La Place entre les murs

An conversation

by María Berríos

How to start anywhere but with the displacement of an enormous clock of unknown dimensions? It is hard to know where in the exhibition it will go because its true magnitude will be revealed only once it has come down from its factory-wall pedestal. Maybe in reality it is not big at all; it just seems like that to those it mandates, those whose labour is submitted to its time-measuring devices. To others it may simply disappear into the semi-industrial urban landscape it inhabits, a tired detail in the daily stroll past the street corner where it sits on a red-brick wall.

The clock normally hovers above the entrance to what looks like the old administrative building of a large factory complex belonging to a packaging company located in the city of Lund. The complex is on Maskinvägen, which roughly and fittingly translates as ‘Machine Road’. The clock’s home address is Machine Road number 1.

Home Waits for No One, 2021

Mr. Lagomarsino, father of the artist Runo Lagomarsino, worked in the printing plant of that packaging factory for several years in the late 1980s, during which he must have passed beneath this clock on a daily basis. Although it was surely not the only time-keeping device monitoring his work. Possibly a punch-card was involved, making small holes in pieces of paper upon the entry and exit of the premises, miniscule voids to reiterate the pieces of time eaten by the company.

Maybe a bell to mark the coordinated permitted breaks or the change of a shift. Three daily shifts were in operation at the time. The sounds of the machinery choreographing manual labour to the rhythm of the pulsating printers, spitting out packaging for diverse domestic goods, possibly cereal boxes, small casings for coffee filters, teabags or chocolate. Printing presses stamping away the mechanical movements of the workday. Mr. Lagomarsino, a former university student from Argentina become factory worker in Lund, spent a period of his life in exile under the clock that now sits idle in the city’s kunsthalle.

An old anarchist proverb states that if you aren’t stealing from your workplace, you are stealing from your home. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Argentina was flooded by anarchists fleeing political persecution and war in Europe, many of whom were Italians. They are also renowned for their profound and sometimes violent disdain for clocks.

Thievery and Devaluation

Theft is an important part of the political economy of Runo Lagomarsino’s work. His modes of production entail a barter of words, of references, of materials. Value is created in the friction and even alchemy of these multiple exchanges, which is never a trade of equivalencies: cereal boxes traded in for thousands of unusable book covers, an old hat for a new hat, photographic chemicals for a tiny piece of silver. The work happens in the ungraspable surplus involved, which could be understood as an inverted surplus of escape, a deviated leakage. Things are stolen, ranging from artefacts of light to deceased insects, and of course also images and words.

In the work of Runo Lagomarsino, words and stories are often objects of productive misappropriation. He has borrowed phrases and sentences recurrently as titles and as conceptual objects in themselves. It could be said that his work also operates as a kind of propagating machine, as a way of sharing the loot and spreading words. Stolen words that become stories in their overlappings, crossing geographies, temporalities. Stories that are also his own, although he knows they do not belong to him. Stories that are everywhere and that could belong to anyone. Stories as things that refuse to be owned.

Mad Toy, 2021

Thievery is also at the core of the 1926 novel El juguete rabioso by Roberto Arlt, the cover and back cover of which Runo Lagomarsino has printed onto endless sheets of thin packaging cardboard on the printers currently operating in the factory where his father used to work. They sit in orderly piles in the exhibition space of Lunds konsthall, as if suddenly the production had been pulled to a halt, and only the covers were done, left in suspense for the interior of the book itself.

The edition of Arlt’s book used to make these serialised facsimile covers was part of the makeshift library that travelled with the Lagomarsino family when they fled Buenos Aires. It was not the carefully selected collection of books one could imagine taking when leaving a home country behind, where each volume would have a specific function or special meaning. The rush of fleeing does not allow such luxuries. It was rather a salvage, according to Mr. Lagomarsino, the father: ‘the few books that survived the escape’. Yet somehow the paperback managed to arrive with the family first in Barcelona, and then in Lund.

