Inside/Outside: A Critical Phenomenology of Racialized Spaces in Refugee Art
Written by Isabella Greenwood
In this paper I will aim to give a phenomenological account of racialized space in Polish artist Krzysztof Wodiczko’s Guests (2009). I will argue that this piece of art strongly represents literal, political, and psychological borders between refugees and the rest of the world, thus presenting ambiguous dichotomies between inside/outside, guest/stranger. Guests both forces the spectator to confront their notion of societal insider and outsider, and further provides an affective trigger that works to call into question the invisibility of white and privileged space. My argument will be comprised of the aforementioned three key points, I. Inside/outside: Abjection, II. Visibility/ Invisibility of the Border, III. A Phenomenology of Spatial Privilege.
The Refugee Crisis and Guests (2009)
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, as of January 2019, 70.8 million (41.3 million internally 25.9 million registered (20.4 million under UNHCR, 5.5 million under UNRWA and 3.5 million asylum seekers) had been displaced worldwide. As Thom Davies writes, that informal refugee camps within the EU have increasingly become a space of stagnation and a symptom of political failure. The refugee crisis is critical, with global refugee numbers at their highest since the end of the Second World War, and minimal action and recognition from the outer world. Wodiczko’s Guests is an art piece that was created in response to this crisis, presented at the Polish Pavilion at the 53rd international Art Biennale in Venice 2009, exploring particularly immigrants that fled to Italy from Romania, Poland, Ukraine and Pakistan. Krzysztof Wodiczko’s Guests is a visual installation showing blurred contours of anonymous refugees, presented on the walls of a dimly lit room. The walls appear as windows or storefronts, whereby the refugees inside them, undertake various activities, such as washing windows, climbing ladders, walking and talking. It is through the refugee’s dialogue, played in overhead speakers, that the viewers become aware that these people are migrants, telling their stories of migration, discrimination, and their struggles to feel like an ordinary civilian. According to Adam Mazur, the project reviewer, “the exhibition in the pavilion is transformed into a kind of a speaking tube, a symbolic tool for transporting information about the lives of migrants and all other people excluded from the public sphere”. From Mazur’s statement, we can understand that one of Wodiczko’s primary critiques is aimed towards the cultural elite that occupy the gallery space. Wodiczko’s decision to hold this exhibition in a gallery space, as opposed to a public space, draws light to spatial privileges affronting a group of people that hold a privilege high enough to be spending time in a gallery space. Previous exhibitions of Wodiczko’s have never been aimed at art experts and gallery-goers, rather they addressed a massive audience—and often random passers-by. The notion of privileged space further beckons the question of who is the guest and who is the inhabitant of both this space and spaces beyond this exhibition.
This leads us to the work of Julia Kristeva and her notion of the abject. The word "abject" derives from the Latin word "abicere" (English: to throw away) and the French word "abject" (French: disgusting, repugnant, difficult to look at). It can be understood as a term for the bodily phenomena that transgress and threaten one’s sense of cleanliness, and propriety, particularly referencing non idealized aspects of body and bodily functions, e.g., Bodily fluid. Kristeva describes the abject body, as a fundamental differentiation between the self and the non-self. The self can be understood as an idealized body, devoid of any real bodily function, such as sweating, urinating or excreting, and the non self is understood as these listed bodily phenomena that transgress, and threaten, one’s sense of cleanliness, and propriety. Abjection is therefore a reaction to the confrontation with the "abject"/ Other/ or non-self, triggered by disgust or phobia of this abject body, e.g., rot or disease, which is seen as not belonging to the self/idealised body, and thus are seen as a threat to the idealised body. Kristeva interestingly describes the abject through the metaphor of a border, she says, “the bodies, compensates when there is a collapse of the border, between inside and outside”. Thus, we can see that the wall acts as a barrier between inside [inhabitant], and outside [guest]. The inside is normally understood, as the idealized body of land with proper dominion and resources whereby people live comfortably, whereas the outside body is the other side of the border and represents all that which the inside chooses to ignore.
