Edwin Coomasaru: How did you seek to represent migration in Wandering Abroad (2009)?
Corinne Silva: I wasn't seeking to represent migration in any way as a whole. I wanted to talk about the specific story of David Oluwale through the voices of African and Caribbean migrants in Leeds; forming multiple narratives as both David’s story is discussed and their own stories emerge. There are many layers and different experiences – I think that’s a way of being able to suggest the complexities of immigration. Each scenario and situation is absolutely different, but there are some shared themes of the alienation, separation and aloneness that David Oluwale encountered, and that present day asylum seekers continue to face. These themes are also reflected in the dual narrative of the film, which is about regeneration in the city and its often marginalising effects. That relates not only to migrants, but to people who don’t have the economic means to occupy these new glossy city centre spaces.
EC: Since hearing the stories of the interviewees is crucial to the work, why did you specifically choose to speak to Gabriel, Arthur and Abiye?
CS: Abiye Hector Goma was previously the chair of the Nigerian Community Leeds, so he was a very natural choice. Gabriel Adams was somebody Kester Aspden, a friend and author of Nationality: Wog, The Hounding of David Oluwale (2007), had interviewed before. He was just wonderful. He discussed his understanding of what had happened to David, and his parallel experience of arriving in England only a year earlier, also stowed away on a ship. But he'd obviously gone a completely different route. He'd put his head down and worked hard in a foundry for forty years, married, had kids and a nice semi-detached house in a cul-de-sac. Arthur France is a big figure in the Leeds African-Caribbean community. He was very involved in the music scene, one of the people who first brought carnival to Britain. I think they complimented each other very well because they all talked about the music. Reading through my notes the other day I noticed that somebody had said 'music preserved us'.
Charley Lintern: I noticed some of the music was from the '40s, like the West African Rhythm Brothers. You then have the story – the murder – occurring in the late '60s, and the contemporary narratives and visuals. What relationship between past and present are you suggesting through this form of historical trajectory?
CS: I wanted to make these criss-crosses all the time, drawing connections between past and present, so that the film is always moving. As the language of the film is about moving down the river, it's very rhythmic. There’s this real sense of something being constantly in motion. What I wanted to do with this work, and all my work, is to make a space for this consideration of past and present and through that, for potential futures.
CL: So how did you intend this work to affect your viewers? It seems to ellicit less political provocation than quiet contemplation.
CS: I always think of my pictures and film as a 'wash', washing over you - it's visceral. It’s not just aiming to work on an intellectual plane, or with a very forceful political intent, but rather leaving the viewer with a trace of something. I don’t want to prescribe meaning. Of course I'm constructing something, but in that construction I want to leave space for the viewer to have agency. For me, that feels much more powerful. Roland Barthes talks about the pornographic image and the erotic image. It's the same thing, it's about not showing, and what you don't quite see lingers more and feeds your imagination, makes you inquire. I see my still photographs as acting 'filmically' in that they suggest there is something beyond the frame. I construct sequences of photographs, purposefully allowing this accumulation of pictures to build up whilst still not actually giving a whole lot of information – reminding the viewer to imagine what is between each picture as well as above and below, behind and beyond the frame.
CL: When you were discussing Imported Landscapes (2010) at the Brighton Photo Biennial (2012) conference, you said its impact was supposed to be 'quite quiet'.1 Do you think Wandering Abroad uses a similar technique?
CS: Yes I do. There was a certain bittersweet quality that I wanted the work to have. I didn't know how that quality was going to materialise, but it was both a melancholy and joyfulness as you encounter the steadfastness of somebody like Gabriel.
EC: At the end he says, 'so, that is the life, I'm happy because I think God gave me a lot of knowledge that I didn't have from the book but I have from experience. See, there's a lot of things that we’ve gone through in life, you know, but I know my way of surviving'.
CS: That's just so key for me. All of the work that I'm doing feels interconnected by this lone figure in the landscape, trying to find their way in a hostile environment. What was important in this film was the contrast of documentary language and the suggestion of the 'imagined landscape' of Britain that some migrants have. Many have an image of what the 'Mother Country' is going to be like, particularly migrants that have come from countries previously colonised by Britain.
EC: Abiye Hector Goma says, 'we try our best to tell people that all that glitters is not gold'. Why did those words resonate for you? Why did you include them?
CS: Because that's the recurrent story I’ve heard from people, particularly economic migrants. For the project I did before this in 2006, Róisín Bán, I interviewed people from the west of Ireland who had come to Leeds. They were talking about living in Leeds nine people to a room; guys working in the building industry, digging roads, working in really harsh conditions to send money home. But then also saving money up so that when they did go home for their two-week annual holiday they'd have a new suit and money to flash in pub; buying everybody rounds, they're talking about how wonderful it is in Leeds. So it's very complex because it's about pride, isn’t it? It's about not wanting to tell people how you're living, how your suffering to try and improve your life. And I know it's the same with the young Moroccan men whose shanty houses I've been photographing in southern Spain. They do exactly the same. Their family would be ringing them all the time from Morocco, not realising that they were living in a plastic shanty with no running water. But Abiye Hector Goma is saying something different. He's saying that despite telling people of the real hardships, many people still want to believe in an imagined landscape. I think that we all live in hope.
