Moving Billboard
Phill Niblock, Fishermen Brasil, 1983
Phill Niblock’s Fishermen Brasil, 1983, on a billboard on Rruga 940, Plepa, Durrës – Albania, between 1 AM – 2 AM.

Nothing really happens on Rruga 940 at 1 a.m. Nothing, except for the moan of nearby music and the hum of distant ships, lost to the land and naked eye as the sound of human presence. A single photograph of a boat is caught between a stretch of grass and tarmac, the image picked out by a solitary street lamp. A road overhead disappears into the dead of night. Other detail lays dormant; The skeleton of building sites masked by a frazzled silhouette of trees. It is light from passing cars and a nearby hotel that give the only sign that life here is anchored to the ground while the rest of Albania sweeps gently toward the Adriatic.

That single photograph Fishermen Brazil (1983) was taken by filmmaker Phill Niblock as he worked his way along the Brazilian coastline. With a skeletal crew in tow he loaded his camera with film in relative isolation, picturing the remoteness against people working the water. Now this image marks the start of an event slowly unfolding through 24 hours. By 2 a.m the image will have gone. Night will have turned to day with no sign that the image was there except the odd footprint and tyre mark. It will be as if the boat in the photograph never existed.

Moving Billboard as part exhibition and part performance was spread across Albania over the course of one day in late August, 2018. Twenty-four billboards appeared without warning for an hour at a time. All were placed in different locations in full view of the local landscape, in places so remote they were all but lost to the casual passer-by.

The project was the brainchild of the DebatikCenter of Contemporary Art (DCCA), a nebulous group of artists and thinkers founded in 2003 whose first performance that year coincided with the 2nd Tirana Biennale and featured flags from countries not invited, parading the event’s lack of apparent openness and ambition. “There is no space to exhibit”, noted founding member Armando Lulaj by email, “no critique is allowed, and all the important spaces like the National Gallery of Art and the Centre for Openness and Dialogue, controlled by politics obviously do not deal with these issues and more precisely with this kind of art.” In 2017 DCCA regrouped, “to once again challenge this attitude by going into the streets.”

Reflecting on the past provided the group with a way to think beyond the present. Albania’s Cold War history and lack of cultural space meant they could draw on a wealth of material from around the world for a very different conversation as relevant and absurd as anywhere else. Invasions from the West, corruption and contamination in the East, even man-made disasters were suddenly part of a wider concern, as critical and relevant to Albania as it was America, Afghanistan, the Ukraine–Belarus border, North Korea and Japan.

The vacuum left by the now absent Biennale made that conversation more urgent. In its final days, the festival had fueled the local economy but that economy had stalled and was well and truly drifting. The festival had placed great faith in the art of formalizing handshakes and kickbacks but these divorced the event from the city and DCCA were intent on forming its own forum to generate something unexpected in its place, something miraculous and entirely inclusive.

“Albania is a very interesting country,” said Lulaj. “It is like a field where nothing seems to happen but, at the same time, anything could.” It was hoped scattering billboards far and wide would seed an event in the mind’s eye of someone passing through, as visible from a passing car as they were by foot. Other places were made vital by their distance and relative seclusion. Some were so remote that others would vanish without being seen at all.

Jin Jun, Burning a Jasper Johns, 2018
Jin Jun’s Burning a Jasper Johns, 2018, on a billboard on Rruga “Tirana”, Kukës – Albania, between 1 PM – 2 PM.

These ‘limits’ were like a handbrake slowing the event to a crawl, in contrast to the coercive handshakes wrestling expectation into being. But these limits came with the nagging doubt that it would take more than shear willingness to climb a mountain trail, walk a highway at night or head deep into woodland to appreciate the isolation. It meant coming to terms with the idea that parts of Moving Billboard would simple be unreachable. This limitation was shared by every invited artist, not just because of where they came from but because of the nature of their work. Photographer Shuji Akagi from Fukushima, Japan, the filmmaker James Benning and multi-media composer Phill Niblock, Victor Strato along with his alter ego David Kampi, writer Charlotte Beradt, sound artist Tim Shaw, Katherine Liberovskaya, Wolfgang Staehle, groups La Société Spectrale and UNDERGROUND MOVEMENT, Skarleta Hori, North Korean artist Jin Jun, Shpetim Koloshi, Armando Lulaj, Sokol Peçi, and Pleurad Xhafa; all drew on places they knew like the back of their hand, presenting a fistful of images making contact with every crevice and corner they could find.

Victor Strato (and his alter ego David Kampi) documented roads at night like a vanishing crime scene with Fourteen already Exploded (F.R.I.P.G.T) (2018) along with the roadkill and darkness in Politics of Language (repeatedly going over the dog with the car) (2016). Pleurad Xhafa drew from the corruption inflicted on migrants who sought asylum in Evidence (2018). Shpëtim Koloshi even mixed messages from the local American embassy in Security Message (2018) with cartoon characters in End Zone (2016) placing both in the middle of nowhere.

