- The Migrant Image: The Art and Politics of Documentary during Global Crisis by T. J. Demos
T. J. Demos’s The Migrant Image is a compelling study organized around the question: how have contemporary visual artists responded to the effects and conditions of globalization in the past decade? Each of its nine chapters focuses on the body of work by an individual artist or a group of collaborators, among them the early experimental films of British director Steve McQueen, the essayist videos of the London-based Otolith group, Palestinian visual artist and photographer Emily Jacir, the multi-media installations of Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri, Palestinian photographer Ahlam Shibli, and collaborators Walid Raad, Lamia Joreige, and Rabih Mroué from Lebanon. While most of them are well established in the current international art scene, Demos is less interested in providing a comprehensive survey of contemporary art; [End Page 1137] he bases his selection rather on two topics that are central to his critical project: migration (as a theoretical and conceptual term) and documentary (as a genre and mode of representation).
The featured artists employ image-based artistic practices that are informed by photography, cinema, or new media formats. All of them produce their works in relation to specific geopolitical conditions of globalization, which are, in many cases, part of the artist’s own distinct biographical experiences of migration or exile. This inflection of the personal into the larger historical and political context includes also the author himself; in a brief biographical anecdote, Demos recounts his own struggles with British immigration services during the creation of this book, an account with which he consolidates an affinity between his critical project and the selected artists’ creative intentions.
And yet, The Migrant Image is less interested in identity politics than in the task of analyzing new theoretical and representational strategies in documenting the current state of “crisis globalization,” as Demos terms the overall conditions of economic inequality, political disenfranchisement, social segregation, and geographical expulsion (xiii). Demos addresses the fundamental question—how to document those who are deliberately denied access to the political sphere (e.g., refugees, non-citizens, or the disenfranchised)—in terms of a crisis that is at once political, legal, and aesthetic.
At the outset, the book fits into the broad spectrum of recent global studies on contemporary visual art, and more specifically, on emerging media and digital screen cultures. In its interdisciplinary approach of combining postmodern philosophy and aesthetics with postcolonial and cultural theory, as well as modernist film and media studies discourses, The Migrant Image follows largely the theoretical and methodological trajectories sketched out by publications such as the seminal journal The Third Text (one of the first publications focusing on art and globalization since 1987), the anthology Art and Globalization (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010), or Marsha Meskimmon’s Contemporary Art and the Cosmopolitan Imagination (Routledge, 2011). Demos adds to this discourse a unique form of politicizing arts and aesthetics by examining documentary practice as a vital creative force. All artists featured in The Migrant Image, he states, have “responded to and negotiated impending global crises by reinventing documentary practice” (245).
Like Demos, most of them belong to a generation of creative and critical thinkers (born in the late 60s and early 70s) who are not only keenly aware of a post-Enlightenment critique of the (documentary) image, but who are equally faced with the dilemma of reinstituting the political into an aesthetic framework, following the radical suspension of truth and identity that occurred in the wake of various modernist and postmodernist critiques in the [End Page 1138] 1980s and 1990s. Despite this, Demos remains indebted to a certain school of postmodern continental theory and philosophy to which explorations of representational limits and crises remain foundational. Giorgio Agamben’s theories on modern state formations and bio-politics, for instance, recur throughout the book. Moreover, David Harvey and Neil Smith help to contextualize the broader background of history and globalization, while recent writings by Ariella Azoulay or Achille Mbembe...