‘PLEASE IDENTIFY YOURSELF.’ announces itself with a song and a flag. Yara Said’s ‘Refugee Nation’ flag, designed in lifejacket orange for stateless participants of the 2016 Olympics, floats over the small pavilion in Finsbury Park housing Furtherfield Gallery. You enter the space through an atmosphere of electronic chimes and the chorus ‘I couldn’t live without my body’ playing out over the gallery tannoy (Mx World’s ‘We’ve Helped Each Other Grow’). Not so much a nation, They Are Here (steered by Helen Walker and Harun Morrison) is a collective practice and their process orientated exhibition at Furtherfield connects its diverse bodies through sociability and reciprocity, while also registering countervailing forces of state capture and control. They Are Here have made these works in dialogue with collaborators of varying residency status, including refugees and asylum seekers – less big statement than a set of riffs and provocations, arrived at through affinity and loose coalition.
‘When We Landed We Destroyed Our Passports’ is the first thing you see inside the pavilion, ripped flyposters of photographs taken mid-air from airplane windows, an idea of auto-destruction put to practical use (the show is dedicated to Gustav Metzger) – it references an act confided by an Afghan friend that ensures one is not immediately deported. Movements of bodies, identification, visibility and disappearance run through the works. They encapsulate some of migration’s most basic and contradictory dynamics: on the one hand, rendered invisible on a political level, without basic rights of citizenship, with media representations tending towards cliché or anonymity at best; on the other, subject to continuous demands for visibility, i.e., ‘PLEASE IDENTIFY YOURSELF.’. In the exhibition, the title phrase appears as a laptop screensaver, ping-ponging the outline of a swastika. In ‘We Help Each Other Grow’ Thiru Seelan’s Bharatanatyam-derived dance moves are recorded by a heat sensitive camera and the bright colours, crisp bass and steely percussion nullify a surveillance technology, it becomes almost celebratory. Bharatanatyam has a complex identity history: codified by a male guru, it was traditionally performed only by female dancers, who could inhabit roles across genders and social norms (the dance was criminalised in 1910 by the colonising British forces). The heat-hazed outline of the classical dance tradition further blur its lines – surveillance disappears more than it captures.
Other collaborators are invisible but present. Referencing K.P. Brehmer’s pioneering works in the visualisation of capital, ‘The Soul and Feelings of an Asylum Seeker (After K.P. Brehmer)’ presents an individual who wishes to remain anonymous controlling a variably coloured light. The colour is an indicator for an emotional spectrum including ‘very happy’ (orange), ‘interested’ (light yellow), ‘neutral minus’ (turquoise) and ‘fearful’ (red). The ambiguous set up recalls the crude cruelty of the lab – the hand on the dial, the conversion of suffering into scientific data – as much as it evokes the neon-lit languages of ‘high production value’ that Brehmer’s rigorous and austere aesthetic generally avoided. Equating ‘asylum seeker’ with Brehmer’s test-case worker foregrounds migrant labour as the project’s condition of possibility, as well as highlighting it as a structural impossibility (due to the prohibition on employing asylum seekers enforced in most European countries). The exhibition as a whole takes one of its cues from the fact that the cultural sector is underwritten by migrant labour – from the manual labourers in the Middle East tasked with building Western museum franchises (highlighted by the Gulf Labor coalition) to the peripatetic and precarious demands of work for even the most privileged of cultural workers.
An unannounced intervention in the park turns out to be a collaboration with Anteneh, who was initiating kickabouts with strangers within the park. ‘PLEASE IDENTIFY YOURSELF.’ is part of a wider They Are Here research project, which has included a series of workshops to develop games for off-grid spontaneous network technologies and the founding of a five-year experiment in permaculture in a dilapidated play area elsewhere in the park. In the climate of post-pre-Brexit UK, the project’s various reciprocal strategies – via sport, dance and music – reminded me of what Paul Gilroy calls ‘convivial culture’, in his book ‘After Empire’, which anticipated Brexit’s noxious fallout more than a decade before it happened. In the book, Gilroy presents two options for a recovering colonial island. The first, ‘postcolonial melancholia’, is a vision of Britain forever stuck in empire-nostalgia, racism and nationalism, hostile to ‘outsiders’ and unable to come to terms with its violent past and less-than-imperial present. All signs point to the accuracy of this diagnosis, but Gilroy – also a Finsbury Park resident – saw a more optimistic alternative in the longstanding cultures of hybridity and conviviality found in the everyday interactions of urban culture. A roll-call of different realities are evoked by ‘Adjacent Possible’, a work comprised of newspaper headlines printed for each day of the exhibition. The headlines were written by friends of the artists with precarious residency status (on my visit it read: LAST COMPANY TURNS CO-OP). In such ways, They Are Here cultivate other worlds.