We’re thrilled to announce the publication of our fourth title, Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention Centres’. First published in a very short run in 2014, Undocumented grew out of the research of architect and activist Tings Chak. Tings has been active in the Toronto chapter of No One is Illegal, a group dedicated to protecting the rights and freedoms of migrants.
This second, expanded edition of the book comes at a difficult time for migrants. With Trump talking about building a border wall, hiring hundreds of thousands of border guards and even discussing using 100,000 national guards to deport migrants, things are looking grim. The situation in Canada is not much better, as refugees flee over the US border only to be threatened and arrested when they arrived.
That’s why it’s so important to keep informed. Undocumented provides critical context for understanding how migrant detention works to strip people of their humanity and make them invisible to society at large. Forewarned is forearmed as they say and this book helps to explain what is shaping up to be one of the most important struggles of the 21st century.
Peter Kuper’s new graphic novel, ‘Ruins’, is a breakthrough, even though this veteran cartoonist has been publishing books since 1980, producing more titles than I can count.
Having known Peter since first grade, it could be argued that I am not objective enough to write a review of anything he produces. But I have never believed that art has much to do with objectivity. Rather, art is about the insights we gain through subjective experience. So here is what I have learned through knowing Peter Kuper that I think is relevant to a discussion of this book.
Peter Kuper grew up in a very unusual 1970’s suburban household. His mom, Ginger Kuper, was a very artsy lady. She had a desk job at the Cleveland Orchestra and was an amateur potter. The house was full of clay sculpture along with Native American textiles, block prints, plants and nature photographs. One of Peter’s uncles was an illustrator and his work decorated the walls. Another uncle was a Broadway actor. His older sisters were a dancer and a photographer. The family had a subscription to the New Yorker.
Peter’s father was a scientist, but not the kind who is lost in abstract thought. Alan Kuper (known as ‘Buzz’) liked to take walks in the woods. The family went on regular camping trips. Buzz had a subscription to National Geographic and would eventually become president of the local Sierra club. Alan Kuper was also outspoken in opposition to the Vietnam War, took his kids to peace demonstrations, allowed his son to become the first boy I knew to grow his hair long. My sister and I, along with most of our schoolmates, envied the Kuper kids for having “such nice parents”.
Peter picked up his mother’s love of art, but also his father’s love of nature. He had a butterfly collection long before he had a comic book collection and dreamed of being an entomologist before he decided to become an illustrator. From his family he gained a passion for traveling to exotic places that would continue for the rest of his life.
This background is evident in spades in Peter’s new book RUINS. The inside cover is decorated with a pattern of insects, delicately rendered. The main character is an entomologist. Most of the action takes place in the scenic landscape of Oaxaca Mexico. Many pages are dedicated to the migration and life cycle of the monarch butterfly.
It is the story of two Americans searching for their creativity in Oaxaca who run smack into the historic teachers strike of 2007 and the bloody repression that followed. The lead character is an out-of-work entomological illustrator who travels to Mexico in hope that he will start painting again. His wife wants to finish her novel and conceive a child. They meet a disillusioned photojournalist who is drinking himself to death because of things he saw in El Salvador. I won’t spoil the ending, but those who have followed events in Oaxaca can guess what happens.
But what really makes this book stand out is not what it shows but HOW it shows it. The full color drawings are lush and complex, with a lot of deep space. Both the natural beauty and the local culture are lovingly detailed. Peter knows just what the eye wants to see and he delivers, page after page.
Some will find fault that the book does not go into the political situation in Mexico that deeply. They might even accuse Kuper of exoticizing indigenous Mexicans. But Peter never pretends to speak for the locals or to be an expert on their issues. Kuper does not try to go beyond the subjective point of view of his tourist protagonists. I think this is a good and honest decision.
The mission of our generation of cartoonists has been to elevate the comic book medium; to take this “children’s toy” and make art with it. That’s a complicated project because art is a little word that covers a vast territory. It is not only Edvard Munch and Diamanda Galas, but Norman Rockwell, Paul Gaugin, Peter Max and the Beatles. There is more than one type of art. ‘Ruins’ is not an austere modernist exploration of the medium tied to important historic events like Art Spiegelman’s ‘Maus’. It is not an introspective examination of the drudgery of everyday life, like the work of Harvey Pekar, nor is it hard-hitting on-the-ground comics journalism like Joe Sacco’s.
