Aboveground

In the last few years, some basic aspects of social life have moved to the center of heated political events. One such occasion surfaced around the topic of public transportation. The issue has taken many forms: from last year’s widespread protests against hikes in bus fare that began in São Paulo and spread to many cities in Brazil, to manifestations against corporate buses’ usage of public infrastructure such as bus stops, that took place last year in San Francisco. The latter case is particularly striking since it appears to invert the typical direction of the most recurrent expressions of dissent in the sense that it involves people protesting against the use of free buses. Upon closer scrutiny it becomes clear that the objection is not to the free ride per se but rather due to it being offered exclusively to a select few among those who share the public space of a bus stop. It is surely a case of uncompensated use of public infrastructure by corporate agents as the charge has been formulated. It also exemplifies how certain types of privilege, such as supplementary benefits that are offered to highly skilled employees, become normalized merely by reiterative presence in everyday life, what sometimes takes the form of appropriation of the public commons. Exclusion, the required basis upon which privilege is constructed, needs to remain obstructed from intelligibility so that the fiction of a natural hierarchy can be maintained.

aboveground hand detail 90 degrees fingertip climbing technique applied to bus control device to extract another use from it.

In Aboveground, a short film about commuting, this otherwise opaque exclusion is brought to the forefront of the relation between straphanger and transportation apparatus. When confronted with systematic exclusion, the straphanger featured in the film devises an alternative strategy to gain access to his ride. While the resulting actions follow an absurd logic that is often humorous, the particular decisions involved in every scene observe a strict principle of opportunistic adaptability. A nondescript element on the side of the bus becomes a climbing wall hold. Its vent grille becomes another point of support for ascension. The ventilation roof above the bus becomes the hook on which to attach a climbing rope. Every nook on the bus’ exterior body is subjected to reinterpretation in view of the task at hand: to ride the bus in spite of its unwillingness to accommodate the straphanger.

aboveground back of bus rope

The word Straphanger, used to designate the bus commuter in this film, is a recurrent term in journalistic parlance that is used to refer specifically to people who commute to work, perhaps because the origin of the word straphanger, which combined the words strap and hanger, used to refer to the people who held on to strap holders while standing on trains and buses in their way to work. The title Aboveground is a literal allusion to ‘over-the-ground’ transportation such as buses instead of, for instance, the subway. In a figurative sense it is a reference to activities conducted in broad daylight, as opposed to those happening underground. Aboveground also represents a higher goal for the straphanger, his pursuit of a futural destiny, in the sense of attaining a better life. Written in Polish on the back of the bus are the words bliżej celu that in English means closer to one’s destination. In the film, these words, like the bus moving away from the straphanger who remains in full pursuit, may seem as unattainable as a carrot placed ahead of the donkey, as the oft quoted expression. Another Polish word that is also present in the film is the one used to identify the bus: słuźbowy. But this does not indicate a destination as is often the case; it rather describes a type of usage: official, or for business usage, or even, by implication, for exclusive use by those who are employed by the business.

aboveground bus stop modern

As in most of my work, the focus of the story in this short piece is narrowly defined. At stake is a single objective: to take the bus to work despite difficulties found on the way. A subtle drama arises in confrontation with common challenges one normally faces in such situations: from arriving at the bus stop when the bus is already leaving, to waiting too long for the bus, to not being able to board the bus for various reasons, and so on. Gradually, the actions acquire a more defiant character, and end up by shifting the framework of quotidian spatial relations toward a less typical, that is to say disagreeable, scenario. Climbing technique, a skill borrowed from the world of sports, is here utilized to assist the straphanger in his pursuit of, if not to gain full control over the bus, at least to redefine the terms of his relationship to it by devising alternate points of engagement. Deviation from normative standards is a recurrent thematics in my work. More particularly, deviation from structural fields organized vertically, as touched on by Aboveground were also present in two prior pieces: Breaking into Business, which was filmed in another Polish city: Lublin; and Upward Mobility, which was shot in London and New York.

1 min excerpt from Aboveground 7 min video, silent, color. 2014


Aboveground was commissioned by Ginger Schulick and Denise Carvalho, the curators of Beyond Limits: Postglobal Mediations, an exhibition being held in tandem with the International Mediations Biennale, that is occurring in multiple cities around the world, including its originary location in Poznan. Aboveground was shot in Białystok, the largest city in the northeast region of Poland. Logistical support was provided by the Warsaw-based Film Commission Poland; special thanks to Dana Pohl, who graciously and effectively liaised with the bus company used in the film. The main city bus featured in Aboveground was provided by KPK-Komunalne Przedsiębiorstwo Komunikacyjne, the Municipal Transport Company of Białystok; thanks to Cezary Zajkowski and Adam Dubis, who authorized the project and managed the process, thanks also to Mr. Marek, who enthusiastically drove the crew around for three tireless days. many thanks to Monika Szewczyk and Magdalena Godlewska, from Galeria Arsenal in Białystok, who supported the production locally by finding us Katarzyna Kapuścińska, a very friendly and efficient production assistant. Special thanks to Kamil Matwiejuk, who not only lent us his climbing expertise, but also flawlessly performed in the bus stop climbing scene.


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