Interview Jananne Al-Ani
RESEARCH SERIES #24 by Julian Ross Sonic Acts Festival 2015 Born in Iraq, London-based artist Jananne Al-Ani engages with the politics of the image. In her works in photography, film and video, Al-Ani interrogates our ways of seeing by undermining the structures of scale and perspective in which visual culture is shaped. While her conceptual application is subversive, her methods are gentle, often resulting in evocations of assumptions which are quietly unsettled. In her work in the 1990s and early 2000s, her central subject was the Western portrayal of the Middle East, in particular, women and the veil. Working closely with her immediate family, her works undercut media-fuelled perceptions of ‘other’ cultures with personal narratives and playful mind-games. Shifting away from the human body as an image to the human imprint, her recent series The Aesthetics of Disappearance: A Land Without People illustrates Al-Ani’s preoccupation with the ways in which history is etched into the landscape. Bold in technique yet comparatively subtle in effect, her films Shadow Sites I (2010) and Shadow Sites II (2011) capture the desert landscape of the Middle East. What appears to be an uninhabitable landscape is revealed to be a home for industrial farms and abandoned military training camps. Playing with the visual codes of modern warfare, the remnants of structures spread out over the land and speak of untold histories of human activity. Presented at the 2015 edition of Sonic Acts curated under the theme of ‘The Geologic Imagination’, the two films shown together drove home the misconception of the border between nature and humanity, a theme that spanned across the works presented in the festival. Film programmer and researcher Julian Ross took the opportunity to interview Jananne Al-Ani during her visit to Sonic Acts where she presented her recent series. Julian Ross: You’ve been working on The Aesthetics of Disappearance: A Land Without People since 2007. How did you embark on it and how do the Shadow Sites films fit into this? Jananne Al-Ani: This latest body of work started off as a response to the 2003 Iraq War. I had a terrible feeling of déjà vu in the build up to the invasion. I’m old enough to remember the 1991 Gulf War and, although I was born in Iraq, I left in 1980 and so I witnessed the Desert Storm campaign from the relative safety of my home in London, from a European perspective. I was horrified at the lack of context in the reporting of the conflict. There was no real analysis of why Iraq had invaded Kuwait. The complexities of the situation were not addressed and most shocking of all, political analysts often slipped into a lazy regurgitation of nineteenth-century Orientalist myths about the despotic barbarity of the Arabs (Saddam Hussein presented a perfect caricature) and the ‘emptiness’ of the desert landscape. We watched laser guided missiles hit isolated targets but the 25 million people living there were never mentioned. The entire country was cut off from the outside world. Telecommunications systems were destroyed, there were no flights in or out, and no water or electricity. Much of the military and civilian infrastructure was destroyed. Yet nobody was talking about what impact this might have on the population. ‘We’ could function without needing to think about the consequences of the war, it was far away and completely separate from ‘us’. For most citizens of the developed world, this had become the condition of modern warfare in the second half of the twentieth century – it happened to others and at a distance. Clearly, the 9/11 attacks changed all that. This was the pivotal event that led to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and got me thinking about how those campaigns related to previous conflicts in the region. I usually work very slowly and do lots of archival research. This project was no exception. I began by investigating first-person accounts of atrocity. The 9/11 attacks on New York were well documented and the images were disseminated in an unprecedented way –most atrocities are not. They usually happen when nobody is looking and the bodies are disposed of quietly. So I began to investigate events for which there was no visual record, no photographic or filmed evidence: just verbal or written accounts. I was trying to work out a way of using the material I found as either text on the screen or as voiceover to somehow allude to the absent images. However, when I juxtaposed this material with my own images of Middle Eastern landscapes, it became too sensational and explicit. In the end, I decided to focus only on sound. In both Shadow Sites I and Shadow Sites II, the shift from more ambient, gentle sounds to those suggesting discord or violence, creates a tension in contrast with the aerial shots of the often beautiful landscapes that appear in the films. JR: Although I’m sure these works are informed by your personal encounters and research, the end result feels like an observation from an ahistorical perspective in a sense that the scale ––not