Last January and February LACE hosted the exhibition Customizing Language as part of the Emerging Curator’s Program. The exhibition included many great pieces by some of the artists I respect the most. Raquel Gutiérrez wrote a beautiful piece on the exhibition on Hyperallergic. Here, though I am going to retrospectively reflect on one particular piece in the context of the exhibition that deeply affected my experience of the opening night. I found it overwhelmingly difficult to confront and look at this piece despite its seemingly light-hearted “cuteness”. I went back to see it another time after the opening, hoping the empty gallery would help me muster up the courage to stand in front it, and look at it without trying to turn away with teary eyes. The piece drew me in, pleased me on visual and affective levels. But viscerally, it hurt…
“Refugees Welcome. Signs” by Camilo Ontiveros is a collection of dozens of welcome signs the artist purchased from thrift stores, arranged together on the wall. His one criterion of choosing, he writes to me in an email: “It only had to have the word welcome alone.” Collected from thrift stores, the signs may have traveled through the homes of opponents or proponents of refugees or the houses of refugees themselves. When these signs are hung in people’s homes, workspace, yard or garden, they territorialize the space the visitor/reader is entering: you are welcome in my house, my yard, my home, our country. Arranged together as a constellation on the wall, the territories the signs are demarcating overlap into eccentric circles, which absurdly begs the question “who is welcome in whose territory?” The signs are also all in English, which from the get-go confronts you with the brutality of language rather than the act of delivering or translating a “message.” The “welcome” goes only as far as the language goes, as far as the wall it is hung on.
In relation to the theme and title of the exhibition, “Customizing Language,” Ontiveros customizes the existing language of the welcome sign through a subtle recontextualization. In the context of border control and immigration in the U.S. the word “welcome,” rather than being comforting or reassuring, triggers alert for a refugee. Even if it appears alone, it is followed by an implied order of law and regulation, a signifier of the eminence of power. Whether it appears on a sign along the border or on the cover of a handbook published by the Department of Homeland Security, it is never meant to simply “Welcome,” but continue to alert the refugee of the power that observes, surveils, deports, disciplines, and of course, punishes, amongst other things.
The use of “Welcome signs” compared to, for example “surveillance signs” subtly touches on the characteristic of our contemporary society as one that is not past the disciplinary society and, simply a society of control. It is rather one that as Jasbir Puar and others have argued oscillates between the disciplinary society and the society of control, a constant back and forth between, and the simultaneity of the two. “If discipline works at the level of identity, control works at the level of intensity,” Puar states. She then concludes that societies of control are less about ‘inclusion versus exclusion,’ but about the ways and conditions of inclusion. Everybody is “welcome,” but under what conditions, and what entails the cost and labor of being “welcome” as a refugee? Through the simplicity of its form “Refugees Welcome. Signs” identifies the violence that exists in the most innocuous forms, shapes, words and places.