A Dozen Arrivals

Image 01: Abderrahmane Sissako, Rostov - Luanda, 1997, 90 min, still (c) Abderrahmane Sissako. 

Last time, I promised to finish the Letter to Iris Gusner (see previous blog-entry’s end) for public display here. It has to wait one more time ... It is delayed because of much travelling during the past recent days. Being on the road distracts from the intention to provide a coherent continuity in telling a story here that wants to follow Genet’s proposal when he writes on the top of the manuscripts of Un captif amoureux: ‘Put all the images in language in a place of safety and make use of them, for they are in the desert, and it’s in the desert we must go and look for them.’ Genet’s sentence frames conceptually my project for the blog-residency here, because his sentence touches upon all the many activities that an exhibition-maker is doing: one has to go, to look around, to search, to decide for a particular thing, and to make use of it. It comes with moments of waiting, doubting about the right direction, taking a rest, asking for the way, and finally arriving (before departing for a new journey). 

Image 02: Abderrahmane Sissako, Rostov - Luanda, 1997, 90 min, still (c) Abderrahmane Sissako. 

Therefore, my blog-entry this time results from being on the road. It is a good moment to unpack a bit better what the figure of the itinerant could mean then as a proposal for the exhibition’s spatiality, which is a spatiality defined by the body’s movements, long distances, and a practice of displa(y)cement (see also previous blog-entry). By opening the following thoughts with a few words on Jean Genet (who contines to be my travel companion throughout this project), it will be easier to relate to the film Rostov ­– Luanda by Abderrahmane Sissako: instead of analyzing it through film history or another type of academic discipline, I want to make use of the film's suggested practice of showing an image. Rostov ­– Luanda uses a photograph taken in Soviet Union in November 1981. The image is a main character in a road-movie, which designates a spatial entanglement between Asia, Africa and Europe during the Cold War period and whose social implications have still been existing in the year when the film was made (1997) and beyond. Enganging with the film becomes an exercise to elaborate in concrete terms how being on the road is an exhibiting process, which produces a space that crosses borders, travels in time, and delineates a future idea of what to be seen and not to be seen that still needs to be fully understood. Rostov is a city in former Soviet Union, today Russia. Luanda is the capital of Angola. And the film also takes us, unexpectedly, to Berlin where I am sitting right now to switch this text online. 

Image 03: Abderrahmane Sissako, Rostov - Luanda, 1997, 90 min, still (c) Abderrahmane Sissako. 

Sissako’s film Rostov - Luanda is one concrete example how I envision the exhibition space in a world that is heterogeneous, fragmentary, dispersed, and porous in itself – without giving up to form coherently a thought. Rostov – Luanda is a road movie based on Sissako’s search for Bari Banga, who had been his fellow student from Angola while studying in Moscow. (the archive of Documenta 10 has Sissako's Notes for a Film.) On November 6 in 1981, a group of students from Angola as well as Cambodia and Mauritania went with their Russian-language teacher Natalia Lvovna to a photo studio in Rostov to take a group picture. The single black/white photograph turns into Sissako’s itinerary for his search of his friend, and into the script of his film. The single image appears more than a dozen time throughout the 90 min of the film. Each moment of showing the image activates a social relation: with an older man on the street in Luanda – a middle-aged in a pub – a young boy named Nandinoh who grew up in times of violent conflicts – another man who knows about the exchange with Soviet Union – Eurico Joao who is Sissako’s driver and brings him from Luanda to Ongava, Lubango, Humpata, Wambo, and Kuito – a group of teenagers on a market – Albino Carlos and his wife at their suing machine – a terribly dominant family father – again a group of young people on the street – a woman who talks brilliantly about her desire to return to Angola after years in France and her disappointment – again a person on the street – and finally in the same pub in Luanda where Sissako meets the person who provides him with the address of Bari Banga in Berlin. Based in an itinerant existence, the image arrives ca. a dozen times on display for peoples' eyes. Each arrival produces another social constellation, each time anew. The displaying elements are simply hands holding the image, and pointing fingers to share a detail. 

Image 04: Abderrahmane Sissako, Rostov - Luanda, 1997, 90 min, still (c) Abderrahmane Sissako.

