‘Invisible walls do exist and this feeling has accompanied me since childhood. They are everywhere and grow despite the officially promoted democratic views. They exist incessantly, because they are in our minds, they divide our bodies...’
In January 2014 I curated the exhibition ‘Faraway, So Near…’ by Polish video artist Anna Konik for Void Gallery, Derry. At the centre of the show were nine videos from Konik’s monumental work-in-progress, ‘In the same city, under the same sky…’, which started in Stockholm in 2011 and looks into the experiences of female immigrants and refugees in Sweden, Poland, Turkey, Romania and, most recently, France. I recently caught up with the artist, continuing our conversation about this undeniably topical body of work. The following article details the project’s ethos and working process, exploring also the possibilities and challenges of empathy in the face of ‘Otherness’.
Over the course of four years Konik has recorded and engaged with 28 stories by women from Afghanistan, Burma, Congo, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Iraq, Kurdistan, Palestine, Somalia, Syria and Turkey, who now live far from their native countries as a result of political conflict. Some of these women have lived abroad for years, others arrived only recently. Some of them have managed to acquire legal status, others have not. Konik met them at refugee and immigration centres, gallery-based workshops, church groups, or by placing ads in community papers. Also included in the project are four stories from the Roma community in Romania.
For Konik the recording of the stories was the first step in her carefully orchestrated project. It is essential that these initial recordings are not shared in the gallery. To date Konik has used some video recordings (in which the women were facing away in order to protect their identity) and mostly audio recordings, which were subsequently transcribed and translated.
In terms of their content, there is a loose format to all stories, which the individual women mould to suit their needs. They usually begin by giving their age and why they had to leave their home countries. They talk about their children, spouses, parents or friends. Many of them have lost loved ones, or are separated from them. They speak about the past, the present and their hopes for the future. For Konik, the fact that, regardless of cultural, political and other differences, the same issues and challenges come up time and again in these stories, has emerged as ‘the most important and disturbing part’ of the project to date. The memory of a better past is just one of these recurring themes. In one story a 51-year old Afghan woman who now lives in Istanbul recalls: ‘We come from a small town in northern Afghanistan. My childhood was very happy and peaceful. There was no war at that time.’ Another 51-year old, now also based in Istanbul, talks about her youth in Iraq: ‘Life was easy. There were no difficulties. University, then work.’ Happy memories contrast starkly with the subsequent experience of trauma. A 34-year old Chechnyan woman who now lives in Białystok, Poland, witnessed her husband’s execution in her own home while pregnant with her third child. Another Afghan woman in her mid-fifties, a mother of eight, now based in Stockholm, speaks about her daughter, who was kidnapped by the Taliban, and reappeared many years later with seven children. Two of the same woman’s sons have been missing for years. ’Maybe the Talibans killed them,’ she says. ‘In the same city, under the same sky…’ features many such stories. The themes of isolation, depression and homesickness experienced in the new countries loom just as large. A 51-year old woman from Iraq who is currently based in Istanbul says ‘We keep moving from country to country. So where is our home? I want my house back. I want to find peace… I like everything in Iraq. … Its rivers. Its bridges.’ A 40-year old Chechnyan woman now living in Białystok reflects that ‘loneliness is when not everyone understands you. You can’t tell everyone everything. You don’t want to tell it to everyone.’ Regardless of the emotional challenges of life in exile most of the women focus on their concern for the education and financial future of their children. ‘I have no other wishes than for my son to come here and get a job,’ says one of the women now based in Stockholm.
Considering the distressing content of the stories, their similarity can be a disorientating experience for the audience. Not only that, but, as previously suggested, in the actual videos, which range in length from approximately ten to forty-five minutes and longer, the original stories are re-told by women from the European countries the immigrants are now based in, or, in the case of Romania, by women who have no connection with the Roma community. These other women literally live ‘in the same city, under the same sky’, but have little or no experience of social exclusion or war. Nevertheless, they re-tell the harrowing stories of the immigrants and refugees as if they were their own, sitting in the comfort of their living rooms.
