Demos, TJ. 2013. The Migrant Image. The Art and Politics of Documentary during Global Crisis | BEATRICE FERRARA

September 27, 2013

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Review Article: Demos, TJ. 2013. The Migrant Image. The Art and Politics of Documentary during Global Crisis. Durham, NC & London: Duke University Press. Paperback, pp. 336. ISBN 978-0-8223-5340-9

TJ Demos’ 2013 The Migrant Image. The Art and Politics of the Documentary during the Global Crisis is a critical investigation into the ways in which contemporary artists situated in Europe, North America, the Middle East and North Africa have engaged with mobility in our times of global crisis. The aim of the book is to suggest how such engagements have brought about a radical and still ongoing reinvention of the conditions of the moving image within a specific genre of representation, i.e. the documentary. By looking at recent filmic, video and photographic artworks, the book convincingly argues for a continuous and productive blurring, in the documentary, of the lines between facts and fiction, representation and strategic failures to represent, narration and tactical disruption of linear accounts. Expanding on these artistic tactics developed to confront the ambiguous yet prolific conditions of migration, the author invites to consider them as expressions of the emergence of a very strong and compelling politicisation of the aesthetic domain. By looking at the work of artists as diverse as Steve McQueen, The Otolith Group, Hito Steyerl, Emil Jacir, Ahlam Shibli, Lamia Joreige, Akram Zaatari, Walid Raad, The Atlas Group, Rabih Mroué, Ursula Biemann, Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri, the author attentively inquiries into the dynamics of global circulation of images and persuasively argues for their being politically affective.

As to sustain also stylistically the contents of the text, the book’s structure mirrors a journey. Opening with a “Check-In” general introduction and a methodological section entitled “Charting a Course”, the book presents three main ramifications called “Departures” – each divided into chapters presenting the different case studies. Two “Transit” chapters follow “Departure A” and “Departure B”, presenting further expansions on the theoretical and methodological underpinnings mobilised in the preceding chapters. After “Departure C”, a “Destination” closes The Migrant Image, summarising the book’s contents and expanding on the political potentialities of confronting the complexities of contemporary global migrations through an affective engagement with art.

The “Check-In” and the “Charting a Course” sections deserve an attentive reading and evaluation, as they constitute the most challenging and original sections of the book. In these, Demos presents the specific take on the relation between art and mobility the book’s subsequent chapters will develop. Taking very seriously one of the pillars of cultural studies – i.e. the necessity to include in one’s critical argumentations the recognition of the exact positioning from which these are articulated – the author introduces first of all the precise conjuncture from which art and mobility are discussed in the text – i.e. the age of ‘global crisis’. Examining contemporary art in a world where globalisation is prevailing as a model and as a cultural dominant, TJ Demos immediately substitutes ‘crisis globalisation’ for any liberal portrayal of globalisation as a planetary network of free markets and cultural institutions flourishing thanks to ever-advancing ICT and deregulated travel. Drawing from the work of authors such as Giorgio Agamben, Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, David Harvey, Étienne Balibar and Eyal Weizman, Demos defines crisis globalisation as

an era of growing economic inequality, one facing the increasing influx of migrants and refugees into the North as they seek decent standards of living and escape from repressive regimes, widespread poverty, and zones of conflict. Yet they do so only to be met by increased security at European borders that exacerbates political and social inequality at international and regional levels. [1]

Indeed, all the artworks the book discusses create fractures into the liberal portrayal of globalisation. Their aesthetics develops from this pressing conjuncture: a world in which globalisation is inseparable from its darker side. Responding to the imperative of documenting the shadowy zones of the global order, such artworks however also reveal – as Demos claims – the fallacies of any attempt to transparent representation. In a world engulfed by fluxes of images – themselves migrating on a planetary scale of intertwined media platforms, thus alluding to the double sense of ‘migrant images’ – representations of mobile lives are not merely a matter of information. More aptly, they in-form the sensible, by participating to what Jacques Rancière called ‘the distribution of the sensible’ itself, i.e. a mode of appearance extending beyond artistic practice into everyday life, which constructs the scene of politics through a definition and (de)legitimisation of discourses and competences. [2]

Migrant images do so by occupying the two contrasting yet co-existing poles of the migrant as ‘victim’ (in a perpetual state of emergency) and as the naïve expression of ‘multiculturalism’ (in a liberal and top-down inclusive perspective). The Migrant Image’s introductory sections carry out the uneasy task of suggesting how both poles participate in a very problematic policing of representation, which raises many issues pertaining the renewed necessity to activate a new, serious and radical politics of representation of migrant lives in the contemporary age. Such a politics – the author proposes side-by-side with the artworks he discusses – must also account for the necessity to contemplate failures, gaps, holes and silences in images.

