Original du texte de Paul Wombell, directeur artistique du collectif FTL, paru en version française sous le titre « Des territoires liquides » dans l’ouvrage La Mission photographique de la DATAR. Nouvelles perspectives critiques (La Documentation française, novembre 2014).
Landscapes are never static; they constantly change in response to the climate and human interventions. Recently scientists announced that we are at the beginning of a new geological age called Anthropogenic. This age is defined by human impact on the earth since the advent of agriculture, industrial production, urbanization, electrical generation and mass transportation. This new age recognizes that every action taken by humans has consequences on the environment and each man-made process leaves a mark on the surface of the earth. The other consequence of this recent human activity is the warming of the earth’s atmosphere and climate change.
The other human activity that has redefined the landscape just as decisively is the segmentation of the earth’s surface into parcels of land to form nation states. We might call this the age of the Nation State. For the nation state to form it requires a dominant state apparatus to form a uniform national landmass with its own sovereignty, language and culture. Even with territorial wars, colonialism, famine and other conflicts and the constant struggle to keep national boundaries secure, today the world has over 200 recognized sovereign states, of which 34 have been formed since 1990. This might give the impression that a nation state is stable and adapting to people’s desires for independence. However this is misleading. At the same time other forces are at work to undermine the territorial integrity of the nation state, ones that might seem benign but are re-configuring the fixed boundaries of the nation state in a fundamental way. These forces have been propagated by globalization, telecommunications, multinational corporations, non-government organizations and international trade agreements on open markets are widely seen as eroding the economic and political power of nation states, potentially leading to their eventual disappearance. Other notions and beliefs of what might constitute a nation, like religion, or ethnicity, also continue to question the foundations of the nation state. In many respects it was the forming of the state that brought into questions these other ideas from which the nation state could be constructed. But partly due to globalization and social media they continue to have prominence in offering different formations with different boundaries that question directly the nation state.
However the idea that knowledge and technology could define a nation predates the raise of the nation state. Like other medieval universities in Europe, the University of Paris founded in the 12th century was formed around the division of teaching within four facilities, arts, medicine, law and theology. The faculty of arts was further divided into ‘student nations’ according to language and regional origin of the student. These were France (this also included Spain, Portugal and Italy), Normandy, Picardy, and England (this also included Eastern European and Scandinavian countries) that was later renamed German after the Thirty Year War. So the ‘student nation’ was a different notion of the nation that could be based on a relative small region, or larger regions across wider Europe with the same language in the formation of a ‘student nation’.
These ‘student nations’ based on gaining knowledge and skills were to be replicated in the formation of associations of workers in to guilds in which universities like Paris played an important role in forming. Based on trades like locksmiths, masons and carpenters, the guild would control access to the knowledge like innovations in technology, who might have the right skills to join the guild and how trade would be conducted.
This notion of the nation could correspond directly to the boundaries and the administration of the state government, but this concept of the nation revolved around the use and control of technology in defined spaces like cities and towns. The nation state would eventually undermine the role of the guilds with international trade agreements and the control of copyrights and patents.
But still today many professional bodies such as in architecture, engineering, finance and marketing still function similar to the historical guilds.
A nation based on knowledge and the skill of using particular tools is not dissimilar from creating a group, association or agency and using photography to define a locality. This would be a kind of ‘photographic nation’ within the host state nation that could have different sets of boundaries that might be local, regional or international.
So the nation state might give the impression of stability with its parliament, elections and head of state. We now live in a world where boundaries of the nation state are fracturing and its territory is literally in a state of flux. Where boundaries are defined more by electromagnetic waves than by walls or fences and where decisions move from parliaments to boardrooms. This is creating an uncharted world of conflicting jurisdictions, of unseen boundaries of electronic communications, where boundaries are not fixed but are fluid. This can be called liquid territories and no nation state is immune from its implications. Nothing is fixed, ownership of land, people, money and the image are set free from any location and move with speed across the territory.
Mankind might mark its boundaries on the territory, make laws on ownership, mine for minerals and to construct buildings on the terrain, but how do we control something that has been in existence for over four billion years and will exists after we have gone? We are deluded if we think we can. The terrain lives on a different time frame to humans. We shall leave our marks, but only for a short period of time as they are finally lost. We are deluded into thinking that we control the terrain, unfortunately the nation states continues the delusion.
