One foggy day last year I walked along the medieval battlements that line the coast outside the French town of Calais, and watched a ferry glide into port. The ship was the size of a tower-block. Its edges were smudged into the sky, its horn shrieked through the cloud. I looked down to write some notes and when I looked up again the ferry had disappeared – swallowed by fog or sailed out to sea.
In the same pocket of time, two boys arrived next to me. I discovered them, standing still, staring at the imperceptible horizon, just as I realised the boat had gone. They spoke to me in English and, later, when we walked back into town, shopkeepers spat at their feet. From this, I could tell they were migrants, young men from Africa or the Middle East, waiting in Calais for an opportunity to cross to the UK.
The context for the gathering for Parallel Crossings at Artsadmin on 28th November was the “refugee and migration crisis”. The project is a collaboration between Moez Mrabat (Tunisia), Abdullah Al Kafri (Syria), Jonathan May and Jon Davis (UK), and this gathering brought together artists, arts workers and members of cultural institutions to ask the question: what can we do?
The subject matter is dizzyingly large. The “refugee and migration crisis” is both a specific historic moment and an effect of long-term patterns of global power, wealth, poverty and climate change. Like any seismic change in human relations, it throws everything else into sharp relief: democratic processes, social tensions, relative freedoms and global injustice.
Parallel Crossings works through international dialogue and interdisciplinary practice to “draw out the situation’s complexities, obscuring and recasting the images we see into something of real meaning.”
In other words, Parallel Crossings is not just concerned with movements of people across the world, but also with how these movements are seen, translated and understood. “All performances construct myths and fantasies,” said the academic James Thompson, “and misrepresent.” News stories are no different – they contain heroes and villains, saviours and the wretched who deserve to be saved. Each story is a performance, and it is the role of the artist, Thompson suggested, to disrupt its claims to universal truth.
Thompson was one of four invited ‘provocateurs’, designed to inspire discussions throughout the night. Another, Stephen Stenning, who works for the British Council in Cairo, described the dual opportunities and threats inherent in twenty-first century interconnectivity. While fast communication forges links around the world, it can reduce exchange to a lowest common denominator of experience. Homogeneity is the enemy of tolerance, because it suppresses difference. Similarly, the artist Tania El Khoury, who works between London and Beirut, emphasised the importance of nuance in the language we use. She made a crucial distinction between the terms ‘refugee’ and ‘migrant’, especially when used as forms of political currency. And we should be careful not to describe the conflict in Syria, she said, as civil war; in fact, it is a violently repressed uprising.
The final provocation was read by Judith Knight and written by Abdullah Al Kafri, who could not be in London. His paper addressed the issue of identity; In terms of his own, he wrote, the word ‘Syrian’, “is enough to know the reason for absence.” Al Kafri wrote about being an artist as well as a refugee – about how, in this context, the work of art can be eclipsed by the world’s desire to pity the situation in which it was made.
If you have seen a ship the size of a skyscraper vanish into fog, then you have felt the impossible. It’s impossible to know the ship still exists, and impossible to prove that it doesn’t. Your imagination begins to impose shapes onto what you can’t see. The ship is limitless. It is the size of ten cathedrals. A shadow in the sea is a hand waving from the ship’s deck. The cry of a gull sounds like someone shouting your name. And all the time, in the midst of this imagining, you are the person who has vanished from the people sailing at sea. You are the object that has dissolved into a memory, so strange and so disturbing, perhaps, that it’s easier to invent you from scratch, or pretend you were never there.
In the wake of these provocations, a wave of questions rippled through the room. Who are ‘we’ as a group of people – this collection of artists and arts workers gathered in east London on a Thursday night? Why is culture important to us? Who else is it important to? Who is it for? Where does it happen? Is the purpose of art to reflect, to represent, or to change the world? Is the value of art the way it punctures real life, or co-exists with it? Is art an appropriate response to human suffering?
We split into groups to discuss these ideas in more detail. My group included artists, curators, journalists, translators and art therapists. We talked about art projects that address public perceptions of migration in Europe, art therapy tents in the Calais migrant camps, migration as an historical continuum, and the traumas of child refugees. When the room came back together to reflect as a whole, these perspectives were added to by the points of view (real, remembered or imagined) of artists working in places of conflict, and artists who are refugees.
