This is a lightly edited version of the presentation that I gave this morning to the other students in Critical Images, a post-master course at the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm that I’m currently attending, providing a first, preliminary idea of the work of ”imaginary history” that I hope to contribute to our collective exhibition in May. In case some of the participants – or anyone else, for that matter – would like to revisit my little rumination, I’ve made it available here.
The work that I hope to develop throughout the spring was originally part of a larger project that went by a slightly different name – but for the purposes of this course, I have decided to regard it as more of a self-contained statement under what, at first sight, must seem like a rather curious heading: The literal zone.
So, let’s start taking it apart. Evidently, the key notion here is literal in the sense of verbatim, word-for-word, without metaphor. At the same time, though, the word literal is also meant to work as an allusion to its exact homonym littoral – both are pronounced /ˈlɪt(ə)r(ə)l/ – meaning ”of or pertaining to the shore” (OED). More specifically, the term littoral zone refers to ”the part of a sea, lake or river that is close to the shore. In coastal environments the littoral zone extends from the high water mark, which is rarely inundated, to shoreline areas that are permanently submerged” (Wikipedia).
In this way, the incongruous expression literal zone – ostensibly a misspelling (which, as such, actually returns a few hits on Google) – enacts a play of meaning where, in the tension between lexical distinction (literal/littoral) and phonetic ambiguity (/ˈlɪt(ə)r(ə)l/), the literal and the metaphorical almost come to seem interchangeable. On the one hand, then, the title can be regarded as an instance of the kind of stylistic resources – allusion, ambiguity, etc. – that I borrow from artistic practice (without, however, claiming the status of art for my own work).
On the other hand, of course, the expression could also be taken in either one of its two more literal (sic) senses: so, either some sort of domain (’zone’) where things are reduced to their most concrete aspects, their bare existence – a kind of tautological state, as in Gertrude Stein’s ”a rose is a rose is a rose” – or else, exploiting the homonymy, the shore and the stretch of half-submerged soil just beyond the shore. In other words, that ”acre of land […] between the salt water and the sea sand” evoked, if only in a deliberately nonsensical fashion, in the well-known English ballad.
(Actually, departing from this line from the song’s lyrics, one could imagine an entire political project – or, indeed, an art project: a kind of sequel (or, if you like, precursor) to Carl Michael von Hausswolff and Leif Elggren’s fictional micronation Elgaland-Vargaland or, more to the point, to the Lawless line project of Eyal Weizman and associates – but that is another story.)
Now, let’s get a little more tangible. Thematically, the work will revolve around the figure of the refugee, juxtaposing the recent (in fact, ongoing) so-called refugee crisis with what historians have recently begun to describe as a ”forty-year crisis” throughout the beginning and middle of the 20th century (ca 1918–58). Technically, it will consist of ten short video clips, 30 seconds apiece, based exclusively on found footage (still as well as moving images) and other visual representations in combination with text and voice-over – perhaps complemented by a brief written statement.
For the time being, I choose to think of the video clips as ’exhibits’ in the legal sense of the word, i.e. as “physical or documentary evidence brought before [a] jury” (Wikipedia); in this regard, I am partly inspired by the work of Weizman’s Forensic Architecture group (more on that here). If possible, I would like to display them on ten parallel, synced screens.
Finally, just a few words about what you can see below. What I present here are simply a few examples of the kinds of visual material that I will make use of in my ’exhibits’, interspersed with fragments of text to give you a general idea of my approach to the voice-over. In short, a kind of mock-up of the finished work, using stills as a substitute for moving images and text as a substitute for sound.
It’s all still in a very rough state – but at least it’s something, right?