Maps and Blackboards: Representing People’s Liberation Struggles



This interview is an email exchange with Bouchra Khalili. She is a Moroccan French artist “working with film, installation, photography, and prints. […] Each of her projects investigates strategies and discourses of resistance as elaborated, developed and narrated by individuals, often members of political minorities.” She participated to numerous exhibitions, the most recent one being a large monographic one entitled “Blackboard” at the Jeu de Paume in Paris. In this conversation, we address the way she relates to cartography in four historical and political researches that her artwork materializes.

LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: It is my hypothesis that cartography is omnipresent in your work. Sometimes, it is more explicit and obvious than others, but it is always there, somehow. Perhaps we can start with these most explicit examples. The “Mapping Journey Project” (2008-2011) is one of them, as its very title indicates. It consists in eight films in which the viewers see a hand tracing a path on a map — seven of them showing parts of North Africa, the Middle East, the Mediterranean Sea and Europe, the last one showing the area between Ramallah and Jerusalem in Palestine. A voice accompanies the trace in telling the story of a transcontinental displacement (or a much reduced one in Palestine) with its numerous obstacles, its dead ends, its occasional returns to square one, etc. Ever since I saw these films in 2014, they have embodied for me the most sensible way to map and express the movement of the numerous exiles who are seeking in Europe an escape from extremely precarious conditions of life due to wars or economic disparities, in which Europe has itself a historical responsibility. Far from the thick arrows and their linearity that respectively suggest massive migrations and unobstructed trajectories, the cartographies you have created with the first concerned by what is mapped are, on the contrary, insisting on the duress of these displacements but without the pathos that always fails to fuel durable mobilizations. Could you describe how the potential cinematographic dimension of cartography allows such a sensible and sensitive expression?

Khalili Funambulist (8)
Mapping Journey #3 (2009).

BOUCHRA KHALILI: I’m not sure if one can talk about the cinematic potential of cartography. Mapmaking is still too often about producing the representation of a territory and the representation of a knowledge on that territory — geographic, political, economic, demographic, and the list is almost infinite — produced from the perspective of power. It may sound very “Foucaldian,” but it was always an inventory of the power, by the power, for the power.

I know very well that your own work and your interest in cartography is quite the opposite of this historically anchored conception of cartography, and one of your latest works about the cartography of the October 17, 1961 massacre of Algerians by the Paris police is a great example. I was actually very moved by this project, because, at the age of 18, while I was a very young student in art history and film studies, I conducted a research on October 17, 1961. It had nothing to do with my studies. I heard of what had happened, and I was so shocked that I literally became obsessed with it. I collected a lot of material and had the chance to meet Jean-Luc Einaudi, whose book La bataille de Paris (1991) was among the very few deep researches on the subject at that time. I even recall filming in the North of France a public conference gatheringEinaudi, Jacques Panijel who made the film Octobre à Paris (1962) on the subject in the following days and weeks of October ‘61, along with Elie Kagan who took pictures on that night, and Maurice Rajsfus (see insert [1]). I don’t know what happened to the film footage I filmed; it was about 20 years ago now, and at that time I never thought that I would become an artist. I just went there thinking that someone should film it.

Anyway, I digress from the subject. But looking at the visual shape of your maps, it immediately reminded me of Guy Debord’s notion of “psychogeography,” which was inspired by an Algerian friend of his. I always had a profound admiration for Debord’s work and his psychogeographic maps, which certainly had a huge influence on my work. And we both know that he made some extraordinary movies too. So at least when it comes to him, there’s an essential connection between cartography and filmmaking. However, I’m not sure until what point one can talk on a cinematic potential of mapmaking. One could argue that a map operates as a frame, limiting a geographical area, which off-frame is the world itself which does not need to be represented, because, although the “map is not the territory,” it is a representation of the world.

