Responding to current conditions of statelessness by way of Hannah Arendt's mid- twentieth century reflections, this article proposes the aesthetic encounter as a practice of alternative, counter-national community and belonging. Artistic works exploring the vulnerabilities and the vicissitudes of statelessness by Mirta Kupferminc and Wangechi Mutu inspire a definition of stateless memory as a suspension or hiatus in time and space. Stateless memory, the article suggests, can mobilize the memory of painful pasts in a different time frame than the progression toward preordained futures that often seem inevitable in the space-time of the nation-state and the catastrophes it causes and suffers.
“Stateless.” This word brings back a cluster of bodily reactions and emotions I have trouble untangling, especially when I say it in German, “staatenlos.” As I utter or write it, my palms sweat, I feel a lump in my throat, my breath is short, my heart beats faster. My head bends down, my shoulders slump, I feel shame and fear. I feel things I don't know how to name.
I was “staatenlos” as a child. In 1961, at age eleven, I left communist Romania with my parents. Upon our emigration, our citizenship was revoked, the state identification card replaced by a little booklet with our pictures, a travel permit. On the paper, our nationality was marked as “stateless.” We had train tickets to Austria, but our transit visas were valid for just one day. Our entry visas were to Israel.
The train trip through Romania and Hungary and across the Iron Curtain was punctuated by officials in different uniforms checking the travel permits, interrogating my parents, examining our luggage. You could not take any valuables out of the country, so my thin gold chain with a small red heart was removed from my neck at the Romanian border. The border guards cut open the stomach of my teddy bear to see if anything was hidden inside. Straw came out, and the hole kept growing wider throughout the trip. My own stomach churned with fear.
I had imagined the Iron Curtain to be a physical barrier, but it was only guards with different uniforms, appearing in the middle of the night, ominously recalling the Second World War I had heard so much about. They made sure to remind us that we had to leave Austria the next day. As they left, we knew we were on the other side—free. At the Westbahnhof, Vienna's main train station, we were met by a representative of the Jewish Agency who had procured our transit visas and was now in charge of us. He insisted on taking us, along with a larger group of emigrants, to a transit camp for the night, so that we could board the plane to Israel the next morning. In the effort to attract Jewish settlers from Eastern Europe during the Cold War, Israeli resettlement agencies worked hard to make their transition as smooth as possible. But my parents had decided to stay in Austria while exploring where in the world they might eventually be able to obtain visas and citizenship. For them, Israel was not an option.
That's how the lies began. My father promised the agent who met us that we'd be at the airport the next morning—we were going to spend the night with cousins, recent emigrants from Romania themselves. We never went to the airport. We now had neither money, nor valuables, nor papers. Nor was anybody responsible for our survival. We were free, but. . . . The term stateless came to encompass this sense of dispossession and negation, this loss of identity. It connotes the hiding and lying, the fear of discovery, the feeling, when we finally obtained a temporary residence permit in Austria, of being tolerated but unwanted. Of being other. And it brings back the appeals for asylum and a yearning for belonging, for the legitimation of citizenship and a passport, and a less contingent sense of home. And yet, at the very same time, stateless also evokes in me a sense of release, a giddy liberation that the sheer ability to cross an ironclad border brought with it. It connotes a sense of possibility engendered by a suspended moment of transience and unbelonging.
And it has these contradictory associations for me to this day, over a half-century later. Well into their nineties, my parents prized every document they possessed, and showed great fear of officials asking for them—clearly the legacy of their survival of racialized persecution, of autocracy, fascism, and communism, of refugeehood. But I fall into this behavior as well—every time I open my US passport at an immigration counter, my body relaxes and I am so grateful to have a valid one. Being able to cross a border without fear is not something I will ever take for granted and, for me, this is surely an effect not just of my own memory of statelessness, but of my postmemory of their Second World War and its aftermath. Of their repeated loss of citizenship as Jews, their ghettoization and vulnerability, their illegal nighttime crossings, their repeated scramble for papers, visas, legitimation. And yet, once I do cross, something else happens. I imagine not knowing where I will go next. I can be here and I can be somewhere else. I can be from somewhere else. I can be someone else. Statelessness is both memory and postmemory, both terrifying and strangely, unexpectedly, full of possibility.
