By Darian Razdar
Edited by Kelly Lui
IN THE PRESENCE OF ARCHIVAL ABSENCE1
In Summer 2021, South Asian Scarborough-raised artist, Noor Khan, was in the process of moving to the United States to pursue a MFA at Maryland Institute College of Art. Following Khan’s southward route, only a month later, was a hard drive carrying the only living records of her 2018 video installation “SABIREEN.” Like Khan, or any other person travelling into the United States, the hard drive had to cross the border. Such seemingly trivial devices contain archives of work that would otherwise be lost.
1 In reference to Mahmoud Darwish’s self-eulogy, In the Presence of Absence (Archipelago Books, 2011).
Digital documentation of artwork has become even more crucial to artistic practice in the pandemic. As economies digitize and demands for accessibility increase, the need for digital documentation challenges artists, collectives, and institutions alike to archive their work. We may think of devices like Khan’s hard drive as more than data storage, but as records of presence.
I could not have written this text without this record of presence. I moved to Toronto the same month SABIREEN exhibited in the group show “TERMS AND CONDITIONS”, curated by Timothy Yanick Hunter, at Margin of Eras Gallery2 in August 2018. I was fresh to the city and not yet acquainted with Toronto’s arts spaces, so I did not view the work first-hand. Writing about SABIREEN four years later, waiting for the hard drive to pass the border and reach Khan’s new residence was a necessary, albeit uncertain, process. I witnessed SABREEN, and learned more about its context, once the recording reached Khan in Autumn 2021. TACLA editor, Kelly Lui, coordinated and participated in this informative discussion.
Nevertheless, the process of responding to a site-specific work I did not witness in context begs the question: how have time, space, and medium changed SABIREEN into something to remember anew?
REMEMBERING SABIREEN ANEW
SABIREEN invites us into a place Khan is well acquainted with: JFK International Airport’s customs & border security holding room. The artist projects this room onto a white wall. In the room, three reinforced doors, six surveillance windows, and one payphone quickly reference sites of detention and incarceration. A white chair, which Khan placed in front of the projection, faces opposite the three doors and beside the telephone. The empty chair lacks its detainee. The chair waits for us, the viewers, while we watch. The chair is almost eager to see what might come out of the doors and take a seat.
While we watch and wait, we see a story of empire, racism, and war projected onto the holding room. On the walls and doors, a truck tows a military drone down a tarmac, Pashtun men pray on their knees, drone imagery of rural landscapes whirl, Bin Laden’s eyes stare, and Khan’s passport stamps from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia hauntingly fade in and out. On the floor, a plane flies into one World Trade Center tower while the other burns. And the white chair remains empty.
It is no coincidence that the word “sabireen” comes from the Quran, meaning “patient ones” — who, through acts of waiting, win God’s favour. Watching the walls and floors of the waiting room become projected with monochromatic ‘terrorist’ stereotypes, a haunting feeling begins to wash over us. Where are we? What are we doing here, watching and waiting? Who is the seat meant to sit? These questions are exactly those which the artist seeks to elicit.
2 Margin of Eras Gallery (MOEG), a project of CUE Arts Initiative, was located on Queen Street West in Parkdale, Toronto from 2018-2020. According to its website, MOEG was “a multidisciplinary arts space dedicated to showcasing the work of new generation artists who live and work on the margins.” The gallery announced its prospective closure due to lack of funding and systemic support in January 2020.
THE POLITICS OF WAITING
“Some people are forced into patience,” Khan said in our conversation around SABIREEN. As a Pashtun woman and migrant, Khan knows patience. Having lived in (so-called) Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Canada, and most recently the United States, the many borders she traverses have forced her into waiting — in lines, in rooms, at school, and at home. This is a forced patience which, through SABIREEN, Khan rebukes.
The room of Khan’s installation is where waiting becomes political. As we learn from Shahram Khosravi in his anthology, Waiting: A Project in Conversation (2021), “One of the basic divisions in the world today is between those who are forced into protracted conditions of waiting and those who impose it”.3 The empty chair and empty room are not merely metaphors, they represent material realities and lived experiences of the border.
By being forced to wait in this room, and on this chair, one is othered from those outside. Two classes emerge: those who wait and those who do not. In other words, the room and the chair racialize people. They reproduce racial hierarchies alongside class — depriving people of self-determination and, what has become perhaps the most precious asset of all, time. In this way, Khan points with Khosravi toward the forever co-incidence of race and class, time and space, waiting and unwaiting.4
Khan’s choice of images in SABIREEN positions waiting within the context of borders, war, and empire. By cutting and overlaying video of drones, passport stamps, 9/11 attacks, and South Asian people onto the image of the border control waiting room and the empty chair, even the incredulous viewer accepts the waiting room as a space charged with political stigma. This stigma, wrapped up in xenophobia and imperialism, also underlies the ‘War on Terror.’
Through counter-projection, Khan casts the waiting room as a small but emblematic part of a worldwide web of borders that grant and restrict access to free passage based on race and class.
TECHNOLOGIES OF MOBILITY AS FREEDOM
Reflecting on SABIREEN, Khan remarks upon the dissonance she experiences in spaces of air travel. On one hand, Khan acknowledges a sense of belonging to airports and airplanes because of their ubiquity throughout her migrant life. Air travel allowed her to connect with family abroad and maintain multiple belongings.
On the other, Khan’s work speaks to the explicit acts of war facilitated by aerial technologies, as seen in her use of drone footage and 9/11 eyewitness recordings. These are the very same technologies in which Khan found a sense of migrant belonging.
Khan’s dissonance within airplanes and airports evokes a crucial message in SABIREEN’s whirling images: the technologies many associate with mobility, and thus freedom, are always materially linked with bordering, statecraft, and war. While many of us are already aware of commercial aerial technology’s military origins, a close reading of SABIREEN reveals their role in crystallizing global nation-state violence.
Will you be the one on the plane or in the chair? Will you be the drone’s pilot or its victim?
3 Shahram Khosravi, “The Weight of Waiting,” in Waiting: A Project in Conversation, ed. Shahram Khosravi (Bielefeld, Germany: transcript, 2021), 14.
4 Shahram Khosravi, “Waiting Bodies in Dictatorial and Bordering Regimes,” The Funambulist, no. 36 (2021): 46-49.
Our economy tells us that we must constantly be on the move, endlessly searching for new opportunities, in order to be free. Anyone left immobile is deemed not only worthless, but dangerous. Marxists contend that mobility is the engine of capital. Capitalism will exist as long as capitalists can move money, labourers, and material around the world in search of higher profits.5 Our sense of freedom becomes entangled in mobility as long as we live in a capitalist world.6
Borders are perhaps the most ubiquitous, but most normalized, examples of violence as it relates to mobility. As Etienne Balibar discerns in relation to Europe’s migrant detention system, “The borders of new sociopolitical entities, in which an attempt is being made to preserve all the functions of the sovereignty of the state, are no longer entirely situated at the outer limit of territories.”7 The border control waiting room projected in SABIREEN represents a space where the State contests individual belonging. The room makes an enemy and a victim out of whoever waits in its chair. Indeed, this room is the archetypical border — a space between two worlds, between freedom and incarceration.
Khan drags us into what is usually a room hidden from public view. In doing so, we may reflect on how racialized hierarchies take shape in material objects and physical space. Air travel, as we know today, divides the masses in myriad ways: express entry at customs, pre-checks, frequent-flier levels, ‘random’ selection, interrogation, searching personal belongings, cabins and boarding zones separated by class, access to free refreshments, and even extra leg room.
Still, the most glaring of racialized class distinctions are hidden in plain sight. Entire air travel, trade, and military industries rely on arduous and menial labour by local working classes. Unlike their flight-bound counterparts, airplanes and airports are sites where air industry workers are so deprived of mobility that they are subject to increased surveillance by their employers, carcinogenic exposure, injury, and disease.
Whereas mobility equals freedom, anything less is made equal to death within the strictures of empire and capital.
6 Anti-airport land protection movements around the world are prime examples of people organizing against capitalism’s organization of the world around a kind of mobility based on enclosures, destruction of nature and communal relations — Narita International Airport, Heathrow International Airport, Zone à défendre (ZAD) de Notre-Dame-des-Landes, etc.
7 Etienne Balibar, We, the People of Europe?, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 1.
IN THE WAITING ROOM
Migrant trajectories, as Khan counter-projects in SABIREEN, provide alternative understandings of mobility and freedom. Migrant mobilities are compulsory. That is to say, they are not free. Many barriers, borders, and waitings interrupt migrant mobilities. We see so much in Khan’s allusions to racial profiling, surveillance, and war embedded into the airport waiting room. For these reasons, we may be quick to equate migration to a kind of death that exists outside the idea of ‘mobility as freedom.’
However, I do not think that Khan points toward ‘migration as death’ as a way out of ‘mobility as freedom.’ Khan chose specific images to solicit human empathy in the face of war and xenophobia. Migration is not these acts of violence. Khan’s choice to evidence violence on the surface of the waiting room rebukes wars over borders and xenophobia. In doing so, the artist points toward the inherent human desire to move and the consequences of constricting that desire.
SABIREEN calls for freedom apart from mobility: freedom to imagine one’s own narratives, project one’s own images, and reclaim one’s own agency.
By disorienting our surface-level understanding of air travel, borders, and waiting, Khan reorients us toward the simultaneous freedom and violence inherent to migrant mobilities. If we were only to take a seat in SABIREEN’s white chair, we may come to see migration as evasion, disruption, or even triumph over systems that counteract human desire for movement.
Indeed, it was always Khan’s intention for her audience to see from the chair’s perspective. In the act of waiting, the seeds of resistance are planted. To again quote Shahram Khosravi, “[waiting] opens doors for resistance, for refusing. . . the revolutionary unwaiting.”8
SABIREEN is Khan’s way of shining light on the otherwise hidden spaces of migrant detention — breaking the illusion of the individual border experience and creating the potential for a collective one. Only by understanding what borders do to all of us, are we able to mount resistance to borders, states, and empires.
As art institutions continue to co-opt revolutionary struggles, aestheticizing social movements to the point of losing all potential for material change, it is crucial that artists like Khan continue to push past liberal ideals of representation and inclusion and toward art that continues to provoke, disorient, and confound.
8 Shahram Khosravi, “Waiting Bodies in Dictatorial and Bordering Regimes,” in The Funambulist, no. 36 (2021): 47.
Khosravi, Shahram. “Waiting Bodies in Dictatorial and Bordering Regimes.” The Funambulist, no. 36 (2021): 46-49.
Balibar, Etienne. We, the People of Europe?. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.
Waiting: A Project in Conversation. Edited by Shahram Khosravi. Bielefeld, Germany: transcript, 2021.