Nermin Saybaşılı, JOURNEY IN SPACE / IDENTITIES UNABLE TO BE LOCATED                                                                                                                                                                                     VOICE: Vocal Aesthetics in Digital Arts and Media, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT Press), Cambridge, 2010


Currently, it is becoming clear that location cannot be considered as a stable and fixed notion of space through which the identities are actively regulated. In the case of contemporary cities, for instance, resulting from endless and uncontrollable flux of migrations, classical oppositions of city/country, insiders/outsiders no longer work. In this respect, it is clear that there needs to re-establish a dynamic connection between here and there, between past and present instead of trying to find a cohesive relationship between identity and location.


... Esra Ersen, as herself a traveler who is constantly on the move, as an artist whose works were formed by and through the journeys she takes and the people she meets on her way, deals with, in her works, the tension between stable and delineated location and uncontrolable flux of migration, and the complex processes of integration and assimilation immigrants have to cope with. In her latest video-work Brothers & Sisters (2003), which was shown during the last Istanbul Biennial (2003), and consists of interviews with the ‘illegal’ immigrants coming from African countries such as Congo, Kenya, Somalia, Nigeria, Gana, the artist reveals ‘another Istanbul’ within the ‘known’; she examines the personal experience of African people in Istanbul, in this ‘transition’ space, before they ‘move forward’ to Europe.13

In her film, Ersen draws attention to the fact that the African people living in Istanbul feel themselves comfortable and secure only in the places where they do not hint any characteristic of the city, such as night clubs, shopping malls, parks, hotels, McDonalds. All these places Ersen cites are spaces which are as coined by the anthropologist Marc Augé as ‘non-places’. The ‘non-place’, which there is no organic life possible, creates ‘solitary contractuality, since it mediates a whole mass of relations, both with self and with others, which are only indirectly connected with their purposes’14 What Augé sees as the paradox of ‘non-place’ is relevant for our discussion: ‘a foreigner lost in a country he does not know (a ‘passing stranger’) can feel at home there only in the anonymity of motorways, service stations, big stores or hotel chains.’15

With his concept of ‘non-places’, Augé refers to the condition that in the worldwide consumption spaces and amongst the multinational brand names, the individual can develop a sense of ‘belonging’ in his solitute. But in the case of the African immigrants, they find shelter in ‘being invisible’ in the ‘familiar crowd’ of the ‘non-places’, because in these spaces, they can be faithful to a ‘shadow’, without being fully there in the present.

The problem here lies on the attempt to establish a continuity between identity and location. The immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers form a community, a community that we might refer to as Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt call ‘multitude’. Negri and Hardt make a distinction between people and ‘multitude’:

The multitude is a multiplicity, a plane of singularities, an open set of relations, which is not homogeneous or identical with itself and bears an indistinct, inclusive relation to those outside of it. The people, in contrast, tend toward identity and homogeneity internally while posing its difference from and excluding what remains outside of it.16

The ‘multitude’ therefore cannot be localized within a unified world. The existence of immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers challenges the very existence of nation-state and nation-state’s direct appearance in the public domain. Immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers are seen as a ‘problem’ to be contained, mainly because in this case we can no longer describe identity in terms of ethnicity, in terms of class, or in terms of gender. The body of an immigrant is not attached to one identity, but seeks a meeting point in various networks of identities. An immigrant has no doubt a life, but without a ‘personal life’ or ‘individual property’.

We have certain locations in our cities, such as ghettos, slums and centres for refugees and asylum seekers, each of which function as a ‘container’ and through which identities on the move are reduced in order to shore up the exclusive representation of the nation-state.

In Esra Ersen’s another video-work If You Could Speak Swedish (2001), for which the artist collaborated with immigrants and asylum-seekers who attented to a Swedish language course in one of the suburbs of Stockholm, we see in the very beginning of the film, two signs at the entrance of the language course. The language courses are designated to ‘two type of participants’. As one sign shows the way to the language course which is reserved for the ones whose applications have been accepted, the other leads to the other courses in the same building, which are designated either for the people whose applications have not yet been accepted or immigrants who are allowed only a limited stay in the country. Ersen asked the immigrants who were participating to these language courses to write down, in their mother tongues, what they would like to say if they could speak Swedish. Then these texts were translated into Swedish from various languages such as Arabic, Russian, Spanish, Chinese. The apparent uneasiness of the course students as they are trying to read their own sentences in Swedish in front of the camera, and the incongruity we can easily perceive in the environment hint the impossibility to inhabit a foreign language and to fit into an already existing community and this community’s cultural values and norms. This point is especially noticable in the lack of harmony between the posters hung on the walls of the classrooms (a photograph of beautiful Stockholm with a bright sky and a blue sea, for instance) and real condition of the immigrants standing in front of these posters and struggling to ‘express’ themselves. The haunting existence of the language teacher who is off-screen and we can only hear his/her voice and who corrects the students’ pronouncation and asks again and again to repeat the words until they are correct, convey a kind of aggression to the screen. The teacher’s interruptions double the immigrants’ foreighness.

If You Could Speak Swedish opens up important questions: Is it really possible to fully translate one language to another? More importantly, is it necessary? In her important book Strangers to Ourselves (1991), Julia Kristeva points to the subtle way of the use of power over a ‘foreigner’. She writes:

‘To be of no account to others. No one listens to you, you never have the floor, or else, when you have the courage to seize it, your speech is quickly erased by the more garrulous and fully relaxed talk of the community. Your speech has no past and will have no power over the future of the group: why should one listen to it? You do not have enough status – “no social standing”- to make your speech useful. ... Your speech, fascinating as it might be on account of its strangeness, will be out of no consequence, will have no effect, will cause no improvement.’17

The ‘foreigner’s appearance signals a ‘border’, and language, as itself a cultural form can become a powerful instrument for the fortification of this ‘border’ between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

We should develop a more complex understanding of the relationship between geography and subjectivity, between location and cultures. The real challenge in our times is not to regulate and rule out the differences and treat them according to a policy or a programme, which Sarat Maharaj has described as ‘multicultural managerialism’18, but to find a way of writing uneasy moments, fractures and untranslatabilities into culture.



Nermin Saybaşılı

13 I discussed Esra Ersen’s film in the context of my analysis of the production of space and subjectivities regarding Tarlabaşi, a multi-inhabited quarter in İstanbul. Nermin Saybaşılı, ‘Tarlabaşı: “Another World” in the City’, Site, September 2005 (forthcoming)

14Marc Augé, Non-Places, Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (London and New York: Verso, 1995) p.94

15ibid., p.106

16Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, op.cit., p.103

17Julia Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), p.20

18‘Modernity and Difference: A Conversation between Stuart Hall and Sarat Maharaj’ in Annotations (London: inIVA, 2001), p.46