The concept of mobilities has been an issue which has been discussed for some time in the pages of interdisciplinary journals such as Environment and Planning, a series of journals which focus on the interface of sociology, philosophy, urban studies and culture. There are, it is obvious, many different kinds of mobility. In Mobilities journal, based at Lancaster University, recent topics range from cruise and televisual tourism, ‘everyday cycling identities’, ‘seam sensitive walks’, the problem of ‘crafting quiet’ in trains, the aesthetics of aircraft safety cards and the spatialities of recreational road-running. It is a concept (or concepts) that is a source of continual evolution, reinvention and concern, in tandem with ever-changing political, cultural and physical environments.
Zineb Sedira’s recent work Collecting Lines, is a large-scale video work showing at the northern ticket hall at Kings Cross St Pancras and a series of photographs shown in stops along the Victoria line. The work has been commissioned by Art on the Underground which describes it as a ‘poetic reflection of networks, mapping and movement’ and is part of a series of ongoing public art projects from contemporary artists.
Sedira’s wider work frames questions about language, mobility, cultural identity and loss. It includes commissions from the Port of Marseille (the hidden interiors of sugar silos); ship graveyards in the harbour city of Nouadhibou, Mauritania (the main point of departure for African migrants trying to reach Europe); images of weather-battered lighthouses in Algeria built under French colonial rule; and a film commissioned by FACT (the desolation of a scrapyard where cars are stripped of mobility and purpose). Her work concerns metaphors of arrival and departure, stasis and transition, entrapment and escape, belonging and disconnection. Oral history plays a significant part – in Collecting Lines a tube driver who retired after 42 years of service driving the trains in the underground tunnels talks about the maps he collected and ones that he made during this time.
Sedira is interested in lines, those we see and don’t see – the Underground maps, its handrails and yellow lines on the platforms, the train rails, tunnels and hidden cables. Her video work includes drivers’ view of the tunnels, images of trains leaving and returning to their depots and being cleaned. Colour abstract photographs at Brixton station are drawn from the wires and circuitry which lie behind the panels at stations.
The Ben Uri Gallery and Museum in north London is a specialist collection which addresses issues of migration through the visual arts. Began as an art society in Whitechapel in 1915, it has over 1400 works from 380 artists from 35 countries and holds educational programmes, exhibitions and external projects. A recent conference discussed the ways in which identity, migration and art overlap and the responsibilities of art institutions to curate work by migrant artists.
Performance artist Kylie Walsh borrowed her mum’s caravan to host ‘experiments with intimacy’ in Mobile at the recent annual Latitude festival of poetry, theatre and installation in Suffolk in which she addressed an audience of nine about escaping from the orbit of class. Audio recordings based on real conversations were heard in the dark whilst the microwave and lamp flickered, the windows became video screens and the cupboard enclosed scenes from her suburban childhood. Kylie (real name Cindy – she changed it when she went to university), sat at one end of a sofa where ideas around mobility and escape played against the intimacy and proximity of performer and audience.
Walsh’s previous work concerned issues of people-trafficking from Eastern Europe – women smuggled illegally into the UK. In This is London: Life and Death in the World City (Picador, 2016), Ben Judah estimates that 600,000 people from Eastern Europe endure illegally in London, effectively in ‘a city within a city’ where ethnic groups become enclaves of immobility. At the heart of his book are his conversations and experiences with his subject. Romanian, Vietnamese and Russians speak about the glamour of London from afar and the fear and poverty close up. George Orwell (Down and Out in Paris and London, 1933), Walter Benjamin (Moscow Diary, 1926) and Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in My Mind (2015) all examine themes of poverty, otherness and hope of migration to the city from different perspectives from the journalistic to the autobiographical and it is this which informs much of Zineb Sedira’s work.
Born in Paris to Algerian parents who can’t read or write, the importance of oral history and storytelling is evident and interviews often appear in her work. Now living between Brixton, Paris and Algiers, since 2005 she has used her apartment in Algiers as a platform for international artists to exhibit. She has described the labyrinthine processes of trying to create something there, an aspect of which perhaps has resonance with the complexities of the urban fabric in London and its unknowability. The question, for example ‘Where is Brixton Village?’ asked online, provokes the following response:
Take the scenic route. Turn right when you set out of Brixton tube station and cross Atlantic Road (you’ll go under the railway bridge). Turn right into Brixton Station Road Market, then at the crossroads, turn right into Pope’s Road Market. The entrance to Brixton Village Arcade is a blue door under the blue bridge, about 100 metres on your left.
Or: Take the first right when you leave the tube and you’ll find yourself on Atlantic Road. Head down it until you find an entrance to Brixton Village Arcade on your left (it’s past the railway bridges).
Or: Head down Coldharbour Lane from the Town Hall and there’s another entrance on your left, just over the crossroads.
Or: Turn right when you get out of Brixton Tube Station and cross Atlantic Road (you’ll go under the railway bridge). Turn right into Brixton Station Road, then at the crossroads, turn right into Pope’s Road. About 100m ahead is the crossroads with Atlantic Road – turn left and then the entrance to Market Row is on the other side of the road, opposite Brixton Village.
Or: Turn left when you leave the tube and then the first left into Electric Lane. The entrance to Market Row is on your left.
Or: Head down Coldharbour Lane from the Town Hall and there’s another entrance on your left, 50 metres past the Ritzy cinema.
Or: Turn left out of the tube, cross Electric Avenue and then the entrance is not very far, just about 30 metres on your left. Walk through the arcade and you’ll see the entrance to Market Row just across Electric Lance. You can walk through Market Row on your way to Brixton Village, if that’s where you’re headed.
Art on the Underground’s collaborators include Black Cultural Archives, London Sinfonietta, London Wildlife Trust and Vestry House Museum. Movement between these would perhaps make for an interesting Urban Salon Workshop along the lines of Networks of Possibility: Experimental Sound, Class, History and Nocturnal Territorialism.