Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter


Like a lot of inexpensive flat-packed furniture—shipped halfway around the world and arriving with “some assembly required”—the lightweight, pitch-roofed structure at the center of the Museum of Modern Art in New York’s “Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter” is missing a few parts. But this is not by accident. In a gesture of accommodation within an exhibition otherwise intent on revealing the inhospitality of contemporary migrant and refugee environments, two of the thirty-six polyolefin-foam panels enclosing the structure’s tubular-steel frame have been removed, inviting visitors to enter a phantom household measuring roughly eighteen feet long and ten feet across. The Emergency Temporary Shelter, as it is called, was developed in 2010 by the Swedish “social enterprise” Better Shelter, in collaboration with two of our corporate- and conflict-ridden world’s most ubiquitous brands—IKEA and the United Nations. Though unquestionably more durable, dignified, and secure than the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ conventional canvas or plastic tarpaulin tents, the shelter’s foremost achievement is logistical: Shipped compactly in two cardboard boxes, it can be completely assembled by four people in less than eight hours, using only tools included in the shipment.

There are more than sixty-five million forcibly displaced people worldwide. Twenty-one million of those are officially considered refugees by the UN, which means that they are fleeing armed conflict or political or religious persecution.Since emergency is everyday, humanitarianism is a permanent business. Organized by Sean Anderson, a curator in MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design, this exhibition foregrounds the tools of this humanitarian trade—UNICEF-issued collapsible water containers, water-purification tablets, tarps, and education kits; a multicolored malnutrition-measuring device by Doctors Without Borders. As modest and nimble as these instruments can seem, they are the products of a vast regime of governmental, intergovernmental, and nongovernmental institutions. From sober office spaces in Geneva and midtown Manhattan, these organizations prepare budgets, solicit donations, recruit personnel, devise policies, set standards, and, in some cases, marshal extranational military forces.

This bureaucracy’s greatest work of design is not any single tool, but bureaucracy itself. The most widely recognized set of universal minimum guidelines for humanitarian response, the Sphere handbook, is a voluntary rubric whose first iteration was in 1998 by a committee of relief organizations in an attempt to coordinate their activities and, in managerial terms, to boost quality and accountability. The Temporary Emergency Shelter follows it to a T: A family of five is provided a covered floor area of thirty-eight square feet per person (no more, no less).

Utterly rational and technocratic, humanitarianism perpetuates the distressing legacies of modernism, modernization, and colonialism even as it administers care. This contradiction is nowhere more visible than in a photograph of one part of the world’s largest refugee-camp complex by Brendan Bannon, Ifo 2, Dadaab Refugee Camp, 2011. Shot from a low aerial perspective, the image reveals a Kenyan desert landscape incised with lines and dotted with tents, their white sheets dust-sprayed. The design has an accountant’s rigor, confirmed by a UNHCR fact sheet that describes the planning process: A site of roughly four square miles was first divided into two subcamps (Ifo 2 East and Ifo 2 West), then eighteen sections, then four to nine blocks, and then plots measuring approximately forty by fifty or thirty-three by forty feet. Within each plot, one shelter is installed—the family unit.

The functionalist planning of Ifo 2 and other Dadaab settlements and the component systems of the Emergency Temporary Shelter also recall the more utopian rationalism and economy of an earlier era, the Existenzminimum of the interwar period. Then, standardization, systemization, and flexible and cost-efficient production were technocratic means to political ends: Housing was deemed a right to be afforded to all citizens. But today, when universally applied by international aid organizations to vast numbers of stateless and displaced people, these same strategies only underscore the refugee’s diminished political agency under globalized capitalism.

As a remedy for these cool administrative logics and one-size-fits-all environments, the MoMA exhibition counterposes artworks that revel in their singularity. Reena Saini Kallat’s Woven Chronicle, 2011/2016, a world map painstakingly rendered in situ with colored electrical wires that have been barbed to evoke danger and plugged into speakers that emit a low atonal sound throughout the gallery, is characteristic. Another work, Woven Panel, 2016, created expressly for the exhibition by the National Union of Sahrawi Women at the request of the Swiss architect Manuel Herz, is a wall tapestry depicting the plan of a Sahrawi refugee camp in southwestern Algeria. Tiffany Chung’s finding one’s shadow in ruins and rubble, 2014, presents found photos of the titular detritus within thirty-one floor-mounted vessels hand-crafted from mahogany.

