Freedom of Movement – A Momentary Flight
by Christina Werner
What happened leaves traces, some of which are quite concrete—buildings, dead bodies, censuses, monuments, diaries, political boundaries – that limit the range and significance of any historical narrative. This is one of many reasons why not any fiction can pass for history: the materiality of the sociohistorical process […] sets the stage for future historical narratives. 
“I replay, I replay, I replay the footage of Abebe Bikila,” a monotone verse repeated by the male narrator off-screen establishes a rhythm that seems to track the bare soles of a lonely runner on night-soaked streets. Through the course of montaged archival footage, layers of projected imagery and night shots in the streets of Rome, the rhythm guides us on an open-ended narrative that aims to carve through collective memory, both filmically and literally, into our historical consciousness.
Entering the exhibition space, the first screen of the multi-channel video installation “Freedom of Movement” sets a historical backdrop: the 1960 Olympics Games in Rome when Ethiopian Abebe Bikila became the first black African athlete to win an Olympic gold medal, achieving a new world record while running barefoot. We see his feet gently pat the ground, gliding past architecture and monuments loaded with the weight of colonial history.
In an exercise of re-enactment, the film’s protagonist traces the route of the 1960 marathon at night. The footage of Abebe Bikila’s triumphant victory is projected onto his tricot bearing Bikila’s bib number ‘11’ and the original route’s historic sites: the race starts on one of Rome’s seven hills at the Piazza di Campidoglio, follows along an angular loop to the Appian Way of ancient Rome, continues through the Piazza Venezia, passes along the Obelisk on Porta Capena square and finishes under the Arch of Constantine. The marathon starts in the late afternoon and finishes after dark, the course lit by torches to illuminate the route, lined by a cheering crowd.
Nina Fischer and Maroan el Sani blend images from past and present while tracing the interwoven stories built from stone and ingrained into the urban fabric. Following Bikila, the moving images pan across the Piazza Venezia. It is here, from the balcony of the Palazzo Venezia, that Mussolini announced the declaration of war against Ethiopia and its occupation in 1936. Black and white newsreel footage shows the 24-meter-tall granite stele of the fourth-century Obelisk of Axum before it was looted by Mussolini and shipped to Rome to stand at Porta Capena Square in front of the Ministry of Italian Africa, announcing the conquest of Ethiopia and an attempt to establish a “new Roman Empire”. The archival projection transitions back to color film footage from a bird’s-eye view of the same setting as Bikila passes the Obelisk during daytime.
Bikila crosses the impartial stone monolith for a second time in the course after nightfall with exactly two kilometers left in the race and breaks into his final sprint towards the world record.
Bikila’s triumph embodied the new spirit of Africa that had enthralled the continent and reflected a cross-cultural confidence that grew with the development of African independence and Pan-African awareness. The visuals of Bikila’s momentary flight generate a strong sense of nostalgia for a period promising change, progress and freedom for the whole of Africa as it stood at the brink of a hopeful and glorious new future. A taste of nostalgia that turned stale for many vanished into thin air for others. Bikila returned home as a conquering hero a quarter-century after Ethiopia defeated the Italian invasion, but a further opaque image shimmers through: another victorious Ethiopian marathon runner, Feyisa Lilesa, reaches the finish line at the recent Rio Olympics. With wrists crossed above his head, he crosses a politically acceptable line of protest in his home country, and anticipating the consequences of media exposure, does not return after all.
Reaffirming Lenin, Mussolini said ‘the cinema is the most powerful weapon.’ The projected footage repurposes archival material from the Fascist regime documenting the construction of EUR – Esposizione Universale Roma, site of the 1942 World Fair and a symbolic celebration of twenty years of Fascism. The materials made available by the Instituto Luce, Cinecittà show the towering white travertine buildings and strict grid of streets of EUR, characteristic Fascist architecture in its urgency of representation and design intent to control the masses. EUR was not only an attempt to reinvent the Roman Empire but also the model city and master plan for a new Addis Ababa, the colonial capital of the Italian imperial expansion into East Africa. EUR brought together Italy’s past and future in a re-historicized space and was one of the most controversial venues of the Olympics.
The sequence of scenes elucidates and obscures meanings, variously shining light and casting shadows on regimes of power to warp historical narratives. The images and bodies in movement flash past the Foro Italico and the Colosseo Quadrato, rendering glimmers of a history that fade again into oblivion. In re-writing, re-sculpting, and re-defining history, the film above all invites the viewer to consider the malleability of meaning assigned to architectural sites and monuments. Footage of the Obelisk of Axum follows its globally intertwined trajectories in a history-traversing relay spanning the Italian invasion to the Obelisk’s restitution to Ethiopia in 2008. Its ornamented surface with two false doors at the base and blind windows on all sides are emulated in the artificial and superimposed loggias of the Colosseo Quadrato, considered one of the most representative examples of Fascist architecture. In presence and absence, the Obelisk leaves traces in both public space and collective memory.