Cinematic shot is somehow the opposite: it is a metonymic capture of reality in which the off-frame — what remains invisible — cannot be ignored: it is there, somewhere, anyway.To return specifically to “The Mapping Journey Project,” even before starting filming the project, the visual apparatus was already defined: one-long static shot on tripod, a map, a hand holding a permanent marker, a voice, a singular trajectory. The aim was to articulate metonymic details, including the invisible as an essential part of the image, inviting the viewer to picture components that are not shown but resonate mentally. I started from a very simple question: how does one produce the representation of an invisible geography, the geography of those who are forced to travel illegally because their right to mobility is denied?

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“Foreign Office: The Archipelago”

The majority of the maps I have used are political maps that anyone can find in bookshops, with one exception, the map used for Mapping Journey # 3, which focuses on the occupied territories between Ramallah and East Jerusalem. That map does not exist in bookshops, because it is produced by a group of mapmakers whose work is to map the occupation.And that’s the reason why I always considered that that very video is the key work of the whole installation, illuminating the project. It is about a young man from Ramallah. He’s not a migrant. He lives in the West Bank and is in love with a young woman living in East-Jerusalem. He cannot visit her, because as you know Palestinians from the West Bank cannot go freely to East Jerusalem, while according to UN resolutions — although Trump considers International Law count for nothing — it is still to become the capital of the Palestinian State. Thus, this young man is forced by an illegal occupation to climb hills, hide from armed military patrols, and walk a whole day to go to East Jerusalem only to see his fiancée, while by car it wouldn’t take him more than 15 minutes. For this young man, risking his life to see the woman he loves, is a gesture of resistance.

That’s why I never considered that “The Mapping Journey Project” was about migration, but about resistance against the nation-state model, whose raison d’être is to settle boundaries, borders, walls, defining who can be in and who is excluded. Excluded from citizenry, excluded from equal rights, excluded from the right to mobility, and so on, until considering that the excluded ones do not belong to humankind, which is what we are witnessing with European and U.S. policies regarding migrants and refugees. This says a lot about the failure of the “democratic states” in which we live.

So the project was not about the cinematic potential of maps but rather about challenging the most normative drawing which exists — a basic map — with the most singular situations. No forced journey looks like another one. And this is precisely the reason why permanent markers are used in the videos. The drawings of each participant cannot be erased anymore from the maps; they cover those maps and replace them. The video becomes a map of a new kind: the maps of those who are excluded from mapmaking. Thus, the maps become the page on which is written a singular trajectory as opposed to a nation-state narrative and, therefore, a site in which a geography of resistance can appear.

Khalili Funambulist (4)

Khalili Funambulist (3)
Stills from “Foreign Office (2015)

LL: As many readers will know, you and I share a productive fascination for the concept of archipelago — perhaps a common learning from Carribean philosopher and poet Édouard Glissant! In “Foreign Office” (2015), you created a map of such an archipelago representing the situation of very specific buildings in Algiers. Could you describe what these buildings used to be and the historical context in which they became these crucial islands, not just for Algiers, but for the entire decolonization struggle, worldwide?

BK: The Archipelago is more a metaphor than an actual map, although it reproduces accurately the geographical dissemination of the many headquarters of movements of liberation and anti-fascist organizations that were based in Algiers between 1962 and 1972: Nelson Mandela’s ANC, Amilcar Cabral’s PAIGC, Eldridge Cleavers’ International Section of The Black Panthers Party, Mario Pinto de Andrade’s MPLA, FATAH, The Palestinian DFLP, The PFLOAG (Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arab Gulf), The FPLN (Portuguese National Liberation Front), and many others that are also present in the photographs. It actually took me a lot of time to locate them because the access to the archives is very difficult in Algeria. I started with a sort of investigation on locations, checking many resources, including transcripts of meetings of movements of liberation at the United Nations, brochures and pamphlets published by those movements, or official mails addressed to international institutions.

