Moving images
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, apart from the hum of distant ships and groan of nearby music as lost to the land, and the naked eye, as the sound of human presence. A single photograph stands on grass caught between the tarmac with an image of sailors picked out in the dark by a single street lamp. A road passes overhead and disappears into the dead of night. Other detail lays dormant; The skeleton of building sites masked by the frazzled silhouette of trees. It is light from passing cars and a nearby hotels which give the only sign that life in Albania anchors such scenery to the ground while the rest sweeps gently toward the Adriatic.

The nautical image in question was taken by filmmaker Phill Niblock working his way along the Brazilian coastline (“Fishermen Brazil”, 1983). Along with his skeletal crew, he loaded camera film in relative isolation, picturing remoteness against a sea of people working in earnest. Now that image marks the start of an event that slowly unfolds over 24 hours. By 2 a.m the image will have gone. Night would have turned to day and no trace of it will exist, except for the odd footprint and tyre-mark; It will be as if the billboard that stood there never really existed.

Part exhibition and part performance, Moving Billboard spread throughout the Albanian landscape one day in late August, 2018. Twenty-four billboards gradually appeared for an hour at a time without warning, only for each one to vanish an hour later. All were placed in different settings, in full view of the local landscape or in places so remote they were lost to the casual passer-by.

The project was brainchild of DebatikCenter of Contemporary Art (DCCA) a nebulous group of artists and thinkers founded in 2003 whose inaugural performance also coincided with the 2nd Tirana Biennale in Albania’s capital. The performance, 10-minute ‘pavilion’, took place outside the biennale with flags from ‘non-invited’ countries designed to point out the lack of openness and apparent scale. “There is no space to exhibit”, noted founding member Armando Lulaj, “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 (…).” The group reconvened in 2017 developing this new project “to challenge again this attitude by going into the streets – the same as we did in 2003.”

Reflecting on the past provided the group with a way of thinking about the present. Albania’s Cold War past and present lack of cultural space meant the group were perfectly placed to invent a new cultural image for themselves. Artworks chosen from near and far made it possible to have the same conversation with the same degree of relevance and absurdity as elsewhere. Invasions from the West, corruption and contamination in the East, even man-made disasters, are suddenly part of a wider critical conversation as relevant to Albania’s cultural history as America, Afghanistan, Chernobyl or even Japan.

Meanwhile the privy, exclusiveness of Tirana’s Biennale only heightened that critical conversation they were keen to explore. The economy generated by the festival in its final days had strayed course, having ended years ago. While placing faith in political endorsements from behind closed doors, the festival had inadvertently divorced itself from its surroundings and DCCA were keen to bring back the space for artistic conversation to generate something unexpected and miraculous in the process. Perhaps even inclusive.

DCCA saw open space where art fairs of the past saw risk. “Albania is a very interesting country,” said Lulaj by email. “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 as much in the mind as in the eyes of someone passing through. Locations were chosen for proximity and reception, as visible from a car window as accessible by foot. Others were chosen for their distance and inaccessibility. Some were so remote that visiting them meant other sites would simply disappear within the hour.

These ‘limits’ placed on Moving Billboard expressed the exclusivity which irked the group, and compounded the realization that it would take more than shear willingness to walk a mountain trail, a highway at night or head into woodland to appreciate how isolated some pieces would become. It also meant coming to terms with the idea that parts of Moving Billboard would simple be unreachable.

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.

That unreachable sense of self defined each person involved. 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 represented worldly aspects on the blank face of a mobile billboard they recognized as vanishing from the face of a world they knew as their own.

Victor Strato, and his alter ego David Kampi, documented roads that vanished at night like crime scenes (“Fourteen already Exploded (F.R.I.P.G.T)”, 2018)along with the dead dogs and general loss of innocence that replaced them (“Politics of Language (a small amount of detail)”, 2018 and “Politics of Language (repeatedly going over the dog with the car)”, 2016). Pleurad Xhafa drew inspiration from the corruption inflicted on migrants seeking asylum (“Evidence”, 2018). Shpëtim Koloshi even reused messages from the local American embassy (“Security Message”, 2018) with cartoon characters placed miles from anywhere (“End Zone”, 2016) both pointing out the truth that intolerance is as local as it is imported.

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 billboard by Lulaj (“Replay”, 2038) that brought everything to an end the next day employed a short story by the late German writer Charlotte Berardt. Two women stand beside a tree in a forest somewhere in Europe. Both are coming to terms with their part in some tragic event, standing beside a tree bathed in light and “a bag filled to the brim”. Inspired by a dream, the tale served to conclude Moving Billboard by imagining the dream as the scene from a film about Albania in twenty years time. The significance of the shade from that tree would change while the land filled up, the consequence of which remained a mystery. In their own way, each Billboard documented the past and also stood as a marker for things to come. For now at least, more immediate concerns took precedence over what a future geo-social or political landscape might look like.

Akagi, a Japanese photographer living in Fukushima City is a prime example. His contribution “Fukushima Traces – “March 20, 2012”” was shown just outside Tirana in the early hours (3am to 4am) along the Rruga Xhanfize Keko highway. Fukushima Traces began as a photographic diary on March 11th, 2011 with Japan’s Great Tohoku Earthquake and tsunami triggering the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to erupt some 60km away. The surrounding exclusion zone meant towns within 20km were left deserted and almost impossible to revisit. 

