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Features / Publication

As Migrant Journal comes to an end, it will continue to remind us: migration is integral to our existence

Migration is a contentious topic. It’s one best avoided over dinner with grandparents and pints with friends alike. In recent times, the word “migration” itself has become increasingly ubiquitous and, at the same time, increasingly polarising. Today our understanding of it is inextricably linked to the mass movement of human beings, particularly since 2015 and the aftermath of the refugee crisis. And yet, it’s something that has always defined humanity and our uniqueness as a species. We could not and would not exist without migration.

Migrant Journal is a six-issue publication that aims to reveal this truth by challenging more mainstream narratives. Its pages explore the circulation of goods, information, flora and fauna, and, of course, people around the world. As a collection, Migrant Journal attempts to truly understand migration in all its forms and provide an antidote to the polemic discourse it is unfortunately associated with in contemporary culture. Having just released the sixth and final issue, we caught up with one of Migrant Journal’s editors, Justinien Tribillon, as well as its co-editors and art directors Christoph Miller and Isabel Seiffert (of Offshore Studio), to look back on the project’s beginnings and understand how their collective work may continue to have an impact.

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It was in 2015 during the migrant crisis that the journal first came into fruition. The trio, whose team also included editor Catarina De Almeida Brito at the time, identified the diatribe that was the media’s coverage of migration, and the profound impact this was having on society’s relationship with the subject. With the decision to make a magazine made, and a name for it selected, Christoph and Isabel developed the magazine’s identity, pulled together some renders and the team launched a Kickstarter. “As practitioners and intellectuals but also as migrants ourselves (Catarina is Portuguese, Justinien French, Isabel German, Christoph Austrian… none of us live in the country we hold a passport of), we have decided to take on this very complex and often dramatic topic of migration, convinced that the raging debate on this issue lacks depth and imagination, creativity and critical knowledge,” it read.

This recognition of their own status as migrants became a steadfast narrative for the group, informing the way they worked but also their approach to creating Migrant. “It’s been really interesting,” Justinien, who now edits the publication alongside Michaela Büsse and Damaso Randulfe, tells us. “And I’m still digesting how the fact that we’re not based in the same countries has influenced the project. Obviously, it’s part of our story, because even though we are all privileged migrants – we have degrees, we made the choice to move to these countries because we felt we wanted to, for whatever reasons, may they be personal or professional and we can go back to our country whenever we want – there’s still an experience of migration, which, as far as I’m concerned [currently living in London] has been even more difficult since Brexit.”

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On what instigated a need for him to take on the subject of migration in the first place, Justinien remarks: “I can’t quite recall a specific moment, though the litany of deaths in the Mediterranean Sea in 2015, when we got started with this project was very present on my mind.” Since its inception, therefore, Migrant has been a place to challenge and confront. Its first confrontation? Its name. “Migrant” is a word dripping in associations, appropriated by many as an insult, used to slander or aggravate. But placed on the beautifully crafted object that is Migrant Journal it becomes a statement, receiving the complexity and ubiquity of its definition once again.

The decision to produce a magazine, and not make a website or a book, was purposeful.“We knew Migrant had to be a printed publication and not some online journal, because we felt it needed to be a document of this time,” Isabel explains. “Something you can find in libraries later on or rediscover. As soon as it’s online, it’s lost in the steam of information and we didn’t want this. We wanted Migrant to be a long read, and be read for a long time, and print ages better than digital.”

In every aspect of its creation, Migrant is purposeful, especially in terms of its publishing run which, from the outset, was limited to six issues. Since launching in 2015, Migrant has garnered a loyal fan base, many of whom will be sad to see the project come to an end, but it was always going to be the case. “There are two sides to that story,” Justinien begins. “The first one is very practical, in the sense that we knew, or rather we guessed, that it would be a very demanding project.” So why not make a one-off book and be done with it? Because, conceptually, to fully explore migration in all its forms, they needed time and space. “When we did the first issue of Migrant Journal, we had maybe 30 people getting in touch to propose articles,” he continues. “And in the last issue, we had something close to 150. If we had published a book, however big, it would have been a one-off and we would not have had that relationship to time and regularity and publicity.”

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Migrant’s issues are incredibly multifaceted in content, with each issue handling one specific theme. The first, Across Country, looks at the countryside as a space of migration; the second, Wired Capital, is about the movement of information, money and human labour; Flowing Grounds moves to the sea and sky as migratory spaces; Dark Matters looks at migration that happens by night, or in illegal or invisible contexts; Micro Odysseys is about movement in small scales, like bacteria or sand; while the final issue, the newly released Foreign Agents, examines the movement of culture. They’re issues that have become more metaphysical along the way, mirroring the Migrant team’s understanding of the topic as they get to grips with the complex ramifications and abstract notions associated with migration’s impact on human life.

