Passagens at UAL LCC and tutorial with Prof Lucy Orta at UAL London College of Fashion

Passagens is a series of four debates, hosted by Prof Lucy Orta, UAL Chair of Art and the Environment, which I have attended recently. I felt that these debates directly related to my planned MA final show exhibit.

Drawing on the current debate following the recent UK vote to leave the EU, postgraduate students, UAL staff, alumni, practitioners and researchers in this field, were invited to join the Passagens series of reading groups, which offers a broad historical context and insight by artists and curators whose work evolve around the themes of migration, social sustainability and the environment.

During one debate a film was shown called ‘Les Sauteurs – Those who jump’. The film was about refugees from across Africa, who leave their homes to travel from as far as Mali and the Ivory Coast. They end up hiding in woods near a huge triple layered fence segregating the border with Morocco, and for them , the gateway to Spain and the rest of the EU. Their challenge was to jump the wall. One refugee died trying. Some had tried many times, and were in these makeshift camps for up to two years. Many sustained injuries from failed attempts. The Moroccan police and military sought out these camps, and burnt what little belongings the refugees had, and individuals sustained beatings if caught either running away or between the layers of fencing while trying to jump. Only if the refugees landed on Moroccan soil after jumping three fences could they seek asylum. Some did. Which encouraged others to try. Many were interned in camps in Morocco, and later sent back as economic migrants. Only those seeking political asylum, escaping persecution were allowed to leave, most trying for destinations in the EU. Even then, many are sent back to the EU country they first landed in, despite travelling elsewhere to join family members. It was very moving, invoking much empathy from the audience. And a feeling of helplessness.

I was able to participate in the debate and discuss the subject and my work with Lucy Orta. This was followed up by a tutorial in her office at LCF.

I explained in more detail the aim of my MA exhibit, namely to invoke empathy from those who viewed it. To engender a softening of attitude towards refugees in this situation, whether economic migrants or those escaping persecution. Perhaps, a groundswell of opinion in UK would cause the UK government for example, to help more people, particularly lone children, in this situation. We in the UK cannot cope with a flood of refugees but I feel that we can do a lot more. However, current attitudes of the electorate lean in the opposite direction. My exhibit is a small contribution to help change this attitude for the better. So that we can engage more with our moral compass, rather than put our economic interests first.

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I also showed Lucy the three layers of my proposed work: a background film of seagulls diving and screeching as portrayed in the book ‘The Optician of Lampedusa’; two life-sized sculptures, of the wife of the optician who was in the rescue boat, and a refugee who was pulled from the water and survived; and a holographic view of the same people narrating their experience, with the first two layers visible in the background. In order to better understand the latter, Lucy tried the Hololens glasses to see examples of animated and speaking holograms. I explained that Mixed Reality was very new, where holograms are projected into real world, and in my case in front of the rest of the exhibit.

Her reaction was good, but she felt that all layers together would be overload. Each could perhaps operate on their own, or the exhibit could consist of less elements. For example, the background film could be shown with the holograms only. I explained that I had two audiences at the same time, as most viewers would not be seeing the holograms as someone using the glasses would probably do so for the duration of the actors’ narratives, say five minutes or so. and the other viewers would therefore not see what was happening. I suppose that I could project the actors conventionally, but this only adds a fourth layer and compounds the issue.

We talked about not making the sculptures life-sized, but leaving small versions on a shelf alongside the main exhibit. The idea being that they did not dominate the main message created by the holograms and the background video. I also asked whether I should subtly change the seagulls to drowning heads in the video, and this idea was immediately rejected. We also discussed whether the refugee should be alive or dead in the piece, and concluded that it would best serve the message if he were alive, as in reality he would not otherwise be in a position to speak about his experience. Obvious really.

Lucy referred me to a video called Superflex Kwasa Kwasa. It is about two islands in the Indian Ocean between Madagascar and Mozambique. One called Mayotte decided to become French again, and thus became part of the European Union. It is the outermost part of the EU being a 14 hour flight from Paris. The two islands are only 76 km apart and families can be split between the two. Yet to travel from the sister island to Mayott means that you are treated as a refugee. Boats patrol the seas to deter travel between the two islands.

Finally we discussed the space in which the piece would be exhibited. I said that this would necessarily be a compromise as I will be sharing space with other MA finalists. I have an issue with the space anyway. In the basement, which is in darkness, one would see the video and the sculptures if they were spotlighted, but not the holograms which require a dim light. The Hololens would also only be available for a few performances when I am present (they cost a great deal). In the sunlit rooms above, the opposite is true. The only layer that would be clearly seen are the sculptures. Additionally, the composition may be affected by the person or persons I am sharing the space with. Ideally I want the viewers to hear at least the seagulls in the background video, and possibly the narration without headphones. I have discussed sharing a space with Alasdair, who wants to show his video with sound without headphones. Perhaps we could use the same projector and sound equipment, but alternate each piece. I have to think further about the overall composition related to either space, and the people I may be sharing it with. Lucy suggested that I make up my mind what I need and make an early strong request for it. Those that leave it too late or are too easy-going usually get what is left. I said that we are deciding as a group of students how to curate the space.

Lots to think and make decisions about. Lucy is happy to see me again when my ideas are further developed. I look forward to that.

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