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Counterpoints Arts

OU 2

Guest post by Marie Gillespie, Professor of Sociology, The Open University

Afraid to go out. Locked in at home. Being suspended in limbo, in an incomprehensible state, where time stands still, with no control over what is going to happen. Being isolated from family and friends. And in a different country. Being resourceful. Surviving adversity. These are all everyday experiences for asylum seekers but which many more of us have experienced in this enforced lockdown period.

Our research project COVID-19 Chronicles from the Margins chronicles the impact of COVID 19 and  through the use of smartphone tools, we are working locally,  across the UK and internationally to co-create a digital archive and exhibition. The project began in March and in Swansea alone we have already captured the views of 70 asylum seekers and 20 support group volunteers and workers. Early findings reveal that these groups see lockdown is an opportunity for the mainstream population to relate to their experiences, such as being a virtual prisoner in the house. This is what many asylum seekers have gone through, often for years on end. Our research reveals a catalogue of woes caused by structural inequalities – deprivation, destitution, hunger and poverty including digital poverty, depression and information precarity.

But our work also reveals the light, bright, creative, artful side of lockdown. Since lockdown we have been inviting asylum seekers, refugees and undocumented people in our networks to share their stories. The images, sounds and texts shared with us on smartphones reflect myriad experiences – not just the problems but also opportunities, activities and hobbies, new learning and pleasures, reflections on time, love, discord, courage, isolation and hopes and dreams for the future.

We launched our website to coincide with Refugee Week and (at the link above) you can see the beginnings of a very rich archive of digital cultural artefacts, the images and voices created by people who are so often invisible or silenced. This cultural public intervention seeks to challenge the conventional politics of representing refugees as either victims or villains or dependent on state handouts. It documents “simple acts” of artful and creative resistance to marginalisation, and resilient responses to multiple overlapping crises that they experience. Together, we are documenting contemporary history for generations to come so that they may glimpse what life was like during this strange period.

The spirit of solidarity generated by the project has inspired a politics of hope – an imagining of a better the future together – at a time when hope seemed lost. These everyday acts of creative communication enabled by smartphones have been key to establishing and sustaining personal and collective resilience under lockdown.

We don’t know where the project will take us but as it unfolds we hope it will inspire, unsettle, provoke us all into making the margins mainstream and imagining a better future together.

If you’d like to contribute to the project or know someone who would please get in touch: marie.gillespie@open.ac.uk @MarieBGillespie