Feist, Mechthild Schmidt; Involuntary Journeys. Refugee stories, lights + maps

Involuntary Journeys. Refugee stories, lights + maps

Mechthild Schmidt Feist

Medium: Blog
Issues: Identity, Mapping, Narratives, Refugees, and Storytelling

Project Links


Involuntary Journeys started as a photo-blog of refugee stories I collected on Lesbos in Greece. The doubly disadvantaged among them, minors and women, told most harrowing stories of their journey to Europe. However, theirs are also stories of courage and resilience, stories to break stereotypes – such as women traveling alone or teenagers who proudly wear their hair open.

I had started with questions: How do I respond as a media artist to the ongoing humanitarian disaster in Syria? How can I reach out and make a difference with my work? I decided to develop a field project to work directly with affected people, listen to their stories, and start a blog to lend them a voice as individual humans. The suffering endured on their involuntary journeys is commonly summarized in statistics but overall, remains unrecorded, even by refugees themselves whose energy is taken up by living day-to-day.

In the next project stage, I mapped some journeys to geo-locations on Google Earth and Google Maps. Aside from the plain data, I added image and typography overlays into the Google Earth path to experiment with artistic and poetic additions to cartographic imagery. The viewer can choose to follow the story along the interactive geographic path or view the journey as a time-based video.

My engaged media practice combines media art with socially relevant advocacy. While much of my involvement is focused on the Climate Crisis, this particular project tries to use an artistic, interactive interpretation to a humanitarian crisis that is in part triggered by climate change and mismanaged drought. By expanding the use of maps as storytelling devices and not just as information platforms, I want to newly engage the viewer who may have been disengaged or overwhelmed by the flood of news.

My project hopes to

  • Empower refugees to trace, remember, and chronicle their own stories
  • Help to amplify their voices in the face of a weary public opinion
  • Bring interactive visual media to the storytelling process to make their fates more accessible


Mechthild Schmidt Feist is a Media Artist and Professor for Digital Communications + Media at New York University. Her ‘Engaged Media’ art practice investigates the role of media in communicating environmental and social awareness and has been defined by her practice of embracing predominantly female stereotypes of empathy and advocacy. After receiving Fine Arts and History degrees in Berlin (University of the Arts, Freie Universität), a DAAD graduate study grant was followed by a Whitney Museum-ISP Fellowship. Since the 1980s, she has lived in New York. Her early mixed media work led her to experiment with computer-generated imagery. In subsequent years she worked as an award-winning artist /designer in New York and Munich (Editel, HBO, ARRI) and for artists such as Alexander Kluge and Nam June Paik, while teaching at NY art schools. She is the designer of the “Lola” awards statue for the Deutscher Filmpreis. Mechthild has exhibited and lectured widely, among others at SIGGRAPH Art Shows, MIT/CAVS Cambridge, NTU-Singapore, SànArt-Saigon, EVA Berlin, Bauhaus-Dessau, Fudan University Shanghai, ISEA 2019 Gwangju, Korea. Her latest work Involuntary Journeys layers type and images onto Google Earth to tell refugee stories. She currently is a Fulbright-Nehru scholar in India working on a sustainable water + community project.