What matters? Materiality and the possibilities of artistic engagement with asylum – Jonathan Darling
October 1, 2014 1 Comment
Jonathan Darling’s article, “Another letter from the Home Office: reading the material politics of asylum”, appears in issue 3 of the 2014 volume of Society and Space. Open access until October 30, 2014, the piece draws from ethnographic research that he conducted within a UK asylum drop-in centre to examine the materiality of the politics of asylum processes, particularly through a look at letters sent by the UK Border Agency to communicate decisions on asylum claims.
As a supplement to the article, Darling provides this commentary. It furthers his examination of the materiality of asylum claims through discussion of an art exhibit that he collaborated on in Manchester titled One Thing.
What are the materials of contemporary asylum? What objects, things and atmospheres constitute the processes through which citizenship and non-citizenship are governed, managed and maintained? We might think of the artefacts of bordering practices that have been diffused into everyday life, the biometric signatures, computer systems and algorithms, ‘safe country’ lists and legal documents that all play a part in performing the ‘management’ of forced migration. But we might also think of an expanded range of materials, of belongings lovingly protected across thousands of miles, of objects acquired along the way, of seemingly inconsequential ornaments imbued with memory and meaning and of documents that perform relationships of status, rights and identity.
Drawing from recent discussions of materiality and the politics of ‘new materialism’, I have recently sought to examine the material politics of asylum through focusing on the role that letters might play in both governing asylum seekers, and in exceeding the governmental intentions of their authors (Darling 2014a). I argue that we might consider asylum not as a process or a legal status, but as a material-discursive collective that takes shape differently across different spaces. The materials that constitute asylum – the forms, letters, certificates, bodies and belongings – take meaning and make meaning as they are enrolled in, and become part of, new spaces, discourses and practices. The importance of such a claim is to suggest that the perceptual frameworks that govern how we come to see and understand asylum, are constituted through the interaction of materials, discourses and spaces, without assuming a necessary primacy for any aspect of this triad. The governance of the citizen/non-citizen relation is accomplished as much through the banal employment of materials of distinction, such as legal documents, files, letters and forms, as it is through the discourses and categorisations that are maintained by those materials.
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