At the moment I write this, the number of stateless people across the world are multiplying, their fates uncertain, their homes destroyed. This is true across Europe and the Mediterranean; between Myanmar and Bangladesh; between Central America, Mexico, and the United States; across Africa; and between Israel and the African countries to which migrants are under the threat of being returned. In the United States, border authorities are incarcerating asylum seekers and separating children from their parents without a clear record that might facilitate their reunification. Thousands of young children are being used as pawns in the US president's negotiations to build a wall to keep immigrants and refugees out. It is estimated that 11 million people currently living in the United States are, in today's mostly erroneous terms, undocumented, unauthorized, illegal, alien.1 I would venture that even if they are still legally citizens of their countries of origin, they are “stateless” if they cannot safely return there or acquire legal status in their country of settlement.
Another pawn for legislative deals between the two US parties is the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program created by President Obama through executive action in 2012 that, as of August 2018, provides temporary protection from deportation and work authorization to an estimated 699,350 people who came to the United States illegally under the age of sixteen, have lived there continuously since 2017, and were under the age of thirty-one as of 2012.2 Despite its attractive associations with the American dream of hospitality for the vulnerable from across the globe, the controversial legislative proposal referred to as the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors), which would provide a pathway to guaranteed legal status and potentially also citizenship for this population, has an unfortunate name. In order to spell that resonant term dream, it required an A, and the A is for Alien. To be alien is to be other, strange, unwanted. The stateless are alien.
My statelessness was temporary. I was fortunate eventually to immigrate to the United States legally with my parents, who had managed, with effort and after a long wait, to obtain visas and the generous support of HIAS and the Jewish Family Service of Providence, Rhode Island, who helped us relocate. Volunteers welcomed us and brought us to the apartment they had prepared for us in Providence. I was twelve. All was utterly unfamiliar, in English, a language I did not speak, but it was our new “home.” Though now legal, we continued to be “stateless” until we got our green cards and became permanent residents. With a green card, you still don't get a passport but can travel internationally. Five years later, my parents and I could apply for citizenship. With my “certificate of naturalization,” I became American. But just now, even that status is being called into question as the present administration begins to review naturalization certificates with an eye to revoking some of them. Once stateless and thus “unnatural,” it seems, one remains vulnerable to unpredictable political shifts.
And still, some attributes of statelessness stick to me yet.
Stateless Memory and Postmemory
Despite these experiences of loss and negation, I want to suggest that statelessness could be claimed as a space of openness and potentiality, rather than merely a blockage to be overcome. I realize that this line of argument emerges precisely from the very particular fact that I was, and that I no longer am, stateless. It is from this vantage point that I would like to conceptualize a “stateless” form of memory and intergenerational transmission—one that exceeds the boundaries of nations and states.
Scholars of memory have fruitfully challenged the idea that cultural memory is delimited by a culture or nation-state, either serving or contesting hegemonic national or ethnic identities. The important work on transnational and diasporic memory, theorized in numerous recent volumes and conferences, contests current public memory practices and institutions that reanimate and support nationalist imaginaries in many places across the globe.3 Memory studies is thus a promising platform of debate about growing nationalism and possibilities of countering it. At the same time, refugees, exiles, migrants, immigrants, and emigrés, all carrying trauma and memory with them on their sometimes endless journeys through spaces of unbelonging, tend to be left out of memory institutions, and also out of national, and even transnational, conceptions and theorizations of memory. And so are those who have either lost their citizenship, or who have never been fully recognized as citizens by the states in which they live, and who are thus stateless “at home.” A conception of memory as stateless can shed light on the intimate qualities and textures of memorial and postmemorial acts of transfer outside of and beyond the bounds of citizenship and the nation-state. It can highlight the effects of unbelonging and non-citizenship on subjects who hold or who carry loss, trauma and memory of painful pasts. These effects occur in the present, and live on in future generations, as burden and, also perhaps, as possibility. This essay, then, is not so much a reflection on how memory, loss, and trauma travel across national borders, or how they shape those who are stateless at home. It is an effort to articulate stateless memory itself as a pause or suspension in both the aspiration to citizenship and in the performance of mobility and migration, whether chosen or imposed.
