From The Migration Blog

A conversation with artist Jesse Chun

conducted by Sumita Chakravarty

The following conversation was inspired by an exhibition by Chun in which bureaucratic documents of travel are central to artworks that unpack their varied meanings. such documents are at once material objects and carriers of fraught signification in the contemporary world. Chun literally peels back the layers to bring to visibility what we cannot see in a document like the passport — any passport — such as watermarks, official insignia, grids and lines. Using techniques that she discusses below, she transforms this banal document into enigmatic art, putting aside the usual associations of passports with border control and discriminatory practices to evoke transformative images for new ways of looking.

  1. Why the passport? What led you to this particular object as suited to artistic experimentation? Were there unique challenges and opportunities in such a choice of object to work upon?

    I’m interested in notions of home and how we construct the framework of belonging through ways of expression and interpretation. I’m interested in speaking from my personal experience but opening it up almost like a vessel for this topic (migration). I’m interested in unveiling layers of meaning that are already embedded in the found sources, those found sources that define what ‘home’ is.

  1. Can you address the idea of mediation? Specifically, what is your relationship to paper as a medium? How does ‘On Paper’ tell the story of migration, your own or anyone else’s?

    I was interested in paper as a medium because I’m interested in working with found sources and paper really records its existence and it is like a proof or an evidence of how someone is validated. I’m fascinated by the power and the weight that paperwork carries in that context. On Paper, obviously, is stemming from my own personal experience of migration but again, I think it can open up to be a metaphor for a collective transit, and I think that in my work and in my practice I always think about how, even though I’m using my own narrative, it is really important to me that it opens it up to other people and that it becomes about this shared experience which is for instance, global mobility. And while it is not relevant for everyone, there are people who have had to deal with that or deal with migration and displacement. The thing that I’m really invested in is this notion of home and everyone seems to have a longing to belong, and longs for this place to call home. Everyone needs paperwork to travel, and this is literally how we are defined across borders and this is how your identity is recorded and validated, so in that way none of us can escape that framework. So using that found language and imagery, if I can play with the context, and try to figure out something in the layers that is universal to us . . . I think that’s how the work ends up becoming more about the poetics of home rather than the framework or the system.

  1. I want to ask you how your experience of living in four different countries influences the way you think of, and understand, identity.

    I have lived in Seoul, Hong Kong, New York and Toronto. For me, living in four countries and on top of that, basically witnessing the Handover – witnessing colonialism in a really personal way, because I grew up in Hong Kong before the Handover. I was there when it* was a British colony, and after it was returned to China. The night of the Handover ceremony is one of those moments of my life where, basically the constructs of what makes a country literally just came down, and I was really confused, sitting there as a kid, because one flag is going up and the other is going down. I hadn’t moved out of my couch, but the country’s changed overnight. So, on top of migration, being a transcultural kid and attending an international American school during the week and then attending a Korean school on Saturdays in Hong Kong, that already was quite a fragmented cultural experience. Witnessing the Handover and being part of that whole experience of colonialism and post-colonialism, and then moving to the States and then moving to Canada, I think that, it has definitely influenced me in a really profound way, because I think that my experience of belonging in a place or being a part of a country has always been more a fluid and fragmented experience. I think in that way, in my work I’m always kind of deconstructing and challenging these notions that are more “stable” or “fixed” because I do wonder about the impermanence of things and the things that are there to validate you.

  1. Is it more enriching to think of oneself as traversing between cultures or to feel that one belongs somewhere?

    Globalization has become such a big part of our lives even for those who are not necessarily mobile, because of the Internet and Social Media. Even if you are not moving and not traveling, you are still exposed to all these cultures. I do think that, ideally, it would be great when we can start to acknowledge the multiplicity of culture that is merging, because globalization has impacted us in ways we don’t even realize on a daily basis. I think it has a lot to do with othering others. In an utopian sense, if we realized that we can all be the “other” depending on where you are, that could open up the notion of belonging more. Even in my own homeland which is South Korea, I still feel othered because I don’t feel like I really belong there and then when I’m in any of the other countries I’m still the other. So I never feel like I fully belong anywhere. But because of that fact, the perspective I have of the world is that there is no one person that is the other, there is no one group that is the other, we are all others in a way, having a transcultural view makes me realize that I don’t want to think that there is the other, but that’s a very ideal perspective – I can understand that it is a little naïve and I can’t flatten the way everyone views the world, but I do think that the concept of the other is dependent on the cultural context and where you go geographically. Even the way that otherness is written about in the West is very Western narrative-centered, but from an Eastern perspective you are the other. So I think it is important to think about otherness in contexts of the perspective and the geography and that all of those things are really fluid in a way.
  1. Given what you said, what is your sense of community?

    I attended an American International school in Hong Kong and we’d always have American anthropologists come and they’d ask us, “Do you guys know where you are from or do you know where home is?” and all of us would be kind of confused, and they’d say that we were the third culture kids and the symptom of being a third culture person is that you belong everywhere and yet you don’t belong anywhere. And so, I think my community is obviously my community in New York, the friends I’ve made here have pretty much become family and also the artistic community. But also, because of my culturally fragmented experience — my family is in Asia and I have friends in other parts of the world — so I do feel that I have to put in such an effort to stay connected and even I think my personal and family relationships get fragmented because it is just so hard to keep in touch, even with technology. So it does affect you not in just a cultural identity kind of sense but being apart affects you in your emotional sense of experience. I think the limitations of being kind of everywhere and nowhere, it makes you feel isolated in some ways but at the same time, home, to me, really relates to your community and the people that you are surrounded by, and that’s why I feel like New York for me feels like the closest thing to a physical home.

