UCR anthropologist creates international artistic workshops about migration

Photo courtesy of Susan Ossman

Susan Ossman, front left, and the Doremimi choir in a workshop hosted in Amsterdam.

By Patrick Anthony 
Student Writer, CHASS Marketing & Communications

Susan Ossman is an artist, author, and professor of anthropology and global studies at UCR. Ossman’s art practice is centered in painting and installation. In recent years, collaborations she has initiated across anthropology and the arts have developed her skills as a curator, performer, and film/digital media producer.

“Life is movement, if we stop moving then that’s it,” Ossman said. "We need to keep moving.”

Ossman’s own life has been a study in movement. She was born in Chicago, moved to San Francisco at 13, to Paris at 20, then to New York City, back to Paris for a few years, then to Berkeley for her Ph.D. For her research she moved to Paris to study the “SOS Racisme” movement and then to Morocco where she did fieldwork on media and politics. In Rabat, she also founded a research institute before heading for teaching jobs in Paris, Washington, D.C., Houston and London. Then it was on to Riverside where she arrived in 2007 following fieldwork on migration in the Middle East and Europe, funded by a Guggenheim fellowship.

“I consider Paris home because I have a son and granddaughter who live there,” Ossman said. “But I also consider California home because my mother lives here and, of course, so do I at least for now.”

Ossman has published several books and many articles on human migration, globalization, politics, and media. She wrote Moving Matters, Paths of Serial Migration which provided the framework for her project The Moving Matters Traveling Workshop (MMTW).

MMTW is a collection of artists and scholars who travel all over the world to develop performances, art installations, discussions and workshops that focus on migrant experiences. Each workshop includes old and new participants and focuses on a specific issue tied to the site. In Amsterdam in 2014, they developed an exhibition/intervention and performance at the Allard Pierson Museum of Mediterranean Antiquities that focused on objects in relation to migration. In Berlin in 2017, they created the WALLS exhibition at the Berlin Wall memorial and developed an original performance. To date, the MMTW has organized more than a dozen events across the globe.

We recently sat down with Professor Ossman to discuss MMTW, her creative work and future projects.

How did the idea of the Moving Matters Traveling Workshop come to you?

I wrote a book called “Moving Matters, Paths of Serial Migration” in which I asked: What happens when the immigrant moves on? I explored the lives of serial migrants based on research, and then when the book came out I wanted feedback. I invited a group of academics, artists and authors who are serial migrants, people who had migrated more than once to react to the book at an event at the Culver Center in 2013.

When you travel, do people from other cities participate? How do you go about recruiting local collaborators?

Wherever we work, it is very site-specific. We work there because we are invited, usually by an organization, gallery, or museum.  We invite artists or scholars in the areas to participate in the project.

For example, in Berlin we worked with the refugee center of the church, so they knew people. If we work with an art center or theatre group, they often know people who would love to get involved as well.

One of the projects that stood out was in Berlin in June 2017 and focused on “Walls”. Can you tell us about that workshop and its significance?

It was about walls of all kinds. Nowadays many countries are building new border walls including us. So it was really about ‘what is a wall’? In English, the word has this dual aspect. On one hand, it protects us but on the other it keeps others out. We worked with this ambiguity in the symbolic site that was once the symbolic marker of the cold war.

Can you also tell me about your work in the Allard Pierson Museum, Amsterdam’s premiere archeological museum?

That workshop was called “Objects In and Of Migration.” In archaeological venues, you have very ancient and expensive objects. The Allard Pierson Museum focuses on the Mediterranean. Given all of the political debates about people crossing the Mediterranean to Europe, we used these antiquities to get at current issues. We simply asked, how did they get here?

Goods, such as an ancient Egyptian slipper, have their own stories. The Egyptian shoes were once ordinary but now that they’ve moved around and time has passed and thus as a result they have become very valuable. But is it the same for people? Do migrants become more important when they move? We raised these essential questions as we explored them from our shared background as serial migrants to develop an exhibition and performance in rapport with the artifacts and using museum conventions ironically.

What has been the most rewarding thing to come from creating MMTW?

The sense of community that it has created. We all started with this commonality of shared migration experiences and, little by little, have built this ongoing community that serves as a reference point and source for our art, research and writing. Over time, the community has developed and while we always work on movement, we are less focused on serial migration than in the beginning. We include people who have diverse migration experiences or none at all.

We are heading into a new stage where our work is more and more thinking how people with these different paths and experiences look at the world. I’m working on a new book inspired by the work of the MMTW about mobility diversity.

Do you have a dream site you’d like to bring the workshop to? And if so, what specific issue would you want it to focus on?

Well actually Berlin was one of those dream sites. Another artist and I had gone there a while ago for a conference and we wrote to the wall monument but nothing was happening. Then I met Lisa Strehmann from the Refugee Office of Protestant Dinary in Fall 2016. She got her organization and the Kapelle der Versöhnung at the wall monument involved and we set it up for June. It just took that one special person to set things in motion.

What are you working on next?

Besides my individual writing about mobility and diversity, I’m working on a digital book about the MMTW with Juliette Levy from the UCR history department. I’m in discussions about possible workshops with colleagues in Rome, Vancouver and Los Angeles.  MMTW member Priya Srinivasan has also been in talks about collaborating on a workshop on issues of territory with indigenous artist groups in Melbourne.

All of this happening depends on grants, schedules, and other variables. It is a lot of work because we have to conceptualize each workshop anew, as well as work with new partners. Our methods involve substantial research on each site and issue. But in the end. it is completely worth it when you consider the critical impact of this work, both for the audience and for the development of the participants’ research and art.

For more information about Susan Ossman and the Moving Matters Traveling Workshop, visit movingmattersworkshops.ucr.edususanossman.com, or Allegra Lab’s series on the collective.

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