Working in this way Konik invites her audience to reflect on how experiences of immigration are shared, perceived and (mis-)understood. At present, exactly one year after the show at Void, Konik is artist-in-residence at the Institut d’Etudes Avancées in Nantes, France, where she is collecting and recording further stories, some of which feature women who have experienced sex trafficking. ‘In the same city, under the same sky…’ will culminate in December 2015 with a major exhibition at the Centre for Contemporary Art Warsaw in Konik’s native Poland.
Konik initially started the project wanting to explore the mechanics of covert discriminatory practices in countries with a high influx of immigrants and refugees. Given the significant political, social and cultural differences between the countries she has worked in to date, each country presented her with a specific set of challenges. Beginning with stories told to her in Stockholm, Konik was faced with the ambiguous feel of a country famous for its generous immigration policies contrasting with its history of state-orchestrated eugenics. For the artist, her experiences in Sweden emphasized the need to look at immigrants’ experiences not solely in the context of contemporary atrocities, victimhood and social policy, but also in relation to the concept of ‘The Other’. An important influence on ‘In the same city, under the same sky…’ were the writings of German phenomenological philosopher Bernhard Waldenfels, whom Konik met during a stint as artist-in-residence at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (Institute for Advanced Study). Waldenfels’ concept that we understand ‘the Other’ only to the extent that we do not understand completely what is familiar to us, puts an interesting spin on Konik’s artistic approach, which I shall refer back to in my conclusion.
The lack of genuine integration and the recurrent experience of isolation voiced by many of the women Konik spoke to can also be linked to the experience of ‘Otherness’ as defined by Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman in Modernity and Ambivalence (1991): ‘In dichotomies crucial for the practice and vision of social order the differentiating power hides as a rule behind one of the members of the opposition. The second member is but the other of the first, the opposite (degraded, suppressed, exiled) side of the first and its creation. Thus … stranger is the other of native … foreigner the other of state subject, enemy the other of friend.’ (8)
The day-to-day experience of what it means to be perceived as ‘other’ shapes all of the stories to a certain extent. An Iraqi woman in her late thirties living in Stockholm says: ‘Twelve years have gone by and I haven’t been able to find a job. I’ve been to the employment office. I found a lot of job ads there. There are jobs, but I didn’t get any of them.’ A 51-year old woman from Iraq who now lives in Istanbul says: ‘I can’t get close to the neighbours here. I’m scared. I don’t want any problems. I don’t have any friends.’ A 40-year old Chechnyan woman now based in Białystok says: ‘The community here, they don’t even greet each other. And some ask: why did you come here? – Well, I don’t know. ... Everyone keeps saying that there is no war in Chechnya now, so why did you come here? … There is no war. That’s true. But there is an internal war.’
It is critical, all the same, that ‘In the same city, under the same sky…’ doesn’t just document women’s experiences of being perceived as ‘other’. At first sight Konik’s videos could be misconstrued as testimonials you might see in news programmes or documentaries. But Konik isn’t just interested in the content of these stories and the processes of their recording. What makes the project unique, is the artist’s exploration of the space between the dichotomies associated with ‘Otherness’. Inviting women who live under very different circumstances, who represent a mainstream of sorts, to step in and tell the stories in the first person is a powerful and daring decision. The performers lend their face to other women who are used to being overlooked, avoided or subtly (and often not so subtly) discriminated against. The actual performances are natural and arresting. Intriguingly, none of the women appearing in the videos are professional actors. Just like the refugees and immigrants themselves Konik found them in a variety of ways. She put up notices in community centres or placed ads in the paper. Some have had experience of amateur theatre or other areas of performance (e.g. music, radio, teaching). All of the women filmed are roughly the same age as the women whose stories they tell. Before the filming they are asked to familiarize themselves with the original stories, which have been translated into their native languages. On top of that, the women have agreed to participate because they have a genuine interest in both the stories and the associated issues. During the recording an autocue screen runs the original story, but in several cases the performers have memorized most of it. Konik places the women in the familiar surroundings of their homes, filming them in medium shots with a static camera. On occasion she mixes in close-ups of their faces. They sit in their living rooms, in comfortable chairs or on sofas. In the background are bookshelves, houseplants, picture frames, precious crockery and other cherished objects. For the time it takes to tell the other women’s stories an atmosphere of liminality kicks in. The women don’t just speak in the first person and stand in for someone else. Their intonation, body language, facial expressions and pauses add to the text they have previously familiarized themselves with. To say that they embody parts of the other women, drawing on their own complex understanding, intuiting and imagining seems no exaggeration. Konik explains that the women appearing in the videos ‘don’t just lend their face and their voice to the other women. There is a point in many of the performances when it feels as if they are also telling the stories of their own lives; accents appear, indicating degrees of overlap and a kind of empathy.’
