It seems everyone in Esra Ersen’s work us, speaking to us through numerous layers of borrowed and imposed tropes and languages, is trying to reach us by an address to their surroundings:
> The African migrants in Istanbul (Brothers and Sisters) perceive of themselves through the prisms of strangeness and mistrust with which they are viewed by the local population.
> Immigrants in Sweden, (If you Could Speak Swedish) forced to learn Swedish as part of the obligation of being taken in by the state, attempt to make it a language of communication for inner
> Children in Korea and Germany ( I am Turkish, I am Honest, I am Diligent) are asked to re-negotiate their sense of self via the wearing of Turkish school uniforms for a short period.
> Displaced foreigners in Swedish suburbs (Parachute in Third Floor, Birds in Laundry) transmit their stories and fantasies via the hand of a Swedish house painter, who is translating them into images on the stairwell.
And it is not only those who are culturally displaced who are grappling with these cultural filters, whose voices refract through cultural platitudes, here in Ersen’s work we also find those at home being filtered through media and popular culture;
> Couples driving and bickering across the bridge of the Bosphorus (Hello, Where is it ?) , sound like every conventional TV sit-com about the battle between the sexes.
> Girls in the hamam in Istanbul (Hamam) exchange intimate confidences refracted through the barrage of sexualised and misogynist spam-mails, flooding in through their computer email.
And therein lies our problem. On the one hand, this is artwork, which produces, which insists on, and addresses – in a mode of speech which has something to say, commands a listener and demands a response. On the other hand, nowhere can we locate a seemingly ‘authentic’ voice in which such a truthful address can be spoken. All are refracted through the endless cross-cultural translations necessitated by the processes of globalisation and which affect all of our consciousnesses in an indiscriminate manner. And so we are left with the question of whether there can be a potent and specific ‘address’ within globally circulating culture or are these two in fundamental contradiction?
In the old world, the soulless discourse of migrant demographics – so many people from there to here or here to there, so many settled so, employed thus, sanctioned by these legalities, excluded by those regulations – could be countered by a personal voice, reclaiming the subjectivity of the journey and of the displacement by eliciting a seemingly authentic voice of experience, which might at least serve to counter all those awful statistics and demographics. Thus so much artwork through out the 1990s countered both media rhetorics and bureaucratic speak with personal narratives which assumed the equivalence between experience and authenticity. But we no longer put our trust in such an unmediated concept of authenticity, we understand now that our perception of ourselves is mediated through so many layers of cross-cultural translations and media representations, that its immediate effect functions differently. When Jacques Derrida spoke of ‘all meaning being deferred’, never quietly inhabiting the parameters of its supposed vehicle but always being constituted through neighbouring entities, perceptions and associations, he produced for us a theoretical model which collapsed notions of inside and outside. Thus the motion of people and labour and goods and capital and representations that motion does not operate along the logics of insides and outsides but rather through a relational model. And it is important that we try and think ‘the migratory’ beyond those categories of insiders and outsiders, beyond those who have inherited rights and privileges of belonging and those who are excluded from those rights and privileges, but along the lines of those who are producing a new relationality between those who are seemingly already at home.
Early on in my reading I had been very excited by the work of Michel Foucault and following along the lines of his thought it became increasingly clear that the constitution of belonging - of any belonging whether it be Institutional, disciplinary, national, regional, cultural, sexual or racial - has never been an exclusive function of its shared terms but also of its shared exclusions. I do not mean exclusions in that simple sense of "I am in and you are out" but of the necessary constitution of an active form of 'unbelonging' against which the anxiety laden work of collectivities and mutualities and shared values and histories and rights can gain some clarity and articulation. Thus far the discussion of belonging has largely ceded primary power to the state with its various apparatuses for the granting, policing and preventing of rights of belonging or conditions of expulsion. Seen from the perspective of state sanctioned rights and the immensity of their power to wreck and disrupt subjects' lives, the theoretical preoccupation with an active process of 'unbelonging' might seem somewhat frivolous. My discussion is not intended to promote an illusion that the state is not powerfull but rather to examine some of the terms by which it has limited and shut down our capacity to understand and thematise issues of belonging beyond those annexed purely to the juridical status of its subjects.
I do not wish to make light of the wrecked lives, an nihilations and displacements that various fascisms, nationalisms, fanaticisms, and redrafted migrant labour economies have visited upon both individuals and groups marked out by difference and by the absence of fundamental rights. It is precisely in the wake of those horrific histories that several generations of thinkers have now claimed their stake in the necessary evolution of an active category of 'unbelonging' - not as marginality and not as defiant opposition and certainly not as a mode of 'dropping out' - but as a critical refusal of the terms - and of the implications of those terms - which come to be naturalised within the parameters of any given debate. All this by working from within those parameters rather than outside of them and by examining their constitutive components as an epistemological structure in which 'difference' rather than homogeneity determines what we know, how we know it and why we know it.
