From April 8-12, the face of Aberdeen City was transformed by artistic interventions in the public space. Guardian of Scotland, William Wallace, was outfitted with a stylish high-vis jacket, Robert Burns sported a replica mercury planet and knitted socks, not to mention saltire-embossed headphones. These artistic interventions on historic public sculptures were part of “Look Again,” Aberdeen’s Visual Art and Design Festival, which inspired passersby to “look again” and “become a tourist in their own city.” Online comments, when the statues first appeared, ranged from positive and enthusiastic, to those who thought the interventions were either a prank or disparaging of these historic figures. But I believe that once the nay-sayers understood the intention of the interventions, their minds were quickly changed.
Getting passersby to “look again” is also the aim of Tanja Ostojic’s Misplaced Women? project, which involves a different kind of intervention into the public space – delegated performances based on the overriding concept or principle of the art work. A delegated performance is one where the artist is the author of the overall concept or idea, however others may enact the performance based on those ideas. Ostojic’s original performance for the project involved her unpacking the entire contents of her suitcase in a migrant-sensitive public space – for example, an airport or the a public square. Others who choose to enact the performance can also unpack a suitcase or bag, or perform a similar action, but the idea of the action should be related to the overall concept of Misplaced Women?, which probes the phenomenon of migration, by putting the performer in the position of individuals who are often deprived of their own personal or private space.
Ostojic, who was born in (Serbia) Yugoslavia and lives in Berlin, learned early on about the politics of migration. As an artist gaining notoriety in the 1990s, when a visa regime was imposed on Serbian citizens, she was forced to gather paperwork and wait in lines for visas to travel abroad to exhibit or talk about her art. Prior to this, Yugoslav citizens could travel throughout Europe without visas. Eventually, Ostojic decided to make her art about this process, and for five years worked on a project called Looking for a Husband with EU Passport (2000-2005), in which she advertised herself as a sort-of mail-order-bride online, with the ultimate aim of marrying and migrating to an EU country on the basis of her marriage.
Misplaced Women? shifts the focus from the artist herself to the situation of migrants in general, many of whom live out of their suitcases or bags, which contain all of their worldly possessions. Whether it is because finding a stable place of residency proves challenging, or due to being held in detention centres or forced to stay in refugee camps, many of these individuals lack any form of personal or private space, and thus the public space becomes their home. Furthermore, the situation at airports nowadays is that all those who travel are treated with suspicion, and often asked to open their bags and display their most personal and intimate items in the public space. Misplaced Women? brings these experiences to light, putting the performer in the shoes of the migrant, exposing themselves in the public space. Ostojic asks that those who do the delegated performance find a migrant sensitive area of the city that they are in – some have chosen train and bus stations, airports, or even police stations, where migrants are often forced to register. But Misplaced Women? has another function, and that is to bring these issues into view, into the public space. The performances not only force passersby to view that space anew, but also to confront the issue. The situation of individuals in detention centres and refugee camps is something that is easily swept under the rug, something that we can remain blind to if we choose not to see it. But by bringing these performances into the public space, those passing by are compelled to take note and consider these issues. They demand that you look again, not only at the woman unpacking the bag, but at the situation that they are enacting.
On April 1st, Ostojic visited the University of Aberdeen and gave a workshop about Misplaced Women?. Over twenty students and staff from disciplines such as Film & Visual Culture, History of Art, Scandinavian Studies, Politics & International Relations, and Psychology at the University of Aberdeen, and sculpture and critical theory at Robert Gordon University, participated. Ostojic introduced the Misplaced Women? project, and then gave attendees the opportunity to try it for themselves. A range of solutions were found, with participants displaying their personal items in unique and original ways – on desks, floors and coatracks. Some who didn’t have a bag with them chose to examine personal and private space from a different angle – one student removed her shoes and lay on the floor, demarcating the area around her as private, as opposed to public space.
The day before the workshop, when Tanja arrived in Aberdeen, she invited me to participate in the project by carrying a sign to greet her at the airport – not with her name on it, as is customary, but with the text “Misplaced Women.” I of course leapt at the chance to participate, but I must admit, I was a bit nervous. After all, Aberdeen Airport isn’t exactly the place one thinks of when one thinks of performance art. I had no idea how people would react. And, as a person who inherently fears authority, I was worried I would be asked to stop, or – worse – leave the airport, even though I knew I was doing nothing wrong. So even this minimal action, which lasted only a few minutes, brought home to me, as the performer, the suspicion under which people in places of migration are placed. As Tanja’s London flight disembarked, I raised the sign, and stared straight ahead, avoiding the gaze of suspicious passersby. Gradually I noticed that I was receiving looks not of derision, but of curiosity. Most people who passed by either ignored me or smiled, but no one asked me to leave. And of course Tanja’s reaction to me holding the sign was the most encouraging – she seemed quite pleased to see it!
The projects that were begun at the workshop will be developed out in the public space of Aberdeen and beyond. All of the participants were asked to consider places where they could enact their performances, and many thought of places not only in Aberdeen, but also abroad. For example, two of the participants were planning a trip to Africa, and thought about doing the performance there. So, look around you as you stroll through Aberdeen, and see if there are any Misplaced Women? inspiring you to Look Again. Instead of asking you, the viewer, to become a tourist in your own city, Misplaced Women? enables the performers to become migrants in the public space.