Khalili Funambulist (7)
Hotel El Safir, ex-Aletti in the city center of Algiers, home of the Black Panther Party delegation during the 1969 Pan-African Festival

I then visited each place, which one can see on the photographs, although for the photographs I deliberately focused on the entrances. The photographs were operating as a sort of pastiche of the architectural photography style, produced with a live view camera with negative film rolls, frontal, and objective. Most of the buildings belong to the
colonial period, so the images could definitely look like archival images. And, in a way, they have entered into archival field. This is even clearly the case for the former Aletti Hotel, which was built for the anniversary of the 100 years of French colonization of Algeria in 1930, and which was inaugurated by Charlie Chaplin. The hotel closed in late 2016, and its “renovation” started a few months ago with the destruction of the entrance of the hotel. I must be then the last photographer who could take pictures of the building and its inside.

This is why the captions of these photographs are so important: they add a historical layer to the images. They say: these images that seem to refer to the colonial period, but they actually refer to the internationalist period. There is then a kind of irony that appears: taking possession of colonial history and turning it against it. The presence of the triptych devoted to Kateb Yacine adds an extra layer: the relationship between location, poetry and resistance.

After this process of locating the buildings and “documenting” them, I could then go back to an actual map, using an aerial view of the city, locating again each headquarter, and producing this “Archipelago.” The point was not to produce a map of the city — although the scale is accurate, with the island formations reproducing faithfully the architectural shape of the buildings as seen from above. However, for me it was essentially a metaphor: could it be that internationalism was a response to the “Tout-Monde,” which Glissant hoped for? An archipelic world whose island formations are connected by solidarity?

LL: The two films/projects, “Foreign Office” (2015) and “The Tempest Society” (2017), operate mainly with the blackboard that gives the name to your exhibition at the Jeu de Paume in Paris (2018). Archival pieces are placed on this blackboard in order to recount the (hi)story of various antiracist, decolonial and class struggles that gather in Algiers (“Foreign Office”) and Athens (“The Tempest Society”). To me, this blackboard that allows you to be what you call yourself a Halqa (storyteller in Morocco) is a sort of cartography that incorporates space and time through the description of lives, struggles, and events. Could I ask you to think through this medium and the various dimensions it incorporates?

BK: It depends what one means by “blackboard.” To me it refers first to the definition given by The Dziga Vertov Group (see insert [2]). To them the “blackboard” is the film itself. It is this surface that circulates among the ones in need of a representation of themselves, for themselves, and that can then circulate among the ones in need of those images. It is a nomadic blackboard. I guess it is not by chance if hands populate my work. At some point, there’s always a flat surface on which hands are writing, drawing, or showing something to someone, sharing images and stories.

Khalili Funambulist (1)
Stills from “The Tempest Society” (2017).

However, the blackboard can also be understood as the cinematic shot itself: a frame, a flat surface on which counter-narratives can be “written,” “drawn,” “performed.” Thus, one can definitely see the maps used in “The Mapping Journey Project” as a series of blackboards, in which the map as a surface is subverted through the performance and the drawing of accounts of resistance and resilience.

Similarly, the blackboard here is not anymore the tool on which knowledge as defined from the perspective of the power is being taught — the official and institutional knowledge. It is rather the opposite: the blackboard is the one being used by those who are said that they don’t have a knowledge, that they don’t have a story, that they don’t have a history.

In “Foreign Office” and “The Tempest Society” the flat black tables operate similarly. It is the blackboard on which the protagonists compose their own story, history and historiography, using images, mixing up their own narratives with quotes, turning those tables literally into both a blackboard and an editing room. They thus illuminate the essential connection between film editing, or rather “montage” as a pedagogy of the image.