Not long ago I took a taxi in London in a state of great hurry and agitation, being very late for a seminar I was supposed to be teaching. Having tumbled into the back seat and announced my destination, the driver picking up the various layers of my accent, asked ‘and where do you come from?’ a question I truly hate given that there is no simple, clear cut answer for it. I mumbled some nonsense and suddenly on a whim turned to him, an obvious London East Ender, a white man with a fairly clear connection to his place of birth and asked him the same question: ‘And you, where do you come from?’. Initially his response was a kind of disbelieving snort - by what right had I to pose such a question to such an obvious local? - , but within minutes he began unravelling in front of my astonished eyes…. ‘Well, he said, I may be from here, but I don’t feel its my city anymore, you never see an English face, you never hear an English voice, I don’t really know if its my city any more…’ and so on and so forth for 20 minutes until we got to the university. By the time we arrived I was, unusually for me, centred in some sense of relation to place while he, the native, had somehow discombobulated himself into a frenzy of anxiety about that very relation. Beyond questioning the power relations of who has the right and the opportunity to ask such questions regarding belonging, something else had also taken place here.
An address, or a mode of transference, in which roles had shifted. Would he ever again, I wondered, remembering his own discomfort, dare to ask a passenger such a question again? Had I struck some small victory for the displaced plagued by demands for over simple explanations every day for their lives? I very much doubt it, but for me some clarification had taken place about the potential role and effect of ‘strange speech’ as it circulates among the ‘homed.
Alternatively we might ask whether these, seemingly contradictory narratives which tumble out of Esera Ersen’s videos and photos, this dichotomy of insisting on an address and of voiding the specificity of its context, might be mutually constituting something else, something new and what might the nature of such a ‘refracted address’ actually be? Clearly the discourses of globalisation, which have been trying to problematise the vision of a world fundamentally characterised by objects in motion have to be considered here. “…To say that globalisation is somehow about things in motion somewhat understates the point. The various flows we see – of objects, persons, images, and discourses – are not coeval, convergent, isomorphic or spatially consistent. They have what I have elsewhere called relations of disjuncture. By this I mean that the paths or vectors taken by these kinds of things have different speeds, axes, points of origin and termination and varied relationships to institutional structures in different regions, nations, or societies.”
And so here I want to take up the notion of singularity to try and negotiate the contradictions that I have pointed to, the ones made so obvious by Ersen’s work.
I want to take up the notion of ‘singularity’ in relation to place, location and globalisation because it seems to me to enable the kind of fractured conjunction in which subjects and places do not automatically locate and identify one another. Instead they might produce another relation to place which is produced by the changed relations between the speaking subjects of the videos, the place of their location and us, the viewers. ‘Singularity’ as I am using it, is being that is not inscribed with identity, is not in a relation of legible identification with other beings but nevertheless performs some form of collectivity or mutuality. By this we mean that it is not the tribal form of belonging; to a state, a nation, a region, an ethnicity,
a kinship system, a set of ideological or other beliefs, that produces the cement of holding people together in forms of ‘having in common’ various tropes of identity,
to use Jean Luc Nancy’s phrase.
It is possible to juxtapose the grounded specificity of conventional geographical locations with the emergent logic of singularity. While the specific is true to a logic
of its contexts, the singular it true to a logic of its own internal self organisation. “The singular and the specific” says Peter Hallward in ‘Absolutely Postcolonial’, divide most obviously, most naively, in their tolerance of positioned interests and ‘worldliness’ in the most general sense. According to the singular-immediate logic, in order to grasp the truth of the created world, you first have to step outside of it…
The specific on the other hand implies a situation, a past, an intelligibility constrained by inherited conditions.. Within the world, the specific relates subject to subject and subject to other; the singular dissolves both in one beyond-subject”
And now the question remains about the ‘beyond subjects’ produced by Ersen’s work – what is it that they are demanding of us, their viewers? Do they want our empathy and understanding for their plight? Surely not, for that is so easy, so static and so without any possibilities for transformation. Do they believe that their testimony might work to improve their conditions and those of others, might work to overturn injustice? Surely the aspiration is for more than a corrective action, something that goes beyond inclusiveness. My mind constantly goes back to one of the protagonists of ‘Brothers and Sisters’ who repeatedly says that the West’s true test of its ability to transform is whether it can accept the black man, the African. How is it a test I ask myself; is it loss of prejudice?, Is it a loss of a sense of exclusivity?, Or is it a sence of superiority? Is it the acceptance of that most profound barrier of difference, racial difference? And then I remember my taxi driver in London, his absolute sense of his own dislocation in relation to the place of his birth, his life long inhabitation, his language and habits and beliefs. And I think to myself that Esra Ersen’s ‘strange speech’ and that of everyone else’s does produce some erosion, some loosening, that its address is heard, even if it is not always answered.
© Irit Rogoff
Goldsmiths College, London University November , 2005.
. Arjun Appadurai, “Grassroots Globalisation and the Research Imagination” in Public Culture Vol. 12, no. 1, Duke University Press, 2000, p.5.