In his book And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, John Berger espouses the belief that a poet approaches language as if it were a place where time has no finality, explaining, “The promise is that language has acknowledged, has given shelter, to the experience which demanded, which cried out.” In the spirit of Berger’s words, the following essay, written in fragments, is a response to Farah Al Qasimi’s photographic series Back and Forth Disco (2019). Her images, commissioned by Public Art Fund, and presented on 100 bus shelters across the five boroughs of New York City, are a celebration of individuality and aesthetic peculiarities. They are captured instances of self-expression, visual excess, and fleeting moments of familiarity— a bodega chandelier or a clearance sign—that break through the anonymity of the city. But the project also pushes beyond the individual, extending these singular, private moments as communal acts of witness. While concealing a subject’s identity within an environment or a composition is common in Al Qasimi’s practice, the photographs in Back and Forth Disco, taken in New York neighborhoods inhabited and frequented by immigrants, make that which is often unseen visible to passersby. The larger-than-life, jubilant photographs stand out defiantly in a city overwhelmed by visuals. They are a reminder that one can find pockets of comfort in fleeting moments, if one chooses to see.
1. Everything Must Go
“Not being seen,” and “disappearing,” though different in essence, can be attributed to the same notion: that of experiencing what once was, but is no longer, there. The former signals a sort of absence—when evoking the function of sight, to not be seen is a lack of sight, an overlooking of existence. The latter implies not being seen, as well as a departure, an escape, or a vanishing. Artist and critic Hito Steyerl explains, in a theory she calls “the state of zero probability,” what disappearing can look like: “Whatever is impossible—like people being swallowed from the face of the earth—happens all the time and nobody thinks twice about it.” This is a condition that is brought forth by a deluge of digital images, which continue to circulate and multiply while actual people either go missing, or are the victims of over-visibility and an overbearing architecture of surveillance. “The state of zero probability” could exist anywhere: in a warzone, in a museum, in data analytics, or even in a photograph. According to Steyerl, it is a portal that opens up whenever anyone asks: “is this really happening?”
2. Grace Beauty Salon
A happening: This place had been prepared for some particular event. It had already attained the embarrassed silence of recent obsolescence. The time of its purposeful operation had dissolved and pooled into the containers of many living memories.
3. Bodega Chandelier
Beads of paradise, crystals, red and turquoise tiles, the material bears resemblance to the mother of pearl. It is a day of never-ending movement, and on days like these, it is so rare for one to look up: an overarching presence, a vision of excess, a reflection of a distant sunlight, somewhere above the steam. I walk in and immediately forget what I came here for. It hovers, over me, and I feel its weight. Visions of excess, and somewhere, a cat. What do you take with you when you leave your home? The substitute home has little to do with a building, an image, a chandelier. We are not the same but the conversation is one.
4. Woman in Leopard Print
Time seemed to fold over itself and gaze at her. She removed one subject matter to allow for the appearance of another. The first was herself; the second—the appearance—is that same self seen in a reflection. If she can’t make others see it, it ceases to exist in her sphere. It would exist then in a universe of its own, separate from everything else. Lying there, awake, trying to sleep—a ray of sun coming through the opening of the curtain, from the street, a little light. She had planned things, remembered to note down her dreams, remembered some details but forgot others. At times, she just listened. Listened to sounds and looked through the dark and the light and the rays filtering through the shades. She thought about the act of closing of her eyes, and about their opening: that her lids lifted themselves, revealed a scene in its full depth, all its colors, light and dark. That her lids lifted to reveal a scene that had been there, till that moment unseen by her, and then dropped, making it disappear. And though her lids were down, she was sleepless, she was alert. She was thinking. Her eyes were wide open behind her closed lids. Staring, though only into the dark. Woman in leopard print: wild, wild, tame.
5. Dollar Store
In her 2006 essay “The Language of Things” Steyerl asks: “What if things could speak? What would they tell us? Or are they speaking already and we just don’t hear them? And who is going to translate them?” Let’s assume that there is a language of things—or, a language to things, and that this language is mute: its medium is material community. Following this logic, it must be assumed that one is in discourse with the image—as a material physical object—even if consciously unaware of it. An image is a commodity, intended for exchange, much like what appears in it. A photograph carries more fiction than it does fact. It is a form of fiction that contains a reminiscence of factual events and people. Photographs make it seem like time stands still, like things that are constant and unchangeable in a photograph will be unchangeable forever. It is a marker of presence (albeit an illusory one), and our yearning to believe that our existence is not a matter of sheer implausibility. If the stillness of images and what possible fictions they represent affect us, is it because they will survive long after we are gone? Will the items in them outlive us?
6. Woman On Phone
She’s preoccupied; her talk is all premonition of disaster. This morning, she knew she would be wearing a yellow furry coat, and a large, neon green scrunchy. Her outfit had been ready for days now. She knew it would perk up whatever obstacle was sprung her way: she was pristine, clean, well put together. She is preoccupied. Her talk is all premonitions, of disaster, things going wrong, a late train, always a late train, a cancelled meeting, a missed connection. But she did not know, and could not foretell being a subject, reduced to an aesthetic choice, woman on phone. Unknown and unknowable. In Understanding A Photograph, John Berger writes: “A photograph is a result of the photographer’s decision that it is worth recording, that this particular event or this particular object has been seen.” He continues to explain, “at its simplest the message, decoded, means: I have decided that seeing this is worth recording.” What has been decided? And, most importantly, what has been seen?
I have decided that seeing this woman on the phone is worth recording.
7. Bleached Sign
Something should be there but isn’t. Someone should be there but isn’t. That’s when the story begins. The image is a haunting: a trace of what once existed but has faded away with time. The unseen and disappearing instant of living in between emergencies materializes in a faded image. A photograph is an image of absence. It is a phantom of a person or an event that existed in that specific instant and did not exist as this same state ever again. This story begins with a haunting smile and someone at the end of the other line asking: “what are you running away from?” to which you respond: “what is supposed to be there but isn’t?” It is hard to see through, photographs and smiles and interlocking gazes. This visibility, this apparition, is both a form of bearing witness, and an erasure, for there is often value in not being seen. There is value in disappearing.
What is it to take shelter in an absent presence?
Farah Al Qasimi: Back and Forth Disco, sponsored by the Public Art Fund, is on view at bus shelters across New York’s five boroughs through May 17, 2020. A complete map of locations may be found here.
Sahar Khraibani is a multi-disciplinary artist, designer, and writer from Beirut, currently based in New York City. She holds a BFA in Graphic Design from the American University of Beirut and is a graduate of the Art Writing program at the School of Visual Arts.