In Guests, the spectator is forced to encounter the other side of the border, coming face to face with the abject and Othered body of society. As the viewers circulate around the gallery space, they hear the voices (in the overhead speakers) of those that usually do not have a voice, or those that are otherwise ignored or othered. They watch the “abject” bodies perform normal tasks and routines and go about their lives. It is through these tasks that the so-called abject body is seen as a productive to society, as Wodiczko states himself in an interview, the “strangers” and so-called abject subjects of our nation, are “those who take care of our children, our parents’ grandparents, who clean our apartments, who cook for us, without whom we would be dead”. Thus, Wodiczko’s decision to frame the “other” as productive, allows for a sense of appreciation for both the past and future refugee bodies in our society. In addition, as the spectator watches the shadows of the refugees undergo normal routines, and tasks, and hearing their voices that speak of struggle, there is a level of identification whereby the abject body becomes, even for a moment, the normal, and idealized body. It is through this process that the viewer arguably shifts into the position of the abject body, the walls still acting as the border between the two. Through the process of identifying with these otherwise alien, and abject bodies, the spectator shifts positions with the migrants on the other side of the wall. Furthering this idea, Wodiczko’s decision to make the refugee’s wall, and reflections blurry, suggests that the spectators will struggle to understand what is going on inside of the refugee’s wall.
The choice to blur the walls, and reflections, thus acts to further suggest a confusion between inside/outside. Though the spectator may initially walk into the space feeling identified with being at the centre, their later attempts to discern what occurs behind this mysterious wall would make them feel left out, as though they are viewing the wall from the outside. The spectator would thus feel as though they are affronted with a wall of curiosity, that they cannot penetrate beyond the shadows that appear at its forefront. It is also interesting to note that those on the other side of the wall neither identify with the spectators, nor are curious as to what lies on the spectator’s side. Wodiczko both chooses to not make the migrants actors, but projections, and further makes the projections of the refugees not to engage with the spectator’s side of the wall. Though this may suggest their inability to identify with such the privilege of wealthy gallery goers, it also works to reposition the possibility of the migrants being the inhabitants, as opposed to the guests. The gallery spectators, like guests, show curiosity, and possibly even intrusion, to the unknown side, whereas the refugees continue their routines unfazed by this voyeuristic penetration. The gallery spectators wish to discern the other side can be compared to a parasite, or a disease, thus returning to Kristeva’s description of the abject body. Through the spectator’s curiosity, intrusion, and identification of what lies on the other side of the wall, they become the abject and outside body, repositioning the migrants as the inside, and idealized body. We are thus first affronted with the shift of guest/ spectator, through the understanding of the abject body, and the curiosity between the other side and the Other, as Jill Bennett notes, “it is the encounter with the other that transforms each one […] we are locked into a relationship with our unlike, and are transformed by this impossible encounter”
Space can be treated as the locus, and product, of dynamic interaction, as Sara Ahmed describes it as an “affective economy”. The affective economy is the circulation of bodies, emotions, and signs in a given space. It suggests that emotions are not simply “inside” or “outside” but rather that they create the boundaries between bodies and worlds. Emotions thus do no reside in a given subject or object but are economic insofar as they circulate between signifiers, i.e., between active bodies in a given space. In Guests, Wodiczko perpetually reverses, and confounds guest/inhabitant roles, and the inside/outside of an assumed wall. This thus presents the power relations between boundaries as being in constant flux, and further obscures the walls visibility, in moments rendering it invisible. The spectator is affected by the art piece without being able to access the other side. The affects mentioned in the previous segment, intrusion, curiosity, and possible identification, are only obtained by material distance. The migrant’s bodies are close, both in appearance and sound, but as both the migrants, and the wall that separates the two groups, are a projection, the audience is unable to access or touch them. Wodiczko’s thus suggests, through the aesthetic of immateriality, and technology, accessed through the projection, that the walls separating borders are in fact also mere illusions. Here we can recall Wendy Brown’s description of walls separating borders as a “theatricalized and spectacularized performance of sovereign power”. The walls and the rituals surrounding the walls upkeep such as security, and surveillance, are partially performative. Their performativity lends themselves to losing the image power they subsume, rendering it not as nonexistent but rather ingenuine. Equally however, and as Brown notes, the walls though a “spectacle” are also materially very real. Brown discusses the materiality and aesthetic elements of the walls, differing from small fences in fields to obnoxiously large, and heavily shrivelled structures. Thus, insofar as the walls are a spectacle, and thus display elements of “invisibility” or lack of serious presence due to their performative nature, they are equally visible and powerful, both aesthetically and in their political potentiality. As Brown puts it, the walls stage both “sovereign jurisdiction and an aura of sovereign power and awe”. In so far as the walls are visible and real, they are also an illusion of power and barriers between bodies.
