Art, History, Experience: A Panel on Displacement
Listen: Art, History, Experience: A Panel on Displacement
In this talk, Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science Osman Balkan, artist Erik Ruin, Director of refugee programming from HIAS Pennsylvania Rona Buchalter, and community liaison Yaroub Al-Obaidi discuss displacement. The United Nations High Commission on refugees estimates that there are currently more than 65.6 million forcibly displaced persons throughout the globe—the largest number since the second world war. This panel takes as its main question: How can academic, artistic, and situated knowledges work together to address issues of displacement?
“I truly believe that it's really important to listen very closely to the voices of those who have been oppressed and discarded by our society, and working on a project that was truly in collaboration with those folks and was able to draw connections between our own lives of experience of those of us who been pushed around in other ways. But our coming from a position of more privilege. Being able to draw those very human connections felt really important to me.” – Erik Ruin
Friends, Peace & Sanctuary is a collaboration between Swarthmore College Libraries and the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility. Major support for Friends, Peace, and Sanctuary has been provided by The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, with additional support from Swarthmore’s Cooper Series, Swarthmore College Libraries, the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Katie Price: So welcome to everyone. Thank you so much for coming. You get to enjoy Eric's lovely laugh, throughout the event. I'm Katie Price; I'm the associate director at the Lang Center, here at Swarthmore College. Along with my colleague, Peggy Seiden, who is the college librarian here at Swarthmore, and together we're the project co-directors of Friends, Peace, and Sanctuary. And this week is the culmination of a two-year long project that explores art's ability to build empathy and community for displaced persons. We want to thank the Cooper Foundation, for supporting this weekend's events; The Peace Center for Arts and Heritage, for the major grants behind Friends, Peace, and Sanctuary; to Swarthmore College, specifically the libraries and the Lang Center for their unwavering support over the past two years; to the President's Office and the Melon Foundation, whose generous funding allowed us to expand the project; to students, faculty, and staff to the college.
Special shout-out also to then engage scholarship grant, through the Lang Center, that also helped us to teach two courses in relationship to the project. We wanna thank: Susanne Seesman, our artistic director; Yaroub Al Obaidi, our community liaison; and Nora Elmarzouky, who has managed this project from its beginnings; our five commissioned book artists, whose work has exceeded all of our expectations; and to our collaborators on the project, who are members of Philadelphia's Iraqi and Syrian community. And who unselfishly gave of their hearts, their time, their skills, over the last two years; and to all of the faculty, students and staff on Swarthmore's campus who gave their time, their expertise, their support throughout this project and really enriched every single aspect. So I'm going to turn it over to Peggy, to introduce Nora, our moderator for today.
Peggy Seidan: Thank you Katie. Okay, so this is Nora. [inaudible 00:01:54] Okay. Well I'm going to give your introduction because you know all about yourself already. Alright. [inaudible 00:02:00] Sorry. So Nora Elmarzouky, who's facilitating today's panel, joined Friends, Peace, and Sanctuary as our project manager; and her expertise, both as a cultural broker and organizer has been absolutely critical to the project's success. I actually became familiar with Nora's work with Al-Bustan's Seeds of Culture and the Philadelphia Assemble Project, and reached out to her about Friends, Peace, And Sanctuary. In addition to the work here, Nora provides consultation on alternative community engagement methods with in.site Collaborative, a collective of women focused on equitable, inclusive, and engaging urban spaces; and she's a co-founder of.
She creates and facilitates educational programming, writing, and public speaking on topics ranging from cultural sensitivity; Egyptian culture, professional development, immigration arts and cultures, storytelling for community engagement, diversity and equity, philanthropy, and interface understanding. In addition to managing the Friends, Peace, and Sanctuary Project; she's collaborating with Ebony SUns and Centennial Parkside Community Development Corporation, around energy democracy and the green economy as a framework for bottom-up community driven development. Nora's undergraduate degree is from Tuft's University, in International Relations; with a minor in Arabic that was incredibly helpful to us during this process. And her master's degree is from Parson's of the New School, in theories of urban practice.
She has led performance based experiential learning programming at the American International School of Egypt; while being active in the environmental and political advocacy communities. Before teaching, and the revolution, she started in Egypt as a researcher assistant with the Arab Families' Working Group; a [inaudible 00:03:53] of researchers across the Arab world. Conducted field research in informal settlements. Designed, implemented, and managed and international program for university aged youth, from Southwest Asia and North African countries, to learn from the Eastern European transition to democracy. So without further ado, I give you Nora and she will talk about her panel I suppose.
