Situation map

Strasbourg, october 31, 2004

(…) what can I tell you ? One question, which comes back to me sometimes when I watch a movie, is : what is there between the scenes ? Between one shot and the next, the gap that the director has deliberately left to me, the spectator, so that the film goes on running in my head ? Because that’s what fiction is. Isn’t it ? The blank between the words. "Any story one can tell is a fiction", Max Fritch said that. And again : "One writes to underline silence". And I remember video editing lessons with Patrick de Geetere, "There have to be vanishing points ! Any place where two frames touch has to be an aperture. Of course, vanishing implies losing, deleting. But intelligently. That, for me, is cinema." Why am I telling you this, I don’t even make movies, it’s just that it has troubled me for a long time, the fear of freezing the world by changing it into pictures, of doing nothing but adding to what is produced everywhere, how to resist as a visual artist to the great picturization of the world, where to find that "movement" that would open pictures onto something else, how to produce that shift, it seems your question goes that way ?

Once this is said, my research until now was rather to work on that space between words and pictures. In the little gap between visible and sayable. "Because the most beautiful pictures are invisible", signed Jochen Gerz. To name my practice, then, that is adressed here — I’ll do it first in German : "Lichtbildvortrag". Let’s decompose : "Licht-bild", light-picture, "-vor-trag", what is carried in front ; that is : words one person speaks in front of others. The whole of it could probably (but regretably) be translated by : slideshow lecture. A simple, one could say archaic set-up : a room, an audience, still pictures projected on a screen or a wall ; besides the screen, a person, standing, talking. Operating the slide projector. Performer and technician at the same time. Why do I feel that place is mine ? Heroic and derisive resistance to the proliferation of anonymous images, by the simple fact of being there, in front of you, saying "I" ? "I saw this" ? Maybe. Otherwise, I could tell you of my very ancient fascination for the figure of the storyteller, he who transmits a word or an experience that come from sources beyond his own ; or then make a slightly dumb statement such as I wonder what the hell I’m doing here in the middle of all this, and that each story seems to have its part of mystery. Without betraying it. And if you asked me what is a story, I'd answer that it's what one tells and that story-telling is linking one event to another, progressing from a juxtaposition of facts to an evolution (which may or may not be linear); that it's taking up a position facing what could happen, the only possible starting point. Even if every story is a fiction...

One morning of december 1999, I stood at the outskirts of Strasbourg, where the highways connected the north, south and west. I hitch-hiked. A grey day was rising over the snowy suburb. At the end of a long empty wait, a rather happy one if I remember rightly, a car stopped, a middle-aged man in a suit opened the door and asked where I was going. I said I didn’t know, and what about him ? He was driving to work. In Illkirch. He was an Alcatel employee, in new technology research for cell phones. His name was Pierre. He wore glasses. We arrived quickly. I took a photograph of the place where Pierre had dropped me. I made notes of what he had said about himself. And I went back to hitch-hiking, straight ahead. The driver of the next car didn’t have time to open his mouth before I had already asked where he was going ? Benfeld. Perfect, I said. He let me climb in. And I met Richard, who talked to me among other topics of his niece who had studied art. She had even worked at the Louvre, restauring paintings. But Richard’s advice was that you couldn’t make a living from art either, etc.

For two days and a night, I went on following other people’s trips, meeting a crane builder talking of the world seen from above, a cheery golf-green gardener, a researcher arguing against Einstein’s theories... One picture at each stop, without any formal intention, a pure aknowledgement of that particular moment. Chance, instead of taking me to the distant unknown, had me turn in circles between France and Germany, even driving back through Strasbourg without stopping, to end up in Luxembourg (where I had never set foot). At the risk of being pompous, I would say it was an initiatic journey. An exercise in mobility, at all levels. Experiencing the openness of encounter — considering each place worth visiting, each word worth listening to... When I came back, I made a book in which pictures and words alternated, and I was very proud of it, until the day I suddenly felt that things had frozen in there, and I decided to bring them back to life in the fragility of the living word. "Till R. tells his journeys and those of others", slideshow lecture number one (2002). About twenty minutes. During which I do not waste a word about the reasons or principles of the journey, merely reciting, on a relatively equal tone, the litany of places visited and persons met, and what each of them had told me. Several times, at the end, someone would come to me and ask if I had made all that up — I took this as a compliment. Any story one can tell...

