Online film ‘Our Plymouth, This Land’ from our archives connected refugee week and black lives matter before they existed: WATCH NOW
Fifteen years ago Virtual Migrants were one of the few artist-activist groups producing challenging work exploring colonial legacies and their fundamental links with asylum and refuge, such as in this film. ‘Our Plymouth, This Land’ includes a specific critique of the monuments in the UK dedicated to people who profited from slavery, focusing on the slave traders Jack Hawkyns and Francis Drake who are celebrated on the streets of Plymouth. As we end Refugee Week 2020 taking place during both the COVID-19 lockdown as well as the widespread anger and protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and racial justice / Black Lives Matter movements, this film is completely relevant.
Our Plymouth, This Land
‘Our Plymouth, This Land’ stands among a number of testaments to the strong and bold critiques that drove the work of Virtual Migrants during our early inception. It was also created before the wider sets of refugee and migrant organisations developed a more standardised and expansive set of regular yet compromised activities. This year again I struggle with an ongoing depoliticisation within the ‘refugee sector’, in this case how there are almost no focused or substantial connections being made between refugee issues and Black Lives Matter. A quick scan of the hundreds of events during Refugee Week 2020 illustrates this, despite some protests managing to combine the two such as yesterday in Glasgow during World Refugee Day. Conversely, the dominant racial justice narratives surrounding Black Lives Matter appear to give low priority to linking with the incarceration of black and brown people in detention centres and the hostile policing of many refugee communities of colour.
A similar scenario took place in 2018, when in March of that year the most significant piece of activism for a decade was carried out by around 120 black and brown women in Yarl’s Wood detention centre who sustained a hunger strike for a number of weeks. The subsequent Refugee Week of 2018 almost ignored that fact, people attending the many events would have been unlikely to register that the hunger strike had even happened. This realisation led me to propose a protest action ‘Hostile Detainment‘ dedicated to the women in Yarl’s Wood as an art intervention when Virtual Migrants were invited at the last minute to deliver ‘something’ for Refugee Week at Manchester’s HOME arts centre.
Looking back on our early work, we were setting a far more polemical, critical and radical tone than many subsequent activities that have developed within the institutionalised framework of refugee narratives. We made direct links between the arms trade, colonialism, deportation, systemic racism, racialised policing, public monuments and then also climate change and environmental justice. The full story of this critical development needs to be better documented but in common with the lack of capacity among most activism driven groups that project remains elusive.
We have always been wary of the domination of refugee issues by a focus on legal processes and definitions, and by artistic developments that focus on descriptive experiences, nurturing talent and the popular easy to appreciate art-as-social-work approach (unable to address the chronic systemic constructions of the issues being explored). More critical and challenging analyses and connections have been muscled out.
Some seven years after founding Virtual Migrants, I co-produced and directed ‘Our Plymouth, This Land’ in 2005 working closely with musician Aidan Jolly alongside local artists and communities in Plymouth. The production involves a combination of video art, third cinema and documentary approaches in tandem with a democratic production process alongside a parallel musical structure. Our approach was to facilitate a set of sub-narratives to emerge from the various community-based collaborators, and allow those to be presented alongside each other so allowing inherent resonances to become explicit. This creates a degree of montage approach rather than the usual imposed narrative framework generated to drive home a digestible statement.
At the time, ‘Our Plymouth, This Land’ was described as an “Art-film / documentary exploring the heritage of slavery and imperialism according to the experiences of young refugees and migrants, set to a fusion soundtrack involving Iranian-Kurdish Santoor.” Along with a set of other video and music works it was published on the EXHALE DVD-CD box set which also includes two booklets of writing, poetry and imagery, available at www.virtualmigrants.com/exhale .
The project was part of ‘The Next Breath’ outreach programme during the tour of our Terminal Frontiers exhibition. We had produced a prolific range of critical and ground-breaking work during the years 2001-2006 in collaboration with a wide set of people including those with experience of seeking refuge. Virtual Migrants have since morphed a few times and struggled with a combination of under-exposure, marginalisation and burn-out, yet despite the challenging times we are working hard in a new format focusing on performance-led activism.
As the world focuses on the way racial oppression and the often violent abuses of human rights play out particularly against people of African descent, the forces that drive those symptoms and the set of ideologies and wider process that they mutually feed off often remain hidden. There are a good many advocates for systemic change but the definition of what that is remains elusive for most people. Avoiding a gradual drift towards the status quo will not be easy, especially when there is such little crossover between parallel movements such as those around refugee advocacy and Black Lives Matter. Asylum, deportation and migration issues are central to both Refugee Week and the movements for racial justice relating to Black Lives Matter.
– Kooj Chuhan