A line cuts through a town square and divides public space in two. As a result of this action a boundary has been created,
and yet the material in which the line is drawn is is ephemeral and vulnerable to decay. Documented in a video loop exhibited on trams throughout the city, Kader Attia’s boundary marking evokes the foundational political act, which is to establish a frontier in a space previously open to everyone, and yet by virtue of this chosen material – couscous grains – his gesture introduces a transitory element that reveals the public sphere to be as potentially poetical as it is political.
The couscous has a precarious existence because it might be blown away by the wind or eaten by birds – it is constantly at risk of disappearing, becoming invisible.
In this sense it acts as a metonym for the immigrant presence in the city of Graz for the cracked wheat is a signifier of cultural difference and not just an arbitrary volatile substance. In Untitled (Ghardaia) (2009), couscous was used as a medium of post-colonial translation when Attia constructed a model for the Mahgreb architecture that Le Corbusier encountered in the 1930s on cross-cultural journeys that led him to his modernist ideals. Where architecture features prominently in Attia’s work, its role in disciplining public space was investigated in Rochers Carrés (2008), where concrete blocks on the Algerian coastline forbid migrant journeys but have the contrary effect of stimulating desire for the “other place” hidden from view. Migrants are permanently crossing borders in the global economy and yet wht makes their journeys political, Attia’s work reveals, is precisely the disciplinary control of space that results in the immigrant’s condition of public invisibility.
In conversations in the Griesplatz area of Graz, a site associated with Turkish and Somalian immigrants, the artist asked strangers where they were headed in their personal aspirations. Among the responses – “My plan for the future is to finish my studies and to go to the UK and find a job” – it is a split between utopia and monument that sets immigrants apart. The restless drive towards utopian possibilities is offset by the inability to monumentalize the pain of loss and separation that uproots any migrant from past attachments and belonging. Whereas monuments are always fixed into a given place, someone who is perpetually on the move is locked into the spacelessness that exists between borders – in Euclidean geometry a borderline that separates two or more areas is taken to have no spatial properties of its own. But does such fugitive dispossession not also entail invisibility as a strategy for the best chances of survival ? The illegal immigrant, above all, must be a virtuoso performer who adapts to her surroundings and blends in – not to attract the attention of an audience, but on the contrary, to pass unnoticed when moving through public spaces, to disappear into the crowd, and thus remain unseen.
Where Attia creates a double scene of inscription – the couscous boundary only exists permanently as an archival or memorial trace – it is crucial to observe how the city’s public transport network acts as the medium of exhibition. Art is public not just because it is placed outdoors rather than indoors but to the extent it reflects on the conditions of open circulation that constitute the public sphere as a site of sociability among strangers.As literary scholar Michael Warner points out, the verb “to publish” took off in eighteenth century print culture with the routine appearance of daily and weekly newspapers that were addressed to anonymous readerships by virtue of their mass circulation. Taking the view that, “ a public is a relation among strangers”, Warner suggests that modernity entails a kind of stranger sociability in which “an environment of strangerhood is the necessary premise of some of our most prized ways of being”, for, “a nation or public or market in which everyone would be known personally would be no nation or public or market at all”(1). In view of Attia’s insights into the double-sided invisibility ghosting the immigrants, his art also reveals two kinds of publicness.
On the one hand, just as the creation of wealth would be impossible without immigrant labor (which is hidden from view, like domestic labor in the private sphere) so the social worlds of modernity could not possibly function without the normative environment of stranger sociability. Equations between the categories of the immigrant and the ancient idea of the stranger as a wandering outsider or exotic “other” are thus intelligible, on the other hand, as anti-modern reactions to a public sphere in which one’s freedom is lived as an impersonal relation among strangers. The democratic potential of the multitudes brought together by the modern public sphere is precisely what is cut off by ideological equivalences between nations and families. When stranger sociability is domesticated in this way, the immigrant must be kept out of the boundaries that enclose publicness within the arbitrary limits of the nation-state. Where Doris Salcedo explored such political aspects of boundary maintenance in her Shibboleth (2007), drilling a crack into the floor of the gallery to evoke the ancient test of membership and belonging that once separated friend and enemy, Kader Attia’s focus on the porosity of boundaries that are always vulnerable to historical decay adds an awareness of the public sphere’s ambiguous condition of strangerhood, which thus links the identities of the immigrant and the neighbor. With this interest in sculptural voids and installations that point to missing elements, Attia embraces emptiness not as a negative space of lack but as an absence that enables critical potentialities. The condition of public invisibility surrounding the precarious lives of illegal immigrants in Europe today is thus a locus of antagonism that nonetheless opens public space into a site of poetic world making.
(1) Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics (New York: Zone Books 2002): 74, 76.
Published in: Utopia and Monument, Exhibition for the Public Space, Steirischer Herbst, Graz, Austria, 2010.