Charlotte Beradt & Armando Lulaj, Replay, 2038
Charlotte Beradt & Armando Lulaj’s Replay, 2038, on a billboard on Rruga “Bashkimi Europian”, Vorë – Albania, between 12 PM – 1 AM.

The last hour was given to Replay (2038) the billboard by Lulaj featuring a short story by the late German writer Charlotte Beradt. Two women stand beside a tree in a forest somewhere in Europe. Both are coming to terms with their part in some tragic event, accompanied by “a bag filled to the brim” bathed in light. Inspired by Beradt’s dream, Lulaj imagined the tale as a film set in a rich and prosperous Albania clinging to some unfathomable secret that would alter the land as it grew, risking its very prosperity. Each and every billboard stood as its own marker for things to come. But for now, the fallout from more recent events took precedence over how the land would alter and what people living there would do.

Shuji Akagi, a Japanese photographer living in Fukushima City, Japan contributed Fukushima Traces – March 20 (2012) to the outskirts of Tirana along the Rruga Xhanfize Keko highway in the early hours of 3am to 4am. His long term photographic diary began the day Fukushima’s Daiichi nuclear power plant exploded on March 11th, 2011 some 60km from the city. The surrounding exclusion zone meant towns within 20km of the plant were left deserted with packs of domesticated cats and dogs being the only denizens left to wander the streets in search of their own Watership Down.

Shuji Akagi, Fukushima Traces series, taken on March 20, 2012
A photograph from Shuji Akagi’s Fukushima Traces series, taken on March 20, 2012, in Fukushima City, on a billboard on Rruga “Xhanfize Keko”, Tirana – Albania, between 3 AM – 4 AM.

Akagi and DebatikCenter selected a photograph that had been taken in 2012 and showed a small radiation counter held just above the ground. Elsewhere, the topsoil from playgrounds wrapped in blue tarpaulin and trees stripped bare of bark are still a common sight. The frantic search for any surface free of radiation traced the lurch from an anxious normality to an urgent hyper-normality, waiting for the unimaginable. For Akagi, the unimaginable had become a vocabulary for modern life, slowly revealing symptoms of long-term radiation and the worst truth of all; those most affected are yet to realize.

It’s an absurd image he describes in stark contrast to his surroundings “I have only a weak sensation that I am doing something,” he notes wearily in his diary on January 6th, 2013, picturing rolled strips of carpet grass on barren earth; shopping baskets filled with slogans and stiff upper lips—“We Love Fukushima”, “Hang in There;” and signs of mute terror—“Decontamination in Progress,” while the rad count for that day is displayed next to the latest delicious thing to eat, suffocated in cellophane and covered in faint encouragement—“Hang in there! Fukushima. Hot spring eggs.”  The situation would be comic if it wasn’t so tragic.

Albania’s own relationship with radiation is a product of economic success and blatant corruption. The fall of Communism in the early 1990s aided an economic boom for local industry. Yet prosperity bred deception, and in late 2007 an industrial town at the heart of Albania discovered the steelwork in new housing had been cheaply imported from the Ukraine–Belarus border close to Chernobyl. Despite the understandable outrage, the scandal was soon forgotten. So were the people slowly poisoned by the structures they lived in. Akagi had likened his own photograph to a foreign object, so now it stood silently on the edge of Tirana staring at TV Klan, a local broadcaster that had been more eager to bury the truth than report the scandal.

Armando Lulaj and Tim Shaw Five (ex-Guantanamo-Bay-Detainees), 2018
Armando Lulaj and Tim Shaw’s Five (ex-Guantanamo Bay Detainees), 2018, an image transmitted and received for one hour using FM radio, on a billboard located in the park surrounding the artificial lake of Tirana, between 12 AM – 1 PM.

The sense of helplessness led to a collective malaise, an unconsciousness mood detuned and marooned by scandal after scandal, turning the language of secrecy and suspicion into a grammar of promises, of freedom and safe haven for this fledgling liberalized country, but freedom and safe haven for whom? Lulaj and sound artist Tim Shaw had been given a photograph by five ethnic Turkish Uyghur released from Guantanamo Bay and now living in Tirana. Lulaq and Shaw seized upon the idea of cross-channelling their migration with the photograph by transmitting it as a radio wave and displaying the retuned image that returned the next day between midday and 1pm. As this photographic gift of the Uyghur emerged from the airwaves and undergrowth, other images were happily lost beyond the city limits. The edge of Mali me Gropa (The Mountain with Holes) would temporarily home the filmmaker James Benning and his contribution, after Traylor. Thoreau cabin (2008).

James Benning’s after Traylor. Thoreau cabin, 2008, near Mali me Gropa (The Mountain with Holes), Bizë– Albania, between 4 AM – 5 AM.