Nora Elmarzouky: Our panel.
Peggy Seidan: Our panel.
Nora Elmarzouky: We're here today to ask the question, "How can academic, artistic, and situated knowledge's work together to address issues of displacement?" These are some of our main questions that we've been asking throughout the project. In what ways can engaging with art-inspired conversations change perspectives or increase empathy? How might sharing personal experiences through the process of making art about migration displacement or refuge increase our senses of belonging? How might historic stories of displacement impact understandings of our current moment. So that's really a lot of what this project has been looking at, on both of the artist with collaborators, with the public in various ways. We've organized many partnerships, allowing many of the collaborators to be engaged in various places; including the culinary literacy center at the [inaudible 00:05:19] library, [inaudible 00:05:20] museum, and then others. These organizations have been very instrumental in making this project happen, in both their advising along the way. So HIAS and [inaudible 00:05:31], the welcoming center. And then many arts organizations have been involved as well. Offering scholarships in the process, and allowing us to have workshops in those spaces.
So like I said, our key question for tonight is, "How can academic, artistic, and situated knowledge's work together to address issues of displacement?" So, our first speaker today, if I can hand the mic to professor Osman Balkan. Professor Osman is a visiting assistant professor in political science at Swarthmore College, and the director of the Europe Summer Regional Program at the Lauder Institute, at the University of Pennsylvania. His research in teaching interest include migrations, citizenship, political identity, race, ethnicity and nationalism, Islam and Muslims in the West, and necropolitics. He is currently working on his first book manuscript, tentatively titled Dying Abroad; which investigates how ethnic and religious minorities manage and memorialize death in countries that they do not necessarily view as their home. So with no further ado, Osman.
Osman Balkan: I guess I'll use this mic. Thank you very much. It's an honor and a privilege to be here. I've prepared some comments that I will read to you now. Okay. So reflecting on the tumultuous conflicts that devastated Europe in the first half of the 20th century, the philosopher Hannah Arendt observed that, "The wars were not only bloodier and more cruel than all their predecessors, but were followed by migrations of groups, who are welcomed nowhere and could be assimilated nowhere. Once they have left their homeland, they remained homeless. Once they have left their state, they became stateless. Once they have deprived of their human rights, they were rightless; the scum of the Earth." According to Arendt, "The conception of humans rights, based upon the assumed existence of a human being as such, broke down at the very moment, when those who profess to believe in it, were confronted with people who had indeed lost all of their qualities and specific relationships, except that they were still human. The very phrase, 'Human Rights.' Became for all concerned, especially for those who had lost the right to have rights, the evidence of hopeless idealism, or fumbling feebleminded hypocrisy."
Arendt's words, written almost 70 years ago, ring painfully true today. As political leaders across the world vilify and dehumanize migrants and refugees, while simultaneously calling for the further securitization and militarization of national borders. In a televised addressed, delivered in January, U.S. President Donald Trump; who had previously referred to Mexican migrants as quote, "Drug dealers, criminals, and rapist." Who decried immigration from quote-unquote, "Shithole countries in Africa." And so sought to impose a quote, "Total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States." End quote. Spoken support of the construction of a border wall. In order to, in his words, "Secure the border and stop the criminal gangs, drug smugglers, and human traffickers. How much more American blood must we shed, before congress does its job?" He asked, concluding that, "This is a choice between right and wrong, justice and injustice." Now Trump has tweeted extensively about the question of border security. Making both hypocritical and baseless claims about the links between refugees and terrorism, as you can see behind me. Some choices quote from the previous years.
On the other side of the Atlantic, anti-migrant sentiment and anti-refuge sentiment has helped fuel the electoral success of right-wing parties across the continent. Politicians such as Matteo Salvini, [inaudible 00:09:44], Marine Le Pen, and Frauke Petry, pictured here at a summit held in Germany in 2017; have consistently deployed xenophobic rhetoric to argue for the fortification of European borders, and for sharp reductions in migration. They have also called for the prohibition of public displays of cultural and religious difference. Focusing especially on symbols associated with Islam, such as the female headscarf, or bans on the construction of mosque and minuets. In their view, migration and the attendant diversification of society threatens not only the sovereignty and security of states, but also undermines the identity and cultural integrity of nations. Frauke Petry's party, The Alternative for Germany, which is represented in 14 out of 16 federal states in Germany and hold seats in the European Parliament in Brussels, had suggested that it may be necessary to shoot at refugees trying to enter the country illegally. Such rhetoric can have deadly consequences.
