Ideas Salon II: Ways of Telling + The Sea is the Limit

Posted on 2 July 2018

A response to MigNet's half-day conference at York Gallery on Tuesday 26 June 2018.

Evangeline Tsao

The Ideas Salon II: Ways of Telling + The Sea is the Limit was a half-day conference organized by the Migration Network (MigNet). The conference started with participants meeting at the York Gallery to view The Sea is the Limit exhibition, learning about the different stories of migration and displacement, as portrayed by the artists. This is followed by an introduction to the network and the core team by the Co-Chairs of MigNet Maggie O'Neill – who chaired the event – and Simon Parker and information about the postgraduate strand of the network was offered by Agata Lambrecht. In the afternoon, the conference proceeded with panel talks offered by Ismail Einashe, Shpresa, Sam Hellmuth and Simon Parker at the York Medical Society. At the conference, we discuss how stories of migration can be told, represented or otherwise manipulated in order to promote political agenda, and the role of language – both the visual and words – in participatory and collaborative work.

For me, the artwork exhibited at The Sea is the Limit was powerful. Having particular interests in participatory visual methods, I was drawn to the ways experiences may be understood through multiple and artistic means that are ‘more than’ words. The artwork not only serves as a way of recording and reporting stories of migration that are underrepresented in the mass media, it also counters the media portrayals of refugees which are often manipulated to construct a particular narrative against migration. Using Vladimir Miladinović’s work Vecernje novosti 1. Decembar 1992 (2015) as an example, Dr Sam Hellmuth emphasised the importance of language and how it is a currency for stories to be told and understood, and she raised the question of how a participatory approach may be applicable to language and linguistics research with migrants.

For me, the power of artwork, in particular, lies in the ways it generates emotions that brings the audience close to experiencing refugees’ journey of migration. Vanessa Vozzo’s Apnea Project is one such example. Vozzo presented a series of images of objects abandoned in the sea. These are the objects that once ‘belonged’, and as I read the images, I could not help but imagined their previous owners, the memories and meanings these objects embed for the people who once possessed them. A toy car. A small jar of oil or perfume? When I put on the virtual reality device, I was immediately immersed in water, looking at these objects around me gradually sinking to the bottom of the sea. The objects that are now lost. I saw a white man, perhaps a holidaymaker, looking at me than swimming away from me. Suddenly it seemed that I was the object that is being abandoned, hopeless and so distant from the civilisation. Not long after, I was starting to feel claustrophobic. These are the experiences that are rarely seen or felt, and the artwork evokes emotions that challenge the preconception of refugees’ experience and identity.

As one of the ‘challenges’ that artwork can bring forward, Susan Stockwell’s Sail Away (2013), in my interpretation, draws attention to other forms of injustice in relation to migration. Trades and other economic exchanges crossing national and geographic boundaries are often taken for granted, making the ‘movements’ of corporations and the powerful much less contested; while the freedom of movement for individuals become a bargaining chip for political negotiation, such as the case of ‘Brexit’.

What distinguishes the artwork and the panel talks from the media portrayal of migration is the ways in which they ‘give names’ to refugees and asylum seekers. My thoughts were particularly inspired by Nick Ellwood’s Calais Drawings. As Simon Parker demonstrated in his talk, refugees are often portrayed as a mass by the news outlets – or, when photographs of individual refugee children are used, the images became visual tropes that entre the political sphere. This type of representation not only dehumanizes the refugees but also contributes to the rhetoric which frames the influx of refugees as a ‘crisis’. However, through the Calais Drawings, the poetry reading by the asylum seekers in the Shpresa programme, and the refugees’ stories presented to us by Ismail Einashe’s journalistic work, we were able to catch a glimpse of the dreams, hopes and fears of people in displacement. More importantly, the stories told by the refugees and asylum seekers – including those represented in  The Sea is the Limit and in Einashe’s presentation – demonstrate their agency and creativity, an imagination of a better world where they can feel safe. These are the stories that need to be heard, in the hope that more people will listen, understand, and collectively take action to make changes.

The Sea is the Limit is on display at the York Gallery until 2 September 2018.