Why Look?

Samuel Stevens, Atlantropa, 2009.
Samuel Stevens, Atlantropa, 2009.

At the opening of his exhibition ‘Why Look?’ Samuel Stevens screened Luis Buñuel’s film Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan. In 1933, Buñuel travelled to La Alberca, a small town in the North of Spain, to document the suffering of the region’s impoverished villagers. For a half-hour, the villagers are seen strolling through their town centre, staring at the camera, and showing Buñuel around houses and classrooms. The film’s narrator explains that these people live in crushing poverty, that they are malnourished and intermarried, that words cannot describe the horror of their mirthless grins. In one scene, the narrator asserts that the only reason the villagers might eat meat is if one of their animals fell from a cliff edge. To illustrate the point, Buñuel brought a goat to the top of a hill and, standing off-camera, a crewmember shot the animal and Buñuel filmed its corpse collapsing down a ravine. Although Las Hurdes is one of the earliest examples of a documentary film, Buñuel recognised that the format could be easily made to mislead his audience. Beside these scenes of Spanish life in the 1930s, the viewer hears a narration of such surreal pomposity and imbalance that the film resonates as a dry political joke.

Samuel Stevens’ film Atlantropa shares a framework with Las Hurdes. It documents an imagined present, which is substantiated by real events, but misleadingly described by the film’s narrator. The documentary explains a chain of incidents that led to the 2005 closure of a suspension bridge crossing the Straits of Gibraltar. News of this transcontinental convenience will come as some surprise, so it is worth mentioning that no bridge between Spain and North Africa exists.

Samuel Stevens, Atlantropa, HD, 2009.Samuel Stevens, Atlantropa, HD, 2009.Samuel Stevens, Atlantropa, HD, 2009.
Samuel Stevens, Atlantropa, HD, 2009.

The Gibraltar Bridge was first imagined by Arthur C. Clarke in The Foundations of Paradise, and it had an antecedent in the work of German architect Hermann Sörgel, who decided in the 1920s that he wanted to build a dam across the Straits where the Atlantic Ocean joins the Mediterranean Sea. The architect hoped that his Atlantropa Dam would amalgamate Europe and Africa, provide hydroelectric power to Europe, and drain the Adriatic Sea for colonisation and farming. In the imagined present, Stevens’ narrator introduces the Gibraltar Bridge from a viewing point on the African coast. The camera looks out from the shore, and catches a concrete map fixed into the ground. In this, a thin yellow line of land runs through the expanse between Spain and Morocco. In the frame’s background, this manmade wonder is suspended high above the water and reaches out beyond the horizon.

As soon as the viewer has been introduced to the Gibraltar Bridge, the narrator counts off the reasons it has been closed. At the African border we see people waiting near piles of rubbish and other detritus, whom I presumed were waiting for an opportunity to sneak past the security guards and begin the long walk over the sea. The narrator generally ignores the migrants, and extols the beauty of North Africa’s natural environment. He remarks on how efficiently the military have disguised their presence in the landscape’s coastal towns. In his professorial baritone, he tells us that the view of the territory does not register to holidaying travellers, while simultaneously, the viewer sees some graffiti across an alleyway reading, “The colony exists”.

The documentary focuses on this colony, and on the paired themes of displacement and migration. The subjects in Atlantropa are genuinely living beside a border fence, and attempting to migrate to Europe. Stevens did travel to document their existence, and to understand the political context surrounding the colony’s birth. And while the narrator hands down a confused representation of this context, Stevens uses a sequence of images to lift the veil from the narrator’s lie. The migrants are clearly uncomfortable at being filmed; they gesture at the camera, turn away, and obscure their faces with clothing. The town port includes a wide military-style runway, which extends its way over the water. The scene swells under Brahms Fourth Symphony, which as it happens, accompanied Buñuel’s goat down the hill in Las Hurdes.

Samuel Stevens, Atlantropa, HD, 2009.Samuel Stevens, Atlantropa, HD, 2009.
Samuel Stevens, Atlantropa, HD, 2009.

A short text accompanying the exhibition describes the artist’s interest in “the presentation of subjects, often moderated and prejudiced by ‘endorsed’ forms of representation such as journalism or news media”. Filming at the border fence is illegal, and the colony’s people appear angry that Stevens is recording them: Atlantropa is not an endorsed form of representation. But Stevens is not going to let the viewer get away with a cursory jaunt into absurdity. This work is as much about a sense of place and political context as it is about pan-globalist speculation.

In a book entitled ‘8 Metaphors’, Uriel Orlow mentions that although the bridge does not exist, this does not mean it has no claim on reality. The political motility of the bridge’s sheer concept is enough to rattle the viewer, but there is no need to get caught up in thinking about whether the thing ‘exists’ or not. The bridge itself stands in for the possibility of a colony escaping to Europe, or, for Europe to seize and colonise its former protectorate. It also stands for the fact that documentaries are no more likely to present the truth than any other device. The viewer’s confidence in the documentary form and its reliable narrator opens more of a proneness for mistruth. Essentially the bridge is real because its politics are real.

Atlantropa describes the Gibraltar Bridge only in passing. It quickly moves on to the toxic political climate that forced the construction’s closure. Our narrator papers over the precise nature of Morocco’s grievances with the bridge, instead he intones that Morocco’s claim over the bridge is flatly equal to that of Spain. This manoeuvre highlights Samuel Stevens’ concern with moderation through ‘endorsed forms of representation’ – the narrator is a cipher for a convenient use of false balance and golden mean. In the imagined present, the United Kingdom controls the European entrance to the bridge through its colonial ownership of Gibraltar, while Spain controls the bridge’s African entrance.

In reality, there is a continental border fence at Ceuta, a city on the northernmost coast of Africa. The city borders Morocco, but it is technically an exclave of Spain and of the European Union. It is easy to imagine that the Gibraltar Bridge would link this exclave at Ceuta to the wider Eurozone. And further, that any bridge between Africa and Europe could not be paid for by Africa, and would hardly exist for that continent’s benefit. The film hints at the notion that the bridge itself was built to allow the creation of a Euro-African region that could rival the superpower status of the United States and Asia. Stevens threads Hermann Sörgel’s vision of the hydroelectric dam through this space. In the artist’s reckoning, Atlantropa provides power to Europe – but not necessarily an electrical kind. The artist supplemented the exhibition with a small set of texts describing his works. This document ominously ends with a claim that the possibility of a bridge through the Strait of Gibraltar is under discussion at the United Nations.