The Colosseo Quadrato is the starting point for another journey presented at the far end of the gallery space where two adjacent screens engage in a visual dialogue. The right screen presents the Colosseo Quadrato, also known as Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, in its imposing dominance. A chorus of teenagers from diverse African countries approach, climb the stairs and start to improvise cheers. Reaching the rooftop, their recitations shift to reinterpret the inscription on all four sides of the building from a speech by Mussolini implicitly promoting colonial expansion on the African Continent:
“Un popolo di poeti, di artisti, di eroi, di santi, di pensatori, di scienziati, di navigatori, di trasmigratori”.
Altering the text to reflect their own status, they chant:
“We come from nations of poets, of artists, of heroes, of saints, of scientists, navigators and migrants”.
Their voices eclipse the inscribed ambitions of fascist Europe to redefine what migration means and challenge the distinction made between refugee/migrant versus citizen: a distinction based on a deceptive historical logic implicit in our language that continues to separate states from (former) colonies. They invoke in spirit the principle of ‘unity in diversity’, an ideal with burgeoning resonance contemporary to Bikila’s momentary flight, exhorting common goals for coming generations. Rejecting the limiting constructs of race, nationality and citizenship, the polyphony of their song, voices and languages celebrates the diversity of our societies and reminds us that only a deep acceptance of this threatened plurality will allow our communities to prosper.
With the chorus chanting, the camera pans down from the rooftop of the Colosseo Quadrato to street level, turning left and right. The perspective shifts to inhabit the first-person view of the marathon runner suddenly criss-crossing an endless virtual maze of an uninhabited, haunted imaginary of the fascist city grid composed of an endless repetition of the Colosseo Quadrato’s facade. The computerized and uncanny desolation of the cityscape turns Mussolini’s “La Terza Roma”, planned to span from the Rome’s hills to the seaside, into an artificial nightmare.
Rhythmic breathing soundtracks our experience of the game’s virtual reality and eventually syncs with the breath of the runner shown in the third screen. Here, the protagonist again wears Bikila’s “11” on his tricot as he starts his journey in the shallows at Ostia. From there, he traces a different route along Via Appia Antica, connecting EUR and Foro Italico to arrive at the district of Pietralata and the empty athletic fields of Liberi Nantes. The camera exposes specific historical junctures along his course. He passes the mosaics of athletes at the Foro Italico, which also appeared in the archival footage from the first screen, documenting the iconographic heritage of the Mussolini era in its making. Abebe Bikila crossed the finish line at the Arch of Constantine in front of an exultant crowd but the present barefoot runner arrives finally in the empty and quiet outskirts. Weary from traversing the urban landscapes, he reaches the dusty ground unnoticed. A football squad consisting of players from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Guinea, Iraq, Nigeria, Sudan, Togo, Democratic Republic of Congo drifts by. Like the members of the teen chorus, all have arrived in Italy seeking refuge, crossing the Mediterranean in search of somewhere to start afresh. The name of the club, “Liberi Nantes”, derives from a verse from Virgil’s Aeneid referencing the few exiled and shipwrecked Trojans that washed ashore and survived: a metaphor for an unwavering culture of resilience. With metallic gold and silver glister, a swish of space blankets carried like sports flags rush by the protagonist. His eyes seem to fix towards the distance, turn toward the camera and meet the viewers’ gaze.
I play, I replay, I relay those stories and histories encountered from a certain distance: from seats in the cinema, bleachers in the stadium, the stage, the street, the shore, from behind the camera and from revisiting the archive. Revisiting the past from a distance, re-enacting it and throwing it onto the present render visible our shared histories and sociologies. Those diverse perspectives layered and choreographed by the artists shed light onto the constant challenges of our ongoing, ordinary interrelatedness. Nina Fischer and Maroan el Sani take us on a filmic journey, that subtly poses fundamental questions: Observing the present from a distance, will we recall it for its omissions and failures; for our inability to transcend differences and prejudices; and for disappointments and disillusionments that follow in its trail? Or do we choose and encourage to pre-enact what is latent and opaque but there: a collective responsibility to lightly pencil in, with intention, patience and care, potentialities for more inclusive trajectories?
IMPERO DEI SEGNI
by Chris Piallat
Nina Fischer’s and Maroan el Sani’s work, IMPERO DEI SEGNI, created in 2011, records the performance of a temporary intervention with activists in the empty Palazzo dei Congressi in Rome as captured in a series of photographs. The work presents the ‘demonstrative’ appropriation of a site where power is demonstrated. The intervention by the artists borrows from various forms of non-verbal communication (such as gestures, body language and sign language) that draws from the repertory of communicative devises and actions used by activists to re-appropriate the site through this communicative action and to make new demands on the identity of the city in which they live.
