July 17th, 2018
Can You Hear Me?
Bouchra Khalili wants to make a platform for migrant and minority voices—but when do images become theater?
By Violaine Boutet de Monvel
In 1970, while presenting their newly formed Dziga Vertov Group to a packed audience at Yale University, the French filmmakers Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin compared their conception of militant cinema to the blank blackboard in the lecture hall: a space of possibility for all attendants to discuss and take part in the construction of knowledge. This anecdote inspired Blackboard, the title of Moroccan French artist Bouchra Khalili’s first survey, at Jeu de Paume in Paris. Made over the past decade, the ensemble on display includes two series of photographs, a series of silkscreen prints, and eight documentary projects running on small monitors or projected onto large screens, which together unfold over four hours of mostly single-channel video.
In the introductory wall text of her survey, Khalili cites Pier Paolo Pasolini’s civic notion of poetry as a major influence. During the Second World War, the late Italian writer and director started composing poems in Friulan—an endangered language spoken in northeastern Italy—to oppose the growing linguistic and cultural hegemony in his country. To varying degrees of success, Khalili has also committed her practice to giving a platform to socio-political minorities silenced all over the world: carrying discourses of unyielding resistance, no less than twenty-five languages and dialects can be heard throughout the exhibition.
One example is The Mapping Journey Project (2008–11), a multi-projection installation comprising eight videos concurrently running on four double screens, which are suspended from the ceiling in the middle of a dark room. Seven men and one woman, who were forced into exile for economic or political reasons, recount their clandestine journeys to reach Europe from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Palestine, Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, and Macedonia. Each account takes the form of a static shot displaying a map, onto which one of the migrants factually retraces the complex itinerary of his or her own perilous expedition. Only a hand appears on screen, maneuvering a red indelible marker, whereas their voices are relayed through a single pair of headphones per video. This creates a palpable sense of disconnect for the visitors deprived of sound while waiting for their turn, even though the speeches are also subtitled in both English and French. Despite this sense of detachment, the overall cinematic simplicity of this installation makes it the most engaging work on display. Not being able to see the narrators’ faces draws full attention to the uncanny twists and turns of the maps in the making, which reflect the true resilience of people willing to risk their lives to meet, perhaps, more favorable fates.
Unapologetic resistance continues in the video trilogy The Speeches Series (2012–13), which was produced in Paris, Genoa, and New York. Titled Mother Tongue,Words on Streets, and Living Labour, respectively, each chapter, playing on its own screen, shows five different people who share personal manifestos, touching upon their denied rights and citizenship as immigrants in their chosen countries. Most discourses were authored in English, French, Italian, or Spanish through preliminary one-on-one interviews with the artist, and the participants’ voices are relayed through two pairs of headphones for each screen. “America is a prison for its immigrants. The bars of this prison are injustice, racism, lack of moral values, and loneliness,” a man called Kante declaims in French about the life of hardship faced by undocumented workers in New York. “I don’t know what the American dream is, but now is not the time to dream, now is the time to rise up,” he fiercely concludes. From one portrait to the next, Khalili’s didactic use of video editing makes speech emerge as an emancipatory gesture. For instance, close-ups on the protagonists’ hands alternate with wider views of busy city streets, where discourses privately echoing one another finally unite in a collective voice.
Vestiges of resistance from recent, yet untold—if not forgotten—history inform all the photographs on display. In The Wet Feet Series (2012), realized in Florida, nine pictures of seemingly random stranded boats and rusted containers capture (metaphorically, at least) traces of the dreadful “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which applied to Cuban immigrants from 1995 to 2017. The ones who managed to reach the American shore were allowed a chance to stay, but if intercepted in national waters, they were immediately sent back to Cuba. The fifteen photographs of Foreign Office (2015) document the former, and now-deserted, headquarters of many liberation movements in Algiers. Throughout the 1960s, the city offered asylum to political opponents from all over the world, including members of the African National Congress and the Black Panther Party. As the authorities currently in place have favored different national narratives, this cosmopolitan part of Algiers’s revolutionary past is little known to younger generations.
Taking this into account, Khalili further explores if not the moral obligation, then perhaps the uncertainty of historical transmission in Twenty-Two Hours (2018). The forty-minute-long video brings together the figure of Jean Genet—the late French writer and activist who clandestinely traveled to the United States in 1970 at the Black Panthers’ request, in order to take part in the “Free Bobby Seale” campaign—and Douglas Miranda, a former Black Panther who was involved in Genet’s tour. Archival footage, shared memories, and Miranda’s interview are narrated and supposedly orchestrated by Quiana and Vanessa, two young African American women, prompting the audience to question the role of witnesses, in general, and the nature of their discourses.
Nevertheless, this video fails to properly engage the viewer, but not only because of its unsuitable duration for an exhibition context. (It is worth noting that the majority of these works, which are all scripted, could have benefited from a scheduled screening program, in order to garner proper attention. The longest one—The Tempest Society — runs for one hour alone, which feels rather unsuitable in the context of an exhibition, where on-the-move viewers might find it difficult to take in.) What’s more, the sharp grasp on reality that Khalili’s earlier works so strongly possess gets lost under thick layers of overly scripted, theatrical cosmetics, which turn all potential witnesses into amateur actors lecturing some play. Over the past three years, the artist’s theoretical fascination with the aesthetics of Pasolini, Godard, and Gorin appears to have reached a literal level. No matter how politically engaged her pieces’ participants are individually, their voices have become inaudible, and their subjectivities disturbingly subsumed by affected didacticism—ultimately raising the question that punctuates the entire survey: who really speaks when someone speaks?
Violaine Boutet de Monvel is an art critic and translator living in Paris.
Bouchra Khalili: Blackboard is on view at Jeu de Paume, Paris, through September 23, 2018.