Last year I bought a collection of old Interview magazines. The first time I cracked open the set, I learned that on June 30, 1973, Andy Warhol sat down for a chat with Roman Polanski. Warhol ate a salad and Polanski ordered a beer and a burger. In the span of eight hundred minutes, the two covered paparazzi culture, communism, sex, hygiene, bugs, dying, everything. I learned everything and nothing at once through that encounter. And that got me thinking about interview encounters in general.
Interviews have a long history, of course. In my own lifetime, there’s been the impious Oriana Fallaci questioning Khomeini on the heels of the Iranian revolution, or the famous Bashir interviews with Michael Jackson. Go back further, and there were Tom Wolfe’s meetings with Timothy Leary, Leni Riefenstahl talking to Hitler. Each in its own way has been iconic, somehow fixing itself in the public mind and inevitably bringing new things to light.
In this issue, we revisit the interview. Our selection wasn’t that complicated: these are simply people we wanted to hear out. Among the featured are artists who are up to interesting projects (Khalil Rabah’s virtual museum); others find themselves literally on the cusp of history (Dr. Saad Bashir Eskander, the head of the Iraqi National Archive) or, say, transition (Sami-Azar, the former director of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art). Some were selected for pure star quality (Mohammed Fares, the first Syrian in space; Homi K Bhabha). We also have builders and visionaries, such as Bangladeshi activist-photographer Shahidul Alam and architect Rem Koolhaas. Occasionally, we tapped into conversations already in progress, as in the case of the long-running friendship between Cairene artist Anna Boghighuian and Los Angeles gallerist Robert Shapazian.
So there you have it. Interviews as a medium have been subject to feminist critique, postmodern critique, and who knows what else. Their curation, orchestration, and execution can reveal an enormous amount about their subjects, but also illuminate the context in which they were held. Their circulation and interpretation tell us about the world we live in. Naturally, our selection reveals something about us and how we see the world — this is inevitable. It is biased, it is arbitrary, it is particular and even peculiar. But then, what selection isn’t?
Adel Abdessemed: Practice Zero Tolerance
September 14–November 20, 2006
In his first solo exhibition in a Paris institution, Algerian-born, Berlin-based artist Adel Abdessemed presents Practice Zero Tolerance, a collection of recent works spanning sculpture, video, drawing, and writing. The “zero tolerance” of the title, for its part, is a play on a hackneyed mantra of French politicians, often used in the contexts of terrorism, drug trafficking, or juvenile delinquency. An eerie reminder of the ironies of the “zero tolerance” approach, a charred car sits prominently in the center of the exhibition space, evoking both the automobiles burned during Paris’s recent riots and the iconic explosions of buses, care of suicide bombers, that have marked mediated images of the Middle East. At once a sculptural element, ornament, and gruesome ode to reality, it plays games with our expectations as to what beauty can be. The exhibition at Le Plateau will also be an occasion for Abdessemed to present the life-size model of Black House‚ a project space soon to be launched in Jerusalem, in which artists will be invited to create works that reflect upon the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and on whose exterior walls passersby will be invited to “inscribe the unspeakable.”
Nayla Dabaji: These Days
As Israeli planes began their bombardment of Lebanon, artist Nayla Dabaji set about creating a “contact zone” where artists and others, based in Lebanon or abroad, could post day-to-day expressions. Stage One of the project These Days is a blog, updated daily with images, videos, and texts from friends and strangers. Stage Two will be a series of portraits of the contributors going about their daily business, which is being developed into an installation (and possibly a book). Dabaji’s project is one of several set up by Beirut-based artists and filmmakers to document the situation and dwell on the everyday nature of war — see, for example, Cinemayat, an online exhibition space and archive of video, photography, and texts, expressing “individual and social everyday lived experience.” Indeed, the widespread proliferation of blogs, such as Rasha Salti’s outstanding diaries, laid bare the thirst for everyday experiences outside mainstream news reportage.
The Revealed Image: From Orientalism to Contemporary Art
Musée de la Ville de Tunis, Palais Kheïreddine
September 20–November 4, 2006
There has been no dearth of treatises on the evils of Orientalism, rants about the camera as gun and the fetishizing tendencies of early lens-toting romantics. Paris-based curator Simon Njami has proposed moving beyond these tired, reductionist debates, here interestingly placing images from early 20th century photographers Lehnert and Landrock (Orientalists par excellence who shot the whole of North Africa) alongside contemporary photographic and video works by eleven artists of Arab origin. The dialogue born of the novel juxtaposition of old/new, outsider/ insider, subject/object will doubtless raise interesting questions about who has the right to speak for and about these regions, while Njami proposes using Jean Baudrillard’s ruminations on the image as a referent throughout the program of exhibitions and associated panel discussions. Contemporary artists involved include Moataz Nasr, Meriem Bouderbala, Zoulikha Bouabdallah, Amal Kenawy, Jellel Gasteli, Mouna Karray, Meriem Jegham, Mounir Fatmi, Adel Abdessemed, Nicène Kossentini, and Dalel Tangour.
