Art & Immigration



The Laboratory for Artistic Intelligence explores what Art has to offer Immigration, and other matters of public policy

As climate breakdown progresses over the next decade, a major intersecting crisis will be the mass displacement of people. Canada is one of the few places in the world with space, and economic need for newcomers. While Canada has been celebrated globally for our immigrant success stories, many of us know that there are highly-qualified immigrants driving taxi cabs and sweeping floors.

We propose that Art knows a lot about Adaptation, and that conventional settlement strategies need reinvention led by artistic inquiry, and creative wisdom. In fact, through research, including interviews and exploration with newcomers in a variety of contexts, we have confirmed this intuition to be true.

In 2016, with the support of a research and creation grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, and with assistance from CultureLink, Luminato Festival and the Centre for Social Innovation, we carried out a pilot project to explore what Art has to offer Immigration. We posted a job ad, and hired newcomers from non-artistic fields such as Finance, Engineering, and Education. The job we offered them: To make art with us in ways that would creatively make use of their professional backgrounds in Finance, Engineering, Education, etc.

That pilot project, Newcomer Inventions, was intentionally exploratory — without predetermined, fixed outcomes. We offered the newcomers a consulting contract, some basic pay, career coaching from a professional service provider, and an opportunity to ‘try before being hired.’ (Two people left after the first workshop.) We made no promises as to what we would really do along the way, other than to show up to work.

Our goal was to just try working together, and see what would happen. We dove in, got ‘stuck in the weeds’ a few times. We had fun. We laughed a lot. Things got messy. There was tension. We worked through. We made stuff.

We discovered that ‘making art’ can improve settlement outcomes.

After completing our pilot project, half the newcomers went on to secure their first full-time jobs in their preferred field. Participants went from never being hired to getting the job, and never getting an interview in over a year, to going for multiple successive interviews.

We have continued our research, from workshopping ideas with immigrants in New Orleans, to conducting in-depth interviews with newcomer professionals looking to enter the knowledge economy in Canada. Our findings confirm that, indeed, Art has much to offer Immigration.
How Does It Work

We imagine the newcomers as the best people for the work. The art projects are tailored to who the newcomers are and how they might practice re-presenting themselves. It’s not about changing who they are; it’s about discovering how our professional identity can be fluid — responding to our surrounding context and colleagues.

We leverage the social capital of arts and culture to enhance the newcomers’ distinctiveness. In a sea of candidates with similar technical qualifications, our newcomers stand out as someone with ‘Canadian work experience’ and an interesting work history. This creative work experience signals to recruiters that the newcomer is a flexible, communicative person, with good interpersonal skills.

By offering newcomers a professional yet playful work environment, we position newcomers to ‘level up’ their listening, presentation, storytelling, negotiation, collaboration, and other soft skills. The residency places the newcomers in a practice workplace, where they can feel out social dynamics, re-calibrate their sense of norms, and practice being in a new cultural environment that will help them do better in interviews, at networking, and on the job.

Finally, for better or for worse, having prior Canadian work experience helps; it signals something about a person’s ‘employability.’ It comes as no surprise that newcomers have been right all along: ‘Just give me a chance. Give me a job where I can show you what I can do.’

As independent, experimental artists, we have laboured tediously to hire newcomers for interesting work while others have preferred to not assume the responsibility.

Our goal is not to produce an art project that does a better job at helping newcomers become employed than service providers. Our goal is to be provocative and make this spectacle just credible enough to inspire service providers and policymakers to approach this work with greater moral imagination, and to prompt newcomers and the public to expect more from public services and their elected officials.
What’s Next

Today, we’re excited to announce that we’ve been awarded a major project grant to continue the project, with the intention of scaling.

This next phase of the project, Newcomer Innovations & Interventions, brings two new cohorts of artists and newcomers together to make art. Newcomers will have opportunities to lead meetings, facilitate peer learning, and present proposals. They will be engaged on a consulting basis from October through June, with specific on-site dates for the residencies and culminating exhibition. They will be coached on how to make the most of this experience as they continue their job search.

Guest artists will work with the newcomers in teams to make art. Our approach is to hire first, based on the person, and devise the artistic projects in response to the newcomers’ skills, interests, and personalities. Resulting artworks may include performance art (social actions), interactive or relational works, small film/photography projects, song/music, dance, visual/public art, fashion, storytelling, and things that, like Duchamp’s urinal, might make a person ask, ‘but is it art?’

In addition to the artwork created by guest artists and newcomers, we will create framing pieces to unpack the topic of settlement, make legible the research, and create a context for the works.

We are excited to be working in collaboration with the Centre for Social Innovation, Luminato Festival, and TO Live to produce this exhibition, and offer this unique bridging experience for two new cohorts of newcomer professionals.
What Now

We are challenging the public imagination by sharing the project through public exhibition, research, conference presentations, meetings with bureaucrats, and proposals to funders.

Over the past few years we have brought the story of this project to government, service providers, researchers, newcomers, and artists. We’ve ‘performed’ this story at conferences, retreats, policy discussions, panels, workshops, and countless meetings. We’ve stubbornly submitted weird funding applications for impossible art-meets-immigration-projects (and got rejected until now).

These actions are part of the art; these are interventions that pop up where decision-makers are, and where people with influence are willing to be engaged.

We are bringing art into silos where people secretly wish for more creativity and holistic thinking.

We are exploring how artists might be involved in public policy, and the organization of society.

We are modelling social innovation that centres art and meaning-making.

Currently, we are looking for people and places who are interested in welcoming this project into their world. We want this exhibition to go places. We want this story to travel.

If you can host the exhibition, an installation, a talk/discussion, or even a cohort of newcomers and artists, please get in touch.

We would love for you to be part of this story.
© Laboratory for Artistic Intelligence
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