Mapping the world: CARTOGRAPHY at NYUAD

We know we live in one of the world’s most geographically diverse places. The UAE is home to over 200 nationalities, and people born somewhere else make up around 88 percent of the total population. What’s more, those incomers aren’t here forever; it’s likely that most of us will be moving on at some time.

If we’re lucky, it will be a matter of choice (ours) and we’ll be able to choose both our next destination and how we get there. For many people on the move, none of that applies.

And even if we do settle in one place, there will likely be travels in our family’s past. One or both of our parents or their parents almost certainly came from somewhere else. The idea of migration, of worlds in motion, is not something new or specific; it’s an experience we share.

Bringing home that self-evident truth is what CARTOGRAPHY is all about. This original performance – co commissioned by The Arts Center at NYUAD, developed for Abu Dhabi with input from NYUAD interactive media postgrads, showing at The Arts Center for a second weekend on 13-15 February – is most immediately about the current migration crisis.

But it has wider relevance; its co-creators Kaneza Schaal and Christopher Myers describe it more generally as “a platform for audiences to consider their own histories of movement whether recent or many generations past …”

The performance invites us to journey with five young people as they leave their worlds behind and begin what they hope will be a new life. Initially they seem very different people, because it takes them a while to find a common language; but CARTOGRAPHY combines simple, direct, powerful storytelling with eye-opening interactive video and punctuating passages of movement and dance – and the result is both engaging and genuinely theatre for our times.

CARTOGRAPHY originated during Myers’ and Schaal’s 2016 collaboration at the International Youth Library in Munich, working with young asylum seekers. At that time Germany was a key destination for migrants and the city was receiving 30,000 people a day. The children hailed from over 12 different countries, including Syria, Mali, Afghanistan, Somalia, Eretria, Iraq, and Nigeria; they had crossed the Mediterranean in inflatable rafts, walked through forests and across countries, hidden themselves in the holds of cargo trucks, travelling alone to seek refuge. Schaal and Myers asked what tools they had as artists to address this crisis.

CARTOGRAPHY is their answer: an attempt to show how we can see ourselves in any story of movement, how we can recognise ourselves in any story of imagining a better life for oneself and trying to make that a reality.

When working in Munich with more recent refugee kids, one young person talked about riding on public transport and feeling like the people on the bus wouldn’t look at them. “They felt invisible as migrants to a new country, a new city, a new world,” said Kaneza Schaal. “At the end of the time we spent with them, we asked ‘What should we as artists make next?’ One young man said, ‘I want you to make a place for us to be seen’.

“This piece is that place for us to see each other.”

The sea figures prominently in CARTOGRAPHY, as it does in the stories of contemporary migrants. “For the children and families who have migrated, especially those crisscrossing the Mediterranean, the sea itself functions as a mystical, untethered character like the unpredictable gods of Greek tragedy,” says Schaal. “How do we interpret its motions, allowances and punishments with any degree of rationality as ancient tales of Mediterranean migration have, where figures like Scylla and Charybdis stood in for the dangers of the sea?”

The answer: to understand the ocean itself as a character and embody it on stage. With recent graduates from the NYU Abu Dhabi Interactive Media Department, Schaal and Myers developed a way of doing that – the actors on stage control the intensity of the waves and wind in a projected video of the sea with the timbre of their voices and movements. That inverts the experience of most migrants, who find themselves out of control and at the sea’s whims.

The other key technological element in CARTOGRAPHY is a key symbol of modern life and another crucial element of modern migrations. “Cellphones have become increasingly integrated with the fabric of everyday life, from mapping to financial institutions, from being in constant contact with loved ones to finding resources in resource-poor environments,” says Kaneza Schaal. “Nowhere is this more evident than in the lives of contemporary migrants who may do without food or water, but need their cellphones as a resource before all others.”

Usually theatre audiences are asked to switch off their mobile phones. For CARTOGRAPHY the NYUAD Interactive Media Department built a mapping platform that invites audiences to use their personal phones to input their families’ own history of movement.

That is projected on to the blocks that make up the back of the stage; and the results are quite dramatic – a cats cradle of overlapping lines across the world, “a map of the histories of movement that brought us all together into the theatre for that evening”, as Schaal puts it. Of course it’s different for each performance as individual audience members add their own journeys; and yet it’s fundamentally the same. This is theatre as proof, and it’s a powerful tool.

CARTOGRAPHY itself is travelling. The piece premiered at the Kennedy Center in early 2019 and it will go to Canada, New England and Rwanda next, before an extensive USA tour in the autumn.

It will also have several other incarnations, notably a forthcoming book for young adults written by Christopher Myers and published by Random House. There will also be a new geo-mapping city portraits project – a “cartographic catalogue” where a series of short video portraits will humanise and render visible particular locations in the city and the stories they contain. This will serve as an ongoing artistic installation, as well as a citywide interface for school children, universities, social services, and municipal stakeholders to discuss how migration affects their community.

CARTOGRAPHY shows at The Arts Center’s Black Box theatre on 13 February at 8pm and then at 4pm on 14 and 15 February. Tickets are AED 100 (adult) or AED 50 (youth – 3-22 years). Details here.

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