Inbound Access, Outbound Escapes: an intercontinental dispatch by Michael Pattison

Published on: April 20th, 2015

Cartagena by night

“News has no present tense. It’s dead when you read it. Much better to trust fantasies that become fact through the sheer energy of the prose.”
—Iain Sinclair, Lights Out for the Territory

Imagine events, as I myself was to later reconceptualise them, in the form of three alternative headlines:

  • I Spent Five Hours Watching Judge Judy Thanks to the Lufthansa Pilots’ Strike
  • I Went All the Way to Miami to Watch Re-Runs of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire
  • I Could Only Pass Through US Customs After Taking an Oath Claiming I Didn’t Have Gonorrhoea

Whichever way you look at it, both funnier and more tragic things have happened to visiting foreigners leaving Colombia, but I’ve nevertheless enjoyed milking the absurdity of my own experience—replete with embellishments (it was four hours not five, and adding ‘re-runs’ somehow compounds the absurdity)—when relaying them to pals and colleagues since. Said experiences concern, in essence, a botched layover in Miami Airport when travelling from one nominal mouthful to another: namely, Festival Internacional de Cine de Cartagena de Indias (FICCI) and Diagonale Festival des Österreichischen Films (Diagonale for short), in the Austrian city of Graz.

Initial plans, to fly via Bogotá and Frankfurt, had fallen through at the eleventh hour (actually it was nine o’clock the morning I was due to travel) after the announcement that, on Wednesday 18th March, pilots employed by German airline Lufthansa were holding the latest in their series of strikes protesting top-down attacks upon their salaries and retirement packages. Having enjoyed a week in Colombia already—serving on the critics’ jury at FICCI—I could think of worse places for an Englishman who likes scorching sunshine and doesn’t mind equatorial heat to be stranded for another 24 hours. On the other hand, as I waited for the stars to re-align and for another route to be found, there was an increasing chance that I wouldn’t make it to Diagonale until the fourth of its five days—and jetlagged to boot.

The problem was less astronomic than acronymic. I didn’t have an ESTA. In wordier if no clearer terms, that meant I was without the Electronic System for Travel Authorization—or rather, a permit with which to enter the US. I’d in fact been asked for one upon check-in at Cartagena’s Rafael Núñez Airport (named after the nineteenth century President of Colombia, not the Venezuelan hacker who, almost precisely ten years prior to my own visit, was arrested in Miami Airport for having breached the United States Air Force security system back in 2001). Subsequently asked why I didn’t have an ESTA, I told the check-in staff, with the mild irritation of a diplomat, that I had a British passport—as if this most banal of burgundy-bound documents was the paper equivalent of a universal key.

In the States, nobody was having any of it. There’s a very specific way in which the training process for passport control manifests itself in the US: courteous, talkative, direct, curt. If this quartet of adjectives seems contradictory, that’s because it is: signs adorning the booths at passport control and several of the walls just beyond them advise passengers that they can expect to be treated in a polite, civil manner by border and security staff, even when they’re being directed like suspiciously lost children into the bunker-like backroom of customs control. The chat’s automated, involuntary. Why were you in Colombia, Sir? What do you do for a living, Sir? Four fingers of your right hand facing down on the scanner please, Sir. Aren’t you critics too harsh on films, Sir? You’re gonna need to step this way for me please, Sir.

Customs control is a grey, purgatorial place that resembles an A&E waiting room, whose five or so rows of empty seats have been fitted, perversely, so that they’re facing away from the several glass-screened, cashier-like booths—behind which sit officers of the law waiting to listen to the pleas and pledges of the limbo-locked travellers of a visa-burdened world. In the corner of the room is a supersized flatscreen television, and there’s an episode of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire playing very, very loudly. Sitting with my back to the member of staff who’s audibly flicking through my passport (and intermittently asking me to turn around and clarify a few details regarding how I’m even on American soil without authorisation), I’m bemused by the strange sense of calm that has come over me, and I instinctively begin to channel the absurdity of the unfolding situation into a memory capsule that I can later repurpose in prose.

