An Image that Can Be Inhabited

— Lotte Arndt

Alejandra Riera, Enquête sur le/notre dehors (Valence-le-Haut) , still, view from the prison

Alejandra Riera, Enquête sur le/notre dehors (Valence-le-Haut) < 2007 - … >, still, view from the prison

“Culture, word and concept, derives from the Latin word colere—and means to inhabit. Therefore, to cultivate, includes to dwell, to stay, to take care, to tend and finally, to preserve.”[1]

“A border implies a relation. It says that people have met each other there, sometimes with violence, hate and contempt. And in spite of all that, they have brought about meaning. My multi-belonging carries meaning—it is a reminder to those who believe in the fixity of things, especially identities, that not only is the plant irreducible to its roots, but that these roots can be replanted and take hold in a new soil.”[2]

Enquête sur le/notre dehors—that could roughly translate as Inquiry on the/our outside—was initiated in response to an open call made by residents of Fontbarlettes, a neighborhood situated on the periphery of the southern French city of Valence, to overcome the area’s stigmatization. Deepening this initiative, across changing dialogical constellations, the enquête[3] continued for five years. Established alongside inhabitants of Valence-le-Haut in the Rhône-Alpes region, with many others in solidarity, the research aimed to produce “a collective image of the place that we live in.”

Based on collaborations conceived over the course of the encounters, Enquête traces processes of emergence—of words and images—that are part of a transformative work: it’s not a question of restoring a pre-given reality, but rather of collectively producing it. The two resulting objects, a voluminous book collecting research and statements[4] and a film by the same name, are both precisely dated.[5] This gives the sense of stumbling across a moment in research, which in turn testifies to Enquête’s constitutive incompleteness: it points towards openings, towards what lies outside the frame, towards the outside of images.[6]   

The book dedicates a chapter to each person that was involved, faithfully transcribing words and images. Alejandra Riera only appears in the rich and numerous “footnotes” that spread out across entire pages. On the other hand, in the film—edited in close dialogue with Marine Boulay—this collective thought emerges through a dense narrative woven in the back-and-forth Riera has with each participant. The whole process reserves a significant place for exchange: filming started at the beginning of regular encounters with a group of inhabitants, formed through these meetings, over the course of two years. Outside of visits to the city and region, the participants also watched films together, some of which informed their consequent invention of individual scenes. As in many of Riera’s projects, the coproduction of narratives is central. In a workshop on filming and editing, the participants reflected about their takes before appearing on camera. Save for rare exceptions, the delineations of each part was decided in an exchange between the artist and the inhabitants.

The film searches for a form able to resist the fixing of individual voices into roles, and their subsequent insertion into a typology. In this regard, Riera notes that “this place we inhabit far surpasses not only the limits of tower blocks and the apparatuses of power that come with them, but also those of the documentary, and images, that incessantly keep alive the phantasm of a redlined neighborhood where inhabitants are indefinitely interchangeable with these voiceless tower blocks without future, thinking, or the capacity to take flight.”[7] Beyond any utilitarian approach, habits, dreams, and relations are brought to the fore. It is a question of “uses and non-uses, of ways of dealing with life wherever one is, of creating a laboratory of fictional forms where what we have to say to the world, and to ourselves, is no longer made abject.”[8]

Stating that “we can’t give order to what is lacking,”[9] Enquête sur le/notre dehors looks for a visual language that rests neither on the assignment of an identity nor the authority of an architecture, but that allows a space of conversation. Avoiding the stereotypical imagery of social housing, often only depicted as constrictive, is one of the structural challenges of its representation. The film focuses instead on inhabitants’ practices and sensibilities. Images, complex and multivalent in their structure, wander, refusing to mirror the segregations of Valence’s urban geography—constructed on three plateaus on top of the Rhône—while continually questioning their violence.[10] The film sabotages, at each moment, a predictable logic of representation, making room instead for the emergence of dialogue, uses, and practices.

Double Gesture: To subtract from fixed representation and go beyond it

Enquête sur le/notre dehors is made up of multiple fragments and morsels. It is composed of constantly reframed wandering images; of polyvalent voices and practices. A micropolitics in the details is proposed, which seeks to pass under the biopolitical radar of managing populations. The editing overlays images with heterogeneous sounds that create a complex and discontinuous commentary. With a soundtrack that tends to suddenly cut off, what is further emphasized—producing both tensions and surprising resonances—is the simultaneity of disparate and sometimes dissonant singularities. Frontal shots of faces are rare in the film. Even less frequent are totalizing views of the city, with extractions and details of the panorama being privileged. At no point does the film tend towards an exhaustive, purportedly complete image of a place. Rather, it extols a fragmentary image, a “partial view.”[11]

Refusing to put the neighborhood on display, the starting point is rather the displacement of attention and processes. While no overview of dilapidated social housing in Fontbarlettes is contained in the film,[12] one night a group of participants who come from the suburb march into the center of Valence, reversing the movement. The nighttime obscurity, more than plunging the scenes into invisibility, reveals how buildings and locales are valorized by lighting, the mise en scène of bourgeois architectural patrimony: the bel étage,[13] the sculpted façades, the lights that illuminate from below, and the imported palm trees that embellish central places. In contrast, fencing and other anti-homeless apparatuses are lit from above, presenting an obstacle to anyone seeking a half-shadowy zone or corner of rest that could escape passing gazes. Confronting this deployment of luminosity that controls modes of use in the city and stresses its class structure, the nocturnal visit—protected by opacity—turns into an almost clandestine stroll. In this way, outside the official hours, the critical gaze of the group circulates with more ease.[14]

Throughout the film, the participants’ presence in movement, through gestures, in hands, feet, and bodies in action, or in semi-profile views, is privileged over frontal views. This choice recalls the canonical text of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, which shows how the stereotyped framing of subaltern speech prefigures it in a way that renders its contents inaudible.[15] As the recently deceased art critic Jean Fisher points out, the expectation entailed in stereotypical representations does not allow the racialized subject to express himself or herself without at the same time dismantling this expected role.[16] For a collective image of the place where we live to emerge, the film, in line with these positions, asserts that it is necessary to undo, through constant work, the conditioning by a preexistent framework.