The underlying theme of empathy resonated strongly with me when I first saw the videos. Considering a tendency in socially engaged art to call for emotional detachment, the actual realization of which can at times be unconvincing or limited, I was impressed with Konik’s determination to develop the project with empathy as one of its pillars.
In her book Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma, and Contemporary Art (2005) Jill Bennett raises a vital point that can be related to the liminal space Konik opens up between the original stories, the women who experienced them, and the performers who re-tell them. Bennett argues that ‘trauma-related art is best understood as transactive rather than communicative. It often touches us, but it does not necessarily communicate the ‘secret’ of personal experience. To understand its transactive nature, we need to examine how affect is produced within and through a work.’(7)
Bennett’s actual definition of empathy in contemporary art seems equally appropriate in an appraisal of Konik’s work: ‘Conjunction of affect and critical awareness may be understood to constitute the bases of an empathy grounded not in affinity (feeling for another insofar as we can imagine being that other) but on a feeling for another that entails an encounter with something irreducible and different, often inaccessible.’ (10)
Further illustrating the above, Konik points out how the accessibility of the work is deceptive. At first sight, introducing other women who perform the original stories is reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt (alienation effect) in the theatre. While Brecht employed this effect in order to create distance and emotional detachment, reminding the audience of the artificiality of theatrical performance, Konik is happy for the audience to empathize and to feel connected to the stories, the immigrants, and also the performers. In parallel, however, she raises a plethora of questions. For instance, who are we likely to listen to in the current cultural and political climate, and under what circumstances? Who takes the time to stop and listen to individual stories of immigrants and refugees outside the confines of mass media contexts and rapidly established public opinion?
In my most recent conversation with the artist I asked her how events like the recent Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris impact on her thinking about ‘In the same city, under the same sky…’. For Konik the wide-ranging and international manifestations of solidarity and the ‘instinct to want to be there for others and to protect them’ were powerful. In her own work she feels the need to focus on the process of the recording and sharing of stories that emerge out of political conflict rather than explicitly link them with current events or public debate. Working in this way allows her to reach a deeper level in what she feels the work is about. She did, however, mention to me Zygmunt Bauman’s recent response to the events in Paris. Many of Bauman’s points only re-emphasize to me the importance of work like Konik’s in this day and age:
[T]he ongoing diasporisation of the world … results in transforming the distant stranger, or briefly visiting stranger, or passing-by stranger, into a next-door neighbour – sharing the street, public facilities, workplace and school. The close proximity of the stranger always tends to be somewhat unnerving. One doesn’t know what to expect from a stranger .... More importantly yet, one cannot … skip over the all-too-real differences, often jarring and repellent, manifesting at close quarters their incompatibility with one’s habitual, and thus feeling homely, cozy and secure, mode of being. (http://www.socialeurope.eu/2015/01/charlie-hebdo/)
The question as to why Konik does not show the actual immigrants and refugees themselves would relegate ‘In the same city, under the same sky…’ to documentary, and, considering my previous thoughts, seems beside the point. The better questions to ask are: What happens to the immigrant and refugee stories as they are told by others? How does Konik enable new kinds of encounters with stories we are all oversaturated with? ‘In the same city, under the same sky…’ is all about the idea of opening doors into the lives of others while drawing attention to how complex and questionable this idea is. The video performances respond to this with great immediacy. In numerous cases it is obvious that the women have become deeply involved with the stories they are performing. Sometimes they cry. Their silences and physical expression speak volumes. But do they identify with the other women, or are they upset because of the injustice and terror they have become privy to, which is strangely at odds with their own ‘cozy’ living rooms? Do they wish they could ‘change the world’ or the other women’s lives? Or, do the other women remind them of their own lives, their own pain? It’s impossible to tell what is really going on, and how exactly the sheer multitude of political, cultural, social, and individual differences impact on these encounters. And yet, the performers’ expression and ultimate Betroffenheit (German; implying shock, concern, sadness and a degree of embarrassment all at once) are undeniable.