Other boot-wearing policemen come to start shifts, exchanging niceties with those already at work: hey how are you, fine thank you. One lumbers clumsily into the doorway of his supervisor’s office, which opens out onto the waiting room I’m sitting in, to confirm the dates of the holiday he put in a week previously: how’s the wife, how are the kids, they’re doing fine thank you, should be okay I guess. They come through security-coded doors and disappear down drearily-lit corridors, paying very little attention to the young Englishman reading Dickens’ Nightwalking and even less to Terry Crews’ patter on the television, which is so loud that the same Englishman can barely concentrate on his book. Millionaire ends, and Terry Crews is replaced by Judge Judy. I begin to wonder how things might be different here—my treatment, my outlook—if I weren’t an anglophone white lad.

To use a snookering analogy: you’ve got to play like it means nothing when in fact it means everything. My Steve Davis composure can be accounted for by a combination of factors: fatigue following a seven-day festival in a place as hot as Cartagena (daily mean March temperature 27°C); relief to be talking to people whose language is more or less my own; curiosity in the developing situation; an arrogant self-assurance that I’m here through no fault of my own, that I wasn’t meant to be flying through the US to begin with; and the intuition that I must stay upbeat in light of the fact that I only have six hours till my next flight (to Madrid) and that this visa business could without my cooperation escalate, like an episode of some terrible reality TV show, into a prolonged stay inside a dingy room with phone calls to Mam, Dad and Home Office.

There’s also the dual excitement that I’m experiencing something for the first and possibly the last time—and as a writer who also travels for a large part of his work, I have over the past year come to appreciate the need to do things for the sake of doing them: to feel something, to subject oneself to it, to suffer and be surprised by it, often just to say one has suffered or been surprised. As a critic, of course, I also know that honesty is the best policy, and that self-confidence is always palpable to those who need to see it most. In truth, I rather enjoyed the opportunity to relay the details of my situation to someone whose job it was to discern and validate my sincerity.

I’m thankful to the officer who handled my case, for firstly reasoning that I wasn’t to blame for the situation, and for secondly being so proficient in running through my ESTA application there and then so that I could leave in time to catch my connection (the upshot is that Avianca Airlines, who got me from Cartagena to Miami, would later incur a fine for allowing me on the plane without a visa in the first place). I’m especially grateful for the professionalism with which she contained her own giggles, as I too stifled my own, when she asked the routine question of whether or not I had gonorrhoea and some other tongue-twisting afflictions as part of the ESTA application process—her reading them all out like a list of smoothie ingredients, me standing with my right hand raised in oath trying to listen as attentively as I could with Judge Judy bellowing out trivial arbitrations behind.

Though the chief downside to this entire episode was that I didn’t get to see Miami itself, the reasons why that would-be (and very brief) sightsee didn’t happen were never not enjoyable: in a strange way, I’ve come to learn recently to appreciate the diversion, the unexpected, the worst case scenario (though, granted, the worst scenario that does occur is never quite as bad as the one imagined). There’s something to take away from this: as a freelance writer by trade, I have learned—or am learning—the secrets of knowing how to endure the ebbs and how to maximise the flows of an innately precarious predicament. That goes primarily for workload and cash-flow forecasts, but it’s also applicable to the generality of things: in a trade so heavily dependent on relationships, on people skills, on being rich in experience and omnivorously enthusiastic, flexibility becomes a virtue.

It’s a system of seemingly delicate balances: to have rigidity in the face of chaos, to be chameleonic against local idiosyncrasies, to learn or adopt a method that is at once granite and collapsible, that’s as dynamic as onyx and able to negotiate and operate across different spatial dimensions. There’s the physical, the lived, the here-and-now. There’s the mental, the imagined, the where-and-when. Watching one film while mentally drafting thoughts on another. Sparked by a chance encounter into thinking up an article to pitch to this editor, that editor. Walking here, imagining there. A city’s past, its present and its future, all in one space: at regular intervals atop the walls enclosing Cartagena’s old colonial town, disused cannon aim outward at the bland tower blocks of a modernity that is less approaching than already here.

roll out the barrel...