For a particularly explicit and polemical example of the semantical displacements undertaken in the film, one can think of a sequence showing the vestiges of flames in bitumen, traces of social protest that resorted to fire, comparable to scars of tar. If the image of the burning car has become a media language trope for evoking tense suburban neighborhoods, in the film, on the contrary, it is brandished as a snub to contemporary art: the cover of Art Press appears for an instant depicting Pierre Ardouvin’s museum installation of a burnt car.[17] In this piece, destruction as a form of social protest becomes an artwork—and as such, as is suggested here, it is easily decontextualized, pacified, controlled. In Enquête, the image is modified with a Pop Art color effect, blurring the contours of bodies and objects. This maneuver avoids dwelling on the obvious. Interestingly, the loud colors of the image, that explode into contrasts nevertheless resist a Manichaean conception of social fabric and favor instead its depiction in “tones and declensions.” While this reflection on colors takes place at the level of sound, inspired by the considerations of Alain N. who worked as a colorist, the brightness of the image is gradually increased until the quasi-disappearance of the drawn line by the electrical wire of the railway (lines) in the sky. In the overwhelming whiteness, in the excess of light—which in French ties to les Lumièresthe philosophy of the bourgeois revolution, whose principles, as Rachid Z. states at another point in the film, no longer sound revolutionary today—the tones get lost and we are left blinded by this light. The film subtly articulates its skepti-cism of the rationalist pretense to see everything, opposing it to the fragment, the composed, the “partial view.”         

Nevertheless, Enquête does not claim, through its sole means, to make social scorn and its visual avatars disappear. Far from giving a “good image,” like the ones promised by publicity campaigns of cities trying to better their reputations, the film’s images demand that representations be questioned. There’s no comfortable position to be found: instead the procedure is gradual, following  the hypothesis that an image is capable of challenging social suffering without rewiring it. It activates the gaze, provoking doubt in what seems to be well-known or by proxy natural. In a constant interpolation of images—achieved through use of superimpositions, abrupt cuts and postproduction effects—the editing inserts irritations without stop. The images stay restless, alert and suspicious. By referencing what is out of scope, invisible, covered, or silenced, this approach takes no image to be total—it thereby produces an outside, which it itself points to. Constantly pensive, the film emerges between what it makes apparent and what it does not show. Riera speaks of her process as a “tension of images and texts that can render the place in between—that which is neither entirely imagistic nor textual—visible, thereby freeing up its possibilities. That is to say, partial views, when successful, can summon what is neither in the image nor text but is between, in the sense also of being on the underside, beyond the images and texts. It’s like a form of energy that makes them vibrate or go beyond the bias of what is represented or written.”     

In a scene shot inside the Valence central station, the image lingers on the gestures of a maintenance worker, a black woman. Her image appears at the beginning of the film, at the moment when one of the inhabitant-narrators, Pierre P., remembers arriving alongside other migrants at this station: “We know where we came from. I think that we can say today that we didn’t know at all where we were going”—his voice says, as the woman on the screen empties a metallic trash bin at the station entrance. Pierre P. reminds us of “the memory and forgetting,” of the train station patina of effacement, with its clinical and normalizing character. As he speaks, the woman reappears in the image, continuing her maintenance work in front of photo booths with the same smooth face of an advertising model pasted several times—a photoshopped white woman—who acts as the “standard” for reproducing photographs acceptable for identity papers. The normative violence of this representation is made clear through its disjuncture with the woman’s material reality at work. Yet the film upsets any essentialization that the  juxtaposition might have insinuated: the postproduction transforms the scene into its negative, reversing blacks and whites to produce a distancing and denaturalizing effect. At this visual breach, the voiceover starts to reflect on the collective viewing of films during the work on the film that brought art house films into the group’s discussion. In opposition to what would be an immutable social reality, what is proposed here is the coproduction of social experience, based on a practical work of shared translation between contexts.             

Again, this does not mean that stigmatization disappears from the images—it remains present, negatively. If the point is to find an image that destitutes abjectness, that undermines stereotype, that skirts stigmatization, these thought-images[18] dialectically convey what they seek to undo. Enquête instills a dialectic of subtraction, containing the violence of an initial stigmatization to then completely displace, détourne, and translate it into another register.

Contrasts—pushed to their limits through editing—are central to the film’s strategies of agitation. One scene shows a screening of passengers by SNCF security on a Valence station platform, filmed from an adjacent platform as a train passes. The view of the group only opens up in the short intervals between train cars and is even then hardly visible. Fréderic Chopin’s composition La Polonaise (op. 53), associated with bourgeois interiors more so than with executive power, accompanies this “classic” scene of police checkpoints at the train station. Sounds of wheels on the rails, a broken music box and a song fragment all jolt through the scene. By not surrendering the image of the search to authority, in overlapping these security measures waged against a racialized working class with Romantic music, the film critiques a tacit complicity of wealthy classes who are rarely exposed to this repressive power.   