As I see it, the hiatus that is stateless memory contains multiple temporalities, spaces, and conceptions of identity and community, as well as multiple possibilities of encounter and transformation. It is not static but dynamic, not passive but active, not linear but repetitive, recursive, circular, rhizomatic. Its activity is not uni- but multidirectional. A stateless suspension in time and space, however protracted by circumstance, can suggest ways of mobilizing the memory and postmemory of painful pasts in a different time frame than the progression toward preordained futures that often seem inevitable in the space-time of the nation-state and the catastrophes it causes and suffers. It can open up the possibility of imagining alternative potential relationships between contemporary subjects and citizenship, national belonging, and home, as well as alternate temporalities of becoming. Engaging statelessness in different histories and geographies at once enables connective imaginaries that can gesture toward a future that need not be a repetition of the same.
Admittedly, this aspirational counter-national sense of stateless memory as a hiatus of potentiality seems radically removed from the dire conditions of the everyday and endless conditions of statelessness we are currently witnessing across the globe. How can we tout stateless memory, when stateless people are so totally subject to the often arbitrarily applied laws of the nation-states that they are either fleeing, being expelled from, appealing to, or unwanted by?4
There are days when I feel those realities as so overpowering that they evacuate the possibility of being and thinking outside or beyond the unforgiving strictures of nation-states and the citizenship they can grant and remove. But then I remember how Hannah Arendt wrote about statelessness in her very own moments of deportation and refugeehood. As Lyndsey Stonebridge has recently explained, Arendt “responded to her own statelessness: not by conceding to wretchedness, but by thinking experimentally and radically, turning historical and political pariahdom into a restless and creative virtue.”5 Like Stonebridge, I would not want, of course, to reproduce some of the blindnesses that emerge from the mid-century conceptions of the creativity of exile, conceptions Arendt herself criticized in the cosmopolitan writings of Stefan Zweig, for example. The negation of belonging, personhood, and rights that is statelessness is nothing to be celebrated. In political theorist Ayten Gündogdlu's words, stateless non-citizens “were deprived of legal personhood as well as the right to action and speech.”6 Nor, in the face of present geopolitical reality can we find, or even conceive of, any concrete space of citizenship and rights outside or beyond the nation-state and its potential ethno-nationalism, any more than Arendt could in the mid-century. And yet, along with Arendt, I would also not want to concede the possibility of at least imagining by what means such a space might be created.
