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The story of Britain is an ‘island story’, and it remains an unfinished one. Its history has been defined by a constant state of flux, with human beings migrating across its borders for centuries; as they will continue to do so for centuries to come. Considering the widespread nationalist populism that is continuing to permeate throughout most of the Western world; culminating in the rise of anti-immigration sentiments in post-Brexit Britain, increasing acts of terrorism, and the devastating response to the, so called, refugee ‘crisis. ’ It is therefore of little surprise that migration has become an issue of great urgency in Britain, and throughout the rest of the world.
In perhaps one of the defining moments of Nigel Farage’s ‘Vote Leave’ campaign during the 2016 EU referendum, was the presentation of UKIP’s anti-immigration poster. The image depicts a photograph of a group of refugees in Slovenia, on their restless plight through the country, having recently crossed the Croatian border. The poster reads, ‘BREAKING POINT. The EU has failed us all. We must break free of the EU and take back control of our borders. ’ In this representation an, arguably, objective photograph was harnessed for a political motive to build upon an untrue and dangerous narrative of migration in the public consciousness. As Lenette and Miskovic point out, ‘the media has used visual portrayals of asylum seekers in large groups to reinforce perceptions that refugees represent an uncontrollable risk to security and state sovereignty, thus aligning with dominant and restrictive political philosophies; consequently, state and international obligations for those seeking asylum tend to be disregarded. ’
As an opposing representation, another image that became an instant symbol of the refugee ‘crisis’ in recent years is the devastating and distressing photograph of the lifeless body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, a refugee fleeing from war-torn Syria, washed up on the shore near the coastal town of Bodrum, Turkey. Highly controversial in its publication, many media outlets were hounded for its handling of this image, whether they choose to publish it or not.
The Guardian argued that, ‘The stark human tragedy, pathos and sense of heartbreak were weighed up against potential privacy issues and the risk of repelling the reader with indecent bluntness, ’5 pointing to its necessity being rooted in public interest. The heart-breaking image enlisted a wave of donations to charities dealing with the ‘crisis’. Whilst little has changed in government policy, the public imaginary was nonetheless altered by this tragic image. Representations, or misrepresentations, in the canon of imagery that surrounds ‘the migrant’ in mainstream media are deeply varied. These images inform the public, create stereotypes, and carry the potential to either exemplify or subvert the cause of justice. Representations have the power to create profound social and political changes within society. As a humanitarian issue that continues to remain unsolved, modern political discourses surrounding migration vary widely in their approach to the subject.
The term ‘migration’, and concepts of ‘the migrant, ’ carry complex and somewhat loaded meanings in contemporary culture. In modern discourse, migration is usually defined by the movement of people across boarders; these terms can refer to migrants moving within a country, or immigrants moving into a new country. However, the term is not always used neutrally in this descriptive mode. The ideas surrounding migration in contemporary critical dialogues have been politically influenced, often being, ‘mobilised as part of aggressive identity ascriptions and processes of othering. ’ The term refugee, being a legal concept, carries less nuances, although it is still disputed. It is defined by the UN Refugee convention as, ‘someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. ’
In The Turbulence of Migration, Papastergiadis argues that, ‘migration in its contemporary form also needs to be understood as an interminable and multifarious process’. To a similar extent, the varied uses and definitions of the term as presented in the Oxford Dictionary illustrate multifaceted meanings. As pointed out by Carey-Thomas, addressing the verb ‘migrate’ as relating to things as well as to people, she notes it’s scientific definition as, ‘particles that change shape as they move from place to place. ’ As well the meaning of migration in nature, ‘if we think of all the ways migration applies to birds we see it as cyclical, rather than final, and as something that repeats itself again and again. ’Paralleling this, Papastergiadis argues the need to see migration as an ongoing natural progression, or as he puts it, ‘an open voyage. ’ This essay will follow the ‘umbrella’ definition of migrant that infers the cyclical concept of human movement between borders, as well as the legal definition of the refugee as defined by the UN. This is not to dehumanise, nor group together the complexities of migratory experiences as, undeniably, there is no simple unity to these stories and no two experiences are the same. The use of these terms, rather, is to hone in on and examine the representation of human movement and displacement, and the challenges and questions that occur when attempting to represent this experience in the form of art. In Keywords Raymond Williams discusses the etymology of representation, in which he describes its definition as, ‘very complex and has long been so. ’
Put simply, Stuart Hall defines representation as ‘the production of meaning, ’ pointing to the constructivist use of the term, ‘things don’t mean: we construct meaning, using representational systems. ’ When ideas surrounding notions of the ‘other’ are called in to play, the construction of meaning becomes more complex and politicised. Within postcolonial discourses, representation is regarded within concepts of knowledge and power. In Edward Said’s Orientalism he discusses the construction of difference as a demonstration of western regimes of knowledge and power, and the way in which we come to understand the ‘other’ through binary representations and stereotypes. In ‘knowing’ the ‘other, ’ ‘knowledge gives power, more power requires more knowledge, and so on in an increasingly profitable dialectic of information and control. ’ The representation of the subaltern is thus presented as necessary in the power system of colonialisation. As Said argues, Orientalism becomes a representation, a form of ‘radical realism’ in which the concept of the orient, or other ‘is considered to have acquired, or more simply be, reality.