Peter has tried on all of those hats but in ‘Ruins’, he speaks with a voice that is uniquely his own. ‘Ruins’ tells us that nature is endangered but it is also beautiful, that indigenous people are oppressed but their culture is beautiful, that creativity is hard to achieve but its results are beautiful: that life itself is short but also beautiful. Have I said the word beautiful enough times? THIS BOOK IS FUCKING BEAUTIFUL!
It is an affirmation of life in the face of death. It will warm you up in a cold day. ‘Ruins’ is anything but. Buzz and Ginger would be proud of Peter, and so am I.
Title: UNDOCUMENTED: The Architecture of Migrant Detention Author: Tings Chak Illustrator: Tings Chak Published: Self-published as a 3-part zine in August 2014; published by in September 2014 Purchase: In the Ad Astra Comix Online Store For more info: www.tingschak.com
Architecture has been described as a synthesis of life’s components in materialized form. Its proponents describe it as the mother art, or the soul of a civilization, and one in which we have historically defined our understandings of home, safety, comfort. It is an art form that can seem invisible and yet cannot possibly go unnoticed. But what happens when buildings are not, as architect Stephen Gardiner describes it, ‘good people making good buildings by good design’? What if the desired architecture is one of discomfort, isolation, and transience?
Prisons, detention centres, and other “holding facilities” are the subject explored artfully in this premiere work by Tings Chak, an artist, activist, and former architecture student. “Undocumented” is a jarring 3-part exploration the intimate relationship we have with the spaces around us. By examining their physical, emotional and psychological toll when occupied, “Undocumented” posits that their architecture is ill-designed and of ill-intent, meaning it mirrors the economic and political architecture of global neo-liberal policy.
Part One: Landscape
What first strikes the reader in the comic’s first pages is the invisibility of migrant detention in countries like Canada. From the outside, prisons and holding facilities are often nested inconspicuously in suburbs and bedroom communities. Locals think little of their impact but as a source of jobs in increasingly desperate economic times. Despite their underwhelming appearance, their intent, by design, is diametrically opposed to all the buildings around them.
The construction of prisons and other involuntary holding facilities turns architecture on its head, and we experiences a sense of conceptual vertigo. Space and inhabitants alike are compartmentalized. The comic illustrates what inmates describe as a sense of isolation so intense that they feel they are becoming one with the walls in their cell. Aesthetically, this feeling is aided by the compartmental nature of comics as a “sequential” art form.
Part Two: Building
“Undocumented” steps beside the realm of a comic with a linear narrative and into a category of ‘statistics illustrated’. The cold delivery of information brings home the point that these detention centres are, in so many ways, an impediment to the human narrative of their captives. Each individual, in their life journey through spaces and other individual lives, is suspended and infringed upon. Here, life is devoid of free will. Schedules are fixed and micro-managed. Interpersonal interaction is withheld and restricted. In order to understand the stories that escape from these hellish conditions, one must acknowledge the adversities they have overcome.
Looking over the grounds and conditions of a series of holding facilities in Ontario, they seem underwhelming, banal where we might expect that they be ominous. In other words, they are deceptive, and intentionally so. By design and locale, they seem to embody the 19th century French “oubliette”: a dungeon where people are placed with the intention of being forgotten. Modern prison architecture shows that little has changed: rehabilitation, correction or even punishment are beyond the essential purpose of these facilities.
Part Three: Resistance
Here, the work takes a decidedly more human tone. We go from the vital statistics of carceral facilities to the descriptions of the lives of migrant detainees: precarious, vulnerable, and fearful. Quotes from men, women and children held in detention reveal a profound isolation – from spouse, sun and seasons – an example of the emotional trauma inflicted by confinement. Shine the light a bit further down this rabbit hole, and we consider the subject of solitary confinement, euphemistically termed “administrative segregation” by Corrections Canada. Here, a detainee could spend up to 23 hours completely alone, in what has been regarded by human rights activists for years as a criminal act that jumps the fenced definition of torture by any decent definition.
Ultimately, “Undocumented” is a look at architecture not as a thing of author-less objectivity, but as the physical legacy of accomplices to an agenda of discipline and exploitation. It helps us connect the economic policies of neo-liberalism that impoverish and displace populations to the detention centres they are confined in when they try to escape. With a cold, empirical lens, it demonstrates that the blueprints of migrant detention centres are drawn with the intent to isolate, agitate, and demoralize their human occupants.
Frank Lloyd Wright described architecture as a component in the construction of a civilization’s soul. What, then, can be said of the civilization responsible for these gaps in our urban landscapes that neither light nor hope can penetrate?
“Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention Centres” is launching as a published book this week, and if you’re in Toronto, you are invited! RSVP for the event here, on Facebook.