A Migrant Worker and a Migrant Artist Walk into a Kelp Farm1

Dr. Matthias Kispert


What kinds of socio-ecological cross-pollinations can happen when migrant workers, migrant artists and local residents encounter each other in the entanglements of the production process of kelp farming in a village on a Korean island? This is, briefly put, the point of departure for the residency project Song of the Wind, which took place in the township of Yaksan-myeon, Wando-gun, Jeollanam-do, South Korea, with the aim of expanding outwards from farming labour to an open-ended set of wider social and artistic concerns. This project in turn provides the framing for the issues addressed in this text. Thus, this article examines from a distance of some 8,800 km––not having participated in the project as such but instead proceeding from a collection of project outlines, photographs, video, and participants’ field notes, reflective and analytical writing related to the residency—some questions around art, labour and the social that bubble to the surface in a project such as Song of the Wind.

There are, as indicated above, three distinct sets of people converging in Song of the Wind: firstly, local residents among whom are the owners and managers of the kelp farms in question, and whose sedimented histories and current everyday activities give rise to something of a continuously changing general social fabric of the place. Secondly, there are migrant workers from countries such as Thailand, Vietnam, Russia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Kazakhstan, who come to the village for short periods of high-intensity work during the kelp harvest season, many returning annually for this purpose. Finally, there are the artists, as well as activists and architects participating in the residency from across East and South East Asia, Europe and the Middle East, and other members of the project team such as curator Sunyoung Oh. Each of these groups brings with them a patchwork of cultures, languages, understandings, habits, histories, interests and expectations to the encounter. Each group holds some shared qualities, and the interplay between these will provide fertile grounds for analysis. At the same time, it needs to be acknowledged that each group is also far from homogenous and instead transversed by significant internal differentiations.

Not having been there on the ground to participate the interactions engendered by these encounters, I am not able to account for what actually transpired in the day-to-day negotiations of the different positions involved nor to say much about the specificities of the place itself. What I can however share as an offering to the deities of kelp farming and socially engaged art is the proposal to investigate the imaginative potential of the kinds of crosscurrents and tidal waves that arise in the process, to sketch out climates that favour the composting of fertile soil and the flowing of lively waters. In these climates, different kinds of positions, intentionalities, embodiments and labours intertwine and end up tangled like strands of seaweed flung about by unpredictable currents. The present task then is to observe the kinds of figures in which these tangles end up, pull out a handful of strands for closer examination, and, having dried and then marinated them, drop them in a well-seasoned broth in which their constituent parts can dissolve and then reassemble into new configurations.

The first strands to be unpicked from this bundle are the positionalities of the migrant and the worker, which are articulated very differently in the figures cast by different project participants. These differences and their implications need to be accounted for. Having thus prepared the ground will allow for reflections on ways in which these migrations and labours can come together to give rise to potential eco-socialities of artistic practice.


The title as well as the opening sentence of this article both make reference to ‘migrant workers’ and ‘migrant artists’. Yet, there is something of an incongruity brought into play here: when it comes to habitual uses of the English language, the ‘migrant’, in this case used as an adjective, has become a classed, racialised, somewhat pejorative designation. The term ‘migrant’ as such denotes little more than the act of having moved from one place to another, but through years of loaded public debates, manipulative media narratives and political demagoguery, the figure of the migrant has become coded as a more or less polite way of referring to those who move out of necessity and who often end up at their destination in some form of underprivileged position. This would then typically apply to those moving from a lower-wage country to a higher-wage country in search of some form of menial or manual work. In contrast, those of higher social status moving with the expectation of retaining their social standing at their destination, would refer to themselves and expect to be referred to as ‘expats’, a term that together with its ‘migrant’ counterpart also has a strong racial coding (Shikwati 2022). The workers temporarily relocating to Yaksan-myeon for the kelp harvest can thus relatively easily be identified as migrant workers in the sense outlined here. 