Wodiczko’s work in Guests offers the possibility to address both the visibility, and invisibility of these structures. The walls are invisible to the extent that the audience can have an affective encounter, regardless of supposed socio-political or literal barriers, as discussed in the previous segment. Regardless of barriers, or projections as opposed to real migrants’ bodies, the shared affective economy buzzes around the gallery space. The affective economy, is aforementioned, is not tied to the inside/outside or the wall that separates the two, but rather binds itself between people and signifiers, such as Guests projections or audio. Wodiczko’s presents the walls as a technological illusion, facilitated by projections. Equally, Wodiczko presents the possibility of the walls being visible, to the extent that even as a projection, the audience is made aware of their space compared to the opposing projected space, regardless of whether the migrant’s space is an illusion or not. Wodiczko thus leaves open the reading of visibility or the invisibility of the wall, a reading perhaps discerned by the next segments: spatial privilege.
It is also important to note that another motive for Wodiczko’s choice to use projection, in addition to perhaps suggesting the illusory nature of borders, is the attempt to protect the refugee subject. Using real refugees in Guests, would no doubt be a more authentic depiction of the refugee subject, as opposed to computer made projections. However, this would be highly problematic and would sensationalise the refugee as entertainment or art, as opposed to real human bodies. In this case, we see the important distinction between what is art and what is real life, and Wodiczko’s projections of refugees honours this distinction. The projections do not claim to be real life refugees, in so far as they are blurry, and we do not see faces or hear names. The projection is thus more symbolic, than it is realistic, thus honouring both art and the refugee.
Similar to Ahmed’s notion of affective economies, Shannon Sullivan posits that there is a transactional relationship with space, race and place. This relationship is not only affective, but racialized, as to inhabit a space, is to live out a racially determined experience of a space, and to furthermore perpetuate racial habits. One of the ways these racial habits is perpetuated, is white people’s sense of spatial entitlement that is displayed through their assumption that all space is primarily for their own inhabitation. Sullivan notes that privileged people in a space assume that the space is exclusively their space, inhabiting it as if it were theirs to “freely flow” and “transact within”. Sullivan’s account demonstrates how strong the sense of racialized habits are ingrained within the white social body. Any posed threat to these constructed spatial boundaries can have strong violent consequences, demonstrating quite how potent these internalised racial habits are. Using Sullivan’s understanding of lived spatial experience for both people that are less privileged and privileged, racially and economically, we can better understand what the space in Guests means for both the subject of the art, and the spectators.
