A Peripatetic Interview Between the Editors: Discussing Vala Schriefer’s “The Atlas of the Stranger”

Vala and I shared a cappuccino with her parents, talking about Pavement and Mahler before going to the Scharf-Gerstenberg to discuss her series, “The Atlas of the Stranger.” Vala worked with BCB and the museum on the Ein Buch Ein Uni project, writing the exhibition catalog for the exhibition “Goya: Yo lo vi — Ich sah es — I saw it,” which ran from August to November this year. In addition to her involvement in the Goya show, Vala’s own work was exhibited in the Scharf-Gerstenberg alongside the permanent collection. It was my first time in the Scharf-Gerstenberg, and Vala showed me her favorite pieces in the permanent collection before I nudged her to talk about her own works. 

Zoë: Okay, let’s go in.

Vala: Mm-hmm. 

Zoë: What comes to mind now that we’re in this room together? 

Vala: These works came out of a research-creation course called “Artistic Approaches to Forced Migration and the Dilemma of the Nation State” taught by Dorothea von Hantelmann and Marion Detjen.

In that course I was reading texts by the philosopher Achille Mbembe who writes about borders, and migration, trying to reimagine existing structures in a utopian mode. Borders for instance, instead of being “separations of essence” become “points of encounter.” At the same time that I was reading Mbembe, I was reading The Odyssey and became interested in connecting Mbembe’s thinking with this ancient virtue of hospitality. And it really is an ancient virtue. We don’t have hospitality as a cultural institution today. A part of my project was then thinking about how reviving this ancient virtue might be a part of this borderless Mbembean utopia.

Zoë: And why is Odysseus an interesting figure to examine in terms of migration today?

Vala: Odysseus acts as a good figure to try to understand individuals moving in the world against their volition… what erratic movement does to one psychologically and spiritually. Odysseus becomes increasingly fragmented, estranged from himself, because he meets monsters on every shore, he’s nowhere accepted. His identity is continually breaking into pieces.

The Stranger by Vala Schriefer

Zoë: Mm-hmm. Let’s look at the first work together. Were they created chronologically?

Vala: I actually started by writing the aphorisms which each drawing is paired with. I wanted to work with this format of the aphorism because it’s sort of seated in a tradition of philosophy… a very rich few sentences. They can be either really didactic or have a lot of ambiguity. The format interested me because I was trying to hit some fluid point, a very strong idea carrying ambiguity.

I wanted to work with the visuals of maps, all different kinds of maps: maps of the world, maps of the universe, I was thinking about biological diagrams as being a kind of map as well. I was interested in blending more hybrid, suggestive images with the concreteness of language. 

Zoë: Was having the structure of a map helpful for you to organize your ideas as you were creating the pieces?

Vala: In a way yes, but more in my trying to push against a map’s concreteness, its declarativeness. The map of the stranger is an inconcrete one, not fully legible but suggesting a more shifting set of relations. 

Zoë: And I even wonder if the map as we conceive of it now is a format that is suitable to accommodate the new shifting set of relations with the stranger that you speak of. But who is the stranger that this work centers around?

Vala: We act as the figure of the stranger whenever we go to a new place. And what resolves the stranger from being the other? It’s the virtue of hospitality. Hospitality is the virtue of accepting someone you don’t know into your home; acknowledging, as Mbembe writes when he’s trying to revive this idea from Kant, that the earth belongs to all of us. When you hold this idea that the earth is common to all of us, then the stranger is a temporary condition, represents a temporary ignorance. 

Zoë: Maybe you could speak a bit more about the virtue of hospitality in connection to the nation state?

Vala: In ancient Greece hospitality was a rich and serious cultural value. Hospitality was a part of what it meant to be Greek. It’s not seen as something extra. And these ideas, this value, is incompatible with the nation state model. The nation state doesn’t work without borders. It requires separations, the individuation of identity. 

Zoë: How does this idea of hospitality relate to issues of migration that you approach in your work? 