Sissako's film inherently speaks of an exhibition practice, which is closer to what I call the itinerant to be a figure that helps us to understand the geopolitical dimension of exhibiting. The public exposure of the photograph, which shows a group of students  in 1981, connects Rostov in Russia with Luanda / Ongiva / Lubango / Humpata in Angola (today) and Berlin after the fall of the wall. But the photograph does not remain the materialization of a visual frame, instead, whenever it is shown it seems to transform the journey itself, and thus, actually produces the film. In other words, Sissako makes use of the photographic space to be an itinerary for a personal journey that implicitely also hosts an unspoken history of solidarity of the Cold War period between Angola, Soviet Union and East Germany. The image becomes an itinerary (an itinerant figure) that certainly follows a clear concern, namely, to find an old friend. However, and importantly, the image does not function as the evidence of a past event, or as an index to be analyzed, or as a model to secure the success of the journey. Sissako suggests us to understand the photographic space as a social space. This approach to the still image has been theorized only recently, for example when Ariella Azoulay who speaks about the 'civial contract of photography,' which distributes the responsibility of taking a picture to the photographer as much as to the one who looks at the photograph. In other words, the photographic event is shaped by the photographed, the photographer and the photograph-viewer. Hence, the image is a land of its own rights and the act of making the image public expands the photographic event from the time the image was taken to the many times in the future when the image will have been watched, i.e., into the exhibition as a space that only just emerges from crossing borders and customs.

Image 05: Abderrahmane Sissako, Rostov - Luanda, 1997, 90 min, still (c) Abderrahmane Sissako. 

As exhibition-makers, we need to consider such mode of travelling when we want to re-think the space for making something public.Travelling means that you should watch out for the timetable in order to not miss your transit connection; you might care about the concrete material belongings that you think to need during your journey, to pack your luggage, to decide what you leave behind; to wait; to confront yourself with unexpected social situations ... But, how can we understand a body that is regularly in transit, whose living conditions consist in travelling from one place to the other? In other words, which kind of space does this itinerant figure produce? From an architectural perspective, such a space is extremely difficult to grasp because build architecture (where an exhibition takes place as we have experienced for so many times) simply requests you to be there with your body in situ. This is the beauty and power of the exhibition as a spatially coherent frame to be located at a particular place. The build architecture cannot travel to such extent, as images / words / sounds / bodies are able to cover distances. However, in our era of globalization, it seems to me crucial to shift the approach to the exhibition space from the concept of the exclusive manifestation to a wider, perhaps more porous spatiality in exhibiting. This is where I wish to introduce the figure of the itinerant. It is needed, on the one hand, if we want to be serious about exhibiting process that not only displays but also displaces that which is laid out to be looked at, listened to or walked through.

Image 06: Abderrahmane Sissako, Rostov - Luanda, 1997, 90 min, still (c) Abderrahmane Sissako. The subtitles says: "To the GDR [East Germany] or the FRG [West Germany]?" 

A re-thinking of the exhibition space is needed, furthermore, because we live in the era of globalization, which is defined by data and capital being fostered, for example, by multi-national companies as we can find them in large-scale museums today, e.g., the Louvre; in the proliferated export model of the biennale as an international exhibition format; within the international art market; and the effects of globalization on artistic practice definetely also can be detected in the various attempts of European art institutions – for example Tate Modern in London or House of the World Cultures in Berlin – to reform internal programming and policies towards a new awareness of the so-called 'global south,'  not as some place 'over there' in distance or the 'other' as a category to be classified (Here is more elaboration needed, but I leave this for this very moment to someone who is eager to analyze the crisis through which some of these institutions are currently going.) 

What, if we transfered and translated this deep entanglement between production and presentation of an image – as Sissako's film suggests already almost 20 years ago – further, namely, to a spatiality in exhibiting that is aware of its geopolitical exigency, which we already can encounter in the trains of socialist friendship (see my previous blog)? In any case, the film Rostov – Luanda appears to be a valuable exercise to re-think the space of the exhibition through a geopolitical lens, i.e., a spatiality in which the conditions of presentation always request to include the means of  production.

Image 07: Abderrahmane Sissako, Rostov - Luanda, 1997, 90 min, still (c) Abderrahmane Sissako. 

Regarding the image copyright: Dear Abderrahmane Sissako, if you happen to read this blog-entry, I do hope that you give permission, please, to use stills from your film Rostov - Luanda. The images here are screen-shots. If this is a problem for you, or for Movimento Productions and morgane films, please let me know and another way to make the link to your film will be found. Thank you! Doreen Mende. Berlin, December 3, 2013