THE ABSENCE OF PATHS VENICE
La Biennale di Venezia
“THE ABSENCE OF PATHS”
COMMISSIONER: THE PRESIDENCY OF THE REPUBLIC
AND THE TUNISIAN MINISTRY OF CULTURE
CURATOR: LINA LAZAAR
PRESS LAUNCH AND PHOTO OPPORTUNITY
Tuesday 9th May 2017 | 9.30 am
Wednesday 10 May 2017 | 12:30 – 15:00pm
Kiosk at intersection of Via Garibaldi and
Riva dei Sette Martiri, Venice
THREE LOCATIONS INCLUDING AN OUTDOOR CHECKPOINT
AT THE ARSENALE SHIPYARD,
A CENTRAL ISSUING CENTER IN THE
ARSENALE’S SALE D’ARMI BUILDING,
AND A KIOSK ON THE CROSSING OF VIA GARIBALDI
Giardini Vaperetto stop: 5 min walk
“I didn’t come here of my own accord,
and I can’t leave that way.
Whoever brought me here,
will have to take me home.”
The Absence of Paths is Tunisia’s first national pavilion at the Arte Biennale di Venezia since 1958. Technological advancements, increased education, and a burgeoning global economy have facilitated the movement of people across the globe in the past sixty years. But as the world becomes increasingly physically accessible, human migration, in turn, has become increasingly policed, rendering movement absurd.
Divisive rhetoric centered on exclusion, on borders and walls, is worryingly translating into action and is now considered normal.
This recent wave of activity may have found its origin in the inspired actions of one lone Tunisian man, whose self-immolation sparked a ‘Spring’ of protests across the Arab World. The ensuing humanitarian crisis has, in turn, become a limit case that is testing our investment in human rights, if not the terms of our investment in humanity itself. It is the migratory manifestation of this crisis, and the resulting reevaluation of our collective humanity, that is at the heart of the Tunisian national pavilion.
The conversation on migration begins at the physical pavilion in Venice, a collection of three kiosks, where a performance piece exploring the cold mechanics of immigration bureaucracy repurposed for an imagined world free of borders will take place. The discussion extends to this online platform, where you will find a collection of artistic and academic expression on the concept of migration. We invite you to visit the VENICE and ONLINE PLATFORM pages to learn more.
The Absence of Paths, Tunisia’s first national pavilion since 1958, challenges the contemporary political order through an interactive performance that inspires further inquiry into issues surrounding human migration. Curated by Lina Lazaar and commissioned by The Presidency of the Tunisian Republic and the Tunisian Ministry of Cultural Affairs, the exhibition uses performance and installation staged in different venues across Venice. Manned by collaborating individuals with firsthand experience on migration, several spaces will issue imitation travel documents to visitors. The venues include a historic outdoor checkpoint used by the navy to control access to the Arsenale, a 19th century municipal kiosk on the crossing of via Garibaldi (near the Giardini della Biennale); and a central issuing centre in the Sale d’Armi building inside the Arsenale. The pavilion is largely inspired by Tunisia’s use as a migratory launch pad into Europe, and is atypical for a pavilion in its physical manifestation.
The Absence of Paths frames La Biennale di Venezia as a microcosm of our planet. The project leverages the existence of the various national pavilions and the presence of multiethnic, culturally diverse visitors accessing the islands of Venice. The Absence of Paths presents participants with the means to lodge an artistic challenge towards the reinvigorated strands of nationalism at the forefront of today’s socio-political activity.
The Absence of Paths encourages each spectator to shed the baggage of national identity stifling our collective human consciousness. The debate extends beyond the physical space of Venice, through an interactive online platform www theabsenceofpaths.com which will feature text, video, audio, recipes, and photography collected from a wide range of thinkers, and will serve as a meeting point for visitors around the world.
Ghalia Ben Ali
The Absence of Paths is a human performance staged across Venice which, for the duration of the Biennial, represents an idyllic microcosm of the world: a place where human beings may still flow freely from one nation to the next. This is represented in a physical travel document called a Freesa, produced with the help of Veridos, a leader in producing secure identification papers for countries and companies around the world.
