Last spring, Sylvi Listhaug, Norway’s gaffe-prone integration minister, jumped into the Mediterranean Sea to experience being rescued from the ‘perspective’ of a refugee. This supposedly radical act of empathy was undercut by the addition of the bright orange survival suit she was wearing at the time, leaving the immigration hardliner floating comfortably in the water for the short duration of her ordeal.
The absurdity of this publicity stunt offered a counter-point to this year’s Screen City Biennial, ‘the first Nordic Biennial dedicated to the expanded moving image in public space’, which brought together 35 artists, working in film, performance and new media, under the title of ‘Migrating Stories’ in the south western Norwegian port city of Stavanger. Media images of Listhaug were rather literally evoked in two videos by the Chilean artist Enrique Ramirez (Incoming and Sailors, both 2017) who invited ‘foreigners’ living in Stavanger to jump into the North Sea, but they were also clearly on the mind of curator Tanya Toft, who in her opening speech acknowledged the danger of making an aesthetic statement about a situation that is a ‘cruel reality for many’. To this end, the biennial wisely avoided now-familiar stories of dangerous water crossings and focused instead on artists who addressed the theme of migration from a personal and often biographical standpoint.
Screen City’s nautical location was used to excellent effect in the presentation of Dana Levy’s This Was Home (2016), comprising three screens showing the stories of three generations of the artist’s family, which was exhibited in a sleeper cabin of the biennial’s main location, the MS Sandnes ship. Levy’s film features footage of her maternal grandfather, her father and herself revisiting and reminiscing about their childhood homes in Sosnowiec, Poland, Cairo, Egypt and Atlanta, US, respectively. It tells an idiosyncratic story that nevertheless mirrors historical patterns of Jewish diaspora: her grandfather was forcibly removed from his home and sent to Auschwitz, while her father was compelled to emigrate to Israel to escape the growing anti-Semitism in Egypt in the 1950s and later moved his family to the US in the mid-’70s.
The rootlessness that can result from migration – whether forced or voluntary – was also thematized in a second film shown in the same space, Somewhere in Between (2016), by Dutch artist Mirelle Borra. It shows a closely cropped image of hands preparing a colonial-era dish, popular in Indonesian restaurants in Holland but not sold in present-day Indonesia. A voiceover reveals the loss of identity felt by many Indonesians who settled in the Netherlands after the decolonization of their homeland. One comment in particular stuck with me: ‘Being Indo is like being a latte in which more and more milk is poured.’ Watching the protagonist crush spices, I was also reminded of the insidiousness of the West’s colonial past, which in many parts of Europe and North America still lurks on building facades, street signs and in the dishes served at our favourite eateries – consider the street signs of Berlin’s ‘African Quarter’ which reference German colonial figures or buildings still named after slave-traders in Liverpool.
Mary T. Lathrap’s 1895 poem Walk a Mile in his Moccasins (credited with inventing the idiom ‘to walk a mile in another man’s shoes’) is a pertinent text to revisit at our current moment, not only because of the discussion around cultural appropriation, but also in light of new technologies, which could quite literally change our brogues, sandals and trainers into moccasins should we wish them to. Screen City addressed this potential – to varying degrees of success – in a number of pieces by artists working with virtual and augmented reality. American artist John Craig Freeman, for instance, recreated the US/Mexico border digitally on Stavanger’s waterfront through a geo-location app, which viewers could download and observe through their own smart phones and tablets when pointing them towards the designated area. For me, despite the artist’s excitement about the prospect of virtual public art free from governmental or institutional patronage, his Virtual U.S./Mexico Border project (2016) felt gimmicky. Knowing that the majority of the work’s viewers (myself included) benefited from the Schengen Agreement made it feel like using technology to play-act adversity. Another augmented reality work, this time by John Cleater, similarly missed the mark. Titled Consequences (2017), and viewed through an app created by the artist, it added fictitious oil slicks and cyclones to Stavanger’s harbour in a ham-fisted nod to climate change.
Most critical of this emergent technology was perhaps Olivia McGilchrist, whose virtual reality video installation Jonkonnu-Gens-Inconnus (2015) took viewers on a journey to the streets of Jamaica to celebrate Jonkonnu, a carnival thought to have originated from slaves on plantations in the Bahamas. In the panel discussion ‘Expanded Reality (Migratory Aesthetics)’ she rejected the idea that VR will automatically make humans more empathetic, stating: ‘It’s only another screen […] Nothing will change until we change how we think’.
It’s fitting then that the most effective new media work shown at Screen City Biennial owes more to the audio walks of Janet Cardiff than to the invention of the Oculus Rift. Duncan Speakman’s It Must Have Been Dark By Then (2017) is a melancholic stroll across three continents that uses geo-location technology, as well as audio and printed material, to tell stories of far-flung locations without ever letting you forget your actual physical surroundings. As I listened to accounts from the inhabitants of depopulated Latvian towns and of cities with rapidly encroaching coastlines, the voice-over constantly encouraged me to be mindful of where I was, to view my experiences, thoughts and feelings alongside those of others. Isn’t that what empathy is all about?
Main image: Enrique Ramirez, Incoming, 2017. Courtesy: Screen City Biennial, Stavanger