The work IMPERO DEI SEGNI thus unites two sets of themes in contemporary art: on the one hand, the discourse surrounding ‘appropriation and art in public spaces’, and on the other, ‘artistic intervention in the political’. The work thus seizes on essential questions in intervention art, such as those already posed by the Situationists and other ephemeral, situation-specific performance artists, in short: how can artistic criticism have an effect in the political sphere? The project does not dwell on the aesthetic argument of these objects, but offers a concrete set of instructions for action through the work. The work can be seen as a piece of ‘fine art’—‘fine’ in the sense that it possesses edifying qualities for the viewer and prompts, quite literally, action, the art of action.
The work makes reference to the Palazzo dei Congressi, the congress building built in the 1930s as part of Mussolini’s monumental and imperial vision of a ‘Third Rome’, a site for the ‘art of power’, the stylized enactment of the regime in art. ‘The standard by which things were set here was no longer the individual, but historical reference.’ The act staged here of the human articulation of our own free will jars with the overriding order of the glorious display of power, chiselled in gleaming stone, and thus posits the ‘power of art’ as a counterpoint to the vision of a ‘Third Rome’. The artistic intervention amounts to an intensely radical contradiction of the symbolic sphere of value of an excessive, authoritarian brand of architecture and symbol of state power, and breaks it with the demonstration, presented as the revelation of the individual’s will. At the same time, the site, although historically charged, is an anonymous non-place for the viewer. The architectural aesthetic recedes into the background before the unfolding action of Fischer and el Sani’s intervention, so that the performed protest is also able to find a stage for itself here. The exact site of the insurrection remains abstract and is not subject to geographical constraints. On the contrary, protest is a potentially ubiquitous phenomenon. Insurrection, protest, dissent and demonstration are everywhere.
Nothing is more transient than political content in visual form, while on the other hand, nothing is as powerful in its historical impact as dissent. With the iconographic uni- versalism of the political act of ‘protest’, political art manages to pull off its precarious balancing act between finding socio-political contextual validity on the one hand and achieving timelessness on the other. The danger of flirting with political doctrines, of allowing functionalization in the relationship between art and authoritarianism, is avoided by the artists’ refusal to convey concrete political statements in an aesthetic fashion, in short, by placing the emphasis squarely on the act of protest itself. The photographs of Fischer and el Sani therefore purposefully eschew serving revolutionary agitation. All that is presented is the empty process of the evoked conflict, thus leaving all debate for or against the hidden cause completely open. The unstated here opens up the chance for the viewer to perceive political connotations of his or her own.
In its clear dramatic composition, the photographic series reads like a storyboard of protest, a script for insurrection. Irrespective of the occasion, the first step to making an open, political statement is always a private decision made alone. It is only afterwards that the collective makes itself felt as a closed entity. However different the various demands in rebellions, protests and demonstrations may appear, the non-verbal signs of unity and the firm belief of representing the ‘right’ thing, as demonstrated here, show their universal symbolism, particularly in the last major protests. Fischer’s and el Sani’s dramaturgical depiction of rebellion ends with the word ‘manifesto’, conveyed in sign language. But to which manifesto, idea, conviction does one actually commit oneself? What for exactly and what against – all remain open.
The will to take action has priority, and the knowledge of action itself!
 Trouillot, M-R., Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, Beacon Press, 1995.
The Berlin-based artist duo Nina Fischer & Maroan el Sani has been collaborating on their interventional and situationist art practice since 1995. Their investigations revolve around moving images as both impartial documents and involved narrations of our changing societies. The main protagonists of their projects are often urban spaces that bear the burden of collective memory, upon which the forces of historical transition and turmoil have been engraved. The artists’ poetic-filmic and performative investigations of these sites tackle the idea of revisiting blind spots in contemporary society through their artistic reanimation of such places.
Chris Piallat, born in 1984, studied political science at the University of Kassel, Rutgers Univeristy – Division of Global Affairs, NJ, USA and at the Otto Suhr Institute of the Free University of Berlin. Focus: network politics, digitization and cultural politics. Activities as an author, curator and editor, including for documenta XII, Heinrich Böll Foundation and Federal Cultural Foundation. Since 2010 editor of the Berliner Gazette. Since 2012 consultant for network policy in the Bundestag parliamentary group Bündnis 90 / Die Grünen.
Christina Werner earned a degree in Cultural Studies at the Universities of Hildesheim and Tübingen and completed a postgraduate program in Critical Studies at the Lund University/Malmö Art Academy, Sweden. During 2007–09, she was curator for visual arts at the Cultural Committee of German Industries, and its artist award and exhibition series ‘ars viva’. Previously, she was director of the gallery Wohnmaschine, Berlin. She has served as assistant to Okwui Enwezor, the artistic director of Documenta11, Kassel, in 2002, worked as a research assistant at the Institute of Contemporary Arts at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna in 2000-2001, freelanced at the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Berlin and realized projects with ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen, Stuttgart) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She is co-initiator of the project Acting Archives – Media Lab for Artistic Research and Education. She is the managing director of the Institut für Raumexperimente.