing unstable low-resolution images that capture in their very materiality the precarious albeit resilient autonomy of migration. Art historian Georges Didi-Huberman speaks insightfully of “firefly-images: images on the brink of disappearance, always altered by the urgency of [the migrants’] flight, always close to those who, to fulfill their plans, hide in the night and attempt the impossible, risking their lives.”40 Waddington narrates their journeys off-screen. Her voice ascertains her not as an expert or an authority but as a witness whose main responsibility is to recount as much as one can the refugees’ struggle for movement, freedom, equality, and dance/joy (Didi-Huberman: “Gratuitous and unexpected beauty, as when a Kurdish refugee dances in the night, in the wind, with only his blanket for covering: this vestment for his dignity, and, somehow, for his fundamental joy, his joy in spite of all”41, without losing that sense of connection. Border emerges from that reciprocity, that embodied ephemeral yet tangible coexistence.

Although such connections are not always possible, and even though borderzones have in some regions become too dangerous for such encounters, the process of creating these works opened the path for dialogue, especially dialogue between artists and citizens-on-the-move. We, the viewers, were invited to hear, feel, and witness that dialogue. As we will see in my brief examination of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s definition of responsibility later in this chapter, dialogue can take different forms, but it steadily relies on the acknowledgment of the autonomy of migration.


IV Storytell/ing

In 2019, the Displaced in Media strategic partnership—a group of journalists, activists, and migrant filmmakers commissioned by the European Cultural Foundation to investigate media accounts of contemporary migration—denounced EU’s media coverage of migration events. Some of the identified shortcomings included the media’s reduction of migrants to statistics and its oversimplified representation of migrating beings as either voiceless victims or threatening strangers or “virtuous” others (valued as honorable when confirming neoliberalist values). The group’s edited volume, Lost in Media: Migrant Perspectives and the Public Sphere (2019), is an inspired and inspiring counterpart to that reductionism: the editors’ selection of texts and artworks was mobilized by the question “Who gets to tell migrant stories?” Their answer was guided by the imperative to hear the complex stories of migrating beings as well as the imperative to hear more displaced voices.1

All of the works analyzed thus far have been telling us stories about displaced people. These stories—in the majority of cases—rely in part on testimonies and encounters with citizens-on-the-move, refugees, and survivors. They produce narratives that invite us to unlearn the way we see migration. In these works, however, who gets to tell the migrants’ stories? The answer to that question is: mainly the artists, many of them (im)migrants or living transnationally. As stipulated in the book’s introduction, these artists are either former refugees or immigrants or children of immigrants; they live between countries or are binationals; they are citizens of Mexico, Cuba, Vietnam, and South Africa but also live or have lived in the United States or in Europe; some have left China and are now living in exile in Europe; they are citizens of European or North American countries but have established long-standing relationships with people in a state of migration. Or they are Indigenous artists born in Canada and Black artists born in Europe or in Canada, whose larger history has been conditioned by the displacement of people imposed by colonial systems. Long-term encounters, interculturality, internationality involving people between countries of origin and countries of destination, immigration and migration, as well as deep history have made these artists particularly responsive to contemporary migration. In many of the works investigated so far, displaced beings and beings living in the afterlife of colonial displacement are telling the stories or are represented telling their stories, either orally or performatively—notably in works by Laura Waddington, Isaac Julien, John Akomfrah, Binta Diaw, Forensic Oceanography, Candice Breitz, Ai Weiwei, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Tania Bruguera, and Tuan Andrew Nguyen.

In the next five to ten years (Am I too optimistic?), when the lives of twenty-first-century migrating beings will cease to be primarily about surviving migration, their voices will be increasingly heard, and their artworks increasingly shown.

Christine Ross, Art for Coexistence. Unlearning the Way We See Migration, MIT Press, US 2022


20 Dimitry Kochenov, Citizenship (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2020), xv.

29 Aurélien Gamboni, “In the Thickness of the Crossing: Challenging the Liquid Violence of Borders in the Mediterranean—an Interview with Charles Heller,” trans. Maya Dalinsky, Texte zur Kunst 29, no. 114 (June 2019): 88.

39 Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco: Spinster/Aunt Lute Press, 1987), 78.

40 Georges Didi-Huberman, Survival of the Fireflies, trans. Lia Swope Mitchell (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018), 84.

41 Didi-Huberman, Survival of the Fireflies, 85. 42. Renwick McLean, “5 Killed in Mass Attempt to Cross