History itself seems besieged. The day I ventured on foot beyond Cartagena’s old town walls, I made my way to Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, the city’s triangular sixteenth century fortress that sits stubbornly and awkwardly on top of San Lázaro Hill, only to find that there was a $10 entry fee. One must bemoan the aggression with which such sites have always been designed to protect the political and economic interests of the propertied classes. Castillo San Felipe de Barajas was originally named after the hill on which it sits, prior to a re-christening in honour of Philip IV of Spain in the seventeenth century. Later, in 1697, it fell to French privateer Baron de Pointis after a raid during the War of the Grand Alliance, and withstood an attack from the British naval fleet in 1741—by which point, of course, it was once again under Spanish rule. The fort has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984. The day I visited, I forgot my wallet, and was promptly turned away.

fortress, Cartagena

Days later, there were no such fees required to ascend Schloßberg (‘Castle Hill’), the mount overlooking Austria’s second city, Graz—presumably because there’s much less for authorities to preserve there these days than there was in, say, the eighteenth century, when the hill played host to a 400 metre-long fortress. Locals have the French to thank for the fort’s absence today: most of it was demolished following the Treaty of Schönbrunn in 1809, under which a defeated Austria agreed to cede significant chunks of its territories to Napoleon’s Fifth Coalition. The clock and bell towers remain, and the walk up there can be as quick a dash or leisurely a stroll as one prefers. At the top, on the hour, enjoy the dispersed, somehow harmonious discord of church bells competing with varied flourishes from across the city.

clocking on

By the time I scaled Schloßberg it was nearly time to leave, so delayed was my arrival into Graz. I had, however, already seen the best film of Diagonale: Lukas Marxt’s nine-minute short Black Rain White Scars, whose tripod-fixed view of a cityscape in Hong Kong is a bewitching ode to both the urban and the elemental, as a thunderstorm creeps in across the film’s running time, spoiling the afternoon pleasantries with its darkening roar. There are several interplays at work here: natural and artificial light (apartment interiors respond to shifts in weather), vertical and horizontal water (a downpour, a flowing river), stability and flux (concrete structures, shivering greenery), city and suburb (distant skyscrapers, homelier flats). All of these depend upon—and enforce—a more fundamental interaction: that between the specific and the anonymous, which has to do with Marxt’s own considered framing and the sublimely layered soundscape composed at the Virtual Institute Vienna by Jung An Tagen.

Night Must Fall

Black Rain—named after the local weather warning used to evacuate the streets when HK prepares for an imminent and particularly severe rainstorm—intrigues and denies in the same moment. It intrigues, that is to say, through the very process by which it denies a deeper engagement with its city space—detached though Marxt’s camera is, rich though Jung An Tagen’s sound may be. As the image gradually darkens and the sonic textures accumulate more sinister atmospheres, such space is, in a word, flattened. All of the spatial contradictions of Hong Kong’s urban development are made flesh (roadside cacophonies, the flutter of a human voice)—and, in the same instant, harmonised.

All of this has something to do with the fixed framing (and the movement through it), and the particular angle Marxt decided upon: like the opening shot of Michael Haneke’s Hidden, there’s no obvious plane upon which the camera could be standing, so it acquires a disembodied, immediately non-human quality not too dissimilar from an ‘all-seeing’ surveillance cam (I use the quotation marks to allow for the obvious fact that wall-mounted surveillance cameras are often limited in how far they can tilt and pan, regardless of what Joyce might perhaps have called the ineluctable modality of their vision). This technique, so simple and yet so rarely perfected, gets to the central tension in all worthwhile pictorial renditions of space. Benning knows it, Keiller too: you can’t shoot a landscape without ironing out the creases in its fabric, but if you do it correctly, attuned enough to those elements that both anchor and enliven the strictly visual, you can unlock a space like a butcher might tear open a dead pig.

