To read everyday life, what Hegel called “the prose of the world” is, therefore, to become engaged in an act of poesis. This means, for instance, that the everyday should not be assumed to be some quality inherent only in the great realist or mimetic narratives of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Nor… should it be located only in those specifically mimetic moments in a given text. It means, more importantly, that we understand poesis in the sense of a transformation or creative act. Everyday life harbours the texture of social change; to perceive it at all is to recognise the necessity of its conscious transformation.Alice Kaplan and Kristine Ross
Migration, asylum-seeking, refugees are much in the news, usually for the wrong reasons. The constant movement of peoples throughout history, some fleeing political persecution, others forced into exile, some seeking temporary work, others permanent economic migrants has often been presented to us as something new, threatening, disturbing. Why is the response to fellow human beings so often ‘coloured’ by paranoia rather than its ethical opposite: hospitality? Migration is, and has always been, normal, but that is not say it is without pain. It is creative and transformative, initiating change in all parties, but that is hardly a bad thing. So why is it such an issue now – and how would we learn to think about the varied elements of different kinds of movement, scattering, translocation, exile, in relation to asylum, refuge and above all, new lives?
Migratory Aesthetics is being curated as part of an international research collaboration with the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis of the University of Amsterdam on a research project initiated by Professor Mieke Bal. Migratory Aesthetics also participates in the 2005-6 research theme of AHRC Centre for Cultural Analysis, Theory and History (CATH): Amnesia, Memoria, Historia through which we are trying think about both forgetting and remembering, and the ambivalent relations between memory and historical interpretation ( www.leeds.ac.uk/cath/).
AHRC CentreCATH is a transdisciplinary research initiative spanning fine art practice, histories and interpretations of art, and Cultural Studies, all three of which subject areas are then inflected with questions of Feminist, Jewish and postcolonial difference. We come together to explore key issues in historical and contemporary cultures through the doubled lens of critical thought and creative practice framed by historical questioning.
AHRC CentreCATH opened in 2001 with an exhibition of work by Lily Markiewicz which included an installation in the Parkinson Court of a temporary shack that signified a transient and fragile space/Inside two large photographs confronted each other, both close up images of shifting and sifted sand. Evoking the image of the ‘sands of time’ that both mark the passing of time and the erasure of the imprints of specific events over time, Markiewicz’s work also included four speakers across which the sound of a woman’s, slightly accented, voice spoke a poetic text about wandering, displacement, remembering, and longing - itself an emotion premised on exile either geographical or emotional. The roughly built housing for the images and ambient sound echoed Jewish traditions of both historical homelessness and cultic remembrance of ancient wandering and deracination through enslavement and exile that had, however, experienced a terrible and violent re-enactment during the Shoah of the twentieth century. Markiewicz’s exhibition also embodied the subjective condition of ‘second generation’ consciousness, that of children of those who ‘survived,’ but thereby sustained, as permanent trauma, the Holocaust. This subtle installation and its accompanying images in the gallery initiated CentreCATH's opening research theme: hospitality – a cultural concept that countered its ugly opposite: xenophobia and racism. Hospitality, linked with an awareness of the continuing violence of social class allowed us to think about persistent issues of social belonging/exclusion occasioned by class or gender as much as by ‘racialisation’. Lily Markiewicz exhibits again in Migratory Aesthetics as one participant in an international group show that draws several of these key themes back into view through the specific prism of art making. Using a range of media to inflect migration, exile, Diaspora, cross-cultural exchange, translation of meanings, identities and concepts, trauma and transformation with specifically aesthetic/artistic ways of re-thinking, the artwork exhibition poses questions, marks places, and invites reconsideration of the role of art as part of their theorisation.
AHRC CentreCATH’s specific commitment to developing research in and through fine art and creative practice, and to ensuring that artists take their place at the table of world-class research as critical thinkers and cultural analysts has led to the idea of curating an exhibition that is an integral part of collaborative transdisciplinary research practice. At the same time, it is a means by which the larger public within and beyond the University can engage both with the artworks in themselves and with the kind of discussions they can generate as well as the reflections they provoke through specific, aesthetic models for thinking about the migratory through and as aesthetics.
