What are the Migrant Arts?

Thirty years ago, there were fifteen border walls around the world. Now, there are seventy walls and over one billion national and international migrants. International migrants alone may even double in the next forty years due to global warming. It is not surprising that we have also seen the rise of an increasingly powerful global climate-security market designed to profit from and sustain these crises over the past two decades. The construction of walls and fences to block rising sea levels and incoming people has become one of the world’s fastest-growing industries, alongside migrant detention and deportation. Economists project it to reach $742 billion by 2023. This increase in human migration and borders has been a defining feature of the 21st century so far.

However, alongside the spread of global borders and security markets is also an incredible proliferation of “the migrant arts.” As I understand them, the migrant arts include art made by migrants or about migration, or both. Migrants have produced works of art on cell phones, on canvas, in stories, or assemblies of objects carried on their journeys. They have documented their journeys in collaboration with others, and many of these artworks have traveled as “migrant artworks” through curatorial networks, the Internet, and museum circuits. Such museums, thus, have operated as relay systems for circulating migrant art around the world.

However, the process of migration is exceptionally uneven and highly ambiguous. This because societies marginalize migrants and exiles to varying degrees along axes of race, class, and gender. The migrant arts have, thus, given birth to great joy, freedom, beauty, novel expression alongside great sadness, trauma, loss, and untimely death. We should not romanticize or exile the migrant arts. Nor should we merely pity those forced to leave their homes or homelands.1 Their situations are far too complex for either.

No generalizations about “the migrant arts” can capture the extreme and uneven diversity of the situation of migrants’ today or in history. Migrants have gone by many names throughout history. They have been called “nomads,” “barbarians,” “vagabonds,” and “proletarians.” Today, the United Nations simply calls them “migrants.” Whatever their names and motives, migrants have also been great inventors of new artistic and social forms, though they have often suffered terribly.2 The explosion of the migrant arts today foregrounds a unique social and aesthetic experience of ambiguity. Creativity and hope mixed with profound sadness and loss.

The migrant arts are the result of a dialectic between political borders and aesthetic orders. The more social borders there are, the more they tend to leak with new experiences of mobility. It is a common misconception that borders stop movement. Borders are not static barriers, and they cannot stop human movement. Rather, they tend to proliferate it, although in mostly destructive ways. Borders are continually shifting, being skirted around, eroded, burrowed
through and under, and rebuilt. For example, the U.S./Mexico border can funnel people into the middle of the desert, trap them inside the U.S., drive them under it, above it, or through it, and can even kill them. Borders can inspire countless works of art and stories, but can never stop people from moving.

How many times can a false idea like borders stopping movement cause death and destruction before we see what is going on? How many exceptions to the rule of “stopping movement” have to emerge before it’s time to find a new rule? I think the migrant arts can help us see what is going on. The more barriers there are, the more differences and aesthetic hybrids multiply under the constraints. The migrant arts can help show us all the ways that one can move and how these ways can be experienced dierently. They may not always be liberating or joyful, but at least they show us what migration is about in all its complexity and singularity whereas borders, however, do not.

One can think of how a single leak in a pipe begins to multiply the more duct tape one put’s on. At first, the water seems to slow down, but then it begins to drip out several sides of the tape at once. Taping only redirects the flows but does not stop them. Alternatively, think about the dialectic between Internet advertising and ad-blocking software. Each new ad wants to control your movement and direct you to its source, and each new version of ad-removal software intends to let you move as you wish. The more new kinds of ads there are, the more new kinds of ad-evading software there is. The attempt to control your browsing through ads does not reduce dierences but multiplies evasion techniques and ad techniques. Similarly, think about how each new law or increased enforcement strategy increases the number of criminals and ways of avoiding detection. The point is the same: attempts to block mobility only diversify it, although often with terrible consequences.

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