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And the Vampires Flow Towards the West: The Ecological Poetics of Eastern European Migration in the UK

Diana Damian Martin

Royal Central School of Speech and Drama

On the 1stof January 2014, the UK lifted transitional measures for A2 countries (Romania and Bulgaria) that had accessioned to the EU. According to think tank Migration Observatory, the most common approximation of A2 country arrivals following the termination of restrictions was 29 million (“Bulgarians and Romanians in the British National Press”, 18 August 2014), more than the combined population of both countries, often described as an overflow or influx of population. Such representational language surrounding migratory movement from Eastern European countries to the UK has recently shifted to the ecological: flood, overflow, flock, tide, drift.

This article explores the fractured narratives that are brought into play at the meshing of migration, movement, and the ecological and representational poetics that characterise Eastern Europeanness in the UK. It considers two distinct encounters with bodies that have arrived at movement, through movement: Polish artist Justyna Scheuring’s Everyone, Merry Go Round (Canal Gallery, London, 2017) and Romanian artists Manuel Pelmus and Alexandra Pirici’s Public Collection (Tate Modern, London, 2016), and extends these encounters into speculative realism scenarios. I propose that these staged poetics of movement contain subjectivities of the Anthropocene: plural, ecological, displaced, and hopeful.

This article is in two sections: an audio-essay that explores the implications of this representational language in dialogue with the two artistic works and a speculative fiction in four parts. Each part considers movement from an ecological perspective, whilst discussing migratory politics by means of enacting choreographic images from the works, in dialogue with found text.

Suspend | Flock

My blood is neither Byzantine nor Ottoman, but I recall a time when the atmosphere changed those years in which one empire collapsed into another. It rained for years, not this bareboned rain that radiates the skin, but a deep rain that carved paths into mountains and drowned souls into lakes that buried them. In the thick rain that bleached the ground, fluoride gasses were the most pervasive, but no traces are left to measure impact.  New rock formations had emerged from the sweltering waters, and these stood guard waiting, natural borders to a landscape yet to be seen. They’d all been engaged in an exercise of human salvage accumulation, but the archive had drowned.

It was the ink of the newspapers that first etched itself onto my skin; then the birds came, one by one, first the crows, then the eagles and the falcons, the looms and the petrels, the cormorants and coursers, the plovers and the lapwings. Only when my skin lay exposed did the owls arrive, and finally, my arms grew wide and melted into the ocean.

I stand (they stand), in a straight line at the edge of the mountain. The only noticeable movements are provided by slightly raised arms, marking a trajectory with legs gesturing an exit. This is a line of voivodes. This is a line of workers. This line of workers is exiting. The landscape folds into the exit. It begins (again) to rain, and as the rain descends, the birds return once more, perched on heads and shoulders, dangling from arms and necks. This image is, however, out of order, and interrupts all other activities at the time of its making.

A voivode is an old Slavic term that denotes a commander, tied to land and military might. A flock is a large group, although not necessarily. A voivode would often use natural boundaries to delineate the end of a landscape. Nowadays, we have become vampires, standing in line, waiting for the exit. I don’t remember the new bones but cannot account for them.

The gesture of movement in stillness. I (they) stand in line and no movement is made. I (they) stand in line and the bed of leaves turns to concrete. It feels like someone should be here to whistle them out. There is an accelerated stillness, one that deteriorates quickly (if I look that way). There is a line of bodies ready to exit but the orange sun has now burnt through, and there is little to stand on. One might even argue that this line is just the appearance, but nothing is posited to it. There is a line ready to exit, but the mountain has collapsed, been compressed, reproduced, ripped, remixed, copied, pasted, and redistributed.

A voivode declares a state of emergency from behind a tree. A voivode transcribes these bodies as bodies undertaking some labour. Strawberries grow suddenly where before the deep rain carved paths. This is an immaterial retrospective of movement that has not yet happened. It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

Gather | Flow

There is an atmosphere of disintegration as she moves slowly in her all-black boiler suit against the burning sky, following the traces of the rivers that no longer flow: a sympoiesis. Four squares of primary colours line her back, the only spot of formalism in an otherwise tattered landscape. Her arm reaches forward, her arm is still. Her speech is broken; it hinges between two languages. On the trail, a choral arrangement of speaking bodies: in unison, with obvious discrepancies. The nation and the state.  Physical and linguistic practice. She is not going anywhere, but there is a sensation of movement. The chorus shape the landscape, a geographic literacy. Many attribute this arid landscape to the loss of translation. There is a stark absence between these two formal constituencies.

It is nearly impossible to describe what happened at the time of transition. It is nearly impossible to mark the end of one period and the beginning of another. Eyes burnt bright red and the teeth extended out so that it became impossible to be closer to a vampire without needing a shield. I remember that still, before we lost sight of the ocean, it moved to drown elsewhere.

Her eyes face down, but her body is strikingly present.

Soil and earth and rock have caused an irreversible landslide, and these bodies stand in for bodies made of bricks, making homes on shifting ground. The material geographies of a group of bodies trailing a body searching for rivers that have dried. The neoplasticism of devastated landscape, the antithesis to the non-natural architecture (by migrants). Unequal relationships to build(ing).

At the beginning of this landslide when the choric bodies were attempting to translate shifting ground, several broken bones were identified but no external signs of lesions and no obvious sign of pain. Perhaps this is a future event in order to set the current flow.

The configuration only shifts because of the movement of one body, boiler suit against dry land. A loose thread hangs from her leg; if I follow it, I get to military units in the Second World War, I get to John Laski, but further than that the thread disintegrates, and still no trace of water.

