Difficult to translate the title of this restrained but insistent book, Le Milieu de nulle part, which combines photos by Philippe Bazin with text by Christiane Vollaire and was published by Creaphis in 2012. The problem hangs on ‘le milieu’, which fills out the ‘nulle part’ to make it a space of inhabitation, an environment, as well as a way-station, ‘à mi-chemin’, implying against the negation of the ‘non lieu’ that there will be another station in these lives encountered. This is one of the things the book is insistent about – the irrepressible linearity of a projection towards a future in a different place. Another is the different perversities of the judicial and administrative apparatuses that distort and frustrate that direction, engendering all sorts of pockets of suffering and erosion of vitality on the way.
Pockets would be one way of describing what we see in the photos. Contrary to Bazin’s extraordinary, frontal images of human faces, here there is at best a sense of curvature given by bodies to unwelcoming spaces. The bodies themselves aren’t visible, nothing is very visible, except the intense stillness achieved by Bazin and a sense that someone might previously have been sitting on the bed with the tightly tucked in blanket, or have stepped out of the abandoned pair of slippers. A jumper, a child’s toy half way under a bed, trousers hanging from a string. Rooms where humans have weighed only very lightly on the meagre furniture, where there is nowhere to store anything and little evidence of anything that would need storing anyway.
Organised in three sequences through the book, the photos move from shots of self-imposed order – neat, flat surfaces of communal tables with dishes stacked next to well-made beds and folded piles of covers and clothes – to curtained quarters, vaguely reminiscent of hospital conditions but held together with bits of tape, a different version of the same effort to enclose some sort of privacy in the least accommodating of spaces, and finally the third sequence in which the pockets have ceased to offer any hidden depth, becoming grids ready to receive bodies for variable lengths of time. This final sequence is where people get so flattened that even their outline is difficult to imagine, their spaces reduced to a minimal conception of bodily functions which crushes any projection or project. It is in this sequence that the photos prolong most insistently the passage from Hannah Arendt that circulates through the latter part of Vollaire’s text: ‘Rien ne nous expulse du monde plus radicalement qu’une concentration exclusive sur la vie corporelle.’
I have described the photographic dimension of this book because the images were difficult for me, resistant, withdrawn. The residual pathos that animates the clinical precision of Bazin’s earlier work is here lurking in forms that are radically unfamiliar. It took me time to see them and that process is uncomfortably extrapolative. Vollaire’s text is as carefully orchestrated, its arc through its three stages tending perhaps more towards amplification as the passages of speech recorded in the different transit and retention centres for asylum seekers where this work was carried out in Poland in 2008, recur, get longer, and re-absorb shorter fragments already quoted back into fuller, more complex statements, in this respect miming the experience that she describes of the swell of speech that gathered in different ways, often despite administrative and linguistic obstacles, around the occasion of their presence. Some of the forms of pathos are more familiar here, and the task of the text lies partly in hearing beyond the apparent familiarities – often expressions of religious dissension and intolerance – in which much contemporary media- and political-speak deals. It does this task very finely, superbly, with an attention that doesn’t fully disguise a sort of bewilderment while summoning the resources it has – Arendt, but also Abdelmalek Sayad and Foucault – to listen carefully to what is happening, growing, in this new space.
‘Quelque chose de l’ordre d’une scénographie se nouait toujours autour de ces entretiens, comme autour du moment de la prise de vue. Et cette scénographie était souvent aussi éclairante que la parole elle-même. L’apparition ou la disparition, de certains intervenants, les silences ou les regards de certains autres, leur mode d’intervention dans le dialogue, leur retrait de l’espace de l’image, la manière dont une collation était apportée, dont une table était disposée ou une chaise avancée, nous disaient qu’en ces endroits-là nous étions les invités de ceux qui n’étaient invités nulle part. Et ces lieux de relégation, par un effet d’aberration de l’espace-temps, s’ouvraient à chaque fois sur l’immensité d’un nouvel espace : celui d’un projet d’existence dont tout, dans nos dispositifs juridiques, vise à obstruer la réalisation.’ (Le Milieu de nulle part, p. 10)