The novel by Arlt, an important figure in Latin American literature, is a gritty account of the life of a young man called Silvio Astier, who hangs out with petty crooks – he himself is one – and his reiterated attempts to escape his own life of poverty and delinquency by trying out several ways to make easy cash. All of which are irremediable failures.

For Astier, books and reading form part of a strange economy of dispossession and debt. A scene in the novel describes an episode from his first robbery where he and a small gang steal books from a school, for them a place of exclusion only accessible through their nocturnal excursion. Their plan is to steal books according to how much they can sell them for. Once inside they skim through the covers to assess their street value. During this valuation ritual they read one of the titles, Charles Baudelaire: A Life. One of the youngsters immediately states: ‘Looks like a biography, zero value.’ It is to be tossed onto the pile of useless goods they will leave behind. Astier picks it up, reads a few sentences aloud and declares: ‘Es hermosísimo.’ (It is very beautiful.) Since the book has no real value he decides to take it home.

In the novel his mother nags at him to get a job and stop wasting his time reading. For her reading is equivalent to losing money. Books are a negation of work. Astier eventually finds work in a used bookshop but the job is full of humiliations, among them an odd system imposed by his boss where he has to pay a kind of book-rent to be able to read the volumes in the shop. He then becomes involved in a frustrated arson attempt against the bookshop, his workplace.

Astier has a lot in common with Arlt himself, who was self-educated and felt great disdain for the world of supposedly refined culture. A photograph of Arlt illustrates the cover of the book, and in it he could very well be playing the part of Astier.

In the poetic abduction of the printing presses of a Lund packing company, in running its machines to print a simulacrum of a cover, Runo Lagomarsino is also playing a part. In these piles of a multiplied empty book what is provided is the inaccessibility to the unfolding of a story. In this, Lagomarsino, the artist, could be playing out the unrealised part of his father, the now ex-factory worker, had he been able to follow other impossible paths rather than the one that led to him living in a small Swedish city.

Each pile of El juguete rabioso present in the entrance hall of Lund konsthall creates a material void, the serial impossibility of following the story through and finding out what kind of machine the mad toy was. The book cover is offered back as an anti-work object, a recognition of what is stolen by work, but also what was taken by the workings of exile. A mad toy that refuses to be a life consumed by the machineries of others.

America, I UseYour Name in Vain, 2019

Printing only the cover is also a way of safekeeping the book while at the same time propagating it, a summons for the proliferation of counterfeit versions through a kind of forged currency. In many of Runo Lagomarsino’s works there is piracy. A belief in the dignity and humility of the copy, an acknowledgement that there is something to be learned from the careful mimicry of gestures.

For instance in a hand, remembering the hand of someone else before it, trying to grasp a falling piece of devalued metal, knowing that it is not about actually catching it, but that something generative will happen when it slips through.

In his work Lagomarsino shows great respect for piracy as a ritual of regeneration. In Latin America pirated books are very common. They are significantly cheaper and can be purchased on the street, usually displayed laying on a little blanket directly on the pavement. The books are made in the most economical way possible, so the cover is noticeably cheaply printed and the interior photocopied. The issue with these pirate editions is that sometimes the photocopying or collating has gone wrong and there are missing or messed-up pages. The writings are scrambled and interchanged. When confiscated by the police such pirate books are burned, destroyed through a process of incineration to eliminate their bastard alterations, although what is deemed criminal is that they have not paid their way into the industry.

Under the right-wing dictatorships of South America in the 1970s and ’80s, book burnings were not uncommon and were executed by young inexperienced military cadets in an improvised way during raids. The cadets would stand around trying to look authoritative while attempting to figure out what insurgent leftist artifacts, books or other printed matter actually looked like. In their own ritual of valuation vast quantities of unrelated, innocent, books were destroyed. Books on cubism or technical volumes on armed concrete would be sacrificed due to suspected links to Cuba or armed guerrilla warfare. Significant proportions of the colour red on a cover was enough to turn a book suspect, particularly if in combination with black.

Entire print runs of books are rumoured to have been deemed dangerous enough to merit being dumped into the ocean. A modus operandi that is a sinister eco of the sadly notorious death flights, a mode of extrajudicial execution inaugurated during the Battle of Algiers and used during the dictatorships in Argentina and Chile. The excruciating cruelty of these crimes were committed on helicopters and airplanes that would fly a few kilometres away from the coastlines, in an effort to make sure the bodies of the victims would never be found. The sadly endless history of oceans turned into open graveyards of the total devaluation of human life.

Multiple Lives of Remains

The industrialised book covers for a hollowed El juguete rabioso are accompanied by a selection of arpilleras by Chilean artist Bélgica Castro Fuentes. The arpilleras, small tapestries made by women during the Chilean military regime, were the first artistic testimonies of what everyday life looked like under dictatorship.

The makers were mothers, sisters, spouses and daughters of the disappeared. After repeated encounters in hospitals, justice tribunals and morgues, where they would go to demand information on the whereabouts of their loved ones, the women began to recognise one another. They started meeting up in different associations on a regular basis, and in these contexts they began to create these works by sewing together rags and small pieces of fabric.

While the arpilleras were a part of the struggle and internal resistance against the regime, they were also widely used to internationally denounce the violation of human rights in the country. They travelled to show the world that there was also resistance inside the regime. They were smuggled out of the country, since they were easy to fold and carry in a foreigner’s luggage, hidden among the clothing. Arpilleras were sent around the world to be sold and raise money to support the families of the disappeared. Raids of the women’s meetings became more and more frequent and the small rags and pieces of cloth were sought as subversive material and dumped in the sewage tanks or destroyed in other ways by the police. For the women it was a mode of protest and collective storytelling, a means of survival and solidarity.

Bélgica Castro Fuentes had been a part of the Agrupación de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos (Association of Families of the Detained Disappeared, AFDD). Her husband Raúl San Martín Barrera was among the thousands of disappeared in the immediacy of the 1973 military coup. She began working with arpilleras together with other women in 1977. They would meet around a table where several piles made up of little pieces of cloth would lay. ‘We clung to the used textiles, to the bits of fabric, because they had history and, in that way, we brought to life our disappeared.’

These conversations were had and the women held each other together through their shared stories and experiences. But after several detentions and difficulties Bélgica Castro Fuentes went into exile and ended up in Malmö, Sweden. She tried to return to Chile in the late 1990s, after the dictatorship was officially over, but as for many other exiles who tried to return, the country left behind had ceased to exist as she knew it. She eventually returned to Sweden and began, once again, to work with arpilleras. Sewing as a way of making amends with the irreparably broken pieces of everything, but above all a mode of struggle, a form of survivance and everyday life.

Sea Grammar, 2015

Works by Bélgica Castro Fuentes:
Exilio (Exile), 2005
El Adiós (The Farewell), 2006
Nacimiento (Birth), 2014
Mi nombre es Mohamed (My Name Is Mohammed), 2017
Naufragio en el Mediterráneo (Shipwreck in the Mediterranean), 2017

Bélgica Castro Fuentes’s arpilleras are full of life, vivifying. In this there is a dialectic contrast with the often devastating scenes they depict. All the pieces presented in Lunds konsthall reveal the different dimensions of breakage and partitions of life that is exile. The parting and farewell of loved ones that can last a lifetime, generations even. The vessels that carry people away from one another. Sails of a boat replaced by the cluttered national flags left behind and the borders to come, navigating the oceans that will separate families, their vast waters flooding and the destabilisation of any sense of belonging. Acknowledging the political grammar of holes being punctured into bodies of water.

In one piece a black helicopter is flying above the ocean. It has a ghostly reminiscence of the death flights, but it depicts a scene of a shipwreck in the Mediterranean: a reminder that these histories are not behind us, but rather an inadmissible present that not only prevails but thrives with remorseless contemporaneity.

