Spill Writing

On Displacement: disturbing histories


This is about borders, the kinds of borders that are etched onto bodies, that mean bodies gather without agency, bodies are moved, and have to move. It emerges from work that crosses borders, or that questions their formation, as much as from the resonance of borders in post-Brexit Britain, in the midst of forced migration, of the closure of Calais, and of all that rests on bodies that gather in these spaces.


In absentia, I think of the testimonies and stories of those who experienced Hom(e)age, of the strong smell of fish and rituals of entrapment and release, of moving from the sea to the shore, of the political space that opens up through smell, through hearing, through listening (and unavoidability, as the fish begin to move and hit bodies and bodies try to move away, as poetics in performance)


[A border figure is a figural expression denoting the border, creating connotations as to how border is conceived.’

Eg Theresa May recently stated ‘We did not leave the European Union only to give up control of immigration again’]


The same release emerges differently through Elaine Mitchener’s work, both [Names] and Of Leonardo, through the voice as a powerful agent, as a shape-shifting articulation of multiple experiences, residing with each other, concurrent and fractured. Voice as a space of being together, voice as a speaking out, voice as a confrontation, voice as action (dissonance is key, here).


Borders in Shaun Caton’s work, between living and the dead, between a mythology in the making, occupying territories that hold a different temporality – taxidermy, shadow play, live, figural painting (and an aesthetics that constantly finds itself, collage as process of remaking). It’s a conversation between the ancient and the global, dissolving and re-creating, a question on how we might reconceptualise tradition, how the global and the ancient converse.


This is recurring in so much of the work that tries to access a different temporality, and also stand critically within it – Latai Taumoepeau’s Ocean Island Mine also occupies that territory. And it is echoed in Shabnam Shabazi’s collective occupation of the Ipswich Museum, where a body is being live tattooed, and others are celebrating, and history stands there in miniatures and taxidermy and representations, objects of performance and objects of experience, blending in, standing out. A kind of ritualising of the museum space, a gathering of difference.


In a different manner, Jade Montserrat’s Shadowing Josephine, a transgressive confrontation of languages of oppression and release, seizes hold of something, and places it in productive danger, in conversation with narratives that are not of its own. The work is based on Josephine Baker, one of the first black celebrities to emerge from segregation in 1920s Paris, performer and entertainer, civil rights activist. The most intriguing, and emancipatory narrative surrounding Baker is the Rainbow Tribe, her adopted family of children from Japan, France, Belgium, Venezuela and Finland, a multi-racial, multi-national family that articulated equality through Baker’s politicisation of the domestic space. This is about aesthetics and intervention, about race and representation, about movement and resistance. (Baker was awarded France’s highest military honours for her work during the second world war, smuggling messages in her sheet music for the French Resistance. After the war, she travelled often to the US to perform, actively engaging with the civil rights movement there- the NAACP named May 20th Josephine Baker day, in part following her participation in the March of Washington in 1963).


Residing in a chateau, Les Milandes, this social space was also one of activism too, in which children were dressed in their national, ethnic or religious identities, politicising difference as ensemble, a process of performance that had an activist agenda, but was also not dissimilar from celebrity themeparks (think the Neverland Ranch). But this is serious, and important celebrity culture, and it crosses both Europe and the US (Baker’s work was influential to the US civil rights movement), as well as sits uneasily with paradigms of visibility which it disturbs. Montserrat brings this complexity of relationships and representations back to the body, as a way of exploring frames and structures that legislate how histories are read, how bodies are read, but also what productive spaces might be opened up through that confrontation. Her naked body is a site of travels, of dislocation, of being there, and here at the same time.


This is a reflection on borders as shifting, as places of in-betweens, an exorcism to the militarisation, and assimilation of territory on the grounds of nationalist agendas, of war. The borders that leave scars, the borders that segregate, the borders that do not enable histories from emerging. This is a reflection on borders that erode too, the kind that break down (not displace), the kind of borders bodies can access.


– Diana