Insider Interview: Erin Leyson and Kari Barclay on public art project, #Migrations

As part of her work as Kenan’s inaugural Graduate Arts Fellow, Caitlin Margaret Kelly led a group of undergraduates students in the creation of a collaborative public art project around the theme of global migration. The product—#Migrations: People, Policy, and the Ambiguity of Language—emerged from interviews with migrants and immigrants living at Duke and in Durham, and takes the form of a mixed-media installation combining audio recordings, moving

portraits, and a live Twitter feed. Bear Fellow Michaela Dwyer spoke recently with Kari Barclay, Political Science and Theater Studies ’16, and Erin Leyson, Public Policy ’15, about the creative process, the relationship between art and policy, and how to, in Leyson’s words, “bring real people and cyberspace into dialogue.”

Kenan Insider: What, in your own words, is #Migrations?

Kari Barclay: The project very much has two walls: one is the Twitter feeds and the other is the videos of actual people who’ve migrated. It’s about exploring some of their experiences and how they line up or disconnect with the online representation of migrants’ experiences.

KI: I’m interested in how your different disciplinary backgrounds drew you to and manifested in the project.

Erin Leyson: I joined the project because art and migration is something that I do and study. This summer I’m [in] Mexico to look at how emigration from some of the communities in Oaxaca affects the ability to preserve indigenous cultural forms and art forms. To me, [#Migrations] was perfect because I look at art and migration, but in a different way. I look at how migration affects art, not how we make art about migration.

I’d never used any kind of video recording, and I didn’t know what a moving portrait was. I [wanted to] see how I could I could learn something different about something I already study.

A view of the installation. Photo by Caitlin Margaret Kelly.

KB: I’ve been for the past two years working with refugees in the Durham area. I’ve gotten to know that community, and that got me interested in migration in a certain way. Also, as a kid I moved around a lot, and I’ve always been interested in what it takes to enter new communities and feel welcomed there.

My background is in the theater world, and I was interested in this project because it seemed primarily visual arts-related. When I direct plays I’m always interested in—when you enter the theatrical space, what does it feel like, being in the space? Where does your eye go? Do you feel overwhelmed, comfortable? Things like that. For this project I was really interested in—when you enter this art installation, where does your focus go, how can you coexist in the space with the art? I think having the two walls made it a really immersive space, having your eye jump back and forth between the two.

KI: One of the hardest things for me to wrap my head around when thinking about the relationship between art and policy is whether we’re making policy related to art or art in tandem with policy, how can we provide for or promote complex experiences while also making a point?

KB: I like to think of art as democratic space, ideally. With this project in particular we’re taking people’s voices and perspectives and giving them a chance to come into dialogue, a space to work out issues. The final project puts forth, officially or unofficially, recommendations for how we as society, or as communities, can respond to issues like migration.

In terms of conveying complexity, something we wanted to do was to juxtapose political and seemingly big-picture ideas with everyday life. We had Twitter feeds about the DREAM Act and policy. [But] in our audio feed, we put in ambient audio from people’s daily lives. There’s one [clip] of somebody riding a bus, and another of somebody making rice. So, we wanted to say, Well, is migration always about these big issues or can migration be about the sounds of everyday life?

EL: I think the point with our project is that we weren’t really making a point. We’re giving everyone the tools they need to make their own point. That’s difficult for me, coming from a public policy background where everything is very pointed. We could easily push an agenda, [but] we don’t really want to do that. We want people to be able to come into the space, look at things, and think about it. I really liked when Caitlin said that; it changed the way I think about putting art and policy together.

KB: Some things exist outside the realm of the political or the realm of what policy can affect or change. The language that we use around migration is very much an everyday occurrence. It’s not something you really can legislate. Policy is more informal and it comes through experiences.

KI: For each of you, what was the hardest thing about the project, logistically and intellectually?

KB: For me, logistically, it was about [figuring out] the camera equipment. Intellectually, the hardest thing was, again, what Erin was talking about—making room for openness of interpretation and not trying to jump to a conclusion or a clear message.

EL: Logistically, I’d say the same thing. The intellectual challenge was that it was really easy to figure out a point I wanted to tell people about with the art. Especially because we’d sit in our meetings and think of the worst things you could possibly call certain immigrants. We’d look up Wikipedia lists about racial slurs; we were looking for bad tweets. Sometimes the biggest challenge was being okay with tweets that were not that horrible or not that racially absurd. [We decided to include a variety] so that people can make own decision and come to their own conclusion about it. It would’ve been really easy to just say that the point of the art is that we say really bad things online about really nice people who exist in real life and we should stop saying [these things].

KI: If you could place this project in the ideal space or location, where would it go?

EL: I would like it to be on campus because I think it’s important for students to see. But if I could put anywhere, I’d actually put it in a house. I think a lot of #Migrations comes down to daily living, and a lot of our portraits were taken in living spaces. How would we discuss [the tweets] if we’re in someone else’s space? Maybe it would be a little more uncomfortable, but it would be a little more like real life.

KB: I think it’d be cool to put it in a computer lab, so that it’s already in a space with an emphasis on the digital. People would be on their computers, doing work, and look up and see this project—an intersection between the digital world and the real world.

EL: I’m excited to see where it goes, and I wonder where it will actually live. I hope it can [be shown] somewhere on campus. I think people would appreciate it and think about it. And without it being censored. That defeats the whole purpose of a live, uncontrollable Twitter feed.

Stay tuned this fall for #Migrations exhibition details.