The “Ckeck-In” section therefore makes clear how the book concerns relate to such cogent questions:

(1) How have artists invented new artistic strategies – mobilising the image as much as imagining mobility – with which to intervene in the cultural politics of globalization in critical and creative ways? (2) How is it possible to represent artistically life severed from representation politically, as when it comes to photographing the stateless who are denied the rights of citizenship and the legal protections of national identity? And (3) how has the creative reconfiguration of art’s connection to politics constituted an oppositional force directed against the disenfranchising division of human life from political identity, which defines the status of the refugee? [3]

The existence of a strong link between art, mobility and the question of representation in contemporary aesthetics since at least the Eighties – i.e. since the aftermath of decolonisation – occupies the “Charting a Course” section of The Migrant Image. Here Demos proves to be very attentive to Foucault’s method of the ‘archaeology of knowledge’, by tracing a carefully researched and brilliantly articulated ‘genealogy of art and migration’ – revolving around the concepts of ‘exile’, ‘diaspora’, ‘nomads’ and ‘refugees’. Similar yet different, these terms denote the complex and heterogeneous reality of social mobility and travel – which are fuelled by the need to flight as well as the aspiration to become something different, as Arjun Appadurai already suggested in his 2003 “Archive and Aspiration” essay. [4]

“Charting a Course” is divided into five sub-sections, each discussing a piece of terminology and a precise momentum in the genealogy of art and mobility. Despite its linear unfolding, the section invites to notice recalls and reflect on differences beyond a merely historical development. The opening sub-section, “Modernity as Exile”, opens with Walter Benjamin’s and Edward Said’s reading of ‘modernity-as-exile’. Here Demos recapitulates their concept of the displaced subject as the key figure of modernity, able to disclose a politically relevant counter-narrative to the teleological accounts of modernity as progress. At the same time, he suggests how the figure of the ‘exile’ exists alongside that of ‘the migrant’ – a terminological difference employed to account for the creative and transformative power of mobility’s internal liminality, i.e. what Homi Bhabha called ‘the spaces in between’. [5]

Staying with this productive ambivalence of mobility, in the following sub-section – “The Diasporic” – Demos explores the ways in which, during the Eighties, the concept of ‘diaspora’ has been mobilised in art in order to account for the multiple and generative spaces and times of migration, especially in relation to post-colonial Europe. The artworks of Mona Hatoum, Isaac Julien and the Black Audio Film Collective are presented here as example of a ‘critical dialogism’ able to open up a space of discussion beyond dominant monologue and internal essentialism (of race and gender) alike – through the aesthetic matter of experimental artworks.

In the following sub-section, “The Nomadic”, Demos engages with the gradual institutionalisation of multiculturalism as a discourse of power in Europe in the Nineties and the consequent branding of difference through ‘race industry’ and the multiplication of internal borders for ‘differential inclusion’ notwithstanding the rhetoric of a borderless Europe. [6] Here, the author explores the emergence of the figure of the ‘nomad’ – thought the explosion in art of a myriad of subjective gazes – as an attempt to resist the backlash of such processes, contrasting both the homogenising tendencies of capitalism and the return to localism sometimes generated by globalisation. At the same time, Demos discusses this phenomenon also in relation to the wider dynamics of institutionalisation of nomadic art itself along the rise of the ‘creative industries’. He therefore also presents the ways in which phantasies of freedom devoid of all attachment became practices and discourse that actually reinforced mechanism of power, thus negatively affecting those ‘nomads’ from which such practices and discourses had borrowed the name.