The image on The Mountain with Holes came from Benning’s Two Cabins (2017-2018), structures built in the hills of Val Verde, California. Both were modeled on redoubts built by the reclusive writer Henry David Thoreau and the ‘Unabomber’ Ted Kaczynski, a mathematician and anarchist who used his own woodland retreat as a makeshift bomb factory. Moving Billboard focused on Benning’s Thoreau redoubt and a still image from his film of its interior. He decorated walls with paintings by the self-taught, outsider artist Bill Traylor just as Thoreau had done, and the resulting film was transfixed by Traylor just as Traylor had been mesmerized by rural America in the 1930s slowly overrun by advertisements and automobiles. To this ‘young’ 80-year old painter nothing could be more isolating than the image of change and disappearance, painting the view of rural life fading as the new world rushed in.

Benning’s billboard reduced that cabin scene, his own isolation and withdrawal from the world to a single frame picturing the mind of Thoreau and Traylor, revivified by the Balkan landscape between 4am and 5am. Even if the scrub had been obscured by darkness or if bad weather had made the walk impossible, the idea an image could inspire change in such difficult terrain hung like morning mist for anyone who struggled to make it there in time. The isolation cleared with daybreak as the image of places that no longer exist lingered. The billboard between 5pm and 6pm featured another image by Niblock, this time from the documentary “Japan89” part of his The Movement of People Working series following communities on the Japanese coastline later swept away by tsunami in 2011. Natural disasters have long affected these age-old communities, but images of manmade terrors are just as traumatic and unexpected.

A diptych by Wolfgang Staehle from 2001 sat unceremoniously on the edge of some concrete edifice in Tirana (8am–9am). Live film of New York with a clear view of the World Trade Center was broadcast as part of an exhibition at New York’s Postmasters Gallery, projected alongside two other live feeds from the Berliner Fernsehturm television tower and the Comburg Benedictine monastery near Stuttgart. All three continued playing as New York descended into chaos a week after the show opened on September 6th,. The image of a smoke-strewn Lower Manhattan refreshed every 10 seconds now sat at its most awkward in the Albanian urban landscape, just as the scene had been awkwardly conjoined by a towering communist symbol from Berlin and the steady stoicism of Comburg’s monastery.

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These images of fishermen without fish, dead dogs dreaming beside a dead tree, rad counts and boiled eggs, tower blocks rotting within, old photos carried across airwaves, plotting modernity from a woodland cabin, disappearing seaside towns and collapsing towers are not mutually exclusive: they’re relatable. “The world worlds …” says Heidegger (On the Origin of the Work of Art, 2008) “as long as the paths of birth and death, blessing and curse keep us transported”. Along a quiet stretch of Albanian highway artist Jin Jun left his Burning A Jasper Johns (2018) by the roadside, as much for the thrill of catching sight of his burning image. Jun’s version was a funeral pyre to Johns’ original Flag (1955) painting, more than cloth and hot wax with as much interest in Egyptian burial rites as it did the American dream. Johns is said to have seen himself paint the flag in a dream. But bringing that dream to life meant mummifying the canvas, embalming it in a deep sleep. Jun’s Burning A Jasper Johns (2018) would set the world on fire, cracking the sarcophagus, floating it on water, dousing in kerosene and setting alight. For every other Moving Billboard, origin was no longer important. The past was long gone and every step that brought this post-communist country into the present day was met by efforts to tether it to begrudgingly to the past. For Jun and every other person involved there was no country called home; no flag nor national anthem. Everything was destined to be nomadic.

The late architect John Hejduk, born in Czechoslovakia and raised in New York, was obsessed by the way contemporary architecture divorced itself from the very people it was for. One of his houses literally tore itself apart and started over, guided by the end of a relationship as well as Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), chilling the domicile heart with a wall slung like an axe splitting the house in two. Home was no longer a fixed address. Hejduk made sure of that. “They’re nomadic,” he says stretching the sound of ‘nomad’ to press his point home, “because we live in a nomadic time.”  The nomadic, relatable heart of Moving Billboard was tied carefully to geographies beyond its own. Some were clear and obvious. Others were skewed and adventurous. Each image willingly stretched out as every billboard stood sentinel relaying what visitors could only imagine; the crossing of territorial lines, navigating disasters near and far, waiting for the unimaginable. Looking at these moving images again changed the sight and sound of landfall for every gentile, violent, methodical, and impulsive person; each billboard picturing a world of awkward contradiction “where nothing seems to happen, but anything could”—an open space seeding the verdant mindfuck of Albania’s landscape.

Phill Niblock Japan89, 1989
Photographic documentation of the appearance of Phill Niblock’s Japan89, 1989, on a billboard on Rruga e Elbasanit, Tiranë – Albania, between 5 PM – 6 PM

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1. Akagi, S., (2015:100). Fukushima Traces 2011-2013. Japan: Osiris

2. Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art” (1935), quoted in Requiem for the Sun; The Art of Mono-ha (2012), 110

3. Michael Blackwood Productions., (2015). John Hejduk: Builder of Worlds [Online]. Vimeo [Viewed 14 Aug, 2018]. Available from: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/hejduk

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Images courtesy of DebatikCenter of Contemporary Art (DCCA) and respective artists.