    SC: I think we tend to bypass the fact that the body is still the body and that it is still placed somewhere; physicality is certainly important.

    JC: Yes, and I think that speaking of place, there is a Chinese-American conceptual geographer named Yi-Fu Tuan who has a book called Space Versus Place and there’s a quote that says “place is a pause in movement” and I like that because we tend to think of place as the place you grew up or what you call home but there are all these places in between, and the non-places. I think that life and the more long term aspect of belonging, it is a series of movements, even if it is in your daily structure, so I just think about how those places are equally “place,” that non-place is equally place. I think about how we talk about place as if we are in a place but that those places are also within us, so you harbor those places in you, and take them with you. So in a sense we become part of these places and they become part of us, so there is this intertwined structure.

6. Let’s talk a little bit about art. What are your tools and how do you approach them, what do they do for you?

I like working with found sources, whether it’s bureaucratic documents of travel or in my other work, found language and also with domestic home décor sources. In my practice I like working with things that already exist, narratives and iconographies and symbols of home, and re-contextualizing and transforming them into my own narratives that are often challenging the pre-existing notions and fragmenting them and turning them into a more fluid and sometimes, more transcultural interpretation. In my practice, I’m trying to question the pre-existing notions and trying to unveil the layers and see what’s underneath that, and what are some of the core ideas that we feel about home and that are found in these other aspects of our lives, whether I find that at Home Depot or in my own immigration documents. It is important for me to work with things that are already existing because I like playing that role of the editor, the artist as editor, and in a way translating from my own perspective what these things could mean, and turning them into a metaphor in our collective transit and our collective experience.

7. What do you think the role of the artist in all this is, and the position of the artist?

I think that an artist can pose really good questions and also open up new ways of looking at things, and new ways of experiencing things. From my own practice I’d like providing new ways for people to experience things that they are already familiar with. I think part of being an artist is that you exist in this world and you are trying to make sense of it, you are bringing your own experience and your own ways of looking. When you make work that makes people think, that’s pretty much what art does and what I expect my own work can do: to pose questions and bring people into considering things differently.

8. There seem to be two dominant ways to think about the artist, one as someone who documents their experience of the world, as they see it and know it, and the other as somebody who is a visionary, projecting alternate worlds. What do you think is the defining characteristic of today’s (migrant) artist?

I can’t speak for everyone who is working in the contemporary art context, but I can speak for myself.  My work is conceptually driven, I definitely think that I align myself with artists who are thinkers, and artists who are invested in questioning things and keeping a critical outlook or who read critically into things that already exist. Specifically for today’s “migrant” artists, I think that many of us can’t separate our experience of the world from our work; the series of events that shapes your perspective naturally become a part of your work. I think that artists who deal with this topic of migration have to be aware of their contexts constantly, and try to push the boundaries of geo-political stereotypes.

9. How is your artistic practice being affected by a range of new ways to communicate through digital froms and formats?

My work is definitely being affected by it. In On Paper, I used digital technology to retouch, to recreate, and to erase information, so the digital tools are a very big part of it. I just did a video poetry performance using Google Translator. I think that the Internet and new tools of technology have definitely opened up my practice to talk about things that are relevant and to address things in unconventional ways. So I might not be painting, but maybe I’m painting in Photoshop, and using the tools to make something new and sometimes appropriating things from the Internet, so I think that for me, new technologies have opened up new ways of collecting and new ways of curating and looking.

SC: And is that an exciting process?

JC: Yes! Personally, I think that my work deals a lot with transculturalism, and if I don’t have the budget to travel, I can go on Google and Youtube and extract the things that I need. So for me it is really helpful especially because I’m dealing with trans-culturalism, I think it allows me to have access to various cultures and places.

SC: So do you see this as an emerging practice? Is there a ‘genre’ of transculturalism? Structurally, or stylistically, are there certain recognizable features of this work that you are part of?

JC: There are so many different sectors of movement and stylistic differences that I wouldn’t be able to categorize it as one.

SC: What are some of the dominant ones?

JC: I think appropriation art is something that obviously started around the 70’s but with the Internet artists continued to work with appropriation. I think of artists who work with notions of home or people, who work with their own life story but turn it into a socio-political critique of the places where they are from. I think of Doho Suh in terms of trans-cultural rhetoric, and for poetry I think of Theresa Cha who passed a long time ago. I try to navigate through those practices and the conceptual concerns of their practice, because in terms of formal approaches, there are so many and a lot of artists are interdisciplinary. That’s what’s exciting about contemporary art right now, nobody is committed to just one  thing; people are exploring in various ways and that’s what’s exciting.

Fire at Sea

— by Andrea Avidad and Sumita Chakravarty

“The reaction of which man has been dispossessed can be replaced only by belief. Only belief in the world can reconnect man to what he sees and hears. The cinema must film, not the world, but belief in the world –this is the power of the modern cinema” – Gilles Deleuze, Cinema I

Fire at Sea

The protagonist of Fire at Sea is a young boy, Samuele, with a passion for slingshots and a boundless sense of adventure and curiosity. Part Huck Finn, part Ariel, he moves through what seems like an enchanted island, his presence at once intersecting with, and distant from, the adult members of the place. The island is Lampedusa, situated off the coast of mainland Italy, that has been much in the news lately as the place where migrant boats arrive, seemingly on a daily basis. The film documents the impact of the arrivals (and the migrant deaths of those who are unable to survive the dangerous trip) in a manner at once stark and gentle, harsh and benign. The filmmaker, Gianfranco Rosi, sets himself the impossible task of conveying normalcy and routinized existence under conditions of extreme stress and upheaval. The result is a blend of beauty and agony that is quite unprecedented.

