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Exhibition Review: Robot Immigrants “My Heart is a Traveler”

May 20th, 2013 by admin

The following is a walkthrough of “My Heart is a Traveler,” a performance installation at 7 Dunham Gallery presented by the art collective Robot Immigrants. Its style is meant to give equal floor time to emotional and aesthetic evaluation by examining myself as a reflection of the works rather than treating the works as a piece of someone else. This seemed important with a show of this nature, both for the installation’s performance-focused structure and due to the collective’s repeated efforts to distinguish the gallery-goers present as a community, thereby making the audience the canvas by which to judge the efforts.

In choosing this review style, moments that would otherwise demand stepping aside to explain exhibition particulars are sacrificed to maintain an “in the room” feel. To give you an itinerary of sorts to this immigrant journey, the following are the sequence of events and members of the collective by performance:

Leaving Safe Harbor – Tinu Oyelowo

Searching for Sumi – Sophia Remolde

Babatunde’s Song – Tinu Oyelowo

The Filipino Way – Dan Munkus

Crossing the Bridge/Processing – Sophia Remolde, Tinu Oyelowo, Eva Von Schweinitz

Steerage – Sophia Remolde, Eva Von Schweinitz

My Heart is a Traveler – Dan Munkus, Tinu Oyelowo, Sophia Remolde

 

On arrival to the space, the traveler is asked to declare their intentions in document form, submitting it to an unknown evaluator with a signed promise of truthfulness. It both relieves and recalls each traveler’s personal immigrant burden, large or small, bringing it to the front of the mind for the journey to come.

Passing through cataloging throws us back to beginnings. Projected on a screen acts the artist as ferrywoman, a silhouette traced with a roving beam of bluish light. She dips her pole into the waters, dragging it deliberately, propelling further into a chorus of nautical droning, understood instinctually as a tone of long and protracted passage. To reference so primitive a means of travel is to remember that the immigrant story is undoubtedly the story of humanity, not the story of “the other”. 

We move further into the space and find our first waypoint – the artist confined to a tub wearing a smock of plastic, illuminated only by the projection of her ancestor relating her life’s story over speakers. The layering of faces – projection upon flesh, silhouette upon projection – speaks to the interplay in all progenitor-offspring relations. We all wear the expressions of our forebears, even as we eclipse the world’s memory of them. 

The aquatic environment containing the energy of the piece, further reined in by the plastic drapings, decontextualizes the artist as representative of “human.” The emotional component remains but the physical component is hidden, diffused in billowed coverings and fluid movements. Movements obscured, yet always transparent, both in physicality and intention. The inner, human mechanics remain present to the eye that wishes to focus, and that is a choice every individual is free to make. The artist takes over the narration and a synergy is achieved between the layered physicality and the emotional catharsis of the personal narrative, lending honesty to the feelings of loss and weight to the burdened movements.

With limited prompting we move to the room’s center. There a modest throne sits, borne up and covered in hundreds of pounds of fresh, rich soil. The artist works, wordlessly and deliberately, to remove this soil with nothing but bare hands, moving it to a pile of seeming deference.

In this work the relative watches over, speaking in words familiar to ears but easily lost to cadence, creating less a narrative and more a soundtrack for an action whose scope demands a meditative mindset lest it degrade to frustration, anger or despair. 

And when the artist takes the throne, the transmission begins. The music shifts from instrumental to folk verse as the words are amplified through the daughter of the father. The creation acts as the voice of the creator in every instance, art or family. 

The immigrant narrative is hardest to bear when it reveals the ignorance of the native in power. He was fired for how he spoke the language. He was fired for how he played the music. He was fired for a cadence that was faultless but foreign. He was fired by those who never learned to listen.

 

Subject indicates travel.

Subject indicates travel.

Subject indicates travel, a voice compels,

to a small nook in the gallery’s corner, containing the artist in a plastic observation booth, observing his relative and describing the encounter.

Monitor and subject are the terms of the conversation. The emotion of personal narrative is excised in the play-by-play of such impersonal terms. The inherent emotional experience of the immigrant narrative, so present in our journey this far, collapses to create negative space for us, the surrounding observers, to inhabit with our own notions of subject and monitor, age and youth, generation and generation.

In this manner emotion returns to the scene as supplied by the travelers rather than the artist, bypassing the barrier of articulation that inevitably filters artist intention, trusting the community’s emotional understanding.

Then the monitor cuts out and the subject takes over, revealing a pragmatic understanding of the role our descendents play in our lives. Emotion is removed there as well, but in a way that the space is replaced by the speaker with a priority on survival, of all actions based in prudent management of the resources life gives us, flesh included. The emotion is secondary because it is unavoidable. The pragmatic is primary because of its uncertainty. 

Around we turn back to the throne room, where a path has been made through the mound of earth to a doorway beyond. At the doorway stands a customs agent ready to further process us. The assembled travelers – given a minimum of prompts – are uncertain of how to proceed, approaching tentatively at first and in individual fashion as though receiving Eucharist. The nature of this passage soon becomes clear, however, and societal training has the group queueing up in short time.

A device sweeps over our face to scan and capture us. Where before we were asked to recall our immigrant narratives, we are physically anointed as immigrants now. To work the gathered audience into the narrative in this manner is to fully value all our inevitable immigrant narratives, be they more recent in the bloodlines or more distant, identifiable in the communal human experience rather than the personal narrative. It is in embracing this universality that the exhibition achieves its pulse, delivering life to the satellite organs that constitute the show’s body – that is, the personal narratives of the artists.

When we cross that threshold like human steerage, we are shown both dystopia and histories past in simultaneity. Technology will not eliminate fear of the other or manipulation of the ill advantaged. It will only change the color of the developments. The resolution is controllable, however; generations can strengthen or weaken the picture for both themselves and the whole.

Our scanned faces decorate the walls within, pixelated and corrupted to dehumanizing effect. Wires festoon the cramped space like spider veins, and in the room’s center the artist works an unnamed robot to the point of battery death. The representation of exploited immigrant is clear despite the lack of any human features. During our time in steerage, we witness the unceremonious sapping of three batteries, replaced with sharp call-and-responses between the artist and customs operator. The sharpness is necessary to sever the link of commonality.

Returning from steerage, the air is lightened. We are welcomed by the true humanity. Not our base humanity of exploitation and fear, but the part of us that identifies with the similarity and simplicity of what we have to “declare” on reentering. Our earlier written stories are read aloud to us. Our goals, our travails, our pithy leisures and our honest intentions to join the greater whole.

In our personal narratives, that whole is the nation we’ve chosen as home. In the universal narrative, the whole exists in the striving for empathy.

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