Performance Art as Emergent Community: Leslie Menagh’s Migration Stories

Migration Stories
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What kinds of journeys can be recounted as stories? Which experiences of displacement qualify as part of the “refugee crisis”? Do our available frames for defining the ongoing emergencies of global migration work for all migrant lives and deaths? Do all migratory movements fit within the linear plot of a “pathway to citizenship”—a clear trajectory from one’s “country of origin” to the settler-colonial state called “Canada”? And finally, what might the stories of migration that do find an audience tell us about the authorial powers that make national borders and identities appear natural, necessary, and uncontestable?

These are some of the questions that began fluttering, still unformed, in the back of my mind on a cold yet sunny morning in early March as I sat quietly, the sole audience member in the tiered seats at Market Hall, watching another discontinuous, wandering flock take shape.

It consists of seven figures. They emerge and sit in folding chairs in an evenly spaced row across the stage, their separation-in-unity evoking the familiar non-places of air travel, or perhaps the lengthy, potentially unending period that many migrants spend in legal limbo or detention. Eventually, they stand, congregate, spiral around, encounter obstacles (the chairs again), split, and re-converge repeatedly, before dragging the chairs off stage behind them like baggage.

Their movement patterns are choreographed along to the densely layered soundscape of their own pre-recorded voices, mixed with the voices of yet more speakers who are absent from the stage. The voices speak all at once, telling stories of their travels and travails, as well as their hopes and desires as immigrants or refugees.

Migration StoriesListening to this crowded congregation of narrative threads incites a deeply ingrained desire to follow along, to make sense, and to understand each of the narrators, and yet the voices hover on the edge of audibility, sometimes giving way to incomprehensible noise.

Part way through their performance, just as we might be getting used to the silence of the circling bodies—part funerary march, part free-flowing flight—the performers begin to speak. One by one, they recite some self-selected fragment of their pre-recorded story, their voices mingling with the hauntingly tangled tracks of the recordings. When they walk off stage, one might be left with the sense that their movements continue elsewhere; their “arrival” is yet another point of departure.

Already, in this brief attempt to narrate what I witnessed at a rehearsal of Migration Stories, a hybrid sound-video-performance piece conceived and directed by Leslie Menagh, readers may get some sense of how this piece explores migration without reducing it to the smooth, readable lines from departure to arrival, inside to outside.

Migration Stories was developed for Public Energy’s 22nd annual Emergency Performance Festival, devoted to showcasing works by emerging artists working in the Peterborough arts community. Menagh has a longstanding art practice, but has only recently come to think of herself as primarily a performance director and a community arts practitioner.

Indeed, this performance takes the concept of “community” and its limits as its subject matter and material; it reminds us that Peterborough as a community is not at all unitary, but multiple, shaped by still-ongoing histories of immigration and colonial dispossession. Working in collaboration with these narrator-performers and choreographer-dancer Sylvie Dasné, Menagh’s work confronts us with a radically open, emerging collective that doesn’t quite cohere as a community in any ordinary sense.

Most of the participants in Migration Stories were volunteers recruited with the help of Peterborough’s New Canadians Centre. She had no pre-existing criteria delimiting what kinds of migration stories could and could not be included in the piece. She worked carefully to gather the migrants’ stories without imposing a “master code” that would render all the pieces finally intelligible.

Although Menagh has not migrated across borders herself, she explained to me that her motivation to draw people together for this performance was rooted in her own biography. Her family moved from city to city frequently during her childhood, never staying in one place for more than a couple of years. During her young adulthood, Menagh became something of an “intrepid” traveler, taking up backpacking, and seeking paths different from the typical capitalist, middle-class vision of settled, happy life.

This upbringing left her with a certain residual sense of “placelessness” that she’s carried into her adult life and art-making. While she acknowledges that this isn’t really comparable to the extreme forms of material dispossession and exposure to violence experienced by many migrants (“I know I’m a privileged white lady,” she notes), it does inform her creative motivation to begin working in collaboration and solidarity with migrants.

Migration StoriesIn the movements of Migration Stories’ small and specific, but potentially much larger migratory group, there is no clear point of origin, no fully individuated actor-authors, no progress, and no finally settled state. This suggests that the performance is not really finished, even after the performers walk off stage, but continues in the relationships that emerge out of the shared experience of performing/witnessing. The loosely joined members of this collective provide a sort of transient, fragile refuge for one another.

The subtle reconfigurations of the boundaries we assume define “us” that Migration Stories makes possible are especially vital now, as we are seeing a resurgence of nativism, unchecked white supremacy, and Islamophobia.

Even in Canada, where heartwarming images of Justin Trudeau handing out parkas to Syrian children are still relatively fresh in our collective memories, the Harper government’s ‘deterrence’ policies are still affecting migrant populations, especially those deemed ‘irregular’ or ‘illegal.’ Across the country, migrant detainees are held indefinitely, frequently mistreated and sometimes killed with impunity, in facilities like Lindsay’s maximum security prison, and asylum seekers have lost limbs to frostbite while trying to cross the US/Canada border by land. The refugee crisis is not something taking place far away, “over there” in Europe or the US/Mexico border. It is here.

Although Menagh, in the course of our conversation, insisted that her work “is not about loss,” the borderless, undefined collective that emerges at least virtually in Migration Stories leaves room for commemorating the unnamed, drowned, or detained migrants whose stories and voices cannot be heard, but whose silence and missingness haunts this piece. This haunting, palpable in the gaps and silences of the stories we can hear, potentially shifts what we think of as our community. And in this, perhaps, there is hope.


Migration Stories premieres as part of the Emergency Performance Festival, which takes place March 22 to 24 at Market Hall and the Theatre on King (more info).


Photos courtesy the artist.

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