I’m an old-fashioned expat (one country of origin, one of destination, more or less), someone who’s had the chance to grow roots where I ended up settling down, and to reflect on the blurred notions of ‘home’ or ‘belonging’ from a comfortably stable standpoint. But after a year in Oslo I became interested in lives shaped by high mobility, and started to work on this project. I was aware of Geneviève Guétemme’s work on the topic in Cambridge, and aware also that Aberdeen is a case in point, with its oil-related expat community of Americans, French, Brazilians, Nigerians and Portuguese (among others). Typically, policy demands that they change posts every few years, so this is an ephemeral, high-turnover community of people who know from the moment they start planning their stay that they will be uprooted again within the next five years. The friends they make within their community, and the friends their children make at the international or French school, can be called elsewhere any year. They are a marginal group within Aberdeen’s population, if untypically so: highly-qualified high earners and privileged in many respects, they are nonetheless hardly visible or heard. As one of our interviewees puts it, ‘When you arrive somewhere, nobody is waiting for you. You have to find your own place.’
Along with Geneviève Guétemme, a specialist of ‘followers’ (i.e. partners and children who deal with disrupted careers / education as they follow an international worker), the main contributor to ‘Home Truths’ is John Perivolaris, whose previous project ‘Left Luggage’ gave him an equally relevant and significant angle on the subject. Our vision for this exhibition is to bring to light the human side of Aberdeen’s grand epic of oil exploitation, which has defined the area’s identity for half a century. Who are the people who keep it going today? What are their stories? This project specifically looks into international workers and families, and explores what it means and how it feels to de-locate and re-locate from one oil location to the next – a theme of global significance in today’s work culture, particularly (but far from exclusively) in the oil sector. Across increasingly broad sections of employment in the UK, national or international mobility is key to career planning, hence the almost emblematic nature of the oil expat community – and the point of looking closely at their experience.
This family-friendly exhibition, which every solicited oil company has declined to fund, will be launched at the May Festival and run until June 26th at the Library’s Events Area (back of Ground Floor). It will then tour Woodend Barn Banchory (October 17-November 14, 2015), to coincide roughly with the time of expat staff turnover in the oil industry, and to involve Banchory’s oil-related population (30% of the area’s population). A ‘meet the artists’ event will be run on campus on Saturday 30 May at 11am at the venue (see ‘Where?’ section of this webpage). All welcome, including children. The displays will include contributions from three artists, with four photographic series (digital portraits of local oil expats by John Perivolaris, and by Geneviève Guétemme: truncated portraits, living/leaving room panoramas and objects left behind), a video piece, text pieces, an artist’s book, playfully interactive hand-painted ephemera, a children’s corner by art therapist Vicky Gray, and an audio piece by Janet Stewart, ‘No Place, Like Home’, which explores the ‘Lives in the Oil Industry’ archive held in the Library’s Special Collections. The look of the exhibition will be deliberately provisional, with series, slideshows and objects suggesting temporary accommodation and a ‘swappable’ nature. The viewers will be asked what they will take away with them, and will be given a chance to take away stickers, postcards, and other mobile, transferrable media.
Our hope is that those displays will create a space of encounter between the broader community and (oil) expats, where their stories can be heard, with a focus on the state of perpetual transition in which a significant proportion of expats operates as it migrates between work locations worldwide. What is it like to change countries every few years, moving from one (oil) city to the next? What do you take with you, what do you leave behind? How do you re-invent your life, your children’s lives? What are the challenges, the stories of resilience? How does that community perceive Aberdeen as they briefly settle? What sense of ‘home’, ‘belonging’, ‘starting again’ or ‘returning home’ is theirs? There has been growing interest in such questions (with many publications on ‘third / cross culture kids’ and the emergence of organisations such as Families in Global Transition), yet nothing specifically on Aberdeen, even though it has a spectacular instance of highly mobile population (spectacular, but the most affected by the job cuts of the past year).
Some clichés will be deconstructed along the way – the much-envied white, wealthy, privileged, materialistic profile that tends to dominate representations of ‘oil wives’, for example. Oil expats are certainly big earners, but they have to deal with perpetual, cyclical loss. One mother writes online that she feels cut off from her son and daughter’s childhood: the memories are locked in the places she has left behind, out of reach. The implicit racial divide between the terms ‘expat’ and ‘migrant’ also needs deconstructing. Then there is the underlying question of choice: how do you invest the perpetual changes of high mobility with meaning? For directions and more information, and for resources on being an expat / cross or third-culture kid, especially if you are a parent, please visit the website and find us on Facebook. There is a questionnaire you can fill in for our data collecting, if you are interested.