The topic is almost too big to conceive of, and certainly too big for everyone at Toynbee Studios to be talking about the same part of it at once. Our common ground was a professional interest in art, and a human interest in the people caught up in the refugee and migration crisis; but our starting points varied widely. Some of us were standing on the coast, some of us were on the deck of a giant ship, and all of us were seeing shapes in the fog.
I had been in Calais to write about the aftermath of the first and second world wars. I had spent my time wandering streets scarred by bombs and sutured with war memorials. I had walked to the middle of the park in the middle of Calais, to visit a bunker filled with photographs of dead Resistance fighters. Outside the bunker, in the manicured flowerbeds and across the engraved cenotaphs, I had seen the sleeping bodies of exhausted young men.
We talked about Syrian refugees, African migrants and survivors of earlier conflicts. We explored Euro-centrism, imperialist histories and the myths that sustain the West. We mentioned the workings of the international art market, and the burden of representation heaped on artists with a link to conflict. We discussed the roles of cultural institutions as ambassadors, activists and administrators. We talked about practical strategies – artists’ residencies for refugees, paying cash to artists who don’t have a bank account – as well as ideological positions. We talked about gatekeepers, about insiders and outsiders. We talked about the space of art in relation to the political sphere. We talked about attention to detail – being careful, for instance, whether you are talking ‘as’, ‘with’, ‘for’, or ‘about’ refugees.
Parallel Crossings is structured through dialogue, and it is exactly this plurality of points of view that sets art apart from other kinds of discourse. The project is conceived by artists and producers collaborating between the UK, the Middle East and North Africa. The long term ambition is to make an international work of art together, but so far the collaborators have spent time in Tunis, Beirut and London, meeting artists, migrants and asylum seekers, and focussing on the nature of exchange.
The discussions at Artsadmin were part of this process. And its earnest, calm focus was indicative of the way progress is made. It is only by acknowledging the detail of our individual situations – the taste of the fog, the sheen of the photographs selling other people’s despair – that we can communicate effectively with people standing on a different kind of ground. The question, in other words, is not the truth value of what we see, but the integrity of our ways of looking. As one participant said, trying to discover the ‘authenticity’ of stories of migration is simply an attempt to reinforce what you (think you) already know. Ultimately, the strategies that we came up with in answer to the question “what can we do?”, were the strategies of socially engaged art practice itself. (Socially engaged, that is, in the literal rather than the instrumental sense – engaged with society, regardless of context.)
I left Calais on an empty train and slid home beneath the sea. I arrived in London at the same time as I left, adjusting my watch on the way.
These strategies include building relationships between artists, organisations and audiences – relationships that grow over months and years. They include challenging paradigms of knowledge as a stable entity. They include finding common values and shared ground; the task, said Stenning, is to “communicate better”, rather than “communicate more.” We should support artistic practices, whether or not they are aligned to received ideas about ‘refugees’, how they are represented or how they might act. We must refine the tools we have to respond to this situation, because they are also the tools we will use to respond to the next.
My journey is as concrete as a tower block and as impossible as a ship that vanishes into the sky.
This amounts to an ethics of human relations based on the potential for change. It doesn’t matter if the ship is real or imagined; we need to pay attention to the texture of the fog. And this, of course, could be one way of describing art: a space for meaning to float, untethered, shifting direction or shape. It could be what Abdullah Al Kafri meant when he used the space of Parallel Crossings to communicate unknowable truths:
“I share these thoughts, “ he said, from across the world, through the body of a woman he has never met, “because you know how to listen to the voices of those absent ones, their whispers even. And you remember well the missing and the disappeared.”
London, December 2015
Written in response to Parallel Crossings: Art, Culture and the Refugee Crisis at Toynbee Studios, London on 26 Nov, 2015
 Recently in the UK, there has emerged an important distinction between ‘refugees’ (people who have no choice but to leave home) and ‘migrants’ (people who do). While I understand the political necessity for this distinction, I do not have a right to judge other people’s reasons for moving through the world. I use the word ‘migrant’ in order to make a link with global histories of migration and patterns of change: which are, arguably, more consistent human experiences than staying still.