The cities of the twenty-first century have become sites of dramatic social and economic transformations. Struggling under the weight of an unstable economy, which generates social unrest, Western urban centers are the background against which varying demographic realities play out. Defined as underprivileged geographical locales at the outskirts of an urban area, often beleaguered by social and economic problems, the periphery has become synonymous with social marginality, perceived as "a space imbued with a sense of insufficiency and incompletion." (Simone, AbdouMaliq, "At the Frontier of the Urban Periphery," in Sarai Reader 2007: Frontiers
, p. 462.)
In their art, Mohamed Bourouissa and Tobias Zielony investigate the condition of marginality, especially as made visible in the Western suburban context. Both artists practice primarily as photographers, creating compositions that reveal the social tensions inherent in life at the periphery. Representative of a young generation of artists turning their attention toward contemporary society, Bourouissa's and Zielony's imagery builds on the tradition of both documentary and portraiture photography. The videos and photographs in Live Cinema/Peripheral Stages
address the experience of marginality and question the circumstances that generate and propagate it. By immersing themselves in the social environment of a situation or location, the two artists produce works—often organized in series—that deal with the peripheral condition in a direct and thought-provoking manner. In the resulting images, representation becomes a form of resistance: Bourouissa negates the power of television screens to display and propagate information and uses cell phones as imagemaking devices capable of trespassing societal boundaries, while Zielony engages with decaying urban structures and the people who inhabit them.
French artist Mohamed Bourouissa (born Algeria 1978) is known for his staged group portraits of young people living in the suburbs of Paris, a familiar place for this artist, who lives and works in that city. In his series of photographs Périphérique
(2007–8), Bourouissa constructs everyday encounters in which he attempts to capture the imperceptible moments when tension peaks before a violent confrontation. In French, périphérique
has two meanings: "peripheral" as well as "ring road," as in the busy highway dividing central Paris from its suburbs. The subject matter of Bourouissa's staged scenes alludes to current events while directly referencing the dramatic narratives of history painting. The resulting images blur the lines between the real and the staged, and infuse this mundane locale with a sense of the heroic. A number of the photographs in the series, such as La République
(The Republic) (2006) and L'impasse
(The Blind Alley) (2007), relate directly to the civil unrest that took place in the Parisian suburbs in 2005. At the time, these events were presented in the mass media through a discriminating lens emphasizing the immigrant presence in the Parisian suburbs and casting it as a site of disobedience and dissent.
(The Reflection) (2007), one of the photographs from the Périphérique
series, captures the presence of a bent-over figure seated on an old television monitor that faces a makeshift wall built out of other discarded television and computer screens. Set against a backdrop of apartment buildings and placed on a raised concrete platform, the screens are reduced to reflecting surfaces, alienated from their function as information-output devices. The center of the composition is occupied by a larger smashed screen, whose reflective surface has been further reduced to shards and mangled parts. The screens, mostly old models, are a monument to the inherent obsolescence of technology as well as a commentary on the inconsistent and ephemeral presence the suburbs have in mass media and popular culture. Bourouissa, who explored the motif of the smashed television screen as early as 2007, has returned to his series Écrans
(Screens) in 2011. While his earlier photographs were nearly monochromatic, black and gray abstractions with white light pouring through the openings in the machines' back covers, some of the new works display colorful details—the entrails of the defunct machines of image dissemination. The format of the pictures has also evolved, and they are now presented as transparencies in light boxes, acquiring a degree of radiance and clarity of detail that enhance the viewer's experience. There is no doubt that Bourouissa returns to the subject with a fresh interest in deconstructing the devices of the spectacle-driven system of representation.
The artist takes a critical stance toward the mass media's reliance on spectacle not only by denying the screens their function as transmitters of images, but also by physically destroying their value as a commodity. The video Temps mort
(Time Out) (2009) accompanies Bourouissa's Screens in this exhibition and engages with a different kind of peripheral condition: life under constant surveillance. Temps mort
is the result of a yearlong communication via mobile telephones between the artist and an acquaintance detained in a French prison. In exchange for recharging the prisoner's phone, Bourouissa was able to indicate—from the outside—the type of shots he wished his collaborator to capture with his phone. The video includes snippets of telephone conversations, text messages, and low-resolution moving images, revealing the intimate relationship that developed between the artist and the prisoner. An unsentimental portrait of life in prison emerges, one in which the static condition of the prisoner contrasts with the dynamics of the spliced clips, manifesting the temporal dimension of the project. A reflection on time and place, Temps mort
challenges the societal stereotypes associated with being incarcerated and restores a sense of dignity and humanity to this marginal situation.
