Isolations of Space and Time

II. Immigration

Studies of primates show they are hardwired to keep to their own, and strongly suggest we are built the same – to protect those like us and repel those who are not. Recent studies in cognitive science discover that we share the brainwave patterns of those closest to us, not by synchrony or custom and accommodation, but instead because we choose friends and partners by their likeness to us. Separate evidence from cognitive science indicates that we also are hardwired to conflate space and time. (Our ‘time manager’ co-opts the mental apparatus used to organize spatial experience.) So it is not surprising that a process like migration and the cultural change it brings–a longer term process–are geographically contained.

But not all responses to the movement of people are equally time-blind. Two examples that differ in intent and purpose both resolve process and time to advantage.

Social quarantines of culture often conform to or exploit landscapes of isolation. Think neighborhoods stranded by highway and railroad. Also those carved out between levees and dikes, as in New Orleans and Wilhelmsburg, Germany (an ElbeInsel of Hamburg), which is enclosed again by a customs fence. Even in vital port cities such as these, defined by outflow and inflow, coming and going, fringed places exist. Migrants, the poor, the differently-colored accumulate there, where the landscape is less desirable, costs are fewer, and society necessarily more accepting. Over time, mixing and separation find a balance–first in commerce, and then acculturation happens, unevenly but mutually. Novelty seeps in, inter-fingering with the established culture. Language, food, and music are the ambassadors: pidgin gives way to creole, yogurt becomes a national dish, everyone listens to jazz.
Landscapes of isolation are the wetlands of migration, slowing and filtering the differences that transform culture.

Directed settling of migrants, where communities elect to host refugees, shows time-nuanced understanding too. Most recently, refugees from Africa and the Middle East have been welcomed into many European countries, whose leaders assume and anticipate a faster beneficial give and take of ethical, social, or economic dimension.

By simultaneously bracing for and embracing change, these different segregations of geography are congruent with process and reconcile time in our favor: we thereby supervise, improvise the ongoing creation of the world.

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The ethics of relational art reveal a similar mindset about attenuating change. Relational art poses the non-threatening introduction of new ideas and practices by emphasizing audience participation. Such participatory art is consensual, harmonious, interstitial, and concordant with the culture it engages, all the while modifying and intervening. This approach can underlie other activism and awareness-raising, too. By appropriating process, and scaling down rather than eliminating change, we place it within human time, to allow evolution. And prevent revolution.


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