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Vangjush Vellahu

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Temple of Vowels

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Fragments of Searching Thought

by Joerg Franzbecker

 

Fragments I

Where stories cut across the land

Vangjush Vellahu

Archive Books, Berlin, Germany 2018

 

 

First, there is a crackle: a needle tracing the groove of a record. The opening footage depicts a landscape in passing, backlit by the morning sun. The crackle is slowly drowned out by what is presumably a traditional song. After a few moments, the seeming innocence of the landscape—or rather, of our view of it— is broken by the subtitles. Before a word is spoken, they identify the region as Abkhazia, a frozen conflict zone located between Georgia and Russia. Despite the fact that the majority of the territory’s inhabitants identify Abkhazia as autonomous, it is only recog- nized by a marginal portion of the so-called United Nations and is de jure part of Georgia.

          As the camera traces the landscape, neither turning to look ahead nor behind, the opening sequence of the film sets the viewer in motion. The relationality of the landscape, which appears as a silhouette in the morning light, begins to take form. The scene cuts to an industrial plant, while a man, who we hear but never see, begins talking about Ochamchire. He speaks of the current situation and the changes that have occurred there over the years, citing possible reasons for them. The viewer hears it from the narrator’s perspective, his own situatedness. I wonder, would I like to know his age, at least approximately? Perhaps; in order to estimate if he speaks from experience or is retelling stories he has heard, when he says, for example, that the Georgians, Mingrelians, Greeks, Armenians and Russians had normal relations in the 1980s. But maybe this kind of information—an amplified visibility—would not, after all, dilute the opacity that these situations have for the viewer, as seen from the outside.

          According to the narrator, whose name is Astamur Kortava, Ochamchire once had a really happy city life. And now it looks like a dead city, the filmmaker adds. Simultaneous images of new ruins, of fragmented houses, are shown. Calmly filmed, they point to a violently vanished beauty, much like that evoked by nostalgia, when one looks back in grief at intimate things.

          Abkhazia After is one of six videos that make up Vangjush Vellahu’s series, Fragments I. Each video is approximately fifteen minutes long and documents a journey that the artist made to a differ- ent territory that identifies itself as an independent republic, but is not recognized as such by interna- tional law. He traveled to different places in and along the borders of these regions, visiting Abkhazia and Northern Cyprus in 2015, Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria in 2016, and South Ossetia and Kosovo in 2017.

          To me, Abkhazia After forms a prelude to Fragments I, which even the exhibition display cannot completely suspend, even though the series has neither a chronological order nor any other kind of structure, but rather is held together by a connectivity. This may be due to one’s own visual experience, but it also shows that every collection can be one of traces, which culminate in an open end.

          As Kortava reflects on politics, the war, and his personal situation, the video presents abandoned urban landscapes and city outskirts. The camera seems to be searching for a knowledge, which is inscribed into the architecture and the landscape, a knowledge that may differ from the narrator’s account. But this visual knowledge doesn’t contradict the narrative—rhythmically strung together, it seems to listen, continuously and calmly, complementing the dialogue in its own way. This remains the case even when Vellahu’s role changes and he, instead of merely replying to Kortava’s comments with questions, enters into a dialogue with him. They discuss the various implications of Abkhazia’s borders: to Georgia, to Russia. These are lines that divide and connect—sometimes in delineation, sometimes in cooperation—but ones that can never be disengaged from the respective other side.

          Of course, a bad neighbor is better than a good relative that lives far away, says the woman in and At the edge of Tskhinvali. She discusses the situation in South Ossetia with Vellahu. But her narrative, in which various time planes overlap, is marked by the conviction that, all in all, this neighbor is not that bad. She expresses hope that soon Georgians and Russian-backed South Ossetians will live together in peace, and that the situation will allow her to return to Tskhinvali, where she lived with her family until the last conflict broke out in 2008. The border— which obviously is difficult to cross—is also marked on a pictorial-narrative level. To start, for almost the entire duration of the film, the camera remains in a fixed position, from which it, for example, pans and zooms in on conspicuous border guards. The scenes are also periodically interrupted: the screen goes black and provides information about the filming location and cites the distance to Tskhinvali.

          In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certau considers the role that stories and oral history play in the creation of boundaries, suggesting that what the map cuts up, the story cuts across — and by cutting across, effectively forms connections. The same can be said of the relationship between the on-screen text and the images in the video.

