TERMINALS AND FRONTIERS
Lalchand Azad talks to video and digital artist Kooj
Chuhan from the group Virtual Migrants, about theory, practice and in
particular their set of works collectively titled 'Terminal Frontiers'
which bears the strap-line 'deportation, terror and murder by paper'.
LALCHAND: Virtual Migrants have produced educative works, artistic works,
and worked in association with campaigns. How do you see the relationship
between these areas of activity?
KOOJ: Campaigning is generally to gain support and lobby - whether
through militant action or otherwise - for a specific change and to
provide focal activity for progressive energies. Political education is
to impart positive or suppressed information and ideas, to generate critical
discussion and present systematic, coherent, alternative perspectives
and practical approaches; also to assist your understanding of your own
position among the power structures of society. Progressive art practice
in this context is that which enables heartfelt engagement with the ideas,
structures and human realities which political education deals with.
The question is how these fit into social or political change. For any
given issue or theme, the associated campaigning, education and art practice
will be part of a movement whether closely and actively or distantly and
with minimal reference. Change with any significance, foundation and continuity
can only be produced if the elements of a movement can support each other.
Ultimately, fundamental political change will only take place when a whole
range of diverse and developed elements of a mature movement can be organised
cohesively and integrated within a logistical and philosophical framework.
In Britain at the very least this is a long way off, so for now let's
talk about appraising current art practice in relation to campaigning.
Central to Virtual Migrants' work has been a connection with anti-deportation
campaigns for some years. These campaigns are part of a movement supporting
mainly asylum seekers to gain legitimate refuge in this country where
it has been denied. Over a long period of time - including the twenty
years since I first got involved in such campaigns - the success of
such campaigns has not moved forward despite certain forms of organisation
within the movement having advanced - laws have tightened and people
are being snatched and unfairly deported more than ever. Maybe this isn't
the fault of the movement and is just inevitable, along with the wider
downturn of political consciousness over the same period. On the other
hand, maybe the right seeds were just simply not sown way back. Maybe
short term victories were the order of the day and swallowed up all available
energy, in which case we should be able to redress this with benefit of
LALCHAND: So is Virtual Migrants about sowing seeds?
KOOJ: Recently we have worked on two responses - an educational CD-ROM
and the Terminal Frontiers series of art works. The almost unfunded CD-ROM,
titled 'We Are Here Because You Were There' - which me and
Aidan (Jolly) put together with a lot of contributions - is an introductory
critique about immigration and asylum in Britain, particularly geared
towards schools key stage 3 onwards. In compiling material for the CD-ROM
we realised that such introductory perspectives and information simply
did not exist in any form - we had to write it ourselves rather than
being able to modify existing literature that possibly should have already
been available. Perhaps that in itself answers the question about whether
seeds were sown before and whether we might be considered to be sowing
a few? I mean, after all these years it really feels to me that I have
had to create this CD-ROM to move forward from the history of the legal
discrimination focus which has dominated critical literature about deportations.
The theoretical broader base of links and contexts has never been established,
let alone popularised. The CD-ROM serves to introduce a broader contextual
base while the Terminal Frontiers artworks allow passionate and empathetic
connection with the ideas in a vivid, moving and memorable way. But this
needs to be part of a movement of sowing similar seeds if worthwhile fruits
are to be reaped in the future since we are up against reactionary ideological
seeds being sown all the time.
LALCHAND: And how does this fit in with the process of the campaigning
KOOJ: The CD-ROM addresses the need to impart information and perspectives
to a broad cross-section of the public. We felt this to be particularly
important because of the power of the media in areas where there are no
refugees yet people are very anti-asylum, and also because of the lack
of any involvement of a campaigning or progressive voice in such geographic
areas. In fact, much sincere progressive involvement of local campaigners
is directed towards assisting and working with the victims of state immigration
policies, which may be welcome but leaves behind the more awkward effort
to debunk myths and encourage proper debate with local indigenous people.
I might go on to argue a similar process having contributed to the rise
of the BNP around Greater Manchester to show it is part of a broader tendency,
and how the results of this lack of 'seed sowing' can allow
some seeds from the far right to be successfully planted instead. Basically,
I am saying that there are too few activists who venture outside 'converted'
territory, and while doing so may feel the most unrewarding and even the
least mobilising it may in the long term be the most politically useful.
Perhaps there is a short-termism about much activism and campaigning,
whereas serious political education is a long-term affair through which
we are trying to lay the foundations for the future. I think there is
a general lack of understanding among the left, progressives and minority
activists about the possible roles of art other than as putting on a benefit
or cultural event, or providing promotional media.
LALCHAND: And within progressive art practice is there perhaps too much
'preaching to the converted'?
KOOJ: Having used the phrase myself I have to say it is a really misleading
and unconstructive concept. It certainly is an accusation levelled at
progressive artists but it misrepresents the needs of progressive movements.
