In 2017, members of the board of UnLocal, a migrant advocacy organization based in New York, initiated discussions with Adelita Husni Bey, an artist and educator. They commissioned her to conduct a workshop in 2018 that would explore the emotional exhaustion experienced by their legal aid staff. During the workshop, Husni Bey employed performance as a teaching method, drawing on the history of political theater as her methodology, to draw connections between performativity, law, and injury. The result of the workshop was an 18-minute film installation, displayed in a large, dimly lit room filled with stage-like platforms and a “forest” of semi-transparent, glowing banners hanging from the ceiling. To reach the screening area, visitors must navigate through the banners, which bear excerpts from immigration laws from the 1880s to 2017, connecting past and present struggles for mobility through the dehumanizing language of law. The work premiered at the New Museum in New York in January 2019 and was on view at RedCat in Los Angeles from September 2019 to January 2020.
I was struck by the collaboration between a legal services provider and an artist’s ethos, and I would like to discuss this with you, given our shared experience of the United States as a new home. While there is no comparison in the degree of precariousness and brutality that bodies are subjected to, a common denominator seems to be the weaponization of time. Making others wait is often deemed acceptable, but this may not appear violent or a breach of humanity at first glance. However, it frequently results in procedural violence. Could you discuss the ways in which these actions unfolded during your conversation with the UnLocal team?
Adelita Husni Bey wants to make it clear that she does not intend to speak for experiences she cannot comprehend. The concept for Chiron was born out of conversations with the group of legal advocates who commissioned it. Through these discussions, she gained some insight into the personal and legal processes of immigration, which all of us, albeit in less painful ways and with less at stake, have experienced in the United States. Foreign bodies are subjected to not just waiting, sometimes indefinitely, but also being “weighed,” as if they are materially “heavier” than those with citizenship. The weight of a body that doesn’t belong is also a fantasy of a mass that cannot be lifted, or a mass that weighs down the rest of the social body. Section 212(a)(4) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) designates bodies with the potential of becoming a public charge or social burden as inadmissible, already too heavy. The suspended, heavy body sinks below the visible surface, into a space where it can be held but not helped, below the surface on which other bodies walk, bodies that have been promised rights. This reference to the inadmissible weight of the other is essentially a desire to cut the other loose and not acknowledge our cohabitation. It is also a way to inscribe the other with something that is already too much, something that doesn’t fit into neoliberal procedures and operations. “Weighing the weight” of one’s claim to stay is often used to worsen the conditions of those who are held hostage to the proceedings. A lawyer at UnLocal, the group that Husni Bey worked with for Chiron, described this tactic as “waiting people out.” After ten years of waiting, some people who initially sought to make the US their home had started to build a life elsewhere and abandoned the process altogether. Then there is the brutal form of detention, at sea or in detention centers, where those with no recourse are held because “holding out of sight” is often more justifiable than removing or denying them.
NS asked Husni Bey if her decision to avoid including images of detention spaces in Chiron was due to the idea that immigration is more than just the image of detention centers, borders, and walls, but rather a network of disciplinary power and capital flows. Husni Bey agrees with this view and references the work of Angela Mitropolous, who sees the border in relation to a larger industrial detention complex that extracts value from bodies en masse. Rather than solely focusing on the morally obscene images from the border, which perpetually victimize those who are already brutalized, Husni Bey suggests that we shift our attention to recognize our implication, connectedness, and the proximity of this system’s operations.
Regarding the process of working on Chiron, Husni Bey began conversations with Raoul Anchondo and Christian Diaz, board members of UnLocal, an organization that offers pro-bono representation for individuals facing deportation in New York City. They were interested in her pedagogical methods and commissioned the work on behalf of UnLocal. Through conversations with the lawyers and legal aides working at UnLocal, they discussed their experiences with the immigration system, which involved translating accounts of violent events, preparing testimonies, asking probing questions, and advocating on behalf of individuals in precarious situations in front of a judge. The lawyers’ work within the system had made them complicit in the narrative of structural investment in other people’s pain. Husni Bey highlights that asylum cases demand the constant display of suffering, and winning is predicated on sustaining a system that asserts some places are “bad” and the US is “good.”
NS asked Husni Bey how she situates the logic of exploiting pain as a policy and instrument in relation to the performance of care. Husni Bey believes that the US exceptionalism is based on the fantasy of the other in need of rescue. She feels it is important to break down this fantasy while recognizing its effect on the activities of UnLocal and similar organizations working with the legal system. The goal was not only to express this paradox but also to understand its effects, which was the act of care from their perspective. They began by describing the work the lawyers do and how they feel about it. The legal aides often feel the weight of the world crumble when they lose in court because their work has a direct, incontrovertible effect on people’s lives. They often feel guilt for not doing enough, even when they go above and beyond to help their clients. Husni Bey believes that this feeling of insufficiency and inadequacy is a complicated manifestation of the lawyers’ sorrow for what their clients are going through. They feel helpless and responsible when faced with the structural injustice of a system that promises justice but doesn’t deliver it. Along with these feelings, there is a constant specter of exhaustion and fatigue, which they began to unpack through clinical models of looking at these affects.