Herman Asselberghs – For Now – eng

pieter van bogaert

pieter@amarona.be

for Herman Asselberghs: For Now, Mechelen, 2016
(nl)

For him

You want a film about him, but not really. Before him perhaps? And after him, for sure. But not about him. About what inspires him. About what he produces. About what was before him and what will be after him, but never about him. Never about the moment in which he comes together with him. Something about him that is not about him.

Something about nothing then? About the before and the after? Something about life and death? About the transition between life to death and – more difficult – from death to life: about the life that follows after death, the life that give pass on, das Nachleben, la survivance, the afterlife. About the life that continues on through the generations; about what happens between yourself and the world.

Something poetic perhaps. With words with no purpose. The words have no end, just like the something towards which he is always working. Like a writer who is no writer, a publisher who is no publisher. A thinker who is not an academic, but an amateur, a handyman who sooner works with friends than with professionals. He uses the work of others in just the way that he hopes others will use his work.

The reader as an extension of the author: that too is part of life after the work.

Here

Here: this is for you. Not about you, not after you, but for you. You like that – that play on words, toying with pieces of words, with time. The title of your first film, a.m./p.m., was translated in Dutch as voor en na: ‘before and after’. After Empire, the title of your major film, toys with ‘afterwards’ and ‘according to’. Place (before) becomes time (after) becomes inspiration (according). The title of your most recent film – once again – is not easy to translate: For Now. For now? For time as space? For the temporary, the fleeting? A moment in between other moments?

Tot hier. Up to here. That is what it becomes in Dutch. Time becomes place. Now becomes the world. Here becomes now.

Here and elsewhere. You head for Palestine: Birzeit, Ramallah, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron. You travel on to the other end of the Mediterranean, to the other side of the ocean: Portbou, New York. Places become clearer from a distance. From there, you can understand, grasp, see.

There

Long before there was an Israel, something prevented Walter Benjamin from going to Palestine. Close friends, Jews of course, just like himself, travelled there. Jewish organizations invited him. But there was always something in the way – a text that needed writing, a book that had to be read, a friend to be seen, a trip he had to make. But the thing that especially held him back was the coupling of a Jewish identity to a Jewish state, a Jewish nation.

Stand-in

You make your first film in English: the language for everyone and no-one. The woman speaking your words uses the first person. She regularly returns in later works. In the meantime, you also make films in Dutch. In these, the man who speaks in the first person will – unlike the woman – also appear in the image. In Speech Act, you present him as a middle-aged man, like yourself. He teaches, just like you. He talks about film, just like you. He becomes your stand-in, your alter ego.

I think of Beckett, who sometimes uses his own language, sometimes the language of someone else. You write and film yourself through the other.

Feuilleton

In 19th-century French journalism there was something like the feuilleton: short pieces, quick observations about small things. They were a distant predecessor of the leisure sections in today’s newspapers. In the 1920s, newspapers in Germany’s Weimar Republic refined the genre. There, these short articles were printed at the bottom of the page, in the margins of the big news stories, separated by a thick black line. Unter dem Strich: the news under the line. Der kleine Form or that which stands alongside the news: cultural criticism, instalments of longer literary texts, gossip, fashion announcements, aphorisms.

Walter Benjamin’s One Way Street is an example of der kleine Form: a collection of short texts written for newspapers, together ultimately constituting a book. It is a book in which the fragment is more important than the finished work. Improvisation counts more than skill, and the bits and pieces are more satisfying than the overall craftsmanship.

Der kleine Form depends on the anticipation of a sequel. It finds in fact its apex in television, the medium of your – of our – generation. At the time, it was perfectly normal to wait for a day, a week, even a year, for the next instalment. In the digital age, everything comes all at once – even television, in the form of binge watching. You know what it is when something continuously builds on what has come before, and what will come after.

The feuilleton is the format for After Empire, which you begin as Episode 1 and end with a promising ‘…to be continued’. For Now, your new film, is what takes place between those episodes, between the before and the after. And in fact, After Empire can be read as a sequel to a.m./p.m., with its open ending and the same first-person female voice. Watching words becoming a film: how those small bits and pieces come together to make up a story. It is always temporary, for now, never complete. This was before: what came before, the questions you ask to catch up with what’s next.