Amidst the dryness, water is found in the suspended language of the chorus, standing near each other as if waiting. This is a form of actively sustaining, the fossil and the bone and the skin that etches itself into place, and then the place suddenly disappears, and, again, I see the orange sun burning through. This choral arrangement after the landslide. This choral arrangement whose voice(s) get lost amidst the dry rock.

The task was not to understand what was in the process of translation but to consider how the language had uttered this violence onto the landscape and to look for hope in the conglomeration of bodies in the midst of dry rivers.  There is nothing that exists in this world whose very being does not predispose a spectator. This choral gathering is a kind of border, except nothing is policed by it. A border without agency to delineate.

The realm of the private has been accused of drying the rivers, and all when all natural borders dissipated, all that remained was a maze of documentation and a collective political experience. When the vampire started to chew at these, it wasn’t because of their hunger for food; it was because of their hunger for carbon. The landslide caused all this, or all of this caused the landslide. We couldn’t remember the beginning or if, instead, it had all been marked by an ending with no shape.

Disperse | Drift

Except I remember it differently. I see the figures line up as if they were ready to exit, or is it an entry; I am not sure. There is hope in waiting. After the heat came the cold, and after all melted, some objects remained frozen in space, an ancient formalism.

There are six bodies angled towards the door, casting light shadows on the concrete ground. Tee shirts and jeans. Together, they trace a square, but only one is cast off on its side, the others firmly highlighting a tip. There is a break-up taking place (elsewhere). Their hands and ears and feet are frozen and their hair lightly dusted by ashy snow.

Their blood is neither Byzantine nor Ottoman, but they recall a time when the atmosphere changed those years in which one empire collapsed into another. Except in this place, it’s hard to recount the rise and the fall because they are merely visitors, mirroring shards.

The ink of the newspapers is slowly taking shape but their bodies are waiting for the arrival of the birds, and the birds never arrive. Drift migration rarely occurs, and, when it does, it leaves bird incapable of flight. We all have flightless periods; some are more permanent than others. A hollow sound drifts past the concrete floor. A frozen gallery, I call it. The bodies stood still in the gallery, and then the concrete began to shape itself into fragments, then into soil.

It’s icy cold and hard to tell if skin is frozen on bone or if movement is about to occur, and, at any rate, the water will have frozen by now. These bodies are only left to trace a sense of place, a physical border control. It’s hard to tell if they are running; they are simultaneously pixelated and obscured, some bent out of shape.

In the background, an old checkpoint: two unfinished metal structures with seven lanes and a cubicle to police the passage through each. Toll zones. The buildings adjacent are exposed brick, the plaster and paint froze and peeled off with time. A dent in the pavement marks the spot where wheels would drive and feet would walk for decontamination. This is a double vision; the same checkpoint occurs again, with the border shift. I wonder what is in the middle.

Later on, a castle, the site of old Ottoman battles. Vampires live there now, making trouble. We see bodies line up as if ready to receive, arms lifted forward, bodies against metal, shaping the passing of time.

There is a disturbance in this suspended movement, in what the bodies state by means of their interruption. Our (their) eyes gaze towards the desert with an irruptive stance. This landscape does not accommodate these bodies, but this landscape is now a social space. These bodies are taking up space. This is a search for other intensities of life and non-life at the edges of a landscape that refuses to stand still.

Our (their) bodies shape an arena of encounter, huddling scale into event. It is hard to know the labour that has marked their presence here, if they emerged here after the drought or the drift, or if, as some argue, they are the result of fallout events and are waiting for the right framing. In these days, people over here are planning to go to Mars, and we’re still riding horses.

Fall | Molt

An ancient pastoral ballad speaks of the conflict between three shepherds who look for their flocks. An ewe reveals a murder plot, and one of the shepherds reveals that, if death were to occur, the funeral will be amid nature. A star will fall for this projected death. The name of the ballad is the same as the state milk company during Nicolae Ceausescu’s regime. We remember how all the milk evaporated into memories of the fire, and the archived labels flew out waiting for birds to collect them.

Later, we saw the seven choric bodies and the woman in the boiler suit in a composition of stillness at the border between the foothill and the plain. This an endless plain burnt by the sun, fires still burning in the distance. The huge furnaces of abandoned factories sometimes interrupt the silence, but the echoes of the singing birds still hum amidst the remnants of grass. It’s hard to tell seasons anymore.

In this choral arrangement, a body stands out, her hand raised up (and down) in an exercise of false confessions. The humming of abandoned drives and electronic waste hanging from old phone lines in a place where cities used to live; but a chorus huddles close, together, in anticipation.

In these plains, strigoi often come looking; they morph into birds and fly searching for elsewhere; they come back regularly to the same place. Someone burnt the castle to the ground hoping the vampires would disappear, but it is not known if the strigoi can shape shift across species. This is a kind of hunting, too.

In these plains, the chorus becomes composition, and movement marks space in time. The gathering never looks down, but the sky frames them, waiting for what might move into place. Retrograde also means reactionary, just as the orange sun has not burnt through everything just yet.

We return to the body, being instead of waiting. The body, returning, or the body leaving, or the plural bodies of several journeys with one ending.

They ask, what moves you, exactly? How does your skin feel in motion? What kind of standing still allows for commitment, and what kind of movement searches for stillness? Is movement a kind of caring for a damaged planet, or a living within it? Or perhaps they do not speak at all in this meteorological polyphony, but I hear them nevertheless. A gesture.

Works Cited

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