An Artistic Response to the Refugee Crisis

– I think that artists more than anyone have a stake in migration issues, says curator Nicole Smythe-Johnson ahead of her lecture at the Academy of Fine Art in Oslo.

Utsnitt fra coveret til Sophie Fiennes og Slavoj Žižeks film The Pervert's Guide to Ideology, 2012.
Cover art for Sophie Fiennes and Slavoj Žižek’s film The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, 2012.

If any of the readers of Klassekampen choked on their morning coffee when they saw the headline “The Non-Existence of Norway” on Saturday 12 September, their weekend spirits were presumably quickly restored upon realizing that this was simply another one of the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s usual pointed statements. However, the text itself addressed some fundamental issues in the European response to the current refugee crisis.

Žižek’s essay, which was originally published in London Review of Books, forms the starting point for a lecture given by the Jamaican curator Nicole Smythe-Johnson at Oslo National Academy of the Arts this evening. Smythe-Johnson is currently visiting Norway as part of Henie Onstad Kunstsenter’s residency programme A Pendaflex for the Future. At the lecture she and her audience will seek to find alternatives to the gloomy political forecasts offered by Žižek in his essay.

The headline “The Non-Existence of Norway” points to the paradoxical fact – according to Žižek’s point of view – that the refugees are not content to “settle for a minimum of safety and wellbeing” in Italy, Greece or in the Balkan, but almost demand to be taken to the welfare states of Northern Europe. The deepest desperation unleashes an absolute utopia of a Norway that does not exist in real life, he says. Žižek believes that if you compare the right-wing populists who want to close the borders to protect their own culture and welfare and the left-wing liberals who advocate open borders, the latter are the greatest hypocrites: they know that doing so will trigger a populist rebellion. This is, according to Žižek, the dilemma faced by left-wing liberal Europe: if you open up your borders and grant asylum to all refugees, this will almost inevitably cause even more people to rally round the already strong nationalist movements, but if you introduce border control you yield to right-wing populist rhetoric.

Nicole Smythe-Johnson.
Nicole Smythe-Johnson.

The precarious nature of the situation may be the reason why Žižek puts aside jokes and paradoxes in favour of pragmatic political proposals. The first is that a common European commitment to help must be accompanied by a demand to accept “the laws and social norms of European states.” Most important of all is the need to do something about the underlying reason behind the conflicts that create these migrant flows: global capitalism.

Which of the statements or proposals in Žižek’s essay do you wish to counter?

I actually agree with Žižek, so it’s not that I will counter him. I merely offer another perspective, one that is less tragic and offers more opportunity for agency.

In the press release, you state that you will use the works of Cuban artist Tania Bruguera and philosopher and author Édouard Glissant in order to discuss how people cross borders in a global age. Who was Glissant? What kind of model does he offer for thinking about migration?

Édouard Glissant (1928–2011) is a philosopher from Martinique, an island in the French-speaking Caribbean. People may be more familiar with fellow Martiniquan Franz Fanon, who was of the same generation. Glissant shares concerns with Fanon, but he is much more interested in language. For tonight’s talk, I will use his text “Poetics of Relation” to discuss other ways of thinking and speaking about the refugee crisis, ways that approach the unknown of coming relations – between Europeans and various Others – in a more joyous and experimental way, ways that make a change to the European “way of life”, as Žižek calls it, less terrifying.

You write about uncovering alternative responses to the refugee crisis. Do you think there are examples of responses that are specific to artists and art workers?

Yes, I do. I think that the responses to the refugee crisis are shaped by certain ways of thinking and knowing. I think that this is precisely what artists engage best in: not merely what we know, but how we know. I also think that artists more than anyone have a stake in migration issues and policies. A few weeks ago Kunstkritikk published a text titled «All Good Artists are Migrants», and the American magazine the Atlantic has published an article titled “All Immigrants are Artists”. I have spent the last three weeks meeting people on the Oslo art scene, and they are all travellers, moving between Oslo and Berlin and Prague and London. Artists understand how important moving is, and they have the tools to help the rest of society understand.