As alluded to above, the figure of the migrant worker tends to be tainted with various xenophobic, racist and classist tropes, and across the world there is no shortage of malicious accusations levelled at migrant workers by some parts of the native population or those claiming to speak for them. This includes such things as migrant workers variously taking jobs from the natives or being too lazy to work, putting pressure on local resources and wages, exhibiting criminal tendencies, not respecting local customs, bringing in foreign cultural influences or being sexual rivals to the local population. The list could go on. From a distance, it is impossible to tell to what extent negative stereotypes of this kind might be an issue in the context of Yaksan-myeon’s migrant worker population or not. There are, however, hints of some friction in a Q&A document published in advance of the residency (Song of the Wind 2022: np), which mentions ‘problems between Koreans and migrant workers’ and a desire for reducing ‘the gap between these communities’.

The other migrant population in Song of the Wind is made up of the fluctuating group of residency participants, including artists, architects, activists, curators, researchers, etc.—to some extent, these roles are migratory in themselves, with some participants inhabiting or shifting between several of them.2 Notwithstanding their fluctuating roles and activities however, the central migratory aspect of the artist population has been, just as is the case with the workers discussed earlier, their movement from one place to another. In both cases, the migration has been temporary (although for migrant workers as such this is by no means always the case) and for the purpose of work. In some instances, migrant artists and migrant workers came from the same countries of origin such as Indonesia or the Philippines. But this is pretty much the full extent of the attributes shared between these two groups.

In fact, referring to the participating artists as ‘migrant’ suggests a recalibration of their social positioning—more commonly used terms would be ‘international’, ‘itinerant’ or ‘nomadic’ artists, indicating that artists are not seen to belong to the subaltern group of migrant workers. The intervention of using the term ‘migrant artists’, minor but not insignificant, could thus be read in two possible ways. One is to consider it as something of a conciliatory gesture, seeking, at least symbolically, to narrow the gap between migrant workers and migrant artists. The more interesting reading however, and the one closer to my intentions, suggests that the combination between ‘migrant’ and ‘artist’ serves to make sensible the incongruity between the two migrant positions at play here. 

The origins of this incongruity deserve further elaboration. Broadly speaking, this can be framed around differences in social standing. As discussed earlier, the imaginary of the migrant worker already comes loaded with stereotypical associations including low social status, subordinate positions at work, foreignness and a failure to assimilate to the local culture. All of this in turn presents migrant workers as a favoured target for harassment by political demagogues in search of a vulnerable social group to be victimised and othered.

Artists coming from outside to work in a community also inevitably are foreign to the place that they visit, and in many cases they are unlikely to assimilate to the local culture in any meaningful way. Yet, their arrival is liable to be greeted with a very different reception. As opposed to migrant workers, who enter already pre-coded with a subaltern position, artists arrive with their status as educated middle-class professionals fully acknowledged. While migrant workers are often treated as dependent on the natives’ benevolence that can be withdrawn at any point, artists arrive with the promise of carrying riches in their wake: the presence of artists is likely to be seen as increasing a place’s cultural capital, through things such as beautifying the environment, putting on cultural activities, increasing the attractiveness of a place as a destination for culturally-inclined visitors and opening up access to funding opportunities. All of this in turn potentially creates additional financial value, for example in terms of increasing tourism, property values or attractiveness for business.

As another aspect of this, artists carry with themselves the flair of the international art world. As opposed to migrant workers, who always are clearly categorised as being from somewhere in particular, the home of global artists is a delocalised network of galleries, museums, biennales, residencies and so on. The emergence of this world parallels that of the multinational corporation (Smith 2011: 44), the language spoken there is known as ‘International Art English’ (Rule and Levine 2013), and its participants are conversant in a cultural idiom that is both legible to a transnational public and sensitive to locally specific concerns. This positions artists as ideal conduits through which a place can aspire to becoming an internationally relevant cultural location. This does not mean that the arrival of artists is always welcome however. A case in point is the 2017 Documenta exhibition in Athens, during which local artist and other communities mobilised against what they criticised, among other things, as an instance of ‘poverty tourism’ by art-world luminaries (Rafferty 2017). Still, the hostilities potentially faced by migrant workers and international/migrant artists operate on very different levels: in the former case, this animosity is tinged with prejudice directed by segments of a majority population against a marginalised group, while in the latter, it is rooted in opposition to the elitism associated with parts of the art world.