In their softness these arpilleras are humanising. A reminder that there is life outside and beyond the constraints of walls and fences, but also amidst the machineries of all social factories. Bélgica Castro Fuentes’s arpilleras can often be seen on the streets, during protests or meetings. This past worker’s day they lay on the grass under the sun, in a demonstration of their own. The handmade textiles become pieces of sun entering the space. Windows to the world outside the white walls of the gallery. They bring in a certain intimacy and complicity in the loneliness of exile, the shared yet isolating experiences of displacement. As an active memory of the present, they provide a generous and humbling parallel confection of the multi-layered experiences of refugees. They stand in sisterhood.

Homes Made of Smoke

The homes of exile families are small islands. They are of course as singular and as diverse as the people they hold together. Yet they are also interconnected, particularly in the sometimes enforced sociability within specific exile communities. The children of exile parents know the traits very well: the grown-ups, freed from the thick accents that identify them outside, filled the homes with ongoing chatter, a large portion of which referred to the old homes they had left behind. One that in a sense vanished slowly as they spoke. And amongst the ongoing traffic of children and food, there was always smoke, endless amounts of it as many of the adults were serial chain-smokers.

I am unaware if Runo Lagomarsino’s parents were themselves heavy smokers. We have never spoken about our childhoods. Although growing up elsewhere, amongst other groups of Latin American exiles, endless smoking seemed to be a given part of the shared reproductive space. The diffuse materiality of cigarette smoke was something very reliable, an almost comforting assurance of the presence of the adults.

Despite the prohibitive prices of cigarettes in the diverse contexts of arrival, these seemingly exorbitant costs were never questioned and always included as part of the monthly family expenses. It was not a luxury but a basic necessity to calm the nerves and the memories. Also the good ones, it was especially important to keep those at bay. Smoking was, despite all the obvious contradictions, a way of breathing.

Yo también soy humo (I Am Also Smoke), 2020

In this film Runo Lagomarsino’s father smokes a cigarette. The viewer does not see him, but a postcard of Barcelona, where the family arrived in November 1976. He speaks of his arrival to the port, together with his wife and daughter, who was a toddler at the time. She spends her time chasing after the seagulls.

The father speaks of what they have brought in their luggage, which apart from clothing and bedlinen include a couple of vinyl records and a few books. He speaks of a moment where he is able to suspend in his mind the city and the life left behind, of the temporary disappearance of the entirety of Argentina. He speaks of a present that is made up of a vanishing past and future. And of the certainty and determination that they will ‘find a life’ in the unfamiliar city where they have landed, or wherever they may end up. He puts out the cigarette butt in the cobblestone sidewalk of the Barcelona port.

Freedom for Fire, 2020

In the space where the film is screened other small fires continue to burn. A series of candles and their contained light bulb counterparts are vertically distributed in an installation that feels a bit like a chapel. But there is no gospel except in the call for Freedom for Fire. The small flames suspended like fireflies at different heights all over the room as if performing some kind of purging ritual. There is a certain sharpness in the sculptural semblance of the standing candles, a delicacy even, like that of a slow but precise nocturnal uprising.

There is an old saying that is often heard in Latin American port cities. It states that in the flame of a lit candle lives the soul of a person at sea. I wonder if Runo Lagomarsino knows of this saying. I wonder if his father has ever said it.

La Place entre les murs (The Square between the Walls), 2017

In an adjacent space there is an image of what looks like a portrait of an intergenerational family reunion outside one of their homes. In actuality it portrays a kind of reverse of this situation, a group of people forced to leave their families behind, although there is also a strong sense of kinship, of a new community of kinship being forged. This is probably why rather than a ship carrying political refugees one imagines home of some kind. But it is not a home, or rather it a home made of smoke.

Runo Lagomarsino has employed a chemical process to extract the silver present in the photographic fixer used in the development process. Many photographs need to be developed in order to extract enough of the metal to create a tiny piece of silver. Argentina, the word, derives from the Latin argentum, meaning silver. Lagomarsino, the artist, seems to be forging a minuscule piece of that home that in the image is becoming smaller and smaller as the voyagers drift away to the other edge of the sea, another ocean even.