Vala: Mbembe looks at how forced migration is now not just a physical phenomenon, but has also been absorbed into the digital realm. A refugee’s fingerprints and eye scans are already in the system long before they physically arrive to a place—their digital double has already been rejected. There are internal borders created by this digitalization. So… what does hospitality mean then if they never get a chance to knock on your door?

Zoë: Can this digitalization and reliance on technology adapt to the personal nature of hospitality? I’m wondering how states could embrace hospitality when legislation regarding migration is increasingly impersonal.

Vala: Totally. There’s a way in which technology, like the internet, can act as a borderless world, can make differences “points of encounter”. But at the same time, do we have the same kind of empathy for the digital person? Are we actually able to act in the real world based on those online calls for action? Having someone knocking at your door asking for help is very different from seeing pictures online. But people can’t get to your door.

“Border as Encounter” by Vala Schriefer

Zoë: It’s interesting to consider the degree of desensitization you experience towards crisis when you’re approaching something on an online format. And yet, there’s still hope that technological dependence will lead to a sort of utopia that lacks the borders of nationhood. However, this idea of an online utopia fails to recognize how the political issues of our material reality will inevitably follow us into the digital realm. But maybe we should move on… Okay, so the second piece: “Border as Encounter”. Let’s move on. “Hospitality” is the next piece. Looking at it, I’m thinking about the role of “mystery” in your compositions, as it’s something you write about in this piece. There is an unknown element that prevails, and I’m wondering if we can use that as a way to have a discussion about the aesthetic choices of the series.

Vala: There’s a difference between mystery and ignorance. Ignorance suggests a kind of fixed state, while mystery suggests you are leaning into something, you’re curious. It’s not initially critical of the unknown. It’s a way of framing our natural otherness towards each other.

The compositions, the suggestion of maps without the concreteness of a specific object or place being mapped, was my attempt to invite a similar kind of mystery. A viewer might think, “I sort of know what’s going on here, but I don’t actually”…which is, I think, a way of relating to people too. I want to lean in and get to know you, while also accepting that that mystery isn’t something which needs to be totally resolved.

“Hospitality” By Vala Schriefer

Zoë: In trying to know something in its totality, you ultimately reduce it, because you’re coming from your own point of situated knowledge. I think your maps suggest a process rather than a permanence in what the object is, which is something I can really appreciate about them. Moving on and considering “Stasis and Fragmentation,” can we talk about how stasis comes up in your thinking about the works?

“Stasis and Fragmentation” By Vala Schriefer

Vala: On the one hand you have this extreme stasis in the nation state—people are required to stay put and identify with their spot in order for the nation state to have any power. But then when people move around they find themselves unable to relate to another place. The nation state says “you’re not of the same essence as we are,” it creates a kind of fragmentation in the mover, a fragmentation of identity. But of course, to move around, to be fluid, is natural to the human being.

“The Nobody” by Vala Schriefer

Zoë: I’m also curious, the aphorism on this map, “The Nobody”, is about the stranger at risk of becoming nobody when they’re no longer the author of their movement. Can you speak about at which point this stranger turns into the figure of the “nobody?”

Vala: It’s when that temporary otherness is not recognized as temporary. And, when you’re moving around consistently regarded as an unresolvable unknowability, you’re at risk of actually losing something of yourself. 

“Internal Borders” by Vala Schriefer

Zoë: How do these ideas of otherness relate back to your original utopian intention in the series?

Vala: To conceive of utopia is a productive thing. You’re imagining what might be possible. Imagination is key in reviving a real, rich virtue of hospitality. We have to be able to imagine the other as someone who could become a part of our own lives and our communities.

“Extension” by Vala Schriefer
“The Unknown” by Vala Schriefer

Zoë: Let’s go look at Goya. 

As Vala and I walked around the Goya room, I felt grateful that I’d chosen to experience the prints with the person who’d written the exhibition catalog. “That one’s super freaky,” I said to Vala. “Mmhmm,” she replied. We left the museum chatting about our theses and trying to keep our voices down, as other museum goers examined her work.

“Relation” by Vala Schriefer
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