Archive for 2012

Homo diaspora/Birth of a nation

December 15th, 2012 | Alina Müller

Description of Jonas Mekas' 'Birth of a Nation', The Serpentine Gallery

The 2011 census for England and Wales was released on 11th December. We found out that 7,5 million people are born abroad, making up 13% of the total population in England and Wales – an increase from 2001 when the proportion was 9%. The census also tells us that 40% of these people arrived since the EU enlargement in 2004. As I was starting to engage with the details and some of the analysis of  who’s around, where they came from and when they moved here, these two quotes were read out to me:

“Technically, our name, to those who speak science, is Homo sapiens – wise person. But we have been described in many other ways. Homo narrans, juridicus, ludens, diaspora: we are storytelling, legal, game-playing, scattered people, too. True but incomplete. That old phrase has the secret. We are all, have always been, will always be, Homo vorago aperientis: person before whom opens a vast & awesome hole.”

“Had I ship-hopped in other directions, I could have gone to regions of immer and everyday where Bremen was the fable. People get lost in the overlapping sets of knownspace. Those who serve on exot vessels, who learn to withstand the strange strains of their propulsion – of swallowdrives, overlight foldings, bansheetech – go even farther with less predictable trajectories, and become even more lost. It’s been this way for megahours, since women and men found the immer and we became Homo diaspora.”

Homo diaspora. Are we there yet?

Both quotes are from books by China Miéville. The first from Railsea and the second from Embassytown. I have never engaged with him or in fact this literature genre before, but it seems to be timely Christmas reading.


Meanwhile, at the Serpentine gallery in London, I got to see a glimpse of Jonas Mekas’ nation. Born in Lithuania in 1922, he emigrated in 1944 and eventually ended up in New York in 1949  after some time in a labour camp and a few years in various displaced people camps in Germany at the end of the Second World War. In New York he created/pieced together his own community from scratch and he was a happy man. At the Serpentine he shares part of it. And it’s beautiful.


On waiting

October 23rd, 2012 | Alina Müller

‘Who is going to Bucharest?’

‘I am!’

The build up started several weeks in advance. I was about 7 years old and my mother announced that she would take me along on a trip to Bucharest. The Romanian capital was about the biggest and furthest place I could imagine at the time. From where we lived, it would be a whole night on the train – the distance was more than I could fathom.

‘Who is going to Bucharest?’

‘I am!’

This call and response had become a bedtime ritual in the weeks leading up to the trip. So when the day finally came and we were standing on the platform at the regional train station, I was pretty excited. I can’t remember what I was wearing but I’m sure it was something from the collection that my mother kept further back in the wardrobe, behind all the day to day clothes and school uniforms. I imagined Bucharest huge and smelling of bubble gum. There would probably also be some gold.

Since we lived in a different city, my aunt had had to pick up the tickets for us at the travel agency a few days before and we were now waiting for her to arrive. We were there in good time. It was going to be a long journey and the train to Bucharest only passed by once every few days. So it was better to wait for a few hours than risking it. We waited for what to my 7 year old self felt like an eternity, until finally the train was announced. My aunt and the tickets, however, were still nowhere to be found. ‘She’s on her way’ my mother kept telling me. And in between a few attempts to call my aunt from the station pay phone she would turn to me with a smile and ask ‘Who is going to Bucharest?’.  I was. I replied on script but I was starting to sense that something was not quite right. When the train started moving again and we were still on the platform, with no aunt and no tickets in sight, it became devastatingly clear. I was definitely not going to Bucharest. I was inconsolable.

Most accounts of the experience of migrating, have one thing in common: this feeling of anticipation which turns into waiting which turns into despair. Regardless of the reason why they decided to move in the first place, eventually the majority of migrants seem to end up suspended in waiting at some point in the process for one reason or other.