There was a precedent in 2001 in the form of a videoshow of bits of reshot TV news (mainly concerning the situation in Palestine), that I commented live, as a misinformed speaker, merely describing whatever I was seeing on the pictures, and putting aside all preconceived knowledge : here is a man running and shouting, a car coming, here are hills, the desert...

The second "lecture", born in 2003, reverses the principle of the first : no longer the story of a journey already taken, but the proposal of an itinerary still to be done, this time on foot. "How to go to Krimhilde’s", thirty full minutes explaining a trip, with slides and drawings (murals, or on a blackboard, depending on the circumstances) : the shortest way to get to Krimhilde’s place. Nobody knows what or who it’s about, it doesn’t matter, it starts at Strasbourg railway station, the first streets are easy, but little by little, as we get out of the center of the city, the route becomes unsure, we have to jump walls, walk along railway tracks, cross rural or portuary zones, distances become longer. Eventually, we cross the border, almost clandestinely and in the most complicated way possible, to end up on the other side of the Rhine, just outside a little village, at Krimhilde’s french fries takeaway. An absolutely common place. Except for the rather unusual name of the owner (seen in her kitchen : last frame). Krimhilde, heroine of the Nibelung saga : epic poem of a fratricidal war, founding myth of germanity, taken up by Wagner in the Rhinegold... as an echo to the Gold Washer's Fountain which we just passed, where a sign gives details of the extraction of gold from the sand carried by the Rhine and deposited in its meanders... until the rectification of the Rhine in 1875, a significant change in the landscape that happened just after what the nearby war memorial calls "the glorious war of 1870".. etc. etc. Sporadic references to the history of a frontier form a backdrop - look left, look right - to the strictly didactic main theme, so that sooner or later even the most attentive listener loses the thread. And the initial desire behind the lecture seems to me to have been this invitation to float away without any real goal, to change the close into distant, the everyday into adventure - as well as being an invitation to laugh, a laughter provoked, persistently, by the internal contradiction of the project : namely to explain in the most clear and rigorous way how to get as lost as possible. (here again, I once received a great compliment from an unknown person : he had seen me as a "caracter from Beckett, lacking territory".) By the way, it is true that I never stop running, all through my talk, according to some kind of triangular pattern defined by the drawing, the screen and the slide projector – reading my notes again : "Beautiful pictures or not, the eye is directed towards their immediate usefulness. The speaker doesn’t hesitate to break into the projected picture in order to point out significant orientation details." – "Simply acting as if pictures and words could tell us the truth of the world, help us find our way. Claiming litterality, the simple pleasure of teaching, of showing, of saying. With the happily accepted risk of falling from even higher into confusion."

Still in 2003, there was another "performance talk", without slides : "Till R. presents his photographs". A simple protocol : I stand on a stool, a stage, a balcony or any other place which puts a certain distance between me and the audience… I introduce myself, I express my wish to present my photographs, I pull them out of my pocket – they are little 10x15 cm prints – I hold them in front of me and start slowly fingering through them. About ten pictures, once again rather ordinary, each showing a man, in different settings. As my audience has a lot of trouble seeing anything at all, I try to describe them. Several times the same one, briefly at first, then going into detail, then expanding from description to comment, relating the circumstances of each snapshot, encounters (fleeting or not) with the people presented … I stop when I don’t know what to say anymore.