Alejandra Riera,  Enquête sur le/notre dehors (Valence-le-Haut)  , still

Alejandra Riera, Enquête sur le/notre dehors (Valence-le-Haut) < 2007 - … > , still

Staying with the trouble: the discomfort of the artist

In her elaboration of the project, Riera constantly negotiates her approach of filming in a so-called “sensitive zone.”[19] In a territory familiar with police surveillance, the camera’s presence is far from anodyne. Here, an image is always potentially an image of surveillance or a piece of evidence for legal persecution.[20] As a consequence, artistic responsibility is always an issue and is maintained as a necessary trouble.[21] In this vein, one of the two feminine voiceovers mentions a graffiti wall tag spotted by her interlocutor, Riera, during a location scout in Paris: “Death to the artist. Artist = Cop.” The voiceover describes how desperate the artist was to desert this role: “She knew, she said ‘that a history of the present could not become information.’”   

The film warns against “capturing” images, asking instead how to film without running the risk of enclosure and congealment, without endangering the people who appear. In editing, a necessary distance from the filmed material is found, that at the same time acknowledges the power entailed in both silencing and letting exist. This raises the question of what gives value to the work of the film, which some participants themselves asked during filming.   

Alejandra Riera’s strategy is constructed between a partial retreat, a “soft” presence that lets participants make their own decisions during filming, and a strong signature editing style. The particularity of Riera’s work rests  in the relentless seeking to undo a positivist real and to escape from identitarian and spatial constraints at the level of both form and content.      

A short scene towards the end of the film is telling of her positioning. At the edge of a lake, beneath a weeping willow, Riera speaks to a man while he fishes and she films. Just as he is pictured in his leisure activity and not in his work as a city cleaner, Riera chooses not to respond to the question of where her accent comes from, answering by a simple “yes” to the inquiry: “You’re just passing through?” Here, the image grazes across the water followed by a long pause where the only sound heard is that of the mistral wind rustling the foliage of the weeping willow. It’s a recurring gesture in Riera’s practice to refuse marks of assigned belonging, be they raced or classed, so as to open up a space for subjectivities that can be deployed across these categorizations.

In a text about Riera’s work, the theorist Florent Perrier describes this approach as a “divestment of the artist,” a constant subtraction and questioning of artistic presence that at the same time does not abandon decision-making.[22] Building upon this idea, Riera’s positioning can be described in a double movement. Just as others in the film are not depicted in their work life, neither does she fulfill her professional role as an artist. Rather, her role is constantly complicated and rendered inoperative through a reshuffling of places of enunciation. This is done, however, without completely yielding to the research itself—the work is conducted collectively and in the film’s editing vanishing points unfurl.

“Slowness as method” is the description that Muriel Combes chooses in a text dedicated to Enquête: to force nothing, to listen, to let situations form, while maintaining an orientation driven by the research and desire to let what exceeds expectations arise—to start with a welcoming that also implies a positioning.  Through strong editorial choices, the montage allows individuals to resonate with the collective without losing their particularity. Stories are often translated into the third person and spoken with borrowed voices. Individuals become characters and the communal terrains are produced through dialogue. Rich in cinematographic references, literary citation, and polysemic imagery, the film conducts a work of translation that is in constant movement, carried by the desire for an elsewhere yet to be invented and sometimes, barely even accessible itself.   

To produce images and shared situations

Opposed to a “neutral” sociological approach that encyclopedically classifies inhabitants and their stories, Enquête intermingles with its subject and adapts images to their changing contexts of reception. The filming sought to produce  situations that could in turn transform practices. Take for instance the screenings proposed by the artist, which brought the participants together to watch films that were neither “expected nor chosen with any particular intention,” at a local spot in Fontbarlettes. All of the films shown question the production apparatuses of

documentary cinema: Chronique d’un été (1961) by Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch, Ici et ailleurs (1974) by Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville, Les mains négatives (1978) by Marguerite Duras, as well as the little-known short Le film sans figure (2008) by Habiba Zerarga.[23] For many of the participants, the wars of independence and postcolonial migrations resonated in the images. It is important that these cinematographic references were not an afterthought of the editing process, added to already completed scenes. These films were screened not with the intention to educate an audience foreign to their forms, but to be appropriated as tools for the concurrent work of Enquête. The film’s language develops out of these encounters, collective contributions, and Riera’s propositions, without accommodating itself to the expectations of an a priori audience. An exigent, reflexive film that is long, slow, and full of references, its wager is to displace rather than presuppose an audience’s criteria, tastes, and habits. It emphasizes that forms, by changing context, in turn raise new questions; like the trepidation with which Chronique d’un été addresses the Algerian War that it is a contemporary with; like the image of sweepers in Les mains négatives, that during its viewing, was found to be problematic. It is “impossible to resolve all the political problems in editing,” declares the voiceover. By making the blindspots of these classic films present, Enquête poses, in a roundabout way, the question of its own outside.

Beyond theoretical interrogations, the viewings gave place to readings of scenes that in turn enriched the film. One of the participants, Amel O., took inspiration from a scene from Ici et ailleurs when Godard and Miéville were in Palestine in 1970, shooting with militants from the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Returning to France to edit, the filmmakers learned that several of the people they had filmed had been killed. Reflection on conditions of image production partially replaced their initial subject—to foster further the cause of Palestinian liberation—and led to tackling what was left offscreen. Thus what enters into the field of vision instead are image manipulations and techniques that rendered invisible what did not fit into to the narrative, working in turn to silence the dissonant voices.

