“Only a Truncated and Imaginary Vision”: Carmen Amengual’s 'Fragments from Algiers'

Kirsten Mairead Gill

Carmen Amengual and I met in Mexico City, participants in an international residency program. Although our practices are different- I am an art historian, and she, an artist – we found that we hover around questions in common, questions about film, collectivity, the practice of history, and experiments in form and politics. Looking back to a moment that seems more urgent even as it recedes, we wondered about the nature of our returns. How does the historical subject appear to us from a distance, mediated by memory and desire, a complex object of fact and fabrication? Amengual presented Fragments from Algiers, an ongoing project that deals with these questions, at Biquini Wax EPS while in Mexico City, significantly for the first time in a Latin American context.

Fragments from Algiers is an investigation-in-progress into an unfinished history mired in the logicality of oppression, yet nevertheless a story of the pursuit – both personal and political – of freedom through film. The project probes an archive left by the artist’s mother documenting a short period when, as a young Argentinian architect in Paris then Algeria, she collaborated with a group of South American filmmakers that convened the first Third World Cinema Committee in Algiers, in 1973. It was a group of four friends – Amengual’s mother, an Argentinian political exile, his partner, and a Brazilian filmmaker and student activist, also in exile. With the two Argentinians, Amengual’s mother also made plans to film a documentary of African decolonization, which never materialized, and undertook studies of architectural practices that would serve the decolonization movements.

Still from 'Fragments of Algiers', Super 8, Carmen Amengual, 2019

The Third World Cinema Committee was part of a broader project, and a larger collective dream, for a cinema of subversion that would contribute to the coming revolution and, equally important, to the decolonization of the unconscious, burdened with the ideologies imposed by mainstream film. The numerous contributors to a revolutionary third world cinema composed a political and aesthetic mosaic, although with many resonances. As a theorist and practitioner of Cinema Novo, Glauber Rocha proposed a filmic aesthetic of hunger and violence. In “Toward a Third Cinema” (1969), Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino called for a guerilla cinema that would be collectively produced and viewed clandestinely by the masses, circulating outside of the existing capitalist infrastructures for film’s production, distribution, and consumption.

Still from 'Fragments of Algiers', Super 8, Carmen Amengual, 2019

In this case, the particular dreams of the four friends crystallized in a trip to the Algerian Sahara. Shortly after, the political reality of the worsening situation in Argentina closed in on the intimate coalition, foreshortening their desires and thieving their desert. In the installation at Biquini Wax, Amengual circles around this forgotten episode in the story of Third World solidarity and the friendships and intimacies formed around currents of transnational radical politics. A projected image of the dunes of the Sahara, taken on this trip, hovered on the wall, sand and sky reddened by weather or age. Like a vision or the mirage of a dream deferred, the image shimmers on the edge of disappearance. It is a landscape recaptured through the haze of a transgenerational return.

The centerpiece of the project is Amengual’s film, Fragments from Algiers, projected in diminished proportions at knee-height in the corner of the small, bare room, as if choosing to be marginal and oblique. The film excavates and re-presents the archive of Amengual’s mother from her years in Algeria, only discovered by the artist after her mother’s death. Made in black-and-white Super 8, the film has a grainy, analog quality that conjures an era of home-movies and artistic experimentation enabled by the newly accessible film format, circulating at the time of the story that Fragments traces. The same and other images of the desert are looped and reframed, figures of a historical glitch, intimating the possibility of a loophole of retreat to the open side of these aborted dreams. In their animation by the searching camera, the still photographs conjure the undead stories and ideologies that haunt the inheritors of their unfinished business. Along with the photographs, the camera slides across archival materials and texts, restlessly refusing to settle on anything. We catch telling fragments of text – news dispatches from the worsening situation in Argentina and book titles, a readymade poetics of memory and projection, violence and transnational affinity: Argentine, la recrudescence de la violence entretient les rumeurs de la crise politique; Algérie: du souvenir á la réalité.

Amengual overlays the images in Fragments with excerpts from the correspondence of the group; while the artist’s mother stayed in Algiers and the others organized a tour of the Third World Cinema Committee in Argentina. Jorge bemoans the labor of logistics required of the project, but expresses hope that in doing it “the unfinished story started in Algiers will come to an end.” Indeed, the documents captured in the film – passports, visas, accreditation cards – attest to activities of planning, and their over-reciprocated administrative repression. “It seems unreal,” Jorge writes, “but I think I will be able to convene this damn Committee.” Unreal – the dream, its partial realization, its perceived foreclosure.

Still from 'Fragments of Algiers', Super 8, Carmen Amengual, 2019

I pause, rewind, pause – I would almost miss the images of the artist, her mother, filming herself refracted in a corner of mirrors. I know that being a woman there must be tough. Amengual in a djellaba left by her mother, one hand covering one eye, holding the super-8 camera to the other. The mirrors are a succession of frames that don’t line up, dislocating image and perspective. As I scrutinize the film, I feel like a cheat, using the tricks of streaming to try to see with greater clarity an out of focus image that perhaps should remain obscure.

Still from 'Fragments of Algiers', Super 8, Carmen Amengual, 2019

How does the status of the image change when re-filmed? What does it mean to film a rediscovered film archive, to animate the aged, still documents and slides by moving through them with an old super-8 camera? And why return to these stories at all? In My Mother Laughs, a memoir of her mother’s illness, Chantal Ackerman, looking back on her own text, writes that she had written what she wrote before when she had “only a truncated and imaginary vision,” short of any full truth. Did the distance created by her mother’s death enhance her vision, or attenuate it?

Still from 'Fragments of Algiers', Super 8, Carmen Amengual, 2019

These returns, not a fetishization of the overlooked historical detritus of the margins, are rather a search for the shimmering matter that transgresses history’s divisions, that maintains a volatility capable of reconfiguring the political possibilities of the present. The past few years have been full of such returns – particularly, 50-year anniversaries of the transnational rebellions of ’68 – but one is warned to be wary of nostalgia. What is the allure of these revolutionary moments – what is it that we need from them – and why our aversion to creating value-objects of the past? Uncovering traces of an unresolved and buried story, Amengual keeps the memory always just out of reach. Our vision skips over information, not allowed to absorb it; images are fleeting, partial, and incomplete; we are provided only an oblique, fragmentary vision of an inaccessible past.

Still from 'Fragments of Algiers', Super 8, Carmen Amengual, 2019

In the installation at Biquini Wax, a polyphonic and hypnotizing sound composition of cicada songs accompanied the projections. The track combines the distinct calls of cicada species from around the globe – there are cicadas on every continent not bound by ice, although they are particularly prevalent in the tropics. What is notable about the cicadas, in addition to the transnational currents of the insects, are their unusual life cycles, which pass through several distinct stages. When cicada eggs, deposited in bark by the mothers, hatch, the nymphs drop to the ground and burrow into the earth. Some species of cicada nymphs live underground for seventeen years before re-emerging to mutate into adulthood. In these cases, the period of dormancy is synchronized, and the nymphs emerge from the topsoil en masse. Their period of prolonged dormancy – which is neither a disappearance nor a death – creates a historical elision when the nymphs return to a world above ground different than the one that they had left. As if an entire generation had come, gone, and been reborn through its descendants.

Carmen Amengual is a visual artist from Buenos Aires, Argentina, currently working in Los Angeles. Her cross-disciplinary practice that includes painting, sculpture, writing and film explores the links between memory, biography and history investigating the possibility of transmissibility of experience, and the role that fiction plays in this process. She received a BA in Comparative Literature from the University of Buenos Aires, and an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts.