Interview with New Geographies artist Maria Anastassiou
New Geographies at Art Exchange
This is an interview with Maria Anastassiou, Art Exchange’s artist for the New Geographies project. Maria talks about the migrant communities in Tilbury that she is working with, and her thoughts on the role of the artist in post-Brexit Britain.
The New Geographies project is a three year partnership between nine arts organisations in the East of England. Using the knowledge from local communities as a starting point, a new map has been formed of East Anglia – exploring local areas of interest as well as undiscovered sites in the region. Each organisation involved has been assigned an artist who – in turn – have been nominated a location to inform the work they create. The project hopes to challenge prevailing notions of “heritage” in East Anglia, inserting local input into the history and narrative of the East of England.
Maria Anastassiou, artist/filmmaker, is working on a film which responds to Tilbury’s Riverside Station, historically a point of entry for immigrants coming into the UK. Set against the transient landscape of the Thames Estuary, laden with traces of the ever shifting global narratives of commerce and migrations, Anastassiou is building relationships with local refugee and migrant groups to explore what ‘Life in the UK’ (the title of the booklet required to be studied by those seeking UK citizenship) means to them.
Could you tell me about what drew you to the ‘New Geographies’ project and why you chose The Tilbury Riverside Station?
It was a combination of things. I had recently moved to the Acme artist studios in Purfleet, a town just outside of Tilbury. Having just moved out of London, where I have been living for the last 10 years, and in the past having only lived in UK cities, I found the transition to the outskirts of London, the ‘edgelands’, a completely new experience. I found myself in this new landscape of industry and commerce, the landscape of the Thames Estuary and everything that is visible in it. This change of location also coincided with the post-Brexit period in the country. Being originally from Cyprus, and not knowing what the future might hold after Brexit, as well as having lived in the UK for 15 years – studied here, worked here and spent all of my adult life here – I started to feel on unsettled grounds. And so, I decided to apply for British citizenship, taking the ‘Life in the UK’ test.
I had done the Citizenship Test and I’d just moved to Essex while the lead-up to Brexit was unfolding. What drew me to Tilbury Riverside Station site for New Geographies was the combination of all these situations happening, finding myself in this new landscape and exploring a way to respond to all the elements in it. All of these are set to a backdrop of the debates we are hearing in the news of what the status of migrants will be after Brexit, and the way migration was becoming a scapegoat for Brexiteers on the one hand, and on the other, the historical significance of Tilbury Riverside station, and how it relates to what is happening in the UK today and the ways migration is spoken about. Then, the Windrush Scandal emerged on the news soon after and the station became a symbol of how the British imagination is dealing with migration. And in an extended way, in world politics, how nationalist rhetoric is taking over politics everywhere, not just in the UK.
You are now working a lot with migrant integration and community development. Do you feel that you are in a unique position as a dual citizen artist to foster those links?
This is the first time I’m using a biographical element in my work. This is the first time that I’m actually talking a lot about things that have affected my life in a very direct way, not just now, but also in the history of my family. I come from a refugee family in Cyprus; my grandparents were internally displaced in their own country, as a result of the war of ’74. My mum migrated to the UK and then Canada in the 60s to study, and along with her went her three sisters who are still in Montreal. Within my immediate family, there are many histories of migration. I also spent some time in Canada as a child, on an immigrant visa. As a 7 year old, going from the segregated, homogeneous, Christian Orthodox post-war society of 1980’s Cyprus to the multicultural, multi-ethnic Montreal and to a French Welcome class with other immigrant children, was a very formative experience for me and my siblings. Stories of migrations is something in my family we talk about a lot, so it’s very relevant and rewarding for me to have observations which come from my own experience and allow me to identify with other migrants and their circumstances here. At the same time, I also quite like working with British people in Britain because I can have an outsiders’ point of view which I feel puts me in a unique position to respond.
As a filmmaker, I am interested in how the filmmaking process is applied as a vehicle for engagement and participation, that opens up a space for curiosity and conversation, which you wouldn’t necessarily get through other artist processes. The camera is like a key, an excuse to gain access into places. I’ve chosen to work with 16 mm film – an analogue process, as a strategy for participation. Analogue demands a different kind of attention and a different sort of space and focus to create a filmmaking moment of acute and heightened attentiveness, sometimes lost when working in digital.
Filmmaking by default, has to be a social activity. I am always going to be documenting the world. And that comes with the contingency of reality. There are elements of the work which you cannot control and you have to be open to what’s going to come to you. What’s going to happen that specific day, in that specific location, and that specific moment that you release the camera shutter. Having the analogue element brought into this, this contingency is amplified. There is an economy to analogue that you have no choice in; you have a very limited amount of minutes that you can film and the apparatus is much more heavy and present. It is very clear that you are filming and the image that you create is latent, it cannot be immediately seen, it demands a patience and trust. I think this is very powerful. The film camera creates a context and a performance around it, and this is helping me structure my process on this project.
You have already mentioned in passing that you’ve recently done the Citizenship Test, ‘Life in the UK’ and your working title for this project is ‘Everyday life in the UK’, could you tell me a little about why you chose this title?
It is a play on the title of the book which you have to study for the citizenship test, ‘Life in the UK’. When I was studying it, I was just really struck by its version of British history and society. In comparison to other places, the UK is a very open place for immigrants – I’m not disputing that – and that’s why I was so amazed to read this book as it told history through a very conservative lens. Through talking to English people, I found out that this is partly how you learn history at school. Not having gone to school in this country and actually learning history from the Cypriot perspective – Cyprus was a British Colony until 1959 so the history I learnt at school was from a post colonial, and very nationalist point of view, clearly placing the British Colonial Rule as a time of brutal influence on Cypriot history.
