Becoming Migrant... what moves you?


Becoming Migrant... what moves you?

Author: Edith Doron

Nexus Senior Program Manager, Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh

“If it is impossible to stop an electron, what’s the point in building fences against flocks of birds?”

--Agrupatión Señor Serrano

Migration is arguably one of the most astounding phenomena in all of natural history. It names a very particular kind of movement: profound in its impact to the one doing the moving, to the environment to which they arrive, and to the one they left behind. And by ‘environment’ we include everything from the chemical to the political. Carnegie Nexus—the cross-museum initiative launched in 2015 as part of a post-doc fellowship sponsored by the ACLS (American Council of Learned Societies) —is about to deliver its second public program series entitled Becoming Migrant, on the art and science of passage. I am often asked how we decided to commit to this topic and what makes up the process of curating such a series. There isn’t one tap root that holds the answer to the source of our decision. Having come off the success of our first pilot series, Strange Times -earth in the age of the human, many conversations around the climate crisis pointed to a deeper crisis that pervades the study of the Anthropocene: a crisis of humanity.

We understood that what is termed the ‘refugee crisis’ is not a temporary situation or peak in displacement but marks a new, long-term trend. We were interested in its complex causes, a kind of cascade of failure and, in Slavoj Zizek’s assessment, “the price we have paid for a globalized economy in which commodities—but not people—are permitted to circulate freely.” Human migration will be a defining issue of, at least, the next century. Environmental change plays a significant role in this displacement. But the ecological devastation has historically been paired with a (political) economic one. This profound movement is the result of life-threatening instability, food scarcity, persecution, and ethnic and religious conflicts characterized by extreme violence in precisely those territories that the empires of the 17th – 19th centuries colonized. What they left behind were nominally sovereign states— ‘fragile’ or ‘failed’ states. As far as our ‘developed’ world, the responses to the waves of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are heated, reactionary and polemic—and interestingly, strikingly similar in pattern to the climate crisis: denial, anger, depression, bargaining, helplessness.  So, in this sense, Becoming Migrant was a ‘natural’ follow-up to Strange Times. What’s more the ‘stranger’ in Strange Times is all the more incarnate in this new series as we ask ourselves: what is our obligation to the stranger? Or, when confronted with the decision to stay or go, what would you do? What do birds, insects, fish, mammals do? How do they do it? What can their migrations tell us of ours?

And this has directly shaped some of the programming including Atlantic Currents- winds, waters and migrations, on April 19. This event will bring together in dialogue celebrated climate change scientist Michael Mann, with Marcus Rediker, activist and prolific historian of the Atlantic slave trade, and John Wenzel, ecologist and Director of the Powdermill Nature Reserve, home to the longest standing migratory bird-banding site in the US. We have partnered again with CMU’s International Film Festival to bring Mali Blues, a film on the exile of music to the museum theatre. And we have built new partnerships with the City of Asylum and the Center for African-American Poetry and Poetics to bring you exiled writer-in-residence, Israel Centeno and recent Whiting award winner Rickey Laurentiis to the museum of natural history—where they will be surrounded by dioramas of mammals for which migration is essential to survival and species’ evolution. And it is the awesome wonder that comes with contemplating natural migration that helped us find our culminating event. On April 26 and 27 at the New Hazlett, we are hosting the US premiere of Birdie by the Barcelona-based collective, Agrupatión Señor Serrano. Birdie manages to actually perform a migration onstage—one between two worlds connected by an unstoppable movement. Get ready to merge Hitchcock’s The Birds with an 18-hole links course on a Spanish island off the coast of Africa.

Perhaps it was the very nature of the initiative led us to this choice of study. While Carnegie Nexus is not a program in exile, it is migratory: it has no rooted home/museum or exhibition space or collections in its possession. It is a community however—in the deep sense of that term. The fellows that compose its direction understand that we are nomadic or rhizomatic in essence, and that we hope to find hospitality in our future endeavors. That brings me to a key driver that shaped our curation of this series: the custom, the philosophy, the ancient virtue of hospitality. At its core, it draws a border between host and guest, inside and out, self and other, citizen and stranger. And so, migration could only be understood as fundamental to the human condition. We are, if nothing else, migrants of time: marked by our border passages and those of others. We are the sum of our encounters; refugees of our transformations.

I would like to thank with my whole “heart, liver and lungs”, as my mother used to say, the motley tribe of nine who make up Becoming Migrant: co-producer, Ben Harrison, of the Andy Warhol Museum, Steve Tonsor and Pat McShea of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Divya Heffley and Lulu Lippincott of the Carnegie Museum of Art, Desi Gonzalez and Amber Quick of the Andy Warhol Museum, and Charlie Legere of the department of Advancement and Community Engagement. There are many others both inside and outside the museums who are the condition of our possibility. The public is part of that—join us in April, and don’t be a stranger.

Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

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