“If immigration wasn’t a part of my life,” artist Zoe Cinel says, “I don’t know what my art would be about in the U.S.” Grounded in readings of home, place, and displacement, Cinel’s work in performance, installation, and video portrays what life is like being a stranger in another country. Within the past year she has worked on themes of immigration within her own practice, recently being included in a performance at the 46th Choreographer’s Evening at the Walker Art Center. She also began focusing on themes of immigration outside of her own experience in a collaborative project called Carry On Homes, alongside Peng Wu, Shun Yong, Aki Shibata, and Preston Drum, in large-scale public and interactive installations throughout the metro area. Through Carry On Homes, Cinel and her cohort connect immigrant communities with one another, to try to find a greater sense of belonging and home within Minnesota. Needless to say, she has been busy with research and action in both her own work as an artist and in her work as a steward for the Minneapolis and St. Paul communities.
One of many performances by cultural groups from different immigrant communities at Carry On Homes installation, The Commons, Minneapolis, 2018.
I first met Zoe at a Student Art History Symposium held at Mia in the springtime of 2018. Before hearing her talk about surveillance and displacement made apparent in Martha Rosler’s work on airports, I had also heard that she was a foreign exchange student from Italy through friends of mine that knew her. This facet of Zoe’s life mixed in with her decision to analyze Rosler’s work and what she examined all the more interesting. Seeing Zoe’s work is fairly dependent on being at the right place at the right time. It is this aspect of impermanence and time specificity, however, that is so central to what she speaks to in her work; immigrant bodies and minds are in a constant state of permanence and impermanence, being grounded in the known and the unknown territories of their respective worlds.
Presented at the Choreographer’s Evening at the Walker Art Center in November 2018, You Are Here begins with a performer blanketed by AstroTurf lying beneath a Google Earth slowly spinning. Droning sounds fill the stage as the performer begins to emerge from their artificially natural blanket, and a close-up video of a rotating baggage claim conveyor belt appears on a secondary screen next to the world. Loosely referential in an auditory sense to Martha Rosler’s investigations in her Airport Series, the droning sounds are analogous to the constant scanning and surveilling of immigrant bodies by the government, the people, and the immigrants themselves in any given setting. It is from this moment onward that the performance upends itself from being calmly positioned in the world and stage to being in a state of limbo, which Cinel describes as being central to the immigrant experience.
The performer at this point is now fully visible, donning a shiny silver space suit straight out of science fiction, and they orbit the stage waving the fake grass like a race flag to the sounds of the drone. This alien takes on several forms of identification at this point. Not only does the character on stage emit alien characteristics from their costuming and body language, but from their unidentifiable and foreign characteristics of being non-human as well. Cinel mentions that this speaks to the semiotic reading of the word “alien,” being a word used to define non-resident persons, like herself, while also being a mysterious and often misunderstood life form. After multiple revolutions around the stage, often tripping over the artificial earth blanket, the alien recedes back into the screen, which now presents itself in a bird’s eye view, god-like virtual reality scanning of the Walker Arts Center. From this recession, the alien now appears to be a part of the landscape that the viewer is present in, breaking boundaries of known and unknown territories from the viewer and alien alike. The alien now stretches the screen as we view the Google Earth top down, traveling at breakneck speeds until it finally reaches the artist's home in Florence, Italy. Finally, the top down surveillance that the viewer sees of Italy swiftly turns to being in outer space, bringing the viewer to the home of the alien, while the alien takes leave of the stage.
All of this is to question if an alien can truly go back and survive in their home after having been imprinted upon and after having imprinted on a landscape that is originally unfamiliar to them. In You Are Here, Cinel invites people to remember home while also seeing the space they are in in a relatively unfamiliar fashion. To be an immigrant in the literal sense is to be a body that is in constant motion, more so than one who is present in their homeland. At an incredibly fast pace, we travel from one side of the Google Earth in You Are Here to another, skipping over any individual representation of humankind that builds on Earth. Cinel’s use of Google Earth VR and virtual reality throughout her work then speaks to this notion of the vastness of the world and the fast moving organisms that inhabit it both online and in real life. “I think of immigrants as virtual realities themselves,” she explained. Ultimately, there is no way of giving someone the context of Zoe’s home life, experiences, and customs without some form of digital image, information, or virtual reality.
Zoe Cinel continues to attempt to position herself as an immigrant in the U.S., while also going outside of virtual realms to understand and make space for other immigrant communities through her work. You can visit the latest Carry On Homes installation in partnership with Indigenous Roots in St. Paul's Hamm Park, and stay updated with Zoe’s work, @zcinel on Instagram.
All images courtesy of the artist.