The fourth sub-section, “Foreigners Out!”, discusses a further modelling of mobility within contemporary art, which is still ongoing today. It is characterised by an attempt to repair the separation between citizen and refugee and the withdrawal of rights from the migrant shunning from the romance of the nomadic and exposing the ideological underpinning of Europe’s policy of migration though images, installations, performances and so on. Here Demos touches upon many artworks, such as those by Emily Jacir and Yto Barrada.

In the conclusive sub-section, “We Refugees”, Demos proposes to take the figure of the ‘refugee’ as the figure of our contemporary times of global crises – universalising the condition of migration as the condition of being human and determining a politics of equality on that basis. Such aspiration is shared in the artworks discussed in the book, which the author presents as act of imagination with material effects.

“Departure A. Moving Images of Globalisation” opens the case study presentation of The Migrant Image. The section – composed of three chapters – discusses the ways in which contemporary art confronts the contradictory realities of globalisation’s geopolitical unevenness through a ‘geopoetics’ of the documentary, in which quasi-documentary approach mixes with fiction. These artworks do not simply render visible those excluded from the imaginary of globalisation, but also dismantle traditional models of exposure and reportage. Chapter 1, “Indeterminacy and Bare Life”, presents the aesthetics and politics of British artist Steve McQueen’s film Western Deep (2002), which documents the labour conditions of TauTona miners in South Africa. Drawing from Agamben’s writings, Demos suggests the miners’ condition being one of ‘bare life’, i.e. the embodiment of globalisation’s dark side. Discussing the recent interest in documentary as a way to expose the negative repercussions of globalisation (such as in Documenta 11’s mission), Demos expands on the potentiality as well as the risk of the documentary. According to the author, McQueen’s film works within such a zone of indeterminacy. Against any pretence of transparency, the film refuses any straightforward documentation of bare life, exploring instead the use of zones of blindness, total darkness and absence from the screen. Thus, the film is not striking for what it shows, but for what it does not show – a strategy for McQueen to engage with his audiences in the virtualised domain of contemporary art video installations.

Chapter 2, “Sabotaging the Future”, explores the use of archival images and documentary footage in imaginary scenarios the film-essays of the London-based collective The Otolith Group, and in particular in the Otolith trilogy (2003-2009). Here Demos discusses how the artists use the power of contamination between facts and fiction as a way to mobilise a repressed colonial archive and re-present the histories of forgotten progressive example of politically and socially important trans-generational affiliations, such as the tri-continental history of Communist women. In addition, the author expands on the use of science fiction  in the artwork as a way to reflect on globalisation’s politics of pre-empting emergence, which is often used to introduce new and more sever biopolitical measures of control on mobility.

Chapter 3, “Hito Steyerl’s Travelling Images” elaborates on the ways in which the multiplication and diversification of global media platform has rendered the task of documentation more and more fraught over time. Here, Demos explores how such aspect is rendered productive in the Berlin-based artist’s artworks, where the expansion, re-presentation, loss of mobile images in the flux of contemporary media ecologies is employed to discuss questions of gender and travel, sexuality and the body.

In “Transit. Politicising Aesthetics”, Demos intelligently and critically engages with the body of theories underlining the paradoxical character of those artworks addressing socially relevant and touchy matters from the privileged and commercialised sites of contemporary art galleries and museums. Here Demos nevertheless shuns unproductive clear-cut critiques of art’s ineffectiveness – something to which he returns in details in the “Destination” section of The Migrant Image.

“Departure B. Life Full of Holes” takes its name from Moroccan artist Yto Barrada’s photographic project on the Strait of Giblatar (1998-2004) to confront the ways in which artists have engaged with the task of represent artistically a life severed from representation politically by opening ‘holes’ and ‘gaps’ in the visual field. The first case study is that of Palestinian artist Emily Jacir’s artwork engaging with the dislocation of Palestinians living within and outside Israel and the Occupied Territories and facing severe constraints to their mobility and political rights. Works such as Where We Come From (2001-2003) and Change/Exchange (1998) revert around the wishes of these people, which the artists fulfils on their behalf and that are re-presented in the artwork’s vicarious representation but significantly physically absented.