Brenton Harrison Tarrant, perpetrator of the Christ Church Mosque attack in New Zealand, earlier month, which claimed 49 lives; wrote a rambling manifesto explaining why he had decided to carry out this act of terrorism. Quote, "To most of all show the invaders that our lands will never be their lands. Our homelands are our own, and as long as a white man still lives, they will never conquer our lands and they will never replace our people." In Poland, demonstrators at a Nationalist march in Warsaw called for a quote, "Islamic Holocaust" while chanting, "Pure Poland, White Poland, and refugees get out." Polish media has been particularly inflammatory in its discussion of refugees, as this magazine cover depicting the Islamic rape of Europe makes clear. Debates around migration and refugees also are featured prominently in the Brexit campaign. According to Nigel Ferage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party; which campaign in favor of leaving the European Union, quote, "We would not have won without the immigration argument." And we have seen how that Brexit is going, right?
In short, questions around migration refugees and national identity are at the forefront of political and cultural debates across much of the western world. But there is, of course, another dimension to this story. Namely, the human costs engendered by the militarization of national borders. As a geographer Reiss Jones has argued, "The existence of the border produces the violence that surrounds it. The violence of borders today ..." Writes Jones, "Is emblematic of a broader system that seeks to preserves privileged and opportunity for some, by restricting access to resources and movement for others." This death is reflective ... sorry, this violence is reflected in the deaths of thousands of individuals, both old and young, who perish during risky overland journeys; through the harsh terrain of the snow and desert, or across the unforgiving waters of the Mediterranean Sea. And behind me you can see some images from an art exhibition, curated by anthropologist Jason De Leon, entitled States Of Exception, which sought to raise awareness about the experience of those fleeing poverty and political instability to the South; by featuring object that they have left behind in the desert, on their journey to the United States.
The violence of borders is also reflected in the deaths of those who perish in the custody of border agents. The haunting image of Alan Kurdi, a three year-old Kurdish child; whose lifeless body washed ashore in Turkey in 2015. And the recent deaths of two Guatemalan children, Felipe Gomez Alonzo and Jakelin Caal, while in U.S. customs and border protection custody; laid bare the humanitarian costs of a global border regime. Such deaths also offer an opportunity to challenge the securitization of borders and to exert the human rights and dignity of migrants and refugees, as seen here in a political action, entitled The Dead Are Coming. Staged by the German Political Performance Art Collective, the center for political beauty; whose aim was to draw attention to the loss of life caused by the fortification of European borders. Now much of the displacement that we see over the past two decades has been caused by bloody conflicts in Syrian, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Not to mention individuals fleeing violence and poverty in Central and South America, in Africa.
Since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, over 11 million people; more than half the population of Syria have been forced to leave their homes. Another 6.8 million people are internally displaced. They've been forced to leave their homes, but are still in Syria. 5.6 Syrians are currently in border countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. Where they are stuck in limbo; often working under difficult conditions and [inaudible 00:15:09] economy. Another one million are seeking asylum in Europe. Does anyone in the audience have any idea of how many Syrians have been resettled in the United States? Not the panelist. A few more than 11. So it's about 20 thousand, but I want to let that number sink in, as we reflect on what the rest of the world is shouldering here.
Now since this is a panel that explores art's capacity to build empathy and to create a deeper sense of belonging. If I may, I'd like to end these comments with poem, that I believe exposes some of the tensions and contradictions around the questions of displacement. And I invite the audience to follow along with me. The poem is entitled Refugees, it was written by Brian Bilston. "They have no need or our help. So do not tell me these haggard faces could belong to you or I, should life have dealt a different hand. We need to see them for who they really are. Chancers and scroungers, layabouts and loungers, with bombs up their sleeves; cutthroats and thieves. They are not welcomed here. We should make them go back to where they came from. They cannot share our food. Share our homes. Share our countries. Instead, let us build a wall to keep them out. It is not okay to say, 'These people are just like us.' A place should only belong to those who are born there. Do not be so stupid to think that the world can be looked at another way."
