A response to ‘Krísis: Critical Interventions’ symposium (Friday 29th October 2016)
The art exhibition, Krísis, is curated by Something Human, and is presented in collaboration with Nottingham Trent University, Bonington Gallery and Nottingham Contemporary. The exhibition runs from Thursday 28th October 2016 – Friday 9th December 2016, and explores how art and performance can approach questions such as ‘how can we use states of crisis as a way to rethink the future?’ ‘Krísis: Critical Interventions’ was part of a series of events linked to the art exhibition. This one-day symposium (Friday 29th October) included performative lectures, and talks by artists and invited speakers about how states of social, political or cultural crisis are addressed and conveyed through artistic expression (including literature and visual culture). Dr Anna Ball, Dr Roy Smith and Professor Duncan Higgins facilitated the talks and mediated conversations throughout the day, and thus helped the speakers to create a collective dialogue about notions of crisis across a broad range of topics. In June 2016, the United Nations refugee agency announced that ‘[t]he number of people displaced by conflict is at the highest level ever recorded’, and subsequently, a discourse has emerged within the media surrounding what has been dubbed ‘Europe’s migrant crisis’. In this vein, the present blog post will specifically consider the talks which explored how issues of displacement and homelessness are represented within literature and the media, and concludes by discussing some of the issues raised in the talk by representatives from Nottingham Refugee Forum (NRF).
Veronika Schuchter, a visiting scholar at Nottingham Trent University, analysed notions of home in contemporary travel culture and literature. Schuchter began by highlighting the slippery nature of the term ‘home’, stating that it can refer to a physical and highly ritualised space of dwelling, or an abstract space which can evoke a sense of belonging. She observed how companies like Easy Jet and Airbnb capitalise on their customers’ dependence on the notion of home, as their adverts paradoxically encourage people to leave their homes and travel whilst simultaneously reassuring them that they can inhabit a homely space once they reach their destination. These companies, it seems, have created a new travel culture whereby the traveller can – quite literally in the case of Airbnb – experience a home away from home. Part of this homely experience, Schuchter argued, is linked to (and might be dictated by) the traveller’s ability to connect to Wi-Fi at their destination, and thus she proposed that, in a contemporary context, home is where the Wi-Fi connects automatically. This observation suggests that modern technology has influenced how the ‘selfie generation’ conceptualise the notion of home when they are ‘away’ from home.
Schuchter analysed three contemporary novels – Restlessness (1998) by Aritha van Herk, Hotel World (2001) by Ali Smith and The Embassy of Cambodia (2013) by Zadie Smith – and explored how authors represent the idea of home in their work. By discussing these texts in conjunction, Schuchter emphasised that the notion of home is ambiguous and personal to the individual, as each protagonist creates their own meaning of this highly-contested term. When these texts are read under the rubric of travel literature, it is somewhat unsurprising that each protagonist’s conceptualisation of home is developed through travel, stasis or through their relationship with a hotel. Dorcas, the protagonist in Restlessness, is a compulsive traveller, but she recognises that each time she ventures beyond her home country she is rendered Other. Dorcas chooses to end her own life in the hotel – a space which Schuchter suggested represents home for Dorcas because it provides a sense of stability for her erratic state of mind. The protagonist of Hotel World, Else, is a homeless woman who begs for money outside a hotel in an anonymous British city until she is invited to spend one night in the establishment. Schuchter quoted a particularly poignant passage from the text – one which describes the moment Else peers out of the window in her hotel room and sees ‘her remains; her sleeping bag, her blanket, her day’s takings. Where she sits each day is piled like a mistake, like rubbish, against the edge of the hotel’. Fatou, the protagonist in The Embassy of Cambodia, is a young girl from Ivory Coast, who, Smith implies, is an illegal immigrant in Britain. Over the course of the narrative, we learn that Fatou works as a domestic servant for a family in London; her employers grant her an extremely limited independence and confiscate her passport, which confines Fatou within an intimate domestic setting in which she does not belong. Notions of unbelonging, displacement and homelessness are central to all three of the novels Schuchter discussed. Consequently, the presentation highlighted how literature, as a cultural form, raises questions about home – a space that is often perceived as neutral and unproblematic. Schuchter’s discussion revealed how authors can make states of international crisis, such as migration, register on a personal level by representing these states of emergency through a protagonist. As such, Schuchter showed how figures who are readily cast as Other in xenophobic discourses can be humanised through the medium of literature.