Adam Mazur notes that Wodiczko’s critique is, “aimed at the cultural elites - privileged in terms of social status and the place it occupies at the gallery”. It is even more interesting to note that previous exhibitions of Wodiczko’s have never been aimed at art experts and gallery-goers, rather they addressed a massive audience—and often random passers-by, such as Monument for the Living (2020) a site-specific public piece, or R.C. Harris Walter Filtration Plant (1988) a public projection. Wodiczko has thus made the decision situate his work in a privileged space to call attention to the socio-political, and racially privileged subjects, that inhabit a gallery space. As the spectator moves between panels, they hopefully become aware of their ability to move freely through a space, and transact within it, without visible constrictions. They thus act out their racial privilege, as they would on any day. However, because of Guest’s blurry panelled walls with refugees leaning and talking against, the spectator becomes painfully aware of “the other side”. Sullivan notes that, as typically expected of white privilege, those that are privileged are ignorant of what this privilege entails as they rarely are confronted with an affective or emotive experiencing of the Other. She calls this “white habit”, and notes “this habit can never be separated from its environment”, for once it is, the ignorance and aphasia surrounding racial privilege, and its habits, dissolve. Thus, Wodiczko’s Guests is the fashioning of a new environment, an environment where privileged bodies may still be able to move freely around the space but are however confronted with condition and existence of the Other. A space where, even just for an hour, some of this “white habit” will be deconstructed and perhaps even dissipate.
As bodies pass through the space that they so often “freely transact” with, they perhaps notice a disruption to their space. This disruption can be, namely, the refugee projections, that are understood as “intruders” or visual stimuli and further, the understanding of their own privilege in contrast to these restricted subjects. The audience becomes perhaps even aware of the notion of a wall, or being trapped behind or inside something, just as the illusive reflections appear to be. This confrontation with spatial privilege is further heightened by the overhead speakers where the audience can hear refuges voices pouring over their own, talking about struggle, about home, jobs, and missing their former lives. The spatial privilege also takes on affective encounters and makes us consider who is privileged emotionally. Whilst the gallery goers are somewhat free to take up, and transact between spaces, they are also arguably free of many of the sever and quotidian struggles of the refugee.
We can further note that the refugees in the projection do not interact with the spectator side of the wall. Wodiczko’s choice to do this illuminates a sense of visual privilege, as well as spatial, the notion of being watched without watching in return. Here we can recall the extensive methods of surveillance included in the ECDC handbook, and the way in which refugees are under constant surveillance and being made to feel like criminals that need to be detained. Though in the 21st century it is equally arguable we are all under constant surveillance, it is important to make a distinction between CCTV cameras in stores or on the street corners that are not constantly monitored, with armed guards, often using violent measures and watch towers. The effects of being criminalised and living in fear is detrimental for the life of the refugee, as Michael Foucault notes, “Surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action.” Even if the refugees are able to eventually find a place, they can truly call home, the effects of their experience will last much longer than a brief affective encounter an audience member would have with this piece, as Jill Bennett notes, “trauma is not something immaterial that happens to the individual, leaving the world unchanged, rather it is a palpable extension within the world”. The trauma of being displaced will extend onto the future worlds of the refugees, forever. Wodiczko, though unable to reflect such subjective trauma, none the less inspires an appreciation of this desperate condition in even the most unlikely of groups, proving that although we are bound by walls and borders and language, we do also share the centrifugal commonality of humanity.
To better understand the phenomenological, abject and in/visible aspects of Guests (2009), we must understand its impact and endurance onto the present 10 years later in 2020, returning to Deleuze’s injunction to ask not what it means, but what it does. In 2000 there were an estimate of 150 million international migrants, and since there has been an increase of 270 million migrants in 2020. The total number of such illegal EU external border crossings can be higher than the number of migrants newly illegally arriving in the EU in a certain year, especially for the years 2015 and 2016. In 2009 when Wodiczko created Guests there were 221 million migrants, since Guests was first shown in galleries, 49 million more immigrants have arrived in Europe.
