Post by Sarah Turnbull, Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford. Follow Sarah on Twitter @SL_Turnbull.

On Monday, 23 May 2016 at the Ruskin School of Art, Border Criminologies hosted a workshop that brought together artists who work inside spaces of incarceration and immigration detention. Part of Mary Bosworth’s ERC-funded ‘Subjectivity, Identity and Penal Power’ project, the event was organised by Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll and Jessyca Hutchens to consider the aesthetics of border control and critically explore issues of confinement, censorship, and the power of archival and photographic evidence. The integration of and engagement with visuals and material culture is one of the broad aims of Border Criminologies and the day provided an important avenue to consider these issues.

In the introductory session, Mary welcomed participants and provided an overview of the broader research project and the context of immigration detention in the UK. She also discussed the importance of considering artistic engagement in such sites of confinement and her work in engaging with material culture through the creation of the Immigration Detention Archive. During her presentation, London-based artist Nana Varveropoulou’s No Man’s Land was screened. This collection of photographs is based on her time running photography workshops for detainees in Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre (IRC).

Next, Khadija presented her work on experience of exile and the borders of Europe, and described how she’s been working to make public the Immigration Detention Archive. She screened an early version of the film she’s been working on that portrays the archive in the context of the detention centre art room through the use of testimonies, bureaucratic paperwork, drawings, and videos made during photography and video workshops she ran in Colnbrook IRC. Khadija discussed some of the challenges of working as an artist and researcher inside institutions of immigration and object oriented academic study. She used the example of one of the visual strategies evidenced in Colnbrook’s media room―‘cutting’ in Photoshop―in which detainees take photographs of themselves and insert them into various backgrounds (e.g., the London skyline, the English Gentleman’s Club, etc.), to highlight the contradictions in representations, and the ultimate failure of liberal claims to art-making as redemptive.

As a respondent to the presentations by Mary and Khadija, Jessyca, a Charlie Perkins scholar at the Ruskin School of Art who’s researching the topic artists in residence, commented on the issue of temporalities in detention and how this impacts engagement with art and its representation. In discussion, questions focused on the practicalities of running workshops in immigration detention, the use of an ‘artist in residence’ function at Campsfield House IRC, the inclusion of literary material in the Detention Archive, and ethical questions about collecting the material for the Archive and its use.

During the lunch break, several works of arts were screened for the workshop attendees: James Bridle’s Seamless Transitions, Laura Poitras’ The Program, and David Rych’s Sans Papiers. David also made available Border Act for viewing using a virtual reality headset.

Following lunch, David, an artist and professor in the Faculty of Architecture and Fine Art at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, spoke about his work exploring issues of migration, identity construction, transformations processes in Europe, and bringing activism into the field of art. He showed several video clips of his work and discussed the strategic use of visualisation as a means to protest and engage in political change. David spoke about a recent project in which he led photography works in two neighbouring prisons, one for adult men and the other for boys, in Spain, and how the use of photography allowed for empowerment and self-expression. He also discussed his politically informed project Border Act, which centres around the importance of truth in asylum seekers’ interviews with immigration officials. In this project, simulation of the interview through virtual reality and improvisation allows asylum seekers to prepare for what are unknown and mystified bureaucratic practices.

Respondent Oraib Toukan, a DPhil student at the Ruskin School of Art whose research examines film reels from former Soviet cultural centres in Jordan, facilitated a lively discussion on questions of truth, representation, and ethical questions about the use of participant-generated materials in artist work.

Next to speak was Edmund Clark, an artist who’s currently the artist in residence at HMP Grendon, an English prison with six wings operating as autonomous therapeutic communities. He presented on his previous work on different carceral sites and practices (i.e., control orders and extraordinary rendition), showing photographs from these works as well as related documents and art installations. Edmund explained his role at HMP Grendon, which is to (a) facilitate the making of art and photographs with prisoners and (b) making a body of work in response to the prison.

In response to Edmund’s presentation, Jonathan Watkins, Director of Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, facilitated a discussion that explored such issues as the distinction between therapeutic art and fine art in carceral sites. Edmund elaborated on the challenges and opportunities of working with prisoners at HMP Grendon within the specific rules of the prison and the therapeutic communities.

Following the afternoon coffee break, Italian photographer Mario Badagliacca presented on his experiences photographing immigration detention in Italy while showing some of the black and white images that he took in Ponte Galeria and Bari Palese. (See also Mario’s blog post about his work here.) He contextualised his work by discussing Italy’s approach to migration and explained how he was able to access the detention centres and some of the challenges of photographing these spaces.

Respondent Michal Murawski, a postdoctoral research fellow at University College London, led a discussion that focused on artists’ decisions about how to photograph and represent their subjects and ethical issues regarding the photographer-subject relationship. For Mario, it’s important to be open and transparent about the motivations and reasons for the work with subjects.

The final session of the day featured a presentation by Laura Saunders, a documentary filmmaker and artist who works on issues of asylum, borders, immigration detention, and internment. While showing a mixture of video, photographs, and archival images, Laura talked about her work relating to sites of confinement and the complex interconnections between historical practices (i.e., the colonial displacement of indigenous peoples and the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII) and contemporary forms of migrant detention and border control. (See Laura’s blog post about her project, ‘Tracing Gila River,’ here.)

In response to Laura’s presentation, Mary raised the issue of how artists respond to the role of law in developing their art and how we can link pasts practices to contemporary forms of incarceration. Final words by Khadija and Mary underscored the importance of putting issues of art, theory, and confinement in conversation―one of the central achievements of the day.

Note: The workshop was recorded with the aim to have podcasts available on Border Criminologies’ iTunes account. Check back soon!

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Turnbull, S. (2016) Border Control: Artists’ Responses to Incarceration. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2016/05/border-control (Accessed [date]).