Beirut International Film Festival
October 4-11, 2006
The Beirut Film Festival (BIFF) has had a rocky road to its seventh edition: the past two editions of the festival have been cancelled, and it’s somewhat ironic that in the year that Lebanon has truly suffered, the festival is finally set to go ahead. (Filmmakers’ co-operative Beirut DC paved the way with the fourth Ayam Beirut Al Cinema’iya festival, which focuses on independent Lebanese and Arab productions, in late September.) Indeed, if the support from the international film community at the festival’s launch in Venice in September is anything to go by, there’ll be quite a turnout. But even if the directors are fickle when it comes to attending, the film reels should be there safe and sound. Besides a program of international features from recent European festivals, BIFF features a MidEast Competition for features, documentaries and shorts, and a sidebar of films on human rights issues. The festival opens on October 4 with an outdoor screening of Pedro Almodovar’s Volver in Martyr’s Square. After Ramadan, the annual regional scramble for Middle East premieres will heat up: the Cairo Film Festival runs from November 28 though December 8, closely followed by Marrakech (December 1–10) and Dubai (December 10–17).
International Biennial of Contemporary Art
Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo and the Reales Atarazanas of Seville
October 26, 2006–January 8, 2007
Laboring under the theme of The Unhomely: Phantom Scenes of Global Society, the second Seville Biennial (BIACS2) gets underway in late October. Curated by Okwui Enwezor, it typically features interactive outdoor art (from Liisa Roberts), public interventions (Reneé Green’s Esperanto banners), and symposia (including the symposia-within-symposia titled Under Fire: Seminars Addressing the Organisation and Representation of Violence, led by artist Jordan Crandall), besides exhibitions of art. The Biennial is also collaborating with artist-filmmaker Yto Barrada’s Tangier Cinémathèque on an exploration of the concept of “neighborhood between the regions of southern Europe and northern Africa.” In general, BIACS2 aims to mould the traditionally behemothic biennial into something more vital, exploring the imperative of how art can become integral rather than peripheral, particularly “in light of the deleterious effects of reactionary, conservative, and fundamentalist politics on all world social formations today.”
Douglas Gordon: Zidane
Museum of Modern Art
November 13, 2006
Having premiered at Cannes, Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s cinematic ode to the Algerian-French football great Zinedine Zidane comes to New York City this November. In this documentary/ spectacle/portrait, Turner Prize-winning artist Gordon and filmmaker Parreno fix their camera — or rather, 17 cameras, to be exact — on the entirety of Zidane’s participation in a 90-minute football match between Real Madrid and Villarreal on April 23, 2005. Mostly clinical and wholly real-time, the film, with cinematography by Darius Khondji, contains quotations from the legendary footballer and, at one point, interposes other events from that day — in Germany, hundreds of toads swell to three times their normal size and explode; the ivory-billed woodpecker, thought to be extinct since 1920, is spotted in North America; a car bomb in Najaf kills nine. Rumor has it that the work had people yawning at Art Basel, but given that Gordon’s self-proclaimed inspiration is Albert Camus, maybe the genius is in the banal details.
Irish artist Seamus Farrell has prepared a special project for the Rabat-based L’appartement 22, following an extended stay at the arts space in August 2006. Within the gallery, Farrell plans to draw a series of whimsical representations directly onto the walls. A built installation, in the meantime, will meditate on the potentials for exhibition spaces at large — here recreating the sensation of passage from one space to another (Farrell’s ongoing preoccupation seems to be the influence of architecture on our lives). In a third intervention, a plaque engraved with the name of great personalities culled from Morocco’s history will be presented — part artifact, part museography, part art. Finally, the results of a workshop the artist led with young people in the Moroccan city of Fez will also be included, this likely in line with the title of the exhibition (the three R’s are reduce, reuse, recycle) and, by extension, a rumination on collective notions of the new, the noteworthy, and the usable.
Mini Film Festival
November 23, 2006
While Dubai has its glitzy film festival, which aims to give the local paparazzi their annual dose of Hollywood celebrity, things are set to get a little more grungy with a new shorts festival. Organized by the creative agency 9714, the festival is calling for films of any genre, as long as they’re less than 15 minutes long, from residents of Iran, Pakistan,and the Arab world. The closing date for films to reach the Dubai offices of 9714, or sponsor Mini, is November 2. With their eye firmly on developing talent, rather than dishing out cash, judges — including editors of Bidoun and Time Out, as well as online audiences — will hand out prizes including trips to the Cannes Film Festival, and opportunities to work on international film shoots. Predictably, nudity and “political content” are banned; dodging the obvious when it comes to those slippery concepts should stand any budding Middle Eastern filmmaker in good stead.
