Who Has the Right to Move?: On “It is obvious from the map”

It is obvious from the map (REDCAT, March 25, 2017 to June 4, 2017)


IN THE ORIGINS OF TOTALITARIANISM, Hannah Arendt highlighted the phenomenon of the migration of displaced persons in Europe between the two World Wars. She saw that something new had emerged:

migrations of groups who, unlike their happier predecessors in the religious wars, were welcomed nowhere and could be assimilated nowhere. Once they had left their homeland they remained homeless, once they had left their state they became stateless; once they had been deprived of their human rights they were rightless, the scum of the earth.

Writing in 1948, in the wake of World War II, Arendt had little reason to believe that the European (or American) sovereign states had managed at last to respond justly to the myriad problems posed to institutions of international law and human rights by these ongoing forced migrations. She notes, on the contrary, that even the right of asylum, which is the only right with an extra-national scope inscribed in the revolutionary Rights of Man — a right whose “long and sacred history dates back to the very beginnings of regulated political life” — had only barely survived the last war, and was now “felt to be an anachronism and in conflict with the international rights of the state.”

Seventy years later, the Western democracies have still not adjusted to the conditions created by their own self-proclaimed privilege in the world as democracies, as polities promising “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” or “liberté, égalité, fraternité.” As Thomas Keenan and Sohrab Mohebbi write in the program accompanying It is obvious from the map, their jointly curated exhibition currently up at the Gallery at REDCAT, “these are the very foundations of the modern nation states,” which draw toward their borders those who seek refuge — adding that they are also “foundations which, at the moment, are all too often denied.”

Since January 27, 2017, the date on which the newly inaugurated US president signed an executive order interrupting the settlement of refugees and suspending immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, a lot of Americans have found new reason to question and resist their nation’s policies regarding immigration and asylum. This odious diktat was a wake-up call for those who, if I count myself among them, had let their compassion dither, without certain focus or aim, in the face of the world’s refugee crises. Under this circumstance, the exhibition is especially resonant, even though the various works displayed there are concerned exclusively with the most recent migrations in Europe. When originally installed at the Third Istanbul Design Biennial in late 2016, It is obvious from the map was broadcast from a central crossing point of many of the journeys traced on its assembled maps. Yet, as Keenan and Mohebbi point out, Los Angeles lies “less than 200 miles north of a frontier that, for many years up to the present, has experienced similar trajectories and movement.”

I italicize the term “movement” because it is the unifying theme of the exhibition. As a result, even one’s own movement through the gallery’s three not-large rooms seems, at least in retrospect, more self-aware and deliberate. One enters the first room, which is lit only by the glow of video screens, and is drawn first to the largest of these screens on the facing wall. A low fixed camera films people alone or in groups of two or three walking, trudging, from right to left along a muddy track. The landscape is nearly featureless, the people are muffled in heavy clothing. Most of them, including many children, carry burdens or wear large backpacks. The soundtrack records, above all, the muteness of this wearying trek across one land to get to another. In a 36-minute loop, the travelers keep coming and coming from right to left, with a few occasionally crossing from left to right. Maria Kourkouta shot the film on the Greek-Macedonian border in March 2016, just days after European Union leaders proclaimed the closing of borders along this main migration route toward northern Europe. On the two adjacent walls in the room, the same border is seen from the air, filmed by Drone Media Studio. And on the back wall, a fourth screen loops a video work by Tomas van Houtryve, “Traces of Exile,” for which, as the artist explains, “I retraced the refugee trail through Europe, following the digital breadcrumbs left by these connected migrants. Inspired by an Augmented Reality app that layers the smartphone camera view with nearby social media posts, I captured the intersection of the refugees’ online presence and the locations of their exile.” The screen shows a video of some landmark on the trail — e.g., the Port of Piraeus in Athens — where migrants stopped and caught their own still images for Instagram or another social medium. These selfies, retrieved from deep internet space, are then briefly superimposed over the moving image at the same spot where they had been taken. The effect is haunting, as if one were watching the pictured traveler fade in and out of the scene like a ghost. And yet many of these ghosts, mainly young men, are shown smiling or joking around with their fellow travelers. If these are “specters haunting Europe,” [1] then they sometimes project more goofiness than threat.

Other exhibits on display likewise make apparent that migrations now occur via cell phone. Phones are maps, mapping tools, geopositioning devices, able to send and receive locations for orienting the journey. Several of these displays are made up of images of cell phone screens. They show, for example, how the now-disbanded Maritime Organization for Follow-up and Rescue (MOFR) was able, with the help of geotagging, to guide boats across the Mediterranean and, when needed, organize rescues. The curators have also retrieved and printed out threads on Facebook that were exchanged between migrants on the road and those who had already completed the journey. You see miniature maps, the size of cell phone screens, that have been annotated in Arabic to spell out directions with precision and care. The annotator knows not just the route, but the profound anxieties of the traveler: “From the bus station a ticket to Kanjiza is 13 euros. It is totally normal and okay to go to one of the ticket windows to buy a ticket, no one will ask you why you’re going there, you book a ticket for 6pm trip. You get to Kanjiza at 10pm, the bus is 90% Syrians, don’t worry.” Accompanying a journey through Serbia to the Hungarian border, this thread of maps portrays migration as an experience — a tradition to be passed on and remembered.

