Camps—a nature-lover’s home, a temporary solution, a politically grounded space, an architectural structure of this century
May 17th, 2008
I took the photograph above last month in Beijing’s popular art district, Dashanzi (a.k.a. 798 for its main street address), with the intent to share it with artists Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri, whose art project Camp Campaign (2006) I had worked on some years back. The image shows three of dozens and dozens of camp tents lined in 798. These are the temporary shelters and homes for construction workers that are quickly working on beautifying the city for this summer Olympics in China. Construction apparently has to be completed and tents removed by June 1st; and workers sent back to their villages and homes soon after. With the devastating earthquake in China’s Sichuan Province, it is unclear how reconstruction of that area will affect the building developments and urban renovations in Beijing. What seems clear is that shelter tents and temporary homes of this kind will take a whole different meaning right now in Sichuan than in Beijing.
In early 2005, when Ayreen and Rene initially discussed and sketched the ideas for Camp Campaign, they had drawn a travel route across the USA with stops in campsites primarily used by and for the military for detention and training. The travel itinerary also included stops at national parks with camping sites and visits to cultural institutions with summer camp programs. The artists were doing an expansive research on the variety of existing campsites in the country, and along the way campaigning against the most opaque and unpopular of them all, the one in Guantanamo. During their planning, Hurricane Katrina struck in New Orleans that summer, and the course of their future trip changed. Ayreen and Rene re-sketched their more than forty-day cross-country road trip, drawing a route that would also take them to this affected region, and to the different areas where relief camps had been installed and to buildings, like Houston’s Astrodome and Reliant Arena, that had provided temporary shelter for evacuees who had lost homes or were affected by the hurricane’s flooding consequences in New Orleans.
All this came to mind when I saw photographs of other, more temporary forms of camping—or, well, of an area at Sangatte in France’s Pas-de-Calais, where a refugee camp once used to exist. The photos were part of a series made by Bruno Serralongue’s Calais, which I accessed yesterday in the archives of his gallery Air de Paris. Closed in 2002 by France’s Minister of Interior of the time, the camp at Calais opened in 1999 in a building once storing machinery used to create the English Channel. (Calais borders the North Sea, and is the French port city closest to England.) The camp was managed by the Red Cross, and housed up to 1,200 illegal immigrants at once, mostly from the Middle East, on their way to England. At the camp’s closing and with no formal housing solution for the migrants that arrive to Calais, makeshift shelters have been appearing in the city’s surrounding area. Bruno Serralongue’s photographic series, which he began in 2006, has been shot in these so-called wastelands over the course of two years; you can see a selection of these photographs here.