Convergences in Art, Architecture and Migrant Activism

On Tings Chak’s Habitable Space

Farrah Miranda


Pushing the limits of architecture and activism, Tings Chak’s Habitable Space (2015) takes audiences on a digital tour of a fictitious detention facility meant to house migrants. Immersing viewers in an anonymous architectural draft, Chak provides a fragmented sense of what it might mean to inhabit a design. In the bright white space of her screen, thin black lines carve out a three-dimensional inside, as standardized doors, windows, and sparse furnishings establish an air of control. Piercing through the austerity, a disembodied voice enters the scene: “My name is Jalal. J-A-L-A-L; last name J-O-S-T-O. I am from Iraq… I have been in Canada nine years… jail for almost seven years [and] immigration hold… for three years.”

Speaking over Jalal, another voice chimes in. “My last name is Alshammaray, A-L-S-H-A-M-M-A-R-A-Y… first name is Ayad.” The procedural yet choppy texture of their introductions suggests that I am listening to snippets of a conversation, likely recorded over the phone. Following the movement of Chak’s video, I find myself in what appears to be the processing wing of the facility. As I move through the space, my ears catch the broken pieces of Ayad’s story. “I have kids… I have cancer.” Wanting to stay with Ayad, to bear witness to his testimony, it seems I have little choice in the matter. As I continue to make my way through Chak’s banal rendering, a medley of voices tugs at my attention, each one as urgent as the rest.

Habitable Space emerges out of the artist’s relationship with migrant detainees and activists involved in the End Immigration Detention Network (EIDN), an organization which campaigns for an end to the indefinite detention of migrants in Canada. Through a strategy that combines public education, lobbying, and direct action case support, Chak and her colleagues in EIDN have drawn national and international attention to the struggle of migrant detainees in Canada.

Twenty-nine year old Glory Anawa is one of hundreds of migrant detainees connected to the network. Born in a small Cameroonian village, Anawa fled her country after being threatened with female genital mutilation. Upon her arrival Canada in February 2013, she was arrested by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) and placed in immigration hold. Pregnant at the time of her arrest, Anawa suffered the indignity of birthing her son in CBSA custody. Now two years old, her boy Alpha, has spent his entire life behind bars. Swathi Sekhar, their immigration lawyer says, "according to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, Alpha, a Canadian citizen, is technically not detained and is free to leave at any time. However, he is only free to leave in the custody of the Children’s Aid Services which is effectively not a choice for Glory, or for any mother." [1]

The Anawas’ story is not an isolated one. Thousands of migrants, including folks with mental health issues, torture victims, pregnant women, and children, are imprisoned by the Canadian government every year; many of them indefinitely. Margaret Parsons, Director of the African Canadian Legal Clinic and one of EIDN’s many supporters, explains that "when Canada cannot deport migrants due to lack of travel documents or due to the political climate of home countries, these migrants become indefinitely detained. Detained migrants are predominantly racialized people that are being denied status wholesale and then being punished simply for living here." [2]

Canada remains the only western country without a maximum length that someone can be detained without charge. Exposing this reality, EIDN demands that migrants be released after ninety days of their detention, if Canada is unable to deport them.

The voices in Habitable Space are those of migrants detained at the Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, Ontario. All of the recordings were done by Mina Ramos and other members of EIDN over the phone. Combing through publicly available recordings, housed on the EIDN website, Chak selected excerpts that convey experiences and feelings of incarceration. [3] By combining the aesthetic of architectural design with the politics of witness and testimony, Chak allows the voices in her film to accumulate to the point where they are not fully discernible. The process of listening to and splicing up migrant testimonies was a trying one for Chak: "When I was on the phone line, I talked to some of these people every week. It was quite an emotional experience listening to these recordings because some of the voices were so familiar, and I would say that most of them have since been deported. There was a real feeling of absence in listening to this work." [4]

Chak’s work raises important questions about the relevance of art to migrant justice politics. Primarily, it encourages audiences to think about what it means to bear witness to the traumas of detention and deportation. According to literary critic Shoshana Felman and psychologist Dori Laub, testimony cannot happen without a witness. [5] Dynamics of witness and testimony taken up within the public realm through projects such as Chak’s point to the politicization of trauma and processes of social responsibility and accountability in the healing process. It might not be possible to find redress through artwork for the particular cases of the detainees that Chak interviewed, but her work points towards the larger systemic and institutional issues that allow detention and deportations to continue.

Chak’s artwork shows audiences the power of witness and testimony, not only in contesting dominant myths about migrant detention in Canada, but also in situating migrant detainees as primary experts on the detention regime. What is perhaps most interesting about Habitable Space is that it exposes the both the strengths and challenges of speaking and listening to trauma. Felman and Laub argue that testimony requires witness of oneself within the experience, witness of the testimonies of others, and witness of the process of witnessing itself. [6] But even in the well-intentioned space of activism, this level of consciousness is difficult to come by. To bear witness to individual traumas of detention and deportation demands that we move beyond simply hearing and recounting the stories of another, to instead engaging in a “subtle dialectic” [7] between what we as listeners know and what we do not know; between what the survivor knows and what they do not know, and between what professionals, be they artists, architects, or academics know and what they do not know. It is in this space of honesty that solidarity has the chance to emerge.

In speaking to Chak about her production process, I get the sense that she is struggling with what it means to be a witness. As one of the many activists operating the EIDN phone line, Chak insists that “her relationships, as much as they were personal, were really mandated by the collective.” As an architect and artist who thinks extensively about the lived experiences of spatial design, she has been careful not to use her position on the phone line to ask questions that relate specifically to her own artistic or architectural practice. This approach notwithstanding, it may be fruitful to consider what it means to navigate the creative tensions that lie between individual authorship and group action. It is common practice for individuals engaged in migrant justice politics to author articles, reports, and documentaries in collaboration and consultation with organizing collectives. These forms of production often offer suggestions and directives that can help guide organizing work.

