When I returned to Kabul in the winter of 2003-04, the construction sites I had filmed the year before were now busy shops and restaurants, and the city’s inhabitants were collectively mulling over the more abstract question of how to rebuild their fragmented democracy, as their new constitution was being debated both in the official arena of the constitutional assembly and over cups of tea and radio waves all over town. Kabul: Constitutions, the second installment of Kabul: Partial Reconstructions, is a three-channel video shot in the assembly itself, originally prototyped as an interactive map-based installation and tour guide performance during a 2005 residency at Eyebeam Atelier. A web-based version of the interactive installation was constructed at kabul-reconstructions.net/constitutions in winter 2007. In the online version, the installation’s map interface is accompanied by contextual information and a downloadable guide to the map. Kabul: Constitutions currently circulates as a linear 3-in-1 channel video accompanied by a wall drawing of the map and printed booklets of the guide to the map.
Kabul: Constitutions places viewers within the specific moment of the Constitutional Loya Jirga, the national tribal council and constitutional assembly convened under the glare of the media spotlight in a high-tech tent complex on the campus of Kabul Polytechnic University at the beginning of 2004. The installation investigates the question of how our imaginaries of the architectures of democracy overlap with the real spaces where the structures of the state are materially and politically invested and contested by mapping events and issues from the Jirga onto a spatial interface that viewers must navigate to make sense of the video. Even when the video is shown in a linear version, it is organized spatially rather than chronologically, proceeding from the top to the bottom of the map, and divided into sections according to the roles each space plays in the process of the assembly.
The interface of both installation and web versions is an architectural schematic of the Jirga’s tent complex (including plenary tent, auxiliary tents, security structures, and repurposed campus buildings). In the installation, the map is stenciled in white onto a 12’ x 17’ sheet of grey industrial carpet (similar to that used to carpet the plenary tent), which has been embedded with sensors at points in the map corresponding to places I filmed within the complex (in the prototype proximity sensors protruding from the map, and in later versions, pressure sensors under the carpet). When viewers walk into the installation, they have a blank wall behind them, the map stretching out on the floor in front of them in birds-eye-view, a projection of the auxiliary and peripheral spaces on the left side of the complex on the left wall, a projection of the plenary tent (where the official narrative of the assembly unfolded) on the center wall, and a projection of the auxiliary and peripheral spaces on the right side of the complex on the right wall. Each projection runs in a loop, beginning with 1-5 minute videos from spaces at the top of the map and working its way down to the bottom of the map, then starting from the top again; in the center projection, all the videos take place in the plenary tent, but are divided based on the assigned seating or semi-fixed positions of different actors in the constitutional process (delegates, diplomats, government observers, guests, press, ushers, tea servers and so on). Each projection also has stereo sound that plays through speakers mounted at the corners of wall and ceiling.
As a viewer walks through the installation and on the carpet-map, she triggers sensors that are serially controlling the DVD players linked to the three projections, which then causes the relevant projection to jump to the video of the particular part of the space that she is passing through. The DVDs contains 2.5 total hours of footage, subtitled in English with speakers identified whenever possible, and have a linear running time of about 1.5 hours. During the run of the Eyebeam exhibition of Kabul: Constitutions, I gave weekly “guided tours” of the exhibition – sometimes with co-hosts who attended the Jirga in other roles – during which I encouraged visitors to interact with the video through the spatial interface, further explained the context of events and encounters in the footage, and initiated dialogues about the issues raised by the installation and by the assembly. A PDF ‘guidebook’ that contains much of the same information can now be downloaded from the web version of the project.
The mapped database form of Kabul: Constitutions poses the question: what kind of representation is more faithful to the nature of a political process like a constitutional assembly, especially in an essentially failed state? As an artist who has had unusually privileged access to the “back rooms” of Afghanistan’s post-war politics, I always feel that something is missing from the traditional documentaries that are produced around events like these. In constructing their linear sense, applying the omniscience of hindsight to show you only what proved to be important when the final day was done, those films lose that vital confusion, contradiction and immediacy which mark the actual experience of democracy in construction. It’s really a three-ring circus, gloriously messy, often opaque. There are always simultaneous but disjunctive narratives unfolding in the public and private spaces of the assembly. There are speeches that repeat themselves and each other. There are cameras everywhere, an inflection profoundly felt and rarely seen in media accounts. There are false starts and false promises and long periods of waiting and speculation. It’s history in the present tense, not passing into the past so quickly for those of us not only observing but also invested; the constitution is and will be lived by the people deciding it and the people watching every move on Afghan TV.