Stealing stories for art: migration, voyeurism and the appropriation of injustice

In On a Wing and a Prayer, we cross London's Rotherhithe tunnel by foot, mirroring the journey of people like Abdul Haroun – arrested on arrival. Why are some rewarded for making such a journey, others incarcerated?

Umut Erel Alia Syed Sara de Jong
20 November 2017
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Rotherhithe Tunnel: on a wing and a prayer. Image: The Open University. All rights reserved.On the 17th of August 2015 Abdul Haroun, a Sudanese refugee, walked the 31-mile Channel tunnel to Britain in order to reach safety in the UK. Artist Alia Syed read the news reports of Abdul Haroun walking through the Channel Tunnel and was astonished that somebody could survive walking through the tunnel. She was further surprised that having survived the journey, he was then arrested at the other end. Why can some people swim across the Channel and be rewarded for that with a gold medal, or even swim the Channel to raise money for refugees, while Mr Haroun walks through the Channel Tunnel only to find himself under arrest? Syed wanted to make visible the contradictory ways in which different people are allowed – or not allowed – to travel across geographies, highlighting how borders prevent some from travelling, but not others.

What are the artistic and ethical challenges to engaging with refugee experiences such as Mr Haroun’s? Inspired by Mr Haroun’s case, Alia Syed filmed herself crossing the London Rotherhithe tunnel by foot. Her film ‘On a Wing and a Prayer’ is shot using two Go Pro video cameras attached to her body. The view offered is the “imprint" of Syed’s body’s movement through the tunnel creating a sensation akin to “vection: locomotion caused by visual perception alone.” (The Philosophy of Computer Games). A soundscape created solely from the reverberations within the tunnel is interspersed with a voice over of extracts of ‘A View From Dover’ written and read by David Herd. This simple gesture towards Haroun’s journey ends with a rendition of the Malicious Damages Act, showing the beginning of another journey, this time through the English judicial system.

Why can some people swim across the Channel and be rewarded for that with a gold medal, while Mr Haroun walks through the Channel Tunnel only to find himself under arrest?

Alia Syed, along with Umut Erel and Sara de Jong – both academics working on migration at The Open University – met each other in the context of the Tate Exchange programme. Together they prepared a contribution to the week-long programme Who Are We? with a retrospective of Alia’s films followed by an exchange with OU academics. In the run-up to the screening, we talked about art, ethics, law and politics.

Alia Syed (AS): How much could one argue that I’m stealing his story for art? And then on another level; what is my responsibility to Mr. Haroun in making the film?

Umut Erel (UE): When watching ‘On a Wing and a Prayer’ one of the things that struck me was my own very strong visceral reaction. Watching Alia’s walk through the tunnel made me feel the narrowness of the tunnel, the bright lights and I held my breath whenever you turned away from oncoming cars towards the tunnel walls. I felt scared, I felt protective towards Alia, indeed I was angry that you would expose yourself to the risk of walking the tunnel – without, of course knowing Alia at all! It is these reactions of mine, which made me reflect on how important embodied ways of knowing about ‘risk’ ‘fear’ and also caring for another, even an unknown other, are.

Reflecting on my reaction to the film made me think more about the relationship of Alia Syed’s journey through the tunnel to Mr. Haroun’s journey through the tunnel. It raises the question of whether Alia’s journey is a phenomenological engagement with Mr Haroun’s journey and what the ethical and political challenges of this are. Is Alia’s journey a way to step into Mr. Haroun’s shoes? Can that ever be possible, and how would such a strategy confuse positionalities of relative privilege in terms of mobility rights and immobilities?

AS: I don’t think this film is now Haroun’s story; the film is a response to Haroun’s story that continues a dialogue. I felt compelled to respond to his story, and in doing that I think I created my own story, and I think that is an important distinction. Unless we are suddenly made into political refugees and we have to flee Britain, there is no equivalence [between the situation of Mr. Haroun and us] and I don’t think that’s what we should be thinking about. I think we should be thinking about how people find themselves in this situation and how much are we part of the situation that creates the conditions forcing people to flee. That’s more important.