Freesas will be issued at three locations both inside and outside the perimeter of the Biennale: the Navy Kiosk, a historic outdoor checkpoint which was used by the Navy to control access to the Arsenale shipyard, located on across the China Pavilion, a central issuing centre in the Sale d’Armi building inside the Arsenale, and a 19th-century municipal kiosk on Via Garibaldi between the Arsenale and the Giardini. Together, they will create a triangular pavilion.
This installation will empower each and every visitor towards shedding the divisive baggage and classifications imposed upon people. The carefully developed collateral event, at the heart of the pavilion, will form the basis of a silent, individual protest.
Should they choose, all participants will retain the flexibility to significantly, albeit creatively, amplify their dissent, as they continue their journeys through Venice and beyond.
In addition to visitors from across the world, The Absence of Paths will leverage the active contributions of young aspirational migrants. Their passage to the Biennale by virtue of being part of an artistic practice at an internationally recognized contemporary art event will highlight contemporary art’s status as a global phenomenon, one which maintains the ability to inspire debate and inquiry.
From Mosul And Back Again
Ahmad* stands with his arms spread wide, the sun shimmering off of the turquoise water behind him, flashing a peace sign. There’s a smile inexplicably splashed across his face.
It’s mid-April 2016 in Pireaus, Greece, the main port outside of Athens. A month prior, Macedonia closed its southern border to refugees, shutting down the most accessible route for people fleeing war, conflict and economic desperation in the Middle East and South Asia to reach Western Europe. A million people passed this way in the last year. Now, more than 50,000 have been stopped in their tracks, their long march to safety suddenly brought to a screeching halt.
Ahmad has been here in the port since the border closed, along with around 6,000 other people who have transformed its passenger terminals into makeshift accommodations. When the terminals filled up, people started sleeping on the ground outside. A small village of brightly colored tents soon sprang up, along with a support structure manned by international volunteers who try to provide basic services. Despite their best efforts, conditions are not good: “squalid, unsanitary and unsafe” is how Human Rights Watch described them after visiting. Ahmad is fed up.
“I’ll go back to Iraq and work. It’s better than staying in a tent under the rain with nothing,” he says. He’s 19 and lean with a shadow of dark, patchy stubble on his chin; the sides of his head are buzzed and a thick mop of black hair on top of his head is pushed messly back. “Living in my country is better.”
Ahmad is from Mosul, Iraq’s second city, which has been occupied by the Islamic State since June 2014. Eight hundred militants swept into the dusty, sand colored city built along the banks of the Euphrates, driving out more than 30,000 Iraqi army soldiers trained and equipped by the United States. Ahmad was 18 at the time and about to finish high school, but fled before graduation. “I couldn’t live in Mosul under IS. I want to live free,” he says, something he thought he’d be able to do in Europe. But now, after scraping by in Turkey for two years and risking his life on a small inflatable boat to reach Greece, Ahmad is on his way back to Iraq.
The International Organization for Migration (IoM) has been passing out leaflets at the makeshift camp in Piraeus offering 400 Euro (about $450 at the time) and a free plane ticket to anyone who wants to go home. It’s one solution to the crisis in Greece. The others – providing adequate shelter and humanitarian support or relocating people to other European countries – seem a long way off. A year later, an EU relocation scheme remains largely unimplemented and tens of thousands of refugees are still stuck in Greece in shockingly inadequate conditions. “People here are homeless with nothing to eat,” Daniel Esdras, IoM’s country director in Greece, tells me over the phone. “If you can return someone with safety and with dignity you should do that.”
Safety is the key word. If a country isn’t safe – Syria for example – IoM cannot help people return there, even if someone wants to go back. Iraq has been in the throes of violent conflict since 2003. Yet in April of last year, IoM judged parts of the country to be safe enough to facilitate people’s return. “If our office in Baghdad tells us it’s safe to do returns, we do it,” Esdras says. I ask him about Ahmad’s case. “If he was telling us ‘I want to go back to Mosul,’ we cannot help him with that. He might be from Mosul, but if he wants to live in Baghdad, we can help him with that.”
