Orientation trips
The Mondriaan Fund organises orientation trips for visual artists and mediators to Asia, Latin America and Africa since 2004. The trips are aimed at exchange and cooperation between visual art professionals.

‘To be here is a confirmation of my intuition, even beyond’

Sven Augustijnen is one of the participants of this orientationtrip. He is a visual artist, based in Brussels. His films, publications and installations deal with political and social histories. He is fascinated by the way we use stories, images and fiction to construct reality and history. We speak to him on the ninth day of the trip, in Medellin, Colombia.

Q: Why did you decide to join this trip?
‘I am working on a project, a research for a film that takes place on different continents, amongst others South America. I don’t know the continent that well, so this was a good opportunity to come here.
I am still working on the narrative, but it includes Chile. Right now it doesn’t include Colombia but the story I am interested in might apply to Colombia as well.
The research unfolds around a specific type of rifle, the FAL or Fusil Automatique Leger. It was developed and produced by FN Herstal, a Belgian arms factory. Many South American dictatorships in the sixties and seventies used this rifle, most specifically in Chile but in Colombia as well.’

Q: What has struck you most so far?
‘It is the nature; I see many tropical plants, especially here in Medellin. Yesterday over dinner we were talking about this; I was wondering if there is an analogy between the extreme nature and the extreme violence. When I was working in Congo on the ‘Spectres’ project there was something similar, the extreme richness of the soil causing conflict for decades, even centuries. I don’t know if there really is a relation, it is more an observation, but I find it very interesting.
When I was young, I read ‘The Beagle’ of Darwin. It was one of the first books I was really crazy about. Now seeing it with my own eyes, I can even better imagine what it meant to discover these new lands, this morphology of plants and animals.’

Q: What did you find out for your research?
‘In both Chile and Medellin the visit to the Museo de la Memoria was very interesting. You feel the complexity of the past. Within these institutions you feel a strong urge to transform things and a sense of ‘we have to do this now’ because the power can quickly change.’

Q: Can you tell more about the FAL-rifle, the subject of your current project?
‘I have been interested in this subject for 15 years. It started when I was travelling in Australia, and someone asked me: ‘Where are you from? – Ah, Belgium: chocolates, beers and guns.’ When I discovered during my ‘Spectres’ project that Patrice Lumumba was executed with the rifle in question I thought it was time to consecrate a project to it.
The research on this film started about three years ago. It is a complicated process because there is not much information on the worldwide distribution of the arms. But for Chile, I got an interesting contact at the Museo Histórico y Militar which I am going to follow up.
The Fusil Automatic Leger was produced in the late 1950s. They called it the ‘right arm for the free world’. They reappear from conflict to conflict, until today. For example, in Syria some FAL’s appeared that were once produced under license by Israel and used during the Six Day War.
Paradoxically also Fatah used FN weapons, so often the arms appeared on both side of conflicts.
Another example of this is the rebellion of Che Guevara in 1965 and its contra-revolution. In the media it was said that the rebels were using Chinese weapons, but in his dairy Guevara wrote about using FAL’s. Two years later he died in Bolivia which brings us back to South America.
In fact, in my project the rifle functions as a pretext to tell many stories. By following these, I hope to grasp something that is not only related to our Belgian heritage but also to the Cold War, that period of revolutions and contra-revolutions that still determine our present geopolitical situation.
During our trip in Chile we realised that 40 years is not that long time to recover from the coup d’état as in Chile, it is as if it happened almost yesterday. For Columbia it is interesting that the FARC rebellion goes back as far as the sixties. The complexity here is the drugs, by which weapons were bought and trafficked! It also brings us back to the plants.’

Q: What are your next steps?
‘In three weeks I will go to Palestine, then to Israel. I have a scenario in mind, but I will walk with it for a while. It will take as long as it takes.’

Q: Do you plan on coming back to Chile and Colombia?
‘There is a lot of research that I can do through the contacts that I made now. Maybe I will only come back to film. It has been good to be here, because you sense the environment. The things I’ve seen so far for a large degree have been a confirmation of my intuition, even beyond.’

Birgit Donker & Rieke Vos