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.

The photograph selected by Akagi and DebatikCenter had been taken the year after and showed a small radiation counter held just above the ground. The diary charts Akagi as life, in a sea of strangeness, attempts to return to normal. The sight of blue tarpaulin sheets filled with soil from playgrounds and trees stripped bare of bark and branches are a common sight. For some, including Akagi, this has become the vocabulary for modern life. It’s one way the long term affect of radiation is slowly being revealed and understood as symptoms also reveal the worst truth of all; those worst affected are yet to realize.

It’s an absurd image Akagi describes in stark contrast to his surroundings; grass rolled up like carpet; shopping baskets lined with rallying cries and propaganda of a sort (‘We Love Fukushima’, ‘Hang in There’); a landscape transformed by this language of signs masking an uncanny truth, “Decontamination in Progress”; along with that day’s radiation count shown beside the latest delicious thing to eat. “I have only a weak sensation that I am doing something,” he notes wearily on January 6th, 2013, with snacks wrapped in cellophane bearing eerie signs of encouragement; “Hang in there! Fukushima. Hot spring eggs.”  The situation would be comic if not so tragic.

Albania’s own relationship with radiation is also concerned with political interest, economic success and corruption. The fall of Communism in the early 1990s aided an economic boom for industries like construction. With prosperity came deception, and in late 2007 an industrial town at the heart of Albania discovered steelwork used apartment blocks had come from cheap radioactive iron imported from areas close to Chernobyl. Despite the furore, the scandal was soon forgotten. So too were the hundreds of thousands of people slowly poisoned by the structures they lived in. In an act of veiled secrecy, the photograph Akagi likened to a “foreign object” stood under the cover of darkness not far from TV Klan, one of Albania’s largest news channels on the outskirts of Tirana, as an act of defiant in the face of media reluctance.

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.

Lulaj along with sound artist Tim Shaw were given a photograph by five Uyghurs (ethnic Turkish from Eastern Central Asia) released from Guantanamo Bay and now living in Tirana which was transmitted by radio the day before resulting in the de-tuned image displayed between midday and 1pm. Some images took shape in the airwaves, others were lost to local landmarks. A site on the edge of Mali me Gropa (The Mountain with Holes) was home to filmmaker James Benning’s “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 taken inside the cabin Benning built in the hills of Val Verde, California, was modeled after one built by the reclusive writer Henry David Thoreau. Benning had decorated the walls with drawings by Bill Traylor, a self-taught outsider artist who began painting in his early 80s, resulting in a film transfixed by Traylor’s drawings just as Traylor had looked on and been mesmerized by a rural life slowly filled with an iconography of advertisements and automobiles. 

With Benning following in the footsteps of Traylor and Thoreau, his billboard reduced that cabin scene to a single frame now observing his own  scene of isolation and withdrawal from the world. In turn, the Albanian landscape from 4am to 5am, revivified Benning’s still image. Even if the landscape were obscured by darkness, bad weather or had been simply inaccessible, the idea it would inspire the possibility of change in sparse surroundings remained in the mind of those unable to reach the billboard in time.

If the image of an inaccessible place is left to a wandering mind to ponder, what of places that once thrived but no longer exist? A billboard shown between 5pm–6pm featured another image by Niblock for his documentary “Japan89”, 1989. It was originally part of his “The Movement of People Working” series and followed the daily habits of communities on the east coast of Japan near Sendai city and the southern coast of Hokkaido island that were later swept away by the earthquake and tsunami in 2011. 

A diptych image by Wolfgang Staehle taken in 2001 sat unceremoniously on the edge of some concrete edifice (8am–9am). Captured by pure chance, the image of the New York skyline with a clear sight of both the Twin Towers and World Trade Center came from live footage from two web cameras. The footage was originally part of an exhibition which opened on September 6th and was projected inside New York’s Postmasters Gallery alongside footage from two other web cameras; the Berlin Fernsehturm television tower and the Comburg monastery near Stuttgart. Each live recording continued when the scene captured in New York descended into chaos on September 11th, with a smoke-strewn image of New York now in Albania placed at its most awkward in the urban landscape.

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A native of New York and son of Czech immigrants, the architect John Hedjuk filled buildings with as much warmth as contradiction, matched only by his fondness for Martin Heidegger. One house he designed married the end of a relationship with Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, chilling its heart with a wall like an axe that split the home in two. “The world worlds …” Heidegger declared. “World is never an object that stands before us and can be seen. World is the ever-nonobjective to which we are subject.”  Despite the extreme self-awareness, each building remained emotionally mobile and symbolically detached.

His buildings were prone to forces greater than their own and animated in response. “They’re nomadic” Hedjuk said, “because we live in a nomadic time.”  In its state of animated awareness, the nomadic heart of Moving Billboard tied itself very carefully to geographies beyond its own. Sometimes that relationship was clear and obvious. At other times it was oblique and indirect. The connections formed encouraged every image to stretch further afield, which they did willingly; Each one stood sentinel with a measured knowledge of their new terrain as if thinking what visitors could only imagine; the crossing of territorial lines, the navigation of disasters near and far, waiting for the unimaginable. Reimagining the land with these moving images of human presence would constantly evolve, informed by the mind-fuck of Albania’s verdant 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.