Each of these films can be read as an aphorism: small ideas in a larger story. It comes from the way you work, a method that finds inspiration in films (or fragments of films: 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle, by Jean-Luc Godard, for a.m./p.m.; or Avatar, by James Cameron, for Speech Act), in books (Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri’s Empire trilogy for After Empire; and all the books that you used and abused for a.m./p.m.), and other works (Questions, the performance by Eitan Efrat and Sirah Foighel Bruttman for This Was Before, or Mondophrenetic™, the work that you made together with Els Opsomer and Rony Vissers, for a.m./p.m.). It is inherent to the way you work, with friends, at home or in the city.

Constellation

All the stories that I forgot. The fragments come back of their own accord: a place, a moment, a situation, a gesture, a face, a feeling, a scent…. But the constellation is something I must put back together, time and time again. Or it creates itself, like a fragment amongst the other fragments: understanding the world as a feeling, a moment, an ecstasy. Religion, drugs, meditation or studying can help.

That configuration of the here and now, of the today and the back then, is something that Walter Benjamin calls a dialectic image. This is part of his mystical concept of history in which each ‘now’ is synchronized with another moment in time, just as every past can be read at a given moment. This results in ‘the now of recognisability’. For him, such a moment revealed the ‘dialectic at a standstill’. Just for one moment. And then it moves on.

Waiting

Travelling is waiting with the other: being together in the metro, the train, on the airplane. I share time. Waiting becomes expectation. In my thoughts, I am always somewhere else. I move myself elsewhere with my telephone, into my newspaper, into my book. I kill time.

In Ramallah, we wait for ten days. We travel every day in our heads (and the heads of the Palestinians).

Waiting puts me into the banality, into the everyday. I oscillate between here and somewhere else. Time becomes place. The silence of my waiting room and that of my destination open themselves like a new space. They give me something in which to move about. They make waiting bearable. I create a different space: that of myself.

Anyone who has experienced a silent film screening knows the feeling. The awkwardness is part of the pleasure. What is private is in what you share.

The repetition

The repetition, the ritual, the tiny differences. Landscapes return in Tel Aviv and Portbou. Actions repeat themselves in time. The gestures of Occupy are picked up by the Indignados, by Hart boven Hard, during Nuit Debout.

Filmmaker’s holiday

1974, 16mm, b/w & colour, sound, 37 min..

The filmer is two times eighteen. Is that a repetition too? Just as in the song by Dalida, Johan van der Keuken conducts a dialogue with someone half his age. He looks back to 18 years before, when he takes photographs with his grandfather. He looks back, at his earlier films, made with his friends, Ben, Remco, Lucebert. At himself: the photographs of that time, of his children, of life. His holiday takes him to a French village, where the mayor’s wife takes care of her husband, who suffers from Parkinson’s. It is a holiday in history. The postman talks about the war on television. There is a story about collaboration clinging to the woman next door. The newspaper reveals the events of the day: the collapse of the dictatorship in Greece, a year after that in Portugal.

His film is about then and now, about photography and film. It is about Roland Barthes’ ça a été, and the film as the only medium that can record the transition of life into death, according to André Bazin. It is about memory and what will be.

In 1974, you and I are twelve years old. Today, we are four and a half times twelve, and we look back at his film. About what was then now.

The unexpected

Always adapt your image to reality. Beer during Ramadan in Ramallah. Africans in the streets of Tel Aviv.

Pilgrimage for intellectuals

Portbou looks like a pilgrimage site for intellectuals. Rushes from your film make me think of the film in which Sirah and Eitan trace the trajectories of tourists in Portbou with fragments from YouTube: from leaving the train station to the arrival at the monument. This is also how the Israeli artist Dani Karavan has imagined the monument: as a route, a passage leading to that impressive view of the sea. Passages is also the name that he gives his work (and instead of calling it a monument, he refers to it as a gesture for Walter Benjamin, at the place where he stepped out of life in September 1940).

