Features

Kin Porn

Drive by the building. Roll down the window. Look in the opposite direction. Chat with the driver. Shoot. Several times. Keep looking elsewhere. Hide the camera under your legs. Close the window.

Institut d’Enseignement Médical, Kinshasa, DRC (Guillaume Lachenal, 2007)

I took this picture of the Institut d’Enseignement Médical (IEM, Institute of Medical Education) in December 2007 in Kasa-Vubu, Kinshasa. The IEM was designed in the late fifties by Belgian architect Marcel Boulengier, who also supervised the impressive modernist campus of the University of Kinshasa. It was built in the middle of a cleared area on the fringe of Leopoldville, the colonial capital of the Belgian Congo. It became the main training centre for generations of nurses and health workers in independent Congo (later, Zaire). The IEM was conceived as part of a plan to engineer a modern and healthy Belgian Congo; it became the pillar of the public health system of a new nation.

In the early 1990’s the building was looted several times, during the events associated with Mobutu’s fall. The soldiers who lived in the vast military camp next to the Institute, the camp Kokolo, were probably the first to pillage it. By 2007, the IEM was entirely ruined. It stood as a shadow, as an embarrassing symbol of the lost ambitions of late-colonial modernization and of the hubris and failure of Mobutism; as a measure, also, of Kinshasa’s history of military violence.

IEM, Kinshasa, DRC (Guillaume Lachenal, 2007)

I had to take the picture very discreetly. Although the surroundings were empty, the building is situated in a strategic zone, along the Boulevard Triomphal (Triumphant boulevard), next to the biggest military camp in the city, and close to several heavily guarded sites, such as the TV-Radio headquarters and the Parliament (Le Palais du Peuple). (See map here)
Because of its location, and probably because of its history, the IEM was “complicated” to photograph – not really risky, but one can imagine a long conversation with uniformed men if one is caught; the driver insisted on this possibility. Therefore pictures of the building are rare. It is absent from the extraordinary inventory of Kinshasa’s architecture, Wikinshasa. I found one picture of it on Flickr. Oskari Kettunen, a Finish business consultant, took it in 2007 with his Nokia, probably without stepping out of the car. “No nurses trained there anytime soon. And probably not for a while before either”, he wrote in the caption.

The picture tells an almost familiar story. The story of “a place where the future had come and gone”, as V.S. Naipaul wrote about Kisangani’s colonial ruins. The IEM made tangible and present a past of lootings and crises, but also a past of promises and hopes – long gone. The ruined IEM was a landmark in the affective landscape of Kinshasa, a symbol of decline and renunciation, a monument of crisis and neoliberalism, and at the same time the concrete proof that something else had been, and may still be, possible. “The old baobab is dying”, wrote in 2006 Adrien Lukie Duama, an assistant in pharmacy who graduated at the IEM in 1976. “Today I am not quiet in my inner self. I am sick”, he wrote in a poignant letter written to his fellow alumni of the IEM. He remembered “the institute, which used to think of itself as the monument of the crème médicale of the Republic and which made the pride of the country. Today, whoever passes by it may use whatever word for what happened to it. The IEM is destroyed from cellar to attic. From the small tile to the last corrugated iron sheet, openly and publicly.”

Lukie Duama’s letter was nostalgic and angry. “If today I expose my grief, it is only to ask whether, in our country, we are governed by deaf-blind persons?” Ruination – the sequence of decay, destruction and indifference, was a scandal in itself: the scandal of non-government. Lukie Duama called for action: expel the soldiers, rehabilitate the building, and, for “those who detain a parcel of power, put this institute in order”. The bittersweet tone of the letter, and the positive evocation of colonial (and Mobutist) order will not surprise. Elsewhere in Africa, especially in the countries most hardly hit by the 1990’s conflicts and structural adjustment plans, similar remnants of postcolonial (authoritarian) development inspire similar longings for government; as Wenzel Geissler and colleagues wrote in a recent volume, in such places “biopolitics, including national medical government, calls (…) forth not threat and loathing, but nostalgia and desire”.

IEM, Kinshasa, DRC (Guillaume Lachenal, 2007)

At the same time – I am embarrassed to say – I enjoyed the beauty of the ruin. The beauty of the raw concrete, of the straight lines and of the “brise-soleil” of Boulengier’s building. Tropical modernist style seems at its best when fully ruined, stripped off painting, glass, wood and steel; as if the terminal nakedness had been anticipated in the design itself; as if it was “its inevitable final form”, to follow Owen Hatherley’s reflections on Soviet modernism. I know writing this is problematic. Kinshasa is too photogenic. It is, very much like Detroit, a city saturated with the aesthetic use of its debris by photographers and filmmakers. Very much like Detroit it is also saturated with elaborate reflections on the political and moral problems posed by this fascination – accusations of “ruin porn” responding to meditations on the “ruins of modernity”. Although I confess the intense aesthetic pleasure I did experience in Kin, I think the picture might inspire a more productive use of the ruin porn hypothesis, freed from the puritan function it has in the North American context – and perhaps closer to the original problematization of porn: something which manifest at the same time the power and the powerlessness of the State: its vague and violent capacity to forbid and authorize, to show and hide, and to determine what can and what cannot be seen or done “publicly and openly”.

The IEM was destroyed again in 2010 – flattened, this time, as far as I can tell from Google maps. The celebrations of the 50th Anniversary of Independence were to take place on the Boulevard Triomphal, which was entirely redeveloped for the occasion, with fountains and lights and neat pavements. The ruin clearly did not fit in the commemoration. The Japanese Cooperation Agency (JICA) had also decided, since 2008, to focus its investments in Africa on health and health workers; in DRC, it began with the IEM. After the expropriation of squatters and demolition, public works for a brand new IEM started. It became a key promise of “The Revolution of Modernity”, as Joseph Kabila called his Presidential Project for 2011 – one that will make Congo an “emerging country” in 2030 and a “world power” in 2060, for the 100th anniversary of the independence. The construction of the new IEM showed, according to an official who visited the site this year, that “the Revolution of Modernity was not a weasel word”.

The project for the new IEM, by Toda Corporation (Japan), c.2011, from the forum SkyscraperCity.com

There is something consistent, even reassuring, when a “Revolution of Modernity” actually destroys the past – that is what modernity is about, after all. There is also something deeply Kinois in the wave of architectural projects, such as the IEM or the neighbouring Hopital du Cinquantenaire, which flourished in the last five years: although the current afflux of capital may be unprecedented, Kinshasa had never ceased to be a futuristic city. Still, the old IEM is not there anymore; the new one, with its vertical lines, looks like a parody of the old – a telling image, again, of its own epoch.

Coming back to my stolen picture, as bad as it is, it is now a trace of a trace. A trace of public health, destroyed twice.

PS/ I am grateful to Johan Lagae, from the University of Ghent, for the information on the history of the IEM building. All approximations and errors are mine.

 

“The archaeology of past futures, or fieldwork by fragments” is a series edited by Ann Kelly, Guillaume Lachenal and Wenzel Geissler.  It explores the memory of medical research; what biomedicine leaves behind and the losses, pleasures, failures, and desires these leftovers relay.


3 Responses to Kin Porn

  1. Pingback: Pornographie des ruines à Kinshasa | Traces et lieux de mémoire de la recherche médicale en Afrique

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