‘Do You Belong Here?’
A live art immersive workshop
Lead: Caroline Osella
An academic research project on migration (from Columbia and New York Universities) needed to disseminate its findings, publicise the project and do some public engagement work. Caroline collaborated with a live art practitioner – Helena Vortex, from LADA and an emergent performance artist, Gabriel, to produce a one hour immersive piece which took participants on an imagined journey. This did not attempt to replicate the migrant experience – to do so would be crass and also bound to fail. Rather, the experience evoked aspects of belonging, borders, the bewildering and sometimes apparently arbitrary labour permit / visa application process, and themes of separation and journeying.
Participants were being prompted through the experience to think about an academic concept in a relatable way: how is ‘being’ connected to ‘belonging’? In what ways is being dependent upon belonging?
Participants were ‘counted in’ with a clicker, stamped with a Mickey Mouse sticker, captured by an artist making court-room style sketches, ordered to stand in line, remove shoes, shift from room to room, answer apparently unfathomably senseless questions and finally be selected – or rejected – to come on a walk outside. Those left behind and not permitted to join the walk were given reasons for refusal such as “Wrong shoes” – or no reason at all. Those selected were given meaningless trinkets to carry.
Feedbacks were interesting: many people were strongly affected and reported fear, hostility and indignation at their treatment.
Although participants had signed up, given consent, and knew they were in an immersive experience, once that experience began, the emotions and thoughts felt real to people. This is the power of live art. Participants experienced confusion about what was happening, tried to understand the reasons why some people were permitted to leave while others were held back, and felt frustrated about their lack of experience of how to deal with the ‘officials’. Those held back felt disappointed; those permitted to journey outside experienced insecurity around what would happen once they left the room.
Feedbacks made it plain that, while the experience had been very uncomfortable for many participants, it had been a valuable and provocative moment which opened up questions of belonging, exclusion, privilege and the anxieties attendant when we enter a border situation and find ourselves subject to heightened surveillance and power.
Participants were also able to follow-up on ‘thinking about borders’, post-event, by engaging with easily accessible writing: a short story – ‘Who Are Your Friends’’ – and a blog post – ‘When Will They Integrate?’
The piece has been conducted 3 times so far, with varied audiences: in the Hepworth gallery, Wakefield; and twice at University of Brighton.