pieter van bogaert
for AAIR, 2019
(lees verder in het Nederlands)
A Window in the World
Looking at Lina Laraki’s PLANT.MOV
For André Bazin, the great film critic and inspirer of the French Nouvelle Vague, film offers a window on the world. It allows you to look at the world without moving. Film as unmoved mover, so to speak. A cinephile, Bazin loved cinema, yet at the same time he strove towards its end; awaiting the moment when film and reality would merge, such that film would represent reality unambiguously, rendering cinematic techniques -photography, editing, postproduction,…- superfluous.
Sixty years later, Lina Laraki appears to cut up, double, and twist Bazin’s dictum. For her, film is a window. Period. And this window stands in the world. Always in the middle. From there, she peers inside and outside. Because Lina Laraki’s window reflects. It is a frame for looking through, but also a mirror that returns the image. With her, you look at the world through yourself and at yourself through the world. From outside to inside and back again. This makes film an invaluable and absolutely cherished technology. Here, cinephilia is no longer looking forward to its end. The end no longer lies before us, but behind us. And the technology of film helps us to see and understand where.
For Lina Laraki, film is a space in which to move. This is what happens in PLANT.MOV. Her title’s extension leaves little doubt: this is a film, and clearly one from the digital age. Taking away that doubt, however, she introduces a new ambiguity. Are we looking at a plant as a film? Or is this a film as a plant? Plantfilm or filmplant? Perhaps this is not so important since what matters is the reversal that opens up another space for reading, the potential to move.
And in a sense, it makes what we see here so Bazinian. Despite the unlikely connection, Lina Laraki comes off as a distant heiress of the French film critic. How else to think of a plant than as an unmoved mover (like film) in the arms of the last observer (such as the cinephile who cherishes film, protects it, but also always has the last word). Perhaps this is really the moment wherein film and reality, reality as film (and as a plant) coincide. This film offers a space in which to move: a walk through the city either from the vantage of your lazy chair or the pot under your butt, and importantly: a move towards a time (future, present, past) which is no longer or not yet. This makes her film a metafilm. Bazinianner than Bazin. Metabazin.
The window here is not a frontier (as with Bazin) where the world (or the film) begins and ends. The window stands in the middle of the space, like a mediator, an intermediary, between inside and outside. The window is at the center of this film in which Lina Laraki keeps looking for those connecting holes in the walls that allow you to look inside and out, those transparent surfaces that permit you to look back. The window as see-through and as a mirror. Do we not get at the core of what film is there? A medium that shows and looks back? A medium where both looks meet and distort each other in both directions? The window as a carrier of a chemical process? It all comes together in the texture of those beautiful images on Super 8, in the texture of the grain of the film emulsion, the texture of the reflection in the windows that she looks for with her camera.
By using Super 8 film, Lina Laraki explicitly chooses a medium from the past (and not unimportantly: for amateurs) to look at the future. Because that is what this film after the end is about, this film from the last observer; this film about the future that lies behind us, about this futur antérieur. More than just a metafilm (a film about film/windows/unmoved moving), this is a science fiction film (a film which dares to exaggerate the world as it is in order to understand what’s coming) and even more a fantasy film (a film that captures the imagination, putting fantasy to work). Beyond Bazin, this film makes me think of Tarkovsky (the journey in space and time in Solaris, the ‘zone’ as a place that doesn’t exist, yet does, in Stalker) or Wenders (the angel in Der Himmel über Berlin as the last observer and protector, the angel who is always present but not really).
Glancing back towards a future that is not yet; looking beyond the “amnesia for a future to come” is the essential condition for those who really want to be ecological today, the essential condition to think about the real ecological catastrophe coming our way, to see beyond the end. For that, we need cinema, that is what science fiction is for, therein resides the power of the imagination: to think what becomes and to see beyond what is.
PLANT.MOV is a film like a world, like a cosmos. This plant (as film) and that film (as plant) are metaphors for the world. Potted (canned) yet adrift (in motion), this plant/film is in exile. This joins this filmplant with “her,” the figure who steps through the film/world/cosmos with the pot in her arms. Both are in exile: “potted yet adrift.” From the shrubs, they look together towards the city on the other side of the river. They go there, wandering through the streets, looking through and in the windows, noticing the plants left behind (in exile: cacti and yucas in Antwerp houses) and themselves. The space, the foil, and the plastic covering the plants find an echo in the plastic pot at the bottom of the plant. Together they form the remnants of consumer society, from an attention economy so fleeting that its most important product is trash, left behind to roam the city and the world.