I am not alone in turning back to Arendt at this moment, nor in considering the present politics of statelessness as a complex legacy of Cold War histories and their reconfiguration of nations, political communities and citizenship. In fact, Arendt's writings about statelessness have in themselves become part of our cultural postmemory of post–World War II thought.7 As the coauthors of one of the numerous recent reconsiderations of Arendt, The Right to Have Rights, argue, Arendt's claim on behalf of stateless people to “the right to have rights” “offers a key resource for thinking and acting politically in our own moment.”8
Yet her famous phrase and its meanings are hotly debated among contemporary thinkers. For Arendt, rights can only be acquired through national belonging and citizenship, but national belonging certainly does not guarantee them: both stateless people and persecuted national minorities suffer from the lack of rights. Much of the debate surrounding this phrase revolves around the foundational right that grants the possibility of having rights. Is it basic humanity that is meant to guarantee this right in Arendt's view, or is it, as Stephanie DeGooyer and her coauthors argue in The Right to Have Rights, the membership in a political community that must first be acquired before that right can be claimed?9
In my reading it is the latter, but what does it mean to have rights, given the fragility of political community? This is the question that Lida Maxwell's chapter in The Right to Have Rights asks. It is here, in the verb to have, as well as in the repetition and pluralization of the noun right and rights, that we could see Arendt as seizing an opening in the otherwise unbearable condition of statelessness. In this reading, Arendt critiques the idea that rights are “naturally possessed” simply by virtue of one's humanity.10 Maxwell understands having “not as possessions, but as part of political projects of certain kinds of political worlds,” projects that are “ambivalent,” “collective,” “fragile,” and “limited achievements.”11
Although Arendt is pessimistic about the possibilities of international law or humanitarian protection outside the nation-state, she does see the “having” of rights as a practice of creativity and imagination that, by necessity, emerges from the loss of rights resulting from statelessness and the unwillingness of nations to grant political asylum to refugees. Thus, in Maxwell's interpretation of Arendt, to have rights “means to participate in staging, creating, and sustaining a common political world where the ability to legitimately claim and demand rights becomes a possibility for everyone.”12 Rather than an assertion of that which already exists but must be better distributed, this is an aspirational, future-oriented and open-ended set of performative practices—such as protest, legislation, collective action, or institution building—that can enable us to think further about what it means to “have” citizenship or rights.13 If rights claims are based on membership in a political community, then the work to create that community in itself becomes the basis for claiming rights, and opening up that possibility for everyone who participates. Thus, in her essay “We Refugees,” Arendt sees the stateless as “the vanguard of their people”—in the sense that the negation of Jewish personhood preceded and announced that of other Europeans under the Nazis, and, I believe, also in the sense of the continual reinvention that refugeehood and statelessness imposed on them.14
In what follows, I explore whether we could find that creation of community from which the “right to have rights” might be envisioned in another form of collective endeavor: the aesthetic encounter. Stonebridge traces how Arendt's arguments emerge through readings of literary works from Franz Kafka to Rahel Varnhagen, showing how “exercises of the imagination, for Arendt, create the kind of thinking necessary to judge the world.”15 Stonebridge looks at fiction and poetry as sources for images through which to think about statelessness. I propose to bring this approach to works that perform stateless memory, in particular. A participatory aesthetics staging stateless memory provides a way not just to live with statelessness as a condition, whether transient or protracted, but also to live it out in the performative practice of political community. Such a performative act of imagination can occur precisely in a temporality that Arendt, in the title of one of her essays, so beautifully calls “active patience.”16 It is, I believe, the temporality of artistic creation and encounter.
The visual works I discuss below can help us to understand Arendt's idea of “having” as a process rather than a state or condition. They do more than to represent or to depict statelessness. They create figures through which viewers can experience, even participate in, the affects and textures of stateless memory. They acknowledge the vulnerabilities of unbelonging, the violence of forced migration, and the difficulties of statelessness, even as they mobilize the creative power of stateless memory, shuttling between past and future, as an alternative to nationalist and ethnocentric imaginaries. And yet, to transcend the limits of historical time and geopolitical space, they also invoke a mythic imagination, one that risks taking us too far afield from the realities and the urgencies of stateless lives in the present. Or, could it be that this is precisely the power of figuration: that the urgency that something needs to be done might be best communicated through figure and myth?17
Mirta Kupferminc's 2001 black and white etching En Camino (On the Way) offers one such performance of stateless memory with which to think further about these possibilities (fig. 1).18En Camino illustrates the difficult conditions of mobility in the aftermath of persecution and expulsion, exhibiting both the dangers and the potentialities inherent in memory acts that embody statelessness. Seven figures attempt to move from left to right, but they are immobilized, pulled backward, hunched over under the weight of the objects they carry—not just uprooted trees, but houses, household objects, windmills, entire villages. In a vertical triptych version of En Camino, trees cover the top two panels, dwarfing the human figures under their looming shadows. What is more, these figures seem to float on different planes: there is no solid ground under their feet. Though the momentum points forward, they are slowed by the weight of a past whose burden they cannot seem to shed. Judith Butler has argued that our mobility as social subjects depends on support and material conditions, on architecture and infrastructure.19 Kupferminc's figures lack the material support that might safely enable a freely chosen mobility. They are victims of expulsion, refugees who are stalled, immobilized, by the heavy load they carry with such difficulty.
The cultural geographer Karen Till has observed that “places become part of us.”20 When humans emigrate, interact, and engage with others through complex temporal and spatial pathways, material and symbolic aspects of the past are also transported to new destinations and cultural environments. If Kupferminc's figures are on a journey, it is not one that progresses from origin to destination: no destination, no contact zone into which the trees and objects these figures carry might be transplanted, is either visible or conceivable. Their state of suspension suggests the suspension describing statelessness. But it also creates the ground on which new forms of community, and thus perhaps also the claim to rights, might be conceived.
Kupferminc is the daughter of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Czechoslovakia; she was born and raised in Argentina in a period when descendants of Jewish refugees were prone to re-emigrating due to authoritarian repression and economic crises. Her work as a printmaker, photographer, and video and installation artist is devoted to, though not entirely weighted down by, this history of multiple displacements. In Kupferminc's iconography of exile, uprooted trees signify removal from home and a violent break in continuity, genealogy, and generation. Absorbing nourishment from the soil, trees contain the knowledge of the past and carry it into the future but, if uprooted for too long, they will die, obliterating generations of history and memory. In the etching, and even more clearly, in her 2005 eleven-minute animation of En Camino, realized with Mariana Sosnowski, humans blend into the trees (fig. 2). Themselves replacing the roots, these people become embodied archives of past knowledge that they attempt, with difficulty, to carry forward and to transmit.
But the animation entails a very different performance of stateless memory than the etching. It enables the motion of these characters without diminishing the weighty burden of memory that they continue to shoulder. Carrying suitcases, bags, trees, and other objects, these figures walk, run and climb, and they float and are blown around on multiple non-intersecting planes: forward, backward, and sideways. They morph into hybrid mythic creatures, metamorphose into Hebrew letters, they float into and out of books and pages, they walk up and down a ruler, emerge from a coat pocket. Hebrew letters multiply, torahs walk forwards and backwards. A king sits in a boat hovering precariously on top of the tower of Babel. Female figures, especially, carry heavy suitcases, moving slowly, laboriously, across the screen without looking up. Others, liberated, twirl and pirouette in different directions (fig. 3).
The cyclical movement and ending of the video implies a perpetual repetition that would place it within the realm of legend or myth. Despite their seemingly unrooted freedom from gravity, these characters remain trapped in the pages and the repeated gestures of an ancient Jewish scenario of expulsion, exile, and homelessness, a story that is written about, for, and against them.
And yet, while the etching evokes memory as an overwhelming and paralyzing burden, the video is animated by surreal humor and incongruity—a playfulness that lightens without diminishing the yoke of the past and its mythic dimensions. As letters float around on the screen looking like the playful doodles of a child, we are also invited to imagine alternate scenarios with different beginnings and endings. The artist grants her characters the shapes of letters that can be arranged and rearranged, thus mobilizing multiple potential stories on the threshold of more open-ended futures. These recursive trajectories complicate a genealogical temporality of loss and attempted recovery. This is an evocative aesthetics of small gestures, in miniature.