In Enquête, one scene entirely thought up by Amel O., makes direct reference to Ici et ailleurs. She reinterprets the scene where a proletarian family is watching TV news by inverting the roles of people in the space. One sees her from behind, sat on a sofa, the children at her side, with Ici et ailleurs playing on a computer in the background. Deciding herself how she is to be represented, she shows her body in semi-profile, head covered with a scarf and a text between her hands that she reads out loud. She asks: “Must a cause be victorious in order to be just?” While in Ici et ailleurs the TV news is figured as facilitating

a consumerist relation to the world, producing passivity in the face of wars and tragedies, and imposing submission to the dominant order by powerlessness, Madame O. puts herself in an active position. She watches Godardian cinema with a critical eye, commenting upon it and making it her own by appropriating its dispositifs and using them towards her own ends.

Enquête analyzes the production of images is asfor itself taking part in the social division of labor, where determined roles are often difficult to overcome. One participant, Mohammed B. concludes from the slow work of constant rewriting and erasing, that it might not be worth it to make a film. He thus decides not to appear on the screen. If “work” equals “constraint,” as many people in the film affirm, why add to it?

As a response, Enquête proposes that the work of the image—that is, to open up other spaces of thought, action and the transmission of non-miserablist memory—is essential to images of work. In one scene, surrounded by the colored pieces of a rubber puzzle designed for children to learn the digestive system’s organs—a sort of materialized “body without organs” as described by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari[24]—Daniel A. looks back on thirty years working in a slaughterhouse. This time left him with tinnitus, produced from stress and the elevated levels of sound. Images of the slaughterhouse’s industrial location appear in the form of little slides, barely legible and superimposed one on top of one another, as if it was necessary to compress them so as not to impose the immense crudity of their violence. The image does not silence this reality, but transposes it onto the space of Daniel A.’s dwelling, more marked by desire and dignity than by the constraint of waged labor.

In another register, the price of images is further questioned with reference to the 1957 film Appel by the recently deceased  Cécile Decugis,[25] probably the first realized on the situation of Algerian War refugees in Tunisia. Returning to France, Decugis received a five year sentence for renting her apartment to FLN militants, of which she served two at the Petite Roquette in Paris. Editor of Godard’s first short works, she shot with filmmakers René Vautier, Olga Poliakoff , and François Truffaut, but remains largely obscure today. As Godard was finishing Le Petit Soldat (1963), she was completing her prison sentence.[26] Using Habiba Zergara’s Film sans figure as a segue, Riera mentions Decugis’s story as one example among many repressions and censures that remain invisible. In this sense, approaching cinema “from the outside” means speaking of what does not become visible in the image, and of what each image produces: it is “impossible to edit without taking distance from the recorded images at the same time.” If in this necessary distance lies the space where the filmic narrative arises, however fragmented it may be, it is also there that the question of the appropriation of images must be asked, privileging one vision over another.

In a constant dialectical movement, visual propositions are made for a performative practice of the image. The shot of the prison wall is undoubtedly emblematic in this sense. At the time of the shooting, Valence prison was still in the city center. It has since been replaced by a carceral complex outside of the city that functions to group several of the region’s prisons into a massive repressive machine. The camera first focuses on the outside walls, the condemned doors, the barred openings and the cartels installed in between to prevent any contact with the prisoners. At the level of sound, a voice relays the health disorders prisoners face from the neglect of care, and how imprisonment generates social problems, notably through affective lacunae. The camera then starts to approach the cordoned wall until it reaches the impassable verticality, which prompts the image to turn horizontally, progressively opening a landscape of plant branches, mosses, and small plants that peek out of the old stone. The sky—the image’s vanishing point—becomes a horizon, an opening, a loophole. Details of the close-up open a potentially liberatory view, unsuspected from a distance. Here, the image incites a jailbreak: it visually overcomes the carceral wall, while proposing an alternative direction—that of rhizomatic connections, multiple branchings, and small plants that turn into an entire grove.

If it is a question of becoming subject in image and narrative, it is through the multiple voices that compose, sometimes discretely, the fabric of the film (like the reference made by one inhabitant to the four elements as mutually integrated, the film’s narrative is transversally structured). The last scene particularly stands out in this regard. The spectator is taken on a virtual tour through Valence, following the mouse as it jumps around the computer screen and passes over the names of streets, squares, and passages referenced throughout the film. Collapsing into rail and electrical lines, from the street names we understand where the soundtrack comes from: a large number of streets in Fontbarlettes are named after classical composers like Schubert, Mozart, and Beethoven, all of whom were sampled, in addition to Ninon Vallin, the singer who one of the neighborhood’s main tower blocks was dedicated to, which was demolished in 1984/85.[27] Yet again, no view of the whole is given and as soon as the map appears, the routes become scrambled. The city map—tool of mastery par excellence—is ultimately made unreadable by a scribble of lines that are rapidly drawn over the straight roads.