The Maghreb Art and Research Project
December 10, 2006–January 13, 2007
The Mediterranean as a zone of migration, in all of its complexity, lends itself to contemplation in this exhibition and research project initiated by Swiss artist Ursula Biemann. Biemann has enlisted Tangier-based artists Yto Barrada and Helena Moleno, Swiss artist Charles Heller, and Egyptian artists Hala El Koussy and Doa Aly in a long-term initiative that spans Tangier, Tripoli, and Cairo. The Cairo section, on display at the Townhouse Gallery, will showcase El Koussy’s video/photographic project based upon a village in Egypt with significant links to Italy as a site for migration (the village of Shubra Al-Nakhla has been dubbed “Rome,” given the sheer number of its residents who have made their way to that city for a better life). Aly, for her part, will be showing a video featuring the underground community of Chinese women who sell knickknacks in Cairo, perhaps the most unlikely of door-to-door salesmen. Through their art, both artists will present conversations that, each in its own subtle way, raise questions as to the nature of divisions between East and West, both real and imagined.
July 6, 2006–November 22, 2006
Galerie Sfeir-Semler is opening its Beirut warehouse space this season with Moving Home(s), a meditation on contemporary tourism in all of its incarnations. Drawing on a diverse roster of artists, director Andrée Sfeir includes projects by Atelier Van Lieshout, Balthasar Burkhard, Diller + Scofidio, Jimmie Durham, Dan Graham, Bernard Khoury, Stephan Moersch, Peter Piller,Ursula Schulz-Dornburg,and Rayyane Tabet. Pioneering American artist Graham, for his part, will show his photo series Homes for America, important testimonies of contemporary concepts of home; these house-units could be located just about anywhere. In one of his occasional gallery appearances, Beirut-based architect Khoury will show a multimedia sculpture and inkjet computer drawings. Also notable are Native American artist cum political activist Jimmie Durham, as well as Rayyane Tabet, the youngest artist of the show. Tabet, a student at New York’s Cooper Union, sublimates everyday objects, from soap to suitcases. His work on display, Fossils, is a reflection on erratic war scenarios as they become normalized, situations in which the specter of leaving home is constant.
How do you conduct a good interview with a walking institution? Someone who was part of your grad school postcolonial pantheon? Homi K Bhabha’s monumental The Location of Culture (Routledge, 1994) had an immediate impact on conceptions of culture and globalization, comparable in scope only to the work of Gayatri Spivak, Francis Fukuyama, and Tiger Woods. The book introduced Bhabha’s theory of “hybridization,” arguing that whenever imperialism attempts to mold its subjects, the native heritage to be replaced doesn’t disappear so much as mutate. Bhabha’s theorizations of such hybrid traces questioned the possibility of wholesale ideological domination or purity. It also prioritized surreptitious forms of negotiation over outright confrontation,opening a host of intellectual possibilities but also raising the question of the work’s potential for use as a blanket apologia for globalization.
As I waited for him in the lobby of the London Dorchester on a sweltering July morning, I wondered whether I’d recognize him from the time I saw him speak, in the plush Grand Ballroom of the San Francisco Fairmont Hotel in 1998. Edward Said was there also, my only experience seeing him. I remember Bhabha insisting on the cultural rights of migrant populations, as Said scowled at the chandeliers, squirming and fidgeting like a schoolboy waiting for the bell. After Bhabha’s talk, Said immediately sprang up and barked into the microphone that what migrants needed were political rights, not cultural ones: “Turks in Germany already have cultural rights.” I was wondering whether this implied that, once you’ve got your grand ballroom, your Bidoun magazine, and your Bhabha anthologies, you can then move on to double nationalities and a Türkische-Deutsche Volkspartei, when I was interrupted by the arrival of Bhabha himself. Brown pants, red shirt, green vest, and a somber, businesslike demeanor.
Tirdad Zolghadr: I’d like to start with a question regarding the role of radical critique within the institution. It seems to me that postcolonialism is vulnerable to the accusation of commodification or institutional appropriation in ways that Marxism, feminism and other academic movements never were, and it has been attacked far more rabidly from what I can tell. I know you personally have been attacked left, right, and center, and I wanted to ask you whether this atmosphere has evolved in any particular way since The Location of Culture first came out.
Homi K. Bhabha: The argument is that if something is commodified, it can be appropriated by orthodoxies and special interest groups and eventually absorbed within a hegemonic perspective. This charge is supposedly made from the side of history, of radical transformation, even revolutionary transformation. But it seems to me that those who make these accusations are actually lacking in any profound understanding of history.
Because if some set of ideas is going to have a transformative influence, then it is inevitably going to be institutionalized in one way or another. The myth of constantly living on the margins, of being perpetually provocative, has its own profound narcissism. The idea that influence can in any way survive without some form of institution, or indeed that all forms of institutionalization render mute the challenging force of ideas or practices, is deeply simplistic.