So in the ‘Life in the UK’ book there is one paragraph dedicated to slavery, and another paragraph dedicated to the empire, I expected a bit more.. and then there are three whole pages dedicated to the wives of Henry VIII. It’s a very unbalanced narrative of the history and global influence of the UK. And I think this misrepresentation of history is very relevant to the politics of the time as there seems to be a nostalgia for Empire in certain media outlets, a sentiment that was certainly used to influence the Brexit vote and xenophobic rhetoric.
What I find fascinating in the UK is the rich history of social narratives and movements and yet you get this book that you have to read as an aspiring UK citizen and you are very aware, having lived here for so long, that it really doesn’t reflect the reality of everyday life. Not just for British people but also for immigrants alike. I have found life here so much richer, multicultural and positive than anything that the book presents.
It’s also a multiple choice test. Which I think is a really interesting format, as you just have to memorise all this history and then you go in there and it takes about five minutes… and you pass it. The questions themselves are quite obvious and easy; to prepare, you have to read it in a very passive way, digest it, and shut down all critical thinking, which makes it detrimental to understanding of British history and society, it does more harm than good.
We have talked a little bit about your relocation to this area and how Purfleet and Tilbury are situated in the hinterlands. We are on the margin of London and encountering those in-between spaces. Your film really captures the in-between of wild and industry, populated and unpopulated etc. I was wondering if you could speak a little bit more about those kind of spaces?
I am reading the book, ‘Edgelands’ by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts. It’s definitely informing the way I look at these landscapes. To be honest, I didn’t move to Purfleet out of choice, I moved because I couldn’t afford to live in London anymore. And actually where I am, at Highhouse Production Park, is a direct result of the Olympics. The Opera House used to have their workshops in Stratford and now they are in Purfleet. The Olympics had a huge affect on East London prices. The production park is a manifestation of the Olympic legacy.
I couldn’t afford to be in London anymore and still be able to have a productive artist career. This opportunity to move to Purfleet came up, and so I thought I’d try it out for a year. This is mine and, of course, many other artists’ reality. The city is pushing people out of London, slowly but surely.
The move was a shock at the beginning, but actually what it revealed to me was the impact of removing a lot of the noise. I am a filmmaker and I respond to the world around me. I don’t always have pre-conceived ideas, I am open to what is around me and interested in working responsively, so by moving to Purfleet, I found myself having a much less saturated view than in the city. Things here stand out and are clearer. The ‘Edgelands’ book really articulates this kind of place very precisely: how the city is so saturated with events, people and happenings, while the countryside is so regulated with looking beautiful and having listed buildings, and then you have this in-between where things are left to thrive in neglect – a sort of true wilderness, places of possibility, mystery and beauty. And I feel like this area is exactly this in-between. You have the industry, and its left-over abandoned buildings, the wastelands, the trains and trucks coming and going to the continent, the passing cargo ships, the retail and distribution parks, all layered on ancient marsh-land still with visible remnants of military histories, along the ever changing tides of the Thames Estuary. The river connects all of this historically to the Empire, and now to the still existing global maritime economies. All of this became very clear and very interesting to me, in questioning how I can find ways to relate and belong to a place like this. So Purfleet is proving to be a very fertile place for me, something which I didn’t know I needed, this unsaturated point of view, but proving to be a very interesting adventure.
What are you currently work on?
Currently, for New Geographies, I am working on making connections and building up relationships with communities and individuals in the town. I am creating a structure of participation that will document elements of the landscape and the town alongside stories and everyday life. That is it in a nutshell. More specifically, I have been working with some local businesses, the British Red Cross and their groups, and with the Mission to Seafarers at the port. I am slowly meeting other individuals as well and trying to set up sessions where I can start having film making processes. I am organising a free legal advisory session for migrant rights after Brexit and access to further information on the changing information of the status of EU citizens in UK.
To some degree, what I find crucial in your practice is the documentation of the process of making a film, and the relationship between filmmaker and the world.
I hope this will be the case with this project. In a way, I am a stranger to the place, I live down the road from Tilbury but not here. I’m not here everyday and so I am trying to find ways to set up an exchange where I am asking something from people, and hopefully giving something back in return. I hope what I can give back will happen in the context of something that can be bigger, and that can have a legacy. This might be advisory sessions with lawyers, skills exchange, camera literacy and the process of filmmaking.
For this article, I will be including a still from a film you’ve recently made which captures the landscape of Tilbury. In this film, ‘Kleep towit, klip, klip, too-ow-wit’, there are these great long shots; we can see the dock in the foreground, which is set behind factories and sky –
I call the sky here Essex gradients. If you are here at sunset, it is just amazing. This sky will be in my final film!
Can you tell me more about this film?
Since moving to Purfleet, I’ve been visiting the Rainham Marshes a lot. I go for walks there, I go running along the river, it’s a place I go to, to clear my head and being next to the water really helps me do that. I am amazed at how different the landscape is every time, the tide transforms the river banks and reveals something new.
So I was really drawn into making an observational film of the place, and especially exploring the figure of the bird-watcher, a practice that is very new to me. I haven’t been exposed to birdwatching before, but I find it very fascinating. It requires a similar state of focus as when shooting on 16mm. In order to have an observation in the present moment, a bird-watcher acutely sharpens their senses, often resisting the impulse to document and focusing instead on the practice of looking, listening and identifying.
Interviewed by Jo Morton, New Geographies Assistant, Art Exchange
Maria’s film ‘Kleep towit, klip, klip, too-ow-wit’ will be available to view at the Art Exchange gallery 9 November 2018.
To find out more about the New Geographies project, browse the website here: http://newgeographies.uk.