Having foraged into the different migratory positions of both artists and workers, the task now is to consider the difference between how artists and workers labour. Questions of class have already come up in the previous section and warrant some more elaboration, particularly considering that as part of Song of the Wind, at least some of the participating artists temporarily took on the position of kelp farm workers.

Migrant workers who travel to a kelp farm for employment depend on the earnings from this work for their livelihood. They are wage labourers, which means that they hire out their capacity to work for a specific amount of time in return for a wage. Whoever pays their wage, that is, their employer, is entitled to decide on what workers do during their paid time and how they carry out their work. The tools that they use and the materials that they work on belong to their employer, as does the result of the work, in this case dried kelp ready for the wholesale market. It should not be difficult to see that artists work very differently. In general, artists own their own tools and materials, devise their own tasks, have control over how they spend their time as well as how they work, and own the product of their labour. In this sense, the migrant workers occupy a working-class position, while the artists are part of the professional class and basically operate like small-business owners.

One quality shared by both migrant labourers and artists is precarity: the migrants arriving in Yaksan-myeon are employed only for a limited amount of time, and they likely have few protections in terms of labour rights to rely on in case of any dispute with their employer. Artists tend to operate as independent producers and thus depend on securing a continuous stream of short-term opportunities to generate an income, and the income they receive often is low in comparison to others with comparable levels of education or professional experience. Building on this shared experience of precarity, there have been movements that have developed solidarities between precarious workers in creative and menial sectors in recent decades, such as Chainworkers in Italy (Gill and Pratt 2008: 12) or the Precarious Workers Brigade (2015) in the UK. 

The work of these activists is important, yet in the present context it is also crucial to account for the ‘different levels of precarity, different intensities of precarity and even different modes of precarity’ (Beech 2105: 342) at play between different kinds of precarious workers. This includes the differentials in agency at work and ownership of the product of work outlined above that exist between migrant workers on a kelp farm and artists. Furthermore, migrant workers likely have few alternative employment opportunities to fall back on, while artists often have a range of professional skills that they can mobilise to supplement their income. At the same time, a significant number of artists does take on working-class jobs if earnings from other sources are difficult to come by. Some even make this central to their artwork, such as Romanian-Dutch artist Alina Lupu3 who has worked in cleaning, food delivery and similar app-based jobs. Still, this kind of work would be what in artistic idiom is referred to as ‘the money job’—a necessary but ideally only temporary distraction from the real pursuit of developing an artistic career.

In the context of kelp farming in Yaksan-myeon, migrant workers need to invest money upfront in order to be able to work in Korea—according to the project report by residency participants Rakarsa Collective (2023), Indonesian workers have to pay the equivalent of $1,150 upwards in order to cover the costs of paperwork and travel. If their employment does not work out for whatever reason, they might return home in debt rather than with earnings, which naturally adds to the precarity of their situation. Artists also often invest their own resources into the development of their work, but not in the form of an upfront payment in expectation of specific earnings to come, but rather as part of a longer-term project of developing their profile. This comes with a much less clearly defined anticipation of eventual monetary returns, and rather than laying out money in order to gain paid employment, it is closer to funds being invested for the purpose of helping a start-up business get off the ground.