Which brings us to my second point. The misunderstanding regarding the relationship between ideas and institutions emerges because of a simplistic notion of the event, be it the event of history, the event of theory, or the event of conceptualization. Because events are disjunctively layered phenomena, they have a whole range of time schemes, a whole range of issues; when, for example, you yourself used the term “postcolonial,” one has to account for the geographical, geopolitical, and historical dissemination of the term itself.
So yes, it is arguable that universities continually demand new curricula. At their best, universities are thought machines in a continuous quest for new ideas, and not necessarily ideas from outside. Both Marxism and postcolonialism have a particular intellectual tradition. You know that Marx was addressing Adam Smith, who had a considerable presence both inside and outside the university. It seems obvious that universities will try to canonize and counter-canonize a body of knowledge, and in that context, a whole set of commodification practices emerge, all these anthologies of postcolonial literature and so forth.
Actually, I was at the Tate with my family, just two days ago, because I wanted to see the unfinished Turners again, and I wanted to show them to the children. They were fooling around in the bookstore, with the postcards and the catalogues, and suddenly they came up to me with all these books. One was an introduction to cultural studies, one was an introduction to literary theory, and another was the Penguin Dictionary of Theoretical Concepts or something, and they said, “Wow, Dad, you’re in all three of these, and there’s a caricature of you here,and a photograph of you here, and you appear under postcolonial hybridization,” and under this and that and so on and so forth. And so I felt, you know, commodified at some level.
TZ: Like a keychain?
HB: Well, it’s funny you should mention keychains. My son was at Yale until last year, and he walks out of his room one day to find a number of people doing their PhDs in comp lit running around in these t-shirts saying — and I can’t get the slang right — “Our Homie Is Homi K” [My son] tried to get one but he couldn’t, they were sold out. It seems to me that to think about these things, a sense of humor — or a certain sense of irony, rather — is required. Of course institutions are going to try and do this type of thing. The real issue here is, if the ideas are powerful, if the ideas are productive, if the ideas are ambivalent, then in the hands of new students they cannot be silenced, they cannot be sanitized.
That’s one important thing. The other is how much the individuals at the most productive end of the production of knowledge actually want this commodification to happen. And how much they resist it. As you can imagine, I’ve been asked time and time again whether I’d like to produce an anthology of some kind, and it’s interesting that I’ve always felt it was not the appropriate thing to do. Because ideas of postcoloniality are at their most productive when they are leavened, when they are used as part of a whole set of political or historical situations. What would you produce if you simply produced another anthology on postcolonialism? Obviously it could be adequately used for a course. But you can also summon a body of knowledge without giving it this monumentalization. That’s where I agree with the anti-commodifiers. In the more privileged institutions, you can use an anthology, but then you also have a whole lot of additional sources. In universities or communities less privileged, you have a set of ten essays on postcolonialism that become the world for you. Now that is commodification. Commodification is radical simplification even more than it is reification.
It’s interesting that the one time I agreed to do something in this area, I did not call it postcolonialism, but agreed with a major publisher that I would try and do something to transcend the commodifying impulse. It’s a discussion that is still ongoing between my agent, the publisher, and myself. There was great enthusiasm on behalf of this publisher — I won’t mention the name but it was a major publisher — regarding the idea of my elaborating something that was not just an anthology, but that offered a whole range of new ways of entering or exiting the subject matter. It wasn’t simply a tabulation of essays that created a sense of a canon, not at all. It was a set of complex — perhaps too complex — juxtapositions between eighteenth century thought and what we might call postcolonial thinking. But no matter how keen the publishers are, the result was that, whenever they sent it out for comment, basically the response was this: “This is absolutely fascinating, but we’d like Professor Bhabha to write this himself, as a book of his own. And then it could influence our teaching. We don’t want him” — and I’m going to put this colloquially — ”we don’t want him to mess with the way we teach postcolonial studies. We’ve got it down, we already know what it is.”
TZ: In recent years, it seems it’s particularly the Deleuzeian approaches that are criticized. People have complained that they’ve been appropriated by management theories in the 1990s, and are even used by Israeli paratroopers interested in rhizomes and so on.
HB: Just before coming over here, I received an email — you seem to be intuitively tracking my movements very closely — that said, “Dear Professor Bhabha, I’m contacting you from the Journal of Business Studies.” This was about some technical issue to do with global business, obviously written by some reputed professor in the field, and they were saying, “What do you make of this piece, does the use of your texts offer an exploration of your work in the spirit that you would conduct it?” Clearly not.
But on the other hand, they were asking, “From what you could grasp, was there anything that was inappropriate or inadequate?” And I said, “No, I think it’s fine, you should send it to people in the field of business studies.” They told me they’d had good responses and wished to publish it.
Now I have no idea what the ends of this work will be. But should I? Could I? Need I control that? That’s the question. You know, Israeli paratroopers may be reading Deleuze. The critic of the Daily Telegraph profoundly praises Bertolt Brecht. What do we do? The man at the Daily Telegraph says, “You must go and see Brecht’s Mother Courage, it’s a remarkable work.” Think about Brecht producing that work, and about the context in which it was produced, and the institutional context in which it is now received.
