David Rych: BORDER ACT
The now years-long crisis on EUrope’s eastern and southern borders—where hundreds of migrants arrive every day after often months-long, perilous trips, or cross under combat-like conditions—continues to evoke one aspect at the level of EU-political discourse as conveyed by the mass media: viewing the migrants (and here I am fundamentally not differentiating between political refugees and so-called economic migrants) as unlawful intruders and cultural aliens, if not barbaric subjects (media coverage also frequently portrays them as a subject-less mass). This view of migrant subjects has an inner logic when it comes to constituting the (nation-state connoted) European Self, as it generates the necessary ‘Other’ to do so. One problem in civil society’s contact with the ‘Other’ is the often-involuntary perpetuation of this particular viewpoint. The incoming ‘Others’ are identified as people in need of enlightment; it is generally believed that they should be informed of their rights and obligations, but also schooled in cultural habits and differences. This clarification is meant to prepare migrant subjects for ‘integration’, which most citizens would call the strived-for goal. Though well-meaning, this same process unintentionally perpetuates an image of these individuals as inferior and victimized ‘Others’, this time as ignorant subjects.
Abetted by mass media, these identity attributions to migrants have become firmly entrenched in the subconscious of many EU-citizens—regardless of class or supposed ethnicity. Tellingly, the viewpoint is propagated mainly at the national level. While there are astonishing similarities between the regionally-connoted arguments, the historical and social premises would be different for each region in EUrope. These articulations occur in a mass media- and transnationally-constituted public space dominated by a strictly formal system of regulation, which is not least due to the advanced capitalization of both private-sector and public broadcasting media journalism. While a ‘de-capitalization’ of this industry appears a distant prospect at best, recent decades have seen an emergence of both institution- and artist-organized ‘exclaves’ within the art world, within which a non-capital-driven exchange of information and the dissemination of critically-reflected knowledge can take place. The field of art, or at least the spaces in it that form as a counter-public, seem to offer a viable platform for articulations from migrants who would otherwise have no chance at being heard publicly in any self-determined way. This is possible because, as Simon Sheikh has noted, ‘[t]he field of art has become […] a field of possibilities, of exchange and comparative analysis. It has become a field for alternatives, proposals and models, and can, crucially, act as a cross field, an intermediary between different fields, modes of perception and thinking, as well as between very different positions and subjectivities’ (Sheikh, 2009).1
Thus, within this context (and from it) it is possible as a migrant subject to publicly and critically articulate one’s own opinions on mainstream social topics that also affect migrant subjects. Given the precarious situation in which many migrants find themselves, this context offers a freedom of speech that they also share with many other, likewise precarious subjects, since most artists live also in a state of precarity. This opportunity to speak at least temporarily resolves first the subaltern position of ‘those to be integrated’—a position into which migrants are constantly being pushed by politics and bureaucracy2 (Bratić, 2010)—and converts it into a temporary autonomous zone, within which the disciplinary techniques of ‘integration’ can have no effect. Second, it shows the ‘normality’ of the existing conditions, whereby migrants are to be integrated into a social framework dictated by the majority society (and only there) as a socially-constructed ‘naturalization process of consensually-mediated power relations’ (Bratić, 2014, p. 4).3 Third, it facilitates a knowledge transfer that cannot usually happen within the institutional structures of Western knowledge production.
Border Act by David Rych may be seen insofar as an attempt to defeat socially dominant patterns of confrontation and initiate a dialogue with the ‘other’ beyond the ‘integration paradigm’.4 In this project refugees are given the chance to prepare themselves for dealing with the authorities within the fictional framework of improvisational theater. In interaction with improvisation trainers they can escape the decreed state of waiting for a short time and act in a productive way. Scenes staged are initial questioning of refugees by the authorities, whereby the refugees adopt not only their own positions but also those of the interviewers. ‘Where the staging goes hand in hand with a protagonist’s personal position and story and so explores real circumstances, it opens up’, according to Rych, ‘new space for critical questioning of the present world, investigating existing conditions in politics, media, and the public.’ Thereby it also becomes clear that regarding the brutality people generally experience on route as refugees, the verisimilitude of the declared reasons for flight is hardly fitting as an evaluation criterion in the granting of asylum: traumatization and repeated occurrences of abuse during flight make the original reasons for escape appear secondary.
The project, ultimately, is also a matter of making those processes visible, which take place as a rule behind closed doors and therefore remain hidden from the public eye. The immersive video installation with seven stages, mounted as a set-up assembled from various pretexts, plays with interlocking levels of reality and incorporates the viewers. Each individual observer is put into the center of the action and so can experience the scenario without any restrictions of perspective. Here, not least, it is about an audio-visual experience of space that challenges our perception—which is conditioned by a classic cinematographic montage of images—and critically questioning the documentary value of the images produced: we stand here as silent observers, immobile between the questioners and those questioned; the direction of viewing in each case, however, means we adopt the position of a counterpart, bringing about gradual identification with the relevant party. This decision is not prescribed, as on television or at the cinema, by the camera work; it is left to the judgement of each viewer—including the possibility of looking away from what is going on.
