Undocumented?: UCL Urban Room exhibition explores migration on the edges of Europe
1 December 2023
The latest public exhibition to open at the UCL Urban Room challenges the use of the word ‘undocumented’ in relation to migrants, showing that even if they lack official documentation like passports and visas, their experiences can be far from unrecorded.
Based on immersive video installations by artist and UCL Urban Lab academic Nishat Awan, Undocumented? tells different stories of migrants moving between the port cities of Odessa in Ukraine and Istanbul in Turkey, captured in vignettes as they describe and illustrate their journeys by drawing maps of the routes they have taken, recounting the dangers and traumas they have faced so far.
These are lives in movement but also very often lives in stasis as migrants become trapped, not just at the mercy of smugglers and traffickers but also bureaucracies.
Nishat Awan, who is a professor of architecture and visual culture with the UCL Urban Laboratory, says the exhibition is based on two projects on undocumented migration over the last ten years:
“The first looked at European belonging and migration from Pakistan to Europe and how borders are produced and negotiated by migrants. I’m a migrant myself. I lived in Pakistan until I was twelve and then we moved to the UK and I was interested in exploring how people are pushed into thinking about belonging in different ways within Northern countries. I have a British passport, I’m settled but I wanted to think about people who don’t have that same privilege and how they see their relationship with Europe.
“That field research took me from Istanbul to Odessa, following the edges of the Black Sea. I met NGOs, people on the move, and went to spaces where I knew migrants were going to be. Researchers are never neutral, you always bring something of yourself to your research, and as I was from Pakistan people would introduce me to others from Pakistan, I think that says something about the situatedness of researchers, so Pakistanis and Afghans form many of these reflections and stories.
With my second project I wanted to think more about how borders are made, how they are constructed legally or through bureaucracies or through lines in the sand or simply through relationships between people. Borders are not always where you expect them to be at the line between two countries. Sometimes they’re in a bus station, sometimes they’re in a conversation you’ve had where you feel you’ve been excluded. Sometimes they’re when people ask you to show your papers so you can have a particular service. These are all ‘bordering’ devices. By interviewing migrants I hoped to understand and show how they are experiencing all these different borders, and these different mechanisms of exclusion and control.
“I use a lot of the methodologies of architecture in this exhibition. You’ll see there’s a map painted on the floor, people are drawing maps. I think a lot about the representational tools of architecture and how they can be subverted. Because architecture in the end is a profession of power, if you have the money, if you have the resources, you get to be an architect.
"But actually if you think about what the purpose of architecture is, it’s to understand how people live, their social and cultural worlds as much as their physical worlds and how these two intertwine and how they produce homes and places of work and our cites etc. So that’s how I think about architecture. In terms of migrants, if architecture and urban planning are all about thinking about populations that are settled, how do we address those who are unsettled, who are constantly in circulation? I think that’s going to be something that I think about for the rest of my life.”
UCL Urban Room Curator Dr Kara Blackmore feels the exhibition will resonate with a wide range of audiences:
"Coming to see this show is about hearing stories of people moving in other places but they’re also deeply familiar stories. In a borough like here in Newham, which is the most linguistically diverse in all of London, it’s a way in which we can see histories and lived realities of today intersecting between east London and across the world.
"It’s also a way to create empathy about the privilege that a lot of us have to be able to migrate, to be able to move, when other people don’t.
"And it’s a way to access knowledge. One of the features of the exhibition here, and our exhibitions generally, is a space that we refer to as ‘the knowledge knock’. You can access academic research material, or creative material, extracts from transcripts from interviews with migrants, as well as companion materials – books, postcards and zines that are able to show the different ways that knowledge is expressed and how you might be able to read the different layers of something that’s so difficult, like migration, through a range of materials.
"It’s a space where you can sit and just be or where you can enjoy our unique library that is growing out of the knowledge of each of our exhibitions. And that’s for students, academics, citizen scientists, the public - for anyone interested in these issues who wants to explore beyond the creative elements in the exhibition."
Undocumented? is free and open to the public 10am to 6pm Monday to Saturday until 29 February 2024.
Address: UCL Urban Room, UCL East campus, One Pool Street, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, E20 2AF
You can register for a series of free events related to the exhibitiion:
- Mon 22 January 2024, 17:00-19:00: Vignettes as Way of Seeing Seminar Nishat Awan and Kara Blackmore will present their emerging research on vignettes. In this seminar they will examine how the format of vignettes can be a useful way to understand difficult migrant stories. Thinking with the exhibition Undocumented? they discuss migration as a dynamic set of experiences in which research can only capture a glimpse into lived realities. They focus on the medium of film and the exhibition space as sites of evidence to understand the poetics of narrative as seen in vignettes.
- February 2024 - dateTBC: Poetry as Record – An Interactive Workshop Exploring Ethical Documenting of Migrant Stories How can we use imaginative forms as a way of telling our own stories on our own terms? This workshop considers how different forms of evidence are created and used. Through poetry, we will share how to create one’s own verbal and textual material. We will illustrate how poetry can exist as a creative form of record keeping, telling migration stories and as research materials.
UCL Urban Room is a practice-based, multi-purpose space at the heart of the new UCL East campus, dedicated to debate and engagement around key questions of future living and urbanism. Urban Room is a partnership between UCL Urban Laboratory, The Bartlett, School for the Creative and Cultural Industries and UCL Library Services: Special Collections.