TZ: I have some good news for you. I was once allowed to sit in a business seminar called “Doing Business with the Arab World.” It was held for Swiss businessmen who were going to be stationed in Cairo or Dubai, and the instructors actually referred to your theories, briefly discussing hybridity, but then moving right on to more comfortable models. When I raised the issue after the lesson, they claimed the hybrids were too complicated, saying, “We have to stick to the Other.”
HB: You’re doing very interesting work.
TZ: I was surprised that, even on such a simple level, hybridity was too weird a concept to be introduced. But the reason I asked my question on more recent discussions of appropriation was that recently, in the art world at least, there’s a paranoia, or a diffuse sense of suffering that doesn’t even try to define the problem very precisely. If there’s any critical arts project that is funded by private sponsors, or even foundations, it’s immediately bewailed as a dangerous sign of things to come. I was wondering if you’d sensed a similar defeatism in academia.
HB: Well, my dear, it seems you might be asking exactly the wrong person the question. Let me come clean with you. Who have I been talking to over the last month? Let’s just take a look at this one last month out of my life, to make these issues concrete, intellectually and historically. Let’s take four events over the last month.
First, I was here a month ago because I have a chair at London University College, and we held a conference called “Extreme History.” Graduate students were discussing historical moments that were generally recognized to be moments of profound extremity and — at some level — of undecidability. Now, that was a very straightforward academic event, even if it was interdisciplinary and global in scope. After that, I was in Rome, at the invitation of the mayor, who organized a big public conference on philosophy. The theme was “Instability,” and we addressed the audience in that remarkable Renzo Piano stadium, where about 1500 to 2000 people came to listen. It was a fascinating event, and yet some people were saying, “Oh, he’s standing for reelection, and this is his way to rouse the masses.” But if the masses are to be roused with philosophers and journalists discussing Heidegger and so on, then that’s not a bad way to rouse them.
TZ: Better than kissing babies.
HB: Exactly, exactly. Or dogs. Then, a week or two later, I spoke at the Goethe Institute, which brought together people from the German Foreign Office, and some journalists and academics, and people who run the Goethe Institutes around the world. Now on some level, the Goethe is the official mouthpiece for German culture. So I’m trying to dismantle what it means today to represent a national culture, a territorially defined culture, when that culture is in a profoundly transformative phase. New immigrants, old immigrants, earlier histories of the Holocaust, new histories questioning the past, profound issues of memory. On the one hand, what is inside the frame is very complex, while on the other, you simply have to present something that is distinctive from what other countries are doing, principally through the Alliance Française or the British Council. There’s this strange repetition of the Scramble for Africa going on, with all these nations trying to position themselves abroad, with language courses, film screenings, theatre, cultural presentations of all kinds. So these were the complicated issues. The critics you cite would say I’m being appropriated. All these national institutions are commodifying projects, even imperializing projects of a new kind. But in fact, the Goethe event really set out to rethink a whole set of issues. It was a really productive meeting. The directors and the people from the German foreign office were very excited by my suggestions, and by my ways of making them rethink questions of the global.
And finally, two weeks ago, I was giving the keynote for the Volkswagen Foundation, on the whole question of othering. The title of the event was “Boundaries, Differences, Passages.” Here once again you could say, “What does the Volkswagen, one of the wealthiest foundations, actually do?” It gets these scholars, and it not only funds their research, it asks itself why the question of othering is still such a literary-cultural thing, and it brings people together to find out what sociologists and policy makers think about it. People will say, “Well, if Volkswagen is doing it, then the subject must be a dead horse by now, something about it is very suspect.” When my experience is in fact the opposite. The idea of a foundation appropriating anything could be true, but actually needn’t be true, and in some cases, foundations actually spearhead a certain change.
TZ: Earlier this year,you participated in the exhibition project Without Boundary at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, by writing the main essay for the catalogue. Before coming to that, I’d like to briefly refer to your contribution to the catalogue of the 1989 show Les Magiciens de la Terre at the Centre Pompidou. If you compare the two events, would you say there was a particular transition that occurred between the Paris exhibition and the more recent one in New York?
HB: My dear, I cannot remember the essay you’re referring to, I’d have to look at the catalogue again. But what I can say is that I remember very clearly how the curators and the director of the Pompidou were walking us through the show, and one of the curatorial ideas was to try and give artists who came from different cultural provenances their own space. To allow the viewers to produce the articulations or the dialectics of difference themselves. So difference was not something you saw, but something you interpreted. Difference was a kind of judgmental connection.
In the Without Boundary show, precisely the opposite was the case. Here, it was much more about how certain themes, or aesthetic traditions, or color tones, or experiences can breed a possible range of issues within a work. Which is why, for me, one of the important things here was the whole question of slowness. Slowness not as a way of saying that something is primitive or backward or old, but as a produced effect within a constellation of techniques and concepts.