Similarly, my arguing for the greater sowing of educative seeds is not
the same as preaching to the 'non-converted'. First of all,
what is 'converted'? Within any group supporting progressive
activism there are many differences of opinion, a range of contradictions
and (like for everyone else) many suffer from a lot of misinformation
from the dominant discourses. There is little opportunity to explore,
understand and focus, or to resolve perspectives and further questions.
Art and media works are a key way in which people can come together and
do this in a less didactic way and retain a closeness to the central concerns,
a sense of purpose, along with the 'sing it together' sharing
of common ground which necessarily sustains any interest-based group.
Though didacticism also has its place - for example the 'We Are
Here...' CD-ROM which was intended as an educational work with a
capital 'E' - for use in schools and so on rather than as
an art product. Having said that, it is certainly no more didactic than
any school history book and probably less so; didacticism has to be placed
in context and we should challenge those accusations of being didactic
and dogmatic when indiscriminately used against work which states a progressive
LALCHAND: Lets move on to the Terminal Frontiers exhibition. Can you briefly
describe the project?
KOOJ: It was a two-year long project with a number of sections which resulted
in five different electronic art works being produced by a range of artists
at different levels, including Keith Piper, with a range of contributions
including from people seeking asylum and also from school children. The
processes involved in creating the works were very intensive with a general
attempt to scratch below the surface at the underlying causes for and
contexts around issues to do with asylum and globalisation, while at the
same time wanting to be true to our personal responses to these issues.
It's all well documented on our website.
LALCHAND: One of the two key pieces (Keith Piper's being the other)
was the 'What If I'm Not Real' installation which you directed
and which involved collaboration with a number of artists. How did this
work and what was it about?
KOOJ: 'What If I'm Not Real' was developed through much
collaborative discussion with the entire group of six artists, which included
five of migrant origin. Across three screens in a circular arrangement,
accompanied by other sculptural elements, the viewer can follow the simple
movements of the adult, child and official on their respective screens
producing a visual narrative accompanied by finely crafted, multi-directional
and alternating musical atmospheres. Among other things, the adult tries
to sew together the borders of two maps with a thread that will always
be too short, the child tries to piece together assorted fragments of
photographs of faces, and the official both sends off military vehicles
and receives money from the 'ground' of water. The interplay between the
characters leads to a final retaliation from the adult, although equally
the power of the piece is that it allows a range of mentalities between
aggressor and underdog to be woven together, explored and played out.
The mask work and plain garments were intended to minimize the specific
gender and cultural references while at the same time keeping the sense
of character and drama - the intention was to create a simpler and
more universally applicable set of meanings.
LALCHAND: Originally coming from an expression of a group of artists,
how does it work as art and as a contribution to progressive change?
KOOJ: Well, the work was very much our personal response to the issues
presented before us, though we clearly wanted the final work to support
our political sympathies. Being true and authentic to yourself and also
to your politics and beliefs is a difficult trick to play and takes some
commitment, arguments and a learning curve to achieve. The work is incredibly
rich with personal approaches and ideas such as the sense of opposites
which was so critical to our poet Tang Lin. The characters were all placed
on water suggesting on the one hand a relief from the problems of land - both
which the migrant has left and also which the migrant must go to - yet
on the other hand the disturbing sense that as land creatures they can't
float there forever and will need to leave this temporary respite. Blood
is also used to represent both life and death with the adult migrant finding
her own resolution by using her own blood along with that of others as
a form of fuel. Keith Piper's immediate comment was, 'God, the
production values are really high!' And a number of people who have
generally held the painfully common view that 'political art is just
an excuse for a slogan at art's expense' were all persuaded
otherwise once they had seen this work. In fact, a fuller text about its
aesthetics would be a significant piece in itself but unfortunately the
work's strength of provocative content usually leads the discussion
away, as it will do now.
As with many such works, it is essentially about engaging people with
human feelings and realities at a deeper level than facts and statistics,
managing to emotionally distil global processes and relationships into
simple, universal human narratives. It is clearly non-didactic, allowing
exploration of a range of metaphors within a structured framework, yet
still makes a clear statement that is largely free from specific cultural
references. It reached out to those interested in the art and the issues,
and to art audiences more generally who would not normally frequent such
a space. Further to this, it has stimulated interest in such work amongst
artists and art spaces. I would add that the whole set of Terminal Frontiers
works - along with the CD-ROM - is a compelling, complementary combination
at all levels. One of the works was designed to be portable and toured
various public and community venues away from the gallery space. Even
though we had variable responses to this 'community tour', its
value and possibilities are enormous and we want to try it again. It is
part of our commitment to make work geographically accessible, even if
demanding, while simultaneously avoiding it being marginalized from the
mainstream where it can also be seen in a more dedicated environment.
'Terminal Frontiers' will be coming to Street Level gallery
in Glasgow this autumn, and is due to continue touring through 2004. The
show was premiered at Castlefield Gallery (Manchester) in late 2002 and
was subsequently shown at the ICA (London).
The artists involved in the Terminal Frontiers series of works are Kooj
Chuhan, Aidan Jolly, Tang Lin, Hafiza Mohamed, Miselo Kunda-Anaku, Jilah
Bakshayesh and Keith Piper.