As a premise, Embassy for the Displaced could seem like a bureau written into a Borges story: the design-based collective remains anonymous, and explicitly defines itself as an institution, a consulate general of “a land for the land-less”. But like Die Weiße Rose, the Embassy’s facelessness is a matter of pragmatism, with anonymity allowing for the publicizing of a radical politic and the facilitation of a truly collective authorship. Along with video portraits and 3D models of the refugee camps in Lesvos, many of the posts on the Embassy’s visual archive were shot by people migrating from the Middle East to the shores of Greece, ultimately journeying into mainland Europe. Rather than a passport, what this institution offers is visibility without spectacle, a design for survival, subjecthood for those the Western media and political arena has rendered into mere objects.
Nat Marcus: What is the importance of EFTD remaining faceless, decentralised? The sites of your work spread across New York City, Lesvos, London, Athens, and Siberia, and yet the Embassy doesn’t even have its own website.
EFTD: The internet is the site where a displacement of images, bodies of knowledge, information and surveillance techniques occur, in similar scale, and in parallel to the physical movement of people through Europe. Most of this material is circulated through complex networks residing in social media, and this provided a critical landscape for us to populate. EFTD was first founded on Facebook and then on the ground. Remaining faceless is central to our mandate as a faux-institution. This is not a project that emanates from—or binds itself to—the minds and the bodies of the handful of people that help run it. Rather, it is an attempt towards a collectively articulated, politically affective, clandestine institution that can provide a necessary space in which strategies for an autonomous political affirmation for displaced people can be imagined and materialised.
NM: Aside from being an archive of the refugees’ experiences, EFTD also describes itself as a “design-for-survival lab”. How does the Embassy define the relationship between pragmatism and aesthetics: in constructing the NoBorders backpack, for example, or deciding the composition of a video frame?
EFTD: This question has been central to conversations on the various representations of what has been called ‘the refugee crisis’, as well as on the articulation of our own programmatic values. The aesthetic representation of conflict has long been perceived as a nuisance in situations of human misfortune. And it can, indeed, be problematic when the construction of the image aims at merely aestheticising its subjects, reducing the precarious human condition to a pleasurable play of sensory effects. EFTD understands aesthetics as being intertwined with reality. Not merely as an elaborate abstraction of this reality but, rather, as an unforgiving representation of it. Aesthetics becomes the delimitation of spaces and events, challenging what is permissible to be made visible and what is to remain in the dark. The image, or the object—as is the case with the backpack—becomes a site of concern and contestation, providing the space for politics to emerge and alternative narratives on migration to be articulated.
NM: The Embassy recently did a presentation at the ICA London, in collaboration with the multidisciplinary label PAN. Lacking the production of sellable works of art, how does EFTD position itself within / towards the contemporary art world?
EFTD: To quote a theorist whose work has been very influential to our own endeavours: “Now is not a time to fear or hope, only to look for new weapons”. In the search for such an arsenal, EFTD seeks to operate on the threshold between activism, theory and art, with the three elements folding into each other. Solidarity initiatives that emerged along the ‘migrant corridor’ have offered an insight on ways through which activism is no longer confined to mere theatrical expression of indignation, but manifests itself as direct, organised action towards a common cause. What we borrow from the art world is the ability to imagine and articulate radical politics that go beyond existing governmental models. Art, then, is understood and used as a powerful technique of subjectification. Critical theory instigates the self-reflection that is necessary when operating in such a contested territory, and provides us with the framework to understand our design ventures as steps towards an inventory of histories on migration.
NM: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak wrote, “That any reader will waste the time to parse the desires (not the needs) of collective examples of subalternity is my false hope”. Similar to much of the work of EFTD, Spivak urges the Western humanitarian to reorganize the way they perceive the subaltern, the migrant, the landless: these are people not only with needs to be met, but desires and follies requisite of any complex human being. So over the course of the last year and a half, how has your view of the displaced subject or the state of displacement changed?
EFTD: The geographic region in which we operate has a long history as a crossroad for migratory movements. This allowed us to familiarise ourselves, to a certain extent, with the events that we saw unfold over the past year and a half. What has indeed been challenged over this period is our understanding of techniques of humanitarian management of the European borders, and the use of the migrant image as an instrument for their cementation. Narratives of migrants and refugees as ‘the suffering other’ are instrumental to the work of certain humanitarian and governmental agencies, serving a variety of conflicting agendas, from ‘raising awareness’, or ‘mobilising shame’, to the instigation of fear. Yet, such narratives more often than not prove to be harmful to the subjects they represent, as they tend to erase their particular desires and stories, only to reinvent them as little more than victims, thus facilitating their transformation from a ‘people’ with legal rights, to a ‘population’, or number.
NM: Can you tell us a little about the Embassy’s seal? Is there a symbology behind it?
EFTD: A close look at the crest will unveil a not-so-imaginary journey through mountains, plateaus, and seas, similar to the migratory swallows’ (above the crest) annual journey from Sub-Saharan Africa and the Arabian Peninsula to Europe. Perhaps it is unjustly trying to impose a collective story on the people it claims to represent. Perhaps the crest should have been left blank, for people to draw their own version of the journey.