In the same way, the film hones in on details to then draw out their resistant possibilities. For example from a square plaque with the name Élisée Reclus (geographer, as the inscription details, but also anarchist which must be added) a reading of his text, Histoire d’un ruisseau ensues. In the text Reclus describes a military regiment bathing. The fascinated author observes their change from a uniformed disciplinary unit into a multiplicity of naked bodies, rubbing up against all the senses, freed from the army institutional command they are subjected to. The plaque in Reclus square trembles under the shadows of a tree rustled gently by the wind: this image is the last shot of the film, insinuating that the urban memorials, established by the city, themselves discretely resist any fixation of one meaning (like Reclus’s profession, which in this case omits his political position). At several moments, the read texts, or “citations without quotation marks” contribute to the filmic narrative’s non-linear, stratified composition that deepens the present, exploding topographical unity through multipleelsewheres and temporalities.[28]

Movement in Images

Enquête sur le/notre dehors both produces and watches a world in movement. Since every outside (dehors) presupposes an inside, and so a delimitation of the gaze, the film constantly traverses these division lines. It suggests that “the outside”—that which is produced as such by the categories of political authorities but also what lies outside the field of the image—is a constituting condition of the visible. If the outside is fragile, always threatened in turn with abandonment, it is also resistant, and the distancing from power makes it even more so. It participates in the dialectical movement of the image and in what is absent from the fugitive, dynamic configuration: the outside becomes visible only at the moment in which it has already eclipsed itself. In fact, in Enquête, things are always in the process of being made. Images are almost exclusively shot handheld, the camera is often kept quite low, aimed at bodies and gestures.

But the “outside” also derives from the city itself, from what arrived by way of movement, from what came from elsewhere: palm trees from China in the city center; the French word abricot derived from the Arab; the Maloya songs passed down from Réunion slaves; a Berber poem from the Rif mountains in Morocco that chronicles anti-colonial struggles while noting the absence of any traces of one of their leaders in history books, Abdelkrim El Khattabi; the Rhône river that snakes around the city, bringing with it the threat posed by the nuclear plants constructed on its shores[29]; the recurring motifs of train tracks, the station, the electrical wires of railways… Everything in the city—both its center and surrounding neighborhoods—is made from imports. Interior and exterior, here and elsewhere, prove themselves to be mutually constitutive, far from any idea of purity in structural separations between population demographics, or cultural practices, as only ever part of one place. This also implies that the encounters between here and elsewhere are not always deliberate: as several stories in the film recall, colonial conquest still painfully reverberates throughout postcolonial migrations, in economic hardship, or the marginalization of cultural practices. Violence exercised at a distance extend into the narratives of the close, where they are transformed, re-incarnated, pronounced or sketched discreetly into the details of practices or objects.

Mistrust of large-scale management

Without militantism, the film remains skeptical about large-scale management structures, whether public or private. This concerns power stations, especially uncontrollable technologies like nuclear power, industrial slaughterhouses, the governing law of profit and oppressive institutions like prisons.   

One scene, part of a series of scenes tracing the different forms of water flow, follows two managers responsible for Fontbarlettes water management sites. They explain how the machines work, the connections between pipes, the processes involved in either dirty or clean water. The two white-collar workers, speaking in the absence of the other workers, act as experts that perfectly fulfill their tasks. They’re among the rare interlocutors who speak on behalf of their métiers. In contrast to almost all the other scenes that forego frontal shots, concentrating instead on profiles, here the faces of the speakers are in full view. To emphasize the technical character of their words, their voices are cut and muted. Instead, the factual information they describe appears on intertitles with black backgrounds, borrowed from silent cinema. The cinematographic decision to cut their voices translates, quite directly, the functional quality of their speech. Their faces become masks.

However, while their subjectivities are not transmitted through their discourse, their hands testify to the affective and carnal relation they have with the piping, the pressing of buttons and opening of doors.[30] Their hands reveal in their gestures a vivid identification that thus surpasses whatever function the two men represent. At the level of touch full of affect, the filming goes beyond the nineteenth-century Luddite idea of machine domination.[31] Indeed, Riera’s way of filming the machines is reminiscent of early twentieth-century silent cinema—films like Metropolis or Les Temps Modernes—in which cities enslave their populations so as to better subject them to mechanical necessity. This allusion is not made lightly. Rather, the successive submission of labor under the increasing rhythms imposed by rapidly developing industrialization is one of the film’s transversal thematics. Here, water flow becomes an actor in its own right, while the people who manage it are merely functionaries. Present throughout the film is the aspiration to control the means of production, the critique of the alienation of work and the question of the place of artistic work in the social division of labor. Present and past are interwoven, which imbues the experiences of characters with historical weight.

Not stopping at the public management of wastewater, the film addresses the element of water in several forms, it follows habitants in the different stages of water management: when they go to a cleanup plant in Mauboule, to a wastewater treatment center, or, to the dam that prevents floods. But alternative forms of water use are also taken up. I will return to this.

More broadly, the film examines projects of modernization. Applying a critical method cherished by Karl Marx and Jean-Luc Godard, the voiceover exclaims, “It is technology that’s the problem and not its applications, but there is no technology without application.” One can think here of Frantz Fanon’s critique of the colonial construction of infrastructure as an argument for modernity: if the bridge or well did not come from an endogenous group, then better not to impose a technology that breeds dependence.[32] Faced with the idea of modernization as a model universally applicable to every society and situation, Fanon turns to the dynamics fostered through shared learning. For the author, technologies have to be housed in societies that can take control of them—that is, if they do not want to find themselves harmed by unruly effects.

