Wednesday, March 1st, 2006

The Battle of Algiers: Marc Lafia and Fang-Yu Lin

A project co-commissioned by Artport at the Whitney Museum of American Art and Tate Online

“The Battle of Algiers” is the second of three commissioned projects that will be displayed at Artport and Tate Online in February and March 2006. Each project showcases net art as central to the conception of the museum as a networked, virtual institution. The text that follows is the second in a series of articles discussing each project.

“The Battle of Algiers” re-composes scenes from the 1965 film of the same name by Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo, which retells the story of the Algerian guerrilla struggle against the French colonists in the 1950s. It concentrates on the period between 1954-57, when freedom fighters regrouped and expanded only to succumb to systematic attempts by the French to dismantle their organization. Using algorithms to represent the logic of the nationalist tactics, the piece presents clips from the film in a varied pattern based on specific instructions and rules.

Monochromatic stills from the film fill squares of different sizes on the screen in seemingly random overlapping patterns: Algerians being shot in the street by soldiers, portraits of the main characters in the film, scenes from a cafe destroyed by the guerrilla’s bombs, rioting masses in the streets and the tanks meant to quell the violence.

Get past the violent imagery, and visually, the piece echoes minimalist artworks such as the grid and monochromatic palettes. The layering of images creates a kind of perspective and depth.

Various sound bites play in a loop as different images appear: sirens, machine gun fire, the wailing of Algerian women, jeep engines revving, explosions. French General Matheiu, the man with the plan for rooting out the rebels, repeats this important phrase over and over: “The structure of the Organization is a pyramid with sections composed of triangles.”

In the film, the general goes on to say that the purpose of this geometry is “that no partisan knows more than three members of the organization; his superior and two subordinates.” This structure makes it difficult for the French to determine who the masterminds of the Organization are. They must start at the bottom and piece the pyramid together, cell by cell, and work their way up to determine who is really in charge. The fact that the guerrillas are anonymous and unrecognizable in a crowd makes identifying participants and the connections between them that much harder.

Showing the incongruity and multiplicity inherent in the Organization’s pyramidal framework and cinematic processes in general is Lafia’s and Lin’s aim.

The artists use Pontecorvo’s piece precisely because it does not follow one character or one specific story, for the film’s entirety. Film as media provides the basis for their investigation. In a critical essay that accompanies the piece Daniel Coffeen, professor of rhetoric at UC Berkeley, points out that in a sense, films are computational. “Film is a database of images run together; images are chosen by a network of people – directors, editors, producers, screenwriters, etc.” he says. “We don’t see the modalities of the moving image, the multiple and varied directions implicit in film” because there’s only one screen and one story is projected.

The film does provide a timeline of events, and the general theme is Algeria’s struggle for liberation, but as it proceeds it reveals layer upon layer of overlapping characters and story lines that express a balanced and disquieting ambivalence towards acts of war.

At its beginning the film leads you to believe that this is a story about Ali la Pointe, one of the top three organizers of the nationalist Organization. As the film continues, the foci multiply – we are introduced to the Organization’s central players, those that interact or are impacted by it and the French Army. La Pointe’s story comes and goes; his eventual capture is anticlimactic and is not really the point of the story. Initially, we are lead to believe that la Pointe is the hero who opposes Mathieu the scoundrel, but concepts of good and evil are blurred. The nationalists and the French alike commit unspeakable acts for their cause, but at what expense?

As the French focus on individual triangular cells within the Organization, Lafia and Lin use individual film stills that echo the story lines and the structure of the Organization. The general timeline is removed and the “story” is determined by algorithms. There are connections, however. What happens in one part of the screen affects what happens in another, but the connections are not obvious because their sources are buried in code. A barrage of images and sounds is really all that remains – a commonality in the cinematic recreation of any war. Coffeen states, “[B]ecause the story line has been banished, [it] doesn’t mean the pathos of war is any less obvious.”