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The SIM Project: Illuminating networked belonging in migration

The SIM Project is a collaboration between Dr Zeena Feldman (Senior Lecturer in Digital Culture) and Liz Hingley (King’s Artist in Residence, Digital Humanities). The project probes the relationship between smartphones, belonging, visual culture and migration. In this feature, the project leads share their aims to materialise and value the ways that smartphones foster creative agency and trajectories of belonging, beyond geographical and cultural borders.

The SIM Project opens up the body of the smartphone to consider the significance of smartphone SIM cards and the visual artefacts that they circulate. We approach the SIM card as a precious and evolving storyboard of intimate relationships, and a symbolic and practical resource that connects the vast majority of the world’s population (Feldman, 2021). For us, SIM cards are empowering, as well as fragile contemporary infrastructures that help forge users’ sense of security, identity and belonging. This resonance is particularly powerful for refugees and forced migrants.

Ultimately, the SIM Project argues that this minute object is an overlooked but key backbone of modern mobile communication – it is a vital tool for unlocking transnational as well as local networks, user independence, wellbeing and imagined futures (Hingley, 2022).

 

From its origins in 2019, as a photography project inspired by sustained dialogue with Syrians on a resettlement programme in Coventry, UK and the city museum’s key collection, this research has been motivated by the aim to contextualise and better understand the needs, values and aspirations of refugees and the smartphone’s role in helping this vulnerable population build social capital and achieve inclusion. One Syrian man commented about the experience of receiving a SIM card when he first arrived in the UK.

Receiving the package was an incredible feeling of welcome… When I first arrived my SIM card from Jordan stopped working and I felt totally out of touch with the world. When I got a UK SIM card I began to feel part of this country… All my family and friends were waiting for news. The first thing I did was call them and send them pictures of my new bedroom.– Syrian workshop participant

The SIM Project has evolved to combine artistic practice, community co-design, traditional academic research and arts-based research. It is a fundamentally interdisciplinary and participatory project, which employs perspectives from cultural studies and the anthropology and sociology of material and visual culture (Ingold, 2013; Lupton, 2018).

 

The project reaches UK and international audiences through a series of traveling workshops, an exhibition in The Herbert Museum and Art Gallery and a forthcoming exhibition of SIM artworks at the Science Gallery London.

 

How our collaboration works

Liz and Zeena came together around their shared interest in belonging. Zeena has spent the last 12 years researching and writing about belonging, and Liz has spent this time exploring the same themes through her artistic practice and ethnographic research on migration.

 

This collaboration is underpinned by Zeena and Liz’s shared curiosity about smartphones and how these devices and the material that they generate are made meaningful to people. Meaningful to how people understand themselves, to how they understand themselves in relation to others and the world around them and, ultimately, meaningful to how people actually live their lives.

 

We also seek to offer a counter narrative to the ways that smartphones are increasingly being talked about, as technologies of addiction, atomisation, disconnection and harm. Where today’s discourse routinely demonises the smartphone, we seek to make space for understanding the joys, pleasures, the comfort and the togetherness enabled by these devices. Through creative methodologies and conversations with smartphone users, we want to break down the pace of data exchange, to consider and respect the emotions fostered by our networked SIM card entanglements across time and space.

 

Fundamentally this project focuses on the materiality of the smartphone and of the visual culture of belonging that’s embedded in today’s little pocket computers. So often people position digital culture as somehow immaterial, as something hovering out there in the cloud, intangible and invisible. What might it look like to find ways of mapping and materialising this precious and highly personal digital data?

 

The workshops

We have developed a generative workshop method for attending to the meaning and materiality of the personal digital ecosystems (Blanke & Pybus, 2020) encoded and enacted through the smartphone. Primarily, participants will be invited through our established networks with refugee and migrant groups and individuals in the UK.

 

As the project grows, the workshops will be open to a broader public to contribute personal experiences of translocally mediated relationships. In the workshop participants are introduced to the context, process and conceptual inspirations for The SIM Project. We also consider the pedagogical uses of a workshop. We then guide participants through a series of interactive activities where they can map and visualise their own trajectories of SIM card belonging. Participants are invited to share a ‘screenshot of belonging’ from their smartphone and use it to create a unique SIM-size wearable artwork to take away.

 

This last component of the workshop method involves an innovative ‘pop up production laboratory’ developed by Liz and two collaborators at the University of the West of England, Frank Menger and Sophie Boons. Drawing on their interdisciplinary expertise, the artists have developed a hybrid method employing 3D printing, analogue darkroom techniques and the craft of silversmithing, which enables participants to materialise personal exchanges, mediated by smartphones. The minute, multilayered pieces take the form of wearable pendants and incorporate photographs, stamps and QR codes that link all the pieces to a dedicated project website. Developed over years of collaborative research, these artworks hold both a physical and virtual presence and directly respond to our increasingly embodied relationships with mobile devices.

 

The workshops will be hosted by Science Gallery London in July and October 2022, before touring to Bristol and beyond. Participation in the workshops is free and all materials will be provided. The SIM Project exhibition and website will launch in September 2022 at Science Gallery London.

 

4JET microtech GmbH, Germany are generously sponsoring the project with bespoke glass materials.

GRAIN Projects commissioned the first chapter of the project.

About the project team

Zeena Feldman is Senior Lecturer in Digital Culture in the Department of Digital Humanities. Her interdisciplinary research examines the relationship between digital technologies and everyday life. Zeena has published widely, including in Information, Communication & Society; Feminist Media StudiesCelebrity StudiesTripleCCultural Policy, Criticism & Management Research; and OpenDemocracy, and has appeared on BBC Radio 3 and 4. She is the editor of Art & the Politics of Visibility  (IB Tauris, 2017), and co-editor with Deborah Lupton of Digital Food Cultures (Routledge, 2020).

Liz Hingley is a photographic artist and anthropologist. She is currently Artist in Residence at King's (Digital Humanities) and an Honorary Research Fellow at The University of Birmingham (Theology and Philosophy). Liz's inherently collaborative work illuminates the systems of belonging and belief that shape cities around the world. Her projects, made in Europe and China, have been published as five monographs, exhibited around the world and received numerous accolades including a Getty Grant. View some of Liz's work on her Instagram account.

References

Blanke, T. & Pybus, J. (2020) ‘The Material Conditions of Platforms: Monopolization Through Decentralization’. Social Media + Society 6(4): 1-13.

 

Feldman, Z. (2021) ‘Me Apps: Mental Health and the Smartphone’ in S. Guidi, B. Ajana, J. Braga (eds.) The Quantification of Bodies in Health: Multidisciplinary Perspectives. Bingley: Emerald Publishing, pp. 151-171.

 

Hingley, L. (2022) ‘A key to home: The role of the SIM card in refugee resettlement’. Imaginations Special issue: Migrations 13(2).

 

Ingold, T. (2013) Making: Anthropology, archaeology, art and architecture. Routledge.

 

Lupton, D. (2018) ‘How do data come to matter? Living and becoming with personal data’. Big Data & Society, 5(2), 2053951718786314.

In this story

Zeena Feldman

Zeena Feldman

Senior Lecturer in Digital Culture

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