Since 2004, German artist Tobias Zielony (born 1973) has been photographing young people in the public spaces of European and North American suburbs. Surrounded by the architecture of these nondescript places, the youths are immortalized in states of suspended expectation, caught between childhood and adulthood. Although the locations he chooses are geographically distinct (Saxony-Anhalt in Germany; Trona, California, in the United States;
Zielona Góra in Poland; Marseille in France; Winnipeg in Canada), the images of this generation are interchangeable, having been shaped by the global reach of mainstream popular culture and advertising. Zielony's Vele
(Sails) project, of 2009–10, includes a series of photographs and a nine-minute animated film focusing on the architecture and young inhabitants of Scampia, a suburban area north of Naples, Italy. Between 1962 and 1975, the architect Francesco Di Salvo, a member of Archizoom—Italy's contribution to visionary architecture in the 1960s—designed a utopian residential complex to be built there. The goal of the project was to provide housing for working-class families and a setting for a modern community to develop and thrive. The planners wanted to create an ideal city with large parks, playing fields, and other facilities conducive to such a vision. In the construction phase, however, the project was hampered by a series of modifications to the original plans that made the buildings less functional than originally intended. The structures, known as Le Vele di Scampia
(The Sails of Scampia), are now a battlefield for the local mafia, the Camorra. The high rate of unemployment and the involvement of the site's inhabitants with organized crime have transformed the architectural complex into a desolate place, recently threatened with demolition. The complex of buildings was also made infamous by Matteo Garrone's 2008 film Gomorrah, which was based on a book by Roberto Saviano about the Naples-based Camorra.
Under the scrutinizing lens of the artist, the present decrepit state of these structures becomes a metaphor for the failed utopian visions of the mid-twentieth century. While the focus is on the buildings, Zielony also captures the presence of the residents for whom they provide a home and, at times, their means of making a living. The individual portraits of young men, particularly Pearl
(both 2010), are wonderful examples of Zielony's precise compositional framing. The closeness of the camera to the subject is remarkable, and the intimacy generated invites the viewer to closely consider the circumstances of these young men. In The Group (2010), half a dozen young men are posed against the backdrop of the city, which includes the outline of Di Salvo's buildings. Some of the individual faces are blurred, in a gesture meant not to erase identities but rather to portray the men as a product of the environment in which they live. The toughness implied by their outfits and adopted poses speaks about a reality in which masculinity is constantly tested and proven.
The majority of the images in the series are details of the architectural complex photographed as Zielony explored its mazelike structure and dilapidated state. The visionary quality of the original design is not lost on the artist, who, in a few of the photographs, for example, Beam (2010) and Structure (2010), renders back to the building its futuristic attributes—even if several decades later they belong instead to a dystopian scenario. This dichotomy becomes more apparent in the video animation that emerged out of this project, Le Vele di Scampia
(2009), which uses seven thousand individual shots taken at night with a digital single-lens reflex camera. The sequence of these images runs faster and slower than real time, dissociating the experience of the scenes from ordinary life. The animation, as well as the parallel photographic series, goes against the expected Neapolitan narrative of violence and corruption; Zielony chooses to portray the palpable, more complicated uncertainty of the people living in such extreme conditions.
Mohamed Bourouissa and Tobias Zielony engage with the complex issues in the peripheral spaces of Western urban fringes. The artists' sympathetic gaze captures the youths' struggle to assert themselves against the preconceived ideas associated with the places they inhabit. By shifting attention to the disenfranchised class of young men and women of the periphery, Bourouissa and Zielony question predominant cultural representations and challenge them through what amount to acts of resistance as they present their subjects in critical yet poetic ways.