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Ever since I came across the work Temps Mort it has haunted me. Haunted me in a good way; it has stayed with me. It resonates because of the power delivered by Mohamed Bourouissa and his collaborator’s low-res images. It resonates, also, because this is the only project made by an artist and prisoner with contraband cell-phones that I know of. Surely, there are exchanges like this happening all the time, but this is the only published example. And it was made with the express intentioned to make art.

So I was pleased to discover, recently, that Temps Mort is now a book.

Methodologically, Bourouissa is way ahead of the game. As well as asking for images made according to description and sketches, he asked for videos. Bourouissa would send example videos and his collaborator (whom we know only as Al) would mimic. Throughout the project, Bourrouissa is clearly thinking about how the work will look to secondary and tertiary audiences. We are asked to make sense of seemingly random glimpses of an institution’s innards.

In exchange for composed views of the inside, Bourouissa sent short videos of the Paris streets. The simplest gestures become impressive. Even the txtspk language that is reproduced in the book is touching. In prisons, cellphones are illegal, valuable and a scarce resource, but the two use the tool with abandon and they repeatedly text to make sure they’re adequately fulfilling one another’s requests for footage.

This is not a photobook heavy on photos, yet everything inside depends on the discussions about images between Bourouissa and Al. There’s a lot of white space. The texts ensure we know the timeline and the white space ensures we know — and sense — the slow passing of time.

Temps Mort is over 5 years old now and the book feels a little like a memorial to that audacious moment when an artist dared and a prisoner dreamed. The book is a document that will last longer than the exhibitions and the interest in cellphone videos that declare a moment in Parisian jail operations. This blog post is many more steps removed from the original gifts between Bourouissa and Al. This blog post has no audio/visual jacks nor 9-foot white cube walls. This blog post lags behind the thrill of the original creation of the works and behind the recent exhibitions Bourouissa has mounted. My humble hope, here, is to impress how impressed I am. There’s nothing like this project.

There’s been many projects made in collaboration with prisoners from Virginia to Tennessee, and from Louisiana to Illinois, artists have communicated with prisoners to conjure something beyond the limits of the cell. And yet, none of those efforts have used the illegally smuggled mobile phone as their tool. There’s a subtle two fingers to the man in Temps Mort that we shouldn’t deny. I’m inclined to celebrate it.

Here’s some images and videos appropriated without permission from the web. Enjoy.

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Photographer Mohamed Bourouissa asked a friend – known only as JC – detained in a French prison to share the banality of his confinement via cell phones pictures and over 300 SMS messages.

Bourouissa’s exhibition ‘Temps Mort’ (‘Time Out’ or ‘Dead Time’) which closed at the Galerie Kamel Mennour today featured nine images and an 18 minute film montage of the correspondence.

Earlier this year, Algerian-born Bourouissa gained significant attention in the US with his show Périphéries at Yossi Milo Gallery which depicted the lives of youth in the depressed banlieue neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Paris. (Reviews here and here.) ‘Temps Mort’ confirms Bourouissa’s commitment to the underprivileged in French society.

JC and Bourouissa worked together over a period of 6 months. Initially Bourouissa had to instruct JC closely describing the shots he was looking for. Bourouissa broke down the boundary between the imprisoned JC and himself as a free man by filming repeated actions outside the walls on his own camera phone – at one point in the film the JC’s steps on a jail corridor blur into Bourouissa’s steps through snow in the free world. (I concede this blog post cannot come close to describing the mood of the finished video.)

For exhibition, nine pixelated images were blown-up; the degraded resolution mocking the Parisian preoccupations with Impressionism and Pointilism. As Bourouissa’s press release explains, images were hung adjacent to prison newspapers “reconstructing a comprehensive representation of the prison world, and mentally filling in the blanks of the images, the spaces between the bed pan, radio, barred window, lamp, etc.” The viewer sees the abnormality of confined life.

We should bear in mind that in 2008, Bourouissa and JC were working against a national debate in France about the appalling state of their prison system. Again from the Temps Mort press release, “How not to express our outrage at the French prisons? Their infamous exercise cages, their areas of lawlessness, their unhealthy showers and four rolls of toilet paper monthly.”

Gleaning available information from poorly translated sources (1A, 1B, 2A, 2B, 3A, 3B, 4A, 4B), I am still not sure how the images were secured. Reviews suggest that cell phones are banned within French prisons – which I would expect to be the case – so the feat seems even more remarkable. (I have detailed a short-lived case of cell phone photography behind UK bars.)

Whatever, first impressions may offer, Temps Mort is not a lazy presentation of “vernacudigi” photos. In many of his projects Bourouissa wants to “make the illegal legal”. Just as with Peripheries he gives over much of the creative process to his subjects. Many images for Peripheries were staged simulations of actual events experienced previously by the photographer and subjects. After a period, Bourouissa gave JC very little direction and their output synchronised. Alone the photographs would fall short, but Bourouissa always intended to pair them with the film.

Of course we should not miss the obvious here. Low-res imagery is associated with the spontaneous capture of event, with protest, with skirmish, with citizen documentation and more often than not with the testimony of the individual against the (violent) uncertainties of the State in which they exist.

Low-res is about the privilege of witness beyond any inherent privilege of existence. Romantically, low-res photography is thought of as a tool for use against dominate conglomerate forces; practically low-res photography is the evidence of the effects of those forces.

Bourouissa presents the incarcerated masses as the disenfranchised and the dispossessed.

MOHAMED BOUROUISSA

A student at le Fresnoy, Mohamed Bourouissa graduated from the National School of Decorative Arts and also holds a DEA (M.A.) in Plastic Arts from the Sorbonne (2004). He recently benefited from a solo exhibition at the Finnish Museum of Photography in Helsinki and has participated in numerous group exhibitions, most notably at the New Museum in New York. In 2010, the artist will show his work at the Berlin Biennial and at Manifesta. Born in Blida, Algeria, in 1978. Lives and works in Paris. Represented by gallery Les Filles du Calvaire, Paris / Brussels. (Source)

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