Some wait in their home countries while their work visa application is being processed. Others wait in detention or camps while their asylum application is being processed. Once/if they get the permission to live in the new country, they wait for indefinite leave to remain and eventually citizenship to be absolutely certain that they will not be sent back. Others that have managed to move just wait to make enough money to go back home and no longer have to share a house with ten other people and work harder and be paid less than everyone else. Some wait for the people they love – partners, children or parents, to join them so that they can finally start their new life. Many wait for their degrees to be validated and to finally be considered for a job. Some, especially with age, longingly wait for the day when they can go back to their home country.

Two days after my aunt’s failure to deliver our tickets, my mother and I were on our way to Bucharest.

A lot of people, trying and anticipating to get somewhere, remain standing on the platform.



A shortage of Identities

October 9th, 2012 | Alina Müller

Identity is an attractive concept in the fields of critical theory, philosophy and art. When you have an immigrant background, however, the topic can get quite personal.

Last week the artist Matt Stokes held a talk at Whitechapel Gallery about his new work, ‘Give to Me the Life I Love’. I went because I had happened to read that Matt’s thing is to  ’immerse himself in communities to look at the culture that shapes people’s lives and identities’. This particular work revolved around the Bangladeshi community in the Whitechapel area in London. He was joined on the panel by scriptwriter Syed Rahman and community organiser Sotez Choudhury, who both have a Bangladeshi background.

About an hour into the talk, that had covered language, cultural heritage, the tension between the artist and the writer, a member of the audience asked Syed and Sotez the inevitable question: ‘Do you feel British or Bangladeshi?’ The audience member confessed that he himself was Irish but had grown up in London and often struggled with this type of existential query.

This is a classic type of question for most people with an immigrant background. In fact, as an immigrant, you might encounter it so often that you eventually decide to spend a significant amount of time, sometimes a whole degree, engaging with the eclectic writings on the topic of identity. You might start with nationalism, to understand how this most prominent of group identities is formed and the practices of exclusion that sustain it. And you get a bit anxious when you find out just how central national identity still is, not only to being formally recognised as a citizen in a specific country, but also to most people’s sense of self. Digging deeper and broader, you eventually come across cultural studies, post-colonial and post-structuralist theories, perhaps some of Homi Bhabha’s writings, and learn about the notion of ‘hybrid identity’. This calms you down a bit, as there seems to be a recognised alternative to being and feeling of any one nation or ethnicity in particular.  You are a Hybrid, you conclude relieved. And in fact there are many just like you and, with globalisation, there are likely to be even more. So it’s ok. Phew.  Soon enough, though, you realise that ‘hybrid’ is also applied to describe a certain type of car, bike, martial arts and the result of plant and animal breeding and frankly, you just start finding the word itself irritating. You also get into the mess of trying to figure out what you are a hybrid of. A hybrid bike is a mix between a road and a mountain bike. What about you? Instinctively, you start lining identities up: Swedish, Romanian, German, maybe a bit of Hungarian, Londoner… and then you’re right where you started.

Do you feel British or Bangladeshi?

Sotez, our friend on the panel, answered that  when he is in London he feels Bangladeshi, but when he is in Bangladesh he feels more British. A classic answer to a classic question. What it told me was that neither of the two options  he was offered were adequate descriptions of his own experience. Perhaps that’s why he ended up not choosing. Instead, he simply described how he is seen by others in different contexts and, by doing so, he made explicit the narrative under which personal identity is always understood as national identity or, at best, as a mix.

The more I engage with the topic of Identity, the more I sense that when the options on offer don’t suit and when one tires of being a Hybrid, the only thing left is to create more options.

When Granta Magazine launched its Aliens  issue in London in February last year,  there was an art project as part of the launch event where one was asked the question ‘Are you an Alien?’.  At the time, I hesitated to answer yes. In retrospect, I should have gone for it. Even if only in the spirit of putting another option out there.

Prelude to crossings

August 21st, 2012 | Alina Müller



‘As soon as I desire […] I am not merely for here-and-now, sealed into thingness. I am for somewhere else and for something else’ (Frantz Fanon)

What turns desire into obsession?