While elements of a techno-skepticism are present in the film, it does not aim to position itself politically on modes of management. Rather, it seeks out a collective understanding of issues linked to infrastructure and elements. The film operates in a zone of interrogation, stirring up trouble, without drifting into anti-modernism. What it beseeches is to never lose sight of the human cost of modernization: workers died constructing the train lines that define Valence, a passing-through city, crisscrossed by electrical wires; like how the majority of the city’s inhabitants never see the invisible underground of wastewater, while for others the sewers are where they work, silently. While the cultural, social, and natural richness of Enquête portrays the outcomes of migrations and displacement happening at the margins of great infrastructural transformations, the film also remembers their human and natural cost as the invisible outside of technological development, inseparable from a “life damaged in its foundations. ”[33]

Through the interstices

Balancing with gestures of refusal and critique, the inquiry upholds a strong propositional will. As an alternative to the modernist constructions of the new city—to the administration of life, to urban planning, to the looming infrastructure, and to factory production—the film lets itself be carried by the minor knowledge of inhabitants, by the cultural inventions operative at the roaming edges of the city, by the elsewhere within the here. With deliberation, Enquête embraces interstitial and micropolitical spaces that compel secret, opaque practices and relations of proximity. This is also found in how the film approaches the production of images: constantly in movement, chest level, preventing a view from above, the camera looks for the fissures capable of opening spaces that appear to be closed. On the station floor, the feet of passengers pound down, their suitcases leaving traces and scuffs behind them. Between the city pavement slabs grow wild weeds. In the end there is not a single house, a space typically perceived as closed, that is not inhabited by plants, animals, and visitors, opening at many points. Emmanuel Levinas comes to mind, who speaks of the house as a key delimitation between interior and exterior: “The privileged role of the home does not consist in being the end of human activity but in being its condition, and in this sense its commencement. […] Simultaneously without and within, one goes forth outside from an inwardness [intimité]. Yet this inwardness opens up in a home which is situated in that outside—for the home, as a building, belongs to a world of objects.”[34] As hostile as architectural environments can be, where categories of race and class cement social roles, in the perspective proposed by Enquête, these spaces are also constituted by zones of friction and practices.     

The displacements, openings, antagonisms, and interrogations that the film provokes finds its material in what is already there, becoming visible only if one pays attention. To inquire in the sense of the film means to produce, to provoke; it is not a movement towards a passively waiting given to be “discovered,”[35] but a wager on what might surface with an attentive gaze, on what might be produced or hatched through encounters along the way—a subject in becoming. This working of the sensible brings to mind Jacques Rancière’s conception that “what an artistic intervention can produce, which is also the way it can be political, is a modification of the visible, of the ways of seeing and speaking, of feeling what is tolerable or intolerable. […] This is how I understand the politics of art: as a construction of sensible landscapes, as a formation of modes of seeing that deconstructs consensus while at the same time creating new possibilities and capacities.”[36]

To the management of life in modern cities, Enquête opposes minor know-ledge. This knowledge is not officially recognized—they are outlawed practices, ancestral know-how, techniques considered to be esoteric. The scene dedicated to Eliane and Michèle B.—two women housed in the surrounding area of Valence, where the TGV line and prefab commercial zones keep gnawing away at the terrain—deals with the recurring motif of water. The women wash the hair of two guests—Alejandra Riera among them—using buckets in lieu of running water and a plant-based substitutions in lieu of soap or industrial detergents. The used water is then given to the chickens who peck away in the field.

In close dialogue with this scene is one dedicated to the dowser Annie R. This woman from the nearby Ardèche region masters methods for locating springs. The camera follows her, filming at the level of the stomach, as she walks through the grass. Her practice is shown in its utter simplicity, presented as an alternative to capitalist productivity[37] and the city management of water (that was depicted as an alienated and masculine system). Working on formerly buried knowledge allows for the resurgence of spaces where resources such as cultivatable plants can become accessible again, outside commercial circulation. As Xavier H. and Myriam F. explain in the Fontbarlettes collective garden, it’s about “giving life to what has been covered in concrete.”

The editing gives an important role to nonhuman agents. It dedicates whole sequences to chickens that in turn become a leitmotif: the narrative moves from the industrial slaughterhouse to more free-range outdoor farming; from scenes of peaceful cohabitation with birds as pets, cherished by children, to a domestic slaughtering in a Fontbarlettes apartment—a know-how that is passed between generations of women. The calm gestures of the two women ensure a tranquil death, without any resistance from the chicken. These images of a practice that is outlawed in France—except for the slaughtering of small animals for domestic use—strongly contrasts with Daniel A.’s bloody narrative of a slaughterhouse’s everyday, marked by animals in panic, that struggle and scatter their guts everywhere, soaking the exhausted workers in blood, who are unnerved by the industrial death they administer at a mandated rhythm.   

Given his lifelong exhausting work at the slaughterhouse, Daniel A. only sees the alternative of a small-scale economy that would grant small producers the right to slaughter. Yet he is also concerned with automation that is leaving workers unemployed. Without the film ending on a militant note, Daniel A.’s statement nevertheless points to the incapacity of the current capitalist system to create viable forms of non-alienating work. Through the lens of people’s practices, the film searches for an alternative economy, looking to relations of proximity instead of industrial production, to the singular gestures of individuals more so than the management of large entities.

Informed by precocious nineteenth-century socialists, such as Charles Fourier, the film connects the question of work to the access of resources. It inquires into ownership and the means of production as obstructions of collective use. Just after a scene where three nighttime visitors look up at the Valence power plant—an important infrastructural function and thus a considerable concentration of power—a voiceover starts to recite passages from Thomas More’s Utopia that recounts the history of enclosures. With these demarcations introduced in the fifteenth century, communal lands were transformed into private fields, barring populations from both necessary resources and enjoyment. Through the privation of peasants from their land, the transformation of the common into the private, conditions were put in place for what would become wage labor.[38] Revolts flared in a fight to secure needs and satisfy hunger. As many studies these last decades have shown—one that draw lines between ecology, feminism, and anticapitalism[39]—this epoch also saw the witch hunt, where the knowledge of women in reproduction and land fertility were perceived as threats to a new system of exploitation.

