Think of T.J. Demos’s The Migrant Image as a field guide to art for those interested in the politics of human rights, globalization, migration, and war. Demos finds “reinvented possibilities” in contemporary artists’ treatment of the migrant — the iconic figure of our era. The book is as much contemporary politics and history as it is art history: in order to interpret these works, he touches upon apartheid, America’s extra-constitutional prisons, and the occupation of Palestine.
Demos uses Agamben’s theory of “bare life” — those “stripped of political identity and exposed to the state’s unmediated application of power” — as a focal point. The figures that interest Demos are not global gallerists and starchitects, but the nomad, the exile, the displaced, the occupied. The subtitle of the book is “The Art and Politics of Documentary during Global Crisis”: through the creative uses of documentary, viewers engage with “bare life,” and in the process think critically about their own positions.
Demos identifies a troubling situation in which today’s migrants are seen by neoliberals as “the useful and adaptable worker” and by humanitarians as subjects of “paternalistic interventionism.” The works that interest him carve out a space beyond this binary — they don’t tell us what to think. Demos examines the Otolith Group’s “Nervus Rerum” (2008), a work that plays off the conventions of the documentary. The half-hour long film takes a steadicam through narrow streets of the Jenin camp in the West Bank, accompanied by texts from Fernando Pessoa and Jean Genet. Started by Palestinian refugees of the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, the camp’s occupants today are mostly descendants of those original settlers. Yet, the film does not provide historical or contemporary context; instead, its goal is to “eliminate possible avenues of identification between viewers and the film’s subjects”; the film’s images generate questions, not an authoritative account.
Similar ambiguities are at work in the other projects Demos highlights. Steve McQueen’s “Western Deep” (2002) brings us into a South African mine, but tells us nothing of the mining industry or the bizarre medical tests we witness. Through disorienting cuts and sounds, we are left with more questions than answers, but a powerful simulation of descending into the mine with the workers. In “Where We Come From” (2001–03), Emily Jacir invites Palestinians, limited to certain areas because of Israeli travel restrictions, to ask her to perform tasks in areas they cannot visit. Jacir focuses attention away from the cycle of Israeli-Palestinian violence towards the pragmatic — her tasks included paying bills and playing soccer with children. These small gestures serve to “focus on the absences that Jacir’s service cannot fill,” raising the larger question of these Palestinians’ limited mobility and freedom.
Ultimately, The Migrant Image is an academic work. Though he emphasizes the potentials and possibilities these artistic projects open, Demos skirts vital questions like what those possibilities are, which audiences they are unlocked for, and what those audiences might do with them. He leaves it to “further creative proposals” to “realize positive transformation.” And though he calls upon us to break down “simplistic distinctions between the artistic and the political, whether they emanate from the separatists perspectives of activists intent on politicizing visual culture … or those of artists desirous of reaestheticizing art at the expense of politics,” this book is clearly not addressed towards those activists.
Many of the works Demos discusses are video or installation, so are only accessible when placed in a gallery or museum setting. This removes the book another step from any “positive transformation.” But Demos points us in the right direction: the questions he raises are fundamental for anyone trying to imagine a global society built on human rights and equality rather than exploitation and disenfranchisement. Easier said than done, but then again, such things have to be said before they are done.
T.J. Demos’s The Migrant Image: The Art and Politics of Documentary during Global Crisis (Duke University Press Books, 2013) is available at Amazon and other online booksellers.