EC: I found the motif of water and the river particularly important. Not only for its allusion to the history of colonialism and migration, but it also made me think of a quote by Hans-Rudolf Wicher: 'culture can no longer be represented by the metaphor of the timeless and suspended complex whole. A much more fitting allegorical expression for a new view of culture is a river ... its liquid nature as a process'.2 If the river is a metaphor, do you feel it points to syncretic cultural exchanges that are a part of migration?
CS: There is always a process of hybridisation occurring. Of course hybridity is a very problematic term because nothing ever begins as 'pure', which is why I say a process of hybridity. But I agree, a river is a potent metaphor for that process. I think about landscapes as being in constant motion and flux. People shape landscapes as much as landscapes shape people. The idea that many people had of Leeds and Britain was projected onto this place. Which is also about aspiration.
EC: This idea – of aspiration – is also encapsulated in the film's shots of planned or partly-constructed urban developments.
CS: Yes definitely. It is also very quietly suggesting questions about regeneration or gentrification which is tied in with aspiration and an image of city living that has been sold to people; but is now obviously emerging as rather unsuccessful. There are not many people in the film at all, but then when Abiye Hector says 'for some people coming to Britain is like striking gold', there is a shot of a very nice, neat and wealthy looking white family waking down the riverside alongside lovely landscape gardening. It looks like it could be a commercial for a new development.
CL: Do you think it was significant that you placed the interviewees within domestic settings that felt very separate from the shots of the city landscape?
CS: Yes. They are shot on video as opposed to being shot on high definition, in order to have a very different, intimate feel. There is juxtaposition between the homeliness and familiarity of those spaces, with the gloss of the new city centre buildings, which are absolutely about the facades. In every sense they are about facades – many are very poorly constructed and often flood when it rains. There are also so many unoccupied buildings, even several years ago they didn't attract the kind of people they hoped for, which has only been made worse by the economic crisis. In fact there is no infrastructure in the city centre; there is no doctor, nursery or paper shop. But it is about selling the idea of a city, to boost confidence and to encourage investment.
EC: With reference to Badlands (2008-2011), you have described Almeria as 'a microcosm of a rapidly unravelling neo-liberal fantasy'.3 Can the residential developments depicted both in Wandering Abroad and Badlands be thought about in connection with the recent global financial crisis?
CS: Yes absolutely. When I started Badlands in 2008, we were just entering into it. What was interesting for me about that work was the way it changed through the unfolding of the global economic crisis. When I began working there I was really thinking about how the 'castles' of the gated communities belonged to a privileged elite living in controlled fantasy environments, while there was so much 'human waste' beyond their walls. But then the more I worked on the project, the more I realised that those people living in so-called 'castles' are equally suffering under global capitalism, and are equally victims of it. Those people aren’t the 1%; they have saved all their lives to retire and buy a second home in a gated community in Spain, where they can have year-round-sun, cheap booze, and be 'safe'. They are equally aspiring for the 'good life' but now find themselves with properties that they can neither afford nor sell. So I understand that the situation is too tangled to make strong statements such as 'this is the rich versus the impoverished', or 'this is the elite versus the marginalised.' I hope Wandering Abroad also makes that clear. I didn’t want to make overly simple juxtapositions; the whole process is far more complex than that.
EC: T.J. Demos has recently written that some of your work lays bare 'the logic of privatisation and walling', which you counteract by disseminating your images outside (as well as inside) the physical museum.4 Does this relate to your interest with working with us at the International New Media Gallery?
CS: I want each project to have multiple lives and be able to be seen on multiple platforms. Wandering Abroad was made as a room installation for Leeds Art Gallery. It was a huge eight metre wide screen in a conventional black box with surround sound and really high production values. But then it has also been shown at a conference for Refugee Week, it has been screened for Black History Month, and has been shown at several universities. It is also going to be projected onto a gable end of a building in Leeds next year. Each of these platforms has enabled different discussions and even different elements of the film to emerge. I want the work to have life beyond the physical gallery, so having it on the web and contextualised through the International New Media Gallery is really exciting. I could be really precious and say that I don't want it to be seen on a tiny screen or watched on somebody's phone but I have to trust that the film can carry that. I trust that the work can act as a foundation for discussion.
Edwin Coomasaru and Charley Lintern are History of Art MA students at University College London, specialising in contemporary art.
1 Corinne Silva, 'Panel Discussion: Photography Beyond the Gallery', Brighton Photo Biennial Opening Weekend Symposium, University of Brighton, 6/10/2012.
2 Hans-Rudolf Wicher, 'From Complex Culture to Cultural Complexity', in Pnina Werbner and Tariq Modood eds., Debating Cultural Hybridity: Multicultural Identities and the Politics of Anti-Racism (London: Zed Books, 1997), p.39.
3 Corinne Silva, 'Badlands', in CorinneSilva.com (Published Online n.d., Accessed Online 29/09/2012, corinnesilva.com/badlands-statement).
4 T.J. Demos, 'Spaces of Global Capital: On the Photography of Jason Larkin and Corinne Silva', in Photoworks, Issue 19 (Brighton: Photoworks, 2012), p.12.