The film insists upon the retrieval of knowledge that has been expropriated or forgotten over the centuries of constantly expanding capitalist production that in its wake largely consumes capacities of self-organization and culture. Still, the examples used are not immune from a kind of romanticism of small-scale industry. More than to point towards an alternative and generalizable model, the practices shared make it possible to understand that the separation of households from their resources, enclosing them in concrete units of life, has never been hermetic. Rather, these separations are traversed in every way by practical knowledge, memories, plants and animals brought from afar, by ancient time—they are the unforeseen in these locales, they are presences that allow an understanding of “here” to be always made through an intimate exchange with “elsewhere,” that no inside can exist without an outside and that the boundaries between spaces are much less fixed than they appear to be. It is in this sense that Enquête sur le/notre dehors—sustained by a desire for transversal linkages—produces images that call for openings, and alliances, by performing them. 

Translated from French by Anna De Filippi

View of a tree planted with the inhabitants, photograpy taken in 2016

View of a tree planted with the inhabitants, photograpy taken in 2016

  1. [1] Extract from the film-document Enquête sur le/notre dehors from July 15, 2012. The extract refers to a passage in Hannah Arendt’s “The Crisis in Culture: Its Social and Its Political Significance,” in Between Past and Future (New York: The Viking Press, 1961).
  2. [2] Léonora Miano, Habiter la frontière (Paris: L’arche, 2012). My translation (AD).
  3. [3] Translator’s note: In French, enquête has many senses: research, inquiry, investigation, survey. Respecting the term’s polysemy, I’ve chosen to keep it untranslated here.
  4. [4] In 2007 a group of inhabitants from the Fontbarlettes urban agriculture association Le Mat Drôme contacted Valérie Cudel, an intermediary for the Fondation de France, with the following  request: “We wish to uncover the ways in which our inhabitants have adapted to this constantly changing space.” They then called upon Alejandra Riera, who responds by expanding the group of inhabitants involved, as well as the stakes of the project.
  5. [5] NB: “à la date du 15 juillet 2012” refers to the film and “à la date du 24 avril 2012” refers to the book that was co-edited by the art center art3 (Valence) and Captures Editions.
  6. [6] Cf. the text by Muriel Combes on Riera, “La hantise des images,” of which extracts have been published in English under the title “Images that Haunt Us” in Afterall, vol. 36 (Summer 2014),   pp. 31–39. See also Florent Perrier, “Déssaisissement de l’artiste engagée. En réserve d’Alejandra Riera” in Recherches en esthétique, no. 19 (2014), pp. 101–109. Both texts propose rich interpretations of Riera’s work, broadly anchored in its manifestation as a book. While the two forms, book and film, are to be read together, the present text will focus exclusively on the film.
  7. [7] Enquête sur le/notre dehors (Valence-le-Haut) < 2007 - … > à la date du 24 avril 2012, une image de pensée du lieu qu’on habite, menée avec des habitant/es du quartier de Fontbarlettes, (Valence: Captures Editions/art3, 2012), p. 7.
  8. [8] Alejandra Riera, presentation of the film.
  9. [9] Unless otherwise indicated, the citations are taken from the film.
  10. [10] Regarding the subject of Fontbarlettes as a neighborhood, see the photographic work of Monique Derigibus, Tour de l’Europe, Valence le Haut, March-July, 1996. Enquête comments on Derigibus’s work throughout (see pages 34–35 of the book and the image plate on page 263). It was the first photographic work of the neighborhood—which, before the mobile phone, had been rarely photographed at all—Riera encountered. Derigibus resists photographic tropes of social housing and the “image” of the people who live there. She makes a series of building portraits, but systema-tically separates them from their inhabitants, whose portraits appear in the second half of the book.
  11. [11] At the beginning, Alejandra Riera proposes the concept of “partial views” to evoke her image-texts (photographs and captions): “It is a way of bringing attention to the between of images and text, of producing gaps. There’s something out of sight in ‘partial views.’ Going beyond images brings them closer to what they are able to set free. These singular vision-views weave together without making knots. They make place for discrepancies. They have a slow temporality. There’s no pretension of representation, but one of making present. These ‘partial views’ are at the same time themselves decentered—in the sense that they make reference to cohabitations, to links—and, by this same logic, they only emerge in the between. Far from implying a separate outside, they are fragments that contain the world (or worlds). ‘Partial views’ are attempts to forge a dialogue, to enter into relation.”

    The idea of “partial views” is also found in the “image-text” writings of Maquettes-sans-qualité à la date du 19 décembre 2004, fragments (p. 350), a series of editions Riera started in 1995 and would continue to make for a decade. This project consists of an “unedited form of discontinuous layouts of photographs and captions, texts, consulted film-documents and accounts of practices.” The original French version was never published; only circulating in dated copies and photocopied in fragments. The writing continued until 2004 and then was taken up again in 2007 and 2009. Thanks to Nuria Enguita, a Spanish version was published: Maquetas-sin-cualidad (en la fecha del 19 de diciembre de 2004, fragmentos) (Barcelona: Fondation Antoni Tàpies, 2005).