Complex teletechnological sleuthing to retrace migratory movement is also the key to another major work in the exhibit: evidence from the research of Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani of Forensic Oceanography into the “Left-to-Die Boat” case. In March 2011, 72 African migrants set to sea from Tripoli in an overcrowded boat. Within two days, about halfway to the island of Lampedusa, the boat ran out of gas. From there, it began a two-week drift back toward the coast of North Africa. As the researchers note, this stretch of the Mediterranean is always crawling with all sorts of ships, both commercial and military. At that time in particular, NATO was enforcing an arms embargo of Libya and had numerous ships close to the path of the helplessly drifting boat. Satellite and other surveillance records have allowed Heller and Pezzani to reconstruct the path of the “left-to-die boat” and to establish that numerous vessels, including NATO vessels, were perfectly aware of its distress, were often within rescue distance, and even approached very close to the boat at one point. Meanwhile, its passengers were dying from lack of food and water. By the time the boat finally came ashore not far from where it had launched, it carried only 11 survivors, two of whom died soon after. The main document on display is a video that assembles on a multiply split screen several forms of all this meticulously gathered data, which makes the case that the boat’s passengers had been left unrescued for two weeks within the most intensely monitored seascape on the planet. There’s a high degree of abstraction to the video: flashing signals, numbered graphs, plotted lines. The main part of the screen represents the path of the boat, which resembles a narrow inverted V, whose right descending leg is digitally tracked with agonizing slowness. On the soundtrack a voiceover ties all this assembled data together in a narrative that is delivered with uncanny absence of all tonal affect. The neutrality of tone is harrowing. It is as if all these ghostly facts had been made to speak for themselves and testify to the crime of non-assistance to a vessel in distress, which had left to die — killed — 63 people.

This project makes evident that the exhibition is up to something other than passive display. Rather, the works themselves are active, actions taken by those who might call themselves photographers, filmmakers, or forensic oceanographers — artists, but artists practicing the art of intervention. Heller and Pezzani’s intervention is made against long odds: an eventual case to be taken up by the European Court of Human Rights indicting a NATO command that has yet to acknowledge its responsibility. And yet their intervention also takes place with each viewer’s immediate reception. I thus relate it to another, very different work on display, which achieved the most practical and immediate kind of intervention: Europa: An Illustrated Introduction to Europe for Migrants and Refugees, the brainchild of Thomas Dworzak, a Magnum photographer who has had years of experience with refugees and migrants.

Magnum Photo

Europa is a thick book of glossy pages and, in its print format, combines text in English, French, Farsi, and Arabic. [2] Dworzak admits that, with its yellow cover, it looks rather like a phone book, a comparison that no doubt pleases him as an index of the direct utility that Europa sought to attain. Its opening lines explicitly address the immigrant or refugee newly arrived in this alien place called Europe: “You have crossed thousands of kilometers to reach the European Union: a bloc of 28 countries that have populations that already reflect hundreds of years of migration.” In other words, those thousands of kilometers, however harrowing, lonely, desperate, and exhausting, are behind you. What still lies ahead are the practical problems and obstacles of everyday life in a totally unfamiliar environment. Yet, you should know that Europe is not really all that alien, for it too has long been a land of immigrants and refugees. The first chapter of Europa condenses pre– and post–World War II European history into a story that highlights parallels with the histories of other regions, a story it introduces thus: “Many arriving in Europe are unaware of this relatable history, and many Europeans seem to have forgotten it. After all, the physical reality of Europe today barely hints at a past that arguably resembles the present in countries such as Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.”

On one level, Europa is a very simple gesture that extends fundamental words of welcome to strangers in the land. It is the simplicity of all sorts of useful information for the newly arrived and the simplicity of the straightforward photos of everyday-life icons in Europe: trash cans and recycling bins, pharmacy facades, cheap supermarkets, public transportation ticket machines. As he explained during a Q-and-A with Thomas Keenan at REDCAT, because he intended the book to be, above all, of practical use to the newcomer, Dworzak took all these flat, strictly indexical photos himself, not trusting perhaps other photojournalists to refrain from any aestheticism.

And yet, on another level, Europa complicates this simple gesture. It also outlines a figure in which Europe harbors and welcomes others within its own identity, which is thus not simply its own or an identity. In performing this act of welcome, it counters, in a most practical way, the anti-Europe discourse of nationalistic, right-wing parties on the rise all over the continent — a discourse whose hallmark is hostility to an immigration that threatens to dissolve supposedly fixed national identities in the minds of those who want to believe in their consistency. Much current political rhetoric in the United States plays on the same phantasm, of course. The visitor to It is obvious from the map may make that connection but nothing on view, image or text, foregrounds the similarity. And yet, this too is obvious from the map.

But how is it obvious? And what, exactly, is made obvious?