France is a nation defined and constructed by a centralized government that since the 18th century has created a uniform French identity by the way of language and culture. A century earlier Louis XIV had only formed national cultural instructions to promote learning, enlightenment and improve manners of the nation. This ‘civilization process’ of the citizens was central in the formation of a modern state. After the abolition of the French monarchy the new state continued, but to a wider consistency the dissemination of culture in the service of building a unified modern state. Photography has played a central role in defining this identity. Since the invention of photography French photographers have worked collectively on national missions. From 1851 with the Mission Héliographique that included five photographers who photographed the historical monuments to the more recent Mission photographique de la DATAR of the mid-1980s that included 29 photographers. DATAR involved both French and international, recognized and unknown photographers who created a photographic archive of French landscapes. One of the photographers involved with this mission was Raymond Depardon who was commissioned ten years later to tour the country and produce a photographic portrait of the nation, the Mission France. This has been one of the unique characteristics of French culture that photography can define the national landscape, and that these photographic endeavor should be supported with government funds even if the mission only involves one (important) photographer. This has placed photography in an important position within French life that cannot be found in another European or Western country. Firstly, that the medium is central to forming the national identity, and secondly that it has a direct connection to the territory of France. Now nearly thirty years after la Mission photographique de la DATAR, how would a new mission respond to the significant changes that have taken place within culture, politics and technology and where would the initiative come from?
With fall of the Berlin Wall and the enlargement of the European Union - now with 27 member states - the borders of national states within the EU have become permeable with the free movement of citizens and goods. New developments in transportation such as high-speed trains and short-haul air flights have made travel easy and inexpensive. And developments within telecommunications have made receiving and sending information instantaneous, both within the nation state, but also globally. The World Wide Web, home computers and digital technologies have changed the nature of photography, both in the making of images and their distribution. These changes raise questions about where the boundary of the nation starts; how the landscape has been transformed by these changes and where photographers locate themselves within this fluid landscape and do these changes undermine what it means to a citizen of any nation state?
Over the last twenty years the EU with support from different nation states have supported photographic projects on the idea of the unified European state. These cultural initiatives have generally coincided with the enlargement of the EU or when a particular nation has taken the functions of the Presidency that rotates within its members every six months. This interest in the wider EU might well have undermined interest in making photographic surveys or missions in one particular nation. That a new photographic initiative on the French territory would start during the present financial crisis of the Euro raised questions on the status and future of the EU and national identity. So a renewed interest in a national project and not a European mission raises important questions and comes at an important moment in the history of the EU and France. That a group of photographers living in France were keen to renew and reinvent a national photographic mission takes on wider cultural implications not only in France but across Europe.
This Mission started in early 2011 by a small group of photographers (Jérôme Brezillon, Frédéric Delangle, Cédric Delsaux and Patrick Messina) and has grown organically by word of month and at different times as involved over 50 photographers. They all live in France and have taken on the task to redefine the territory of France at the beginning of the 21st century at the moment when the nation state might be disintegrating. Originally working under the title We Are French (WAF) : The Mission on the New French Landscape, this was changed in late 2012 and the project is now called Liquid Territories: The Mission on the New French Landscape. This new mission would encompass the main ethos of La Mission photographique de la DATAR of involving different photographers making a visual survey over an extended period of time. In many respects they are the sons and daughters of La Mission photographique de la DATAR because they embody the spirit of the earlier mission. However this new mission would be fundamentally different in its organization. This was a mission started without any institutional support. The core group of photographers were not seeking any external approval or funding before embanking on such an ambitious project.
This was a deliberate decision that the mission would develop without any overall cultural administration from a bigger partner who might give the mission a particular direction. This was a ‘light’ mission without the baggage of reports or control from outside. This was a mission for photographers who were committed to the project, because the implications were that each photographer had to find the time to complete their work and cover their own costs. Within this group this created a sense of trust and esprit de corps. This is a generation of photographers who have the skills and inclination to start their own mission without any obligation to anyone. The other significant difference with La Mission photographique de la DATAR was that the new mission did not start off being oppositional to existing photographic representation of France. The DATAR mission was very much a response to the way that commercial photography and the media in general portrayed France in the 1980s.
Now 30 years later and at the beginning of the 21st century this is a different moment where photography has embraced digitalization and can be found in more spaces – both real and virtual – than we could have imagined in the 1980s. In a profound way the photographic image has become liquid. Easily altered on screens, sent around the world in milliseconds with millions of photographic images taken daily. We are living in a sea of images that move and change without obvious reason. How could there be an official view or one dominant view of the French landscape? For a photographer working today there are more possibilities of showing and displaying their work than ever before. The use of the Internet has changed the nature of photographic communication and in many respects this mission could not have happened without social media. Interestingly the Mission is contemporaneous with wider social changes taking place around the world like the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement where social media have played an important role in anti-government movements. New forms of technologies are re-making politics and social engagement and you can see something similar within culture where groups are forming and are working together on projects. This mission is part of this change.
