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Interrogating identity and citizenship through art

On 29 March 2017, the UK triggered Article 50 to begin the process of leaving the European Union, sparking once again intense debate about the history and future of migration policy.

For years, social scientists and media scholars at the OU have been studying questions of belonging, migration, citizenship and participation; they have been researching what ‘We’ and ‘Collective identity’ may mean today in the UK, Europe and beyond. In March, they teamed with artists from all over the world at Tate Modern to demonstrate the possibilities for collective identities and actions. 

The event was part of the Tate Exchange Associates programme, designed to bring more diverse audiences to Tate Modern as well as engage more interactively with those audiences. The programme, which included participatory arts, films, visual arts, installations, conversations and learning labs, set out to engage with the question 'Who Are We?'.

For over a year, several former and current OU researchers, have been working closely with Counterpoints Arts, an organization engaging with refugee and migrant experiences through cultural programmes, to design an event that would create a space for everyone to collaborate, test ideas and discover new perspectives on migration, identity and belonging through art.

They all teamed up with artists to communicate aspects of their research and engage with publics in immersive and innovative ways:

Dr Agnes Czajka, Lecturer in Politics at the OU’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) collaborated with designer Nele Vos. Nele’s installation, The Citizenshop, highlights some of the issues around ‘citizenship by investment’ programmes, noting provocatively that citizenship is often ‘sold’ by states to wealthy investors, and ‘bought’ by those who can afford it.

Agnes also collaborated with artist and photographer Eva Sajovic on a Learning Lab titled, ‘Unlearning the Role of the Artist ’. As part of the lab, chaired by Counterpoints Arts co-director Áine O’Brien, Eva and Agnes explored the politics of representing ‘others’ in an age of global displacement, and the critical role of art, artists and audiences in the process. 

Dr Umut Erel, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, also in FASS, worked with Behjat Omer Abdulla, whose hauntingly beautiful drawings engage with the tragedies families experience when they become refugees. The drawings were complemented by an interactive element that invited audiences to reflect on their own positioning, ethical responsibility towards refugees and how this affects their own identities.

Read From a Distance, a conversation between Umut and Behjat.

Dr Umut Erel and Dr Sara de Jong, Research Fellow within Governance and Citizenship at FASS, also collaborated with artist Alia Syed whose film 'On a Wing and a Prayer' imaginatively responds to the journey undertaken by Abdul Rahman Haroun, who in August 2015 walked the entire 31 mile length of the Channel Tunnel in a bid to find asylum in the UK. In an open seminar at the Tate Modern following the screening of the film, Sara and Umut, together with OU law colleague Dr Olga Jurasz, OU Senior Lecturer in Law, reflected on the role of the law in constituting citizens and migrants as well as the different spaces and journeys informing migrations, mobilities and immobilities. Sara’s exchanges with artist Laura Malacart and performance artist Natasha Davis are published on the event’s website.

Lisa Pilgram, Strategic Research Manager for the OU’s International Development priority research area, collaborated with artist Laura Sorvala whose work Outside the Box used visual story-telling techniques to look at questions of belonging and community and challenge simple ideas of ‘us’ and ‘them'.

Dr Giota Alevizou, also Fellow in Governance and Citizenship within FASS, collaborated with social broadcaster Lucia Scazzocchio and used an audio focused interactive installation to reflect on the capacity of sonic arts and digital story telling to contextualize stories of identity and belonging.

Giota also teamed with socially engaged artist Gil Mualem-Doron for the New Union Flag Project. a project that mashes up the British flag to the richness of multicultural heritage Besides the New Union Flag installation Gil and Giota ran two workshops with primary schools, where pupils crafted their fabric of identity and reflected new spheres of belonging Giota asked students to reflect on questions of cultural heritage, identity and belonging looking at the ways in which these questions are expressed through the art of ‘making’ and story-telling.

Professor Marie Gillespie, OU Professor of Sociology and artists Elena Boukouvala and Knut Bry, who met while they were volunteering at Pikpa refugee camp in Lesvos last year, decided to work together to tell the story of the refugee experience in a new way. The result was Dialogues Across Borders, an interactive exhibition sparked from the friendships forged between volunteers and refugee artists. In a series of workshops, the sharing of voices through poetry, art and music created an environment for cross-cultural exchange in which the audience was invited to make their own art in response, building an evolving web of dialogues across borders.

OU researchers took a major part in leading the academic consortium of Tate Exchange Associates programme that comprised the WhoAreWe? Project. Counterpoints Arts led the overall production and curation of WhoAreWe? In addition to her academic contributions, Giota Alevizou has worked closely with CounterPoints Arts in leading the digital communications and engagement strategy for the programme. The OU side of the project was funded by CCIG, HEIF, SRA Citizenship and Governance, SRA International Development and Inclusive Innovation, and FASS.

 For more information see the Who Are We? Project website  or Tate Exchange initiative.

Open Learn Unit.

Read more about OU research into International Development.