It is obvious from the map, an exhibition at REDCAT organized by Thomas Keenan and Sohrab Mohebbi, showcases a variety of maps, videos, archival material, and other multimedia ephemera that highlight migration, migrant rights, and social justice in both the twenty first century and the age of surveillance. This timely exhibit juxtaposes a variety of maps, ranging from hand-drawn maps passed and exchanged by migrants, to governmental maps used for tracking and surveillance purposes, to artistic renderings that visualize various migrants’ stories, to geospatial mappings.
Walking into the exhibit, viewers enter a room surrounded by four projected videos. Scenes of movement and migration fill viewers’ sight lines while noises from the films, such as heavy footsteps, crowds’ moving, and atmospheric sound from overhead take over one’s auditory perception. This first room creates a startling and appropriate liminal point of entry. Viewers are certainly no longer in the spacious hallway of REDCAT where pedestrians pop by for a cup of coffee. This room creates an area that is strangely peaceful and chaotic, compelling viewers to immerse fully.
The next room features a series of hand drawn and cartoonesque maps lining one entire wall. These were illustrated by Djordje Balmazovic (Škart collective) in collaboration with migrants and asylum seekers in order to visualize and recreate their extreme and tedious journeys. These maps emphasize the obstacles and tragedies that so many people must endure in attempting to migrate to safety. Many of the illustrations detail these trials and tribulations, and the variety of ways that people put their lives in danger for year-long interludes along the way.
The colorful maps, with their playful hand-lettered font and cartoon illustrations, suggest the kind of maps a child might draw, thus creating a beautiful juxtaposition of both innocence and loss. Through these childlike renderings, we learn about asylum seekers and their specific journeys, such as one group who left Damascus, Syria in March of 2013 and faced various roadblocks such as being arrested four times in Macedonia, complete with beatings, spending two days of walking through Serbia, and facing numerous other challenges (emotional, physical, and monetary) before arriving two years later in Banja Koviljaca, Serbia in June of 2015. Through their illustrated journeys, viewers can see and understand much more of the hardships felt and faced on such long migrations.
Another key part of the exhibit focuses on Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani’s research and reconstructions such as their “Left-to-Die Boat” project. The exhibit’s brochure describes their endeavor and scientific research which “painstakingly reconstructs the traces inadvertently left in the Mediterranean by migrant vessels — boast that have disappeared, or boats that have been disappeared, whether by neglect or by rescues gone awry…” Specifically, they traced a 2011 migrant vessel that had fled from Libya with 72 people aboard. The boat made it halfway to Italy, but then ran out of fuel, leaving people stranded and drifting for two weeks, without food or water. In the end, only seven people survived.
This tragic story led to harrowing accounts from the handful of survivors. But what haunted Heller and Pezzani most was that the survivors’ tales included multiple mentions of surveillance and contact with various military vehicles during their harrowing journey.
They encountered military aircraft flying overhead, two more direct encounters with military helicopters, and one with a military ship. They also placed a distress call with a satellite phone, so Heller and Pezzani began researching the surveillance of the vessel, carefully reconstructing the two week odyssey, and looking into those who might be in violation of maritime law, which would have obligated anyone who saw such a vessel in distress to offer immediate help and assistance. As REDCAT’s press release explained, “These maps reveal how the suffering of migrants is obsessively watched yet murderously neglected by the various forces tasked with their surveillance and control.”
In On Photography, Susan Sontag writes, “There is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera.” It is obvious from the map brings this aggression to light in an extremely relevant way. In this age of digital surveillance when many are watched, and fewer are watching, Heller and Pezzani ask viewers who is held accountable for failing to assist people in distress? They do so to challenge and hopefully change the ways in which migrant vessels are ignored, elevating migrant rights to be seen more fully and rightfully as human rights.
The exhibit’s brochure described the maps in the show as bearing witness and “testifying to the criminal regimes that force people into dangerous journeys and that seek to curtail, control and interrupt their crossings.” Through a variety of maps and media, It is obvious from the map succeeds at challenging viewers to see a multiplicity of realities and that in fact “nothing is obvious” when it comes to how society deals with migration, migrant rights, monitoring migrant vessels, and movements of a people.