In “Twenty-Two Hours” (Bouchra Khalili, 2018), although there’s no table or physical blackboard, it operates similarly with the video monitors. We see Vanessa and Quiana, two young African American women from Boston, investigating Jean Genet’s clandestine visit to the USA in 1970, in support of the Black Panther Party. His visit started in Boston with a series of talks, organized by Doug Miranda a prominent Bostonian member of the BPP, who appears at many occasions throughout the film. However, it is Quiana and Vanessa who are “developing” this “blackboard.” Words are not written, but photographs and film footage displayed on TV monitors as a flat surface become a combination of fragments which, when brought together, eventually form both a physical and imaginary blackboard. In a sense, it is film editing as a form of storytelling generating an alternative historiography that that is turned into a collective blackboard.
As for the connection with the Halka, its disappearing ancient tradition of storytelling is indeed close to my heart. In my childhood, the public storyteller was a living archive sharing his knowledge of popular tales and classical poetry, happily mixing vernacular language and dialect with classical Arabic. Was he transporting a blackboard: no. Was he himself the “blackboard”: why not?

LL: In a conversation with Omar Berrada, you describe the way you work on each new research project and refer to this process as a form of topography. Being involved in a similar process right now, I would love to hear you describe it more at length; how somehow the creation of an imaginary cartography is necessary to create an artwork that may not convey this entire topography but whose fragments are all formed by it.

BK: “Mapping” my project is actually a very practical thing: it is a matter of putting things in order, at least for myself. My notebooks, including filming material, like the scripts themselves, look like maps, or I should rather say like constellations. When at the end of “The Tempest Society”, Isavella, Elias, and Giannis gather in front of a blackboard and chalk the film itself, and the stories it articulated, they literally draw a constellation. They reveal the process of the making of the film, its narrative construction. What they do looks very much like what I do myself when working on a project: the notes always end up taking the shape of constellation. Making those constellations is my way of creating the connections between the many stories and many materials that I have collected for each project. But I’m sure that many people do the same thing for many different purposes. That’s why I don’t feel the need to include everything in the films or to exhibit all the material I use. What interests me the most is how the connections can be made.

LL: Finally, something struck me in your exhibition Blackboard in Paris’ Jeu de Paume (2018): it is the fact that the little plates describing each artwork (and the one describing the acronym of each liberation organization present in Algiers during the 1960s) could constitute in themselves an exhibition (and a cartography!) of some kind. Am I being anecdotal or is that something that resonates with what you would like your work convey?

BK: I pay specific attention to titles, captions that I always draft, the labels, including the way they are printed and hanged in an exhibition space when I’m given the opportunity to do so by museums. There are different traditions when it comes to labels in institutions. In France, labels are considered very important and are often hung next to the artworks. In Germany, there’s often no labels but instead a map of the show based on the exhibited artworks. So in Germany the artworks define the first perception of the space.

My approach is to use labels which hang to reproduce the hanging of the artworks: it is in between traditional labels and maps. But it also makes sense with the way I hang artworks, which is not linear, but more like constellations. I think there’s not one single artwork that is hung accordingly to the traditional rule consisting of hanging a print at 150 centimeters from the floor to the middle of the frame. “Foreign Office” is very specific though: the labels are part of the works, so of course they have to be exhibited too. As I was telling you before, the photographs operate on a deceptive perception: there’s a gap between what is being shown and what the picture actually refers to.

The labels become a sort of editing articulation as in the process of “montage,” filling a gap in terms of time and space, including historically speaking. Labels are also literally “language,” and you know how much language plays a prominent role in my work. Those silent pictures start to tell stories, and a sort of dynamic interaction between picture and words start to operate. That’s also the reason why the archipelago not only includes the headquarters and their architectural shape but also the acronyms, as if they were the only traces remaining of a lost language that needs now to be translated. And as a matter of clarity, an index is often hanged among the labels. So it is a complicated piece to install: there are the 17 artworks composing it as well as the 18 labels. However, I won’t show those labels alone, because to me what matters is the interval, this kind of film “montage” that operates when the works and the labels interact with each other because a viewer is making the connections in the art space.