It would of course be unfair to base the success or failure of refugee related art with an increase or decrease of displaced migrants, and this is not why I have included these statistics nor this section. Rather, though one cannot burden Wodiczko, and artists alike, with the role of the politician, or of the governmental body, we can also assess their impact or lack impact, due to their aesthetic missions being sociopolitical by nature. Statistically, the migrant crisis has worsened with an increase of 49 million displaced migrants since Guests. Though this does not devalue Guests completely, as viewers, we have to acknowledge that in some aspects Guests may have fallen short. No one expected Wodiczko to fix the migrant crisis with an art exhibition, however, arguably, if it was truly successful perhaps it would have gained enough media coverage and audience to perhaps increase donations to refugee charities or catch the attention of political powers. Guests not directly being linked to a charity, can perhaps lend itself to being critiqued for a sense of detachment from its mission. In this sense it runs the risk of being curated in such a way, that the spectators enter, are confronted with the migrant Other, and the question of who is the guest/spectator, but then leave through the exit doors, and drive away in their air-conditioned cars. Jill Bennett names this phenomenon “compassion fatigue”, whereby the spectator views something disturbing or sad, but it isn’t compelled in continued involvement. It can be argued that the controlled viewing conditions of a gallery offer a defense against the horror or sadness evinced by certain images or projections. Insofar as the art is protected by the white walls, security guards, and sterile quarters of the gallery space, it perhaps runs the risk of not being able to penetrate beyond these walls that arguably imprison it.
Though equally problematic is the aesthetic of the reduction of trauma to the shock inducing signifier, that Wodiczko has avoided in Guests. Guests does not arouse the interest of viewers with graphic or shocking images or sounds, but rather tells of the quotidian, and banal struggle of surviving the everyday. Thus, any portrayal of traumatic lives and events, in a gallery space, are perhaps doomed for the possibility of compassion fatigue, in so far as they are situated in a gallery, regardless of their shock factor or lack thereof. As previously discussed, situating Guests in a gallery space serves other purposes, namely the critique of privileged bodies. However, here we can argue whether if situating a sociopolitical art piece in an art gallery, detracts from its sociopolitical legitimacy, and future impact, or whether arts role is not to heavily impact large political undertakings.
Though undoubtedly the refugee crisis has intensified, we can still acknowledge artists like Wodiczko amongst others, for taking their creative space and alchemising it into having sociopolitical value. Through confusing notions of inside/outside, Wodiczko questions the viewers own sense of positionality. The spectator may even, if just for a moment, feel as though they are the abject body, the disease that fights to detain subjects worthy of stable homes. Such reversal has relevancy even today with the outbreak of COVID-19, that makes us question whether we are in fact the disease? the abject body? the outside and the Othered? As a collective, we are hopefully beginning to question our own sense of worthiness, and our assumption that the wealthy western body is the standard, and anyone that deviates from this is a parasite. Through Wodiczko offering the possibility of both invisibility, and visibility, of the border, the spectator is both powerful, and safe, at the same as he/she’s power is revealed as an illusion, and in turn their sense of safety too. Further, through phenomenological dynamics between space and privilege the gallery goer feels both what it means to be privileged, to freely circulate a space, whilst equally becoming aware of their own spatial limitations. In so far as they can roam freely, their “white habit” controls their movements, and when it fails, they become aware of the refugees trapped on the other side of the blue panelling. It is through these three elements that I have discussed that Guests impacts both its viewers, and offers the possibility of newfound understandings, and empathy for refugees. Though Guests cannot ensure the endurance of such understanding, and empathy, outside the gallery space, we can accept that not all successful art with a humanitarian mission can promise such an outcome. It can however promise that even if it is just within the confines of a gallery space, it will stir something within the spectators, whether it be spatial, emotional or physical. Just as pain seeks acknowledgement in different ways, so too does Guests solicit different readings, and receptions.
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“The Europe of Strangers. Krzysztof Wodiczko at the 53rd Venice Biennale”, YouTube, (last accessed April 3rd, 2020), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UX1aj57VkKg.
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Fig 1. Still Shot from Krzysztof Wodiczko’s Guests (2009), presented at the Polish Pavilion at the 53rd international Art Biennale in Venice. See link for motion picture of Guests. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UX1aj57VkKg
4. Arrival of new migrants to Europe from 2000-2020. (Last Accessed April 4th, 2020), https://www.un.org/sites/un2.un.org/files/wmr_2020.pdf