Finally, kelp farming is manual work. Several residency participants’ reports and reflections (Kusuma 2023; Mackey 2023; Rakarsa Collective 2023) contain vivid accounts of very early mornings, work at fast pace and with precise movements, communication difficulties with local managers and migrant workers, and physical and mental exhaustion. This is the daily texture of working on the kelp harvest which some of the artists on this project participated in. Artists’ work can also involve various physical labours and traditionally has been centred around highly developed manual and mimetic skills. But the way in which manual work is employed in both cases differs substantially when it comes to agency and control in the production process, as explained earlier. Furthermore, when it comes to artwork, the emphasis has shifted long ago away from the manual, from a concern with form and realisation to an emphasis on concept and idea. That is, the really ‘artistic’ work of the artist, the aspect that gives rise to the artwork as artwork, consists of coming up with the idea, devising the concept, while the realisation of the concept in whatever form this eventually occurs takes on secondary importance: ‘artistic skills find their application in the demonstration of conceptual acuity, not in the execution of forms of expressive mimeticism’ (Roberts 2007: 3). Thus, even when artists carry out manual work, there invariably are multiple additional layers of meaning that are being worked on at the same time. Some of these might not be immediately apparent but only emerge through continued investigation, contextual research and writing, pedagogical work, formal or informal discussion, repetition of particular processes and so on.

Socio-ecological practices

Up to this point, the text has sketched out the terrain on which the varied migrations and labours of migrant workers and migrant/international artists have encountered each other in Song of the Wind. Now the question remains as to what thoughts can be germinated from this in relation to the process of making artist work in this particular terrain. This begins with the observation that as a project, Song of the Wind sits within a field that is generally referred to as socially engaged art or social practice art. 

Social practice itself can be seen as part of a longer lineage of art practices that have sought to cross the boundary between art and everyday life, to overgrow the separation by which art reflects on life in order to instead deal with the stuff of the everyday directly. As I have outlined elsewhere (Kispert 2021), this includes strategies such as nominalism, by which an artist declares something from the everyday—an object, a place, a situation or a time frame, for example—to be art and thus an object of aesthetic contemplation. The salient example for this is Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 urinal. More broadly, the early 20th-century avant-gardes, from the Dadaists to the Situationists, sought to transform everyday life through artistic interventions that were meant to herald radically new ways of living and new social forms. The social practice art that emerged towards the end of the 20th century has more modest aims: here, artists immerse themselves in a concrete local situation through some form of open-ended collaborative work, with the intention of engendering tangible benefits for the communities involved in a project. In the course of this, artists can take up many varied kinds of roles, such as those of educators, project managers, mediators, political activists, gardeners, cooks, anthropologists, archivists, architects, city guides and so on. 

This kind of work requires sustained engagement with a place and its inhabitants, and the development of mutual understanding and trust through what Grant Kester (2011: 19) calls ‘dialogical exchange’. Through this, the unpredictabilities of interpersonal relationships, chance encounters, social dynamics, local climates and the like become integral components of any artistic process in social practice. In turn, preconceived notions of what artist work is or is not, or who counts as the author of a piece are destabilised. This allows for a reconfiguring of the skills and capacities usually associated with artists, such as a propensity to be creative, exploratory and experimental, to seek out unconventional perspectives and interpretations, and to develop new forms of expression. In social practice, these abilities are not applied to some materials to be worked with under the artist’s commanding authority, but are mobilised in an intersubjective encounter with the aim of developing a shared project to embark on. This way of working opens up new terrains and fertile grounds for expanding what art and artists can be or do, while at the same time producing seeds that germinate a few complications, all of which deserve further exploration in the context of Song of the Wind.

To begin, in social practice, artists propose new ways of being in the world rather than creating art that reflects on the world: this kind of work is more about intervening than only interpreting. Nato Thompson (2012) calls this ‘living as form’—ways of living, of being together are here seen as the forms, the matter that artists work with. As a consequence, the emphasis in social practice art lies with process rather than final outcome. The processes in question could involve shared learning, making, discovery, debate, activism, idea and project development, and much more, to which an artist can bring their skills and experience as facilitators rather than authors. Through this, social practice mobilises the imaginative potential of art-making to engender unconventional ways of engaging with the everyday. In the words of Pablo Helguera (2011: 5): ‘socially engaged art functions by attaching itself to subjects and problems that normally belong to other disciplines, moving them temporarily into a space of ambiguity’. This ambiguity rebounds on the figure of the artist, whose social role and relationship to the place in which their work is embedded requires continuous renegotiation.