As the title suggests, the Mediterranean is a significant presence in this film, both physically and symbolically. Yet, as in so much else, meanings are fluid and always in the process of becoming: Fire at Sea, for instance, is the name of a song from World War II, when the Sea was aflame with burning ships. It is a piece of information quite matter-of-factly passed on to Samuele by his grandmother in one of the domestic scenes of the film. Agility is also demanded of the viewer, as shifts between different points of view bring into contiguity the worlds of the native and the foreign. As the quintessential insider/native, Samuele connects for us the natural and human worlds, adults and peers, work and play. Blissfully oblivious of the tensions at sea, he roams the island by day or night, looking for the perfect piece of wood to build his slingshot, learning to pronounce some English words in school, going to the doctor’s to cure his lazy eye, getting lessons on how to row a boat, slurping spaghetti at dinner, and making friends with a bird in the closing shots of the film.  Through him we ponder relations of affinity — between a place and a people, between a community and its “guests,” between historical memory and the forces of change. But what are the strategies that can bring about an awareness of affinity?

Within Western economies of knowledge, seeing possesses a privileged position in epistemic awareness. Rendering straight relations between its formality and its content, an image that is crystal-clear open to the sight, formally discloses and affirms a crystal-clear certainty; a world that appears in all its nakedness is a world that has been digested as it has been previously seen, and consequently, accustomed representability portrays it as it itself appears. This is the image of the recognizable, of the bare, of the real as already known. A settled version of a world and its correspondent images: intelligible in its representation as clear for the gaze. Such image embodies in itself the definitive quality of the known. And the known feels domestic, stable and continuous.

By contrast, in such a system of visibility’s significance, an image whose opaqueness irremediably shelters itself in its own abstraction from the one who sees, is an image that indexes indeterminacy by momentarily suspending the predetermined. But by denying to show and exposing as such, it becomes a unit of significance whose latent potentiality is that of triggering unseen forms of seeing, of generating new forms of recognizing and thus comprehending a malleable world.

Rosi’s documentary artfully explores and posits a language of aesthetic strategies to knot a multiplicity of disjointed events taking place both at the edges and at the heart of Lampedusa. Rosi’s film is an unobtrusive piece that articulates the complexity of different temporalities coming together in the same spatial ground: the timelessness present of the Italian tradition –mostly shot inland– and the refugees’ historical present permanently exceeding itself that brutally takes place at uncertain, open sea. The documentary does not fall into stereotypical formulas of depicting an object of tragedy while positing a political discourse with a pre-made solution; it does not follow the “requirements” of the genre. No voice-over, no talking heads, no instructive music, no overpowering dialogue. Instead, Rosi frames impressionistic images that feel both earthly and surreal whose effect is that of touching lost sensibilities in an audience that has become desensitized to the issue of fading life.

Fire at Sea sharply crosscuts between clear, sunlit filled shots of Samuele whose uninterrupted homely routines describe a European bygone era that has expanded itself to the current moment and dark, neon color-filled shots of migrants for whom Lampedusa is their sole possibility of life. Rosi visually discloses such contrasting states of humanity – the quality of inherited Mediterranean everydayness versus the unattainability of the biggest migration crisis of the 21st century – by juxtaposing highly differentiated imagery: while the tranquil, conventional coastal life of the European subject is framed with no visual artifices following a crystal-clear naturalistic style, the depiction of the displaced people displays a more intricate visual approach. In the latter, the highly graphic oriented, visually rich yet opaque shots function as a semiotic technique that inextricably conveys the current fluctuation of the object-problem: life intermingled with death in sub and meta – human conditions. By optically overshadowing figures of migrants, the filmmaker relays the actual existential overshadowing of such lives, which are not only politically fractured and socially forgotten, but essentially deprived of their humaneness. So, Rosi dexterously generates expressive imagery whose significance refers as much to something outside itself – conditions in the real world– as to just itself in a pure open possibility of meaning.

Fire at Sea’s camera relies on an anatomy of detail: scenes threading the endless transitory state of a ravaging, awry Odyssey achieve a powerful effect through the emphasis of certain elements such as golden emergency thermal blankets which serve as visual symbols of the critical circumstantial modes. An unstoppable permeating state demands something more than pre-determined ways of understanding and consequently, of framing. The cinematography cunningly recourses to the type of object which naturally belongs to the described subject-matter in order to create an exquisite, refined cinematic construction that investigates visual approaches based on the text itself. Migrants are shot on rescue boats in tight close-ups under such blankets providing a contemplative vision that feels as a reverie within a nightmare. Similarly, night shots depicting political technologies of refugees’ rescuing and inshore receiving, accentuate the glimmering of the rescue blankets begetting an eerie effect. Thus, Rosi formulates a symbolism going from micro-detailing to macro meanings.

Film’s methodology contemplates a deconstruction of those foreign temporalities and realities at Lampedusa and its surrounding waters in order to ensemble the multiple lines of action developing in such spatial coordinates. By interweaving such multiplicity of happenings Rosi is able to achieve a better delineation of the parallelism between an existing in-ground familiarity to reality and a new writing about life as an excessive break of the stable. The filmmaker produces an abstract form of neorealism that aims to depict an encounter between events that exceed established representative capacities and that seek no lecturing but amplifying text, context and contingency.