TZ: The reason I wanted to compare the two shows was that Les Magiciens de la Terre, for all its faults, sparked an exciting, heated reception. It was the first time in a mainstream arts venue that internationalism was being discussed so thoroughly. And this is a decades-long discussion that the Without Boundary show simply ignores. By raising the question of the Islamicity of the artworks, it closed off doors and ambiguities that would otherwise allow the artists to package their work differently. The question itself skews its reception in a way that doesn’t offer an aesthetics of difference so much as a very simple form of othering.
HB: I don’t agree with that. It’s not that I disagree with your interpretation, but that in my own experience, and the conversations that led to me taking the project on, I believe they came from the opposite impulse. Namely, if you were touched or tinged by any kind of Islamic provenance — I prefer the word provenance to that of genealogy or origin — that if you are touched by that, then immediately that becomes the main point of entry into the work, particularly in our current moment. Even if we are influenced by where we were born, this is not necessarily the case aesthetically speaking. But the Islamosensitivity of the moment — and the general desire to illustrate the politics of a cultural difference — is such that this becomes the first thing you identify in a work or an artist.
I thought it was productive that this show took that question on — and as you know it was extended to Mike Kelley and Bill Viola — and said, “Yes, there is in each of these works something, spiritual, ideational, figurative, aesthetic — maybe just a color tone — that has a kind of Islamic resonance beyond biography and history.” Whatever it is, it should not be seen as a dominant defining character of the work. Because what the works were doing was the following: they were entering a realm of transition, and the way they dealt with that was through a process of cultural translation. They’re translational works, and as in all acts of translation, there is an acknowledgment of something. Not necessarily of anything original or authentic, but of something prior. And what is prior here doesn’t gain its authority through its priority, but through the fact that it’s able to partially occlude itself, lose itself in the production of something that is related to it. Not necessarily in the sense of mimetic likeness, nor in terms of a hierarchy of value. That’s what I thought was interesting in the way I read the motivations of the exhibition.
Which is why I could write about it in the first place. When the curators turned to me — we had a meeting where there were these very major Islamic scholars and so on, and we talked, it was very pleasant — and they said,“Would you write the framing essay?” I thought I’d only be able to write it if it were precisely not about Islamic identity being the identifying icon of the show. Because what do I know about it? I then, according to my own trajectory, drew on certain things that I thought were relevant. I only did it because it was not — not — a show about trying to line people up, saying they’re all about Islam.
TZ: On the one hand, you have younger artists who would never dream of joining a discussion on Islamosensitivity in their work, but who, then again, are unlikely to say no to MoMA. Saying no to MoMA would be a tough decision. On the other hand, you have established artists like Shirin Neshat, who recently claimed that the criticism she’s been getting is “due to the fact that Western critics do not understand Eastern art.” Which is quite hilarious coming from one of the best-selling video artists, making videos for the West, in the West. Now, no matter how subtle the curatorial approach may be, shows like Without Boundary, precisely by placing the Islamic discussion front and center, offer legitimacy for marketing strategies of this kind. These are just some of the ways in which an institution like MoMA bears a huge responsibility.
HB: But I don’t think this is a show that is marking out an Islamic trajectory. If you look at the title itself, or judging by curator Feri Daftari’s essay, clearly “Islamic or not?” is not the question. To me, the issue is that now, any religious, ethnic, or cultural background is seized upon as the first way of getting into the work. Take Caspar David Friedrich and a painting of the sublime. Would people say, “This is about being German”? No, they would say it’s about the sublime. So it seems that this show was trying precisely to get away from that way of thinking, by acknowledging that it is the dominant way of thinking, first of all because of the whole impact of Islam on the politics of the moment, secondly because of the longer history of trying to understand cultural identity.
Individual artists may or may not use a particular motif to emphasize an Islamic tradition. But the show moved away from that. Now, as for particular individual statements by artists elsewhere, statements of the kind you mentioned, I think you’re right to find them problematic. In any case there are many criticisms that can be made of any show, but I’d find it difficult to categorize the exhibition along those lines as far as the curators are concerned. And there was a very good piece in the New York Times that said precisely that. The exhibition shows us that, tragically, those who have a kind of Islamic provenance get recognized for having it, and we know that from standing in line at immigration. The exhibition acknowledged that, but tried to move away. How individual artists handle this complex destiny is another question.
TZ: Another good comparison is the Documenta 11, where you held a talk at one of the Platforms. In terms of its discourse on globalization and cultural difference, the show had even greater ambitions yet, setting high theoretical standards. And it sparked not only a dramatic reception, but also a backlash. Today I’m wondering if the show, had it kept a lower profile, with less planetary ambitions — focusing more on its intelligent use of the white cube and the black box, for example — might have sparked a more productive debate, less hysterical in tone.
HB: I think that’s a very important point. Clearly if one manages to achieve that balance, one is on to a winner.
TZ: What do you think of something as unabashedly commodified and commodifying as a magazine like Bidoun. If you were about to take a six-hour flight, would you pick up a Bidoun at the airport kiosk?
