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On Sunday morning I visited a new installation by Polish artist, Krsysztof Wodiczko in a disused cotton mill in Lancashire. The piece, a work from 2009 called Guests, consists of eight arched windows projected onto a wall, and through the semi-opaque windows we can see the silhouettes of a variety of people talking, standing around in groups or by themselves, dancing, or doing menial jobs such as operating a leaf-blower or washing the windows. They are life-sized, so that the initial uncanny impression as you walk into the dark space is that there are people walking back and forth on the other side of the wall, occasionally reaching out to the screens or leaning against them. IMG_7442.jpgIMG_7434 2.jpgOn the soundtrack, as well as a little background noise, we hear the conversations of some of the figures, discussing their situation and their experiences. Behind one window a Romani man complains about the refusal of the Italian government to recognize the Roma as a distinct ethnic group, suggesting that if the murder of 600,000 Roma people by the Nazis was recognized as a ‘Gypsy holocaust’ their official status might be different.IMG_7446.jpg

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In another window a woman talks about the situation of Vietnamese refugees in Communist Poland. A man reads poetry from a book in one window, while another discusses being interviewed by immigration officials. In a slapstick moment, a figure abseiling down behind one window slips and falls to the ground on his backside.

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It is a beautiful, formally simple and thought-provoking piece that invites the viewer to think about the visibility and marginalization of migrants, the barriers and screens that we are constantly erecting around ourselves, as well as the inadvertent bravery of people forced into migration; the windows are flanked with a quote from Hannah Arendt: ‘Refugees driven from country to country represent the vanguard of their peoples…’

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While I was keen to see Wodiczko’s work, in truth I was even more keen to visit the venue itself. The colossal textile Mill in Brierfield, which was built over four decades from 1838 sits alongside the Leeds-Liverpool canal and is just a few hundred metres from the terraced house my late grandmother lived in. Like many members of that side of my family, she was a mill-worker and had been employed in that mill for part of her working life. When we visited her one summer holiday, perhaps 30 years ago, she took my brother and me for a tour of the mill when it was still owned and operated by Smith & Nephew, manufacturing bandages and sanitary towels, and I have a vivid memory of the noise of the looms. It was closed in 2010, the machinery sold for scrap or transferred to factories abroad, and it now stands as an empty shell.

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IMG_7466.jpgAt first it seems an odd location for an exhibition by a major international artist. It is poorly signposted and the mill entrance is down a steep back street, behind a vacant lot and a compound piled with old tyres and wrecked cars.

IMG_7458.jpgIMG_7460.jpgThe show wasn’t designed to be displayed in this location – it was premiered at the Venice Biennale – but at the same time it couldn’t be more appropriate since Wodiczko’s piece is an invitation to reflect upon the ubiquity of migrant experience. The setting gives the work a greater historical richness. Like other industrial centres, Lancashire mill-towns depended upon migrant labour. Vast numbers of people travelled within Britain looking for work – members of my family originally travelled north from the tin mines of Cornwall to Lancashire in search of employment – and, particularly in the post-war period, people travelled to Lancashire from other areas of the Commonwealth such as Pakistan or the Caribbean. It is appropriate that the other building that dominates modern Brierfield is a mosque; in different ways both buildings are architectural symbols of mass migration.

The title of the work, ‘Guests’, is an invitation to treat refugees with hospitality, to take responsibility for these visitors who have found themselves separated from their families and communities. It also invokes the common term for immigrants, ‘guest workers’, a term which reminds us of the debt owed to this vanguard for their labour and hardships. However, it has another meaning that interrupts or subverts this othering tendency to see refugees as visitors to a place that belongs to us, since it also suggests that we too are guests, invited into the impromptu gallery space to study the figures behind the screens, and invited into this extraordinary building.

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Displayed in the context of Brierfield mill, the work is an invitation to think about ghosts and vanishing industrial histories. The shadows on the screens are spectral reminders of the thousands of women, men and children who once came to build and work in such buildings, which were the centre of thriving communities but which also destroyed the health and shortened the lives of many of the people who worked in them, including my grandfather, who died young, years before I was born. The empty building, one of over 2500 Lancashire cotton mills, now stands as a monument both to the scale of European industrial capitalism, and to the devastation of Britain’s manufacturing industry in the late twentieth century, but Wodiczko’s piece prompts us also to think about the complex global trade networks in which the Lancashire towns were embedded. Manufacturing textiles from imported cotton and exporting the resulting fabric, they were entirely dependent upon the international circulation of raw materials, goods, capital and people; this interdependence was demonstrated visibly in 1931 when Gandhi was invited by mill-owners to the nearby town of Darwen to witness the impact on Lancashire mill-workers of the Indian boycott of British cotton products as part of the Indian independence campaign. In this respect, although the installation of this artwork is infused with melancholy, it is far from nostalgic. More broadly this work that is about mobility, impresses upon the viewer a powerful sense of transience, that we are all just guests in this moment in history, temporary occupants of these structures, fleeting shadows who will leave nothing behind us but after-images and disintegrating material traces.

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