Now that's pretty harsh. But let's try to look at it another way and try something kind of weird here and read it backwards. "The world can be looked at another way. Do not be so stupid to think that a place should only belong to those who are born there. These people are just like us. It is not okay to say, 'Build a wall to keep them out.' Instead, let us share our countries. Share our homes. Share our food. They cannot go back to where they came from. We should make them welcomed here. They are not cutthroats and thieves, with bombs up their sleeves. Layabouts and loungers. Chancers and scroungers. We need to see them for who they really are. Should life have dealt a different hand. These haggard faces could belong to you or I. So do not tell me that they have no need of our help." Thank you.
Nora Elmarzouky: Rona Buchalter, sorry. Thank you. She's the director of refugee programming and planning, at HIAS, Pennsylvania. Where she oversees the initial refugee resettlement program, as well as a variety of other refugee serving programs. Prior to joining HIAS, Pennsylvania, she developed and led several education related programs. Including the Fellowships Office at Drexel University, a program that works with students to access, understand, and apply for nationally competitive scholarship programs like Fulbright and Truman. And helped found Independence Charter School West, in Southwest Philadelphia. A public K thorough eight school, focused on global citizenship and language acquisition. Earlier in her career, she taught at the University of Pennsylvania and at Swarthmore College. And even earlier, worked in various media production roles. Rona has been a board member at Independence Charter School, at Project Flow; which is a collaboration between the cities public and private schools, funded by EE Ford. And is currently a founding board member at the JMP Award. A small award for Philadelphia high school girls with grit.
Rona received her masters and PHD from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University at Pennsylvania, with a focus on urban studies, and a bachelor in communication studies and political science from Northwestern University in Chicago. Rona.
Rona Buchalter: Thank you! Alright, I will try to stay seated.
Nora Elmarzouky: You can walk around.
Rona Buchalter: Okay. Alright, so when people [inaudible 00:19:47] ... okay. [inaudible 00:19:54] When people ask me to talk about the future of refugee resettlement in America, this is kind of the answer, right? Like I can tell you where we've been. I really cannot tell you where we're headed. But you know, let me talk to you a little about what I know. So, does anybody have a picture that looks vaguely something like this, in your home? Right, a few people, right? So this is my family. This was taken in Belarus; our best guess is somewhere around 1907. This little girl here in the corner, holding the doll, is my grandmother. And when I was a kid, I heard stories; not only about this part of the family, but they are the only ones that we have a picture. But other parts of the family, and where they came from, and the difficult political situations that they faced, and what their flight story was. Right? How they left. What happened as best as known, you know, a hundred years later.
You know growing up, these were dusty, ancient stories, right? These were things that happened many generations ago. And I work for an organization, HIAS, that's been around since 1882; basically bringing through people like my family, initially. And you know, they were all in sepia toned, black and white, pictures. That again, felt like ancient history. But it turns out, not so much ancient history, right? In that the stories that many of us have, about our families history and our families story, especially in this country; are in fact not just similar to, but really exactly the same as the stories that people are experiencing right now, today, on the planet. And you know, there are families of all different kinds that are experiencing the same kinds of challenges; flight, killing, torture. All of those things.
This is a Syrian family at a camp in Lebanon. This is a line of people in Sasudan, waiting for food. Oh okay. There's some other ones. So we heard some numbers ... let me just. Does anybody have sense of what these numbers are? We have 68.5 million ... not the panelist. 22 million. 1.5 million. 55 thousand. 676. Yeah, so 68.5 million people, right now today, as we speak, displaced on the planet. Right? It is an inconceivably enormous number. 68.5 million people, who have been forced to flee their homes. Because of war, violence, desperation. Nobody chooses to leave home. Everyone wants to stay home. 68.5 million were forced to flee. 22 million have left their home country, gone to another country. Been officially designated by the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, as officially a refugee under a UN definition. The UN uses, what is essentially the Geneva Convention definition. Which is essentially the same thing that the United States uses; which is, somebody has been forced to flee persecution or violence in their home country based on certain group characteristics; race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, political opinion. I'm forgetting one.