That’s why Ahmad was smiling and posing by the sea; he wants pictures to commemorate his time spent in Greece. In a couple of hours he will head to the airport, collect his money from IoM, and board a flight to Baghdad. “Really, any country in the world that would let us in, I’d go there,” he says, but at the moment, there are no alternatives. “I’m not afraid,” he adds when I ask him about the security situation in Iraq.
During a layover at the airport in Istanbul, he starts to change his mind.
“I told them I didn’t want to go back,” he tells me later via WhatsApp. He starts thinking about the Shia militias that have been carrying out extrajudicial killings of Sunnis in Baghdad for years. “I’m from Mosul and I’m Sunni,” he says, worried that the militias will construe that to mean he supports IS and target him. “[IoM] sent me to Baghdad anyway.”
In Baghdad, Ahmad lives in fear. The money IoM gave him lasted about a week, he hasn’t been able to find work and he’s living in a cheap hotel. His parents are still in Mosul. They didn’t leave because they were worried that IS militants would occupy their house and loot their belongings, erasing the fruits of their entire life’s work. It’s been months since he last spoke to them. “They don’t have internet… and IS will kill anyone caught communicating with people outside Mosul,” Ahmad says. “I’m alone, I’m homeless, and I’m exhausted.”
It’s mid May when we are talking via WhatsApp, about a month after Ahmad returned to Iraq. I message him after reading a series of headlines about suicide bombings in Baghdad. In the past year, nearly 7,000 civilians have been killed in violence related to the ongoing conflict in the country. Attacks rip through crowded markets and cafes, leaving carnage at pilgrimage sites and places of worship. The UN special representative for Iraq describes the violence as “a wicked, unrelenting campaign to cause maximum casualties and inflict untold suffering on the population.” The majority of the deaths are in Baghdad – the city IoM deemed safe enough to help Ahmad go back to.
“I want to risk my life in the sea and return to Greece,” he says, but the route he took to Europe only a few short months ago is pretty much shut. Following the closing of the Macedonian border and the signing of the EU-Turkey deal that calls for new arrivals to be detained on the Greek Islands and returned to Turkey, the number of people crossing the Aegean to Europe has slowed to a trickle. Official programs to resettle refugees are slow and the number of slots severely limited compared to the people need. Ahmad, like hundreds of thousands of others, is stuck.
“Really, the situation in Iraq is not good. Actually, it’s terrible,” he says the last time we speak on WhatsApp. He hasn’t been online since August 22, 2016.
*Ahmad’s name has been changed at his request to protect his identity.
Eric Reidy is an investigative journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon. His reporting has taken him around the Mediterranean covering numerous topics in nearly a dozen countries. His current focus is on migration and refugees, and in 2016 Eric was a finalist in for a National Magazine Award and for the Kurt Schork Memorial Award for International Journalism for his work on Ghost Boat – an investigative series about the disappearance of 243 people in the Mediterranean Sea. His writing has appeared in WIRED Magazine, the New Republic Medium.com and Foreign Policy, among other outlets.
The Mediterranean Sea is at the center of the worst refugee crisis since World War II. Known as the deadliest border crossing in the world, the Mediterranean is a watery passage for those fleeing war, violence, political strife, persecution, and economic insecurity in search of better opportunities in Europe. For hundreds of thousands of these migrants, the murky depths of the Mediterranean is the end of their journey.
The Absence of Paths is proud to be partnering with MOAS (Migrant Offshore Aid Station), a Malta-based non-governmental organization that conducts professional search and rescue operations across the Mediterranean. Since it first began its operations in 2014, MOAS has saved 30,000 people from death. MOAS believes that no one should die at sea. If you feel the same, we encourage you to donate to this important organization. 85% of received donations go directly to saving the lives of migrants in distress.