Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Project update, and the talk at the Tate Britain

Preparing the talk for the 28th State symposia at the Tate Britain has been an extremely useful process, which has enabled me to focus and get to the core(s) of the project and sieve out questions which are important for me and my practice. It brought together the material from the residency in Berlin, consisting mostly of the photographs from the albums of the 'guest worker' women who arrived to West Berlin between 1968 and 1973, from Yugoslavia, and my photographs of Berlin (showing mostly memorial places, where the past and the present intersect), with my own personal documents of migration to UK - asylum application, identification card, and visas. I also included photographs from my grandparents' album, who migrated to Germany as ‘guest workers’, and whose life story has largely inspired this whole project.

Through the photographs and documents, I wanted to bring out a narrative which emerged for me having immersed myself deeply into the research and the life stories of the 'guest worker' women. I noticed a great tension in their stories, and that is a tension between a yearning for home, an aspiration for material and social wellbeing and precarious immigration laws and policies, all connected (or rather ruled) by the ever-changing needs of the capitalist labour market. And that tension is still unresolved, amongst this particular generation of labour migrants, even after 40 years of living in Germany – for example most of them do not have German passport (though are allowed to stay indefinitely) and are now facing retirement and the same question which has haunted them since getting a year long visa and work permit in 1968: will they be going home? (Many have build houses 'back home', fully equiped with the best furniture, often these homes sit empty waiting for the final return...)

I am reminded here of Stuart Hall's quote: The classic questions which every migrant faces are twofold: ‘Why are you here?’ and ‘When are you going back home?’ No migrant ever knows the answer to the second question until asked. Only then does she or he know that really, in the deep sense, she/he’s never going back. Migration is a one way trip. There is no home to go back to. There never was. (Hall 1987:44)

I also raised questions which have become more pertinent to me as an artist, who is working more and more in ways which draw on ethnographic and anthropological methods and processes. These processes, include going into the communities of people whom I don’t know, in order to photograph or film, quite often being privy to personal information about their lives, which call for questioning the ethical dilemmas involved in this process of art-making. (For an insightful essay on the ethics of artist as ethnographer see An Ethics of Engagement: Collaborative Art Practices and the Return of the Ethnographer by Anthony Downey, in the recent Third Text issue 23: 5, 593 — 603).

Another question, which intrigued me and I raised at the end of the talk, is that of Saskia Sassen’s proposition of the border as a capitalist strategy. She writes in her book ‘Women, Men and the International Division of Labor’ that "the enforcement of national borders contributes to the peripheralization of a part of the world and the designation of its workers as a labor reserve. Border enforcement emerges as a mechanism facilitating the extraction of surplus value by assigning a status of formal or informal powerlessness to foreign workers generally and criminality to illegal immigrants (Petras, 1980)."
What I found interesting about this proposition (which she outlines in 1984!) is that border is a strategy, and migration is not some out of control force, as it is often portrayed in the media, but highly regulated place, servicing the needs of the market.

Finally I wanted to vocalise more, the relationship between history and storytelling [hi(story)], memory-archive-photography, and artists’ own positioning within. (yes, my talk was 20 minutes, these were questions at the end to open up the debate :) This complex and fascinating relationship, is/will be the main framework for the continuing of the Berlin strand of the 'guest worker' project. Treading gently between these two polarities of being an intruder and at the same time a recorder of (hi)stories, I aim to continue collecting photographs from the personal albums of ‘guest workers’, with the intention to build a form of an alternative archive, offering a multiple and intimate readings of history. Alongside personal family album photographs, I have begun writing short 'fictional' stories, based on the interviews with the ‘guest workers’, my grandparents, and my own memories of growing up in a ‘guest worker’ household in Yugoslavia, in the 70s and 80s. It seems to me that I am inching towards a 'book' of some sort, let's see where this will all take me, and I will bravely publish here later, an excerpt from a short 'fictional' text I wrote... I am also looking into collaborating with other writers whose interests intersect with art/photography and text...

The videos of the whole symposia will be available shortly, on

From March until June 2o10, I will have a chance to explore further some of the questions I raised above by being an artist-in-residence, at the University of Bath's department of Social Science and the Institute of Contemporary Interdisciplinary Arts. The overarching framework/theme for the residency is labour and I will be engaging with the staff and students across the University. In this process of engagement, I am very keen to open up the performative aspect of my photographic practice (which has drawn on documentary portrature) and look at the dynamics of collaboration and participation. In order to scrutinise that process, I will be looking at ways in which sociologists deal with the double-bind of research-representation. Throughout this process I will be writing a Blog, and also posting documentation/notes/images in the gallery space which will serve as a workshop-production space. To follow the GUEST residency please see a-n Blog: