Settlement, Shelter and Stowaway: From Location to Logistics

Maeve Connolly


Shezad Dawood, Leviathan Episode 1 – Ben (2017), HD Video, 13′ 30″, video still. Commissioned by Outset, Salford University and with the support of the Contemporary Art Society, courtesy of UBIK Productions.

What role does site play in the telling of ‘migratory stories’, and in art practices that are characterised by extension and expansion, but also attentive to borders and ‘logistical media of coordination, capture, and control’[1]? Documentary has, particularly since 2002, emerged as a privileged form for artists (and activists) to engage with the conditions and forces shaping contemporary mass movements of people, including the journeys undertaken by migrants. Documenta 11 featured several works exploring histories and experiences of migration, including Zarina Bhimji’s Out of the Blue (2002) and Multiplicity’s Solid Sea 01: The Ghost Ship (2002). Both works are cited in Evgenia Giannouri’s rich analysis of expanded documentary form[2], which seeks to explore the implications for documentary practice of what Okwui Enwezor terms ‘the location of art in the condition of the unhomely’[3], a condition that results partly from art’s dispersal across and between multiple disciplines and contexts.

Seeking art historical precedents for this condition of ‘unhomeliness’, Giannouri turns to Rosalind Krauss’s 1979 account of ‘Sculpture in the Expanded Field’, and to the sitelessness that proceeds from modernism’s dissociation of sculpture from place, to which it was once bound through the memorialising logic of the monument. Krauss cites various failed monumental commissions by Brancusi and Rodin, eventually realised as museum objects, and she emphasises the ‘siteless’ and ‘essentially nomadic’ character of modernist sculpture. The monument, she argues, is reconfigured in modernism ‘as abstraction […] as pure marker or base, functionally placeless and largely self-referential’.[4] By the early 1950s, the possibilities of abstraction had begun to be exhausted, but Krauss demonstrates that modernism’s self-referential coordinates nonetheless shaped the subsequent emergence of an ‘expanded field’, in which sculpture (exceeding the bounds of its traditional media and techniques) was repositioned within a wider set of relations, involving site, landscape and architecture.

A comparable extension beyond established boundaries is apparent in documentary, even though—as Giannouri notes—it was never modernist in the same sense as sculpture. Expanded documentary has no specific home, being (like art in general) ‘everywhere and nowhere, simultaneously rooted in factual experience and political activism, scientific research, and the realms of urban planning, sociology, and anthropology.’[5] The expansions in sculpture and documentary theorised by Krauss and Giannouri have, perhaps paradoxically, been paralleled by a proliferation of site-oriented practices involving a diversity of media, as evidenced by Miwon Kwon’s critical history of site-specific art. Focusing mainly on the North American and European contexts from the late 1960s to the 1990s, Kwon explores forms of ‘locational identity’ that are often articulated through the trajectories of highly mobile artists, temporarily physically present in ‘one place after another’. [6]

Yet as artists and institutions seek to grapple with place and site, they also increasingly need to consider a shift from location to logistics. This shift is implicit in Giannouri’s own analysis of a single channel work by Clemens von Wedemeyer. Entitled Die Siedlung (2004), which translates as ‘The Settlement’ in English, Von Wedemeyer’s film is part of a diptych exploring structural change in the housing economy of the former East Germany. In Die Siedlung, a handheld camera documents a walk through three interlinked locations; the ruins of a military barracks, a housing site under construction, and a decaying socialist-era leisure facility. The filmic conjunction of these locations causes them to become dislocated in time and space, prompting Giannouri to cite parallels with Robert Smithson’s concept of ‘ruins in reverse’, developed in his 1967 text ‘A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey’.[7] This reference makes sense, since both Smithson and von Wedemeyer produce new understandings of the monument and the ruin through their own physical trajectories. Crucially, however, von Wedemeyer does not adopt the vantage point of tour guide, which (like that of the pilgrim) tends to emphasise the particular over the generic. Instead, as Giannouri notes, Die Siedlung is explicitly framed as a ‘scouting film’, a document of visits to locations that fit within pre-existing categories (military ruin, housing construction site, leisure facility). Die Siedlung, in my view, both manifests and critiques a logistical relation to place, a relation that characterises such apparently disparate activities as military campaigns and film production.

Logistical thinking in relation to place is not new, but the conjunction of logistics and media has certainly become both more pronounced and more pervasive in recent decades, with specific implications for those moving between and across borders. Shifting focus from location to logistics, now seems essential for artists seeking to engage with the visuality of migration, beyond simply making migrants (past or present) visible. A necessary distinction between visibility and visuality is equally important, and highlighted by Sven Lütticken, who states, “visual tropes […] dominate contemporary discourse on human rights and exploitation. As opposed to the visual, which comes with connotations of richness and depth, the visible appears to be a brute state of facticity”.[8] Alluding to the algorithmic operations that condition and produce visibility, Lütticken continues, “The visible is legible, or proto-legible. It is the world of the cliché, of iconology, of semiotics, of the code”.

Related concerns emerge in a discussion from 2010, chaired by Mark Godfrey, exploring various artworks that use documentary means to explore the visibility (or invisibility) of migrants. Several contributors observe a tendency for artists to focus on physical borders, marking a shift away from what T. J. Demos terms a ‘celebratory’ engagement with artistic mobility during the 1990s.[9] As Ayesha Hameed points out in the same discussion, the borders encountered by migrants—particularly in the ‘afterlife of migration’[10]—are not exclusively physical, or equally visible to all. Within the same discussion, a focus on logistical media is integral to Eyal Weizman’s account of dynamic and fragmented borders, unevenly embodied in the different experiences of swift moving ‘internationals’ with business and security clearance, who pass easily across thresholds, and ‘foreigners’ without the appropriate papers, who are delayed or obstructed. These thresholds, which can be enforced or reconfigured at multiples sites are, Weizman notes, also “media spheres, a combination of sensors and archives that register and store information about everybody and everything that passes through them. Every act of crossing is also always an act of registration”.[11]

How can artists communicate the dynamic variability of such thresholds, let alone address the historical and political contexts shaping their formation and operation? Ursula Biemann’s practice is often cited as exemplary; it forms part of a multi-disciplinary research process, produced through collaborations with crews in disparate locations, involves a variety of methods and sources, from in-depth interviews to the analysis of material derived from mapping technologies, and involves what Weizman terms a ‘strategic’ approach to installation that uses the spatial and temporal organisation of sound and image to communicate a sense of the fragmentary and non-linear logic of borders. Many other artists engaging with marginalised populations including, for example, Harun Farocki and Angela Melitopoulos, have used immersive multi-channel sound to vividly evoke the characteristics of disparate environments, which can be placed in dialogue and tension with each other. Sometimes the architecture and the setting of the installation space is also called into play, so that its associative and material properties can amplify these dialogues and tensions.

Considered together, the approaches developed by Biemann, Farocki, Melitopoulos, von Wedemeyer, Weizman and many others underscore a growing attentiveness to logistics in contemporary art, attentive to the fact that relations between sites are produced through circulations of data, or raw materials, as well as human journeys. As Ned Rossiter states unequivocally, “locative media are media of logistics”, but it is often easy to overlook the fact that so-called locationaware media effect a decentring of the human, flattening distinctions between ‘the mobility of labor, data, and commodities as they traverse urban, rural, atmospheric, and oceanic spaces and traffic through the circuits of databases, mobile devices, and algorithmic architectures’.[12] From the logistical vantage point, unauthorised movements of humans through oceanic or other spaces form part of a larger ‘biopolitical problem’ and, elaborating upon this logistical worldview, Rossiter highlights the imperative to manage, and produce knowledge on, the movements of “the pirate, the stowaway, the sex worker, the ‘illegal migrant”’.[13] His study ends with an x-ray image of seated and standing bodies crammed inside a container, which is intended to articulate “the horror of logistical worlds […] endured on a daily basis by migrants and asylum seekers traversing borders, jam-packed in their hundreds while constrained within shipping containers on the back of trucks or out at sea”.[14] While undeniably affecting, this image also returns us forcefully to Lütticken’s description of the visible as ‘a brute state of facticity’.

I now want to turn to a work that specifically seeks to explore the visuality of migration, by situating images of (and by) migrants within a cinematic history of the stowaway, a strategy that also illuminates the history and imagination of logistical infrastructures[15] such as the railway. Newsreel 63: The Train of Shadows (2017) is a film by Nika Autor (of the collective Newsreel Front), presented in Slovenian Pavilion at the 57TH Venice Biennale, located towards the rear of the Arsenale. Autor’s film is structured around a fragment of video, captured on a mobile phone by a stowaway – a term that in Slovenian translates as ‘blind passenger’– on a train from Belgrade to Ljubljana. This video fragment provides the starting point for an alternative history of cinema and the railway.[16] Projecting isolated segments of scenes from well-known works, partly so as to circumvent copyright restrictions, Autor observing in her voiceover that images are sometimes afforded greater protection than humans. Through these strategies of reframing, she choreographs a precise spatial and temporal relation between Lumière films, silent slapstick classics featuring Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd ‘riding the rails’, footage of 1930s Soviet cine-trains, Hollywood melodramas depicting railway-themed entertainments and post-war Yugoslav narratives in which the moving train signifies desire and escape.

Newsreel 63 is exhibited as a single-channel work and the interplay between disparate cinema and media sources is tightly contained and structured within the frame. As indicated by its title, Autor’s film is intended for circulation in multiple contexts, rather than explicitly framed as a response to the specific architecture or history of the Arsenale in Venice. Nonetheless, its infrastructural orientation becomes amplified when it is installed in a complex of buildings where ships and munitions were once constructed. The overarching project of Newsreel 63:The Train of Shadows, which also includes footage (shot by Autor) of present-day homeless migrants burning creosote-soaked wooden railway sleepers to stay warm, is to consider if the low resolution mobile phone images of stowaways, balanced precariously in the undercarriage of a speeding train, have the right to a history’. This is a crucial question, which needs to be addressed in and through histories of media. Yet Autor’s strategy of (re)thinking cinema, and its relation to the railway, from the perspective of the stowaway is also important because it unavoidably illuminates the visuality of infrastructure.[17]

Elsewhere in Venice, albeit beyond the formal limits of the 57th Biennale, Shezad Dawood’s film Leviathan (2017) – also presented at the Screen City Biennial 2017 – adopts a more conventional approach to site, engaging with the city as both production location and exhibition setting. The first two instalments of Dawood’s multi-episodic oceanic epic, which combines strategies drawn from science-fiction and melodrama to tell interconnected stories of human and non-human migration, were premiered at Venice, within the context of a larger presentation including printed textiles and a neon sculpture. The textiles were the product of a collaboration with the Fortuny company, known for the design and manufacture of luxury fabrics created using printing techniques developed by a Spanish immigrant Mariano Fortuny, who moved to Venice in the late 19th Century. A selection of Dawood’s printed textiles – including one bearing an image of a cheap mobile phone – were displayed in the Fortuny showroom in what might be read as an allusion to present-day experiences of migration. Through this intervention into Fortuny’s systems of production and distribution, Dawood temporarily integrated the factory’s foundational narrative and its material output into a larger history of migration.

Dawood is not the only artist using the built environment to explore interconnections between past and present movements and displacements of people. Anne Tallentire’s work Shelter 2016, commissioned as a temporary installation at a former army barracks in Derry, Northern Ireland, explored the relationship between historical and contemporary forms of ‘emergency’ architecture and infrastructure, which also reflected upon contested ongoing processes of settlement.[18] Tallentire’s project was commissioned as part of a large public art programme marking the centenary of the First World War and framed as exploration of material and conceptual relationships between the history of the Nissen Hut, which was invented in 1916 to house soldiers and supplies, and present-day forms of emergency architecture necessitated by mass movements of refugees and migrants.[19] Shelter transformed the former barracks and its parade grounds (now ‘regenerated’ as a public square) into sites for the research and testing of human shelters. On each of seven days, a selection of construction materials were moved into the former parade grounds of the barracks and arranged by Tallentire according to schematic diagrams, before being returned to the gallery, and re-assembled as sculptural works for display and storage. These arrangements were documented in a series of videos, installed alongside the seven sculptural stacks of materials in a final exhibition phase.