  12. [12] The book makes reference to the photographic work of Monique Deregibus that uses aerial views of the neighborhood (pp. 34–35). The construction of housing is raised in the exchange with Luc Fontaine. See in particular the notes 65–76 and the image plates 203–283.
  13. [13] This is the raised ground floor of a wealthy apartment building. The exterior is typically ornately decorated.
  14. [14] These scenes made me think of the three young anti-fascists in Peter Weiss’s novel, The Aesthetics of Resistance (1971–80), when they make a trip to Berlin. They analyze the façades of bourgeois buildings, recognizing mythic figures on their balconies and archways that workers from another time had built. The exertion of these workers forever lives on in the weight that these sculptures carry. Tacked onto façades to show the value of masters’ wealth, decades later their presence allows critical observers to carve out their own history—an aesthetics of resistance.
  15. [15] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Can the Subaltern Speak?: Reflections on the History of an Idea (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).
  16. [16] Jean Fisher, “Where I am Visible, I Cannot Speak. Cross-Cultural Practices and Multiculturalism,” in Inclusion/Exclusion (Graz: Dumont, 1996).
  17. [17] Pierre Ardouvin, Holidays (1999). Burned-out car, revolving bridge, light guns, sound track, light globes, carpet. 160 × 900 × 1200 cm, Collection MAC/VAL, Val-de-Marne Contemporary Art Museum.
  18. [18] Walter Benjamin, Images de pensée, translated from German by Jean-François Poirier and Jean Lacoste (Paris: Christian Bourgois, 2011).
  19. [19] In the French, zone sensible refers to an urban area defined by the French authorities to be a high-priority target for city policy. Cf. (AD)
  20. [20] See among other texts, Allan Sekula, “The Body and the Archive,” October, vol. 39 (Winter 1986), pp. 3–64; as well as the exhibition catalogue Fichés ? Photographie et identification du Second Empire aux années 60 (Paris: National Archives, 2011).
  21. [21] The feminist theorist Donna Haraway invites “staying with the trouble” when there are no simple answers to be found, or when certainties have been overturned. Cf. Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).
  22. [22] 22. Perrier, op. cit.
  23. [23] This last film was realized as a final project at Valence School of Art and Design. Video, silent, black and white, 5 minutes and 19 seconds, 2008. See notes 32–35 of the book.
  24. [24] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, L’Anti-Œdipe. Capitalisme et schizophrénie (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1972).
  25. [25] Cécile Decugis, Appel. Les réfugiés algériens en Tunisie, France/Algeria, black and white, 16 mm, 22 minutes, 1956–57 (with Hedi Ben Khelifa). See also notes 32–35 of Enquête sur le/notre dehors.
  26. [26] See p. 33 of the book.
  27. [27] See pp. 18, 41, 52, 65, 66, 67, 201, 267, 281 of the book Enquête sur le/notre dehors.
  28. [28] One finds citations from: Robert Musil, L’Homme sans qualités, 1930; Guy Debord, In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, in Œuvres cinématographiques complètes, 1952–78; E. E. Cummings, “deuxième inconférence,” in Je, six inconférences, 1953; Thomas More, L’Utopie, 1516; Hannah Arendt, La Crise de la Culture, 1961; Simone Weil, Réflexions sur les causes de la liberté et de l’oppression sociale, 1955; Alejandra Riera, maquettes-sans-qualité, < 1995 - ongoing >. Texts read include: Amel Osman on Ici et ailleurs; Zian, the anonymous Berber poem on Mohamed ben Abdelkrim El Khattabi, read by Badr El Hammami; Élisée Reclus, “Le bain,” chapter 8 in Histoire d’un ruisseau, 1869, read by Hafida Kada.
  29. [29] The region is at high risk of nuclear contamination. The Valence nuclear plants are cited on the following pages of the book: p. 12, Cruas, Tricastin site; pp. 23 and 146 regarding CERN; p. 157, Sahara, French nuclear test in southern Algeria; and image plates and captions on pp. 172, 183, 263, 185, 265, 217, including p. 297 on a Castor train that transports nuclear wastes; pp. 237 and 317; pp. 245 and 325 are on Fukushima.
  30. [30] Bringing to mind the analyses of “Expression of the Hands” in Harun Farocki’s homonymous film Der Ausdruck der Hände (1997).
  31. [31] In the struggle against this domination, machines had to be broken. Edward P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Pantheon Books, 1964).
  32. [32] Frantz Fanon, Les damnés de la terre (1961) (Paris: La Découverte, 2002.)
  33. [33] To take up the idea of Theodor W. Adorno in Minima moralia: Reflections From Damaged Life (London: Verso Books, 2010).
  34. [34] Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1969), p. 152. It is interesting to notice that the French word maison is here translated into “home” rather than “home.” Lingis’s gendering has been modified. (AD)
  35. [35] Cf. Michel Foucault’s critique of an objectivist conception of knowledge where “the object does not await in limbo the order that will free it and enable it to become embodied in a visible and prolix objectivity; it does not preexist itself, held back by some obstacle at the first edges of light. It exists under the positive conditions of a complex group of relations.” For the French version, cf. Michel Foucault, L’archéologie du savoir (Paris: Gallimard, 1969), p. 65, and for the English cf. The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language (New York: Harper Colophon, 1976), p. 45.
  36. [36] Jacques Rancière, Et tant pis pour les gens fatigués. Entretiens (Paris: Editions Amsterdam, 2009), p. 591.
  37. [37] Cf. Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation  (New York: Autonomedia, 2004).
  38. [38] Cf. Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, Commun. Essai sur la révolution au XXIe siècle (Paris: La Découverte, 2015).
  39. [39] Cf. the 1970s and 80s eco-feminist writings of Starhawk collected in Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex and Politics (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997) that was recently translated into French.

    See also Emilie Hache, especially Ce à quoi nous tenons. Propositions pour une écologie pragmatique (Paris: Les Empêcheurs de penser en rond, 2011).