tracing places

northern lights

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Tracing Places

A recent calculation showed that there are over 200 million immigrants in the world today. Some have a positive reason to cross a border such as a better job or, in the most classical case, for love. Others are forced to leave their homes in order to stay alive. The latter may also have to pay a fortune for an illegal trip with no guarantee that they will ever make it. Immigrants have become an issue for political debate as well as social subject matter for those not personally concerned or involved in immigration. It can also serve as content for contemporary art.

Artists Britt Kootstra and Arvid van der Rijt have produced Tracing Places (2014), an artwork dealing with emigration, immigrants, leaving a country and crossing borders as central themes. The installation consists of three parts: moving image, sound and interactive participation. The artists wish to present more realistic and true movements on a map of the world - solutions made by real people in a real world. The diversity of the work is inherent to the artists. In their collaboration, pure visual expression is extended into sound art and the moving image creates a sense of dynamic movement. The collaboration between the artists and immigrants turns away from documentary portraiture to a more conceptual form, stating some facts but leaving the persons' more fragile individuality behind.

As a single work of art Tracing Places is rooted in contemporary art in its point of departure, expression and the medium selected. Even the collaboration of the artists - visual artist Britt Kootstra and sound artist Arvid van der Rijt – creates a dialogue as a starting point. Collaborations of all kinds are part of the contemporary art scene today. Furthermore, the act of collaborating with immigrants in present-day society creates a theoretical base for relational aesthetics according to Nicolas Bourriaud. In Bourriaud's theory artwork is created within the social context offering a base for social participation, for a common activity. Art becomes a collective event, which has a strong and immediate connection to the society instead of being a purely egocentric artistic approach. Tracing Places is attached to the reality of millions of immigrants globally, although the amount of participants in Finland was only 15 persons from Sudan, Peru, India, Bangladesh, Tanzania, Pakistan, China, Burma, Somalia, as well as Europeans from England, Poland, Sweden and the Netherlands. It is essential to notice that the project is not purely interactive community art. Artistic decisions are made by the artists rather than by the participants. Neither is it a documentary portrait of the participants and, instead of faces, the individuals are represented by their drawings. The pure facts have been interpreted and occasionally manipulated to serve and respond to the artistic endeavors.

What does a journey from one country to another look like? How can one line visually describe it? Line has a central role within the installation, forming a geographical line from the departed country to Finland. It is also turned from a conventional horizontal line depicting landscape into a rapidly moving vertical movement. The lines shown here move rectilinearly towards their destination and with a sense of purpose. On an individual level, the lines vary from strong and straight to subtle and hesitant ones, sometimes interrupted. Hearing the voices of the participants and listening to their stories adds one more piece of the puzzle to the installation. The artists have given a voice to the real persons and drawn their lines together in a moving image and conceptual maps based on the Portolan system.

The credibility of the piece is strengthened by the fact that the artists themselves are immigrants - literally. For Kootstra and van der Rijt the constant movement of life as artists-in-residence is not enough and they reflect their own numerous traces in the piece. The former was born in Saudi-Arabia and the latter in the former East Germany. As Dutch people born outside of the borders of the Netherlands, their homecoming is already a form of emigration. This kind of subjectivity also successfully diminished the gap between artist and participant, which has been seen as one of the weaknesses in the Bourriaudian sense.

Immigration policy is basically considered from a negative viewpoint; who is allowed to enter the country and why? Is it the recipient who pays the bill of political, racial or sexual issues sent by the countries left behind? One of the additional missions of art is to stimulate ideas about current global or local issues in an unbiased and open atmosphere. The artists have succeeded in creating a piece about immigrants whose stories don't fall into the trap of simplified social pornography or tragic suffering. Instead - albeit subconsciously - they have included both a Swedish and Russian citizen. Acknowledging Finland's history with both of these neighboring countries, one may even ask if they could be returning home. New borders are drawn on the world map historically and in the present; families and generations are tracing their own places again. Art for art's sake is being replaced by a more social context after the eras of modernism and postmodernism. According to Bourriaud contemporary art is based on the inter-relational and a more social point of departure; art for the sake of society. Tracing Places puts this current way of working into practice within the contemporary art scene.

Maaria Niemi
art historian, art critic