only spatially but also in terms of time–– is vast. In terms of geological time, the conflicts are seemingly insignificant. What seems like an abrupt break in our reality is shown to be a repetition of events in the history of the world. JA: Yes, I very much wanted to explore the idea of repetition but also of resilience in both the films. One of the consequences of the 2003 war in Iraq was the collapse of the Baath dictatorship, which allowed for the excavation of mass graves containing the bodies of those who had been made to ‘disappear’ by the regime over a period of 35 years. The disappearance of civilians in times of war and conflict is of course universal but I became more and more interested in investigating what evidence remains of these events and how the landscape itself often betrays the activities that have taken place in it ––whether it is the traces of a bronze age copper mine where weapons were made or the foundations of a Roman fort, or the footprint of a concentration camp burned to the ground. Going back to the disembodiment you refer to, by shooting from the air with the camera pointing vertically down at the ground, I wanted to suggest the ever-present shadow of state surveillance that we all live under, whether we are aware of it or not. Personally, I think it’s very important to place current discussions around surveillance and the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, including drones and satellites, in a wider historic context. So the films borrow the aesthetic of the earliest aerial surveillance photographs, with their beautiful sepia tones and fine detail, while also replicating the all-seeing perspective of the drone or the spy satellite. In Shadow Sites I the camera steadily drifts across a range of sites, as if searching for something. In Shadow Sites II, that something seems to have been found and, instead, structures in the landscape are locked onto and zoomed into as if under attack. JR: How about the illusion of the one-take that you deliver for both films? You use the dissolve technique to hide the cuts, which some may feel enhances the seduction and immersion. JA: What I wanted in both films was continuous movement. Although each is made up of a sequence of images dissolving from one to the next, in Shadow Sites I I’m aping the idea of the tracking shot and, in Shadow Sites II, the zoom. As you mentioned earlier however, what’s important is the fact that the films move fluidly through time with sites ranging from the prehistoric to the contemporary. The sequences in Shadow Sites I were shot on 16mm film whereas Shadow Sites II is made exclusively from stills, a direct homage to Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), in particular a moment towards the end of the film when the protagonist is finally sent into the future. We see a short sequence of three stills dissolving one into the other, which Marker twists and zooms into. The first two images look like cellular structures under a microscope, as if we are inside his body as it travels though time and space. The third image looks like an aerial shot of a city, a megalopolis built on a vast grid system. The voiceover suggests that what we are looking at is Paris in the future, the destination of the time traveller. JR: The aerial images in both Shadow Sites I and Shadow Sites II trace many sites but, as a viewer, I wasn’t aware of the particular history each place represented. The transitions between the sites are fluid and the distance from the subject deters us from finding out where the image is located. Was this intentional? JA: Yes, absolutely. I wanted each shot that appeared in the films to include evidence of human occupation, reinforcing the basic principle in forensics that every single action, however discreet, leaves a mark. Although I’m certain an archaeologist would be able to identify and date many of the sites that appear in the films, you are quite right in saying that most viewers would struggle to do this. Instead, I’m relying on the familiarity of certain architectural forms and shapes, as well as the power of suggestion, to help make sense of the locations. For example, the square footprint of a Roman fort is a familiar sight throughout Western Europe as well as the Middle East and North Africa. I included Bronze Age copper mines because the blackened contamination of the ground, which is still visible thousands of years later, reminded me of aerial photographs of European cities that had been firebombed during World War Two. Shadow Sites I opens with a shot of one of the earliest known field systems, which is still cultivated today, and the film ends with the circular fields familiar to us from industrial arable farming that has now been adopted across the globe. In Shadow Sites II, one such crop circle lies fallow and is slowly reverting to desert. It looks like a monochrome drawing and, for me at least, brought to mind Jasper Johns’ works like Green Target (1955) and White Target (1957). What I’m interested in is how an aerial perspective can affect our understanding of