Unlocking the archive: Precarity, Solidarity and the Politics of Hope.

Unlocked Archive exhibition is a powerful testimony to the courage and hope kindled in every act of kindness. It documents the light and dark sides of the pandemic.

Marie Gillespie and Helen Hintjens

Since the sudden intrusion of  COVID-19 in all our lives, its economic, political and psychological fallout, especially under public health measures of national and local lockdown, has been documented worldwide. At the start of the pandemic, the common refrain was that the pandemic doesn’t discriminate. But we knew then, and we know even better now, that society does discriminate. Inequalities in all spheres of life have been sorely exacerbated, making the lives of marginalized migrant groups extremely precarious. 

In late March 2020 a small group of friends and colleagues decided to document the experiences of migrant, refugee and asylum seekers locally and translocally. Our project Covid Chronicles from the margins provides an opening, a window into the everyday lives of refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented migrants through their own eyes. It looks into how diverse migrant groups (asylum-seekers, refugees, migrant workers and undocumented people) are responding to Covid. A parallel project exploring the same issues was launched in in The Netherlands in June 2020 aimed at documenting undocumented workers’ experiences in the Hague. 

It is a collaborative participatory project with a core team of a dozen or so researchers, and much wider group of affiliated researchers and contributors, most of them asylum seekers, refugees and people with direct experience of forced migration, while the others are experienced in working with and advocating for migrants. We are tapping into the creative potential of people in our local and translocal networks, asking them to share their experiences in poems, songs, music, photos, short videos, interviews, written testimonies, diaries, artwork, in order to create an alternative archive of Covid history – a ‘living museum’ of these strange times. 

The project took off in a way we didn’t anticipate and snowballed rapidly via our social media networks. As word about the project has spread in transnational networks, contributors are recruiting more contributors to share with us – – cascading the invitation to contribute. We now have about 200 contributors from over 20 countries on 5 continents. We work through trusted networks of family and friends to help ensure privacy, confidentiality and security are protected. For example, one member of our team, an Iranian Kurd, has interviewed 16 people so far in his own personal network from 10 countries on WhatsApp. He sends me (Marie) the interviews in Kurdish on WhatsApp accompanied by photos, videos, drawings. Over the phone he translates the interviews (Farsi and Kurdish) and I transcribe them and then we discuss them. 

Between us, team members speak 15 languages, which is crucial to enabling broad participation. We have worked with a wide range of people and groups: from destitute and undocumented groups in the Hague, to asylum seekers and care workers n Swansea, and Syrian refugees in many different parts of the world – from Kuala Lumpur to Za’atari and Azraq refugee camps in Jordan. 

Most of the sharing and collecting of materials is done via smartphones. Smartphones are central to this project, as are tablets and laptops. For migrants, like all of us, these devices are where we go daily to cope with Covid-19 lockdown. We make and exchange different kinds of cultural artefacts – as well as sharing memes, news, advice, warnings, conspiracies and jokes, and we do this in personal networks which interconnect with many other networks, formal and informal. 

We all use social media apps to help us maintain family ties and social relations over distance. For refugee and migrant groups, these technologies are often even more crucial than for the rest of us, because geographic separation from family and from one’s home society, and marginalisation in the society where they live is painful. For refugees being in lockdown, afraid to go out, restricted in movement is not new. Worrying about our families from a distance is a common experience. The distant proximities (in the words of James Rosenau) generated by digital relationships are not new but this catchy term expresses very clearly a paradoxical feature of our new lives under Covid – the simultaneous intensification of living locally and living digitally. 

The project’s political implications don’t need to be spelled out. It challenges the UK’s ‘hostile environment’ and refutes division into ‘us’ and ‘them’. It builds solidarities, promotes understanding and empathy, puts the spotlight on issues of rights and social justice. It facilitates self-representation, civic engagement and community participation by people on the margins, people whose lives, voices, talents, hopes and dreams usually go unnoticed in the mainstream media and even in academia. 

We aim to inform policy and practices by helping understand how this pandemic unfolded on the margins. Research findings drawing on the project contribute to the work of asylum and refugee advocacy and support organisations, and help resist migration policies based around discrimination, deterrence, destitution, detention and deportation. 

The cultural artefacts being shared are the raw materials of stories until somebody reads and makes sense of them. We are collecting, cataloguing, classifying a large multimedia archive, so far around 400 Items, growing all the time. Co-curation of the materials – selecting, ordering, framing the materials in different digital spaces – will allow us to present alternative histories of Covid.

The Cov19 Chronicles project website as it exists now makes a provisional selection, and orders and frames just a few items from the archive, with brief contextualising comments. We will preserve the archive as a historical research and an educational resource that can be publicly mined. We are also developing a much more extensive set of online interactive spaces, and preparing a physical post-lockdown exhibition, which will tour different venues and grow further by engaging local communities. 

