The Aesthetics of Disappearance: Conversation with Jananne Al-Ani

From RES: Art World/World Art no. 7, June 2011

Jananne Al-Ani: from the films Shadow Sites, 2010-11

Rachel Withers: Jananne, you’ve been working for the last three years on a project that you’ve called The Aesthetics of Disappearance: a Land without People. It comprises both still and moving-image works, and I’d like to invite you to talk about three of the moving-image pieces: Shadow Sites I (2010), Excavators (2010), and Shadow Sites II (2011).

The earlier of the Shadow Sites works comprises a series of fourteen filmed aerial sequences. All were made using a camera mounted on a light aircraft and angled directly down at the earth below, and when you first described the procedure to me I imagined that this point of view would be familiar, at least to an extent. But when I saw the screened work with its unwavering downward point of view, I realised that its cinematic perspective is actually quite unfamiliar and unusual, and also really mesmerising. Can you start by describing the nuts-and-bolts of this project: how you shot the footage and what it shows?

Jananne Al-Ani: Well, aerial filming can get very technically complicated, involving elaborate rigs, gyroscopic mounts and helicopters to achieve complex takes. But in this work I was interested in going back to the fundamentals of film and photography and so my approach was really quite simple. I’d been looking at early reconnaissance photography and film: in particular material in the Smithsonian Institution archives shot in 1918 by Edward Steichen, while he was serving in the US Aerial Expeditionary Force. The unit Steichen headed was responsible for photographing the Western Front towards the end of World War I, and I was amazed at the strange beauty of the photographs, taken by cumbersome large-format cameras mounted on small biplanes. I wanted to recapture that simplicity. So on Shadow Sites I I worked with a small crew including an aerial film and photography specialist and using relatively simple equipment: a Super 16mm film camera on a purpose built mount attached to the wing of a small Cessna, a light aircraft that’s in widespread use internationally.

The terrain you are looking at is in southern Jordan, an extraordinary place that is particularly interesting to me because it sits in a pivotal position, in between incredibly contentious and contested locations — just east of Israel and occupied Palestine, and sharing borders with Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Syria. It’s a very recently created nation state, yet historically it’s been a major crossroads for trade and a frontier between warring empires. And so it’s incredibly rich in archaeological sites, some very ancient. And that’s what you see in the films, from prehistoric remains, via Nabataean and Roman sites, to World War I trench systems, to present-day roads, buildings and agricultural developments. The trenches — built by Ottoman troops under German orders — are visually very distinctive and I used them to refer back to the Steichen images.

RW: The trenches are perversely very decorative — a striking moment in a succession of intriguing details that pique one’s curiosity. Thinking about the work in total, though, what intrigues me is the disembodied feeling of its point of view. Given the historically and politically loaded nature of the territory it’s showing, how might we interpret that perspective?

JA: Although in earlier film and video works I’ve adopted some methods that might be described as deconstructive filmmaking, where the viewer is made aware of the “constructed” nature of the film, in this new work I’m more concerned to replicate the consistent, mechanical view presented by reconnaissance footage. The point of view of the drone plane, for instance: an ever-present all-seeing eye surveilling terrain or moving over a battlefield. And that consistent look persists over many radically different types of site: from contemporary industrial farming facilities to exquisite ancient archaeological remains. Maintaining that consistent, disembodied quality was key. In the back of my mind when making this was Lessons of Darkness, Werner Herzog’s 1992 documentary on the first Gulf War, which includes some dramatic, sweeping helicopter shots showing the burning Kuwaiti oilfields. It’s an epic view of a catastrophic landscape. In a similar way, I was seeking a kind of seduction or beauty in the work. But on the other hand I wanted to avoid anything that felt operatic or over-indulgent.

RW: Can you contextualise this piece as regards the overall project, The Aesthetics of Disappearance:a Land without People? How does it reflect the key themes?

JA: This three-plus year long project takes the first part of its title from an essay by Paul Virilio in which he recounts how the early cinematographer George Méliès was filming in the street when his camera unexpectedly jammed. He managed to get it moving again, but by that time the people he’d been filming had moved on, so when he reviewed the footage he found he’d accidentally discovered a way to magically turn men into women or to make people disappear altogether. The optical effect depopulated the image, removed its inhabitants. So my project has to do with the relationship between cinema and photography, and war, because as Virilio demonstrates, most of the advances in lens-based processes have been a result of developments in military technologies. 

Virilio has also written extensively on the use of digital technology, aerial photography and satellite imagery during the 1991 Gulf War, which was a turning point in the history of war reportage. For me, the relationship between the long distance, ‘cartographic’ and depopulated images produced during that conflict and the 19th century Orientalist vision of the desert as an empty, unoccupied place was overwhelming. More generally, it’s the language of occupation and colonisation, expressing the idea that the target territory is empty, available space. So the second part of the title comes from one of the most enduring and contested mythologies of the early Zionist movement, that of Palestine being “a land without a people for a people without a land”.