The UNHTR, I was at a talk a few weeks ago; their job, I do not envy them, is to be at these sites all around the world, where people have fled to. Provide basic shelter, a little bit of medical care, and make this very difficult decision of what happens to people. Right? What is their destiny? Can we help them get home? Is going home even a possibility? Can they stay in the country where they are; Turkey, Jordan, Pakistan, Iran. The countries that are hosting, Kenya, because they are neighboring countries to where people live. Can they stay there? Can they get resettlement in a third country? Somewhere like the United States, that has an official refugee resettlement program. So UNHTR says right now, there re 1.5 million people desperately in need of immediate resettlement. Desperately in need of immediate resettlement. 1.5 million. 55 thousand is the number that were resettled to third countries last year. United States, Canada, England, France, Germany, Australia, et cetera. The countries that have formal official resettlement programs. 55 thousand.
So what's the US up to? The official US ... obviously the United States has been welcoming refugees for our entire formal history. The US Refugee Admissions Program was founded in 1980. On average, we've taken about 80 thousand refugees a year. Sometimes more. Sometimes less. We've been pretty responsive to global crisis. So you know, during the Bosnian War, there was a lot more, and then it dropped. It's varied. Some of you know, when Obama was leaving office, in response to the Syrian Crisis, he raised the ceiling to 110 thousand. And then Trump came in, there was the ban; that airport protest, all of that. The FYA team ceiling was 45 thousand. We actually admitted just over 22 thousand. 45 would have been by far the lowest number in the history of the refugee admissions program. This year, we have a ceiling of 30 thousand, and we have, so far admitted 8,579. So I want you to think about that in the context of 1.5 million, who are in need of absolutely, immediate resettlement. These are some of the places where folks are coming from. It's important to recognize people are coming from all different educational backgrounds. All different socioeconomic backgrounds. Some urban, some rural.
Folks come to the US, I would say, have families. So the typical refugee clients that we resettle are, you know, mom, dad, and a couple of kids. And the US is basically oversees, literally, hand-picking who they want to bring in, and I'd be happy to talk about that process more if you want. So I was going to mention Syria, but that's already been talked about. But these are the numbers of Syrians that the United States has brought in. We heard 20 thousand, which is I think [inaudible 00:27:25]. Right? All of them? 2016, we brought in over 12 thousand Syrians in response to the war. 2017, 6,500. And in 2018, for the whole year, the entire country, 62 Syrians. 62 Syrians. These are Rohingya Muslims in Malaysia, online.
So the US Refugee Resettlement Program. This is a little bit of what we do. So when folks come in, they are assigned to a resettlement agency and we do everything; from find them a place to live, furnish it donations, pick them up at the airport. And then all of these very basic material needs. The work of resettlement has not changed since, you know, the 1880s when HIAS was founded. It is the same thing. Helping people learn english, get jobs. Get their kids enrolled in school. Get medical care. All of those basic things so that they have a chance of really restarting their lives in this country, which is what people want to do. So this is a Burmese family arriving to the airport.
And given the context of this conference, I just to spend a second talking about some of the real challenges that folks face when they come here. We talk about triple trauma. So all of the refugees who are in the US have faced and initial trauma that forced them to leave their homes in the first place, right? What was that thing? Your village was bombed. Your family was killed. And you experienced torture. Whatever those things are that forced you to flee. Then there's the migration flight, right? And that can be a year, 3 years, 5 years, 10 years, 20 years. Where you don't know where you're going to be living. You don't have access to clean water. You don't have access to medical care. You don't know what you're future is going to look like. And then, like literally you win the lottery, and you get resettlement to a third country, in a formal program.
And then you have this trauma of, "Okay, this is my life now. But nobody speaks my language. I probably don't have family here. I don't have any natural support networks. I have an awful job, if I have a job." There's a whole series of other sorts of things that happens. So, you know, I think this is the sort of space where like arts and culture, and community work and integration and things happen. So english language skills a big barrier, and finances are a big barrier. But we see, right? You saw the Burmese family in the airport, right? What we see is that a year later. You know, maybe two years, but really a year later. Our families are doing generally pretty well, you know? They get medical care. Their kids are in school; they're making friends. You know, they are working on building their lives together and building their communities together. And trying to figure out how to integrate their home cultures into our American Culture. So, thank you.