Kupferminc returns frequently to the stateless figures inhabiting the landscape of En Camino, thus further enlarging and potentializing the temporality of statelessness to reenvision a sense of future in relation to an ever-present violent past. Her figures tend to float in space, the chairs she creates have wings, roots are in the air. “These people are me,” Kupferminc has said, emphasizing the fragility and contingency of the very notion of home that she wants to convey in her work.21
Recently, in 2018, Kupferminc embedded the figures from En Camino in a stage set she designed for a children's play The Golem of Buenos Aires by Marina Toker. In this version, entitled El Viaje (fig. 4), the figures are in a boat, floating on a bright blue sea between the old world (Prague) to the new (the Port of Buenos Aires). The boat gestures to a new refugee imaginary, specific to our own moment. While the resolute woman in front faces toward the new world, however, the tip of the boat itself points ever so slightly toward the viewer, and thus the journey on this brightly colored ocean remains suspended, motionless, in between. What is more, the last figure from En Camino, the one facing backwards, is missing, as is the one immediately in front. The boat is small, some figures had to be left behind in a limbo that is even more tenuous than the sea voyage without end on a garishly colored sea with a pink sky. We move here from myth to legend and fairy tale.
In yet another version (fig. 5), produced at the same time and entitled Construyendo una nueva existencia (Constructing a new existence), the image of El Viaje is itself cut up, the fissures are highlighted in gold. Based on the Japanese technique of Kintsugi, which incorporates damage, breakage and repair into the object, this image highlights fragments that break off to float in the air, held together by thin gold sutures. Here the frame can no longer contain the fragments of suspended stateless lives.
In Kupferminc's iconography, the same figures, mostly women, return in different configurations, always wandering, always holding memory. They enact and re-enact archetypal scenes of escape, migration, and statelessness in different contexts, carrying the weight of the past, which, at the same time, is made weightless as it floats on water and air. The fragments constituting these stories are but building blocks of a postmemory that is transmitted bypassing homogeneous national traditions, and heteronormative genealogies in favor of diasporic networks that can be reassembled, reimagined, reconfigured, according to new presents. Although her work performs the unforgiving visceral transfer of a painful past to future generations, in her playful animation, it also allows us to imagine the potentiality of different futures.
The aesthetic practices defining not only Kupferminc's work, but also work emerging from other diasporic communities, mobilize personal and cultural loss in the service of alternative, non-linear, historical trajectories that embrace the suspension of statelessness, bypassing recuperation and return. Placing En Camino in conversation with The End of Carrying All by Kenyan/US artist Wangechi Mutu, we see how artistic performance can explore stateless lives, and its different valences in various geopolitical contexts. The contingent and vulnerable memory practices Kupferminc and Mutu create help us recognize how women in particular carry the burden of a painful past, and how they transmit it to future generations, not only in the form of traumatic repetition but also as possible transformation. Performing forced migration, as well as its memory and postmemory, these artists help us think about statelessness as a form of refusal and potentiality, dispossession and opening, all at the same time. Making this connection between them, allows us to trace a critical and resistant counter-national aesthetic. And it allows us, also, to practice a kind of stateless aesthetic community. Yet, the connection is also a wager, dependent on a willingness to perceive common histories and strategies beyond and outside of national borders, and with attention to the particular cultural contexts—the political, cultural, and economic differences—that produce these works.
The End of Carrying All
Wangechi Mutu's three-channel video The End of Carrying All (fig. 6), first exhibited at the 2015 Venice Biennale, performs, even while reenvisioning, the past as a burden to be carried by women, especially. It shares the mythic, yet anti-monumental, quality of En Camino, as well as its attention to small household details that constitute personal and communal lives. While the title En Camino signals the perpetual present of diasporic movement, however, The End of Carrying All expresses either a personal desire for closure or an apocalyptic ending to inexorable Sisyphean repetition. Both these works could be seen as feminist re-visions of the Sisyphus myth, read not as an abstract human condition, but as a historically and politically marked and gendered one. Mutu doesn't refer only to Sisyphus, however: the earth mother in the work is a kind of Cassandra who cyclically predicts, even as she enacts, impending human and environmental catastrophe.