 The second case study is the photography of Ahlam Shibli who, in works such as Unrecognized (2000) attempts to document – and therefore recognize – the lives of those politically unrepresented Palestinians of Bedouin descent living in Israel. To do so, however, the artist critically approaches the idea of photography as a record of reality, reinventing its premises. She complicates the logic of recognition through vision by presenting figures in their everyday life that are often out of frame, in silhouette or obscured by objects – thus in a liminal condition between retreating into absence and stepping forward into presence.

The third case study is the film Nervus Rerum (2008) by The Otolith Group, in which the artists face the problem of representing people confined to the Jenin refugee camp in Palestine by claiming ‘the right to opacity’. The terms – coming from Édouard Glissant – denotes the political value of subtracting oneself from representation, which in the film is exercised through a filming of the camp’s narrow places without any hint to their inhabitants. [7]

“Transit. Going Offshore” explores the other side of non-transparency and opacity, i.e. the ways in which it is used by corporate powers as a way to disguise their dealings, especially in legal and financial sectors – such as with offshore banking – thus generating global unevenness. This aspect is discussed by looking at the ways in which it has been artistically and critically re-articulated in the artworks of the Swedish duo Simon Goldin and Jakob Senneby, and especially in Headless (2007-now), through the use fictional characters and entities infiltrating real-life places.

“Departure C” investigates the ways contemporary art confronts with the multiplications of zones of conflict after the first decade into the so-called ‘War on Terror’, conducted both on the field and in cyberspace. This section deals with some representations of conflicts as well as with the conflicts of representation, by addressing the role played by fiction in shaping reality. Here, Demos explores artworks insisting on the impossibility to assume truth and the necessity not to abandon its existence. The first case study is the exhibition Out of Beirut, held at Modern Art Oxford in 2006. Featuring contemporary Lebanese artists such as Lamia Joreige, Akram Zaatari and many others, the exhibition explored the ways in which these artists challenged given notions on the nature of the photographic and the projected image in order to examine the links between memory, the archive and trauma.

The second case study is Ursula Biemann’s video Sahara Chronicle (2006-7), in which the Swiss artist explores the concept of the geographical border in a land that moves, such as the Sahara – and the difficult and challenging tasks of documenting surveillance and resistance in such a migrant geography where economies, languages, identities and rights blur. To face this task – as Demos  explains – Biemann refuses traditional forms of reporting such as interviews, maps, documents and so in and creates a video that is fragmentary in its narration and experimental in its non-linear way to address its audience being split between several monitors and projections.

Last chapter, “Means without End”, discusses the project Camp Campaign (2006), a multi-media investigation into the existence of camps such as Guantánamo Bay conducted by Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri through an exploration of visual regimes. First, Demos arguments here about the ways in which the ‘camp’ has become the paradigm of our time. Secondly, he explores the ways in which the artists deploy tactical medial and cultural sabotage to put forward the idea that meanings can never be assumed as fixed but must be though – and re-thought – across a wide and shifting array of disparate fields within and outside which they are continuously negotiated.

A rich and compelling reading, The Migrant Image is a book with many strengths and a few weaknesses. The variety of case studies and their deep diversity is kept together in the book through the author’s attempt at finding a common thread, i.e. their common task of reworking the practices to document mobile lives in times of crisis. Such impressive and remarkable labour of connecting the threads is however accomplished in the book at a cost: repetitions of concepts abound, and the specificity of the analysis of each artwork in respect to any other is often blurred. One is left to wonder why the formidable bibliographical apparatus of The Migrant Image (ranging from philosophy, to cultural and postcolonial studies, to visual studies and critical theory) is only partially deployed in the book, in which – on the contrary – the references insists on Agamben and Rancière. This gives the impression of each section being a not too neat and redefined transition from an article to its new life as a book chapter.

Moreover, Demos’s daring proposal of taking the refugee as the figure of our critical global times would have benefited from a full-scale confrontation with precedent criticism to similar attempts. In fact – as already noticed by authors such as Ashwani Sharma – there is always a risk in taking migrancy as a metaphor and in ‘the universalisation of a specific and undifferentiated category of a subject’. [8] As notably claimed by Gayatri Spivak, it is important to be aware of a new epistemological function of power that she calls ‘new orientalism’, which sees ‘the world as immigrant’. [9] Given the strong political vocation of The Migrant Image, a wider discussion of the texts’ positioning in relation to this important debate would have helped the readers confront the touchy matter at hand.

