Spending his childhood between France and Algeria has led Attia to feel close to Oriental and Arab philosophy, as well as to Western philosophy.
His father, who has immigrated to France from Algeria in the 70’s, has always told him: “The most important thing, when you emigrate, is not the place where you come from or where you go to, it is the journey.”.
This has made him to develop an “ergonomic of the mind”, to always be between two things, rather than feeling trapped in one side or the other. This obligation to “go back and forth” has led him to never feel comfortable in the same place, in the same position, and by extension in the same state of mind.
As an artist, he applies this duality of thought to his artistic process. He has then always been more interested in hybridism than in opposites sides, feeling that Human Being should come back to this flexible space, which separates any extremely different issues, which is experience.
Using his own identity, that has been defined by several cultures as the starting point, he tackles the increasingly difficult relationship between Europe and immigrants, particularly those of Islamic faith. In doing so he does not allow himself to be tied down to one specific medium. His photographic work and films portray the smoldering conflicts arising from the history of French colonialism and are characterized by exceptional attention to detail. The allegorical minimalism of his sculptures and installations on the other hand is frequently unsettling owing to the discord between their external sensory appeal and their controversial content
“Rochers Carrés” - Kader Attia.
I have been thinking about the notion of boundary — geographical, cultural, sexual, religious, philosophical — for a long time.
I am interested in that issue, notably through the way architecture and urbanism have an impact on peoples’ everyday life, and particularly the way power has always used them to control populations.
One of the most famous politicians to have used this is Napoleon III. He came into power in 1848 fed up with the riots that occurred during the first half of 19th century. Afraid of a new revolution, Napoleon asked Baron Haussmann, then Prefect of Paris, to redesign the capital’s urbanism. At that time, popular neighborhoods of Paris were an entanglement of narrow and complicated streets. Napoleon III decided to make the neighborhoods easier to access in order to better control them in case of an uprising.
Baron Haussmann created wide boulevards, linking neighborhoods and surrounding Paris, to protect against fortifications (shantytowns) around the capital. The poorest populations were already separated from Paris by a boundary that still exists: Boulevard Périphérique, each one called after a marshal’s name. The segregation of the poor continues in France, as poorest of populations have been gathered in the banlieues (shantytowns).
During the 1930s, 1940s and the 1960s immigrant populations were placed in shantytowns as soon as they arrived in France. For his first trip to France, my father arrived in 1957 at the Nanterre shantytown, and was moved to the Juvisy-sur-Orge. When the overpopulation of the shantytowns made life unbearable, social and health authorities placed families in public housing. Concrete buildings sprang up everywhere in French suburbs marking the beginning of social progress (public housing units / Moderate Rent Houses) that became the banlieues, or open sky jails, as they are referred to by locals.
In Algiers, like in Paris, Baron Haussmann had a strong influence on urbanism such as the wide boulevards that run through the capital. Additionally, an architect in Algiers named Fernand Pouillon also worked for power, building experimental houses and attempting to create the first form of social progress. He loaned his name to what is now Cité Pouillon, one of the most popular cities in Algiers. Cité Pouillon is a collection of buildings that resemble the French concrete banlieues by their austerity and their absence of identity. They look like big bunkers.
In Algiers, near the Bab el Oued neighborhood, there is a beach that young people nickname "Rochers Carrés". Constructed by the Algerian President Houari Boumediene´s administration, it looks like a breakwater beach that is made out of huge concrete blocks, whose sides can be up to 3 or 4 meters, and faces the sea. Until age 16 I spent my summer vacations in Bab el Oued, one of Algiers’ poor neighborhoods, where young people go to hangout, smoke, fish and sometimes prostitute themselves. Above all, they spend hours, sitting on the blocks, watching, as if hypnotized by boats going back and forth between Algeria and Europe.
This beach is the ultimate boundary that separates them from this continent but above all from their dreams about a better life. This massive and strange construction imprisons them in their cruel reality, as it is also the case in French banlieues, where many immigrants end up. As time goes by, I find it ironic to have grown up in the middle of concrete buildings of Parisian banlieues, and to have frequently spent my summer vacations playing on this beach’s blocks, also made out of concrete.
The architecture of this beach and the way it has been created look like the urbanism of Parisian banlieues. Do these young people, who scrutinize the horizon hoping to find an answer to their misery, know what kind of environment they will end up in when they will have accomplished the journey through the Mediterranean Sea? The boundary embodied by this beach is not only physical; it is also psychological. Nevertheless, as years go by, I realize that some similarities exist on both sides of the Mediterranean Sea. The hard existence of these young Algerian people reminds me of that experienced by young people in the French banlieues: the same lack of hope in the future, same sexual misery, same frustration, same lack of social acknowledgement, same feeling of failure and same suffering.
On the surface level, there is no boundary. Poverty indeed has no boundaries. Still, these young people keep on dreaming about a world they think is better on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea, whereas reality is worse and worse for illegal immigrants in rich countries — France or elsewhere. Often stated by the young people who try risk the danger of crossing the Mediterranean Sea and often perish on makeshift boats, the Harragas : "I would rather be eaten by fishes than by worms.”
Kader Attia, 2009