So what does this term mean? Does migratory aesthetics suggest an aesthetic dimension to the social and cultural experience of migration? Yes. Does it suggest that aesthetics as ways of living and making sense of the world migrate? Yes. Does it suggest migration involves an aesthetic of being and transformation of the self? Yes. Does it imply a re-evaluation of an often negative, paranoid and anxiety-ridden response to incoming ‘others’ by exploring both what migration feels like from within and how societies are animated – painfully as well as creatively - by the challenge of differences we should celebrate rather than fear or resist? Yes. Does it propose a moment of listening, attending, re-seeing our worlds from different points within its expanded geographies and extended generations that cross historical time and socio-geographical location with the tropes of movement/dislocation,
In the present atmosphere where issues of migration, asylum-seeking, refugees and cultural diversity are high on both serious political and paranoid popular agendas which fuel racist, stereotypical and othering caricatures of fellow beings what have the arts and humanities to offer to the more typical political or sociological narratives that flood our airwaves and fill our newspapers? How does art and cultural analysis feed into subtler, more humane understanding of the processes and conditions that periodically break into horrific violence while simmering dangerously in between? Aesthetics is not, as many claims, only about art safely removed from the strife and trouble of world, secure in its remote ivory tower where beauty of form invites dispassionate contemplation.
In post-twentieth century culture, the aesthetic addresses ways of experiencing, knowing and representing the worlds we live in, crossing emotion and thought, sensation and idea, offering ways into complex experience and difficult concepts through its own affective, affecting and embodied visual, literary, filmic and musical rhetorics. For over thirty years, cutting-edge artists from overlooked margins and minorities have resisted the idealising separation of art from life; they have actively built bridges between deep, and often traumatic histories of the many catastrophes of the twentieth century (and before) from enslavement, genocide, colonialism, decolonialising struggles and war to the persistent daily torture of racist annihilation of common humanity, from the traumas of dislocation and relocation, the translation of self into new languages and cultural scripts, the loss of homeland and remembered childhood, from the continuing struggles to deliver equity to different subjects – gendered, ethnicised, sexual to the contestation of the homophobic erasure of sustainable subjectivity and dignity of person. The aesthetic is not, therefore, about abstracted beauty freed from daily social realities; in post-Auschwitz and post-colonial times, the aesthetic as a singular articulation that interrupts the massified clichés of media culture, as ways of speaking, showing, and representing from a specific experience and place, open lines of inter-subjective encounter and potential communication that allow for singularity. These aim to ensure that as we think about concepts such as migration, diversity, cultural transformation, we encounter the lived, embodied and imagined dimensions of lives, bodies, feelings and thoughts: subjectivities burdened with and creatively negotiating new worlds despite the challenges of forced, voluntary, economically necessary, politically persecuted movement.
With movement comes the question of memory – memory of the past, the lost, the erased, as well as memories transmitted to become part of the subjective lining of second and third generations of the children of migrating people hinging themselves between ‘home’ and new homes or even ineradicable homelessness. How do cultural and aesthetic forms such as food, dress, belief, communal life, language, story-telling, music, habit, colour become active media of memory transmission and constant cultural transformation? Do we have too much or too little cultural memory? Does too great an attachment impede assimilation (is it desirable or possible in the first place?) or should we foster active difference as the condition of cultural vitality and human openness? Whose cultural memories are actively included or passively repressed in the cultural landscapes of our changing presents, our co-inhabited and co-emerging territories of modern identities both hungry for the new but closed to different?
Migratory Aesthetics pay special attention to the incidental, the everyday, the often overlooked details that have the power to hold open passages to the past and transmit significant resources to the future, binding generations across unshared spaces and not known places. The drama of what counts as History, or registers as Sociology involves the massing of thousands if not millions of individuated experiences into larger patterns that erase these lively, momentary and intense specificities that art allows us to contemplate at leisure and in singular depth. The aesthetic opens on to what psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas calls ‘an aesthetics of being’, or an aesthetics of interaction where something deep within us is transformed by something outside us. Cultures are changed by the accumulation of details of these actions that are inevitable dimensions of human living and interaction.