When Michael Taussig writes about his visit to Portbou, he uses the term ‘pilgrimage’, placing it in the cult of Benjamin’s grave. Here, death takes on greater meaning than life. Or in Benjaminian: it is death that gives authority to the storyteller. This is his story. The anthropologist writes about the discomfort of the experience – too sorrowful, too sentimental, too definitive – as he writes about the failed passage across the border, about the beauty of the place, and about the horror of history.

Because of bad timing (one day later, he would have had the papers required for his sad journey), the name change (the cemetery registery had changed Walter Benjamin into Benjamin Walter), the change of religion (the name reversal gave him a place in a Catholic, not a Jewish cemetery), the loss of identity (five years later, when the concession expired on his grave, the body was moved to an anonymous, common grave) and falsification (today there is a grave bearing his name, but its contents are in doubt), even with his own death, Benjamin writes the history of the losers, not the winners. It is as he has always wanted it. He died as he lived.

I think back on that uncomfortable feeling in Ramallah, 14 years ago. We are not tourists, because we are part of a cultural exchange. We have no clear objective, but are primarily curious. We want to see what others have seen before us. We will – equally predictably – discover something entirely different: both more and less. More everyday life and less spectacle. More of the history of the losers and less of that of the winners. That feeling of discomfort only goes away when you do something with it. You make a book, an exhibition, or a film, and try in this way to share what you have or have not seen: the image of history that disappears as soon as it appears.

Pixels

A selfie in Portbou. A tropical paradise in Times Square. Where does that irresistible attraction for the electronic image come from?

Loss of place

Television is looking from a distance. It brings things closer. After the Paris attacks in November 2015, there is a lockdown in Brussels. The city is deserted. I stay indoors and watch soldiers passing through my street on television. Minutes after the March 2016 attacks in Zaventem and the Maalbeek metro station, just three stations away from here, Martina sends an e-mail from Italy to ask if everything is okay. She places me at the centre of the events. I find myself in front of the TV, meanwhile looking online to see what is really happening.

In Walter Benjamin’s description of the aura as ‘a unique manifestation of distance, however close it may be’, Ariella Azoulay (in Death’s Showcase: The Power of Image in Contemporary Democracy) already sees an early accurate description of television. For Azoulay, Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ – one of the best-known and most quoted essays in the literature on art since the 1930s – is not about the loss of aura, but about something else: the loss of place.

An image without people

In a time when history seems to be moving from catastrophe to catastrophe, people are increasingly disappearing from view. Images of war show places, ruins, landscapes after the battle.

In the first photographs of the holy land, there are more ruins than people. Elias Sanbar presents them in Les Palestiniens. La photographie d’une terre et de son peuple de 1839 à nos jours. The few people we do see are posed, strategically placed, and consequently mostly iconic figures. Or they are moving, shadowy, or vague. This is because of the long exposure times in early 19th-century photography. It immediately helps establish a persistent image: the image of a land without people (for a people without a land).

Today, everything seems immediately visible via satellite. But even on these images, we see hardly any people. This is because of a technical restriction that photography has imposed upon itself, nearly 200 years after its invention. For reasons of privacy, the resolution of satellite images is limited to 50 cm per pixel. This of course fits into strategic choices that dehumanize the battlefield. The visible damage is damage to infrastructure.

There is no human to be seen in current satellite images, but the presence of man is evident everywhere. In the Anthropocean Age, human intervention has the power of volcanoes, earthquakes or shifting tectonic plates. Satellite images show the results of this development, from the extraction of raw materials to globalized trade. Ecologists see a warning here about climate change, about a world that is heading straight for environmental catastrophe. It is an image of a future in which, effectively, no human will be seen, but only the effects of their former presence.

In Israel and the occupied territories, satellite images are restricted to a full square metre per pixel.

A different bed

I have experienced it so often, yet it remains a strange experience: waking up in a different bed. That fleeting instant when you think, where am I? The faint panic and the reassurance that follows.

