An Experience of
Migratory Flows in an
Urban Codes, Crossings and Migrations: A Public Walk, was a collaborative project developed by graduate students in Professor Nitin Sawhaney’s Curatorial CoLab as part of public programming for The New School’s spring 2015 exhibition Guatemala Despues – the first public display of Guatemalan contemporary art in New York. SITIO-SEÑA (Sign Sight) is an artist-led collective that proposed the use of a code to mark the road and guide illegal transmigrants from Guatemala to the USA. Inspired by quilt codes used by US abolitionists involved in the underground railroad the artists designed their own symbology of codes for migrants heading north, reinterpreting signs used in traditional knitting and embroidery Guatemalan textiles and graphic signs of popular culture. These signs were then digitally inscribed into photographic images of landscapes familiar to those who have traversed these migratory pathways.
As part of the CoLab course, New School student collaborators actively engaged with the themes of the exhibition and dialogued extensively with SITIO-SEÑA about their artistic practice and possibilities for translating their vision into the New York City context. As this process continued, several important thematic questions emerged: How do migrants learn to “read” and interpret their surroundings in a strange, often hostile environment? How does a landscape communicate safe harbor? Who are the people who help migrants navigate the way to these secret yet welcoming spaces? How might students transpose SITIO-SEÑA’s themes of migration and freedom onto New York City’s urban landscape? How might we engage the public through the experience of “sign reading” and migratory flow in the City?
Thus began a three-way collaboration between SITIO-SEÑA, the New York-based, Walk Exchange and The New School. A public walk could provide an opportunity to reflect and respond experientially to these questions from within and outside the gallery space. Walk participants might be engaged in a deeper layer of the experience on their home turf. Walking as an aesthetic practice has enormous potential for facilitating creative public interaction. In this public walk the migratory codes developed by Sitio Sena were used as a catalyst for the public to create their own migratory paths along the city streets.
Contemporary artists have often employed walking as a form or research for their practice. In the 1950’s, the practice of urban walks or “drifting” developed by the Situationists evolved as a new way to experience the city environment through psychogeographical dérive (drift), using their senses as a guide. The experience of drifting through an urban landscape as in a dérive continuously challenges sensations and perceptions, as streets become “a labyrinth of endless steps” in a seemingly infinite space. In The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster describes walking in New York as:
New York was an inexhaustible space, a labyrinth of endless steps, and no matter how far he walked, no matter how well he came to know its neighborhoods and streets, it always left him with the feeling of being lost. Lost, not only in the city, but within himself as well. Each time he took a walk, he felt as though he were leaving himself behind, and by giving himself up to the movement of the streets, by reducing himself to a seeing eye, he was able to escape the obligation to think, and this, more than anything else, brought him a measure of peace, a salutary emptiness within. The world was outside of him, around him, before him, and the speed with which it kept changing made it impossible for him to dwell on any thing for very long. Motion was of the essence, the act of putting one foot in front of the other and allowing himself to follow the drift of his own body.
"How might we engage the public through the experience of “sign reading” and migratory flow in the City?"
"New York was an inexhaustible space, a labyrinth of endless steps, and no matter how far he walked, no matter how well he came to know its neighborhoods and streets, it always left him with the feeling of being lost"
In response to a dialogue with Sitio-Seña and The New School, The Walk Exchange designed and facilitated the public walk, Urban Codes, Crossings and Migrations as part of the Guatemala Despues Exhibition at the Sheila Johnson Design Center (SJDC). The streets of Manhattan served as a “text” to reinterpret Sitio-Seña’s artwork displayed in the gallery.
The event was divided in four parts: an introduction, large group walk, smaller paired walk, and a final debrief and collective code drawing activity in the gallery. Participants were asked to respond to one of the Sitio-Seña signs as a group, modeling what the participants did later in smaller groups or pairs. The group stepped outside and collectively decided on the “first intervention” out into the landscape. Leadership changed frequently changing as walkers attempted directed the group toward a new interpretation of the sign. The large group then split into pairs to re-interpret their code in a new way in the surrounding Greenwich Village neighborhood.
Participants returned to the gallery 40 minutes later to debrief and create their own codes/symbols using the same grid as Sitio-Seña. The New York codes were then shared with the artists who, in response, would design their own walk in Guatemala in June 2015, thus extending and building upon the themes of the New School’s Guatemala Despues exhibition transnationally.
The Course Of Events As
The Walk Experience Unfolded
About the exhibition:
Guatemala Después is an artistic and curatorial collaboration between The New School and Ciudad de la Imaginación. The project culminates into artistic works showcased in a digital collection, exhibition and public programming hosted at the Sheila Johnson Design Center (SJDC) in New York City from April 9-29, 2015 and in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala in June 2015.
Guatemala Después seeks to support site-specific artistic investigations that may reveal, activate, provoke or transform the ways in which we understand historic memory, repression, healing and forms of utopia or dystopia emerging in Guatemala in the past 30 years, and what is happening in response to that in Guatemala today. It also critically examines the political, economic and cultural influences between the United States and Guatemala.
Sitio-Seña is a textile art collective based in Guatemala. Sitio-Seña presents itself as a utopic project with their use of graphic codes to tell a story about migration as part of an evolutionary process of culture and civilization. It is an analogy of migrant flow and search for utopia, taking into account the actual migration of Guatemalans to the United States. The result is an ensemble of symbols based on the rich textile traditions in Guatemala, everyday life and nostalgia between both countries.
This project proposes the usage of a symbology to guide transmigrants between Guatemala and the United States, based on textile traditions from both nations. During the 19th century, former slaves used so--called “quilt codes”, applications of traditional American quilts during the 19th century, to guide their way from south to north. These codes were based on symbologies of African fabrics and contained messages for registry, orientation and advice. Due to the secrecy and invisibilization of the history of the quilt codes, Sitio-Seña’s proposal is a dynamic code in continuous process. Their work can be though of as a reflection on the transmigratory flows, language, collaboration, and traditional and contemporary symbolism.
Artists: Iris Castillo, Andrea Monroy, Quique Lee, and Paulo Chang.
Students At The New School
The Walk Exchange develops educational and creative walks to learn about spaces, ideas, and each other. They emphasize the body as a way to produce and transmit knowledge, and encourage the human body to break from the rhythm of contemporary life. The Walk Exchange was founded by Dillon de Give, Bess Matassa, Virginia Millington, Blake Morris, and Moira Williams, and since its beginning in 2010, they have led an and hosted an monthly walk series. Over the course of the years they have partnered with organizations to conduct workshops and site-specific projects.
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Resources: Migrations and flows
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