Mapping Migrant Journeys

– by Sumita Chakravarty

There is a kind of matter-of-factness in the voices we hear in Bouchra Khalili’s The Mapping Journey Project, a series of eight videos that is currently installed in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Each video is projected on a screen and as we move from screen to screen, we hear the accompanying story in the migrant’s own voice. The videos were shot between 2008 and 2011, and depict via lines on a map the journeys undertaken by various individuals as they cross borders and head towards Europe and north America in hopes of employment and “a better life.” The clandestine nature of these crossings is reflected in the stylistic choice made by Khalili to show only a hand holding a marker and a voice in monotone recollecting each stage of the journey. From Bangladesh and Afghanistan, Morocco, Algeria and Libya, Sudan and Somalia these migrants have made their way to Greece and Italy, Spain, France, and beyond. By now it is a familiar story – of danger, desperation, sometimes death. Yet the very simplicity of the conception and format of this project (a static map, a hand moving a pen, a voice) brings each detail of the narration into high relief. We shudder as we wonder what it means to take one’s life into one’s own hands in quite this way!7.21.16-Khalili3


The journey has long been a topos for the experience of migrants as they move across space and time. Countless novels and stories take us on exciting, dangerous, and life-changing journeys. The visual media of film and television have quickened the tempo and content of such journeys, though not necessarily enlarging the language of the form itself. The “European migration crisis” of 2015-16 has settled into a predictable set of images in which the boat, the sea, the brown and black bodies, the orange outfits of coastguards, and barbed wire enclosures quickly tell the story. However, in the age of social media, migrants themselves now have the means to document their own journeys, and to be the bearers of their own voice. What Khalili’s project does is to bring some of these anonymous voices into the museum space, to explore migration as art, perhaps of a new kind.

The relationship of artistic work to migration is a complicated one, for it involves striking a balance, for the viewer, between the familiar and the distant, the local and the global. There seem to be two choices available to the visual artist: the first is documentary in impulse, the desire or need to document migration as a process through actual or recreated journeys; the second takes a more personal and reflective approach, as in Mona Hatoum’s Measures of Distance (1988), or uses the concepts of exile and displacement as universal states of being that can affect anyone anywhere (as in her later works of sculpture and installation). Regardless of the choice an artist makes, the most provocative works make us think more deeply about our own times and the everyday objects and discourses that surround us.

Khalili uses the familiar tourist map on which the migrants’ simple act of tracing a line becomes emblematic of tectonic shifts of culture and politics in the contemporary world. As Quinn Latimer notes, “To trace one’s own displacement and steady dispossession, to make sense of it, to find its form— and thus to disregard the forms and limits, cartographic or other, that were allotted to you by place of birth, color of skin, social class and wealth, gender or sexual orientation—is to lay claim to basic rights of agency, autonomy, desire, labor, and, most definitively, movement.” She also notes that Khalili eschews the migrant’s face in favor of the voice, for facial visibility is linked to (state) surveillance. Thus the artist focuses on the hand and the voice, both of which have long been used as symbols of autonomy and empowerment.

But what of the map? How does the map, presented as literal and aesthetic “ground,” feature in the triad of relationships (map, hand, voice) that these videos represent? Maps and mapping have become ubiquitous in everyday life in the digital age; they are also increasingly key forms of inquiry into our ways of understanding the world. One interesting fact that has emerged in recent discussions is the tendency of mapping techniques to enable certain kinds of information and not others. For instance, movement is easily depicted, but other forms of less tangible information are harder to map. There is an inevitable flattening out of context, a diminution of nuance. I am wondering how this affects our apprehension of the migrant journeys. Against the “inertness” of the maps is set the dynamism of movement, the overcoming of obstacles. The heroic individual occupies the foreground while the map, as both static and solidly in place, looms in the background.

But if maps are to be meaningful, they must evoke some of the emotions that we attach to places, familiar and unfamiliar. The mapping journey project, while inspiring, is incomplete. It lacks the reciprocity of place, the bustling sense of human presence and immediacy. More than movement and journey, those isomorphic tropes of the migration story, we are now in need of other kinds of mappings, marked not by contingency but by expanded notions of community and identity.

The Emigration Museum

– Sumita Chakravarty

A brand-new and impressive Emigration Museum in Gydnia, Poland overlooks the Baltic Sea, conjuring up for the visitor the scene of countless departures of Poles for other shores over the past three centuries. As the museum’s brochure informs us, 20 million Poles are currently living abroad, and the Polish diaspora is the sixth largest in the world. It is an incredibly inspiring and complex history, as well as a recognition of the centrality of migration in the consciousness of the contemporary world. The museum takes full note of this fact: for its physical location, the planners chose Gydnia’s Marine Station at 1, Polska Street, the building built in 1933 through which thousands of emigrants passed to make new lives abroad. “It was here that the most remote routes converged, here moored legendary Polish ocean liners, with the MS Batory at the forefront. Gydnia’s emigration past, the port location and the monumental edifice of the Marine Station itself provide a perfect framework for an institution whose ambition it is to give the history of Polish emigration its proper place in the national memory.”

A view from the Museum
A view from the Museum

It is difficult to underestimate the significance of this relatively new way of conceptualizing national history. Most museums of immigration highlight the impact of new arrivals on the history and culture of the receiving country. The museums devoted to its immigrants that one finds in Britain, the United States, France, Australia, and elsewhere are of this sort. The theme here is of a nation enriched by the diverse influences brought in, and the contributions made by people from other places, but it is as though the lives lived by these immigrants prior to their journeys simply drops out of view. Poland’s Emigration Museum may be the first to present an account of its national formation not (only) from within, but fundamentally in terms of its exiles.

