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System of Systems is a transdisciplinary research project founded in 2016 by Rebecca Glyn-Blanco, Maria McLintock and Danae Papazymouri, which explores the legal framework and technology present in the European asylum-seeking systems. Contra caught up with its founders to find out more about the project’s aims and its increasing relevance in relation to displacement and migration.
Through exhibitions, events and a publication, System of Systems poses fundamental questions concerning our relationship with asylum-seekers and the neoliberal context in which they are located. What policies are we voting for as citizens of European countries? How does the asylum-seeking system illegalise people? And how is technology used in processes which both discover and discredit evidence? By positioning the project within such investigations, we hope to encourage debate around a number of pertinent themes, such as the use of language, both oral and written; the role of the body and biometrics; the agency (or lack thereof) of refugees, asylum-seekers and irregular migrants within the system; and the myriad infrastructures and territories along the ‘refugee journey’. By collaborating with artists, designers, architects, academics and activists, we provide an accessible entry to this ever-complex subject through transdisciplinary research.
The number of people applying for asylum in the EU reached a record 1.20 million in 2016, according to Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics agency. This figure is nearly double the previous high water mark of roughly 700,000 set in 1992, following the fall of the Iron Curtain. To ‘cope’ with growing numbers of displaced people, the EU has delegated more and more autonomy to ‘border management agencies’. One of the largest such agencies, called The European Agency for the Management of the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union – commonly known as Frontex – has seen its budget inflate from €6 million to €238 million since its founding in 2005. The namesake of our project – System of Systems – is an informal term used to describe a division within Frontex called EUROSUR. This subsection is described as an ‘information exchange framework’ and ‘surveillance system’ that operates on behalf of the EU. The process of seeking asylum is a ‘system’ composed of many ‘systems’. By stealing this term from EUROSUR, we are overlaying the discomfort produced by their ambitious definition and turning it into a nonsensical term open for redefinition.
The project’s first exhibition took place in Athens in May 2017 and showed the work of nine artists and artistic collaborations. In conjunction with the exhibition, we published a book collating a series of commissioned and re-published essays and interviews. The book opens with an introduction by journalist Daniel Trilling, who examines the hierarchical ‘zone-ing’ of Europe into first and second reception states (to the benefit of wealthier countries). The publication is then divided into three sections: ‘Language’, ‘Territory’ and ‘Agency’.
‘Language’ explores the medium as a crucial means of determining asylum claims, and the section includes an interview with academic and activist Paul Feigelfeld on the ‘Refugee Phrasebook’ project and an essay exploring the artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s ‘Conflicted Phonemes’ (who was featured in our inaugural Athens exhibition). ‘Territory’ incorporates texts that deal with spaces of immigration detention, borders and processes of mapping made unofficially by refugees or officially by states and border management companies. Included here is the essay ‘It is obvious from the map’ by human rights academic Thomas Keenan and curator Sohrab Mohebbi, which addresses the circulation of maps via WhatsApp by a volunteer refugee organisation to aid crossings of the Mediterranean in real time. Finally, ‘Agency’ questions interrelated power relations at play within the process of migration. For example, academic Ayesha Hameed in her essay ‘The Petfrication of the Image’ investigates the act of refugees burning their fingerprints to avoid detection in border control identity databases and how, through this act, the migrant body, the state and international law become inextricable. Additionally Maria McLintock’s interview with a squat initiative in Athens is included, which examines how refugees are using alternative housing initiatives to alleviate the often draconian living conditions of camps.
We are currently in the planning and research stages for a new phase in the life of System of Systems. In keeping with the theme of the emancipatory nature of technology, we are launching a project which will involve circulating a ‘newsletter’ collating pressing news, information regarding activist groups, events and sharing a commissioned visual or written essay by a practitioner working in the field. Since the summer of 2015 when a global refugee crisis was declared, there has been a stark decline in journalistic and artistic responses to this issue; seemingly, the crisis is no longer at the forefront of debate. This is in no way congruous to the severity and urgency of the current migration climate. Through this project, we hope to provide an ongoing voice providing vital commentary on this issue.
The System of Systems is available to order, to find out more visit: www.systemofsystems.info