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reflection : quintessence
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Quintessence
Creating Home: migration and contingent dwelling
by Sara Diamond

I am sitting in someone else's home. It is a boat parked near the Dutch Electronic Art Festival's central installation site - a huge warehouse called Las Palmas. Las Palmas holds no palm trees; it is cold, dark and foreboding. Not the boat though. Sunlight is streaming into the dining room, speckling the deck with dancing motes of light. The boat dates back to the 1930s and retains its charm. It holds six small cabins, each equipped with three tiny beds (at just the right height to hide one's suitcase underneath), a bathroom with a shower, a sink, shelves, and a place to hang one's coat and clothes. It is a perfect miniature apartment. The portholes sit a metre above the water line. The boat's rocking reassures. The wooden walls are covered with photographs and sketches of waterfronts, boats and sea life, all from a bygone era.

These docks, romantic as they may be to me, were the sites of past tragedies. This was the base for the big shipping lines to America and Europe. These were the docks where refugees were arrested and taken to the camps. Others, turned away from a safe haven, were returned here, vulnerable. A small Dutch boat like this one could well have been home to Jews or others trying the escape the Nazis. The docks are lined with monuments. One - most poignant - near the aptly named Hotel New York, contains the laminated suitcases, trunks and toys (the temporary containers of home and its sentiments) of unfortunates who were arrested trying to flee fascism. Centuries before, these docks were landing places for people torn from their homes in Africa and other Dutch colonies; people who would become slaves and indentured servants.

The couple who own this sweet establishment are in their late fifties. The skipper is weathered, gruff, and does just enough fiddling with the boat to inspire confidence. My hostess provides a palatable, cholesterol-laden breakfast. I bask in her shy warmth. I establish a bulkhead, for I travel constantly and require the same small ceremony to settle in. I hang up and shelve my clothing, wash my lingerie, put out my alarm clock and toiletries, and spray the cabin with my perfume, saturating it with my scent. I photograph the space.

This will be the sixth place where I have stayed in two weeks, and there are four more to come. Like a turtle, I carry home within me as some internal sense. If I didn't, my ballast would rock into complete instability. I love my home in Canmore; I make it a place of comfort and, at its best, charm. I welcome people to it, and care for them.

My home-making is virtual as well as physical. My rituals include logging onto email, which relocates me into the work and emotional world of my peers and loved ones. And I check my codezebra.net Web site with its active chats, which are currently tuned to topics of time, space and intimacy - rather appropriate for informing discussions of home. This isn't the only window the project provides. During the last week, I have locked two pairs of researchers (one artist and one scientist in each twosome) into a small cabin atop Las Palmas. There, they have spent twenty-four hours together, making a personal and intellectual home while the world watched via digital media. Myself and others - situated in Las Palmas and around the world - have conversed with them using my chat software and live video streams, providing the pairs with tasks and stimuli.

The act of home-making mattered much in this process. I decorated their temporary shelter - created aesthetic permanence, made up beds for them - while they shopped together for food, moved in and learned their new space. Meal-making, the twenty-four hour clock of activities, resting on a bed or couch - all provided a pace by which to discover each other, new ideas, their body's processes. I remained awake with them, not at home at all in the vast cold warehouse of Las Palmas.

My discussion of home suggests that it is fragmented, symbolic and not grounded. This is both true and not true. Home needs to take into consideration the condition of the earth, its vulnerability, physicality and need for protection. It is our fundamental home. I contrast my constant movement with the many people who remain located and tied to the earth, who play the role of its keeper, through their strong traditional ties to the land. The more grounded people are, it seems, the more vulnerable they are to invasion by the roaming, voracious forces of globalization, and hence to displacement and homelessness.

The destruction of the home of a perceived enemy remains a vicious strategic weapon, as current and recent wars remind us. It is as close to killing the inhabitants within as one can get. Recovery at times commands forgetting as well as remembering, in order to survive trauma. Home-making in the new place can require healing as much as grounding.

Migration can be voluntary. Migration may also allow a sustained relationship with one's origin, as well as one's place of arrival. Migration infers both risk and aspiration.

Canada is the site of many arrivals, as well as constant internal movement. The displaced (as my anecdotal evidence suggests) are skilled at inventing home. The Internet provides a virtual repository for home, through correspondence, images, fragments of music and sound. It elicits past homes, but also provides the tools to construct a future home for the migrant. Home becomes nostalgia and possibility. Home is memory and forgetfulness - for nostalgia can allow idealization. Electronic media may allow a true transcultural state, with new identities that access the past and present, and integrate these into the present and future. It may also interrupt the process of forgetting in ways that are not yet understood. What I can say is that, in the digital era, the data banks of home and its memory, its making, represent a deep and domestic - yet shared - repository.

Sara Diamond is Editor-in-Chief of HorizonZero.

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