In choosing as its theme ‘emigration’ rather than ‘immigration,’ the museum of course avoids the heated debates about belonging engulfing the world today. Poles themselves are the target of racist attacks in Britain and the fate of many non-citizens has yet to be decided. At a time when Europe is once again faced with a crisis of collective identity, when the Brexit vote in Britain and right wing movements elsewhere on the continent, including Poland itself, excoriate the presence of foreigners in their lands, questions of mobility are being carefully weighted. But the exhibition discreetly sidesteps these aspects of life abroad. Instead, it invites a look at the long arc of Polish history to present emigration as both a sobering reality and an opportune factor in the nation’s existence. People move: it is as simple as that. And it falls to different groups and nationalities to undertake these journeys at different times in the past. Not so long ago, Europe itself was the scene, not the target of mass migrations. Between 1815 and 1914, 55-60 million people left Europe. They rebuilt their lives in Brazil and Argentina, in Canada and the United States. It would seem that for Poles emigration continued through the rest of the century and into the present. This trend has to be seen, of course, in conjunction with Poland’s war-torn past, which included the period from 1772 to 1914 when the country ceased to exist, having been partitioned by Austria, Russia, and Prussia. As one Warsovian told me, since 1989 Poland was enjoying freedom from occupation for the first time in its modern history, and it was going to take them a little while to figure things out.

A sense of optimism and hopefulness does pervade the museum. This is essentially a celebration of Polish history, culture, language, and traditions, which together constitute a kind of essential Polishness that does not go away when one leaves its shores and settles elsewhere. As I recall, the term “Polish nation” does not appear too often in the exhibits, while that of “the Polish people” does. And so a kind of continuity rather than rupture is the underlying theme in the museum, as Poles in exile are deeply invested in the political conditions of the motherland at various points in time. The phrase “spiritual exile” is recalibrated to suggest “spiritual connection in exile.” I was reminded of statements made on separate occasions by two Polish intellectuals – one an ophthalmologist/scholar and the other a university professor – who both told me, “We Poles never leave our home towns.” They were describing how they had spent their entire lives in their places of birth, although they traveled abroad quite frequently. It almost felt as though two halves of the Polish zeitgeist were being forged together.

My tour starts in a room with interactive screens which show images of people who emigrated at different times and for different destinations. This emphasis on faces and people underscores the museum’s intent to address emigration through personal stories and individual lives. The main exhibition takes us chronologically through the various stages of Poland as a country since its founding in the medieval period. Illuminated panels connect historical personages to specific events or to the songs, legends, and stories associated with them. During the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania together formed the largest country in Europe. Poland’s population was comprised of many groups at the time: “Poles, Lithuanians, Ruthenians (the future Belarusians and Ukrainians), Jews, Prussians, Livonians, Armenians, Tartars, Karaims, Vlachs, and Roma all lived side by side.” When the rest of Europe was persecuting Jews, the Polish Republic welcomed them, resulting in one of the largest Jewish communities settled there until the second world war. “Poland is like a motley bird, dyed to the core,” wrote Jakub Olszewski, a Vilnius Jesuit in the mid-17th century, with reference to the ethnic and religious diversity of the Polish Republic.

The story of emigration is presented in three stages: the Great Migration of 1831; the era of mass migrations in the Industrial Era and the exodus to the United States; and the recent migrations after Poland joined the European Union in 2004. The U.S. and New York in particular get attention in relation to popular culture: after all, two of the biggest Hollywood studios were founded by Polish Jews: Samuel Goldwyn from Warsaw and the Warner brothers from the Ostroleka region. In the early twentieth century, as emigration slowed because of a slumping world economy, an Emigration Syndicate was established to protect the interests of Polish emigrants abroad as well as that of the state. It was felt that emigration relieved economic pressures at home and so proper mechanisms needed to be set in place.

The exhibition left me wondering what defines a Pole, but in a good way. There were no deep, dark mysteries here of the national soul (if there is such a thing). Rather, what one sensed was an openness to the world, a going back and forth, preserving the past while creating the future. And in a globalizing world, that’s a lesson we can all embrace.

Migration and the Culture of Anguish

Lotte’s mother: How did you know it was me?
Nejat Aksu: You are the saddest person here.

Nejat Aksu and Susanne Staub in The Edge of Heaven; film still

In his film, The Edge of Heaven (Auf der anderen Seite, 2008), Turkish-German filmmaker, Fatih Akin foregrounds pain, loss, and the pathos of brief encounters through three intertwined narratives that touch each other, one might say, at “the edges.” The three episodes (Yeter’s Death; Lotte’s Death; and The Edge of Heaven) are laid out side by side, as one might do with pieces of cloth to be stitched together, with one edge slightly overlapping the one next to it. The film’s “episodic” structure underscores at once the peripheral nature of social interactions in migrant and transnational spaces, as well as the inevitability of human contact, albeit via grief and suffering. How the one connects with the other may be the fundamental question of our time. Akin’s film reminds us that a commitment to mobility and abstract affiliations in a networked age must rub up against an awareness of those immediately around us and the efforts one must make in the here and now to see that “other side” (the meaning of the film’s German title). Not that The Edge of Heaven is a meditation on technological mediations of presence; rather, its visual and thematic currency is visceral and anguished in a direct sort of way. Death, that most inscrutable of occurrences, serves to stitch events and characters’ lives together. So the anguish we see on screen, and feel as we watch, has many layers. But Akin’s tour de force is that he brings us to a reckoning of the world we live in (marked by bigotry, anger, murder, deportation, incarceration) without collapsing into negativity and rage. Rather, he focuses on what connects us as humans and the need to open ourselves up to the pain of the other. And sometimes it takes death to provide sustenance to the living.

