Immigration is undoubtedly an urgent issue, and one that’s simultaneously opaque. News outlets inundate us with surface-level details of proposed upheavals to immigration law and policy, leaving us with few resources to truly understand the human impacts of these changes. Carey Young‘s artwork Declared Void II (2013), featured in exhibition I am you, you are too, invites us to think about boundaries and barriers of citizenship and nationality, specifically in the United States. She calls into question boundaries and lawless zones created by physical and metaphorical lines.
On April 5 at 6:30 pm, four artists will step into Young’s piece to literally “Fill the Void” with their response to the piece and the current political climate as part of Citizenship Series: Filling the Void. Zoe Cinel, an MFA student Minneapolis College of Art and Design, jumped at the opportunity to respond to Young’s piece as part of this program. Here she discusses her artistic practice, which involves issues of transience and the vulnerability of immigration. Cinel, who is from Italy, offers her perspective on her art as a visitor to the United States and her relationship with, as she explains, the politics of geography.
Jacqueline Stahlmann: Your practice is related to immigration and citizenship. Has this always been a part of your work?
Zoe Cinel: Since high school, which I attended in Florence, Italy, I have been involved in protests and movements for social rights. Florence is a very politicized city, where it is possible to develop a social consciousness and be active at a pretty young age. I grew up influenced by values of critical thinking, collaboration, confrontation, and resistance.
The experience of living abroad has expanded my perspective and helped me connect previous research on the evolution of the journey to a larger contemporary discourse about mobility, borders, power, and identity. During the last year and a half, I have explored aspects of immigration, such as feelings of displacement, the social implications of immigration and labor, and the surveillance and vulnerability of the immigrant’s body and identity when crossing borders.
For this piece [It’s Not That Simple], I worked with Maryam Houshyar, who I met in the summer of 2017. We connected after sharing that we both felt vulnerable and disoriented as foreigners. We started from our personal sense of powerlessness as immigrants who have to prove on a daily basis that we are good enough and gain our “right” to be somewhere. We created a universal image that can apply to many people who struggle to adjust and work hard to belong somewhere.
There is something I want to share about how we currently think about and define immigration, which might also be explanatory to understanding how politics reacts to it, trying to contain the movement of people around the world.
One day, I googled the definition of an immigrant. Here is the result:
1. a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.
• an animal or plant living or growing in a region to which it has migrated.
I found fascinating the rigidly inscribed idea of permanence. Permanence has never been human, and it is even less now in a society that requires flexibility and skills to adapt, move further, be nomads. Conceptually, permanence, when applied to movement, constitutes a paradox.
If we look at plants or animals instead, we see that they are reserved a much more organic and honest definition: “something growing.’ If we contextualize these definitions into a globalized perspective, we see how this language-problem speaks to the oppressive way the system looks at immigration.
Stahlmann: You are a student at Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD), a school known for radical thinking and artistic experimentation. How has your theme of immigration been received by your peers?
Cinel: Being part of an MFA community composed of a substantial number of international students, or students who have experienced migration, I had the chance to confront with many stories and perspectives and collaborate on projects about cross-cultural dialogue or displacement.
I realized that while lacking a community of support based on shared language and a common cultural background (I might be the only Italian living in the Whittier neighborhood in Minneapolis, as far as I know), it was easier for me to bond with people who experienced feelings of being uprooted and disoriented and who also had to learn how to navigate language barriers and cultural identity in a new context. There is an opportunity for creating community in the empty space of immigration, a community whose values are, by necessity, based on listening, curiosity for otherness, empathy, and unexpected resources to adapt.
Stahlmann: In your option, what is the “void” that artist Carey Young is referring to in this piece? What do the border lines on the piece represent to you?
Cinel: The concept of a border is an arbitrary construction that we internalize while growing up. Borders are not real, but they became real by definition—literally, when we define them. Borders are connected to power and they are, by nature, exclusionary. Those inside are in a position of power, while migrants struggle to gain that privilege. This vulnerable aspect of immigration is not often declared: the immigrant’s chance to stay in a country is heavily dependent on relationships such as a job, a marriage, an educational contract with an institution, etc. The legal identity of a person—passports and state IDs—has nothing to do with individual identity, but it determines if they can move or not, where they can go, for how long, and how comfortable the journey will be. I think there are very few ways for an immigrant to step out from this position of vulnerability. As a migrant, I want to face this vulnerability, to feel empowered.
Stahlmann: The US plays a unique role at the moment in conversations around immigration and borders. How would this piece change if the US was replaced with Canada or Iraq, or even Italy?
Cinel: As the artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña says, “The geographical is political.”I very much agree. When we talk about immigration now, we talk about both site-specificity and globalization.
Each country has a very different perception of and position toward immigration, rooted in history but evolving with current events. For the entire 20th century, Italy was a country of emigration rather than immigration. Now it is facing a complex immigration issue with people coming by sea from several African countries. If this artwork was exhibited in Italy, you would be filled with that specific history and specific trauma. Context determines the meaning.
At the same time, because of globalization, these specificities are interconnected and everything can be seen on the macro scale of the map-able territory. The US is an insanely affluent country that almost erased the memories of its own immigrant cultural roots, as well as memories of the land before immigration. Because of that, this artwork, here in Minneapolis, speaks about reconnecting with memories to change attitudes and policies toward current immigrant flows.
Stahlmann: How can someone who has not personally immigrated understand the emotional complexities of this experience? How can art help people empathize with this experience?
Cinel: I am not sure it is fully understandable. I know about myself, that I would not have this depth in understanding if I had lived all my life in the same country. The act of living without the safety net of a community is hard and empowering and transforms you into a being whose identity is split in two. You become this sort of limbo person who has a foot on one side of the door and one on the other.
Another image I use to explain the incommunicability of being a foreigner: when you switch on the TV and you start watching a movie from the second half. You can get the overall narrative, but you will miss all that background that contextualizes the story and the details that make it unique. At the same time, your family and friends at home will be like an audience that falls asleep right at beginning of the second half: they will never see how far it goes, how the narrative transforms through events.
Despite that, I think that everybody has experienced a sense of uncomfortable detachment from their social environment. Being a foreigner feels like that, but it is amplified and constant. Art, as a language, finds unpaved ways to explain things or point them out. The value of fascination, surprise, the gratifying feeling of being able to decode an artwork, transforms concepts and ideas into experiences. I think experiences are powerful tool for educating and growing.