I remember my decision to leave Sweden as a moment of total certainty, perhaps the only one quite like it to date. It was a  decision that came to colour all my interactions and thoughts until that day when I finally boarded the flight to Italy with a big smile on my face. At the bottom of the escalator at International Departures at Landvetter Aiport, my father, who minutes earlier had handed me a one-dollar bill for luck, held a comforting arm around my mother’s shoulders as they waved  goodbye to their 19 year old daughter. In my mind, it was just like Frantz Fanon described it. I was for somewhere else and staying wasn’t even a contemplated possibility.

My father decided to leave his home country at an even earlier age. Looking back, he once described the feeling to me not so much as a desire but as a form of obsession. His country, unlike Sweden, was not quite as easy to leave. He spoke about spending countless evenings filled with coffee and cigarettes imagining the future ‘over there’ and eventually planning in great detail a route across the border. Before he eventually managed to leave, he would graduate from high school, get a university degree, complete military service, be arrested by the border police for attempting to cross the border, loose his job teaching philosophy as a result and work in a furniture factory for long enough to make his daughter a baby chair.

People today continue to arrive in border towns with the same desire. As controls are tightened and fences built, they spend their days trying to find a way to make it to the ‘better’ side, often repeatedly failing and repeatedly reattempting to get across. Consumed by being in a constant state of fear and longing and often struggling to survive, they eventually get to a point where they can imagine only one release, reaching their destination. I suspect that it is this condition, that finds its extreme expression in these ‘giant waiting rooms for migrants’, where the urgency to leave meets the violence of repeatedly coming up against borders, that ultimately turns a perfectly reasonable desire into an all-consuming obsession.

Pobeda [ Победа ]

August 11th, 2012 | Alina Müller


Pobeda [ Победа ] is a Russian brand of wrist- and pocket watches. Based on a French design, the Pobeda’s simple, 15-jewel movement was cost-effective, reliable, and easy to manufacture and maintain. This ensured its remarkable production life span between the years 1946 and 2004.

Prior to World War II during a period of rapid industrialization in the Soviet Union, the Soviet government sought international funding and expertise in developing a domestic industry for timepieces. Eventually the French watch manufacturer LIP was chosen; they established a new watch factory in Penza. [...] World War II temporarily disrupted these plans, but after the Allied victory, this watch design was quickly finished at Penza, and full scale production commenced at the First Moscow Watch Factory. Joseph Stalin chose the name Pobeda (Victory) to celebrate the end of the war.  (Source: Wikipedia)

My father wore a Pobeda wrist-watch the first time he managed to cross to the other side of the Iron Curtain (to străinătate, the foreign lands). My mother had found it on the side of the road when they were visiting his hometown earlier that year. 15 years later, I left Sweden wearing the same watch.

If they were a nation

July 29th, 2012 | Alina Müller

An article* in the Economist paints an interesting picture:

There are now 215m first-generation migrants around the world: that’s 3% of the world’s population. If they were a nation, it would be a little larger than Brazil.

Perhaps the time has come to claim our own territory.



Contemporary migrants according to level of achievement of those that left for riches

June 13th, 2012 | Alina Müller


Those that left for riches and went back with none

Those that left for riches and went back and built a house

Those that left for riches and keep going back in a Mercedes

Those that left for riches and went back and spent them

Those that left for riches, made it and never went back

Those that left for riches, made none and can’t bear to go back


Contemporary migrants according to frequency and direction of movement

June 11th, 2012 | Alina Müller

Those that move once and stay

Those that move, stay for a longer period and then move back

Those that move, stay and move again

Those that move and keep moving to new places periodically

Those that move and move back, back and forth

Those that didn’t move but are abroad


A migration museum

May 8th, 2012 | Alina Müller

(Image from Samamidon's video 'Saro' )

I’m always searching for instances that document some aspects of the shared experience of people that have migrated. I continue to find fragments of it in music, literature, films and conversations. The most recent example that comes to mind is Ian Nagoski’s presentation of the record ‘To What Strange Place’, a collection of music recorded in New York by immigrants from the dissolving Ottoman Empire between 1916 – 1929. Among the tracks is one with the brilliant title ‘I wish I had never come to America’. Another example was the London launch of the ‘Aliens’ issue of Granta magazine, which features a selection of photographs by Afshin Dehkordi, who, having grown up in London, went back to photograph his country of origin, Iran.