Secondly, social practice art is meant to act in the world by identifying concrete issues and proposing meaningful responses to these issues. Tania Bruguera’s notion of Arte Útil (useful arts) spells this out clearly: among the seven criteria that define what Arte Útil projects should do can be found ‘propose new uses for art within society’ and ‘have practical, beneficial outcomes for its users’ (Asociacion de Arte Útil nd: np). This also brings with it some complications: for one, there is a tension between the free play involved in art-making that presupposes a principle of non-instrumentality on the one hand, and the intention for artists to work towards concrete social benefits on the other. I would suggest that this is a productive tension, one to be inhabited and explored, and one whose attentive and continuous negotiation allows for the discovery of new approaches and interpretations. At the same time, the emphasis on practical engagement with social questions does involve a risk of artists’ work being compromised. There are plenty of examples of the latter, such as urban participatory art projects being part-funded by property developers, whose main function is to provide a socially conscious façade that covers over the displacement of marginalised populations from their neighbourhoods through large-scale gentrification projects. Furthermore, as Claire Bishop (2012: 5) observes, the rise of socially engaged art has paralleled the dismantling of the welfare state in countries such as the UK, and in this context, artists have become instrumentalised for the purpose of filling in the gaps left open by retreating collective support systems.

Finally, the kind of work that emerges from social practice projects is not always readily recognisable as art. Given the emphases on process and on dealing with concrete social issues mentioned earlier, it is hardly surprising that a significant proportion of the work being conducted in this field might take unconventional forms. Thus, if the main outcome of a project is a series of community gatherings, for example, the only outputs that might be available to be shown in a gallery context would be forms of documentation such as project notes, photographs or video recordings of meetings that have taken place. The same goes for interventions in public space or social life: social practice projects might take shape as street parties, community associations, small businesses or architectural interventions. While they might have been the outcome of a collaborative artistic process, their actual manifestation might be far from what usually associated with artworks. Steven Wright (2005: 122–123) calls this a ‘low coefficient of artistic visibility’: in his view, eschewing a concern with making within prevailing conventions allows artists to escape the social inconsequentiality of art that is ‘just art’ in favour of a fuller engagement with the issues that their work addresses.

Returning to the kelp farm and its surroundings, and to the interpolation of artists working side-by-side with migrant workers on the kelp harvest allows for a number of observations in relation to the analysis so far:

To begin, the meeting of these two migratory figures in the realm of day-to-day manual work can potentially disrupt the stereotyping that migrant workers routinely are subjected to. At the same time, as should be clear from the thoughts articulated above, differences in social standing and in access to different sources of subsistence cannot be eliminated. As it turned out, many of the artist participants worked for much shorter than the initially envisaged time frame on the kelp harvest, a choice that is not really available to migrant workers without a significant loss of income.

Beyond the question of addressing stereotypes, the interpersonal encounters on the kelp farm between migrant workers, artists and members of the local population carry their own generative potential. This recalls the propositions put forward in relation to social practice art, of developing new ways of being together, of destabilising and renegotiating the figure of the artist, of working in ways that exceed the boundaries of what is usually understood as art-making.

In this sense, artists working on a kelp farm act on multiple levels simultaneously: first of all, there is the actual work of laying out kelp for drying, picking up dried sheets later and bundling them up, and so on. At the same time, as mentioned above, the artists’ presence in itself at least discursively destabilises established social hierarchies, while also giving rise to the possibility of new kinds of intersubjective encounters. Beyond this, artists’ work also consists in observing, participating, interpreting, reflecting and processing their impressions, with a view to creating some creative work from what they have experienced. In this sense the artists working on the kelp farm take on an anthropological role, although with a much wider range of expressive possibilities than those available to anthropologists in the traditional sense.4 The more potentially interesting work, however, happens when artists’ activities spill over the realms of subjective reflection and interpretation, to allow encounters to grow into shared projects that address concerns that are relevant to those whom they have met, while redrawing the map of art’s own self-image at the same time. This would be work in the spirit of social practice art, in which the activities that emerge from this process might take many varied forms far beyond the conventions of gallery-based art.