The cinema of migration is a genre in the making, and its parameters are still uncertain. Elements from the thriller, violent crime, melodrama, science fiction, and social realism genres all find their space in its capacious folds. Migrant journeys, especially of the illegal variety, form a major thematic and narrative arc within this output, as these lend themselves to dramatic situations and visually-compelling scenarios. Migrant characters evoke pity as they struggle with poverty, exploitation, and the ever-present fear of being discovered and returned to their homeland. Issues of identity and belonging are also prominent in migration films, documentary and feature. The film scholar Hamid Naficy has written about an “accented cinema” in which exiled filmmakers develop a special cinematic language that speaks to their own unique situation. More appropriate, though, for contemporary filmmakers addressing the issue of migration in either direct or oblique ways may be the notion of “double occupancy” advanced by film historian and scholar Thomas Elsaesser. This idea recognizes the always already dual emotional and psychological space that migrants inhabit. In the case of Fatih Akin, however, one gets the sense that even the awareness of double occupancy might be too limiting, and that filmmakers are better off exploring the “redemptive” possibilities in the contingent, the unfamiliar, even the bizarre.

The story, when stated in summary, can seem overwrought and extravagant: a young man of Turkish origin named Nejat Aksu is raised by his widower father and the two live in Hamburg where Nejat has a job at the university teaching German literature. The older Aksu invites a prostitute, Yeter Ozturk, to live with him to relieve his loneliness but ends up killing her in a jealous rage. Yeter has a daughter, Ayten, who has escaped to Hamburg from Istanbul because of her involvement with a radical group. Here she meets a German student, Lotte, and the two fall in love. But Ayten is brought back to Istanbul to stand trial, and Lotte follows to be close to her and secure her release. She is, however, a victim of senseless violence and is gunned down by a young assailant in the street. Before her sudden end, Lotte has met and rented a room from Nejat who is now the owner of a German bookstore in the heart of Istanbul. Lotte’s mother, Susanne Staub, comes to Istanbul to find the reason for her daughter’s death, meeting Nejat in a hotel lobby where they exchange the lines quoted above in the epigraph. What follows is the gradual transcendence of the main characters’ limited understandings of self and other.

These connections become objects of overt symbolism in the film. As Yeter’s coffin makes its way, on the airport tarmac, from Hamburg to Istanbul, Lotte’s coffin is shown going in the opposite direction, going “home” from Istanbul to Hamburg. In another scene, as Nejat’s father appears at a train window to buy a ticket following his deportation order from Germany, we catch a glimpse of Lotte’s mother Susanne who is also leaving for Istanbul, following the death of her daughter there. Repetitions abound, as though all life is circular. When we first see Nejat teaching in a classroom, the camera pans to a student collapsed on her desk, fast asleep. Towards the end of the film, the same scene is repeated, only this time we recognize the girl as Ayten and know why she is asleep in this unlikely place. And in Istanbul, Nejat and Lotte’s lives briefly intersect, thus making it possible for her mother to seek him out and know him as well. 

The movement through space, which is an essential aspect of migration, cannot fail to raise questions of cinematic belonging for Akin himself. He has been known to identify as “a classical filmmaker” rather than an ethnically-marked or immigrant one. Such self-positioning must be placed against the backdrop of a long history of debate about what constitutes German cinema within Germany itself, and while this is not the place to get into that historical question, it is doubtful that Akin is unaware of it. However, what strikes me as significant is that The Edge of Heaven moves this old-new debate along (now also taking the form of defining “Europe”) from its association with physical borders to an association with people as individuals capable of change and growth in a way that nation-spaces are not. In other words, physical borders between Germany and Turkey are crossed so often as to become meaningless, and the focus shifts to the characters as they become dis-integrated from their countries of origin. “Culture” is no longer what we inherit but what we open ourselves to. The family is no longer the source of one’s cultural belonging. In each of the three narrative strands, family bonds are sharply broken: Nejat rejects his father because of his crime; Lotte leaves her mother to go after the woman she loves, despite Susanne’s remonstrances; Yeter and Ayten, mother and daughter, never meet in the film. In each case, the characters who remain alive  have to regain or reconstitute familial ties through anguish and loss.

Akin’s film is a symphony about death, life, and resurrection but not in a religious sense; it has no use for Christianity or Islam. Rather, by blurring the distinctions between ‘host’ and ‘guest’, ‘migrant’ and ‘native’, he presents these positions as malleable and mutually illuminating.
-by Sumita Chakravarty

Migration’s Psychogeographies

If, as Alfred Korzybski famously observed, “The map is not the territory,” what are some alternate ways of exploring our relationship to the areas we traverse and the spaces we occupy? There is by now a vast literature on cartography and map-making as it historically evolved to make possible the ubiquity of maps that we know today. Increasingly sophisticated software programs also create maps that chart various kinds of data. The current ‘refugee crisis’ in Europe has generated a fair share of maps showing the direction of movement of people. However, there are aspects of human experience and response that are not ‘mappable’ in the same way. Through a psychogeographic approach, we can stray from typical datasets and move toward a more complicated and personal approach to mapping migration that takes into account the personal and emotional experiences of individuals expressed through various media.

Guy Debord was a French filmmaker, writer, and Marxist theorist. He is known as a founding member of the organization Situationist International, the author of Society of the Spectacle (1967) and as the creator of the definition for psychogeography. In his 1955 essay, “Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography,” Debord discussed his view of geography as a discipline that focuses on a range of large spatial analyses, from soil composition to economic structures. He felt that this macro approach lacked an understanding of the effect geographic structures have on the individual. Consequently, he used the recently coined term “psychogeography” to create a “study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.”

