Artivism: Art, Politics, Commitment
By Vincenzo Trione
A new form of political art: artivism. The artivists question some of the emergencies of our time. They open up tracks in the surface of the news. They engage in concrete, courageous, visionary acts. To imagine another present.
Chapter 3: Migrant Imaginaries
Translated from the Italian
The impossible routes of refugees are also at the centre of the audio-visual production of Laura Waddington, a nomadic observer with a literary background, who lived as an illegal immigrant between Europe and the United States. Skilled in moving beyond a reportage or journalistic approach in her short films and videos, the English filmmaker focuses her gaze on the experiences of those “adrift”, in the Middle East, the Balkans and Kurdistan, to portray the exodus of an invisible, tortured, exiled humanity, seeking a place to live, to rebuild dignity and find peace.
Out of this, Border (2004) was born. At the origin of the work, was Waddington’s stays in the countryside around the Red Cross camp in Sangatte, a small French town in Nord Pas de Calais. There, the artist followed Afghan and Iraqi refugees at close quarters as they tried to flee the police and cross the Channel tunnel linking France to the UK. Working with a small camera, she filmed their nightly escape attempts, the running through the fields, the spasmodic waits, the violent interventions of the police. We leaf, as if through an intimate diary, of word-visions that lead us through lights and glimmers. On the one hand, we follow the trail of the “firefly-people”, who retreat into the night and pursue their freedom: faceless and undocumented men, claiming the right to exist and to be recognised, caught as they cross the dark to reach an “unlikely horizon” – flashes, layers of light, sudden explosions. On the other side, the spotlights of the Kingdom: the beams of police torches and the rays emitted by a helicopter sweeping away the darkness.29
Shot in the dark, on the run, the frames are grainy, overexposed, blurred, flickering. Careful and lucid, Waddington immerses herself in the drama of drowning and desperate lives, which she films from close up, without ever ceding to realism.
Intent on transgressing the modes of cinéma-verité, she does not observe the refugees from the outside: she moves with them, in the cold of the night; penetrating their anguish and their fears, initiating an insecure negotiation with reality. She performs a total adhesion: she seeks a visual cancellation of her gaze, to become part of the fields, of the panting breaths, of the attempts to run towards a more peaceful destination. A poignant critical testimony, this filmic tale is at turns disorganised and hallucinatory, crossed by “sparks of humanity”.30 They are “glare-images” which, as Georges Didi-Huberman has written, always seem to be on the verge of disappearing: dirty, battered, out of focus, grainy, lacking in clarity, shot at an irregular pace, almost in slow motion, captured by shutters opened to the maximum. Conceived to “organise our pessimism”31, these endangered images evoke the violent alienation of existences on the edges, on the margins of society, accompanied by a voice-over, similar to background music or a continuous wave, ever the same and incessant: it is the voice of a young woman who tells her story and her encounters.
The respectful and restless contact with reality, in this way, transforms the documentation of a personal experience into an abstraction that insinuates many questions in us. Confused and fragmented, the material filmed recounts a specific human conditions, without however showing them: the anonymous “actors” dissolve, so as not to be discovered. We breathe in the power of loss and the inaccessibility of the visible.32
How to avoid falling into the quicksand of moralism, anaesthetization and aestheticization? Among the artists we have met on our critical journey, some – such as El Anatsui, Steyerl, Hatoum, Alÿs, Waddington, Abdessamad, Paladino, Iñárritu, Balestrini, Björk, Saraceno and Eliasson – have suggested possible pockets of resistance.
29 Didi-Huberman, Come le lucciole cit., p. 93.
30 Ibid., p. 93.
31 Ibid., p. 95.
32 E. Marcheschi, Videoestetiche dell’emergenza, Kaplan, Torino 2015, pp. 89-92.