As the group increased in size, they realized that they needed some form of co-ordination and someone to work with each photographer to assist in giving feedback on their proposals and work. They also needed someone to write down some guidelines and write a form of manifesto for the mission. They also thought that person should not be involved or have any connections with any existing French cultural institution. After an initial telephone conversation in spring 2011 where I was invited to consider this role and soon after a meeting in Paris, I agreed to join the mission and work with the group and give some overall direction and theme for the mission. I was impressed with the aims and vision of the mission and was delighted that I was asked to be part of this new mission. Over the last two years I have taken regular trips to Paris to conduct seminars, workshops and meet each photographer with some meetings taking place over two days involving discussions with 25 individual photographers. Making reference to the history of photography, recent photographic work on the landscape, the new philosophical writings on materialism and some of my own-curated projects I outlined possible directions that their photographic work might follow. From these discussions and the feedback I wrote a general statement of intent with the emphasis on working in a more experimental way - in the manner of a visual laboratory – in which each photographer investigates and pursues a new visual idea on how the French landscape could be represented today. This visual research will not be a simple representation of the landscape, or even an easy documentary approach, but working more like a writer or filmmaker who might be dealing with complex ideas that question the dichotomy between fact / fiction and history / future. So the mission became an opportunity for each photographer to take risks with their practice and produce work that is innovative and will open up a debate on the meaning on the French territory with little direct reference to the earlier work produced by the photographers in DATAR.
At each meeting photographers brought back their work in progress and we discussed the work and the direction that they were taking in their projects. They also shared their experiences with other photographers who were attending the meeting and discussed their own relationship to the landscape. It became apparent that some photographers were not interested in pursuing this kind of direction and some photographers left the mission, however more new members joined who were keen to undertake a more experimental approach. One major shift was in the gender balance of the group. In the beginning of the mission only a few women were involved. This changed dramatically over eighteen-month period and by late 2012 almost 50% of the photographers are now women. Each photographer took their own particular approach and direction of their project. Some worked in one location, others travelled more widely. Whichever location was chosen the photographers were travelling researching and taking photographs over an extended period. Others were keen to return to places they knew and were already familiar with. The personal, family connections and memory played a more important impetus in their works. By the summer of 2013 many of the projects were completed.
How have the photographers responded to the French landscape and to the new condition of Liquid Territories? I will give four examples (Frédéric Delangle, Brigitte Bauer, Emilie Vialet and Elina Brotherus).
Frédéric Delangle has made large non-descript black/white photographs of road junctions in Paris. Like the early street photographs by Thomas Struth, they are without any dramatic visual interests, however after the prints have been made he adds something special. The photographic print becomes a canvass where colour is added, but not by the way of Photoshop. One of the key elements of globalization is the outsourcing of business procures to other parts of the world, in particular Asia. Delangle sent his prints to India where skilled painters added colour to the prints and also symbols and signs that make reference to Indian companies. The result is that the French urban landscape has been colonialized by the Hindi language. A new hybrid location is formed, an amalgamation of two cultures to create, Paridelhi.
Brigitte Bauer takes her dog for a walk everyday along the Rhône River outside of Arles. She always takes her mobile camera phone on these walks and takes photographs of her dog as it explores the territory. Animals have their own territories that are defined by scent, smell and noise. When owners take their dogs on walks the dog questions our more ridged human boundaries made by law and fences, they let their senses rule their life even if the owner tries to control the dog’s wanderings and urges by a leash. Animals like dogs challenge our understanding of the world with fixed ridged boundaries and borders that we need for safety. Dogs suggest another way of navigating the world and another way of seeing. They take humans back to earlier times before nations and formal boundaries and to an imagery utopian life without fear. This might be why we keep dogs, they imply freedom from the constraints of boundaries, and that dogs view the world as liquid territories.
The southern western coastal zone of France forms part of the Bay of Biscay and faces the Atlantic Sea. The coast is flat with long beaches, sand dunes and marshlands that are exposed to westerly winds and tidal currents. However Les Landes as the region is known, was once an expansive pine forest that was destroyed in 407 CE by the tribe Vandals who razed the villages, dispersed the population, and set fire to the forests so destroying the cover of a vast sandy area. The prevailing winds began the movement of sand from the coast into the hinterland that dammed streams causing marshlands to form that cover more than 9000km2. Malaria followed and practically depopulated the once well-peopled and productive region. In the late 18th century Napoleon appointed the engineer Nicolas Brémontier (1738-1809) to stop the movement of the sand with the construction of a dike, using wooden beams and by reforesting with pine trees and other plants. With some success the sands were stopped and the marshy lands drained. Today it is still a constant battle to control the moving sand dunes. This changing territory that has been made and re-made by the elements and human intervention is the subject of Emilie Vialet’s project. Her photographs give the impression that the sand is now on the move and that humans have deserted Les Landes to its fearful fate to disrepair and again become a landscape of sand dunes. It also feels like the sand has found its way into her camera and impinge itself into the pale sandy colours of the image. Is Vialet suggesting that nether image or the territories are permanent, and that at some future moment in time both will turn into sand?