But I have very rarely – actually I can’t think of any example – found an initiative, political or cultural, that represents migration and the story of people that migrate as a coherent and, more importantly, distinct narrative decoupled from that of the national one of the country of origin or of the ‘receiving’ country.

I recently came across The Migration Museum Project, a project initiated by a group of people that seek to create Britain’s first major migration museum.  The idea that a Migration museum always evokes for me  is precisely that of a place that tries to represent and explore the migration experience and process in a historical perspective. I imagine it as a place where I as a migrant would walk in and be able to situate my own personal narrative, very much shaped by moving and settling across national borders, within a broader historical one shared by others. A place that would offer me what I feel is a much needed alternative to the default national narrative  and identity of either my country(ies) of origin or the one where I currently live.

The objective of a museum as proposed by the Migration Museum Project is however slightly different. It is that of creating a space that conveys the importance of the British history of immigration and emigration in the national narrative. In the context of  today’s culturally diverse British society, this would in turn help to ‘advance a shared sense of history and through that to create a stronger sense of shared identity and common values’.

This purpose should perhaps not be surprising. It is after all a ‘national’ museum. And to help British people think of themselves as a nation of migrants is a worthy cause in itself. Nonetheless, I would argue that if such a space fails to engage with and explore what aspect of ‘Britishness’ has been shaped by the migrating experience  and in what way, only half of the job will be done.

In one of the papers produced by the Migration Museum Working Group, there is a really great reflection on the need for a migrant museum: ‘ For when a group or individual’s heritage is ignored or overshadowed by the dominant narrative- in other words when they cannot see themselves reflected in the mirror – the long-term outcome can be ‘disaffection, disillusionment and disenfranchisement (..) it is like being rubbed out of history’.

But what if, to this end, the task is not to re-define the dominant narrative with the purpose of making it more inclusive but instead to provide a space for displaying and exploring a narrative that is out there and in the making – the migrant narrative?


Lives and works on Earth

January 15th, 2012 | Alina Müller

Short cuts, Mircea Cantor

In the programme of a recent exhibition at Tate Modern, the work of one the exhibiting artists, Mircea Cantor, is described as  ’seemingly float[ing] in a metaphorical world where location is never stated or easily determined’, while Cantor ‘appears to avoid any specific subject related to geography’. In fact, on his website, having informed the reader compliantly of his place of birth, Cantor himself makes a point of stating that he now ‘lives and works on Earth’.

It becomes clear that Cantor has an issue with taxonomies that will classify not only his work but also him as an individual on the basis of geographical information. There’s something in the statement ‘lives and works on Earth’, though, that for a moment makes me roll my eyes. Is he not trying a bit too hard?

The answer comes when one continues reading the exhibition programme, where the same author informs  us that Cantor was born in Romania but now lives in France. Still reflecting on Cantor’s work, she then goes on to talk about how ‘Eastern Europe has a rich  history of artists who produce  art works from small acts of resistance, usually with  modest materials and  often against strict political regimes’ and gives examples of the work of Slovak and Czech artists and concludes by locating Cantor’s work within ‘this lineage’.

Apparently, Cantor is not trying hard enough. In the face of a system of classification so strongly embedded in our society, even the most explicit efforts to resist it fall short.

So, when someone asks you where you are from, and you, with a foreign accent, reply ‘London’ and get a look of incomprehension followed by ‘Yeah, but where are you REALLY from? ‘, don’t back down. It’s worth repeating yourself.