Notwithstanding these two aspects, the book is overall a very good reading. With a wide and deep knowledge of visual studies and contemporary art theory, Demos is able to provide both historical perspectives and contemporary re-actualisation of issues raised in the book. A commendable ability to draw philosophy, cultural and postcolonial studies and critical theory into the debate is also to be remarked. The methodology is almost flawless. The attention given to the audiences’ engagement and to the centrality of the body and its embodied thinking practices in the overall experience of contemporary art is also to be underlined. Displacement is presented in the text as both the subject and the terms of reception of artworks, creating a sensory disorientation that Demos reads as a strategy for ‘affective politics’.

In addition to this, Demos’ clear and elegant prose, a very strong structure and a useful selection of images add up to the book’s merits. Moreover, the “Charting a Course” section provides such a precise genealogy of the links between art and migration as to qualify as a necessary reading not simply for scholars, but especially for any post-graduate students in the field.

                  To sum up, I would recommend the The Migrant Image as a very good text for scholars and post-graduate students of visual studies, cultural studies and contemporary art theory with an interest in art, migration, the cultural politics of mobility and the documentary. Embarking on a much-needed discussion of the complexities of art and mobility – and addressing both the risks and the potentialities raised by the crisis of representation (documentary and otherwise) – it stands out from the number of other studies addressing global migration and mobility from a cultural viewpoint. It does so for the propensity of the author to raise questions and challenge the readers more than simply provide accounts.

.
Beatrice Ferrara
(PhD in “Cultural and Postcolonial Studies of the Anglophone World”) is a teaching fellow of “Media and Cultural Studies” and an appointed researcher and local project manager of the EU Project “MeLa* – European Museums in an age of Migrations” (FP7, www.mela-project.eu) at the University of Naples “L’Orientale”, Italy.   Affiliation: DSUS – Dipartimento di Scienze Umane e Sociali, Università degli Studi di Napoli “L’Orientale”

beatriceferrara@gmail.com

 


 

[1] Demos, TJ. 2013. The Migrant Image. The Art and Politics of Documentary during Global Crisis. Durham, NC & London: Duke University Press. P. xiii.

[2] Rancière, Jacques. 2004. The Politics of Aesthetics. The Distribution of the Sensible. London: Continuum.

[3] Demos, TJ. 2013. The Migrant Image. The Art and Politics of Documentary during Global Crisis. Durham, NC & London: Duke University Press. P. xv.

[4] Appadurai, Arjun. 2003. “Archive and Aspiration”. In Information Is Alive. Art and Theory on Archiving and Retrieving Data, edited by Joke Brouwer and Arjen Mulder, 14-25. Rotterdam: NAi.

[5] Bhabha, Homi. 1995. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge.

[6] For a discussion of the concept of ‘differential inclusion’ in relation to Europe’s immigration policies, see: Mezzadra, Sandro and Brett Neilson. 2011. “Borderscapes of Differential Inclusion. Subjectivity and Struggles on the Thresholds of Justice’s Excess”. In The Borders of Justice, edited by Sandro Mezzadra, Étienne Balibar and Ranabir Samaddar, 181-203. Philadelphia, PS: Temple University Press.

[7] Glissant, Édouard. 2004. “For Opacity”. In Over Here: International Perspectives on Art and Culture, edited by Gerardo Mosquera and Jean Fisher, 250-260. New York, NY: New Museum of Contemporary Art.

[8] Sharma, Ashwani. 1996. “Sounds Oriental. The (Im)Possibility of Theorizing Asian Musical Cultures”. In Dis-Orienting Rhythms. The Politics of the New Asian Dance Music, 15-31. London & New Jersey, NJ: Zed Books. P. 18.

[9] Spivak, Gayatri. 1993. Outside in the Teaching Machine. London: Routledge. P. 64.

 

 

 

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