Undocumented: Graphic novel explores the architecture of migration detention

An Interview with Tings Chak
Ad Astra Comix

Tings Chak is an activist and artist with a master's degree in architecture from the University of Toronto. She is based in the Greater Toronto Area, traditional territory of the Anishnaabe, Wendat, and Haudenosaunee peoples.

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The following is an interview between Chak and University of Ottawa Professor David Moffette.

Undocumented is Chak’s first full-length book, published by Ad Astra Comix. For more about her work, check out her personal and book websites.

Art about migration often highlights movement, but what is striking in Undocumented is the immobilization, the suspended space and time of detention. How do you engage with mobility and immobility?

Tings Chak

Using a sequential medium like a graphic novel is about playing with space and time. You are moving through a static space by the act of flipping a page, to wander through a space that most people don’t have access to. It also plays with the fact that you can be in motion but feel immobilized, and you can be physically contained but resist immobilization.

A story illustrated in the book is about a prisoner who was in solitary confinement for many years, and who imagined himself walking through the places he knew, walking from Minnesota to Boston in his cell (Quoted from Brett Story’s CBC Radio documentary, “Alone Inside”). That’s a story of resistance, of survival, of overcoming that immobilization.

The thin lines, the bare spaces, the technical charts clearly render the suffocating dimension of carcerality. Why did you use this style of drawing?

Even though I used computer modelling to create these spaces, I did all the drawings by hand, which implicates those who draw and design carceral spaces and shows that despite the sterile nature of the sketches there is still the unsteadiness of a human hand behind them. I didn’t even use a hierarchy of thinner and thicker lines, a technique typical of architectural drawings, but chose one line-weight to maintain a certain minimalism.

Tings Chak

My technical drawings were designed to minimum standards for prisons and detention centres to question the assumption that we can quantify what is necessary for human survival, be it square-footage, air space, or natural light. I wanted to represent this in a highly neutralized way to speak to the architectural tradition of building to the minimum Standards — or what’s “humane” — which is a pretty disturbing logic.

This suffocating feeling follows us outside too, for instance in the drawing of a lover sleeping alone. How is carcerality colonizing space beyond detention centres?

Tings Chak

Detention doesn’t only affect people who are inside prisons: The carceral extends beyond prison walls into every community that is affected by the prison industrial complex. I’m thinking of this refugee claimant who was coming home from work at a toilet paper company in 2003, who got profiled as a Black man by the police, stopped while grabbing a slice of pizza, and then arrested when they found he was undocumented, and he’s been detained ever since. No trial, no charge, indefinite detention. He could be anyone’s family member, friend, loved one, and in one moment, this person disappears, and this kind of absence is felt in diverse communities that are targeted by surveillance, racial profiling, and criminalization.

You included an interview with someone who has been on a 32-day hunger strike in this new edition. How do you go about showcasing detainees’ experiences?

This is one of the most challenging issues. While I was doing the book, I was heavily involved in the End Immigration Detention Network and I was already engaged with many detainees. So it felt grounded. But it’s never easy. The first two parts of the book don’t feature any people because I was careful not to produce a voyeuristic representation of human suffering, and thought that focusing on architecture itself was enough to convey the violence of immigration detention.

In the last section on resistance, I tried to stay as true as possible to the words and actions of the detainees. The additional interview in the new edition is with someone who was one of the key hunger strikers in 2013, and who is now out on bail. I included it to highlight the conditions that give rise to these strikes, and demonstrate the power of organizing in an immobilizing space, a space designed to remove your identity and your ability to act, let alone act in a collective organized manner.

As an artist, an architect and an activist, what do you see is the relationship between migrant justice and spatial justice?

The two are intrinsically linked. Migration — or displacement — is by definition a struggle against being forced out of one’s place, and for finding one’s space. It’s a critical question for architects and urban planners too.

We might defend public squares or green spaces, but we don’t realize that the common definition of “the public” can be extremely exclusionary. For people who are undocumented, Black and brown, homeless, for sex workers, often these public spaces are places where their lives are under threats from police brutality, racial profiling, detention and deportation. The struggle against borders, against capitalist dispossession and exploitation, and for ensuring access to essential public services to all regardless of immigration status is about spatial justice.

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