This relationship between media and literature has a prevailing impact on the ways in which refugee experience is articulated in popular discourses in the west. Professor of English at NTU, Phil Leonard’s paper ‘Sacred Shores’ took the refugee crisis as its focus, and in particular, the journeys many refugees undertake from Syria to Greece. The shore, for Leonard, represents a liminal space between the quasi-safety offered by European social apparatuses – that is, the legal, economic, and political structures in any single nation state – and the danger posed by an unwieldy journey across the Aegean Sea. Drawing on various marketing campaigns and adverts, the shore becomes a space in which desperate refugees make contact with loved ones on a mobile phone which glows warmly in the faces of its users. In one advert, and set against a red sunset, the shore conflates the spaces of risk, safety, and tourism, rendering the shore as all of these and, at the same time, neither. But the liminality of the shore raises questions around refugee experiences. When do refugees arrive?, Leonard asks. Is it on the border, some ten miles off the shore; is it when they appear on the beach; or is it when asylum is granted? Drawing on Giorgio Agamben’s work, Leonard described the concept of ‘homo sacer’, the figure who has no legal status and is rendered as killable because of it. As such, refugees are placed in this category. Refugees, therefore, are rendered victims in terms of their governments’ misguided political decisions, victims of their own bad judgment – by sailing across turbulent stretches of water in nothing more than a flimsy rubber dinghy – or perhaps by failing to seek asylum closer to home, in neighbouring countries, which does not involve a perilous journey. Most importantly for Leonard, their status as victims is not explained in terms of Western – particularly, European – states’ legal frameworks. In such narratives, the West, in some ways, becomes the victim, rather than the perpetrator of hardship for refugees.
This chimed with NRF’s talk in which they discussed the notion of ‘lives not worthy of living’, a mantra used in Nazi Germany and legitimised in contemporary narratives on the refugee crisis through the (above) concept of homo sacer. This narrative is something the NRF spends some time tackling, not only in the sense of refugees’ own shame because their value is constructed through narratives of deserving and undeserving, but also through narratives that conflate refugees’ status as rivals to working-class British workers. ‘Migrants’, ‘refugees’, ‘immigrants’ and ‘asylum seekers’ are terms which have been used synonymously since the refugee crisis to justify anger towards refugees as those which, so the narrative goes, seek to take housing provision, jobs, and welfare support from ‘deserving’ Britons. Indeed, as one volunteer from the charity put it: ‘The only crisis in the UK is the crisis of poor provision of public services. Refugee crisis is imposed by governments to suit a specific political agenda.’ Such homogenising practices seek to cast those fleeing war as dangerous and undeserving.
The notion of ‘crisis’ has dominated the contemporary era. The ‘Krísis: Critical Interventions’ conference showcased the ways in which cultural forms can shape meaning and offer a lens through which understandings of the contemporary moment can be rationalised, comprehended, and processed. Such cultural forms allow us to wrestle with traumatic events and enable critical approaches that offer potential solutions to – or at least understandings of – the crises with which we are faced. Home, belonging, and the safety concomitant with these concepts is crucial subject matter to understand the challenges the human race must deal with in this cultural moment, and the conference offered a space in which to discuss these events openly.
The ‘Krísis’ exhibition is at Bonington Gallery at NTU until 9 December 2016.
Agamben, Giorgio, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. by Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998)
BBC, ‘Refugees at highest ever level, reaching 65m, says UN’, BBC News (2016) <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-36573082 > [accessed 1st November 2016]
Bonington Gallery, ‘Krísis’ (2016) <http://www.boningtongallery.co.uk/exhibitions/krisis> [accessed 31st October 2016]
Smith, Ali, Hotel World (London: Penguin, 2002)
Something Human, ‘About’ < https://something-human.org/about/ > [accessed 31st October 2016]
This blog was originally posted on the Postcolonial Studies Centre Blog at Nottingham Trent University and is available here.
 Something Human is an independent art curator which focuses on ‘exploring movement and relationships across boundaries, through […] shared multidisciplinary interests in architecture, design, sculpture, mixed media, photography, moving image and performance’. Something Human, ‘About’ < https://something-human.org/about/ > [accessed 31st October 2016] (para. 1 of 1).
 Bonington Gallery, ‘Krísis’ (2016) < http://www.boningtongallery.co.uk/exhibitions/krisis > [accessed 31st October 2016] (para. 3 of 7).
 BBC, ‘Refugees at highest ever level, reaching 65m, says UN’, BBC News (2016) <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-36573082 > [accessed 1st November 2016] (caption under video).