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Immigration in Time and Space

Mike Newton Jun 29, 2016

Mobile Print Power: Soñamos Sentirnos Libres: Under Construction
Interference Archive
Through Sept. 5

Bouchra Khalili: The Mapping Journey Project
Museum of Modern Art
Through October 10

There’s still something about ink and paper. In an age defined by rapid digital communication, physical mark-making records the actions of individuals in space and time in ways that digital media simply can’t.

This is one of the driving forces behind Mobile Print Power (MPP), a Queens-based collective that creates portable silkscreen studios, sometimes on pushcarts (the same kind of cart you might use to sell food on a busy street corner). The relative simplicity of the silkscreen printing process allows for MPP to set up shop in public and collective spaces, providing the participants of various rallies and community meetings with self-made artifacts; t-shirts, books, posters. 

Some of these unique objects can be seen now in an exhibition at the Interference Archive that makes the most of the site’s relatively small space. MPP’s prints range from the directly polemical — slogans like “You Are Not Illegal” and “Do You Make a Living Wage?” printed on t-shirts — to the more playful, as in bilingual cookbooks and children’s books about NYC neighborhoods. MPP’s designs are simple, maybe too simple, from a purely visual standpoint. It would be nice if there were more to look at. But this simplicity helps create a pervasive sense of direct engagement, with a spirit of immediacy and humanity that shapes the core of MPP’s project. Unlike commercial screen-printing, most of their designs seem to have been made directly by human hands with no digital intermediary. It’s perhaps telling that the first rule for participating in an MPP collective workshop is “NO CELLPHONES.” 

Though they’ve worked with a number of different groups, the most trenchant work in the show comes from MPP’s collaborations with immigrants’ rights organizations, like a “Know Your Rights” poster made with the legal advocacy group UnLocal, Inc. or the ephemera made with the New York State Youth Leadership Council, New York’s first undocumented youth-led organization. The Interference Archive has chosen to specifically highlight this work by also showcasing some beautiful posters from their collection commemorating various anti-deportation rallies.

Contrasted with this mood of defiance and progress, the work of Bouchra Khalili can’t help but feel a bit pessimistic, but it’s a necessary sort of pessimism. To create “The Mapping Journey Project” (2008-2011), an eight-part video installation currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art, Khalili interviewed migrant workers she met by chance, men from North Africa and the Middle East, looking for work in Europe. In each video, a man traces his journey in permanent marker on a paper map, narrating as he goes. In their narratives, these men come across as both tough — weathering rough work and harrowing transit — and somehow helpless, forever caught up in the whims of fate and the strange vicissitudes of modern bureaucracy. “Some of our friends, they died here. Three persons from us,” one man says, plainly, of his boat passage from Libya to Italy.

Another man, whose journey took him from Morocco to Algeria, Libya, several Italian cities and, finally, France, says, “I hope that I can get papers to live like everyone else in Europe. To work, that’s all, not to do bad things.” Another, explaining how he got from Morocco to a job selling phones in Utrecht, tells us that he went to a bus station, “asked for a ticket to anywhere in Europe,” and took a bus going to Holland.

The men in Khalili’s videos don’t have names or even faces; all we see of them are their arms and hands. In this way, they appear both distinct — individuals with unique stories — and anonymous, faceless men telling the same basic story again and again. The exhibition insists that this faceless storytelling is a resistant response to invasive contemporary cultures of surveillance and control. It is, but it could also be read as a nod to prevailing norms of dehumanization, in which people are reduced to just so many points of data. 

In other words, “The Mapping Journey Project” enacts a struggle between abstraction and representation. These may seem like hopelessly lofty concerns, except that when it comes to questions of immigration, the conflict between the real and the imagined takes on a special urgency. Immigration — and specifically a fear of immigrants — has grown into one of the defining issues of this current political moment. 

In the United States, Donald Trump launched a hostile takeover of the Republican base by pledging to build an impossible wall on the Mexican border (a proposal that other Republican presidential nominees happily supported), while in Europe, far-right political parties have gained traction by promising to keep out Muslim refugees. What’s at issue is not immigrants themselves, but the idea of immigrants. Rather than proposing sensible, practical immigration policies — policies that could take the well-being of actual immigrants into consideration — right-wing leaders invoke a vague fear of outsiders and otherness, imagining a deep, unbridgeable cultural and moral chasm between an assumed “them” and “us.” 

In both exhibitions, the act of immigrants applying ink to paper becomes an assertion of individual humanity, even within a format of practical anonymity. Drawing, printing, writing and mapping become a sort of statement of purpose and presence — an acknowledgment of a human life at a single moment in history, a way of saying yes, make no mistake, we were here.

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