UE: Alia, I find your reflection on your artwork very helpful. You argue that this is not a way of telling Mr. Haroun’s story or re-enacting his journey, but instead you suggest it is a way of expressing your response to hearing about his journey and the judicial responses to it. When re-focusing attention on your response, the questions raised in my mind become centred around what kind of relationalities we can build with people who are fleeing and whose journeys are full of risks because of the restrictions of national borders and immigration regulations. From this perspective, Alia’s journey through the tunnel, which we as audience can sense through the camera, becomes a way of reflecting on how to build such relationalities. How can audiences express their care for migrants? What are the possibilities and difficulties of building such relations of care, when the language of ‘care’ has at the same time been employed to present migrants and refugees as risks and threats to the British population. In the documents of the court case, the judge argues that Mr Haroun’s arrest is warranted as it is an act of care for the Eurostar passengers whose journey was delayed for several hours. At the same time, the judgement declares, that Mr Haroun needs to be punished as his actions prevented the smooth running of the tunnel channel, posing a problem for the company’s profits. So, this portrays the passengers and the company’s economic interests as the ones deserving of care against the ‘trespasser’ Mr Haroun and others who might follow his example. How can we think about these tensions and in turn respond to them in a politics that develops solidarities within and despite these tensions?

AS: I wanted to be able to recognise Mr Haroun in some way. My hope is that the film allows you to recognise something that goes beyond the idea of the victimhood of the person.

Sara de Jong (SdJ): When I saw Alia’s film ‘On a Wing and a Prayer’, I thought of the ‘autonomy of migration’ perspective that critical migration scholars have posited to counter theories of migration that only consider migrants as passive objects of so-called push and pull factors. Push factors being the factors that drive migrants out of their own states, and pull factors the ones that encourage them to come to certain other countries. Instead the autonomy of migration perspective understands the movements of migrants as a social movement, as a creative force situated in unequal social, political and legal structures. By foregrounding the movement of migrants and their subjectivities and acts, it shows that border and surveillance structures are actually always fragile, only reactive to new border crossings. While it is important not to romanticise the figure of the migrant, this autonomy of migration perspective and Alia’s film engaging with Mr Haroun’s crossing is a way to show migrants’ agency, rather than victimhood.

Abdoul Haroun was eventually charged under Malicious Damage Act 1861, specifically section 36, which concerns obstructing engines or carriages on a railway, and is punishable by up to two years in prison. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to nine months in prison but could walk free because of the time he had already been incarcerated. By the time of his court case hearing, he had already been granted asylum in Britain. In addition to filming herself walking the Rotherhithe tunnel by foot, Alia Syed decided that she was going to follow his journey through the law courts.

AS: This was really interesting but also physically and practically very difficult, because you didn’t know when his hearing was going to happen. I couldn’t speak to his lawyers because the lawyers want to protect their client, so information wasn’t readily available. The court was in Canterbury and I live in South London; on a number of occasions I turned up and the hearing had been cancelled. There were also restrictions against taking notes during the hearings – everything had to be done from memory. Quite often I was asking myself why I was going to all of these hearings anyway, when I wasn’t clear in my own mind how this was going to feed into the film - I constantly had these elements of doubt – was I just a spectator, or worse, a voyeur? The question was ‘Where do I sit in all of this and what am I doing?

SdJ: The film ‘On a Wing and a Prayer’ ends with the information about the charge against Mr. Haroun. This disrupts the sense of relief that you might feel as a viewer that the journey through the tunnel has been completed. In fact you don’t see the completion of the journey and the text makes you aware that the journey continues. The physical movement through the tunnel might even pale in comparison with the journey that many migrants have to make through the maze of immigration law. Again, this journey is often out of our sights and out of our minds. The ethical call of Alia’s film is for me not to be a voyeur or spectator, but a witness. As a viewer, as Umut already said, you are forced to reflect on your responses to the images and sound.

Watching Alia cross the tunnel in the setting of a screening at the Tate Modern museum, as viewers we are basically forced to stay on our chairs and to reflect on our complicity in people’s journeys as well as their subsequent arrests, detentions and deportations. This forces us to acknowledge that there are many instances, such as the deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea, but also closer to home in detention centres or during deportations, where we know that state violence against migrants is carried out in the name of the protection of ‘our’ security and ‘our’ wealth. Often, however, we choose to look away.”

This article is published as part of an editorial partnership between openDemocracy, The Open University and Counterpoints Arts to reanimate the Tate Exchange project in which academics and artists together ask who – during a time when the lines marking out citizens, borders and nations are being redrawn, or drawn more starkly – 'we' are, and who gets to decide.

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