While these artworks and others shift the affective register, at times reflecting poignantly on the subjects they address, their presence in the galleries tends to create a false dichotomy by casting architecture and design as patently instrumental, as aids to power more than agents of change, and at worst as just more symptoms of crisis. In a typical presentation of architecture, a grid of twenty identical-size images positioned in a far corner of the gallery is presented as an illustration of, per the wall text, “the scope of living conditions that confront today’s refugees and displaced populations around the globe.” The diversity is disingenuous, however, since the lack of consistent contextual information and the scattershot selection flatten out significant differences—functional, material, political, legal, or otherwise. A contemporary rendering of a speculative shelter design is treated in the same manner as an undated black-and-white archival photograph of a UN Relief and Works Agency camp in the West Bank (where Palestinians continue to live). This sequestration of architecture is a deliberate decision, though. As the curator remarked at the exhibition’s opening, “If we propose architecture as a solution, then it ignores the problem.”

But what exactly is the problem? Concerning mass displacement, there are myriad—too many for any single exhibition to address. Yet too few of the underlying social, political, and economic conditions—and their geographic and spatial dimensions—have been presented with enough depth or surprise to reshape the contours of our understanding. By judging architecture as guilty before the trial even began, the exhibition has deprived us of the fruits of due process. Architecture is cast as hopelessly instrumentalized; its capacity to reflect on its own forms of production—concepts and ideas as much as material objects—and entanglements with power is sold short. Consider the Paper Emergency Shelters, designed in 1999 by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban for the Gihembe refugee camp in Rwanda, which are represented in the exhibition by a single photograph of a tarp being draped over a cardboard-tube structure. The novel choice of material was motivated not just by low cost and ubiquity but a UNHCR request for an alternative to its standard-issue temporary shelters, since refugees would sell the valuable aluminum support poles and replace them with tree branches, securing for themselves a degree of economic independence but contributing to deforestation. Against the image of a heroic intervention, a more dynamic story unfolds—of an agonistic relationship between displaced persons, architect, and institution, and of competing claims over individual freedom and ecological preservation.

Indeed, it is not simply that architecture is ineffective but that designers and curators and critics and journalists (the list goes on) are too narrow in their understanding of architecture itself. We fail to recognize architecture as ongoing and contested, subject to a host of contradictory pressures and demands. But its critical potential lies in its frequent status as solution and problem. Instead of consigning messy forms of engagement to the corner and elevating museum-ready artworks in their place, another curatorial approach might link different aesthetic praxes—art and design, past and present—around common activities and shared concerns. A lot of critical practice on both sides of the traditional disciplinary divide is already here, scrambling the codes of art and activism, denying divisions between research and intervention, refusing the cover of autonomy.

Two works in “Insecurities” make an overture toward such an approach. Created more than seventy years apart, they situate distinct moments of migration in relation to emerging forms of media and surveillance technologies. As an employee of the Farm Security Administration documenting rural poverty, Dorothea Lange instrumentalized her photographic practice in the service of reform. Before entering the museum, Lange’s images, such as Young Mother, a Migrant, California, 1937, appeared in newspapers and circulated in the book An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion (1939), which she coauthored with her husband, the economist Paul Taylor. Liquid Traces: The Left-to-Die Boat, 2011, an eighteen-minute video by Forensic Oceanography—a research project by filmmaker Charles Heller and sometime architect Lorenzo Pezzani—focuses on the case of sixty-three migrants who died while drifting for fourteen days within the NATO maritime-surveillance area off the coast of Libya in spring 2011. Turning the information generated through surveillance (satellite photography, various sensing technologies) into evidence of responsibility, Forensic Oceanography worked with NGOs to file legal petitions for the crime of nonassistance. A map the duo created circulated in the international press, acquiring additional meaning as it proliferated.

Of course, awareness is not enough. “Thanks to the actions of the media, the public is getting mobilized in a way that I would say is unique in recent times in solidarity with the victims,” said then-UNHCR chief António Guterres in September 2015, after a photograph of a drowned toddler washed up on a Turkish beach provoked international outrage. Yet more than a year later, what has changed? The museum offers political tools, but we must find new ways to put them to use.