Viewers who persevere and view all seven stages from left to right are rewarded by an additional narrative conceived by the artist: in this order the forest scenes, which appear between the situations of interviewing at each stage, describe the progress of those questioned from refugees to people who have arrived. After their ‘arrival’ those questioned are no longer seen stalking through the forest but reading, or even working in a creative, sculptural context. What could be misunderstood initially as a culturalist depiction, emerges as a metaphor of self-finding on second glance, revealing possibilities of handling an apparently hopeless situation. For according to Rych, this is not about arriving in a state of normality but in Limbo—in that waiting room of indefinite temporality, the duration of which one cannot influence, certainly, but may ideally use in a personally productive way.
The significance of works like Border Act by David Rych lies primarily in the fact that they have the capability to make a process of emancipation visible and comprehensible. Their political dimension lies in the experienceability of the tremor in the existing epistemic foundations of social hegemony. Through this direct experienceability, they ask a responsible audience to do its part, to participate in this process of emancipation. In doing so, they create an opportunity for displacement, in terms of a moving-closer-together of positions from which the involved and the not-involved, those affected and the addressable speak. Knowledge produced in this way is at the same time also an inherent act of subjectivation.
(Text: Andrei Siclodi)
Mehdi Hussain Bangash, Elobeid Elmesbah, Katharina Hölbing, Ismail Jama, Claudia Kasebacher, Wolfgang Klingler, Christina Matuella, Askar Niman, Osayi Okundaye, Endurance Osayamwen Uwadia, Simona Schett
Border Act was supported financially in the context of stadt_potenziale Innsbruck in 2014. At the same time, the project is a follow-up within the framework of the International Fellowship-Program for Art and Theory in Künstlerhaus Büchsenhausen, where artist David Rych originally developed his film idea while receiving a fellowship in 2012/13.
David Rych: BORDER ACT
Duration of exhibition: January 15 – 30, 2016
Opening hours: Wed – Fri 11 a.m. – 6 p.m., Sat 11 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Kunstpavillon, Rennweg 8a, Innsbruck
(1) Sheikh, Simon (2009) Objects of Study or Commodification of Knowledge? Remarks on Artistic Research, in Art&Research, Vol. 2, No. 2, www.artandresearch.org.uk/v2n2/sheikh.html, [13 January 2016].
(2) Bratić, Ljubomir (2010) Politischer Antirassismus. Selbstorganisation, Historisierung als Strategie und diskursive Interventionen, Vienna: Löcker.
(3) Bratić, Ljubomir (2014) Politischer Antirassismus und Kunstinterventionen, in p|art|icipate, No. 4, 03/2014, www.p-art-icipate.net/cms/politischer-antirassismus-und-kunstinterventionen, [13 January 2016].
(4) Bratić, Ljubomir (2010) Politischer Antirassismus. Selbstorganisation, Historisierung als Strategie und diskursive Interventionen, Vienna: Löcker, pp. 41-59.
David Rych *1975 in Innsbruck, lebt in Berlin, Mitglied der Tiroler Künstler:innenschaft seit 2008. In seinen Arbeiten widmet sich Rych Fragen der Konstruktion von Identität und Realität – wobei im Besonderen Wissensproduktion und Repräsentation befragt und auf politische Hintergründe Bezug genommen wird. Seinen Filmen gehen Fragen nach Konstitution und Konstruktion von „Gesellschaft“ voran, wobei die jeweilige Thematik für die entsprechende Wahl des dokumentarischen Formats ausschlaggebend ist. In dieser Weise wird das Genre des Dokumentarfilms in verschiedenen Variationen, und somit auch die Bedingungen der Filmproduktion an sich, thematisiert. Rych hat an der Universität Innsbruck (1993-95), an der Akademie der bildenden Künste in Wien (1995-2001) und an der Bezalel Universität in Jerusalem (1999-2000) studiert und ein Postgraduate-Studium an der École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Marseille (2004-05) absolviert. Unter anderem war er Teilnehmer an der Manifesta 8 (2010) und der Berlin Biennale (2012). Seit 2014 ist David Rych Professor an der Kunstakademie in Trondheim (KiT) der Norwegischen Universität für Wissenschaft und Technologie (NTNU) in Trondheim, Norwegen.
2012/13 war er Teilnehmer des Fellowship-Programms für Kunst und Theorie im Künstlerhaus Büchsenhausen.