what lies below at ground level. How it can transform an abject or banal site into a thing of beauty. Investigating the relationship between photography and flight led me back to some of the earliest experiments in aerial reconnaissance during the First World War. I discovered the work of the American Aerial Expeditionary Force, a unit established with the help of Edward Steichen. Aerial photographs of the Western Front offered not only an extraordinary strategic advantage during the war but inadvertently transformed the carnage and devastation on the ground below into exquisitely abstracted works of art. The end of the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire marked the birth of the modern Middle East as we know it, with nation states established under French and British Mandates, the borders of which remain to this day. I was keen to expose the evidence of this upheaval in the landscape, such as the trench systems dug by Ottoman troops to defend the Hejaz railway line, both of which appear in the films. I was also interested in the British project, established in the early post-war years, to accurately map the Middle East by systematically photographing the landscape from the air. It was while looking for such material in the Imperial War Museum’s incredibly rich collections that I came across the work of the brothers Richard and Sydney Carline, who were official war artists and served in both Europe and the Middle East from 1918 to 1920. Their aerial paintings of the Western Front, such as Mine Craters at Albert Seen From an Aeroplane, 1918, show an apocalyptic mud bath, a sea of devastation, which stand in stark contrast to the bucolic images they produced of Baghdad or Damascus. There’s a small painting in the collection titled Gaza Seen From the Air, Over British Lines on Ali Muntar Hill Looking Towards the Sea (1919), in which Gaza is surrounded by rolling hills and green fields, looking more like an English country town than a Middle Eastern one. I’m interested in the shifting and complex ways in which we understand and interpret visual material, be it historic or contemporary. So, when the Carline brothers made their paintings I’m certain they would have considered them to be a pretty accurate record of how those two very different landscapes looked at the time. In the 100 or so years since the paintings were made, however, so much has changed ––both in terms of the political landscape and the way in which place itself is represented¬¬–– that the paintings seem to present a startling contrast to what might be expected now. The Carline paintings undermine our perceptions of what a European or a Middle Eastern landscape might have looked like and it’s that disruption of expectations that I’m hoping to achieve in my work too. Whether it’s to show how intensively occupied the desert landscape is, or to show that perhaps there’s more in common between the Middle Eastern landscape and the European landscape than we might think. It’s precisely this ambiguity that I’m hoping to explore in my next film, the final chapter of the Shadow Sites series, which will focus on the British landscape. I want to shoot the piece in a way that makes a place that is familiar appear alien or different, at least for a Western European audience. JR: The focus of the Sonic Acts Conference is that we, as humans, have been disproportionately affecting the landscape. We are in the Anthropocene and have been for many years. As you’ve mentioned, people assume the Middle East to be mostly comprised of untouched desert landscapes. Is that what you found on your trips? JA: Of course not. The landscape varies hugely depending on where one is in the region. Just think of the snow-topped mountains of Lebanon or the fertile plains of central Iraq. However, there are areas of desert which are relatively under-populated so by focusing on sites with substantial remnants of occupation and ones that go back millennia, I’ve tried to challenge the enduring Orientalist myth you mentioned, of the desert as unoccupied ‘virgin’ territory. I chose to make the Shadow Sites films in Jordan because it sits at the centre of a number of highly contentious and contested sites – just east of Israel and occupied Palestine, and sharing borders with Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Syria. Although it is a relatively young nation state, historically it has been a major crossroads for both trade and warring empires and it’s incredibly rich in archaeological sites, ranging from the prehistoric to the modern, including Bronze Age, Nabatean, Roman, Islamic, Crusader and Ottoman, up to and including the period under British Mandate. What’s interesting in relation to the Sonic Acts conference and its focus on the Anthropocene is just how many of the previous occupants of this territory made good use of the natural resources available without abusing them. For example, Israel’s project to turn the Negev desert green, which is actually robbing neighbouring countries of precious water supplies, is not a new one. As I mentioned earlier, this is