Immigration, artistry and transformation

When I came across this piece in The Atlantic last month, it struck a wonderful chord. In it, Joe Fassler talks to writer Edwidge Danticat about the links between immigration and creativity. One of Danticat’s favourite books is Patricia Engel’s It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris, which discusses how for immigrants, life is a work of art. In moving to a new country, immigrants face situations that require a creativity and resolve that is seen most often in creative arts, and which can implicitly teach their children about the value of these endeavors.

While I haven’t read Engel’s book, the sentiment certainly corroborates many of the discussions I had with Hong Kong return migrants. Even when people didn’t speak explicitly about art, their experiences moving to another country, and even returning to their home country, demanded transformation, a remaking of everyday life, and a sense of humor.

Thinking about how this resonates with the work of artists made me consider how even things like Austin Kleon’s ten rules for stealing like an artist could be re-written with immigrants in mind. My exploration of what that might look like is not based on research so much as a creative extrapolation from the experience of my family and other immigrants I have encountered. Therefore please read it as an experiment in pushing this link between immigration and artistry forward, not as a comment on any debates within migration literature (nor actual advice that should be given to all immigrants). The statements below in quotes are Kleon’s original advice, and any other comments are my own. Your thoughts and responses are welcomed

1. Steal ideas from the locals – though you will re-work them as you do so, it is helpful to build on what others already have discovered about your new context.

2. “Don’t wait until you  know who you are to get started” – this one applies to immigrants as it does to artists. Life in a new place is hard, but it keeps going whether you  know how you fit in or not.

3. Make the life you want to live – it’s hard to live exactly as you did before, or as the locals do, so why not make the life you want for yourself in your new context.

4. “Use your hands” – while for artists this is about making things, for immigrants it is probably more about making connections and relationships

5. “Side projects and hobbies are important” – whether taking on new pursuits or continuing old ones, leisure can be incredibly important for some immigrants’ happiness and sense of community in a new place

6. “The secret: do good work and share it with people” – proving yourself as an artist and as an immigrant are not necessarily all that different

7. “Geography is no longer our master” – this is something immigrants are certainly already aware of

8. “Be nice (the world is a small town)” – especially now with the internet and social media, keeping connected is easier than ever, so even what immigrants do in other countries can make it back to the ears and eyes of their families elsewhere!

9. “Be boring (it’s the only way to get work done)” – I’m not sure this advice is as necessary for immigrants as artists – or so the stereotype of hardworking and motivated immigrants would suggest

10. Creativity is the way to find your new normal – whether subtraction or addition, immigration is about transformation and creativity is, as Engel suggests, a key component of this

While the parallel starts to show its weaknesses when you try to push it further like this, I still appreciate the way that picturing immigrants as artists frames them as key actors in the transformation of their lives. So much discussion of immigrant adaptation is about fitting in and therefore highlights normal practices in the larger population. As I’ve seen in my research though, when people immigrate their experience is much more about creative adaptations to new ways of living. In my work I’ve used creative methods to get at some of these adaptations, but I think there is much more that can be done in this vein. As a next step though, I’ll have to go and pick up Engel’s book.


Time of Doubles: Flux (2011) immersive art installation by Haru Ji and Graham Wakefield

Time of Doubles: Flux (2011) immersive art installation by Haru Ji and Graham Wakefield

While recent revelations about the US National Security Agency’s PRISM program have provided much to reflect upon in relation to government, security, risk, and privacy, they also prompted for me a much more basic question. Why is the tracking of the metadata of our communications such an abhorrent idea? Beyond the fact that this has been going on in secret, is there a deeper frustration or fear? I’m not sure that people are only afraid that Orwell’s 1984 is coming to fruition, or that as the Daily Show has suggested, people are relieved that previous worries were not just paranoia.

I wonder if it isn’t connected to the more basic point that in many countries today, people pay little attention to what becomes of the traces of their everyday practices. Revolutions in production and a plethora of plastic commodities has made it increasingly easy to buy and discard things with little thought given to the ecological consequences or plastic soup that is filling our oceans. Digital technologies have also made it increasingly easy to keep in touch, but with little sense of how texts and emails and phone calls themselves leave traces. Since we often don’t pay much attention to our own traces, we have little idea of what they might tell someone about us. Would they say more than we would like them to? What if we want them back? How do we possibly get a grip on their implications now, when we have been ignoring them for so long? Perhaps our worry is not that the details of our lives might be read off the traces we leave, but rather that others will misread and misrepresent us, to undesirable ends.

To end then, a quote from a great article by Louise Crewe which looks at ordinary objects and lists in order to think about disposal, the traces we leave, and the significance of banal practices:

Meaning lurks in surprising spaces, in the lowly and lost, the abandoned, and damaged. It is important to look at this stuff in the background “both as the resonance or fall-out of things in the foreground and, at some level, something that contributes to it. The foreground is made up of the information that we more regularly notice, although the background things-who we chat with or what we sketch out-probably takes up more of our everyday engagement” (Julier, 2004). The important point is to acknowledge how much “we construct the complexity of our lives from minutiae; and how little, from inspecting the minutiae, can we deduce that complexity” (Bywater, 2001, page 53).

– Crewe, Environment and Planning D, 2011, vol 29, pg44

Present Reminiscences…

I recently saw three of the videos in Tang Kwok Hin’s ongoing series ‘Present “Reminiscences of the Eastern Capital”‘ at Para/Site Art Space. Mounted side-by-side on the gallery wall, they were immediately captivating, speaking to many things I wonder about – presences and absences, changing spaces and practices in cities, the incursion of big brands and big capital into more and more spheres of life. The camera’s unchanging focus upon street fronts, and the layering of spaces and images put ‘new’ (read: global capitalism) and ‘old’ (read: local merchants and industries) aspects of Hong Kong up for consideration. Ghostly people walk straight into gated store fronts, and buses pass in front of local shops, only to leave Dior and Louis Vuitton in their wake. While the absence of sound in the gallery heightened my experience, you can find a version of one of these shorts with sound here: