Terminal Platitudes

By Daniel Jewesbury, 9 February 2005

Terminal Frontiers at Street Level Photoworks was a much overdue show addressing migration, globalisation and technology. Daniel Jewesbury reports on a missed opportunity

Terminal Frontiers is, to all appearances, a quite disparate group exhibition, comprising digital installations and single-screen video works, as well as documentation of educational workshops and an anti-deportation campaign. The show is the work of Virtual Migrants, a collective set up by artists Kooj Chuhan and Aidan Jolly to examine themes of migration, globalisation and identity through digital media. Many of its elements are produced in collaboration with other artists and with the participants of various outreach projects; separately billed, in an ‘also starring’ role, is Keith Piper, who shows a specially produced interactive digital artwork.

In the 1980s and ’90s, influenced by lively debates around postcolonial studies, a generation of British and Irish artists made race and difference their central themes. The last few years have seen these concerns recontextualised within a changed political landscape; increasing global inequality and anxiety about national borders have become the ubiquities of the day, and generalised fears of the Other have again been articulated for political advantage. Completing this tableau, the new technologies, and their attendant ideologies, have enabled the reconfiguration of markets at an international scale; they’ve also become the predominant means by which we in the West negotiate our relationship with the rest of the world, and construct our own subjectivity. Terminal Frontiers, which promises to draw these multifarious strands together, is a timely proposition.

Unfortunately in this instance the artists don’t seem to be up to the challenge. Having set the bar fairly high to begin with (‘deconstructing and reconstructing debates about nationality, history and identity’), they apparently fail to appreciate the complexity of their task. What they have produced lacks tension and incisiveness, offers few insights beyond the commonplace, and is bereft of formal dexterity. In Kooj Chuhan’s portentous installation What If I’m Not Real, an overabundance of stuff – video projections, multiple soundtracks, sculptural elements – is mistaken for genuine narrative intricacy, in a piece that is, ironically, thoroughly simplistic in its treatment of themes of migration and unbelonging. Three characters, dressed in white gowns and masks reminiscent of Greek drama, and floating on rafts, are seen on separate projection screens. They represent an immigration official, a migrant parent and a lost child, their stories overlapping between the three screens, so that as the bureaucrat shakes spots of red ink from his fountain pen onto a piece of Home Office headed paper, spots of ‘blood’ suddenly appear on the parent’s gown. On the soundtrack, different voices compete: ‘You should have claimed asylum on entry. You have no right to exist… I do exist, I am here, I am here, I will exist. I had a home, but it became no longer my home…’ Chuhan has used the most affected symbolism to aestheticise forced exile, treating the experience through these three ‘types’; but this is neither Jarmanesque visual poetry nor Brechtian dialectic, and the resulting piece is almost entirely one dimensional. As it draws to what is described as its ‘terror-filled conclusion’, the parent pours blood from her gown into a bottle, which she then stuffs with a rag and sets alight. So the spurned refugee becomes the nascent terrorist? This amateurish, clumsy attempt to conflate the misery of deportation and global homelessness with an observation that oppression breeds resentment ends up implying something quite different, as if all those Daily Mail headlines were right after all: it’s a good job we don’t let them in, they’re all mad jihadists anyway.

Elsewhere this inability to communicate beyond platitudes is seen in Aidan Jolly’s video piece Dust Rising, in which a series of interview soundbites (described as ‘political analysis’) commenting on the political exploitation of September 11th are interspersed, almost inevitably, with footage of G W Bush himself pronouncing on the War on Terror. As a political statement, the piece is a crude reflection of the broad liberal consensus; as an aesthetic entity, it seems totally random. The interviews are rendered in blue monochrome, and a naff ‘camcorder viewfinder’ effect overlaid, as if, rifling through the menus in Final Cut Pro, it just seemed a good idea at the time.

When one’s dealing with such immensely complex areas, and moreover, attempting to produce something that has both political and aesthetic integrity, one’s strategies of representation must be rigorous and credible. Most of the works in Terminal Frontiers seem to forsake internal complexity, or formal self-reflexiveness, for pretentious overstatement and gross simplification. Keith Piper’s multimedia installation Delete Where Appropriate: Local/Stranger is a case in point. The viewer-user is guided through an interface which mimics an immigration questionnaire, while to the side of the screen one sees oneself relayed via a webcam. The bottom of the screen is occupied by a busy Flash animation of various passport photographs. Navigating through the questionnaire, one is prompted to describe oneself as a ‘local’ or a ‘stranger’, based on one’s geographical origins and the origins of one’s parents. The results are then processed and a bogus ‘response’ appears on screen, in my case informing me that I had been classified as an economic migrant and would be removed forthwith. The piece is utterly didactic; in itself, this is not necessarily a bad thing, but the interface itself is so clunky, so poorly designed and rendered, that the delivery of the punchline comes only after frustration and boredom have already set in.

Terminal Frontiers is a classic mismatch of good intentions and terribly inadequate products. It attempts no investigation of the complexity of difference; it says ‘we’re here because you were there’, but goes no further, as if this were a revelation on its own, as if the mere act of stating this made everything else comprehensible. Essentialism, nationhood and identity, globalisation itself, simply aren’t examined. Moreover the works fail to unify their form with their subject matter; as a result, even their aesthetic pretensions finally come apart.   a

Terminal Frontiers, Virtual Migrants + Keith Piper,  Street Level Photoworks, Glasgow, 24 Aug – 2 Oct 2004, and touring until April 2005

Daniel Jewesbury <d.jewesbury AT> is an artist based in Belfast, a Research Associate in Digital Cultures at the Centre for Media Research in the University of Ulster, and co-editor of Variant