Since December 2015, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has made the refugee crisis the focus of his work. For more than a year, the artist, commissioned by the Mobile Lives Forum, studied the way they communicate, orient themselves and move using smartphones, which for many has become their most valuable tool for survival. In the virtual exhibition Connected refugees (available on Artistic Lab), you can follow Ai Weiwei and mobility sociologist Mimi Sheller’s art-social science investigation month by month.
Born in 1957, artist 艾未未 (AI Weiwei) shares his time between Beijing, Berlin, and his studio on the island of Lesbos, in Greece. His work takes a variety of forms, including video, photography, installations, sculpture, architecture, curating, publishing, blogging, music and happenings. His extremely rigorous approach, both conceptually and artistically, unflinchingly addresses some of the most sensitive subjects in our society. An important part of his work is now about the migrant crisis in Europe and the Middle-East.
What role for smartphones in the “immobile mobility”of refugees?
Mobility, as a rule seems, to go hand in hand with the ability to communicate – as if, without communication, we were somehow incapable of moving. How can we get information regarding itineraries, transport modes, destinations and the different possibilities without being able to communicate? How do we let others know where we are? This increasingly intrinsic overlap between physical and virtual mobility likewise questions our reliance on the infrastructures that make these new forms of communication possible.
For refugees, these questions are crucial: what if the ability to locate relatives, send out a distress signal, receive money, organize the next leg of the journey or simply figure out which route to take depended on this mobile connection ? While we have long spoken of the “double absence” of migrants (both from their country of origin and from their host country), certain researchers now allude to the “double presence” made possible by ICT and notably smartphones. This phenomenon occurs from the beginnings of their perilous and uncertain journeys, by allowing refugees to stay in touch with their families and organizing their arrival in Europe. With Smartphone use they are able to reassemble their social ties from a distance.