Learning To Listen To The Real Refugees: An Exploration Into The Wider Message Behind Candice Breitz’s 2017 Biennale Showcase

Elspeth Walker

Edited by Veronica Vivi

Illustration by Alice Tyrell

In 2017, artists Candice Breitz and Mohau Modisakeng showcased for South Africa in the Venice Biennale country pavilion. Both used film installations and/or photography to create poignant pieces of work. For her piece, Breitz looked at refugee narratives within the wider context of identity under capitalism – a prevalent theme throughout the art exhibitions.

Breitz is an artist renowned for her video installations that mix both mainstream media and Hollywood cinema to create out of context work delivered by famous actors, often against a blank screen. This style is evident in her work exhibited in the pavilion.

Upon entering the building, the first section is dedicated to Modisakeng’s emotive image and film compilation. As one walks through into the next room, one is made to become an active participant in Breitz’s work.

Each room, soundproofed from the next and blocked by a heavy curtain, leads into a new space, a different reality. In the middle room of the pavilion, part of Breitz’s first section, the viewer is faced with a large screen opposite rows of benches. A video is playing on the screen, which switches periodically between two actors, Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore, sitting with a green screen behind them.

As one begins to listen to their monologues, it becomes apparent the stories they are telling are not their own. Baldwin repeats the narrative of Luis Nava from Venezuela, whilst Moore dictates that of Shabeena Saveri from India. As their stories progress, the audience learns that the actors are voicing the narratives of two people who fled their home country. The simplicity of each actor’s surroundings allows the observer to focus on the narrative, and, alongside the large size of the screen, this creates an inescapable, intense atmosphere.

However, as the observer enters the next room, they are drawn into answering a key question of Breitz’s piece – “who will you listen to?”. In this final room of the pavilion, the audience encounter a series of smaller screens, each with a bench in front and several pairs of headphones attached. Every screen shows a different refugee telling their own story, including Luis Nava and Shabeena Saveri, who Moore and Baldwin spoke for in the previous room. This is where the public have to decide whom they will listen to.

This piece is alluring in that it draws attention to how refugee stories are often not told by the person who experienced it. It highlights the power the listener has in choosing who they think is worth listening to, which is amplified by having to actively pick the length and number of stories they will focus on. Unlike the previous room, many people walk straight through the third section without listening to any of the multiple screens and subsequently exit the pavilion.

The alternation of Moore’s and Baldwin’s monologues in the second room, which initially the listener assumes is to emphasise the idea of a collective voice, now represents the lack of focus on the refugee’s stories, thus draws greater attention to the white, famous actors retelling them. Having left the last room of the exhibition, where the viewer must consciously choose to listen to the collective first-person narratives via headphones rather than through a loudspeaker, the public now re-enters Breitz’s first room again. Again they find a reality very much like our Western own, where the listener gives their time to the media’s repetitions of narratives, aka those recited by Baldwin and Moore– not from the real humans who experienced them.   

This is where Breitz’s piece represents more than refugee narratives. The observer comes to understand the wider role they play within the exhibition (and in their own reality) in silencing the authors of refugee stories while prioritising their mediatisation. Most people, in fact, would rather listen intently to the blaring, ever-present Hollywood interpretations of these narratives whilst the listener has to choose to listen to the refugees themselves.

This installation by Breitz is arguably essential in today’s political climate. As wars, political turmoil and natural disasters intensify the refugee crisis, and global migration increases, the need to define a self-narrative becomes progressively more compelling. Out of the thousands seeking asylum, those whose stories the European or Western media latch onto, and thus the only ones the public hear, are those which fit a high level of woe or drama. The examination people are forced to submit to upon arrival in asylum countries furthers this, as Luis Nava’s recount explicitly says the arrival interview is a difficult process involving a lot of questioning. From this interview it is often the interpretation and reception of an asylum seekers’ struggle, which will determine the circumstances of their new start and safety with in a new country. This focus on the sensational thus reduces their stories to works of fiction rather than those of humans in need. This phenomenon is exemplified on a daily basis at refugee centres or camps where media coverage is regulated and sensationalised.

This is where Breitz’s work is poignant, reminding us about our ability to show sympathy but also the ease of showing lack of respect towards humanity. In the contemporary landscape of constant media consumption and desensitisation of global affairs through Hollywood, the listener begins to measure human worth as though it were entertainment. The lack of human sympathy is a result of a decision made based on time – are the real, first hand account of refugees worth our time listening to, or should they watch famous people appropriating the narratives for our enjoyment?

It can be argued that it is effective to use the wider-reaching Hollywood platform, despite its appropriation of refugee narratives, to ensure maximum distribution of such accounts. Yet, through her second room, Breitz exposes the Western public’s lack of engagement and drive to listen to refugees, when given the opportunity, as the greater issue. This leads to the mass silencing of already marginalised groups. She exposes how, by choosing to listen to Hollywood’s retelling of asylum seekers’ narratives, the observer is removing the individuality and humanity behind these stories in favour of a falsely personal replication by Hollywood, that appeals to the masses.

Finally, Breitz shows how the modern refugee is becoming part of a generic and popular narrative due the Western world’s lack of recognition of the importance of refugee experiences, thus highlighting the selective sympathy of modern day audiences.

About the author:

Elspeth Walker is an English Literature and Creative Writing Student at the University of Warwick in her final year of study. She has a strong interest in studying and the writing of literature which explores sociological and political themes, especially those around gender. Elspeth is passionate about writing fiction, art and traveling, and lived in Italy for a year to study and learn Italian.

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