Smile, you’re in Sharjah
Smile, you’re in Sharjah was produced in collaboration with choreographer Erin Ellen Kelly for the Sharjah Biennial 9 in 2009. The title comes from this Emirate’s own brand of welcome sign, spelled out in flowers in the middle of a roundabout notorious for its rush-hour traffic jams. The video is a study of the patterns and rhythms of movement through shared spaces of the city-state of Sharjah. In most cases we simply filmed what we found during our shoot in January 2009. In a few instances, however, we intervened to subtly rearrange situations, working with the people already present and the actions they were already performing, but making the inherent choreography of those movements more apparent for the camera by slightly shifting their usual positions in space or time. The most evident choreography of this particular video, however, happened in the editing rather than onsite – an experiment in making a choreographed documentary, rather than a documentation of choreography, and a structural riff on the ‘city symphony’ films of the early 20th century, like Ruttman’s Berlin: A City Symphony, and Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera.
The circular structure of the video loop (which transitions from day to night to another day and finally a day-to-night before re-starting the loop) is intended to give viewers a sense of the cycles of this particular place in this particular moment – day to night, weekday to weekend, construction to demolition, labor to leisure – but also to explore the different currents of commuting and consumption required to connect and sustain those cycles over time.
We were also interested in the interplay between Sharjah’s facades, the self-image they construct, and their active maintenance, most visibly in the spaces discovered in-between more defined neighborhoods, suburbs, exurbs, or cities-within-the-city. As a city and a state, Sharjah is self-evidently a work-in-progress, and the workers responsible for the continual reconstructions of Sharjah – simultaneously the most omnipresent and invisible of its inhabitants — became the main players in our video.
Smile, you’re in Sharjah is part of the collaborative series Performed Places and has a multi-layered electronic score by Aaron Taylor Kuffner / zemi17, which is constructed entirely from ambient sound recorded during filming, and which moves from speaker to speaker in the installation version to create an immersive sonic environment. The video also contains a number of small inside jokes, like the traffic-circle welcome sign, or places with special significance in the local context – for example, the bookstore where local schoolchildren buy their notebooks every fall, or the mosque on a site that was, until a few years previously, a popular Burger King – and a running thread following water from the sea to the desalination plant to the various bottles that are dispersed, consumed, and discarded, sometimes in the sea itself.