Another critical component of ‘In the same city, under the same sky…’ is the number of different languages involved. The collaboration with interpreters and translators is critical to the project’s accessibility for as many different audiences as possible. For the Derry exhibition English language subtitles ran along the bottom of the screen as the audience heard a mix of different languages spoken by the performers, in this case Polish, Swedish, and Turkish. But the process of translation kicks in long before the making of the videos. The actual encounters with the immigrants and refugees during which their stories are recorded also require careful translations. Translating these stories into the native language of the performers adds another layer to the process. Over the course of four years Konik has worked with translations from and into Arabic, Burmese, English, Farsi, French, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Swedish, and Turkish. Working closely with trusted interpreters and translators allowed Konik ‘to build a bridge’ to the immigrants and refugees, which helped prepare for the videos. She says that there were many moments when she intuitively understood aspects of the stories before hearing their translation. This made her even more aware of the importance of non-verbal communication and empathy. For Konik, the act of subsequently sharing the work in the gallery reiterates some of these experiences. It is about creating spaces where the differences in language and their mixing are not solely perceived as barriers. Responses do of course vary, depending on where and how the work is shown. In the Derry exhibition, for instance, the majority of the audience did not know any of the languages that were streaming through the loudspeakers, and yet the response to the women’s stories was overwhelming. Overall, the idea of lending a voice that is partially drowned out in a sea of other voices is powerful. Offering the audience a taste of a ‘Tower of Babel’ scenario while simultaneously subverting it, Konik further undermines the dichotomies associated with ‘Otherness’. The work as a whole hinges on the suggestion that, despite the invisible barriers, which Konik speaks about in the opening quote, the boundaries between the immigrants, the performers and the audience, while indisputable and incessant, are really very thin.
Considering Konik’s process it becomes clear that the videos are in some ways the mere tip of the iceberg. ‘In the same city, under the same sky…’ is based on a complex web of encounters. Building trust with the people she works with, and establishing relationships where previously there weren’t any, however fleeting they may be, are critical to Konik, and have been in all of her work to date. She still describes the project as ‘a sum of introspections’, but is keen to point out that in the moment of recording the individual stories, another layer is opened up: ‘It confronts the viewer with phenomena which he or she, to a certain extent, helped create – invisible political, cultural or language barriers which can be found everywhere, every day.‘
To conclude, I feel that Konik’s work opens up a way of looking at issues that many find too distressing to face. It is the artist’s particular approach that makes this possible, and it resonates with Jill Bennett’s reference to Gilles Deleuze: ‘[A]ffect or emotion [are] a more effective trigger for profound thought because of the way in which it grasps us, forcing us to engage involuntarily. ‘More important than thought there is ‘what leads to thought’…impressions which force us to look, encounters which force us to interpret, expressions which force us to think.’ (7)
Konik forces us to think by simultaneously appealing to our empathy, our bodies, and our readiness to engage with ‘the Other’ at a level that also makes space for the things we do not understand completely about ourselves.
 In the installation at Void we re-created aspects of these backgrounds, e.g. the comfortable chairs, as part of the gallery installation. The videos were shown on different TV screens.