Born in Kenya and working in both Nairobi and New York, Mutu is well-known for work in multiple media that explore the structures of gender and power, and the effects of colonialism and globalization. The End of Carrying All shows a woman (Mutu herself) slowly swaying forward while balancing a large basket on her head (fig. 7). The landscape evokes a savannah, rich in color though progressively getting darker and more threatening. On the soundtrack, we hear the strong wind of the plains, and the swarms of flamingos that ominously fill the unnatural red skies that border on clichéd images of generic African landscapes—both reminders and augurs of a distant freedom, unavailable to the woman who carries all. She approaches and then passes a baobab tree that becomes more barren as its appearance recurs. As the woman progresses, with ever greater difficulty, her basket gets filled with an increasing number of objects: bicycle wheels, houses, a satellite dish and other electronic and household goods she collects along the way, bending more and more under their weight, occasionally stopping to clear her path.
Her migration across the three large screens recalls the myriad migrations across and beyond a continent shaped by globalized economies, poverty, war, and political upheaval. She is ever more encumbered by the objects of globalization and consumption, whether produced, acquired, recycled, or discarded as waste—objects promising a future even as they destroy it. The whole world is in that basket, which lights up when it gets dark, but, as the video progresses, it also becomes more and more impossible to bear. This journey has no visible national borders to cross, and yet it also does not fully remain in the timeless realm of myth and legend that it evokes. These objects are specific to the entanglements of postcolonial global political and economic histories and realities.
When the weight of the basket becomes excessive for the woman to carry, the earth lights up in an eerie green, erupts and swallows her along with her disproportionate belongings, gurgling, glowing and heaving, as it ingests this unwelcome substance (fig. 8). At this point in the video we reach “the end of carrying all.” The huge lump of lava-like matter into which she has morphed rolls downhill and is slowly absorbed.
And then, of course, the journey begins again in an endless loop linking the violence of the past to new disasters to come in a recursive sequence. What erupts here, we wonder? What is being refused, ejected, cleaned up? Mutu compares this planetary apocalypse to a bodily wound: “The wound on the skin behaves similarly; eventually it bursts open and all that festering stuff comes out, and then it's back to normal. But, you know, when things go, when the earth decides to clean up, it's not going to go, oh you're the good ones, you're alright, you stay and they go.”22 The female body parallels the space of the earth: both are multiply injured, both need healing and renewal—a process stalled by the impossible burden of carrying all.
Here, as in En Camino, mobility is slowed by the weight of the past and its afterlives in the present, and also by a repetition and cyclicality that seems to leave little room for hope or for change. But could we not also say that, drawing on the memory and postmemory of the past, this work uses the hiatus of stateless wandering to reenvision the idea of future—to imagine the potentiality of truly “start[ing] again,” or anew? The video performs the refusal and regeneration with which Mutu credits the earth. The work suggests that things will not, cannot, continue in the same way, that they must be ended, reimagined. As in Kupferminc, it builds a new species existence out of the shards and fragments of the old.
Responding to the theme of the 2015 Venice Biennale, “All the World's Futures,” the work was received as a critique of capitalism and environmental disaster, of the violence done to indigenous landscapes by the consumption and waste resulting from colonization and globalization. These are recognizable themes in all of Mutu's videos, sculptures, and collages and in the feminist mythologies she invokes and (re)creates. In her sculpture and collage work, she recycles the materials of global capitalism, such as junk mail and magazine pictures, refashioning these fragments into works of sustainability. Another work by Mutu was exhibited in the same gallery in Venice's Giardini as The End of Carrying All. In She's Got the Whole World in Her, fashioned from recycled metal, a female body lies in a ravaged ruin, surrounded by the kinds of objects that fill the basket in the video. This is a work of critique that all the while also practices salvage and attempted repair, pausing to delay, maybe even to avert, or to redirect, a catastrophe to come. But these two works together, in the same exhibit space in the Giardini, are doing even more. The two female figures face in opposite directions, but we as participants are enjoined to place them in conversation, perhaps beginning to create a community or collectivity out of the wreckage. As a ravaged ruin, She's Got the Whole World in Her is open and open-ended. The angled screens of The End of Carrying All do not quite fit together, suggesting that something could emerge in between. The woman's path is neither linear nor circular, and the apocalyptic ending allows us to glimpse a potential space beyond the vast horizon that cannot fully encase our view.