I dream

In 1961, in The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon writes:

The native is a being hemmed in; apartheid is simply one form of the division into compartments of the colonial world. The first thing which the native learns is to stay in his place, and not to go beyond certain limits. This is why the dreams of the native are always of muscular prowess; his dreams are of action and of aggression. I dream I am jumping, swimming, running, climbing; I dream that I burst out laughing, that I span a river in one stride, or that I am followed by a flood of motorcars which never catch up with me. During the period of colonization, the native never stops achieving his freedom from nine in the evening until six in the morning.

Do you remember Emily? We exhibited her work in Brussels after our meeting in Ramallah. In From Texas with Love, a car rides through a wide landscape, undisturbed. Emily asked different Palestinians what music they would play during an endless drive like this. The audience can select from the examples she compiled on the radio. You drive, and you drive, and you keep on driving. As in a dream.

Cold War

That sensation of a threat that is not (yet) there: the world feels it every day. That feeling of superiority that makes and breaks a society: it is still always a reality. The inability to see that people themselves create the fertile ground for the violence against which they want to protect themselves. Nothing has changed.

Experiencing distance

Aura: a unique manifestation of distance, however close it may be.

Pasolini’s dream of filming his gospel in the Holy Land vanishes the minute he arrives there. Or Depardon: he flies to New York to film the city. From far away, it seemed such a good idea. Once there, he is unable to capture it in an image. He looks around, watches the people and then returns from whence he came. The results are two beautiful films about the inachievable: Location Hunting in Palestine (1965)and New York, N.Y. (1986).

In Ramallah, we are welcomed with open arms. When we leave, they call after us: ‘Do come back; we are only an airplane ticket away.’ But our book and our exhibition about our stay there require distance. We have to go home, and the results only come two years later. It is a work about time: Time Suspended.

Jean-Luc Godard took five years to make his film about the Palestinians. It became a film about place: Here and elsewhere.

Time, suspended

The director of the museum in Norway thought your installation was so appropriate to your title: that suspended screen and the suspension of time.

Time does not stand still

So much has changed since 2002. At the time, Palestinians took secret routes from Ramallah to Bethlehem to avoid the checkpoints. Today, there is a wall that makes any uncontrolled movement impossible. Checkpoints were mud puddles in which you had to change taxis. Today they are organized like airport terminals. Yassir Arafat’s compound was in ruins. Today, it is where his mausoleum is located. Then, you learned to make a clear distinction between Palestinian refugee camps in the valley and the Jewish settlements up on the hills. Today, Palestinians build their own settlements in the hills around the city.

Searching for a landscape

In Location Hunting in Palestine, Pasolini searches for locations for his film about the gospel according to Matthew. At the time – in 1963 – he travelled to Palestine, then divided into Israeli and Jordanian sections. The border separating the two halves of the country ran right through Jerusalem.

Pasolini found a country that was undermining itself. The division ensured as much. The politics of settlements and the modernization in the Israeli section caused the history of the Holy Land to disappear behind colonies looking like Swiss villages, or behind residential towers like in every neo-capitalist city. On the other side was something that seemed too old and too decayed to be used for the film. Those ruins were still good enough for the Palestinian sub-proletariat. Even the faces of the impoverished Palestinians were too pure and too beautiful to be assailed by the words of the gospel. The only time when the biblical landscape actually revealed itself was in the desert, en route to the Dead Sea. But Pasolini could find landscapes such as these just as good in southern Italy, in Bari, Calabria or Sicily. It would be there where he would finally film his Gospel According to St. Matthew.

With a.m./p.m., after your stay in Palestine, you make a film with images of generic high-rise residential flats that could have been anywhere in the world. And also in For Now, the interchangeability of the images brings confusion: Tel Aviv reminds us of the news footage of refugees on the city squares of Athens, and images of Taybeh in the West Bank shifts seamlessly into the pastoral landscape around Portbou, at the other end of the Mediterranean Sea.

Pasolini’s problem was that the Palestinian landscape did not fit his imagination of the biblical land. He sought a reversal of the ruin, which could bring him to the unblemished land where Jesus was born.

