In Noah Baumbach’s film Frances Ha (2012) the main character is a young New York dancer with unattractive career prospects who plans a journey to Europe. Anticipating a disappointment, a friend warns her: “Europe is so provincial.” Frances nonetheless travels to Paris, although only to be greeted by her own solitude. This humorous movie also translates the attraction of the United States for what Baudrillard fondly referred to as the “old European cottages”.
First, I would like to say that I feel and think like a Euro-American, drawing on bilateral modernity. Ever since my adolescent years in Paris (my grand- parents are French, German and Greek), I have regarded my membership in the European culture, in all its glory, not only with some pride, but also as an exotic condition. And I always felt that such a mental condition was stimulating to both my photography and my teaching activities, in the United States as in Europe: it informs my receptivity to images. I believe that one of the reasons behind Robert Frank’s ultimately unsurpassed artistry is his “outsider” sensibility. He once summed up his self-imposed exile in one curt question: “How can one be Swiss?” It could easily be adapted to the Continental scale, and this time without irony, from “How can one be satisfied with being European?” to “What does it mean to be so?”
There is much hate to be perceived through the beautiful story composed by Katja Stuke and Oliver Sieber, about the fate of Indira, a young Bosnian refugee in Düsseldorf during the war in 1991, who was subsequently forced to leave Germany. Recounting their attempts to locate her, from New York to Florida, their “road novel” comprises photo- graphic and verbal notes, devoid of any superfluous artistic aspirations. The artists successfully manage to capture, on the screen of an individual fate, the American commitment to European conflicts, minority struggles, globalizing behaviours and cultural bridges between Bosnia, Germany and the New World. What does it mean to be European today? At best, the comfort of living in a region of the world with the least poor conditions in terms of social coexistence and the distribution of wealth; at worse, a sense of belonging to a periodically self-destructive continent haunted by its declining “universal” values, tampering its political ideals with security-related fears and nationalistic tensions.
No other “border” is more utterly reminiscent of illusory protection than the infamous Maginot Line, soberly represented by Alexandre Guirkinger. Beyond its pathetic military record, the defensive line can sometimes take on venerable ruiniform shapes through the artist’s gaze, even evoking European protohistory and its Celto-Ligurian oppida. These subtly lyrical images serve as a reminder that vast lands remain in the hands of territorial rapacity.
The European territory is also a mesh of languages, as we are reminded by Philippe Dolo in his project on Sudetenland. Europe is a tormented sum of idiomatic habitats, enclaves, expulsions and per- formative certainties. The curse of Babel: “A language is an idiom with an army and fleet,” said Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich. Sudetenland is as such tragically exemplary. It is here viewed through the deceptively naive form of a notebook in which uncertain bodies are floating in no-less-uncertain anamnesis.
Because being European also means this: being a member of a community of bodies. We are bodies born to the world from gregarious flows, rejections, mistakes and expiations on a saturated surface. Who among us has never been appalled by the way in which the Roma are once more sent back to the ranks of designated victims? With “Nimby”, Geoffroy Mathieu and Jordi Ballesta point uncom- promisingly to the current standardization of hygienist norms over the territory: already, designers of anti-homeless furniture have listed their ingenious devices under the delicate concept of “situational prevention”. In other words: “Out of here!”
In a different vein, Latvian Viktoryja Eksta dramati- cally stages the body in its ancestral dimension. Through a fantasized portrayal of roots, the photographer is represented as a peasant of bygone days. Blending her story with archival documents and notes, she elegantly reanimates an ancillary editorial style and seems to subscribe to the postmodern notion according to which any sense of identity of self is a form of retrospective rewriting, and not a substance. While I do disagree with the unbearable contempt for reportage expressed by many self-proclaimed “artists using photography”, bluntly political art forms are seldom convincing for me. The energy that flows through these series, however, proves that art can be efficient in the field of the political symbolization. Julien Lombardi’s work on Armenia is framed in a single haunting question: “What can the image do?” As if that tension was the objective state of the relationship between the country and its national narrative-in-the-making. Is it Lombardi’s gaze in search of himself? Armenia? Or both? We are reminded here of the theory forwarded by Robin Kelsey and his “double indexicality”: according to the young photography historian, an image designates realities as much as it designates the point of view from which they emerge.
Double indexicality features again in the portraits of Émeric Lhuisset: demonstrators in Kiev are both the subjects and the objects of his lens. In the brief vacuum that followed the escape of their president, removed on the eve of the events on Maidan Square for his opposition to the cooperation agreement with the European Union, they address us, and re- ply to a (double) question about the future of their country.
Double indexicality once more, and sometimes, double tale as well: Klara Källström and Thobias Fäldt draw their narrative and counter-narrative from a rumour that spread through the media about the alleged presence of “gardeners” at a hospital in Athens. They humorously blend together images of the Greek referendum demonstrations on 5 July 2015 with views from Brussels or Berlin and trivial anecdotes to dissolve an urban legend fabricated by neoliberal journalists: the European drama is also at play between North and South. Eu- rope is aware that the future rests upon union; but she is also aware of her own disunion. In such a hyper capitalistic context, where is the path between necessary denunciations and paranoid schemes; between democratic erosion and the absence of institutional alternative?
An amusing aspect of the Euro-American ties mentioned earlier is displayed in Jean-Marie Donat’s collection of postcards of American cities with European names – all the ones that refer to their “mother city”, of course, and many others: Macon, Georgia, named after the politician Nathaniel Macon; Frankfort, Kentucky, for “Frank’s Fort”; Vincennes, Indiana, as a tribute to an 18th-century French officer by the name of Bissot de Vincennes; etc.
Toponymy is as random as history itself. However not as inexorable, it seems, as the gigantic conurbations resulting from the Spanish building frenzy so abruptly interrupted by the burst of the real estate bubble. The project “Nación Rotonda” displays these constructions via Google Earth. The ultimate crisis could perhaps generate, on a larger scale, new kinds of remnants: the fake archaeology of abandoned buildings that were never used, and ironically, are impossible to destroy.