That is how Lina Laraki turns herself into a plant/film and this PLANT.MOV into an oneiric self-portrait. Long before this film, she played, with the invented word “arabre”, a cross between the French arbre (for tree) and Arabe (for Arabian). This sounds like a magic word in a fairy tale that changes one reality into another. It recalls Slavoj Žižek who at a certain moment (in his In Defense of Lost Causes) describes people as symbolic plants. He refers there to Hegel’s notion of plant roots as entrails, which in contrast to the animal, the plant has externalized, plunging them into the earth to prevent it from cutting itself free from its roots and roaming where it will. Isn’t this what happens with technology, such as artificial intelligence (AI) that binds plants and people in PLANT.MOV? Isn’t AI like our externalized entrails that provide a grip on the world? Isn’t this precisely the challenge of AI to make the transition from plant to animal and to plunge us into the abyss of liberty. Post-human, post-plant, post-nature…
There is another term that fits this eternal return of what resembles: post-memory, or the memory of ancestors that live on through generations after them. And isn’t this the theme that keeps returning in each new Lina Laraki film? The way she searches for herself through her conversation with Abdelaziz in Entretien 0.0, the access that Abdelaziz searches in himself through the world of the other (as man among men, father among children, guardian in the street, or son of a mother). The way in which she appropriates the freedom to speak about herself as distinct from an established Arabic discourse in Atlas of the Elements, through the dream, the incarnate, the gesture. Or the way (in La Palestine comme geste) in which she looks from Amman at Palestine as a metaphor, gesture, method and state (of being, which we carry within us and can always be reactivated), but also the body as a place that not only traverses the country, but is also crossed by the country. Post-memory also, as a rejection of the one-way narrative, as in Si02 her film in reverse that opens with the words of a child: “When I dream, I am planted in my head.” Isn’t this what happens in PLANT.MOV wherein Lina Laraki films herself planted in her head and in her dream? Or the way in which she (re)creates in Karama (Dignity) a people for this earth out of a people who are missing: a question of putting yourself on the map again; always again in the world, rooted wherever you are.
Gilles Deleuze discusses the idea of the missing people (that comes back in Lina Laraki’s notes on Karama) towards the end of Cinema 2: The Time-Image, where he writes about the cinema from the “third world” (Third Cinema: cinema of the in-between, as a mediator, which in a Kafkaesque sense works with the media, the language of another). There, the mass art of cinema becomes political art: in inventing a people who are not yet there, “le peuple à venir,” or a populace of artists, inventors, creators. It will invent its own language by speaking the language of another. So shall the people become themselves: “If the people are missing, if they break up into minorities, then I am the one who in the first place is a nation,” writes Deleuze. It is not the people who become artists, but the artist who takes the place of the people.
That idea of Deleuze leads once more to the idea of rooting in PLANT.MOV, to what is visible and what isn’t, what extends above and lies underground, to the tree and the rhizome. This is of course the starting point of A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy book that for a long time was read as a work of science fiction. This book that served as inspiration for the thinkers of the networked society that came later, the book that writes the future as something that lies behind us. Opposing the hierarchical thinking of trees growing vertically from roots, higher and higher in the air, Deleuze and Guattari set the image of the rhizome, which like the roots of the grass, spreads non-hierarchically and in different directions beneath the ground. That is how ten years before the advent of the Internet and the networked society, Deleuze and Guattari wrote about artificial intelligence that links us as plants with externalized entrails (a picture that comes close to the imaginative body without organs in A Thousand Plateaus) to provide guidance in an ever-moving network. It is this networked society that we paradoxically embrace every day via our smartphones and laptops, but simultaneously reject via our hesitant attitudes towards migrants: a wanted and an unwanted anchoring in the world via technology and nature that increasingly interconnects ideas, people and plants and is only strengthened by the influence of a changing climate in and of the world.
In this and earlier films, Lina Laraki casts herself as the archetype of a networked artist: always on the move, always connected via the rhizome to what is posthuman, post-plant, post-nature, or post-memory. All those things that she keeps carrying along, again in her role as artist-in-residence which brought her to Antwerp: potted, posted, sent. This film is her poste restante to the temporary residence that she left behind. The way she feels at home and not, “potted yet adrift”, in each of those places where she lives and works, between Casablanca and Amman, between London and Antwerp. It is in the recognizable generic images of frames, glass, plants with and without people behind windows, of the film. It is in the choice of those typical images that make a place what it is: the Scheldt, the pedestrian tunnel, the city towers, filmed thousands of times by filmmakers- professionals and amateurs- who proceed her. This makes Lina Laraki a full-blooded post-filmmaker, a filmmaker par excellence of the future that lies behind us.