A multimedia installation exposed the cruelty at the heart of the ‘hostile environment’. Allan Struthers reviews Deportation Discs: A Public Hearing, at the Bartlett school of architecture, University College London (15-16 November 2018).
The idea that popular anti-migrant sentiment emerges spontaneously from a disgruntled ‘white working class’ ignores the role of state policies in the reproduction of negative attitudes towards migration. A recent exhibition used photographs, bureaucratic cuttings and tape recordings to expose the mechanisms of state racism, and to prompt political resistance to it.
Deportation Discs: A Public Hearing took on a journalistic mode of presentation, relaying the stories of Chris and Denico – two men who moved to the UK as children and were deported to Jamaica over a decade later, under the British government’s ‘hostile environment’.
The personal narratives of Chris and Denico were not foregrounded visually. Instead, photographs taken of their ‘new life’ in Jamaica were posted in an understated wall display, alongside stark black-and-white text cuttings from UK legal and policy frameworks, practical guides offered to deportees and collaborating airline employees – replete with grimly technical reports of physical violence, and images taken from tourist magazines that advertise Jamaica’s holiday-friendly environment.
Pinned like ominous clouds above this fragmented presentation were printed iterations of the UK Immigration Act. The state and its legal ideology were implicated in the repression documented beneath.
The reorganisation of non-fictional elements geared towards social justice ends resembles the work of the Turner Prize nominated Forensic Architecture research team, which uses multimedia installations to document state and corporate violence. In both cases, the assembled fragments are brought together in a way that goes beyond traditional avant-garde approaches to making engaged art.
Avant-garde techniques such as photomontage have typically contrasted the spectacle of consumerism with its spectacular destruction. However, shock does not automatically help the spectator to be more critical. Deportation Discs didn’t seek to contrast dry policy reports with images of violence and brutality to pose an obvious counter-narrative: Chris and Denico’s photographs and ruminations are sadly everyday, rather than sensational.
Added to this display were tape recorders relaying a set of interviews with Chris and Denico, interspersed with music they had chosen, explaining their personal experiences of migration and adaptation. Presented to the audience at ‘a public hearing’, the personal musical compilation mirrored the textual compilation of bureaucratic documents, and spoke directly to an urgent political situation in which it is still possible to intervene.
The ‘public hearing’ in the title also referred to a live discussion between Luke de Noronha and curators from architectural collective BREAK // LINE. It culminated in an emotionally charged phone call between de Noronha and one of the work’s subjects, Chris, relayed through a PA system in live time. This type of presentation will be recognisable to many who have attended anti-deportation protests in recent times, in which those targeted by this specific repression are given voice at front and centre stage.
Unprompted, the panel also acknowledged the invaluable hours of unglamorous labour that goes into anti-racist organising, and namechecked migrant solidarity organisations such as the Anti-Raids Network. This direct linking to relevant activist organisations should be standard practice for all exhibitions that take ongoing political struggles as their object.
The panellists also highlighted the encroachment of border policies and the ‘hostile environment’ in educational institutions (such as the one in which the exhibition was hosted) through the Prevent policy, created by the Labour government in 2003. Deportation Discs: A Public Hearing revealed an apparatus that wreaks havoc in the lives of those who find themselves unexpectedly caught up in its machinations, fuels racism and creates a besieged mentality throughout workplaces and social institutions.
Deportation Discs set a high standard for multimedia installations. It actively engaged with a thoroughly contemporary set of contradictions in capitalism: between the requirement for border regimes and an ideology valorising peaceful participation in civic life.