I came across a very cool project recently by an Israeli artist named Ronen, who, from what I gather on his/her website, is working towards a MFA at the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany. Ronen's recent project (un)Documented Disappearance lit up the sewage drains and waste canals that run through the streets of Jena, a city with "a strong history of migrant struggle that has been successful in improving the conditions," he/she writes. However, in the pale inviting sewer lights, the project situated several scaled images of asylum seekers and refugees from all over the world holding their respective documents, so as to face the public from the street floors trapped behind the grated bars, like captives of the filthy jail spaces of sewage infrastructure which stretch in subtle views just below our feet.
Using the lights to draw people's attention to the sewers, "The viewers like the police/border guard" the artist tells us, "will be able to check the papers and explore the bureaucracy. Through different examples in different sewage entrances they can learn about the different kinds of legal status of refugees and migrants in Jena and elsewhere." The project is meant to depict the hellish process of existing unseen, unacknowledged, and how immigration is strategically controlled and removed from public consciousness the same way that the public's own waste is hydrologically managed.
Even though the installation has since been taken down and I believe kind of re-packaged for a gallery, Ronen explains the intention of the installation was to function like an informal "museum of bureaucratic legal papers, which to some people mean the difference between life and death. But the display does not last. Rain and snow, cigarette buts and chewing gum, and the rubbish of the city erases these pictures and the display of different migrants showing their papers to the public from the city's sewage start to disappear, just like so many people who already have." In the end, "the papers," he/she says, are the only "evidence of the regime, that will [...] last and will stay in the sewage as memory of the people who we have been confronted only days before."
From this collection of project images posted on Flickr, Ronen writes: "Society does not want to see its bodily wastes and the results of its consumption. We want dark tunnels to carry these away to places removed from visibility. Our economic and political systems work in a similar ways, we want the unpleasantness, the problems and the disasters that we create distanced from us, to places we don’t see, places which are, in the best case, thousand of miles away. Nobody wants to live in the sewage; therefore, hundreds of thousand of people each year flee from the areas of the political and economic waste - both historical and contemporary – of the world system. Many of them don’t make it; they die, trying to reach a better life. The few that manage to “enter” the so-called Western world are subject to migration regimes that confine them into segregated neighborhoods of poverty or camps."
Anyway, the installation is compelling, and I dig the concept of both using and illuminating the sewers, fixing our persepctive of immigration right under our feet, amidst the unsighted daily flows of our waste removal systems, and letting it all sort of wash away in a subtle temporary surface protest - in the irregular overflows of incarcerated political conscience; the waste regime of asylum bureaucracy guiding Europe's inundated underground of secret life like banal hydrology, redirecting discarded refugees out of view, compressing international peopled trash in spaces below the street; the unknown journeys of lost documents quietly struggling against their fates ushered into the abyss.
All images were created by Ronen and found on flickr.