          The camera’s perspective in Varosha, a silent town seems familiar when Vellahu pans across Varosha and later over the Cypriot coast. The narrative of the conscripted soldier from Northern Cyprus, who remains anonymous, bears similarities to Astamur Kortava’s account in Abkhazia After, in that both monologues weave the personal together with the political. The panning video image appears to be a stratigraphic search rather than a search in Spuren (meaning traces, tracks or clues). Admittedly, from an image-theoretical perspective, it might seem questionable to reduce this distinction to the result of the camera’s movement alone (what it frames and how, or the order of the images), because it also holds true for all of the videos in the series that the montages can not only be seen but also read; they are no longer naturally intertwined, but rather systematically incorporate false connections and changes to the camera angle, just like Deleuze’s stratigraphic image, found in The Time-Image.

          The writing of Edouard Glissant comes to mind here, specifically what he calls ambiguous thought (also known in English as archipelagic thought and referred to in the German translation as das Denken der Spur or tracing thought). But I am using his term associatively in an attempt to get closer to the structure of the Spur/trace. Nevertheless, Glissant’s objective was a different one. Derived from his examination of Creole, Glissant understands ambiguous thought to be an inductive process, that is neither dominating, nor systematic, nor imposing, but that will be perhaps become a non-system of intuitive, fragile, ambiguous thought, one that will be the most appropriate for the exceptional complexity and the exceptional diversity of the world that we live in. Here, Glissant touches on something that can be found in Vellahu’s video series. Glissant’s reflections on ambiguous thought were first published in 1995. During this time, war raged in Yugoslavia (1991– 2001). Later, we will see the consequences thereof in Fragments I.

          But first, back to Cyprus and the view of the open sea, which stands in for the appearance of the narrator as he reports that there was once peace between the ethnic Turks and Greeks in Cyprus—until the rulers of the Ottoman Empire sold it to Great Britain. With the sound of the sea in the background, the camera slowly pans across the coast and the skyline of Varosha; a slideshow of idealized postcard motifs of the same skyline form the close of the film. The slow camera pan indicates a present day that is defined by borders, but also romanticized in nostalgic postcards, at least for the sake of tourism. But before the film closes, we encounter a similarly glorified representation of the hills near Kyrenia (Girne), where the gigantic flags of both the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and Turkey are placed in the landscape. That same landscape was shown in the opening of the film as well, accompanied by the singing of the muezzin from the Lala Mustafa Paşa Mosque in Famagusta. But while the final sequence has a green tinge—reminiscent of analogue film— the opening sequence is tinted red.

          When it brackets a narrative, this kind of a framing device can be a clue for something. The frame can never be entirely disengaged from the story— however, it can throw the story off balance, like the boys that make an appearance in Agdam. What is your name? How old are you? Vellahu asks the boy in a short, dry dialogue marked by mutual curiosity. Then the camera cuts, and the viewer is once again set in motion. The picture is restless: filmed out of the window of a moving vehicle, it shows a landscape devastated by lone ruins. The atmospheric, wavy sound—this time clear, without crackling—does not seem able to produce an air of tranquility. After almost half of the video’s duration, a telephone con- versation is layered above the soundtrack. Vellahu inquires about the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh. The woman on the other end of the line reports back in the style of a correspondent; however, from the perspective of a Karabakhian. There is talk of the military conflicts between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan. The towns and villages in this frozen con- flict zone are apparently stuck in an unstable post-war period. The narrator seems to encompass a longer time period than the recorded images, which are heavily rooted in the present. And yet, the woman’s report and the footage form a nearly synchronous common narrative. Always emphasizing the word we, she is confident that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict—in which Russia, the US and Turkey also have an interest—can be resolved. But, she says, the various parties involved must look deeper into history and [the] historical roots [of the conflict] and take into consideration the historical and judicial truth. At the end of the video, we see two other boys in a play- ground. The filmmaker does not speak to them.

          The narrative in Vellahu’s Trans’nistria takes on a completely different form. His conversation partners in Tiraspol go unnamed. Moreover, the kind of probing visual thought that defines the other narratives found throughout Fragments I is absent. Instead, the artist follows the clues that his conversa- tion partners give him—by undermining them. No pictures of the KGB building, the voice says. And then the KGB building in Tiraspol is shown. As the filmmaker approaches the parliament, the voice says, do not come in front of Lenin and take a picture. The artist then films the statue from the front. This mischievous gesture, amplified by the fact that the artist is riding around with his camera mounted onto a bicycle, is amusing, but it has an utmost bitter aftertaste: in the end, these restrictions are still the status quo. This is only reinforced by the fact that the monopolistic corporation that dominates the country’s market—and has ties to the government —bears the name Sheriff.