With references to nineteenth century Romanticism and in particular the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), Elina Brotherus’ photographs are modern day images of humankind’s relationship to nature. Brotherus’ photographs for the mission make reference to two of Friedrich’s paintings, Chalk Cliffs on Rügen (1818) where a female figure is pictured at the edge of the frame wearing a red dress, and Woman before the Rising Sun (1818/20) that depicts a female figure at the center of the picture silhouetted against the intense reddish-yellow of the sky. In her photographs Brotherus moves the location from northern Germany to a forest landscape in central France. By using a cable release Brotherus wearing a red coat moves from behind the camera to become the protagonist in her own photographs. Many of Friedrich’s paintings are of winter landscapes that depict trees without leaves to suggest death, or a sense of despair. However Brotherus is engaging more directly with the landscape. She is not just looking, but playing in the landscape and experiencing nature at first hand. This was an important theme in Romanticism, that to fully understand the power of nature will come only from a direct experience of being in the landscape. Brotherus is using her body to measure the landscape, to test its power and her own human knowledge. Where are the boundaries between wet and dry or between hanging and failing? She is testing the liquid nature of her own body and of the territory.
These photographers and the wider members of the Mission are redefining what it means to be a citizen of a nation at the beginning of the 21st century. I would describe this group as citizen photographers or a new form of nation photographers who are enquiring into the idea of nationhood and what is the present condition of the land. They are not producing a systematic survey; it could never be, nor is it an impressionistic survey of France. It is a tentative visual statement on the condition on the French territories. It is also an open enquiry about the nature of a European nation, and also enquiry on the nature of the photographic process. They are asking important questions; where do you stand to take photographs on a territory that is not stabile and is continually moving and how do you define the identity of territory when nations are not permanent? They are part of a long tradition of other missions, and like La Mission photographique de la DATAR, they will leave a legacy for future missions to take their own route and enquire what it means to live on a particular part of the earth at one moment in time.
 I have taken the metaphor liquid from the writings of Zygmunt Bauman the Leeds University Emeritus Professor of Sociology. In his books Liquid Surveillance. Cambridge and Malden, Polity Press, 2013 and Liquid Modernity. Cambridge and Malden, Polity Press, 2000, he defines liquid modernity as a kind of chaotic continuation of modernity, where one can shift from one social position to another, in a fluid manner. Nomadism becomes a general trait of the liquid modern human, as he/she flows through their own life like a tourist, changing places, jobs, partners and values. Bauman stressed the new burden of responsibility fluid modernism placed on the individual, with traditional patterns being replaced by self-chosen ones. I have defined liquid territories more broadly with reference to the landscape and as well as the human.
 When I travel by Eurostar from London to Paris I pass through two passport controls points that are 6 meters apart in St Pancras rail station, one for UK boarder control and the other for the French control. When traveling back from the Gare du Nord the same boarder controls are found. These strips of space are extraterritorial and are general exempt from the jurisdiction of local law. You find similar extraterritorial spaces at international airports. As I write this essay the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden is located in a hotel at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport unable to move without a passport. Between 1988 and 2006 Mehran Karimi Nasseri the Iran refugee who lived in the departure lounge of Terminal One in the Charles de Gaulle Airport. Lost in black hole in the center of a nation.
 The fifth installment of the US National Intelligence Council’s report, Global Trends 2013: Alternative Worlds published in December 2012 predicts, “During the next 15-20 years, as power becomes even more diffuse than today, a growing number of diverse state and nonstate actors, as well as subnational actors, such as cities, will play important governance roles.” The role of technology will further erode centralized power, “The spread of IT use will give individuals and groups unprecedented capabilities to organize and collaborate in new ways. Networked movements enabled by IT already have demonstrated the capacity for disruption and the ability to quickly draw global attention to the need for political and social change. IT use enables individuals to organize around shared ideas in the virtual world and carry out sustained action.”
 The most recent was Sense of Place: Landscape Photography. BOZAR, Brussels, 2012.
 Bumpy Ride: The Prophecies of Photography. FotoGrafia Festival Internazionale di Roma. 2010. Massimo Vitali: New Works, Brancolini Grimaldi. London, 2011. Text tilted Subprime Sublime in the book High Attitude, Michael Naijar, Kerber, 2011.
 This female figure might well be modeled on Friedrich’s than new wife Caroline Brommer.