HB: Sure. I haven’t had a chance to look at it very deeply, but from what I’ve seen I can certainly say it’s a very handsome commodity. It’s not mimeographed, so it doesn’t have the smudge marks of authenticity all over it. It’s out there in the world, and it’s a worldly magazine. I also think that the whole project is very important. A project that, if I understand correctly, is a kind of psychic geography. And a magazine of that kind is a response to what is particularly interesting today, namely to history being experienced as a moment of transition.
Just to take one example: in the general history of warfare — and of course my reference is to the contemporary War on Terror — we’re in a situation almost unprecedented, where nobody, from the White House on down, wants to talk about the end of the war. Susan Sontag, in the last piece she wrote, referred to the “endless war,” and I’m now writing a piece with that title, The Endless War. Jacques Derrida, before he died, said, “You know what the problem is with this sort of war? It’s that it’s always a war that is fought in the future. The terror of the war is not about the incident that happened, but the one that will happen, and you don’t know when.” It’s endless in that sense. Francis Fukuyama talks about it as being endless. Even President Bush says we don’t know when it’s going to end. When did you last hear of a president standing for reelection on one platform: that of an endless war?
If you think about this, you’ll get some sense of what I’m talking about more generally. Which is this notion that we’re in a process of transition, and we don’t know what the transformational endpoints or teleologies will be. You could say that in most historical moments, this is probably the case, that people always think they’re in the middle of a process of transformation and don’t know how it will turn out. That may be so. But what I also know is that we’re in a moment of profound self-reflexivity — perhaps not in the sense of deep, but in the sense of extensive, self-reflexivity. And I would also say it’s a motif of the age. It’s no longer a case of people saying, “Oh well, we’re in the midst of something, and we don’t know how it’s going to come out.” People are actually saying, “We’re in the midst of this transition and we don’t know how to get out of it.” And of course transition is a very hard thing to think about. You are, as it were, suspended in the middle.
But what you do have in moments of transition is a sense of repetition. Not only a mythical sense of repetition, but a very real one. Which is why people are saying the Taliban are coming back in droves in Afghanistan. This is only one example. Or take the insurgent resistance to the US by those who are probably part of the Baathist party. People are saying, “Oh my god, this is all just popping out of the soil!” But what we have to resist in these moments, I think, is the idea of the past simply returning. The past never returns without a radical transformation of both itself and the present in which it is appearing. This is a great challenge in the public narratives of our time. We have to resist this tendency to see a sort of inevitability. The challenge of thinking about transition productively, ethically, and politically is one of the great challenges of our time.
Dr. Saad Bashir Eskander is Director-General of the Iraqi National Library and Archive (INLA) in Baghdad. A Kurdish historian, he was appointed to the position in December 2003. This summer, he spoke to Deena Chalabi about the fraught role of culture in an increasingly destabilized Iraq.
Deena Chalabi: Could you tell me what you were doing before you became director general of the INLA? Were you in Iraq during Saddam’s regime?
Saad Bashir Eskander: I was in exile for twenty years. I spent 1991 to 2003 in London, where I finished my education; I got a BA in modern history at the University of London and an MA/PhD in international history. I got my PhD in 1999, and I worked as a researcher at the Iraqi Cultural Forum. After the downfall of Saddam’s regime, I came back to Baghdad in November 2003.
DC: The INLA suffered from two days of looting and fire in April 2003, and there was deliberate flooding of the archival records. What was lost?
SBE: The INLA was the most damaged institution in the whole of the country. We lost sixty percent of the archive.The library lost twenty-five percent of publications and almost all our rare and valuable books, including a copy of Ibn Sina’s famous book, Al-Qanon fi Al-Tib (The Canon of Medecine), written in the sixteenth century. Most of the Ottoman records and a large portion of the records from the monarchical and republican periods were destroyed. We still have some books written in Hebrew from the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.
DC: How did you set about addressing the damage, and where did you find the money to do so?
SBE: There was no budget when the Americans ran the show in Baghdad and the rest of the country. They focused their attention on the museum more than the other cultural institutions so we didn’t benefit from their experience or funds.
I put together a six-month strategy to open the main reading room in the National Library, just to raise the morale of my employees. It was a crazy idea because everything was in very bad shape: we didn’t have chairs, equipment, electricity, or water. But we started to get some money from the Ministry and from outside Iraq — for example, from the Italians.
The Iraqi government has been funding the renovation of the INLA since late 2004. Foreign funds have been used for purchasing equipment, furniture, and training. In general the government is not interested in cultural matters; security is its main concern. Ordinary Iraqis pay little attention to culture and education, owing to the long years of isolation, poverty, and dictatorship.
DC: What is the situation within the INLA today?
