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“We Are All Children of Algeria”

Visuality and Countervisuality 1954-2011

Nicholas Mirzoeff, Author
Spectres of Algeria, page 3 of 5

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Where is Where?

Where is Where?

and who is who?

I saw Eije-Liese Ahtila's video installation Where is Where? (2008) in the Marion Goodman Gallery in New York City. As the opening diagram shows, it was a simultaneous six-screen projection onto four walls in a square space plus two extra screens outside. No one viewer could see all that was being shown. With a running length of over 50 minutes, even the most dedicated art lover would have had to devote six hours to fully view the piece.

The piece begins as a magic realist drama, set in a comfortable domestic space in Helsinki, Finland. A mother of two children has her routine disrupted by Death, who visits her house on a regular basis but does not kill her. She mysteriously travels to a stylized Algeria, a country in the shadow of death, as if in the peasant theater of Southern Italy.

This pattern is in turn disrupted by a realist rendition of the case study from Fanon's Wretched of the Earth concerning the killing of a French child by his two Algerian friends. It's hard to catch the moment of the attack because it happens on only one screen. The discussion between the Algerian boys and Fanon follows the text in Wretched of the Earth in which the boys accept that they killed their friend but do not see it as a crime. Rather, it was their only way to participate in the revolution, as they saw it. Despite the fact that their friend had done nothing himself, lines had become hardened to the point that this extreme action appeared "reasonable" to the Algerian boys. Fanon refrains from moral comment but still appears confused as to how the children had come to their act. It might be interesting to counterpoint this rationalized killing with the killing of an Arab for killing's sake in Albert Camus's classic L'Etranger. Camus was a pied-noir, a French Algerian settler, and refused to side with the revolution, unlike Sartre who wrote a famous preface to Fanon's Wretched of the Earth. Ahtila's film evokes these unsettled conflicts and the place of violence in modern life. It's hard to watch.

The two modalities merge as Algeria literally comes through the walls of the Helsinki apartment and the two boys arrive in the swimming pool in a boat. The boat in the pool is perhaps the most evocative visualization of "Algeria" as a metonym for the long process of decolonizing, not just North Africa, but the imagination itself.

Is the pool a reference to memory? Are the boys trying to cross Lethe, river of forgetting? Is that boat a reference to the North African migrants attempting to enter Europe by small boats?

This connotation pulls us way from the poetic to the political.  The "Algerian" is a figure in France now not for the revolutionary or nationalist but for the immigrant. Especially in the South, where many descendants of the pied noirs, or French settlers in Algeria, now live. Anti-immigrant politics are a live sub-current to French political life. This politics is personified by Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was himself involved in torture in Algeria, and was leader of the National Front, an overtly racist and fascist party. With his daughter now running the party, the Front appears well placed for the elections of 2012.

In 2002, Le Pen finished second in the French Presidential election, forcing out the Socialist candidate in the first round. This compelled the French left to choose between what Mehdi Belhaj Kacem, a French writer of Algerian descent, called the "right extreme" and the "extreme right." In 2010-11, there were similar anti-immigrant politics across Europe from Germany to Switzerland, Finland and the UK. Where, then, is where? It depends where you're looking from, I suspect.
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