Fruit of my Labor
I recently had a chat with Sami, who has been living in Amsterdam for the past seven years as an undocumented migrant. During this time he hasn’t learned Dutch and one of my awkward questions was simply why? His answer was that since the asylum system has been telling him – over and over again – that he doesn’t have a future here…why should he learn the language? And as someone that has instead chosen to do precisely that, to learn not one but two languages… it struck me. Both time I did it because I was convinced that was a necessary step, the only way forward to build a future for myself. Along the way, I discovered how that future didn’t really look like any of my plans for it, but still, here I am. What happens though when you get told that there is no place for you? That you will be sent back, even though you have nowhere to go back to. When asked where is he from Sami usually answers he’s from heaven since he actually was born a refugee. I really didn’t know what to say at that point, so I probably said something lame like ‘oh that’s such a good answer’.
But now let’s picture a different situation, let’s fast forward to the day I have to do a presentation or I have to write an article and I’m trying to impress someone and I use these quotes from Sami. I can already hear the little gasp ‘born a refugee!’, the knowing giggle ‘from heaven!’, see the widening of eyes ‘he refuses to learn the language!’. In my research, I focus on how the performance of heritage becomes part of the work of having to prove that you are here, that you are human, and that you deserve the right to occupy this space. But when I’m actually sitting across from someone that might know how that feels….the words get stuck in my throat. Because I’m thinking about those little gasps and ‘aaahs’ and blank stares of ‘I know this of course’. I’m supposed to study their performances but is ours the haunts me. The nodding in agreement, the deflective sarcasm, using words and stories that are not ours to do what exactly? Research is a funny thing, it’s supposed to be about the present but it actually delays it: it describes things that by the time the research is done do not apply anymore, have already been surpassed by reality. And it would be ok if so much of it – including my own, I fear – didn’t help in this weird global performance of pretending to know certain things and of not knowing others. How can we not know that this is the reality of many? Why do we need scholarship on suffering? I hear these questions coming from multiple places, inside and outside of me.
“Doctoral programs, dissertations, and the master’s thesis process tacitly encourage novice researchers to reach for low-hanging fruit. These are stories and data that require little effort—and what we know from years and years of academic colonialism is that it is easy to do research on people in pain. That kind of voyeurism practically writes itself. “Just get the dissertation or thesis finished,” novice researchers are told. The theorem of low-hanging fruit stands for pre-tenured faculty too: “Just publish, just produce; research in the way you want to after tenure, later.” This is how the academy reproduces its own irrepressible irresponsibility”
I’m thinking about this while I raise my hand to get the fruit. Do I bite into it? Do I use every single drop of its juice?
This is the third time that I live in a capital. I’m from a regular-sized city, which most people picture as a village once I tell them I’m from the South of Italy. It might have as well been one because growing up there I developed this hunger for space that turned into a series of big, sudden movings. And sometimes the reason I’d put forward would be “it feels too small here”. In my mind I’m a giant, my limbs extending throughout main streets, brushing against tall buildings. And yet, moving to the next bigger city hasn’t really made me an expert on how to live in them, let alone studying how they are curated.
But it’s easy to see why a concept like Curating the City would be appealing… and to whom. It’s bendable enough to be wielded by very different groups: institutions, artists, policy makers, community organizations. Gentrifiers and people waiting to be gentrified, to use a very broad stroke. Amsterdam feels very curated, but that was to be expected. What I didn’t expect was the sense of isolation that comes from looking at a city as a node of agendas, of interloping ‘curatorial strategies’. Before I could form my own opinion of this place I was already diligently reading up statistics and articles, listening to stories on what exactly is wrong with Amsterdam.
So what’s wrong with Amsterdam? I’d say exactly the same stuff that’s wrong everywhere else in Europe. Or in the West, or in the global North, whatever you want to call it. You know the kind of issues that stem from being the main exploiters of the rest of the world. What is maybe a bit more quintessentially Amsterdam is the very matter of fact way in which everything – from the Holocaust to Surinamese food to squatters – is now part of the IAMsterdam special brand of capitalistic fantasy of the ‘good life’. The city is obsessively depicted as an “open and tolerant society”. Wherever I turn I see some manifestation of the same 90’s-United-Colors-of-Benetton-advertisement of multicultural friendship. Yes, there are many people from many nationalities peacefully coexisting in one place. But peacefully is a false value, peacefully means that there’s no riots and not many outward signals of dissent. But the fact that no one is burning trash bins in the streets doesn’t make this place a serene haven of equality.
Conflating several histories of violence and betrayal into one, tidy narrative is not just a matter of museumification, or of heritagization of the city, or any other word that usually comes up talking with fellow researchers. To me what we’re seeing is an exercise of hardcore décor: of choreographing the past and the present of the city to aestheticize a variety of processes whose goal was and is to ultimately supply precarious, exploitable bodies to be grinded through the usual mix of threats and promises. So if you’re not ‘from here’, or your ancestors were not from here you are subjected to this tolerant inclusion+exclusion: your labor is definitely included, your identity….not so much. Or not unless.
In Amsterdam, there’s a word that is used to describe people whose belonging is conditional: newcomers. It’s again this bizarre type of ‘color-blindness’, grouping together Somalian asylum seekers and Brits working in marketing. They are all newcomers here, they are welcomed if they follow the rules. Except of course for some, the rules are ‘pay you takes and don’t piss on the streets’ and for others are ‘stay in this detention center until we decide whether you can stay’. If you’re on the wrong side of being new in town, then one way of passing as someone deserving of the warm embrace of tolerance is to self-curate, editing out the excess, those parts of your identity – your memories, your culture, your heritage – that do not align with the image and expectations of what ‘good migrant/neighbor/newcomer’ should be like. Another way is to actively take part in the curation of the city: opening your home, participating in cultural activities for and about you, sharing the parts of yourself that are easier on the palate of the people whose belonging – whose deservedness to occupy this space- is not being questioned.
When I first saw the flamingos in this corner of the zoo opened to the public I thought it was really cute. My boyfriend and I started thinking “how come they don’t fly away”? Maybe it’s because they get regular meals, but maybe it’s because their wings are clipped. In a city so full of Pinterest moments like this, it’s really weird to be thinking about the cuts of non-belonging, non-citizenship. And yet maybe it’s because of how everything looks casually sweet and pretty and polished that I rediscovered my old anger, the desire of pointing at things and say “this is cute but fucked up”. It’s cute how we think we’re helping ~these people~ to feel included. But it’s fucked up that we never pause for a moment to think how we are enabling a system that appropriates both institutional and grassroots action – and best of all, the criticism directed at those actions! – to prove what a tolerant, open, inclusive society we live in.
I’m Vittoria nice to meet you, I’m so glad to be here. I was a bit scared in the beginning about doing a residency, because there is nothing more daunting than filling up space with your own words, trying to push stuff out from your blank brain onto a blank page. It doesn’t happen when I write for work — if it did as an always pressed for time Ph.D. student I would crumble. And yet, when I try and write in my real human voice all the self-doubt that I easily push on the side during my day job, comes roaring back in.
Anyway, it’s too late now. Welcome to my residency, during this time I will try to make sense of one of the many code words popping up in my field of research: Curating the City. When I started my programme its title felt like an innocuous enough combination of words: maybe good, maybe bad, maybe marketing… whatever. But as I progressed, it started to symbolize all the roadblocks and all the emptiness. It started to haunt me. But what does it even mean? Are you curating your city?
I guess we’ll find out together, little by little, post after post.
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