Similarly today, we can find many datasets unpacking migration movements on a macro scale, yet we hear less from the individual migrants. However, we do find a psychogeographic approach in some popular blogs, podcasts, and other projects that explore the individual impact of people that are part of contemporary migrations.

Humans of New York
Humans of New York is a widely read blog created by Brandon Stanton that tells short, personal stories of random New Yorkers through portrait photographs and text quotes pulled from interviews. These stories cover a range of personal experiences that illustrate individual tales that often depict social workings in New York City. Many featured New Yorkers are migrants who share bits of their story.

In this photo we see a young woman in college graduation attire, standing in front of what appears to be City College in Harlem. The caption reads “I am an illegal immigrant.” From this simple photo and caption, much can be inferred in regard to her experience through a college degree program as a non-citizen of the United States.

Stanton took his project on the road and traveled to Europe to explore the Syrian refugee movement. He said, “Together, these migrants are part of one of the largest population movements in modern history… But their stories are composed of unique and singular tragedies.” One segment follows a Kurdish man named Muhammed and recounts his migration experience. He shares his tragic personal experiences involving Isis and his family, his escape that was enabled through the hiring of a human smuggler that led him to Austria, where he ultimately gained citizenship.

Us & Them: The Refugee Trail with Scott Carrier

Scott Carrier hosts a podcast titled Home of the Brave. He decided to retrace the steps of the current Syrian refugee trail, traveling from Denmark, Copenhagen to the Greek island of Lesbos. In his proposal, Scott said, “I’ll find refugees and ask them ‘why did you leave home? Where are you going? And what’s happened along the way?’” He produced interviews and photographs of refugees on their journey, each of which is a psychogeographic map in itself.

Syrian Refugee Drawings

Recently in Milan Central Station, the organization Save the Children asked Syrian child refugees to draw anything they wanted. You can read about the project and view some of these drawings here. One child titled their piece “Journey of Death”, depicting a sailboat filled from top to bottom with people calling for help in both English and Italian. Another drawing is simply a closeup of tears streaming from a single human eye. These drawings, which are expressions of a 3,000 kilometer journey, should be considered psychogeographic maps. The personal experiences of this treacherous journey through geographic space are embedded in these images, and can be interpreted to document the individual experience within a greater movement.

Instead of simply using typical forms of data interpretation, through psychogeography one is able to map migration in a more complex form that is expressive of human emotion. The source of information is filled with rich data that can be interpreted through many different forms of media.

-by Kieran Gannon

Kieran Gannon is pursuing an MA in Theories of Urban Practice at Parsons, The New School, NY.

Citizen or Alien?

The U.S. presidential campaign of 2016 has once again brought the issue of migration and citizenship to the forefront of political debate and public discussion. In particular, immigration into the U.S. as a threat to national well-being and economic prosperity is regarded as one of the two major reasons for the populist appeal of candidate Donald Trump (the other is fear of terrorism). This seems like an opportune moment to revisit an earlier presidential campaign and examine the words and images that were circulating in real and virtual spaces to make sense of “a changing America.” I do so through a brief foray into the semiotic landscape that constituted candidate Barack Obama some years ago, in order to shed some light on the deepening mystery of identity –political and personal– in the twenty-first century.

One might begin with Obama’s own description of his multilateral state:

“As the child of a [B]lack man and a [W]hite woman, someone who was born in the racial melting pot of Hawaii, with a sister who’s half Indonesian but who’s usually mistaken for Mexican or Puerto Rican, and a brother-in-law and niece of Chinese descent, with some blood relatives who resemble Margaret Thatcher and others who could pass for Bernie Mac, so that family get-togethers over Christmas take on the appearance of a UN General Assembly meeting, I’ve never had the option of restricting my loyalties on the basis of race, or measuring my worth on the basis of tribe.”
(Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope 2006/2008, p. 231)

Yet it is also true that early on in his life, struggling to determine where he belonged (a process movingly recounted in his memoir, Dreams from my Father), Obama saw himself as an African-American, an identification that has stuck, regardless of whether he is perceived as truly aligned to the community’s interests or not. My point is that we seem to lack the means (or the will) to make sense of multiplicity as a lived condition, a fact that is evident in the examples below.

“Who is Barack Obama?” was a litany since the early days of the Obama campaign and gained ground after his election, particularly in what became known as the birther movement which contended that Obama was born in Kenya and is not an American citizen. While Obama supporters have long dismissed the allegation, and the necessary documents have been displayed on official websites, many Americans continue to believe in Obama’s illegitimacy as the US president. On Feb 16, 2011, the popular talk show host Stephen Colbert joked that over fifty percent of Republican primary voters believed that Obama is not a U.S. citizen, and quipped: “I am so proud to have been born in a country where unsubstantiated rumors about political opponents become majority beliefs. . . .I bet Obama wishes he was born here too!”


In August 2008, Time Magazine carried a story titled, ‘The Five Faces of Barack Obama” in which he was described as “black man, healer, novice, radical, the future.” It is a random assortment of “appearances” or personas having little to do with one another, designating respectively his racial identity, his political skills, his lack of experience, his so-called leftist sympathies, and his connection to young voters and ease with new media. In the ‘black man’ section, we read about Obama’s ties to the African-American community; this is followed in the ‘healer’ section with the opposite concern: the torment Obama feels that he does not belong anywhere, serving in turn as the rationale for his desire to build consensus and compromise with his political opponents. ‘Novice’ (his inexperience) and ‘Radical’ (his deep associations with leftist or ideologically-extremist figures) also work at cross-purposes. In short, each section could be portraying a completely different person. No wonder the article concludes by noting that “Obama remains enigmatic no matter how much we see of him.”