One justification often put forward as a defence of migration is that incomers are to be welcomed as fertilisers, refreshing the parts that existing culture can no longer renew. This utilitarian view makes migration good for the host country but rarely considers the costs of migration to those coming to make new lives in societies that are ambivalent or outright hostile to such renewal and change. We know that migration is a complex and demanding process for those who must live its differentiated modes of change. Sounds, music, housing, decor, colours, dress, smells alter the imagined landscape of host countries who forget how very varied their societies always were since migration is the historical norm, cultural diversity the inevitable effect of the dynamics of world history. The fantasy of the homogeneous and racially consistent nation-state emerged only briefly and incompletely in nineteenth century Europe; it was built on suspect racialising theories that marked Anglo-Saxons off from Celts and invented Aryans to be distinguished from equally fantastic from Semites , conflating the Irish and the African, racialising the contesting claims of Christianity against Islam under Orientalism , only slowly relinquishing the hostility between Protestant and Catholic and, in the words of the immortal Tom Lehrer, allowing everyone to hate the Jews. Never has there been the Nirvana of purity that is now conjured up as the ideal that existed before the invasion of new immigrants; never was there a consensus on Britishness, itself a cross-migratory complex of peoples, cultures and languages for the last fifteen hundred years.
Migratory Aesthetics allows us to encompass the experiences and their aesthetic modes of more than the decolonised/ decolonising/neo-colonised worlds. For in this exhibition we also bring into view not only the triangle of the oceans between that form what Paul Gilroy has named ‘the Black Atlantic’ (Ingrid Pollard and Martine Attile), aspects the East African experience mediated through textile, colour and aphorism (Lubaina Himid) and the apartheid and liberated South African experience (Roger Palmer and Fanozi ‘Chickenman’ Mhkize), we also touch upon other connections such as the links between Harewood House and the colonial world through Indian-born Sutapa Biswas’ work of mourning for her political dissident father’s passing and several different facets of the experience of forced migration
caused by the genocidal assault on European Jewry that dispersed its minority of survivors to Britain (Tucker and Markiewicz) and Israel (Ettinger). Trauma – each different and non-assimilable yet mutually acknowledging - forms a link that crosses otherwise segregated cultural histories as does an insistence on the undiminished creativity with which people negotiate their unanticipated histories. Memories of homes never known, yet transmitted as lost by parental silence or painful narrative bring into view countries to the West such as the Franco-phone or Anglo-phone Caribbean and to the East: Germany and Poland.
Migratory Aesthetics brings into view as well as into sound not only the experience of those who moved but those left behind (Bal); it works with images painted, drawn, reprocessed, mediatised, transformed, collaged, re-assembled. It uses borrowed images encoded as memory-traces through photography and uses photography to stage the unseen or unrecognised. It uses still images in paint, charcoal and photography; it uses moving images that work with time, narrative, and event inflected by voice, music, sound. Some time-based pieces such as those Sutapa Biswas and Lily Markiewicz stay the viewer for less than ten minutes; others involve longer viewing times to experience the beautifully plotted movement. Turner Prize nominee Isaac Julien’s film on Martinican revolutionary Frantz Fanon whose dissertation text Black Skin/White Masks originally published in 1952 was rediscovered as a key text of postcolonial/decolonising cultural studies in the 1980s is 72 minutes long, but made in such a way that each segment watched throws into relief a dimension of Fanon’s complexity of analysis of (heterosexual) Caribbean masculinity and de-colonising subjectivity in relation to the gaze, the body as the media of experience both in the Caribbean and in Algeria’s bloody decolonising war against the French.
I am indebted to Julia Kristeva’s concept of a renewed significance of aesthetic practices in the era of uniformity of commodified identities and mass media. See J. Kristeva, ‘Women’s Time,’ The Kristeva Reader, ed. Toril Moi, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1986), 210.