However, art poses more questions than answers, which is where the power of artistic processes can be found. In activist spaces there is a tendency to think specifically about how the work can be used to mobilize people towards specific ends. For artists, there can be a hesitation to situate work within these spaces, because their primary questions are not necessarily geared toward a measurable outcome, but on inquiry and process. When artistic projects such as Habitable Space are situated in and inspired by activist work, it allows us to consider the ethical dimensions of authorship, to articulate the parameters under which this work is carried out, and to think about how the art might be mobilized in service of movement goals. Such a conversation might help those engaged in migrant justice politics to think ethically and strategically about how to leverage various forms of individual and collective authorship against the system. By extension, these questions should implicate skilled professionals—such as architects—who are authors of prison design and contributors to the Prison Industrial Complex.

Despite her training as an architect, the process of creating Habitable Space demanded a major brain switch for Chak. Submerged in the tools and processes of architectural design, Chak inevitably migrated from her mindset as a prison abolitionist to that of a detention center architect. Contemplating the mundane, like which type of security glass to use, the widths of certain kinds of corridors versus other corridors, and door models based on security needs was disturbing for her: "Going through this process was really scary because you get into the mindset that there is a product that you need to finish. There is a goal and you’re just executing it through something in the built form. And that goal is to cage people; and as an architect, it is not yours in the process to question why."

In the early days of creating a floor plan for the space, she gained a sense of what it means to lose sight of the larger political landscape in which practices of migrant detention and deportation are carried out. Chak says: "As much as there are considerations of the people who are in these spaces, those people become lost very quickly, and are quickly made absent from your thought process. And you have to keep them absent because you’ll go crazy if you think they are real human beings. You have to suspend your judgement and perform a certain kind of function."

Unlike traditional architectural tours, aimed at selling building designs to clients, Chak’s simulated walk-through prompts audiences to consider the human cost of the design process. In an industry premised on the building of new structures, her work serves as a clarion call to fellow architects, to engage in the radical work of unbuilding the structures used to oppress people.

And yet, movement building is not a call to professionals, but a way of supporting those at the margins who are often organizing in the face of immense oppression. Piercing through fragmented tales of lost status, multiple displacements, and families torn apart, a spirit of agency finds its way into Chak’s piece. Foucault reminds us that, “aside from torture and execution, which preclude any resistance, no matter how terrifying a given system may be, that there always remain the possibilities of resistance, disobedience, and oppositional groupings.” [8] Reverberating through the sonic elements of the video are scattered mentions of a hunger strike. Reminiscent of the historic ongoing mass actions taken by over 190 migrant detainees at the Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, Habitable Space reminds viewers of the immense courage of those locked up inside.

The strength of Chak’s work is that it crosses disciplines and boundaries. By working across practices that have different and contradictory value systems—particularly the perceived chasm between professionalism and activism—she troubles the boundaries and locations of where social action can take place. By navigating the conceptual design of structures that generate trauma, she calls on audiences to witness the intentional violence of design and to find their roles in taking accountability from within their own social location.

In the time and space of her artistic production, Chak enters a visceral experience in which she loses her identity as an activist. She becomes entrapped in the limits of architectural design. Migrants in detention experience an extreme degree of oppression, and Chak’s willingness to enter into the internal workings of architecture shows how it is possible for any of us to lose sight of the political impact of our actions. For someone whose work is so driven by consideration for people’s lived experiences of border violence, this is a profound willingness that may affect how she relates to, challenges, and engages with the profession of architecture. The challenges she raises around witness and testimony ask audiences to think about witnessing beyond individual trauma and to consider what it means to witness and intervene in the violence of design.


Notes

[1] End Immigration Detention Network, “Alpha has spent his entire life in jail. He is 16 months old” (2014).

[2] EIDN flyer.

[3] Migrants gave EIDN their permission to use audio recordings for the purposes of their organizing work. Chak drew on publicly available recordings from the EIDN website. She emailed EIDN to inform them about this project, and there were no objections to her using the publicly available statements in the production of her art work. Migrant detainees were not consulted about this project specifically. To hear the audio recordings visit https://soundcloud.com/moominamur

[4] All quotes from Chak are from personal correspondence with the author, 2015.

[5] Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, Testimony: Crises of witnessing in literature, psychoanalysis, and history (London: Taylor & Francis, 1992), 71.

[6] Ibid, 71.

[7] Ibid, 71.

[8] “Michel Foucault,” Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory, Neil Leach, ed. (London: Routledge, 2005), 350.


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Farrah-Marie Miranda’s work emphasizes the power of ordinary people to enact change. Drawing on a decade of organizing within migrant justice movements, Farrah-Marie founded the Mass Arrival project in 2013. The project mobilizes public interventions into the discourse of illegality surrounding migrant boat arrivals to the West. Acclaimed for its synthesis of performance, new media, and the law, Mass Arrival has exhibited internationally. Reviews of Farrah-Marie's work have been featured in publications as diverse as Canadian Theatre Review, Canadian Art Magazine, the Toronto Star, the Torontoist, FUSE Magazine, This Magazine and in the anthology, Wildfire: Art as Activism. Farrah-Marie's writing appears in diverse publications, including the book, Art in the Wake of the Komagatamaru: Transpacific Migration, Race and Contemporary Art.