Tania Bruguera’s new art project at Tate Modern initiates a debate about the continuing oppression of migrants and the possibility of transforming a momentary experience of oppression into an act of solidarity with their struggle for justice
Tate Modern’s new space, The Tanks, is dedicated to ‘Live Art’ and opened this summer with a programme of events entitled ‘Art in Action’. The suggestion is not only that the performances and events will be participatory and reflexive but that they might elicit an act of engagement from the audience that extends beyond their visit. This is certainly the aim of Cuban artist Tania Bruguera’s contribution, which begins in earnest before you have even set foot in the exhibition. Waiting patiently in the queue, it became apparent that certain individuals were being singled out by Tate staff and offered immediate entry to the cavernous former oil tank. Sure enough, in a few moments my friend and I are told to follow an official and, unquestioningly, we obey, finding ourselves ushered into the tank ahead of twenty or so other exhibition goers. This momentary disruption of social conventions – the rules governing the act of queuing and the gallery context itself – is extended still further by the positioning of a desk in front of the entrance to the exhibit, presided over by a suited and official-looking man. As we pass by the desk, a member of the public is undergoing a lie detector test. The bureaucrat explains: ‘If you pass, you can go into the exhibit, if you don’t, you can’t.’
These arbitrary enactments of power are designed to evoke the disorienting, unpredictable and precarious experience of migration. The visa, immigration and asylum regimes which assert and enact national sovereignty frequently leave migrants – documented or undocumented – at the mercy of systems about which they know nothing and over which they have no control. Bruguera’s artwork begins by subjecting an unwitting audience to just such a random and opaque system of order from the moment they cross the room and join the queue. In re-drawing the boundaries of artistic space by politicising the experience of queuing to see an exhibit – who will and will not get to witness what is behind the doors? – Bruguera explores the inequality of access to privileged spaces. This includes an acknowledgement that the space of the exhibit itself is a site of privilege.
The installation at The Tanks forms part of a five-year project entitled Immigrant Movement International. Bruguera describes the project as ‘an artist-initiated socio-political movement’ which takes many forms, including: the formation of a Migrant People’s Party to intercede directly in the political organisation of nation-states on behalf of migrants, direct political activism (Bruguera was a key player in the Occupy Wall Street movement) and artistic intervention. The movement even has its own Migrant Manifesto, which was drawn up by academics, activists, migrants and community members at the formal inauguration of the project in November last year. A defining feature of Bruguera’s artworks is their participatory and experiential nature which, according to the artist, enables them not simply to represent but to constitute a political act. This is most clearly shown in her 2008 work Tatlin’s Whisper #5 which took place in the Tate’s Turbine Hall. The ‘installation’ consisted of two mounted policeman using their professional expertise in crowd control to curb the audience’s freedom of movement. Bruguera’s conception of the transformative role art can play in society is born out in her new artwork at The Tanks, which aims to combine direct action and artistic practice by engaging artists, members of the public, charitable organisations and politicians in a debate about the experience of migration.
Naturally, we were curious to see what was behind the doors which are guarded so vigilantly by Tate staff and the mysterious man in the suit. But, in retrospect, it was the nature of the border we would be crossing that was the more pertinent consideration. Integral to Bruguera’s artwork is the idea that the space inside the tank is a privileged site, accessible only through a series of bewildering and arbitrary processes. Yet the artist also undermines this idea by showing that what lies on the other side of the boundary can be deathly. The cavernous space is empty except for a replica of the sign that was hung over the entrance to Auschwitz I: Arbeit Macht Frei – Work Makes Us Free. Two welders silently work on the sign with an angle grinder, producing a shower of sparks which light up the dim room. We appear to have walked into a concentration camp.
As it was the inhabitants of Auschwitz I who made and hung the infamous sign, we might simply assume that the exhibit is a representation of that historical moment. On its own this would be an important historicisation of the contemporary experience of forced migration, one which makes connections between diverse migratory imperatives and marks the moment when the modern conception of the refugee came into being. Yet when placed in relation to the experience of control, coercion and restriction which occurs outside the space, the exhibit assumes a more situated contemporary resonance.
Being singled out of a queue, my friend and I were made into an exception: the point at which the normative rules governing a context are suspended. This might take the form of arbitrary prioritisation, as in our case; taking a lie detector test, or being subjected to a visa interview with an immigration official. Political philosopher Giorgio Agamben has theorised such moments as ‘states of exception’ in which the legal order is temporarily suspended in response to a perceived imminent danger. One example of this might be the indefinite detention of detainees at Guantanamo Bay after the events of 9/11. But what happens when this state of exception is extended? This, according to Agamben, results in ‘the camp’: the moment when the state of exception becomes the rule and those who are most disenfranchised from the law’s protection are nonetheless wholly exposed to its often illiberal operation. As Agamben argues, ‘we find ourselves virtually in the presence of the camp every time such a structure is created.’
It is precisely this proliferation of the ‘camp’ in the contemporary moment that is Bruguera’s object of critique in much of her artwork. In relation to migration in particular, the ‘camp’ operates in the extra-legal power given to immigration officers. As part of the artwork, the man seated at the desk has complete control over whether or not you are permitted to enter the exhibition. In this scenario, the immigration officer becomes the law. This is not a representational exaggeration, but is the exact way in which decisions over asylum are made in Britain: if the immigration officer doesn’t believe the asylum seeker is telling the truth, they are deprived of the right of protection from persecution. Bruguera’s artwork shows how such ‘camps’ are in existence now in relation to migrants the world over and, by temporarily subjecting us to its operation, she asks us to question its legitimacy. In using the paradigmatic camp – Auschwitz – as her point of reference, Bruguera illustrates how the ‘camp’ is newly minted with each exceptional or extra-legal act.
While the insights afforded by Bruguera’s artwork are timely, the question of whether the project can make the transition from experiential art to the art of social engagement remains unanswered. Experiencing power and control enacted upon you is not the same as transforming that enactment of power into something else. The artwork still relies on the audience member identifying empathetically with the experience and extending their engagement with the issue on their own terms. Perhaps it is in asking questions about the possibility of transforming a momentary experience of oppression into an act of solidarity with migrants that Bruguera’s work is most powerful.