Article by Alycia Gaunt
In October 1993, six years before the French Red Cross opened the first refugee camp around the port of Calais, Rachel Whiteread uncovered her most ambitious sculpture to date, House, in Bow, East London. A complete concrete cast of the home of retired dock worker Sydney Gale, the work precipitated impassioned debate in the media, art world, and government on contemporary issues such as gentrification, class, and housing. Twenty-five years later, in response to the forced closure of what had become to be known as the Calais Jungle, Whiteread created another House work as part of the Migrate Art project Multicolour. At a time of increasing government legislation and media vitriol towards displaced peoples, Whiteread’s works provide an interrogative framework with which to question what, and who, is truly valued in our societies. What has happened to the homes and people of the estimated 10,000 living in the Jungle by September 2016, and what does the current situation in Calais reveal about our society as a whole?
Though undoubtedly the most antagonistic political act wrought against the camp, the comprehensive demolition of the Calais Jungle in October 2016 was not the first, nor last, attempt by French authorities to disperse informal camps in the area. Indeed, it is more helpful to think instead of ‘Jungles’, of duration rather than event. Cycles of encampment and demolition existed before 2015, and continue to this day.
The history of refugee camps in Calais stretches back to the late 1990s, where those fleeing the Kosovo War were received by the Red Cross Sangatte Camp. The changing demographic in the decades since charts a map of geopolitical conflict: the 2010s witnessed an influx of Kurdish Iraqis; 2014 saw an increase of those from the Horn of Africa; and in recent months Calais has received arrivals from Afghanistan and Sudan. Indeed, the very coining of ‘Jungle’ appears to derive from the Pashto ‘dzjangal’, meaning a forest or wooded area, and has become a generic term for precarious migrant settlements. The military conflicts that expelled refugees from their homelands have intersected with infrastructural and legal processes to grant Calais the unique position it holds as a gathering point for migrants. Since the opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994, the UK has held an overseas national border at the port of Calais. Meanwhile, the implementation of the Schengen Area in 1995 removed official border crossings across, eventually, twenty-six European countries. Calais is thus constituent of both the UK border and the final Schengen frontier, a duality which has manufactured a bureaucratic bottleneck in which migrants are made to wait in near perpetuity for UK or French asylum claims to be processed.
Constructed upon a former landfill and shadowed by the Graftech Chemical Plant and a motorway, the site on which the Camp de la Lande (Moor Camp) developed in 2015-16 was designated by the Seveso III European Union Directive as a hazardous area contaminated with dangerous industrial substances. In spite of this, what was built by the refugees, charities, and activists that cohabited the camp was a thriving, albeit ephemeral, urban settlement. In the Calais Jungle, one could find educational spaces, places for Muslim and Catholic worship, a theatre, a library, hairdressers, a boxing club, and refugee-run restaurants. Anthropologists have commented on the unusual manner in which the Jungle represented a rupture in the familiar experience of migrant encampment. Experiencing a unique agency in the design of their environments, “migrants invented for themselves the hospitable city in France that the government denied them”.
Following several months of heightened political and media rhetoric against migrants coming to Europe came the final clearing of the camp in October 2016, during which the southern half of the Jungle was bulldozed, and a militarised ‘tolerated’ zone consisting of 130 shipping containers was established nearby. Beginning at dawn on the 24th of October, the eviction process planned to move 6,400 migrants to 280 temporary reception centres across France. Many left on their own accord by foot or train in the face of scant information on their relocation and asylum status. Disturbingly, 200 unaccompanied children had been lured out of the camp with promises of transport to an asylum centre, but were ultimately abandoned. By mid-January 2017, Help Refugees reported that between 500 and 1,000 migrants, mostly unaccompanied minors, were sleeping rough in Calais. Many of these were awaiting reunion with family members already in the UK.
Attempts by hostile governments and unsympathetic media to dehumanise leave no room to acknowledge, let alone celebrate, the creativity of those who lived through the Calais camp. Correcting this is imperative: to recognise the humanity of migrants where it has been denied them; to resist division and intolerance; and to record a fuller history of Europe’s recent past. Documenting the artistic and intellectual output of the Jungle has required processes of contemporary archaeology. The Multicolour project of collecting and then distributing colouring pencils left in the ruins of the camp sits within this tradition. In the absence of individual testimony, and often the absence of individuals themselves, the abandoned pencils reveal histories of children at play despite - in spite of - their precarious positions. Rachel Whiteread’s House (2018), composed of fragments of these pencils, similarly communicates via the gaps. Floating upon a white background, its only foundation an almost imperceptible blue line, Whiteread’s house is built the way one imagines any child might: a rectangular door, a square facade, a triangular roof. The house is empty. Although there are no faces in windows or parents at the door, the worn lead and scratched surfaces of the pencils populates the image with all those who have used them before. Like the artist’s House of 1993, it is what is left behind, discarded, and forgotten that testifies to the richness of untold and undervalued stories.
Whilst the Calais Jungle closed officially in 2016, the site and surrounding areas continue to be occupied by migrants who have been run aground by hostile bureaucratic processes that leave them in perpetual limbo. The French policy of ‘no fixation points’ has triggered new cycles of encampment and eviction whereby tents can be cleared every third day, often made to move just 100m down the same road. The construction of the British-funded-£2.3m wall separating the recently cleared camp from the motorway (despite the attempt by the then Calais mayor Natacha Bouchart to block it) was just the beginning of a sustained campaign of increased securitisation and police violence towards migrants in Calais. Large sums have been syphoned into border technologies such as motion detection, infrared technology, high-security fencing, CCTV, and floodlighting. Migrants are subject to intimidation techniques including sleep deprivation, the use of tear gas, and the withholding or spoiling of food and water with pepper spray. Rather than reduce the number of those attempting to cross the Channel by irregular means, greater precarity and diminished opportunities for legitimate documentation and asylum has pushed migrants to ever more desperate routes.
Such drastic measures are the consequence of an underlying conceptual shift that increasingly presupposes migrants as threats. This is linguistically clear in the ‘invasion’ rhetoric that paints migrants as an amorphous block, a ‘flood’, from which Britain must defend itself, redolent of Winston Churchill’s call to fight on the beaches. In more tangible terms, Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s proposed Illegal Immigration Bill will categorically deny asylum to any migrant entering the UK by irregular means, remove any right to future re-entry, and where countries of origin are deemed unsafe, will deport to Rwanda. Clause 3(2) of the proposed bill includes the power to refuse asylum and deport children under the age of eighteen.
Rachel Whiteread’s House(s) are no longer homes. Their emptiness is an ambiguity at the heart of which exists the memory of those who came before. The final Victorian terraced house in the path of gentrification of House (1993), and the colouring pencils discarded by children fleeing to a safer place of House (2018), are both victims of a society which desires to cleanse and make invisible that which appears to threaten Britain’s sense of itself. This self is at once an ahistorical belief in the perceived homogeneity of its ‘indigenous’ white population, and a faltering attempt to modernise in a rapidly changing world. As global conflicts and the climate emergency continue to intensify, our fabricated borders come ever closer. It is estimated that by 2030, one-third of the world’s population will be living in precarious camp cities. The camps may grow, and they may contract, but so do places of safety, and the groups that are deemed deserving of that safety.
Alycia Gaunt is a London based arts writer with a particular interest in stories of resistance.