In the same sense, the contemporary representative discourse surrounding the migrant becomes the way in which the migrant is known. The politics of representation regarding the migrant and refugee is surrounded by hugely debated and nuanced arguments of agency. As Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak poses in the title of her controversial essay, ‘can the subaltern speak?’ Is this, as Spivak suggests in the essay, perhaps an impossible task? While Spivak’s argument is concerned mainly with the production of the academic, can art play a role in speaking about, or for, the marginalised? If so, how can artists represent the marginalised and disenfranchised in a globalised context? Salman Rushdie argues that, ‘re-describing a world is the necessary first step towards changing it. ’ Does art have the potential to re-describe and enlist new modes of representations? Can art’s ability to make the nuanced visible contribute to a re-creation of the public imaginary regarding the migrant, and in turn, seek change? As Kobena Mercer states, ‘migration today is a pressing concern in an era of globalisation, ’ and it is poised to become further intensified throughout the 21st Century with the inevitable continuation of global warming. Human displacement is only going to become a larger and more complex issue. If this is to be the pressing concern of contemporary times, can art play a role in the subverting or nuancing of these discourses? If so, how do artists approach this problematic? How does one confront this complex narrative? Is it enough to simply represent? Can we be any more than idle spectators? Mirzeoff argues that, ‘visual culture has to respond in its effort to understand change in a world that is too enormous to see but vital to imagine. ’ Perhaps artists have a role to play in the imagining of these deeply complex issues. In the following section, this essay will use a case study approach in order to substantiate the role of art in the representation of the marginalised.
Taking two examples of contemporary moving image; John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea (2015) and Imran Perretta’s 15 Days (2018), this essay will put forward the argument that, in representing the migrant experience, both moving image works open up alternative and new narratives, recreating and re-examining histories, and in doing so presenting ‘a more subtle vocabulary on migration, ’ one that Papastergiadis argues is necessary. Such works raise questions regarding autonomy, agency, history, movement, memory and identity which will be further discussed in the course of this essay. In ‘negotiating a line between different worlds, ’ these artists are transforming and creating new perspectives and nuanced perceptions in the public imaginary and the nature of representation of those marginalised by the complexities of contemporary migration.
Within the last century visual technology has transformed the very nature of representation and its power structures. In Los Angeles, during the early hours of March 3rd 1991, American taxi driver Rodney King was pulled over by Police for speeding and brutally beaten. The incident was filmed on a handheld video camera by onlooker George Holliday. The violent reality of African American existence was condensed and represented in an 81 second recorded moving image. What was previously only a history of lived experience, racial violence and police brutality was now visible to the entire world via visual technology. Whilst the officers involved in the beating were acquitted, the incident provoked international debate and incited what became to be known as the 1992 Los Angeles Riots This event set a precedent of members of the public capturing police brutality on camera that, unfortunately, has been witnessed innumerable times since. As Mirzoeff points out, ‘technologically, it operated at a crucial turning point in the flow of knowledge and visibility. ’
Moving image did not bring justice, but it did make injustice visible. Rooted in conflict, military use and surveillance, moving image presents an interesting paradox between power and representation. The video camera has an ability to subvert from below the power structure that uses the same technology to maintain this structure from above. In terms of art, how do artists harness this divergence between power and knowledge presented by the moving image?
Since the mid-20th Century artists have been using the mutability of moving image to question power, knowledge and representation. As an art form, the camera’s capacity to document ‘reality’ whilst simultaneously being able to, literally and metaphorically, ‘frame, direct and distort’26 a subject lends itself willingly to this motive. This ability to ‘bring distant events close enough to get under our skin and alienate what is close to us, ’ allows new ways of visualising and imagining the issues and events being addressed.
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