Nora Elmarzouky: Thank you. Thank you so much Rona. Our next speaker is Yaroub Al Obaidi, he's our community liaison on the project. He writes, "In our contemporary life of many conflicts. Issues increase the importance of social art. To give practical solutions and enhance the engagement among communities with productive conversation and the right materials." Yaroub was born in Diyala, Iraq, on October 10th, 1977. And he has live in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania since June 15th, 2016. Al Obaidi is a designer, researcher, and author. He has worked as a lecturer at the College of Fine Arts, in the University Baghdad, from 2004 until 2007. He holds a masters degree in design from the College of Fine arts, from the University of Baghdad. Some of his project started from Radio Silence, a project by artist Michael Rakowitz with the Mural Arts Program. And as a community Liaison with this, Friends, Peace, and Sanctuary at Swarthmore College. And then also Two Rivers, letters from Tigris to Schuylkill by warrior writers.
Al Obaidi works as a global guide and is also an international speaker at Penn Museum. He is currently a master student at Moore College of Arts and Design, in socially engaged art. And trying to achieve his life goals. Life full of joyful and opportunities need to be at the right place, at the right time, and need the right people. So with no further ado, Yaroub Al Obaidi.
Yaroub Al O.: Yeah, Thank you so much. So excited, actually, to see all of you today here. In weekend, we are going to be celebrating the success of this project, of Friends, Peace, and Sanctuary. And I believe what we made is something great. When you talk to the people who ... our collaborators, you will find how many things you spark in themselves. How much courage you gave to them. [inaudible 00:32:53] skills. To learn some more skills from our amazing artist. That collaboration, that harmony made Friends, Peace, and Sanctuary like a family. It's just a big family. I don't think that it's an art project, anymore. It's an Israeli family. First of all, I started in Friends, Peace, and Sanctuary like [inaudible 00:33:24]. And gave me the sense about the meaning of socially engaged art. Until I tried to think about socially engage archives. Because it's considered the archives, the studies of [inaudible 00:33:40] the past. How to make use of that studies to our work in contemporary time, and how build those people's lives ... new life here and a new community.
May this project also ... I'm going to talk about my personal perspective about the project. Even when I start to read the essays in my class; one time, I read something about one philosopher called [inaudible 00:34:10]. He's talking about [inaudible 00:34:13]. He invite the people to learn from the community, or something like that, and the teacher asked about response for this article, for this essay. Then I say, immediately, I just say two words, "This not effective anymore." When we discuss, I say no because I believe that academic experience is very important to shape the project. To give that sense ... to shape the process. To shape their skills. So from this point, with two words, "It's not effective anymore." Because I believe on my response. I believe that we have our theory in this project. We start to create a theory by the people. All of you know about Friends, Peace, and Sanctuary is a series of workshops between the collaborators and the artist.
And besides that, there is some public programming, and one of the programming is our workshop. It a study workshop, lead to a comic book. It's called, Sticky Family. And that has very touched me so much. And I am happy co-facilitate that workshop with Josh [inaudible 00:35:45], and that comic book talking about something so important, is the meaning of the physical sticky. How the human life and you have stick to the things. But at the same time, how the people can, as a family, kind of stick to each other and this and new families can stick to their new communities; in new countries. And from that time, I start to believe that build a community is something very important, because that workshop has collaborators with some students from Swarthmore and the staff from Swarthmore. And you can imagine how harmony that three workshops and the ... you know, that environment is. Everyone enjoy to write their stories. Even their personal stories, and how it became a comic book.
You know, that may be some of my personal perspective about the project. You can't imagine how proud I am and how I'm so happy to be a part of this project. Because I really think that we give the people something, and there is some work done. It's very important, and it's very amazing work by everyone who joined this project. Thank you so much.
Nora Elmarzouky: He's a Michigan raised, Philadelphia based print-maker, shadow puppeteer, paper cut artist, et cetera. Who has been lauded by the New York Times for his spellbinding cut-paper animations. His work oscillates between the poles of apocalyptic anxieties, and utopia yearnings, with an emphasis on empathy, transcendence, and obsessive detail. He frequently work collaboratively with musicians, theater performers, other artist, and activist campaigns. He is a founding member of the International Justseeds Artist Cooperative and co-author of the book, Paths Toward Utopia: Graphic Explorations of every day Anarchism, with Cindy Milstein, PM Press 2012.
