Waiting territories, by Laurent Vidal
A man in an enclosed rocky valley is running near a dry shrub, his sole companion, too slight to provide the comfort of shade. The runner’s stride is light. He is staring straight ahead. He is sweating. His breathing gradually gets heavier, as does his step. Time is passing. The sun rises to its zenith and goes down. Taaban is running but is getting nowhere.
A pedestrian crossing and traffic light on Herzl Street. Men and women are waiting for the traffic flow to stop. They cross when the light turns to green. Some linger, standing still. Those who stay behind soon form a dense crowd. They are waiting. Like Taaban in the desert, they do not move forward, held back by an invisible barrier.
Captured with a long fixed shot, these instances of unmoving or interrupted running express the condition of waiting experienced by immigrants: eager and focused near the country’s borders; resigned and empty once inside the much coveted country where they face other even more impenetrable frontiers.
Assaf Shoshan, the maker of these two videos, grew up in the Negev Desert. This is also where he positioned his camera. Observing the passing of people and the crystallization of their traces, he has discovered latter-day Sisyphuses serving time, driven by the energy of hope, resigned to walk a path that leads nowhere.
The Negev forms an enclave between Europe, Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Traversed by the Incense Road centuries ago, it has remained a crossroad. Nomads, migrants and refugees meet here, faced by changing borders that have been watched by suspicious soldiers of several armies since nations decided to demarcate the territory with separating lines.
It is in this enclave that Assaf Shoshan photographs people in a state of waiting and landscapes marked by expectation—waiting territories.
I have long sought to come to a better understanding of what can be termed waiting territories: how they came to be, their place in modern societies, “liquid societies” (Z. Bauman) that are characterized by ceaseless mobility but that have found ways to keep populations in check, waiting.
It is on the cusp of these movements and pauses that waiting territories emerge, whether intentionally or not. They are mainly occupied by slow people, the poor, who are marginalized by the speed globalization imposes on everyone and everything, they constitute landscapes of absurdity, camps and settlements demarcated by barbed wire, fences, walls or canvass.
The slow residents of these territories experience waiting as a transitory way of life. It is in these transitions, in in-between states, that random, unexpected crystallizations (Durkheim) are formed. They generally escape all attempts at control and give birth to new apprehensions of space and its potentiality, new relations to time, new solidarities; new identities.
This is why giving expression to the state of waiting—to that which occurs when nothing happens, or nothing is supposed to happen—is a poetic endeavour mindful of low intensity.
This is why the finest definition of waiting territories may well be that of René Charr’s aphorism: “an enclave of the unexpected, and of metamorphoses”. Often placed on the fringe, “in the centre of the gap” (Char), where “non-time imposes the tyranny of its spatiality on time” (Aimé Césaire).
Describing waiting territories, the enclaves where modern societies and their identities are tested, entails examining the recesses in which formative situations take place on the fringes of political processes.
Assaf Shoshan’s sensitive photography tells of the birth of waiting territories, their continued existence and choreography in the desert landscape of the Negev.
Refugees and migrants pose with their families, as if they could forget their predicament for one brief moment. But a particular feeling takes over: the wife always towers over the husband, as if all available energy after so many trials and tribulations had been channelled to her. The hands and looks of the couple and their children meet and form a circle, a rampart against the aggression of the world outside. Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra come to mind: “Eternitywas in our lips and eyes”. Yet, when the wife is absent, the sitters’ eyes wander, their suffering seems keener. Assaf Shoshan builds on details, fine nuances, to tell of the extraordinary waiting that is set in motion, that looks to the future; the anguished waiting born of immobility, of living in an unchanging present. These photographs suggest paths of sorrow and misfortune; a cartography of hope and distress, marked by invisible barriers erected to keep out the undesirable.
The wounds of the sitters are matched by those of the land, mutilated by borders, divides of doubt and mourning. When frontiers are moved, the absurdity of their landscape becomes inescapable: an abandoned village that has never been reclaimed, a border post which no longer watches over anything, a hotel that no longer welcomes any guests, an abandoned prison. Life retreated all of a sudden; leaving behind disembowelled carcasses slowly digested by nature. Is it sheer chance that the only life Assaf Shoshan has found in this in-between landscape of boredom is that of a watchful dog? Cerberus watching the realm of the dead…
But the Negev does not only shelter those who cross borders, it is also home to those whose living environment is crossed by borders—nomads, the Bedouin, travellers whose language is the land. They are forced to stop here, to settle on the fringes of towns. They have erected strange camps built with the recycled refuse of the town, situated at the feet of pylons that carry electricity at high speed to the throbbing metropolis. Their camps are like enclaves where they survive while waiting for the borders to reopen and for roaming to be allowed again. This slow population is inventing its own waiting territories.
People are traversed by landscapes in Assaf Shoshan’s world, just as landscapes are traversed by people: they blend and merge, giving birth to hybrid concretions. By turning his attention to the fragments that remain on the surface of things after they have been abandoned, he captures their outline, in the form of dormancies (Bailly) or unexpected crystallizations and reveals the “space without skyand time withoutdepth” (Camus) of displaced individuals, the stolen shadows of fragile moments.