Guest post by Farrah Miranda and Graciela Flores Méndez
Putting de-colonial aesthetics into action, Mass Arrival subverts the colonial power of whiteness by making it strange, spectacular, and highly visible in the public imagination. Unsettling demarcations between art and activism, the project employs tactics of public intervention, art installation, and conversation to provoke critical dialogue around the state-constructed crisis of irregular “mass arrivals.” The project disrupts fabrications linking migrant boat arrivals to terrorism, human smuggling, and criminality, and lays bare past and on-going practices of settler-colonialism in Canada.
In 2009 and 2010, hundreds of Tamil migrants reached Canada after months of travel aboard the MV Ocean Lady and the MV Sun Sea. Cast with immense vitriol and suspicion, the passengers aboard these ships were described as violating the integrity of Canadian borders. These events are the latest examples of the phenomena in which Canada’s white settler history—saturated in similar “mass arrivals”—are unrecognized while “others” are dangerous to the nation.
On August 12, 2013, the third anniversary of the MV Sun Sea’s interception by Canadian state forces, we staged a “mass arrival”of our own. Injecting a satirical canvas replica of the MV Sun Sea filled with approximately 200 white identified bodies into a busy downtown Toronto intersection, we flipped the popular image of a boat filled with unwanted passengers on its ugly head.
The Bay, the abbreviated name given to North America’s oldest corporation, Hudson’s Bay Company, provided a pertinent backdrop for the performance. The image of a ship brimming with white bodies, fixed at the foot of this colonial giant, was our way of dragging Canadian’s selective amnesia regarding white “mass arrivals” into public consciousness. Passengers aboard the ship stood in somber silence, facing a large white waving flag, inscribed with the text: #massarrival. Using the Mass Arrival hashtag, performers and spectators took to social media, using status updates and tweets to engage in public debates and discussions around the politics of settler colonialism, race, and national identity.
Hosted by Whippersnapper, a small square-shaped gallery in the heart of Chinatown, The Exhibition is saturated with visual and textual representations of boat arrivals to Canada. The installation contrasts media representations of white settlers with those of Sikh, Jewish, Chinese, and Tamil migrants. Exploring the connections and distinctions between these historical “mass arrivals” and Mass Arrival: The Intervention (2013), The Exhibition provided opportunities for public participation, a consistent theme in all aspects of the project.
Bursting from the building’s brick exterior, a brightly painted segment of the MV Sun Sea replica stretches out over the public sidewalk, insistent on escaping the traditional gallery space. Red stage curtains drape the edges of the gallery window, encouraging visitors to critically examine “mass arrival”discourse as a form of state-sponsored theatre.
Three television sets silently project images of historic “mass arrivals.” Boats featured include: MV Sun Sea, MV Ocean Lady, Komagata Maru, MS St. Louis, four un-named Chinese boats, and Mass Arrival: The Intervention. News footage of these arrivals loops in each set. Pasted furiously from floor to ceiling, covering every inch of wall space are black and white copies of news articles overlaid with massive photographic images depicting each of the aforementioned arrivals. The words alien, terrorist, smuggler, unwanted, costly and send them back jump hatefully from the headlines, as do racist caricatures of Chinese migrants papered to a small segment of the wall.
The liveliest component of the exhibit, our Mass Arrival, is imbedded within the gallery’s central wall and contains twitter feeds, Facebook posts, and emails from the public as a response to our intervention. Provided with red pencils, gallery visitors are encouraged to engage in debate and dialogue with the artists and with each other.
One wall is noticeably different from the rest. Though, like the others, it is plastered with some newspaper articles, it is primarily composed of written episodes of Canada: A People’s History. The text makes note of Canada’s violent and colonial history but somehow manages to make settlers sound brave for leaving their homes regardless of their reason. Whether it is to escape persecution, to seek adventure, to find a new home, or to create wealth, the settler is perceived to have a legitimate reason for seeking refuge in another land already inhabited by people. The acceptance of colonialism as part of Canada’s nation-building is captured through one image: a photograph of a Don de Dieu ship replica. Literally translated to “gift of God,” the celebrated ship belonged to Samuel de Champlain, also known as “The Father of New France” (Québec City). Unlike images of the other boats, these arrivals are standing proudly inside their ship.
The third stage, Mass Arrival: The Conversation, which took place at Double Double Land on September 18, 2013, provided a space for spectators, performers, gallery visitors, artists, activists, and other interested parties to discuss the themes and tactics of the project.
The experience of creating this project has been amazing, overwhelming, and at times surprising, giving us the opportunity to see what happens when art and politics collide. The voices that supported this project spoke as loudly as those that remained silent, and the love we have experienced has left us feeling both humbled and privileged. In the spirit of decolonization, we look forward to sharing the contacts and connections we’ve made through the course of this project with others, and look forward to supporting the efforts of other artists and activists engaged in the practice of de-colonial aesthetics.
Farrah Miranda, Co-Coordinator. Unmaking illegality, borders, and citizenship, Farrah Miranda’s work emphasizes the transformative power of ordinary people to enact change. Bridging modes of collective organizing, narrative art, and public spectacle, Farrah juxtaposes the self-described realities of [im]migrants against dominant colonial narratives surrounding race, migration, and belonging. Framing and [re]framing the border, both as real and imagined, she draws attention to the often invisibilized fences that crisscross local geographies.
Graciela Flores Méndez, Co-Coordinator. Graciela Flores Méndez is an anti-racist, feminist, scholar, and activist who has been a member of multiple migrant justice/anti-authoritarian/anti-oppression organizations in both Canada and the United States. She is a Mexican migrant who smuggled herself and lived without status in the United States near the Mexico-U.S. border for the majority of her life. Currently, she lives in Canada and is interested in in/visible borders, the laws that enforce them, their tangible as well as internal impact, and the arts that purge the emotion from these intersections.