All of which is to say that for Marxt, or Benning or Keiller, landscape is never merely visual—nor, for that matter, is it merely sonic. This is what others might mean when they speak of Keiller’s work in relation to psychogeography, or Marxt’s to ethnography, and it’s what I would mean if I were to talk about the transformative potential of good cinematography. In more precise terms—its own complications notwithstanding—it might just be mise-en-scène, but in both a very basic and inadequately (perhaps necessarily) woolly explanation, I mean this: that I might, with a heart’s quiver, recall these filmmakers’ works and be transported immediately to their worlds, their spaces, without need of putting on a DVD or travelling to see them in a cinema.

On some level, in ways both tangible and otherwise, I have thought back to Keiller’s Robinson in Ruins (2010) at several moments a day since I last watched it. Same goes for Benning’s Deseret (1995). Their engagement with space, as something not merely existing but something that is actively manufactured and eternally contested, and manufactured through its contestability (and thus analogous to the marketplace, rotten but by no means irredeemable), and the ways in which they convey history as a narrative both autonomous and shaped in the same moment, speak to my general sensibilities and deepening awareness of social space as something that is at once human and non-human, at once individual and cultural, at once dormant and fractious, fractured and subjective, objective and fictitious, a truth and a lie, mental and imagined, a place of dreams and worries and actual occurrences.

Just as recalling a film isn’t the same as watching it, images alone are never enough. One must enter a space, touch it. You can’t settle until the very fabric of a city—not the whole cloth, but some of the discrepancies in its texture—is dived into, is indulged upon, is felt. Speaking specifically of London but appealing to the generality of urban space, Iain Sinclair has written: “Walking is the best way to explore and exploit the city; the changes, shifts, breaks in the cloud helmet, movement of light on water. Drifting purposefully is the recommended mode, tramping asphalted earth in alert reverie, allowing the fiction of an underlying pattern to reveal itself. To the no-bullshit materialist this sounds suspiciously like fin-de-siècle decadence, a poetic of entropy—but the born-again flâneur is a stubborn creature, less interested in texture and fabric, eavesdropping on philosophical conversation pieces, than in noticing everything.”

Jetlagged, hung over, I stepped out of my accommodation and headed south along the west bank of the Mur River, keeping close and parallel at first but heading away from it to suit the roads as well as my mood. I never crossed the river, as I had done the day before, alerted as I had been to the fact that the Mur slices Graz into two distinct spaces, separating the more proletarian side to its west from the historic centre to its east—where past monarchies lived and the present council resides. Around the corner from my accommodation—a hip, modern place called Hotel Wiesler—is Café Generales, a 24-hour casino to which I owed my ongoing grogginess, and whose quiet appearance belies the smoky interior and round-the-clock beer-swigging within. Places like this inevitably serve a varied clientele, but it isn’t until the early hours of a morning that its chief benefit, of serving alcohol after certain other parts of town have closed for the night, is fully appreciated.

Not far from here, on Karlauplatz, is Bäckerei Strohmayer, a bakery founded in 1733 and owned by its eponymous family since 1865. The building was designed by the architect Manfred Zernig, and a German-language plaque beneath one of its windows, just below head-height, reveals the character and value of the original materials employed. It’s a strikingly simple building and houses fifty employees, producing pastries, bread and traditional Wagner pretzels. Southward, another plaque reveals the history of a much larger building: the street upon which the bakery is located takes its name from Archduke Charles II of Inner Austria, who, a third of a mile south of this locale, had had a pleasure palace built for him on the then-undeveloped Mur flood plains in the sixteenth century.

rising to the occasion

Used by Emperor Joseph II in 1794 to house POWs during the War of the First Coalition against Napoleonic France (some 15 years prior to Graz’s fort being demolished following defeat to the Fifth Coalition), Charles II’s pleasure palace is today known as Graz-Karlau Prison, the third largest jail in Austria, which houses more than 500 male inmates serving sentences of between three years and life imprisonment. I walked past its western face twice, once heading southward on Triesterstraße and again on my return leg: for the latter, the skies had darkened and I was able to see the artificial lights turned on inside the small windows above but behind the 300 metre-long security wall that marks the prison’s outer boundary, preventing inbound access and outbound escapes.