Lastly I should point out that the title Shadow Sites is also a quote— it’s borrowed from the book Shadow Sites: Photography, Archaeology & the British Landscape 1927 – 1955, by the historian Kitty Hauser, a fantastic find for me. Although her focus is the British landscape and the crisis over constructions of national identity in the inter-war period, much of what she covers in the books regarding the development of aerial photography and its impact on the work of British artists has been of great interest to me. The actual term “shadow site” is borrowed from the field of aerial archaeology and refers to the practice of surveying landscapes from the air at dawn or dusk when the raking light serves to reveal low lying features on the ground – details that would otherwise remain invisible.

RW: In the light of that, your piece Excavators has an almost playful element, in that it shows ants as “archaeologists”, maybe.

JA: Yes; it’s another aerial view, but this time onto a tiny “site” in comparison with the Shadow Sites footage, and it is shown on a very small, postcard-sized monitor. We rigged a camera directly over the entrance to an ant colony, and in the final film you see the ants at work around a tiny hole in the sand – moving in and out of the hole and shifting the grains of sand around.

In that work and other experiments I was doing at the time, I was seeking ways of bringing together long-distance shots and macro-photographic details, the very large and the very small. I wanted to find ways of merging the two and creating ambiguities of scale. And although there may be something quite endearing in the tiny ants and their labours, my experiments with scale were informed by research I’d been doing into the media presentation of the 1991 Gulf War: for instance, from looking at aerial footage shot by US fighter pilots of trucks being targeted and blown off roads, the scale effectively reducing the targets to tiny, insect-like life forms. I wanted to look again at that mechanism and how it allows for the de-humanisation of the subject.

RW: Which Shadow Sites II clearly does. Can you describe it for us and sketch its many differences from the first Shadow Sites film?

JA: Shadow Sites II also shows landscape images but unlike the earlier work it’s constructed from a series of high-resolution digital photographs rather than film. Its point of view moves into rather than across the plane of the image: the camera zooms in, dropping continuously into the stills. Each zoom ends with a dissolve into the next image, so it’s almost as if one was continuously boring into the landscape. Colour-wise as well, Shadow Sites II is different: it’s not in full colour but graded so that each image is almost a sepia-toned monochrome.

My intention was to introduce further layers of ambiguity around geography and the material status of what one is looking at. The images might show snow or equally sandy desert. Some pictures feature autonomous objects in the landscape that are obviously contemporary; others look like archaeological sites, while others still show ploughed earth or rough terrain or stone walls, which are much more abstract. In those images in particular, an ambiguity of scale is much more present than in Shadow Sites I: the objects shown might be very large, or equally macro photographs of something very small.

Shadow Sites II is screened in a self-contained “back box” and the projection fills the entire wall, floor to ceiling, side to side, without any gap or frame. It generates an odd, vertiginous, sensation of descent or falling, a big contrast with the floating quality of Shadow Sites I. It’s a lot more immersive in its effect.

Both Shadow Sites pieces have soundtracks. In the first film, you hear subtle ambient sounds such as wind blowing and aircraft engines rising and falling in volume. Shadow Sites II has a more complex and less gentle soundscape, which includes recordings made on location such as industrial and mechanical sounds collected in and around the airport, and more natural sounds (wind blowing across sand, for instance). These were in turn mixed with a variety of other appropriated material, including audio recordings of contemporary military skirmishes and aerial bombing raids plus a range of natural sounds such as cattle, deer, vultures and other birds. Running through the entire film is a mechanical hum which peaks and dips in intensity and which is suggestive of the “eye in the sky” I talked about earlier: maybe a satellite, a fighter jet or an unmanned drone.

RW: Your pieces recapitulate this kind of dehumanising, and in its way dehumanised, point of view, but they don’t package it up neatly with any kind of contextualising gloss, determining viewers’ interpretations or telling them how they are supposed to evaluate the experience of the work.

JA: Well, at an earlier point in the project I toyed with the idea of introducing text into the work: in fact I dedicated a lot of effort to compiling unofficial eye-witness accounts from a wide range of historic and contemporary zones of conflict. In particular, I was considering the differences in the reporting of the first and second Gulf Wars: the revolution in telecommunications, the possibility in 2003 for those “on the ground” to transmit their experiences directly and immediately via digital means. I may yet do something with the material I collected, but it ultimately didn’t fit with what’s going on in these pieces. The material just seemed too explicit, somehow too sensational.

My guiding preoccupation was with the ways that the evidence of atrocity and genocide haunts the often beautiful landscapes into which the bodies of victims disappear. And therefore I felt my works needed to represent that subtle underlying presence and not make a travesty of it. It seems to me that the landscape itself often becomes the bearer of resilient and recurring memories and I hope my work is able to expose those signs of loss and perhaps offer the possibility of survival and redemption.


First published in RES: Art World/World Art no. 7, June 2011, pp. 36-44


Text © Rachel Withers and Res: Art World/World Art 2011. Images © the artist.