Words That Escape Us

Geometry Is Hope, Geometry Is Fear, 2021
A Line Can Now Be Drawn, 2020

The purging of words is something Runo Lagomarsino does carefully. Combinations of words are used to pry things open, used as small tools to trigger a spilling out of multidimensional stories from material objects and artefacts.

In the exhibition there is a piece that, like others he has elaborated in the past, involves the intersecting of words, combinations that are broken down, stamped on top of one another, and then released. Rows sprawling up the walls as if the tidy lines of an obsessive linguist or poet had run off their notebook or typewriter. But also like the repetitive writing of a punished child on a blackboard. As if the words themselves, in the compulsive reiteration of the precise measuring and placement of their own components, longed for escape.

A kind of geometrical mantra or pulsation. Trying to somehow free itself from its own orderly constraints, similar to the chronometric beat of the hands of the clock, or the heel of a horseback rider rhythmically pressing into the animal’s groin. While simultaneously suspecting that the neatly stamped letters cannot but confirm their own confinement.

Mapa Mundi, 2021
Tales from the Underworld, 2020

Words also become images, burning with the will to free themselves even if just a little, scorched words that can become landscapes, glyphs or even maps. Maps conscious of the absurdity of claiming the entire world for themselves. Their geography is indeed a metrics of hope and fear. In the works of Lagomasino words act as a code, an attempt to dissolve or break into the white walls of the space, to wedge themselves behind the corners. Orderly rows that wish they could become waves.

All of this is present at Lunds konsthall: the mirage of the colonial panoptic, in its expansive and also ridiculous attempts to own, measure, and delimit, everything and anything. Among these efforts is a kind of miniature cemetery. A collection of insects as fragile as the little beds of words they lie on in their white matchbook-like homes, displaced tiny creatures that ended up somewhere they were not allowed to be. Intruders in another kind of sacred temple, one of self-righteously owned looted things.

In the work of Lagomarsino language is everything and at the same time it is an unstable void that can drop on you at any moment. A void that is not empty, but rather chaotically populated, criss-crossed with histories and geographies of violence and complicated beauty. That void is what exists between the walls, within and between solid bodies. It is la place entre les murs.

Language itself, particularly in the context of exile, is full of these kinds of betrayals. It is probably only in this inadequacy of language, in the traitorship of the mother tongue that I share with the artist, that the present works can be spoken to. For those who grew up in contexts of exile, it is this betrayal that makes the mother tongue ungraspable even if one can apparently speak it well.

Speaking ‘the language’ (the majority language) impeccably is a basic survival tool for the children of migrant parents, a skill that is demanded and enforced by school systems everywhere. This even when programmes are in place claiming to support children’s ‘other’ languages, designating the ones spoken in their homes as foreign. By which even the small islands of belonging that a family home can be for a child are colonised as an elsewhere. The school/factory takes on the role of grinding away at the foreignness of children’s languages, making sure their language can ‘pass’, preparing them for a life as double agents.

Yet this never really succeeds, as the process inevitably leaves traces. The mother tongue is always imprinted. In some cases, to the extreme of erasure and the home language is ultimately forgotten, some parents were pressed so hard that they were eventually convinced that this loss would assure a more stable future for their offspring, resulting in adults estranged from languages they were fluent in as children. Although in the case of the Latin American exile communities of the 1970s and ’80s more frequently the children’s language became a kind of personal dialect, imprinted by imperceptible and hard-to-place accents.

Sometimes these anomalous markings on the mother tongue will not be noticed for many years, until these former children attempt to use it while visiting their families in their parent’s home countries where strangers will ask them ‘Where are you from?’ This is a question that has no real answer. This question will be asked of them over and over again, also later on, in other contexts, when they are overheard speaking to their own children in foreign tongues.

Everywhere in the works of artist Runo Lagomarsino is the acknowledgement of a fundamental instability present in every word, in every object, on every surface of the material world. A materiality composed by the perpetual imperfection of language, language itself as a bad translation, as betrayal. But although migrant children may not manage to become flawless double agents, they are experts in navigating bad translations. They carry this ability around like stones in their pockets.