Making this happen is not always an easy task. Artists might find it difficult to leave their comfort zone and let go of habitual ways of working in which they retain control over the entire creative process. There is no guarantee either that the communities which artists encounter will be receptive to their presence, ideas or ways of working. Still, in the open-ended spirit of social practice art, even difficult or failed encounters can be understood as social forms that deserve critique, interpretation and analysis.

Finally, the theme of ecology has been mentioned at a few points in this article but not properly addressed so far. Speaking of socio-ecological practices in addition to social practice acknowledges two things: firstly, this is that since Félix Guattari’s (2000/1989) seminal text The three ecologies, the idea of interpreting the social as an ecology, that is a system of complex interdependencies, has gained currency. This way of understanding the social also resonates with critiques of Eurocentric modernist notions of a clear separation between humans and more-than-human ‘nature’, which put up artificial barriers where there is a continuum, and which have been mobilised as part of centuries-long histories of oppression of those deemed less human than others. The second point picks up from the connection with more-than-human nature, in the sense that the latter is deeply entangled with the lives and communities that Song of the Wind has commingled with, in specific ways. Kelp farming takes lifeforms grown in the sea and transforms them into sources of nourishment for human consumption in a process that needs inputs such as manual labour, sunlight and various kinds of machinery. As a whole, this process mobilises countless entanglements of climates, weathers, waters, biologies, bodies, forms of matter and modes of existence. Just as the social ecologies that proliferate in and around the kelp production process and the island on which it is situated, their extension into more-than-human ecologies provides rich sources for artistic investigation, and this is in fact a theme which several of the artists participating in the residency have responded to.


The thoughts assembled here have expanded their tentacles towards a range of issues and questions that are flowing and circling in the currents surrounding Song of the Wind. As has hopefully become clear, some of the positions articulated in this project stand in complex and at times conflicting relationships to one another, and it often is precisely in reflecting on the latter that the most interesting interpretations and propositions can be developed. Like any curatorial project that deals with current socio-ecological questions in a meaningful way, Song of the Wind is a portal through which different identities, thoughts, practices, habits and understandings can pass and be reconfigured into new forms of being together in response to their mutual encounters. The methodologies mobilised by social practice art and the expanded variant of socio-ecological practices proposed here, are particularly apt for allowing artists to negotiate the complexities of these encounters and to work in ways that are not limited by preconceived notions of what art is or can do. In the process, the figure of the artist as the sole arbiter of creative ideas and forms is decentred, allowing, in the ideal case, for the emergence of a complex ecology of collective creation and production in which art’s imaginative potential commingles with concrete localised issues that arise in the course of a dialogic encounter. The question of how this has played out in relation to the various activities and projects initiated during Song of the Wind after the initial work on the kelp farm lies beyond the scope of this paper. In any case, I hope that the seeds planted in this text have the potential to sprout into reflections on and interpretations of socio-ecological practices more broadly.

Matthias Kispert is an artist and researcher with an interest in the intersections of art, politics and activism. He has completed a practice-based PhD at the University of Westminster in 2021, using artistic research methods to investigate precarious work on digital labour platforms. He is a co-founding editor of Hyphen Journal and assistant editor at the Moving Image and Art Review Journal (MIRAJ). Alongside his current work, he also has a history as an electronic music composer and performer with the media artist collective D-Fuse, is a lecturer at the University of the Arts London, and is convening the Radical Film Network as well as the Committee on Activism for the International Initiative for Promoting Political Economy.http://www.matthiaskispert.com

1 The title of this article is a play on a common structure of jokes in English, along the lines of ‘a worker and an artist walk into a bar.’ In this kind of joke, two people from different backgrounds meet in a bar, a space where both of them are visitors. The joke then relates a conversation that ensues between one or both guests and the bartender and the punchline usually resolves in a pun that plays on ambiguities of language and layered meanings.

2 For simplicity’s sake, I will refer all residency participants generally as artists unless there is a specific reason not to.

3 https://theofficeofalinalupu.com

4 There has of course been much cross-pollination between artist and anthropologist practices in recent years, so in reality, these distinctions cannot be drawn as clearly as might be suggested here.


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