The female figures in Kupferminc's and Mutu's work collect the fragments of migrant lives and weave them into stories that leave open the potentiality of rebirth and new beginnings, even as they powerfully recall the violence of the past and resist amnesia. Bringing them together in a gesture of what we might think of as stateless reading, enables us to envision a stateless form of community in a suspended space of encounter beyond national borders and imaginaries. In this sense, stateless reading is a counter-national practice that focuses on reinvention, imagination, and creation, without minimizing the vicissitudes of stateless lives in different geopolitical locations.
Despite their differences, there's a great deal that these works share. Together they suggest some ways in which we can contest the monumentality of nationalist imaginaries and, albeit in different registers, they communicate the urgency that we do so through small gestures of intervention. They share a bold strategy of appropriating the colonizing and commodifying stereotypes that disempower them. They share the use of animation and of performance; they embrace incongruity and contradiction. They invoke myth, legend, and fairy tale, yet engage geopolitical time and space. Through these strategies and others, they confront and reimagine painful pasts and ominous futures. As participants in the artistic encounter, they thus urge us to envision statelessness as an invitation, or an openness, to generating forms of community that might not yet have been conceived. It is through this participation that we can claim one of the rights Hannah Arendt saw as essential to survival: the right to belong to political community. In the hiatus that is statelessness, community does not preexist: it must be created.
These works, then, invite us to practice alternative forms of community and imagine other potential temporalities. But how do aesthetic practices of encounter function in the realm of politics? Can they become bases for the kinds of rights claims that stateless people currently make? Certainly not in any literal way. But if we allow ourselves to be vulnerable to the provocation of these works, and to the provocation brought about by placing them in conversation with each other, they can, I believe, point to a space beyond present political reality and beyond our own horizons of possibility.
This argument was refined in provocative discussions with audiences at the Wien Museum, Vienna; the second meeting of the Memory Studies Association in Copenhagen; the International Consortium of Critical Theory Programs conference on “Entanglements and Aftermaths: Reflections on Memory and Political Time” at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research in Johannesburg; the conference on “Past Imperfect Continuous” at the University of Rome; the Columbia Global Center, Sabanci Gender Studies, and Studio X in Istanbul; and the working group on “Memory, Trauma, and Human Rights at the Crossroads of Art and Science” at the University of Minnesota. I am also grateful to the readers and editors of Critical Times for their suggestions.
The US Department of Homeland Security estimates that twelve million “illegal aliens” were living in the United States as of January 2015, but since then various news agencies have reported significant and steady drops in the population of undocumented residents. DHS Office of Immigration Statistics, US Department of Homeland Security, “Population Estimates.”
See Crownshaw, “Transcultural Memory,” especially the essays by Astrid Erll, Anna Reading, Susannah Radstone, Dirk Moses, and Andrew Hoskins; Erll, “Traumatic Pasts, Literary Afterlives”; Rigney and de Chesari, Transnational Memory; and Erll and Rigney, “Cultural Memory After the Transnational Turn.”
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, estimates that there are currently 10 million stateless people across the globe “who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement.” To set this in context, UNHCR estimates that 68.5 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes, and 3.1 million are currently seeking asylum worldwide. www.unhcr.org/en-us/figures-at-a-glance.html.
DeGooyer et al., Right to Have Rights, 2. See Hannah Arendt's discussion of “the right to have rights” in Origins of Totalitarianism, 290–302.
See Judith Butler's discussion of Arendt and performativity in Notes toward a Performative Theory of Assembly.
Avery Gordon makes a similar argument in her reading of Toni Morrison's Beloved when she writes: “When the living take the dead or the past back to a symbolic place, it is connected to the labor aimed at creating in the present a something that must be done.” (Ghostly Matters, 175).
An earlier and briefer discussion of Kupferminc's and Mutu's works appeared in Hirsch, “Carrying Memory.”
Personal communication, May 2018.