PARIS — Since November of 2018, tens of thousands of protesters have marched on French city streets every Saturday. What began as a demonstration against rising fuel prices has exploded into a movement encompassing a wide range of political convictions and demands, all united under one common symbol: the gilet jaune, or yellow vest.
It is no accident that the yellow vests have anchored this movement. All French drivers are required to carry these highly visible vests in their cars in case of breakdowns. Now they symbolize the grievances of working-class people whose livelihoods are often dependent on their cars — precariously so, during a climate crisis linked in no small part to gas emissions.
This is the context in which the Forum Vies Mobiles — a think tank sponsored by SNCF, the French national railway — is presenting MOBILE/IMMOBILE at the Museum of National Archives in Paris. The exhibition, which explores how people get around, includes didactic, slick, corporate-style video installations as well as a thoughtful, if sometimes disjointed, mix of artworks. Together, these propose that transportation can both lead to and help resolve inequality, race- and class-based segregation, and personal alienation.
Despite its timeliness — taking place as people take on these issues on the streets — MOBILE/IMMOBILE represents a decade’s worth of research, and the artworks included, some specially commissioned, span the last several decades. The exhibition is organized into four categories that explore speed, fuel consumption, and rapid development; the ways that mobility can be constrained by the state; the relationship between urban and rural spaces; and a look toward the future. Sprinkled among the artworks are video interviews with academic researchers expounding on such themes as mobility in modern China, for example, or cross-country commuting in the age of high-speed rail.
Whereas the research videos are tidy (mobility in China has evolved “from a threat to stability to a symbol of modernity,” one concludes), the artwork reveals the complex entanglements of global and local infrastructures of movement. The exhibition’s multimedia display includes cartoons, videos, historical artifacts, and sculpture, but the strongest works are the photographs.
Especially compelling are those that address the most quotidian of migrations: the work commute. Delhi-based artist Ishan Tankha beautifully documented the Konkani Railway (Suivre la trace du rail indien, 2014/2016), which traces the western coast of India, transporting workers between small towns and Bombay throughout the day and night. Likewise, in Contre-courants Tokyo (2013–15), the French photographer Sylvie Bonnot delicately strips away the homogeneity of the workplace by capturing uniformed workers in states of joy or despair.
A replica of a camper in one immense room turns out to be a viewing area for NoLand’s Men, a photo essay about modern nomads (“néonomades“), with a voiceover by photographer Ferjeux van der Stigghel, who worked on the piece for more than five years, completing it in 2013. A less Instagram-worthy take on #caravanlife, the subjects of this essay choose to live out of campers, often on the edge of cities; theirs is a life of voluntary precarity. Other people, like the refugees photographed by Laura Henno, move because they must, not because they choose to.
The diversity of subject and geographic areas covered in the exhibition renders a sense of incoherence, despite the thematic organization. But this is, in some ways, the point: at a time when we can move further and faster, different people in different places will experience this newfound mobility in radically different ways. As economies depend increasingly on mobile workforces, transportation systems can also reinforce inequality. Movement can be liberating, or it can be profoundly discomforting.
The first photo series to greet visitors in the exhibition, Mobilite et modes de vie populaires, demonstrates what happens when those two potentialities blur. Over the course of 18 months, beginning in May of 2017, photojournalist Vincent Jarousseau photographed residents of Denain, a large town in northern France once famed for its steel processing factory, which closed 40 years ago this December. Since then, a third of residents have left, and those who remain struggle to find good work. Through tender, intimate documentary photographs, Jarousseau shows families stuck somewhere between hyper-mobility — many travel long distances for work, or work as truckers and drivers — and economic inertia that leaves them trapped.
The story takes a surprising turn that Jarousseau could not have predicted: the last photos in the series were shot early in the morning of November 23, 2018, one week after the first gilet jaune protest. One of the subjects, Michaël, dons a yellow vest — the same one he wears in his job as a long-haul trucker — to join the movement.
MOBILE/IMMOBILE bills itself as an exploration of our modes de vie, a play on words in the context of transportation, suggesting both our way of life and our means of living — which is to say, the tools we use to go about our days. But the question remains: Who has access to which tools? Who has the right to move freely, and who is left at the whims of larger social, political, and economic forces beyond their control? This question is at the heart of the political moment in France and beyond — but, as this exhibition, and the ongoing chaos on French streets, reminds us, it has no easy answers.
MOBILE/IMMOBILE continues at the Museum of National Archives (60 Rue des Francs-Bourgeois, Paris, France) through April 29.