In 2004, after workshops in various social contexts, I was invited to work in a "foyer Sonacotra". I asked a numer of residents - young, old, French or foreign, working or on welfare – to tell me about their life ; and I took photos, either of them, of an object related to their story they would show me, of a family picture on their wall; or the different common-rooms on each floor, the views from their windows; or of places they would mention in the city. This is the raw material of "Situation map #1 : starting point", that I just showed for the first time two weeks ago : always standing next to the screen, remote control in hand, talking in the first person singular and lending my voice to the people I had met. One after the other. Between each story, I washed my face. A work difficult to name – neither a lecture nor a performance nor a play nor – but one that seems to make a new turn, as much by its scale (one and a half hours of texts recited by heart) as by the emotional and political weight of what is being expressed in those lives at the extremity of present-day precarity. And by the some two hundred selected slides, in which the indifference of the viewpoint, the esthetics of the everyday, claimed for so long, give way to the necessity of taking a position, in the very physical sense. And by the fact that these slides needed a real editing effort, the whole set forming a sort of long footage of still pictures.

The "Foyer Sonacotra Kibitzenau", long grey building with large identical windows, is stuck between the Ziegelwasser canal and the Strasbourg-Kehl railway embankment, exactly at the administrative limit between the city centre and the housing estates, near the camping ground for nomads – and most of all in a zone completely broken up by the public works related to the new tramway and the GPV, whose proclaimed intention is to reduce to some extent the gap between the city and the suburbs. In order to visualise all these force lines, I had obtained a situation map from the geographical information centre. And from this magnificent document came the desire to sketch a parallel between the situation of the place and that of the persons living in it – many of them stating the fact of having had a good job, a certain standing, an identity, a "situation", of having lost them, and finding themselves back at the start. Hence the slightly complex title.

Since then, the words "situation map" have been running in my head, with all it evokes of a wish for orientation, of a precise focus on a little fragment of the surface of the earth, of special attention to delimitations of territories by power play, of plots of land, frontiers... this title then imposed itself for a whole set of projects being born, consisting in each case of exploring the topography and history of a place through the words of those living there. How can I tell you the happiness of sensing a seemingly endless path in front of me? It seems I could start from any point in space : step by step, I will always end up discovering a world.

After that statement - you will forgive my perhaps naive enthousiasm - I would like to finish by mentioning the next two situation maps that have already started. One will take place at the French - Spanish border, during a stay in Collioure. I will be working with the French customs, now being radically restructured as borders open inside Europe. I would like to see who these men are, understand the way they see that territory, their ways of operating, their relationship to those who for them are on the other side, the illegal immigrant, the smuggler, their vision of the border and its evolution... "Anyway, the border now is everywhere" told me the first customs officer already interviewed. A sentence that seems to deserve further examination.

The other project will take place in Selestat, comissioned by FRAC Alsace. There, rather than centering the inquiry on a single place or subject, I will go in all directions at the same time, using the place of the Frac as a point zero on a mental map to be drawn as encounters are made. A random but systematic exploration of the neighbourhood, trying as I go to talk with a worker from the city workshops just behind, a member of the canoe club, a cashier of the shop just in front, the tenant of the local coffee shop, that of the kebab takeaway just three steps further, the cemetery watchman, a camper, a client from the soup kitchen, a researcher from the university territorial studies departement, a local farmer... in the end, all those fragments of lives and of mixed realities will be gathered in lecture and publication form, to see if and how they may clash or harmonize... If everything happens as planned (I take my notes again) "it will be a multiple entry mapping, a canvas with holes in it, woven with threads of chance. A cut through different working and housing areas and different social layers. It will be a feverish search of correspondences and shortcuts, between dead and living, history and present, between this book found in the library and that word recorded on a street corner... It will be a documentary about life in a given place at a given time, a documentary open on all sides to imagination. The relationship between the story and the pictures, between one picture and the next, between one sentence and an other, will be very didactic - in some places. And perfectly blurred at others. Humor will most likely be there, as the effort to describe the world that I am now untertaking doesn't make any sense if it is not exhaustive, and it will never be exhaustive, that is, the infinity of the task is really terrifying, and in front of the terror of the infinite, only humor can save us." To be continued, my dear Julien. Thank you for your key questions. See you soon. Yours, Till R.

Text published in "Livraison #5 : Refreshing the screen", 2005, curated by Julien Maire (Berlin).

See Situation Map

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