MIGRATION The Photo Came out Blurry
Text by Javier Rivero
«A cronopio goes to open the door and as he puts his hand in his pocket to take out the key what he takes out is a matchbox, so this cronopio gets very upset and starts to think that if instead of the key he finds the matches, it would be awful if the world was suddenly out of place, and that maybe if the matches are where the key is, he might find his wallet full of matches, and the sugar bowl full of money, and the piano full of sugar, and the phone book full of music, and the wardrobe full of subscribers, and the bed full of suits, and the vases full of bed sheets, and the trams full of roses, and the fields full of trams. »
— Julio Cortázar, Historias de cronopios y de famas, 1962
The oil pumps continue their mechanical up and down movement while a light flashes on the telephone, indicating someone’s left a message at the reception. Railcars slowly enter a railway switchyard and a coal boat sails calmly on a river. Behind each corner, there’s a person about to cross it to close the water tap or turn the television off. However, these people remain out of focus; what the spectator sees is a slightly nervous horse in a motel room somewhere in the northwest of the United States. A breeze comes in through a slightly opened window; the horse moves its hoofs and from its ankles dirt falls on the carpet: the inner exterior, the uninhabited room, the photo came out blurry.
The horse that appears at the beginning of the video Migration (2008), by American artist Doug Aitken, does not seem afraid or even surprised. The panning and focus of the camera emulates the horse’s tranquility with solemnity and restraint. Everything seems natural but it shouldn’t and raises a series of questions. Perhaps the episode in Migration that best portrays this is the one with the buffalo. How did he get in and how is he getting out? He seems satisfied with his task of slightly goring the bed’s mattress while the beaver cools off in the tub and a deer looks for something in the mini bar. Animals migrate; they migrate from the fields onto TV screens to move to a human place, a place that is also a “no place.” Because what place can be more impersonal and inhumane than a motel room? The furniture, the sheets, and the small bottles in the mini bar are mute and smooth, they have no memory, and from their surfaces slide the scratches and marks of all those that have touched them, leaving them always like anonymous objects.
The piece is essentially simple and yet it is almost impossible to take your eyes off it; if I had to choose a single word to describe it, it would be “captivating.” There’s not much to say about the symbolic weight the animals have, that is to say, there is every to say about them. Not for nothing did Freud comment on how the totemic animal was not only an essential component within the most primitive forms of social order, but also of identity. It is no coincidence that since the begin of time, humans have seen the peak of an eagle in one star and in the red heart of a scorpion in another. Animals have always been a repository of what we call “humanity.”
Which brings us back to the original questions: what are those animals doing there and why can’t we stop looking at them? How will they get out there and go back to their homes? At the beginning of Migration, before the first animal appears – the horse –, a TV screen shows a herd of horses galloping through a field. The image is full of static and is hard to see. Next up is when a real life horse appears standing in front of the TV. This contrast between the image of the animal and the real animal illustrates that which Baudrillard called Syndrome Chinois (the Chinese Syndrome): the television’s ability to suppress and deactivate a “real” event to turn it into an “image” within an almost imaginary event. It is thanks to the contrast between the horse on the television and the real horse, combined with the horse in the room, that we as spectators experience this primal awe before a horse’s beauty and power.
Cortazar’s cronopio was not really afraid; he was in awe because, as the world suddenly came out of place, everything recovered its power: sugar outside of a sugar bowl and inside a piano is more sugar, flowers inside a tram are more flowers than flowers in a vase, and music in a phone book is more music when raising the question “what does a phone book sound like?” Likewise, the animals inside these cold and impersonal rooms are more animals than on the field, or at least they are for us, that through this bias, facing this blurry photo, we capture something about our own “humanity.”
These animals reflect – as they always have – people: their diaspora is a metaphor for the diaspora humans suffer within this relentless contemporary world; their disorientation reflects our disorientation and their directionless migration represents a vortex of progression with no direction. Animals suddenly seem like the personification of guests, out of place and without a home, inside a motel. And the lack of people is not surprising here because, what is this world if not one of egotism and solitude? The locations that surround this motel seem inhabited but reveal an infertile desert air. These animals should try to run, but for some reason they don’t, the same way paralysis affects so many. It seems as though the horse, the fox, the raccoon and the owl had to go a long way back home. And this hypothesis is the one that takes us back to a pending question that is important because it raises another one: and how will we get home?