Unlocked Archive: the Launch 

A selection of the COVID-19-related artefacts collected by refugee and migrant researchers has been curated in the on-line exhibition Unlocked Archive launched on 18 December 202.The digital exhibition  has been curated by local Swansea artist Owen Griffiths and graphic designer, Oliver Norcott with respect for the fluid, messy boundaries of experience, and a swirling, visual quality that is as unbounded as a web space can be. The exhibition embraces what is often rejected or ignored – small gestures, humble efforts at creativity, everyday works of art and effort. Instead of separating everything in life into boxes, tidy categories, into “natives” and those “not from here”, into “us” and “them”. Unlocked Archive does the opposite and mixes us all up. Here, elements from everyday life sit alongside testimonies to loneliness and loss, and expressions of the courage to still enjoy life under lockdown. Perseverance is documented, even in the face of terrible suffering, both here and there. 

The exhibition and the project do not “mark off” refugee and migrant experiences from those of everyone else on the planet, but links us to now inaccessible places, including those far off, through the networks and social media posts of refugees and migrants. There is much that is immediately recognisable: empty supermarket shelves, delivery bikes, taking up a hobby. There is much that is not so well known; scorpions in a makeshift bed in a refugee camp in Samos, the fires that burned down Moria refugee camp or “hell on earth” as it was described to us, homelessness. Inspired by the anthropologist Mary Douglas, we try to avoid framing, boxing and limiting experience and embrace discomfort in order to have our eyes opened to see better together. 

Refugees and migrants seem to be reduced at times to the most humiliating experiences, to the rules of exclusion, invisibility and abuse. Yet in unlocking our archive you will see experiences from the most ordinary to the extraordinary ranging from making art with food, at home, to situations where people have lost their homes to fire and with that every possibility of dignity. Unlocked Archive exhibition documents all of these situations and experiences, and all those in between. The exhibition is as unflinching a look at pain, as it is a joyous look at creativity. 

In so doing, our hope is, in true anthropological style, to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange. But we try to avoid raising false hope. We abhor and protest situations that cause so much social suffering. But nor do we draw a veil over the beautiful within the mundane and everyday routines of home.  It is all there. There are films, and they include people dancing, walking in nature, and playing musical instruments. The positive aspect of lockdown are explored. People mentioned hearing birds, spending more “quality time” with family and children. Positive aspects included detention numbers being reduced, and deportations stopped for some months altogether.  One contributor also mentioned that bombings in Idlib stopped for a while. Imagine, welcoming the pandemic so the  bombing might stop! 

You will also see contributors lamenting the burning remains of their ‘homes” in refugee camps in the Greek islands of Samos and in Lesvos. When Moria refugee camp burned down in September 2020, thousands were left without food or shelter, in the cold. The torments of being moved to the new Kara Tepe 2 camp – living in flimsy tents, with unstable electricity and no heating, exposed to the elements, to rain, to floods, to the freezing cold during December 2020 in a shameful disgrace. The fragility of solidarity has been under serious threat by far right groups on the island.  Lesvos Solidarity, a key partner of ours, has been documenting this crisis and responding to the needs of asylum seekers in a way that provides a model of solidarity practices of all – not least in Pikpa camp – sadly which was shut down by the authorities in October 2020.

Through our exhibition we hope to bring you in, to allow you to witness albeit digitally, vicariously, this misery. And of necessity we must tread gently and ethically in considering the politics of representation – aware of how, in using such images that represent the loss of self-respect and dignity, we must not make matters worse. By contrasting such suffering with images of home that are consoling and refreshing, the exhibition also lays bare the needless suffering inherent in the conditions created in Fortress Europe today for refugees fleeing war. 

Our collective work invites a politics of hope. It is based on the belief that COVID-19, as the worst pandemic in a century, with global reach, can open up opportunities for solidarity, care and a new sense of our common fate, locally and globally.  And it aims to feed hope, by collecting artefacts that speak of creativity, care, efforts to make life beautiful even amidst desperate conditions. 

The exhibition expresses the fond hope that those whose stories of suffering are witnessed, like the blog written by Sara telling her story and then retelling her mother’s Mahsah’s story among others, can also recover some sense of their own self-respect and dignity in the telling hopefully tackle the challenges this crisis presents in every domain of life – and representationally. Just as the witnessing of wars digitally is now common, so too is seeing life through the lens of a smartphone. Our hope is that in better seeing together can we act together. And in Unlocked Archive, at least, there is a safe and creative set of spaces for those in the margins to bear witness to their ability to not only speak, dance, film and write, but to do so with care, courage and insight.

15 December 2020


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