The question, of course, is why Pasolini wanted to make a film of a gospel at all. Just as with Benjamin, we have the unusual mix of theology and politics: religious Marxism. Religion is that which unites, and politics is that which divides. This is why politics has so much difficulty with ecological questions. Ecology begins with the landscape.

Ruins in reverse

In Before and After: Documenting the Architecture of Disaster, by Eyal and Ines Weizman, I find a fragment from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse V. He reverses the bombing of Dresden into a moment of surreal beauty:

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes … When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.

Compensation

Behind the wall of the Mahmoud Darwich mausoleum, the old hills around Ramallah disappear beneath the new Palestinian apartment buildings. In the gardens around the mausoleum, there are plants from all over Palestine.

Lost nation

Long ago, you and Dieter made Lost Nation, a library with books about countries that no longer exist. At the time, you call yourselves Gojim5.1. Gojim is the plural of goj, Hebrew for ‘the people’, but which is today primarily used in the sense of being non-Jewish. Either you are Jewish or you belong to the people.

According to Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin in Exil et souveraineté, the wandering life, without a people, without a nation, is inherent to being Jewish. With the loss of the Temple, the Jews were also evicted from the Holy Land. Ever since, they have been living in the diaspora, in exile.

Strangely enough, I do not recall any books about Israel in your library. If living in exile is inherent to being Jewish, then it is difficult to understand that Zionism, in contrast to that singular characteristic, supports an exclusively Jewish nation. It is an impossible task: right from its beginning, Israel was a lost nation, doomed to disappear. A temporary country, eternally now, always just for the time being. It is a country that does everything in its power for a future that lies in the past.

It is here that one finds the tension between the religion of being Jewish and the politics of the nation. More than striving for a country, Zionism strives for a history. It is a journey in time, more than in space. For all of those centuries, Jews lived outside history, in an historic vacuum. From an ahistorical period in which time has remained suspended.

In order to re-create its own history, Zionism must first sweep away another history: that of the Palestinians. History becomes state: time becomes place. The only solution for this conflict is the removal of the dichotomies: between Jews and Arabs, between religious and secular. Only in this way can Israel in Palestine succeed in suspending the colonial relationships.

What now?

Place de la République, summer 2016. The cleaning crew is busy eradicating graffiti on pedestals and under their feet. They are the last remains of the last rebellion. Soon it will all once again be a perfectly proper urban square. It is the end of the Nuit Debout. What now?

The question remains hanging, just as it had after all those other moments of spontaneous rebellion. What now? From the beginning, it was the central issue for the Nuit Debout protesters that time had to be suspended, with the introduction and establishment of a new calendar. In your film, there are all those squares and – strangely enough – parks: Zucotti Park, Maximilian Park, Park Farm. The Occupy movement has departed, the refugees have been disposed of, but the community (whatever that might mean) of Park Farm still exists.

Should we look for the signs of rebellion there? In the everyday and not the spectacular? Is that why you also want images of Central Park, of Liberty Plaza or Place de la Liberté in your film? The places where nothing happens, where everything happens?

You know when I was first in Maximilian Park? Long before the refugees huddled out there, I went there after school to kill some time with your son. To look at the donkey and dig for worms at the compost heap to take back to the compost bin at home.

A stunning image

As I write, Samah sends me a recording of this story:

With major historical events, it seems always like the first question: where were you? Do you remember where you were on that particular day? For September 11th, I was walking up the stairs to my parents’ duplex house in Amman. My sister was watching the news. She’s like, ‘Did you hear?’ I hadn’t heard yet, and when I saw the news, the images were going over and over, the two planes crashing into the World Trade Centre. And all I could think of was, ‘Wow, that is a stunning image!’ It was beautiful, poetic, better than movies. So creative. Really, almost, in a strange way, enjoying the brilliance of it, the magnificence of it, the largeness, you know, if you are going to think big, the sky is the limit. I didn’t entertain the news for very long. I went in to take a shower. And as I was shampooing my hair, it slowly sank in that we’re fucked. We are absolutely, as a human race, but this particular region, we’re doomed.

Every history lets itself be reread at a different point in time.