By approaching Ebrington Parade Ground as a site in which to implement her investigation into past and present modes of emergency architecture, Tallentire drew upon the specific history of the former barracks, but asserted a distance from the memorialising logic of the monumental sculpture, which insists upon the uniqueness of place Tallentire’s performative operations of research, assembly, documentation and storage serve to reposition this particular military barracks within the context of a much larger logistical infrastructure that is still unfolding, far beyond Derry. So, like Newsreel 63 and Leviathan, albeit using very different means, Shelter proposes new ways of thinking about encampments, movements and settlements of people, repurposing the built environment, rewriting histories of infrastructure, and expanding the visuality of migration beyond simply making bodies visible.



[1] Ned Rossiter, Software, Infrastructure, Labor: A Media Theory of Logistical Nightmares (New York: Routledge, 2016), xiv.

[2] Evgenia Giannouri, “No Man’s Land, Every Man’s Home: Clemens von Wedemeyer’s Documentary Aporia”, Translated by Maria Vlotides, in Documentary Across Disciplines, edited by Erika Balsom and Hila Peleg (Berlin and Cambridge, Mas.: Haus der Kulturen der Welt and MIT Press, 2016), 216-235.

[3] This quote is drawn from Enwezor’s 2008 text “Documentary/Vérité: Bio-Politics, Human Rights, and the Figure of ‘Truth’ in Contemporary Art”. See Giannouri, p. 233, note 9.

[4] Rosalind Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field”, October 8 (Spring 1979), 34. Italics added.

[5] Giannouri, p. 220.

[6] Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004).

[7] Giannouri, p. 228.

[8] Sven Lütticken, “Social Media: Practices of (In)Visibility in Contemporary Art”, Afterall, 23 September 2015 Accessed 10 September, 2017.

[9] T.J. Demos, in Mark Godfrey, T.J. Demos, Eyal Weizman and Ayesha Hameed, “Rights of Passage”, Tate Etc. issue 19: Summer 2010. [Published online 1 May 2010.] Accessed 10 September, 2017.

[10] Hameed, in Godfrey et al, ‘Rights of Passage’.

[11] Weizman, in Godfrey et al, ‘Rights of Passage’.

[12] Rossiter, Software, Infrastructure, Labor, 9.

[13] Rossiter, Software, Infrastructure, Labor, 18

[14] Rossiter, Software, Infrastructure, Labor, 194.

[15] The shift from location to logistics might also explain a growing emphasis on infrastructure in art discourse. Infrastructure figures prominently in two special issues of e-flux journal (in 2015) and was a key focus for Freethought collective at the Bergen Assembly in 2016.

[16] For a more conventional history see Lynne Kirby, Parallel Tracks: The Railroad and Silent Cinema, Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1997.

[17] Susan Leigh Star and Geoffrey C. Bowker, “How to Infrastructure”, in Handbook of New Media: Social Consequences and Shaping of ICTs, edited by Leah A. Lievrouw and Sonia Livingstone (London: Thousand Oaks, and New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2002), 153.

[18] The program was called ’14/18NOW, see Accessed September 9, 2017.

[19] Tallentire’s work is informed by the work of activists such as the Irish architect Grainne Hassett, who was involved in building, organising and documenting community infrastructure at the informal refugee camp which grew outside Calais town between 2015 and 2016. Hassett’s project, The Calais Maps, was exhibited at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, 29 March -23 April 2017



MAEVE CONNOLLY (Ireland) co-directs the MA in Art & Research Collaboration (ARC) at Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Dublin, Ireland. She is the author of TV Museum: Contemporary Art and the Age of Television (Intellect, 2014) and The Place of Artists’ Cinema: Space, Site and Screen (Intellect, 2009). Her recent publications include contributions to various anthologies, such as Workshop of the Film Form (Arton Foundation and Sternberg Press, 2017), Ortsbestimmungen: Das Dokumentarische zwischen Kino und Kunst (Verlag Vorwerk 8, 2016) and The Moving Image: History Revisited (JRP Ringier, 2015). She is currently researching the relationship between art and infrastructure.