Border Ethnography: Part 1.
When we do research, we have a project and a plan, but often – especially in long-term ethnographic work – something comes up that we hadn’t expected to be thinking about. This happened to me while conducting my part of REALM. I found myself engaging with ‘border ethnography’ – partly because I experienced delays and some difficulties with my Indian research visa, partly because of events that were happening back in Europe, partly because I met and spent time with some Palestinian ethnographers, and partly because one of my long-term Indian Gulf migrant research respondents was caught up in a contract-visa situation which unfolded dramatically over 2017,
All of this can be difficult to write about in itself, and moreover, our usual anthropologists’ imperative to protect respondents and be mindful about public representation becomes amplified.
I’ve been interested for a long time in the use of creative methods both for gathering material and for disseminating ideas into public spheres. The border stories that gathered insistently around me over 2017 seemed like an opportunity to step into those methods.
In June 2018, I collaborated with a live art performance artist and a sketch artist to produce an immersive live art piece (‘Do you Belong Here?’) which saw – consenting – participants ‘counted in’ with a clicker, captured by court-room style sketches, ordered to stand in line, remove shoes, shift from room to room, answer apparently unfathomably senseless questions and finally be selected – or rejected – to come on a walk outside.
Those left behind and not permitted to join the walk were given reasons for refusal such as “Wrong shoes” – or no reason at all. This event took place at the University of Brighton, at the Carnival of Invention.
Helena Waters had previously done a first dry run of the concept and helped develop the piece with Caroline and with REALM project assistant Helen Underhill at the annual Public Engagement and Performance Conference in Hepworth Art Gallery, York, UK in spring 2018.
The participant feedbacks were interesting: many people were strongly affected and reported fear, hostility and indignation at their treatment. Although everyone had signed up, given consent, and knew they were in a live art immersive experience, once that experience began, the emotions and thoughts felt real to people. Participants experienced confusion about what was happening, tried to understand the reasons why some people were permitted to leave while others were held back, realised their lack of experience of how to deal with the officials and experienced insecurity around what would happen once outside.
Feedbacks made it plain that, while the experience had been very uncomfortable for many participants, it had been a valuable and provocative moment which opened up questions of belonging, exclusion, privilege and the anxieties attendant when we enter a border situation and find ourselves subject to heightened surveillance and power.
I hope to repeat the piece before too long passes and to continue to develop it. We continue to need careful ethnographies of borders, but creative experiments, such as the deliberate arousal of experiential moments, supplement and enrich that work.