Djordje Balmazovic (Škart collective) in collaboration with asylum seekers in Banja Koviljača camp in Serbia, NN, Damascus, Syria (2015). Courtesy of the artist and Grupa 484

Consider another work in the exhibition: hand-drawn itineraries of routes taken by migrants from Syria, Pakistan, Tunisia, Sri Lanka, Somalia, and other regions to refugee camps in Serbia. Djordje Balmazovic, along with the Škart collective, interviewed them in the camps and transposed accounts of their journeys into schematic representations. On a flat white background, red lines trace out the several national borders that were crossed, as shown by a dotted black line tracing the traveler’s trajectory, which is dated from the point of departure (for example, “NN, Damaskus, Syria, March 2013”). Country names are in red, other place names in black, some landscape features are highlighted in light blue, and there are tiny cartoon-like figures of bus, boat, or automobile transports, human figures too, the border policeman, walkers with their backpacks. Seen from a little distance, these minimal maps are visually striking for their snaking lines and sharp contrasts. From up close, however, one can read short bursts of handwritten text scattered across the surface of the represented journey. These are fragments taken from the traveler’s spoken account. In few words and halting syntax, they condense the speaker’s experience at an adjacent point on the map: “15 days in Izmir. Police was very problem”; “We were trying for 1 month to enter Macedonia. Police in Macedonia was arresting us and beat on knees.” This last notation is juxtaposed to the Macedonian borderline, which the winding itinerary crosses over and back seven times before finally continuing around the policeman figure toward the other border with Serbia. Fifteen months after leaving home in Damascus, the journey pauses and the traveler recounts it as a story.

It is obvious, however, that these are not maps. They do not attempt even to simulate maps by following the standard orientation according to which these retold journeys moved from south and east toward north and west — that is, from lower right to upper left on a conventional two-dimensional map. Here, the narrative line starts in the upper left and ends in the lower right of the panel. It follows, in other words, the orientation of Western writing systems from left to right, rather than compass and map orientation. (Indeed, two of these “maps” are arranged in a straight, left-to-right line.) Thus, each of these pictured stories of migration from east to west is depicted in a mirror of Western storytelling that reverses right and left. In this fashion, they record the migrant’s disorienting passage into another’s language and another world, where everything is turned around.

It seems it was Ptolemy who first oriented the world’s map with north above and south below. In an alternate world, Earth might well have come to be represented with the conventional, Ptolemiac poles inverted. Would history, too, have been turned on its head?

Regardless, the fact would remain: migration — of peoples, cultures, languages — has been the moving dynamic of any history to the extent that the latter had to begin, like the refugee or the exile, by leaving “home” and striking out in some direction. In the exhibition, this historical role manifests in a large schematic map (by bi’bak) that shows how current migration patterns through Bulgaria, Syria, and Turkey retrace the paths taken by Gastarbeiter to Germany in the 1950s and ’60s. Elsewhere, It is obvious from the map asks us what to think of the current trends in “migration routes management” toward hardening borders, diverting migrant flows, or containing them in camps for displaced persons. Once again, it’s obvious from the map that migration is being severely curtailed along the most critical routes, from the east and the south. And this often happens, wittingly or unwittingly, under the aegis of humanitarian organizations like the UNHCR.

What, then, of the right to move, the right to migrate? Is it not the most fundamental human right, presumed by every other right that can be claimed as a human right? This is the central question, or rather claim, posed by this exhibition. Although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognized in 1948 that everyone has “the right to leave any country, including his own,” none of its 30 articles says anything of the right to migrate to elsewhere. As for freedom of movement, the Declaration envisions it solely “within the borders of each state” (Article 13, “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state”). As conceived by the UN, then, freedom of movement is a right limited by the sovereignty of the nation state. Writing in the same year, Hannah Arendt pointed to just this limitation of the “best-intentioned humanitarian attempts to obtain new declarations of human rights from international organizations.”

Achille Mbembe has recently suggested that “the government of human mobility might well be the most important problem to confront the world during the first half of the 21st century.” And if he is right to foresee further that “[t]he capacity to decide who can move and who can settle, where and under what conditions, will be at the core of the political struggles over sovereignty,” [3] then the claim that freedom of movement is a fundamental, even the fundamental human right risks going unheard. And, precisely because the “government of human mobility” exists to limit that freedom, it has to acknowledge what it works to control and suppress. This acknowledgment, however, will remain merely implicit, and thus unrecognized, so long as the right to freedom of movement goes unclaimed. It is obvious from the map steps up and claims it.


Peggy Kamuf lives in Los Angeles and teaches French and comparative literature at the University of Southern California. Her latest book is To Follow: The Wake of Jacques Derrida.


[1] Specters Are Haunting Europe is the title of a full-length documentary that Kourkouta made with Niki Giannari made in 2016.

[2] Europa, the print book, is not for sale. An electronic version is available for free download at http://mediastore2.magnumphotos.com/CoreXDoc/MAG/Media/TRMisc/c/8/a/0/NN1MSC5329.pdf

[3] Achille Mbembe, “Scrap the borders that divide Africans,” Mail & Guardian, March 17,2017.