March 12, 2019
Addressing immigrant rights, Radio Rhizome combines art and academia
At 7 p.m. on Wednesday night, the Target Studio for Creative Collaboration bustled with students, faculty, and community members. People chatted and greeted each other upon entrance to the gallery space, careful not to step on one of the many hand-held radios scattered across the floor. Other visitors scanned the room in anticipation of the night’s scheduled performance — the inaugural broadcast of Radio Rhizome.
Engaging with the concept of rhizomes — a botanical term defined as “a continuously growing horizontal underground stem,” — Radio Rhizome was created by Iranian artists Nooshin Hakim and Pedram Baldari, both of whom teach within the University of Minnesota’s Art Department. The project is both a mobile tool and discursive platform. By broadcasting compilations of interviews, storytelling, and sound-scapes, the project elevates the needs and voices of immigrant communities and calls members of academic communities to action.
The performance began with artists and participants (UMN students) pacing around the room, each clutching a radio. Through the crackle of static, “Attention, attention!” alerted listeners of three codes— white, yellow, and red — indicating that immigration forces were in town or clarified the rumors that they were not. In their tired, distressed, and solemn state, participants intermittently set down a radio here, picked one up over there, and exchanged with each other.
Radios then picked up another noise, and a deep voice shared research and history of immigration laws in the United States; how immigration is conducted, how it affects people of color, and how its working across different races and class systems.
A panel followed and consisted of the artists and their collaborators: Deepinder Mayell, executive director of the Center for New Americans and director of the center’s Education and Outreach Program, Kjerstin Yager, program coordinator of the Education and Outreach Program, and Julio Zelaya, American Civil Liberties Union’s Greater Minnesota Racial Justice Project Coordinator. The group discussed the origin, context, and future of the project.
The result of a year long conversation, Radio Rhizome was partially based on Baldari’s childhood during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. At that time, a specific frequency, and the same code utilized in the performance, alerted civilians about air raids and chemical attacks of Saddam Hussein’s army; and it was taught to children as early as five-years-old. The artists adopted the system and created Radio Rhizome as both a form and an experiment of mobile protest.
“We were thinking about how we could be flexible,” Baldari said. “How can we be a system that can identify that ICE is present, and at least from clear sources, let the community know that they are here?”
In the past, Hakim and Baldari based their artworks on research and collected information that inspired and directly corresponded with the Target Studio experiment. This time, that process posed a challenge.
“The more we had conversations, the more we realized we could not use any of the information that we get because all of the information is super sensitive,” Hakim said.
The group discussed multiple collaborative art forms that would not only sustain the mission of the project, but simultaneously aid the communities that the project encompassed. As they ideated, the project seemed to be stuck in vague gap of legality.
“I’m interested in that,” Hakim said. “Having documents, but at the same time, being undocumented. That’s how we came up with this idea of a pirate radio that exists in between the realm of being legal.”
Radio Rhizome is one of four experimental projects put forth this spring through WAM’s Target Studio for Creative Collaboration, spearheaded by its curator Boris Oichermann. In an effort to bring in an academic and legal perspective, as well as to navigate the legal risks of the project, Hakim and Baldari collaborated with the University of Minnesota Law School’s James H. Binger Center for New Americans — established in response to the overwhelming need of immigrant and refugee legal services in Minnesota.
“One of the challenges as attorneys is seeing lots of cases and having nothing to do with them, having no options, and facing very policed scenarios,” Mayell said. “Facing that, having limited solutions, losing cases, appealing, winning some, but losing a lot, that is the reality of immigration practitioners right now, and it is a very demoralizing place to be.”
Mayell and Yager commented on the sadness, emotional exhaustion, and secondary trauma that corresponds with their work. Radio Rhizome provided them an outlet to cope with their experiences and reflect on alternative methods of action.
“It was healthy for us to give ourselves the space to think about our work in that capacity, and also take time to process the work that we do because it is so intense, that for your own sake you have to put up a certain wall,” Yager said. “It’s necessary, but it’s also dangerous. So, it’s good for us to take a step back and be able to think about it some more.”
Anti-immigrant laws affect more than the individual and their family, they affect entire communities. For example, an immigrant who sees a crime take place may not call local police in fear of becoming visible in the eye of law enforcement and setting off an immigration trigger.
“What starts to happen is the crumbling of our justice system, because there’s a pocket of people who don’t have access to it,” Zelaya explained. “So, really when we’re talking about immigrants, we’re talking about everybody. We’re talking about the whole stability of the idea of what is just and the system that we live in.”
The implementation of Radio Rhizome has yet to be tested on audiences and environments outside of an art scope. Looking forward, Hakim and Baldari plan to record and broadcast the stories of individuals who are subjects of conflict or caught in the tension and insufficiency of the immigration system — anyone who feels that their voice is not heard. If funding is secured, the artists hope to acquire a large radio dish and create a reflection effect on the surface of the museum, or in essence, turn WAM into an antenna. Agency now relies on the audience. Will you participate? Will you listen?
KATE DRAKULIC, WAM Communications Intern