How many of the jail’s inhabitants might also be looking at me, I wondered, ruminating vaguely on the nature of dwelling and stability, of flux and change, of access and enclosure. Though I wouldn’t want to overstate such matters, I also wondered if prisons might be the only places today that offer any kind of security from gentrification and displacement.

As I later learned, noted executioner Albert Pierrepoint travelled here in 1946 to train three staff members in hanging prisoners by the long-drop method, which takes an inmate’s weight and height into consideration before varying the length of the rope and the weight of the knot, thereby minimising the risk of decapitation or a protracted death by strangling. How many heads had come off at the prison before this point, how many hangings had resulted in men trying to cough their throats beyond their tongues?

Der Klink

Next door to Graz-Karlau Prison is Wünscher Energie & Bad Studio, a heating and energy specialist. This curious, suspiciously quiet building seems derelict and ornate in the same moment, and it’s only upon closer inspection that the mould growing on either side of its curved porch turns out to be artificial vines, painted on in a pale blue that looks unhealthy against the building’s fading yellow hue. Crimson roller blinds—and the net curtains behind them—add a vaguely sinister edge to the single-glazed windows, and the tessellating paving-work leading up to the porch accommodates all manners of vehicle.

ihr Wunsch...

This being a Sunday, the vicinity had an eerie calm, as if it were an illegal brothel whose staff and clientele had fled in the night from a police raid. Next door is a decidedly livelier little establishment called Aquarium, whose exotic name is nowhere near as alluring as the translucent curtains preventing a clear view of the interior. I couldn’t tell whether the place was named as such because of its simple, cubic design and overwhelming use of glass, or because those inside were trapped and drinking like the proverbial fish. After some reflection, it all seemed to make sense.

fishy business

What made less sense was the McDonald’s drive-thru within visible proximity of Zentralfriedhof Graz, the city’s largest cemetery. Built in the 1880s, this 25-acre graveyard greets visitors and passers-by with a decent and sensible façade of neo-Gothic brickwork. Among the 30,000 people buried here are Fritz Pregl (1869-1930), Nobel Laureate in Chemistry in 1923, Johann Puch (1862-1914), the bicycle and motor-car manufacturer, and Jochen Rindt (1942-1970), posthumously crowned Formula One Champion months after being killed during a practice session for that season’s Italian Grand Prix. Visitors pass the so-called McDrive when approaching the cemetery from Triesterstraße. Not even in death, it seems, can we escape the insidious influence of big business.

arches, domes

It sent me in the other direction: the return leg, under the cloak of approaching darkness, that encouraging hour in the day when the earth’s natural orbit sparks rebellion, as humans defy the sinking sun by denying it its quiet death and switching on their own lights. Deep in the city, towards the centre, I was to later come upon a tanning salon, whose ultraviolet front transforms those passing it into silhouettes. Above it, three simple windows give brief signs of a less public but somehow more uniform realm, the golden amber of the illumination within at odds with the private nature of home space.

Blue, the warmest colour

Before this, along the same street, a ruin: a home that had been demolished but for its frontage, which stood like a two-dimensional skeleton, a cardboard cutout. A fortress no more, seized and destroyed. And before that, during one final meander under the falling sky, northwest of Graz’s Citypark retail complex, the stars re-aligned with a beckoning of sorts…

Robinson cruise-o

Michael Pattison
16th April 2015