Counter Images of Immigration



Phantom Foreign Vienna (2004) is a configuration of works - a book, a photo series and a film, which confronts various aspects of immigration. The project (originally titled Fremdes Wien (1992)) was a book and a series of photographs for exhibition. It was motivated by the invisibility of immigrant communities in Vienna. True, they were present in the media, but always as an issue defined and discussed as a ‘problem’ by the majority of the population, in this case, Austrians and almost always, therefore in a negative light. It meant, quite simply, that the immigrant communities rarely, if ever, were able to talk for themselves. They were talked about. The project gave the people depicted a platform to say what they wanted and the photographs, taken from blown up single super 8 film frames, made an attempt at avoiding sharply-focused, cliché images of cultural representatives in traditional costume.



Looked at in retrospect, the work is only partly successful and it was this realization that led to Phantom Foreign Vienna. The fact that the discourse and political context had moved on in the intervening 12 years, demanded a different strategy if the work was to remain relevant. What resulted was a film and another book.



What had become obvious was that the act of ‘making people visible’ was one with an embedded power structure - one party is able to make the other visible within a given system. While the action is motivated by goodwill, it does not effect an empowerment of the other party as an equal, but only on terms inherent in a system generally intent on maintaining the status quo. The configuration here is indicative of important issues of identity (national, ethnic, linguistic etc.) too, something which I will look at in another context.


However, I would argue that on a practical level, making something or someone visible is an activity which, although flawed, still has validity within a specific context, even if it is only temporary. The discussion in the Phantom Foreign Vienna book between Ljubomir Bratic, Anna Kowalska, Lisl Ponger and Tim Sharp makes it clear that there are differences of opinion here and that there are other problems to be addressed as well.