Erik Ruin: That's funny, like I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to talk about in this, and then listening to everyone else's presentation, I'm like, "What I have to talk about is not nearly as crucial or an interesting." Since it's Osman who ended with a poem, I always like to begin mine with this poem. Which is taken from Brecht; In the dark times, where there were also be singing ... yes, there were also be signing about the dark times. And that like change of that word, one the about the dark times, is also really stuck with me. Actually Brecht wrote that poem while he was in exile during World War 2. He a native of Germany. And its part of a series called The Svenborg poems, Pure Poems of Exile. And he's always been, Brecht has been a big hallmark of mine. Both for his aesthetic theory, but also for his humanity in the face of really terrible oppression. And both of which are things that I think I'm very interested in integrating into this project.
So instead of like ... so I kind of prepared a bunch of slides that were more about general, sort of introduction to my practice as an artist. And I'm going to glance over some of them, just by way of kind of talking about what I brought to this project, and what this project has taught me. So I work as a print maker, this is a public art piece called [inaudible 00:39:26] chaos, it's outside of Space Gallery in Pittsburgh. But I work as a print maker and a paper cut artist, and do installation and performance. Work a lot with musicians as Nora said. When I was approached about this project, I was immediately very excited about it. Both as someone who has dealt with issues of displacement in my work before, but also just for the opportunity to truly collaborative and get to know folks from a very different positionally.
I truly believe that it's really important to listen very closely to the voices of those who have been oppressed and discarded by our society, and working on a project that was truly in collaboration with those folks and was able to draw connections between our own lives of experience of those of us who been pushed around in other ways. But our coming from a position of more privilege. Being able to draw those very human connections felt really important to me. Basically, what I kind of hit upon ... so I was thinking about this, and also this sort of prompt to explore the archives in Swarthmore, and I wished I would've taken some photographs ... brought some photographs with me of the amazing archives they have here, at Swarthmore in the libraries and the Friend's collections, and the Peace Collection in particular is what we're invited to interact with. Nobody's really kind of quite talked about like the structure of this project so much per se.
So for me, as a participating artist, there were sort of three main prongs of how we're interacting with this right? There's like the archival research, and then there's the series of workshops, working with resettled folks from Syria and Iraq. Many of who are here, which is great. And so trying to think about like ways in which to integrate those things. So working with resettled folks in the workshops in mine. I taught people about wordless narratives, made paper cuts, and then we turned those into silkscreen accordion books. One of my proudest moments was at the end of that workshop, everyone had made these very personal pieces, reflecting their own narratives. And then I saw folks trading them, sort of in classic [inaudible 00:41:36] style, which made me super super happy at the end of like ... just like that in a nutshell was like what I want out of culture. Right? Like our ability to exchange our narratives with each other, outside of capitalism.
Yeah, so getting to know folks through the process of those workshops and also doing a series of interviews afterwards, I was struck by how much consistency there was between these stories that these people being resettled right now, and the issues that they were dealing with, fleeing war and oppression. Dealing with trauma, attempting to integrate into a society that is at times quite hostile to them. And at time, quite welcoming. How much they had in common with the experiences that I was reading about in the archives. And specifically in the archives, I was reading about folks displaced by World War 2, and folks in Latin America sort of displaced by the series of dirty wars that happened there throughout the middle of the last century. And so I was really interested in a way of like putting these things together. So what I hit upon is project that I call, Threnody for the Dispossessed.
Threnody is a fairly obscure musical term and it basically just means a wailing ode. I didn't know that when I first heard the word, and I was thinking of Penderecki as this famous threnody for the victims of Hiroshima. Which is a really haunting piece of music. And I was kind of fixated on that for a while, and thinking about that as a term. I thought it meant a threaded melody, like I just did this reduction of the word. And then I was thinking about that, and then also of thinking of wailing ode, and thinking of like a lament for home, a lament for those left behind. And sort of integrated both my misunderstanding of [inaudible 00:43:09] the word, and it's actual definition, into one piece. And the way I chose to do that was through print making. This is an installation, we're not going to talk about it. And through a scroll. So basically a scroll is a form I worked with a lot.
This is a form of working with scrolls called a crankie. It's like a kind of very primitive puppetry technique that has been popularized and disseminated through Bread and Puppet. My only formal educational experience outside of high school was apprenticing one summer at Bread and Puppet, in 2002, so they've been a lot to me, pedagogically. And so this is from an interactive installation that I made, called ... oh I forgot what the title of this is. It's not important. But working with a series that makes media, like paper cuts, hand painting. Stuff like that. And then participants who are allowed to both play a corresponding soundtrack, based on english folk ballads about the world being turned upside down. Oh that what it's called, The World's at Risk. This is at a gallery in Fish Town. And so thinking about like ... people were able to like actually experience this thing for themselves, and the soundtracks would go in and out of sync with the piece, since people were sort of unpromptedly manipulating them.