          If Abkhazia After builds the prelude to Fragments I, then Field of Blackbirds forms a caesura. Filmed in various locations throughout Kosovo, it reads as an insertion or an intermediate commentary.

          The camera is purposefully directed. The video begins in medias res. It is shot from the inside of a moving bus, which travels through a city center. It focuses straight ahead, filming through the windshield, the perspective zoomed. There is a cut, and then we see a boy playing a darbuka (hand drum) in a square. Here the sound is not a distant, added Spur, but rather part of the scene; encounters and conversations no longer take place in the off-screen, but rather on both sides of the camera. Public life is physical and more actual. The protagonists are audible, at times visible: present.

          It is told by a man whose name is Naser Shatrolli. He seems calm and reflective. Right away, he starts to speak about concrete and imaginary walls. Walls that divide and delineate political and private territories and influence the current generation. Shatrolli interprets the walls to be the result of fear: a fear that the enemy might move in, a fear which yearns for tradition. He longs for the arrival of a generation that does not see history as a mistake, as a wall, as an obstacle—a generation that can overcome these barriers. As the overcast landscape fades into a city view, I imagine a generation that thinks in diversity, but also in discontinuities. However, the video also suggests that this will not come to pass overnight. Visionary thoughts take time to develop in a postwar period, in which survival is the primary concern. Shatrolli’s perspective on history, as both a trace and a form of ambiguous thought, seems more open and fragile than Ani Harutyuyan’s, the narrator from the video Agdam; Harutyuyan seems bent on conveying a certain truth.

          The camera turns to a different town. In the same calm tone, Shatrolli talks about the place where he grew up and cannot recall there having been any tension with the Serbs. Even so, from the perspective of the narrator, they are the Other. These two statements are not mutually exclusive—even if Shatrolli misses a diversity for Albanians in Kosovo that is found in other nations and which might serve as a model for this region’s future. The thinking of a multiplicity does not dissolve diversity; it thinks with it.

          In Field of Blackbirds, a series of faster cuts follows: a scene featuring the outskirts of the town jumps to the town in the outskirts, and then back to the town. The images are filled with symbols, symbols that either point to or point out something. It seems that the filmmaker has captured them knowingly.

          Eventually the camera audibly zooms in and out on a girl begging for money, who is holding her baby sister in her arms. Vellahu enters into a conversation with her. There is an imbalance to their interactions. It differs from the imbalance one would generally expect between a traveler and a local. Is it because Vellahu, who hails from Albania, also claims his own social space in relation to or in separation from others?

          This scene reflects the tension of Fragments I. It is one that is nurtured by the protagonists. There are only a few moments of actual clarity. Contradictions go unreconciled and the protagonists themselves are allowed to remain opaque. They are as opaque as the described situations that they find themselves in. In this way, the deliberately inserted symbols become part of an open and opening trace.

          But, I wonder, where will their wishes and desires—and the wishes and desires of those for whom they speak—lead? To the creation of new borders and new states, with stories of a shared origin developed by authorities and residents in tandem? Or perhaps to something that opens up and builds on their own experience of non-recognition? Something comparable to Glissant’s ambiguous thought?

          My question is not addressed to the narrators; it seeks no direct answer. Rather, it points to a distinct characteristic of Fragments I: the videos are marked by a knowledge that incorporates not only undisciplined, but also fragile traces, which Vellahu places in relation to one another and to himself; it is a kind of knowledge that is not only designed to be shared with an uninformed outside, but also willingly holds onto a tension and, thus, refuses to satisfy the viewer’s thought process, instead keeping it suspended.

          Seen in Glissant’s terms, in the video series Fragments I, the landscape stops being merely decorative or supportive and emerges as a full character. Describing the landscape is not enough. The individual, the community, and the land are inextricable in the process of creating history. The landscape is a character in this process.

 

If I have only hinted at the political conditions and ongoing disputes in these regions, it is in part due to my position as a white, Western European man, whose generation was never directly impacted by this kind of political and social instability. I am thus only able to speak from a distance. But it is also due to the fact that, before seeing Fragments I, I had only a vague idea about the territories that it explores, even from mass media. And so, Fragments I has not only been my introduction to these regions, but I also perceive the videos to be an accumulation of factual traces, which remain indispensable to me in my description of the local conditions.