L´autre côté

“I strolled along the quay and read, one after another, the names of the boats tied up there. […] Only one of them, Aero II, which reminded me of aerial warfare, I passed by without cordiality [.]”1

His flight from the advancing National Socialists and the prospect of a new start outside Europe led Walter Benjamin to the great port of Marseille in 1940 – it was the philosopher’s last refuge before he took his own life on the Spanish-French border. The Algerian Ahmed, questioned by Katrin Ströbel in her video work l’autre côté (the other side), took the opposite route. Marseille – the ‘northernmost city of Africa’ – currently represents the final stage in his flight from his home country, too. From the distance of several years that he has spent illegally in France, Ahmed describes Algeria as a country that no longer exists in the same form and perhaps never did exist; shaped by his childhood memories and anecdotes of better times. Soberly, he describes his parting from his mother and his disillusionment with everyday life in France.

The second part of this work is based on a conversation with Mohamed from Senegal, who tells how his younger brother made an illegal crossing to Europe in a pirogue. Since then, he has been financing his whole family’s continued existence by selling illegally burned CDs in Spain. His concern for his little brother is evident in the interview, as well as a vague concept of a Europe that is based on other people’s reports. The artist combines two opposite perspectives: that of the immigrant in Europe and that of the person who has stayed behind in Africa. Each one attempts to reflect on the other’s epxerience, a process that is transfigured and distorted by nostalgic memories of home on the one hand, and ideas about a country that has never actually seen, on the other.

Katrin Ströbel underlays both conversations with recordings of the sea – a demarcation line between failure and hope, past and future. The sea has provided a projection surface for literary and artistic subjects since time immemorial. Indeed, it may be this that nurtures the promise of the ‘other’ countries on both sides of the Mediterranean.

In her series bitim-réew (Wolof: strange country) Katrin Ströbel investigates the conditions and conditionality of travel that is motivated by curiosity that tourists entertain for the exotic, and by economic-political constraints. On postcards, she links found images or images of her own with short quotations that correspond perfectly in some cases, and more loosely in others. Sentences such as “… Mali is much more African”, or “J’ai entendu qu’en Europe, il y a des gens qui cherchent à manger dans les poubelles” (I’ve heard that in Europe there are people who search the refuse for something to eat) are evidence of stereotypical notions and failed attempts to draw closer to foreign cultures. On the other hand, they always reveal an unfulfilled longing for and an incorrigible hope in the possiblity of a new life as well.

Annika Plank

Text published in: El Dorado, 2009

1 Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings. Vol. 2, Part 2, 1931-34, ed. by Michael W. Jennings et al Harvard University Press 2005, p. 676, (1932).