the place where agriculture began and evidence of water tanks, which are used to collect rain and floodwaters, are still visible together with sophisticated irrigation systems. Some even remain in use to this day. JR: While Shadow Sites I and Shadow Sites II are both immersive experiences for the audience, the five-monitor installation Groundworks I–V (2013) is comparatively small and requires concentrated attention. JA: When I was making the Shadow Sites films, it was important to bring together the micro and the macro. Like the sequence from La Jetée, which I mentioned earlier, there are sites in the films that are clearly large-scale architectural structures and others that could be up-close details of specimens viewed under a microscope. As for how the works are exhibited, the large-scale projection of the Shadow Sites films is a reference to cinema in contrast to the small scale of the Groundworks films, which allude to the format of early photographs, produced as contact prints, direct from the glass plate negative. Like Shadow Sites II, four of the five films that make up Groundworks are subtly animated photographs, shot on flights over the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. Unlike the Middle East, the American Southwest is a landscape in which the light touch of earlier indigenous occupation has all but disappeared. Many of the sites I photographed suggested the erasure of the human body including Native American burial grounds, deserted WWII internment camps (where Japanese Americans were held during the war) and vast prison complexes. But in the end I decided to concentrate on locations that echoed the function of some of the ancient sites featured in Shadow Sites I and Shadow Sites II such as open-cast mines, industrial arable farms and military training sites. The fifth element of Groundworks is a re-mastered edition of my 16mm film Excavators (2010), featuring a group of ants building a nest in the sand. Going back to the issue of scale, one of the reasons I introduced this ‘real’ film element into the work was to set up a tension in the installation between the still and moving image and between the ‘microscopic’ view on the ground and the long-distanced cartographic view from the air. Many of the sites I photographed for Groundworks were redundant or disused and I became interested in how access to so much of the American Southwest continues to be restricted because it is home to both the Air Force and the Central Intelligence Agency’s unmanned drone programs. When I was researching possible locations to photograph I made use of the extensive online database of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, which even lists air bases from where drones are operated, most of which are located in desert landscapes strikingly similar to those that the drones are surveying more than 10,000 kilometres away. By shifting the focus from the Middle East to the American landscape in Groundworks, I was trying to draw on the similarities rather that the differences between these territories. Also, by putting the viewer in the position of the all-seeing drone I hope this returned gaze would allow us to scrutinise a landscape with which we are not so familiar. JR: For Groundworks you hide the monitors and, for Shadow Sites, you want to erase the screen. JA: Yes, although the Shadow Sites films are large-scale projections, I want the experience of viewing them to be immersive but not as comfortable as a cinematic experience. Hence my insistence on having the screen framed by the walls and floor and for the ceiling to slope down to meet the top of the image. This seems to create a slight sense of vertigo when viewing the films, as if one could fall into the screen. As for Groundworks, each of the five films is shown on a small monitor and the images are cropped, using a series of bespoke frames, in a range of geometric shapes including a square, circle and triangle. Because I have hidden the frame of the monitor and the movement in the films is so subtle, it seems at first that we are looking at a set of backlit light boxes rather than a series of screen-based films. So the intention is to raise questions about the medium as much as the image. I am also drawing attention to these geometric shapes in the landscape in order to emphasise just how common and universal they are. I have found them recurring in the footprints of temples, villas, forts, mines and field systems across time and place. JR: You’ve shot the Middle Eastern and the American Southwest. What landscape will feature in your next project? JA: As I mentioned earlier, I’m currently developing the third and final chapter of this work, which I’m shooting in the UK. I feel this is the remaining element in the triangle of geopolitical relationships I’ve been exploring in the Aesthetics project. A story that begins with the marriage of flight and photography at the start of the twentieth century and explores the consequences of Britain’s historic role in the formation of both the United States of America and the modern Middle East.