And so I was thinking about that as a way ... like these things because they exist on such a long scale, that they're like a great narrative tool, right? And it's a great tool for a narrative that is specifically visual narrative, which I'm always trying to think about like what is a narrative. Like how does a narrative exist outside of text, right? And by combining these different narratives with very disparate sources, like one thing and image can do specifically, that's a ... if I'm talking to you right now, I'm like jumping around a lot, right? I'm like going from topic to topic. But if I am doing that through images. That's juxtaposition has this inherent meaning because there's sort of gap of interpretation, right? We have to look at the image, we have to decide for ourselves what it means. Like we're so used to language as like something that's like being delivered to us in a sort of more dictatorial, or more direct way right? Like I say a word, you know the word. You understand it's meaning.
But what an image can do, that I think words cannot do, is to really speak in a language that's more associational. So these things that come from disparate sources, they can all sort of ... the experience of that can look the same. Like death can wear as many faces, but is still an essential human experience that we can get reduced to by the image. If that makes sense. So I was really particularly interested in like how do I integrate all these different images, all these different stories? Both speak to their commonality and to their particularity, right? And so I thought that the scroll would be a really wonderful format for that. This is sort of like another thread that I was pulling in. This is a piece called ... oh, okay. Prisoner's Song. It's collaboration with the singer, composer Gelsey Bell, and this is physically working with incarcerated folks. So it's a kind of a similar format.
Do a lot of oral histories, a lot of interviews. The filmmaker Brett Story and I did the series of interviews about solitary confinement. Which we then edit it down and became sort of this script for this piece. So the other thing about threnody is that it exist both ... so I'm just going to go ahead and skip to it. This is a whole other project, we're not even going to talk about. Alright, here we go. I wonder if it's hard to see from the rear angle as it is for mine. So this is just to give a sense of the scale of the project. These are portraits, both from Ellis Island, intermixed with more contemporary images of refugees, all sourced through Google. And so I wanted to kind of ... both so this exist as like a printed form. So it's a 60 foot silkscreen scroll that then exist as a book that's been folded into an accordion book, which is in the case out there. Which hopefully you'll be able to see more than one page of, at some point.
But I also wanted to bring in music and bring in the actual audio. Since like the audio of the interviews, of the folks that have been so generous and giving me their words, and speaking with me and allowing me to manipulate the language. It's so important to me, I wanted other people to be able to hear it. And I wanted it to exist in a multimedia sort of way. So not only does the book itself have it's existence as a book. There's a corresponding soundtrack which uploaded on SoundCloud, which there's like a link to; I think in the wall text in the gallery outside. There has been collaboration with the Lebanese born, Philadelphia based musician Julia [inaudible 00:47:36], who and old friend and collaborator of mine. Kind of interwove this script ... oh, I didn't quite explain the script. Anyways, whatever, we can talk about it later. Working with text [inaudible 00:47:51], so I get both the raw audio from the interviews I had conducted, and also all these historical accounts that I had read by voice actors, interwoven with music.
Both electronic music and percussion, and sort of sounds design stuff into this kind of like impressionistic soundtrack that then accompanies the book. So working on annotating the SoundCloud link so you can actually see which page corresponds to which part of the audio, but we'll also be performing it on Saturday, in the science center at 5 O'Clock, if anyone wants to see it in person. Here's a few more images that Islam took from the BYO print, where I printed this beast. So it's 18 inches tall. This is probably like four to six feet of it at a time. That's actually Suzanne holding the other end of that. And so you can kind of decipher like this panel gives you a good sense of like ... so everything from people humming church hymns in resistance to Buchenwald.
To one of our participants here, talking about how ... like when he was incarcerated, when he was being held in Iran. How he would take about all the clothes and sew them back together with a sharpen bit of a broken fence. To people talking about taking their life into their own hands in order to be able to control their relationship to imprisonment. So coming back, like the way I'm talking about images speaking in a particularly associative way, I can find a [inaudible 00:49:21] line between these things that is rooted in the image that I think speaks to the unique potential of particularly visual art, in order to tell these kinds of stories. And that's the last slide. Great, thanks.