March 6, 2017

Displacement and citizenship

School of Visual Arts (SVA)
Bo yaser, Destruction in Bab Dreeb area in Homs, Syria. Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Here is the moment we live in, inhabited by two words: displacement and citizenship. Place, from its Greek and Latin origins, meaning broad, flat, an area. Citizen, going back to its most ancient meaning, to settle, to lie down. And here we are, with the outrageous tragedy of Syria, as just one contemporary instance, of vast and violent unsettlings, and here in the United States of the sudden rise of forced deportation, of displacement—meaning the place not to be shared. The displaced return only as citizens of the terrifying territory of homelessness, of violence, of death. The rivers of the uprooted, the debris of mayhem polluting the world.

And to this, add that ours is also a moment in which democracy as the idea of shared ideas and principles, of the potential of consensus, which originally meant, with perception, is no longer about being together in a shared place of many perceptions. Instead, the explicit antiphony of failure and false claims. Instead, the narrowing, blocking, and destruction of the many is reduced to the rule of one voice and the coerced entrenchment of sameness.

We can say that the scheme of the world as it’s now being politically redrawn pictures the heaviness of borders, the dominance of the inside, and the will to propose anything outside as the place of danger. Inside, an infinitely varied emphasis on sameness and the federally militarized force of limit. Outside… well, but everything that deviates from sameness is now weaponized as outside, as other. The paradox of the refugee, derived from verb to run away, to flee, is that every place for the one who is not the same as the ruling people becomes the place in which one is always still unsettled, endangered, on the brink yet again of ruin, and that all place becomes distance.

Ethics, the protocols of living together, is undone by displacement, even the right to ethics. We take so much for granted in the art world, celebrating concepts, structures, and experiences of difference. That intensity of an ethics of the social is central to much of artistic and curatorial practice. But what we are experiencing, all of us, with the rise of the new politics of shock, is that there is never in this world of dominance an ethics of the outcast, only of the one inside, only for the one who claims the identity of the settled, taking the unsettled as those who are outside the border of caring—and saying that the essence of anyone who is not the same exists at a distance from care. Displacement as the place of harm loosens bodies from the love of protection and the qualities of mercy.

If curating is traditionally an act of care, there is no beneficent curating of the refugee’s body, no finding of the protective place in its oldest meaning of both bed and beloved. To think of curating in this broad mandate of securing rights for difference in the place of the beloved, in which distance and intimacy are given the attention of care, is our urgent mandate. To curate is to take action in a speaking of inside and outside against the violence of sameness. It is time to express again what living together means. We need to do it now, think about the many ways we can do it, what we offer in our lives as citizens and cultural producers to secure an ethics of place in its needed complexity that is now, as we witness it, brutally undermined, brutally extinguished.

What we do in Curatorial Practice is one part of this. Join us.

Steven Henry Madoff
Chair, MA Curatorial Practice, the School of Visual Arts

*Image above: Bo yaser, Destruction in Bab Dreeb area in Homs, Syria. Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,


Displacement and citizenship: letter from School of Visual Arts (SVA) MA Curatorial Practice

Thank you!

An email with a confirmation link has been sent to the email address you entered. To complete your subscription, click this link.