In April 2009, Life Magazine had a slide show called “The Many Faces of Barack Obama.” The LA Times also carried a slide show called “Beyond Shepard Fairey: The many, many faces of Barack Obama” in which 19 different images by artists from Russia, Rumania, Moldova, Japan, India, and the U.S. had drawn their own versions of the president. The Internet has been a particularly hospitable medium for photoshopped images of Obama; the website <> ‘s comedy goldmine had 44 images of Obama representing everything from Queen Elizabeth to Moses to Michelangelo’s nude statue of David to a skeletal ghost, and even a toy train. It is important to note that the intent of all of the above is favorable coverage of Obama, although there are no dearth of videos and images that are demonizing as well, such as the frequent charge that Obama is “a Muslim plant in the White House.” Compared to the above, the Obama as Muslim image seems tame and uni-dimensional.

In Sept 2009, the question “Who is Barack Obama?” was again used in a NY Times Magazine article covering an anti-Obama Tea Party rally. It started with the words, “All around were satanic representations of President Barack Obama in whiteface, as a Nazi, an African witch doctor, a Marxist, a Muslim, and Che Guevara’s best friend – but Kathy Golya had never felt so good about the new administration as she did right now. It was a day after Representative Joe Wilson’s outburst in Congress, and the South Carolina congressman had given voice to Golya’s inner heart . . . . Someone had called him a liar.” The article goes on to focus on the birthers, who are a driving force behind the feeling that Obama does not belong, and hence can take on the attributes of every perceived villain in the visual marketplace.

What I want to suggest from these examples, and doubtless many others could be found, is that Obama is most often thought of in terms of such a visual cornucopia of rampant and out-of-control multiplicity. In other words, his multiplicity IS the problem, and a sign of his alien-ness, something that both his supporters and detractors can exploit. My point is not in arguing for a conspiracy theory, but rather in saying that the very media tools at our disposal may undercut the potential for informed or complex understanding. As Obama has himself astutely observed, “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.”


If Obama was being portrayed as a mystery and puzzle in the US media even before his election, his multiplicity received a somewhat different, though no less contradictory, reception abroad. Few US presidents received the kind of overwhelmingly positive coverage as did president-elect Obama, who was claimed by many different nations as their own, including those that did not have any direct connections to boast of. After his election, The Las Vegas Asian Journal (November 6-12, 2008) reported: “He had an Asian childhood, African parentage and has a Middle Eastern name. He is a truly global president.” Another newspaper quoted an interviewee: “What an inspiration. He is the first truly global US president the world has ever had,” said Pracha Kanjananont, a 29-year-old Thai sitting at a Starbucks in Bangkok.” But it was in Europe that he enjoyed [the] high[est] degree of affection among the public and elites, with 200.000 people attending his speech in Germany, and later, being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize barely one year after taking office, and only ten months into his administration. Yet, as scholars Ruth Hatlapa and Andrei Markovits note, Europeans were happy to endorse a kind of multiplicity that was safely across the Atlantic, even as they continued to build barriers at home. These scholars write:

Indeed, one of Obama’s most powerful a priori reasons for legitimacy in the eyes of Europeans hails precisely from the fact that he is African- American and thus not the stereotypical American in European eyes. The fact that it remains inconceivable for anybody vaguely like Obama—with his name and his racial background—to be elected to a comparable position of head of state and/or government in any European society endears him to Europeans further still since, with their racism and continued de facto ethnic perception of community not permitting anything similar to happen in Europe for many years to come, Europeans experienced the election of a black in America as an overdue corrective to that country’s racist past as well as a vicarious step in their own world that—luckily in their view, though sotto voce —they still do not have to confront (p 77).

Thus Obama-mania and anti-Americanism could be happily made to co-exist, as observers felt free to pick and choose at will, and to dissociate personal and political histories.

What of Obama’s self-presentation, his own grasp of his multiplicity? Much has been written of his first memoir, Dreams from My Father, which the author himself defined as “a story of race and inheritance,” and which for the most part has been seen as a quest for his own black identity. Arguably, however, it is the book’s multiple loci—spatial, emotional, ethnic– that make it so quintessentially cosmopolitan in spirit. While a ‘return’ to Africa in search of his roots traces a familiar narrative arc in American historical consciousness which Obama was no doubt drawing upon, it is the reality of his transnational travels via his mother’s propulsive nature, that carries the day. By denying his mother’s story the preeminence that it actually had in his material life, Obama may have tried to resist the very internationalism that provided the bedrock of his experiences.

Obama’s personal biography brought his multiplicity from the margins of the USA into its political heartland – the White House. For the most part, this threw norms of representation into crisis, for the office of the presidency is the visual and media referent of power, legitimacy, stability, and cohesion. Rather than multiplicity, it signifies singularity and permanence, the centripetal force countering a centrifugal world. No wonder so many of the dramas played out on television screens had to do with his willingness to wear a flagpin, or to recite the Pledge of Allegiance with the requisite gravitas; it even motivated a respected Harvard intellectual historian (James Kloppenberg) to place Obama in the venerable American tradition of philosophical pragmatism to establish his bona fides.

Perhaps along the same lines, Obama’s pragmatism may have led him to align with the epidermal aspect of ascribed identity that all of us carry around, keeping his worldliness under erasure. What is astonishing is that in the age of global, viral and mobile media, it is nativism, not worldliness, singularity not multiplicity that is in the ascendant.

Ruth Hatlapa and Andrei S.Markovits, “Obamamania and anti-Americanism as Complementary Concepts in Contemporary German Discourse.” German Politics and Society, Issue 94 Vol. 28, No. 1 Spring 2010.

– by Sumita Chakravarty