Migrant Journal is particularly distinctive thanks to its design, one element of which is its use of colour. Each issue features spot colour printing, a technique which has created a signature visual language but which also helps to underpin each issue’s theme. “The colours of each issue always try to reflect the topic in an abstract way,” Christoph points out. “We always work with one or two spot colours that define the mood and atmosphere of an issue. Additionally, the colours are used to structure the publication and are also integrated in the images and illustrations, which makes them unconventional to look at and challenges the viewing and interpretation patterns of the reader.”

Take issue two, for example, which studies the intricate migration of information, data, finance and economic migrants. Its spreads feature a blueish silver, mimicking the physical infrastructure of networks, like antennas, radio towers or cables. For issue four, Dark Matters, in which all content is connected to nightfall or illicit activity, silver and a secondary neon green reference the aesthetics of night vision images. “This was the first time a neon spot colour came into play. We felt it was appropriate for the issue but also gave the whole series a fresh and interesting turn in terms of colour,” Christoph adds. As a result, dual spot colours of neon orange and greenish gold and purple and metallic green were used in issues five and six respectively.

While visually compelling, this decision reflects a desire to create a physical reading experience, one that fully emphasises the importance of the information you are taking in. “I think if you decide to go to print and use resources, it needs to be worthwhile. It needs to really take this whole medium into consideration, especially in this day,” says Isabel. “So for us, it was important to have the right paper, especially for the cover. Because we’re creating this experience, affecting how people remember things with a special touch or a metallic colour. It’s not about being a luxury product, though, but more about conveying the stories in a way that is different from online.”

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Each cover of Migrant Journal features a different textured paper, again a reflection of that issue’s theme, along with a “specific and minimalist graphic interpretation” of the topic, Christoph tells us. “The lines on the cover of Wired Capital, for example, can be interpreted as antennas or networks, the lines on Flowing Grounds resemble waves and clouds, and the reductionist cover of Dark Matters shows just a line disappearing in the dark.”

Where colours and textures may change, a consistent attribute of each publication is Migrant Grotesk, a custom typeface developed by Christoph and Isabel when the project first began. Initially, they based their designs on Akzidenz Grotesk, a typeface originally published in 1898 by Berthold Type Foundry and enlarged as a family in the 1950s by Günter Gerhard Lange. Migrant Grotesk, however, features wholly different characteristics to that of the monoline, simplistic Akzidenz Grotesk. Christoph and Isabel took the existing shapes and imbued them with their ideas on the contemporary process of migration across countries and continents. “It is movement that is defined by constant stops and goes,” says Christoph. “You move organically through the landscape, following your own path, but then you encounter a checkpoint, a border, a visa office, and your movement comes to an abrupt stop. We wanted to reflect these ambiguous ways of movement within a journey and this is why Migrant Grotesk has smooth curves but also hard edges that contrast in a weird way.”

In every aspect, the journal has been about close collaboration between the editors and designers, with both roles overlapping and reinforcing each other. A prime example of this are the infographics and maps, created by the design duo. Their inclusion within Migrant makes perfect sense, as Christoph explains: “Maps are an integral component of every migration, they are all about movement, territory and the usage of space. So it felt very natural to use them for our publication.” But it’s in their production – how they truly break down the traditional editorial and creative relationship – that they are most interesting. “For the first three issues,” Isabel explains, “we had to work out the details, improve things like type and layout. But then, after that, we had more time to work on things, do research, be part of the editing process, find contextual stories for an article. We focused more on this in the last three issues.”

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And this is why Migrant Journal works so well. From its name to the paper used on its cover to the very way its team collaborates, it upholds a concept and embodies a spirit so vital to tackling the topic of migration.

“I feel our generation has grown up in a toxic environment, where hatred towards the Other has grown steadily. This is extremely present in our everyday lives. The results of the European elections, especially in the UK, France, Italy, Poland and Hungary come once again as a demonstration of this toxic xenophobic and racist climate. It’s non-stop polemic, so much so that that it’s become the norm,” says Justinien, reiterating why projects like Migrant are so indispensable.

On what he hopes the impact of Migrant will be moving forward, he says: “We really see that print is a way to be present in the long term. And we hope that people will keep discovering this publication over the years; that it will be a capsule of how we, and this community of contributors, approached the topic of migration.” Importantly, issue six features no conclusion, but instead has been approached like all the issues previously, delving into one specific theme. As a result, Migrant and the team behind it leave us on a cliffhanger, with an open-ended conversation ready to be continued. What’s clear from their six-issue run is the multiplicity of narratives – there are many ways to talk about migration. If we can remember and encourage that, perhaps we can foster a more empathetic environment, where hatred of the Other is a thing of the past, and where migration is understood as integral to our existence.