SBE: About seventy-five to eighty percent of the building is renovated. We have a website, and our book collections are on the internet. We’ve reconstructed the microfilm lab and the restoration lab. We have begun the automation process of our collections, and we started to work on the records and files of the Ministry of the Interior. Most of these files were classified materials, and they contained a lot of very valuable information about different aspects of life in Iraq between 1914 and 1980.
But we still suffer from a shortage of electricity and water. The collections of the library and the archive need a certain temperature and humidity (18–22˚ Celsius), but we only have five hours of electricity per day in Baghdad, and the temperatures often get to 50 or 55˚ Celsius.
The whole security situation is our main problem and our main concern. Yesterday one of our drivers was shot in the head. The day before, one of our librarians lost his son — he was assassinated. Every day we have a story. These things have really taken our time and our energy. It’s a really unbearable situation here in Baghdad. The educated people, the middle classes, have started to leave Baghdad. Now Baghdad is an empty city.
Today about four bombs exploded close to the National Library. Sometimes the mortar shells damage parts of the building, or under the impact of the bombs, glass will be broken. The physical damage is very limited, but the effect on morale is considerable.
DC: How many people are using the library?
SBE: At the moment, the number of the readers who come to our institution is very limited. Sometimes when the security situation is very bad, we receive just one reader. But even when we have one reader, we open the main reading room… In my view, this is very important, morally and politically; we have to fight. I think we are the only cultural institution in Baghdad that has been open since 2003.
DC: It seems that your goal is to create a public space that reflects the kinds of values you want to see in the new Iraq. Are there any other public spaces that are being used similarly?
SBE: The University of Baghdad is open, and its libraries are functioning, but the problem is that the whole educational and cultural system in Iraq needs to be reformed because of the people. There are the old guard still in power here in Baghdad. In the past we had one Saddam and one policy. Now we have a thousand Saddams; every one of them is a little dictator… These little Saddams, at the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Culture, Ministry of Defense, and so on, can be Shia, Sunni, secular, or even apolitical. We need to change the whole system. The old people are still in power, and that is why the pace of change is very slow.
In the past I was very optimistic; now I am very pessimistic about the future of the county. Since late 2005, the civil war has started. But we don’t say it. This is a civil war. And there are assassinations taking place every minute here in Baghdad.
DC: You have spoken of the damage to the INLA as a “national disaster beyond imagination” and the “loss of a large portion of Iraq’s historical memory.” But you also said in a 2005 speech that “the destruction of Iraq’s cultural heritage began during Saddam’s era” because of indifference, neglect, and hierarchical notions of control at the expense of creativity. How is it possible to combat that other kind of cultural loss — not just material, in terms of the irreplaceable artifacts, but in terms of values — the loss of a culture in which culture itself is considered important?
SBE: We had a dictatorship for thirty-five years, and cultural life was dominated by the state and the Ba’ath party. The fall of the regime created a big cultural vacuum. Cultural values from Iran, from Saudi Arabia, mostly fundamentalist values, started to dominate our cultural life here in Baghdad.So in my view, the normalization of cultural life here in Baghdad is crucial, especially because these cultural institutions are secular, like ours, so it becomes a struggle, with these foreign cultural values being imposed on us. Our duty is to reopen the National Library and National Archive and provide an alternative.
DC: What hope do you see for cultural life in Baghdad?
SBE: Cultural life in Baghdad is dead. Every institution tries to be active on the cultural front, and to sustain activities, but in general they are very weak, very limited because of the security situation. We have cultural events without an audience. Let’s say tomorrow we go to the National Theatre in Baghdad and try to show the best play in the world, or hold an art exhibition. People will not go, because they are afraid.
DC: The Western media has talked a great deal about the material cultural losses in Iraq during the war in 2003 as a tragedy that befell humanity as a whole, given that Iraq has long been considered the “cradle of civilization.”
The archives of the former regime are very important for historical reasons and for human rights reasons. The idea that some people who come from abroad, even if they are Iraqis, control these archives and use them for this or that reason, is morally wrong, legally wrong, and historically wrong.
SBE: The term has been used in a negative way by the ultra-Arab nationalists (principally the Ba’athists) to mobilize the masses for their own ends. Nowadays, all political and religious forces use the term in a similar manner. The vast majority of Iraqi “intellectuals” use it in order to hide their inferiority complexes that the country is forty years behind socially, economically, and culturally compared with neighboring countries. What is the point of talking about the past and the greatness of our ancestors at a time when Iraq needs to question and even rewrite its ancient and modern history away from false ideologies and sentimentalisms? The term is a burden, not because we find it very difficult to live up to the deeds of our ancestors, but because we have been deceiving ourselves in thinking that we are a relatively advanced nation and that the foreigners are responsible for our present problems.
DC: Many people outside Iraq were shocked and confused by the destruction to cultural sites,and couldn’t understand why Iraqis would want to damage their heritage in such a way. Is there any collective memory of an Islamic civilization to be proud of?
SBE: It doesn’t apply to Iraq. In Iraq, secular forces always dominated political and cultural life since the establishment of the Iraqi state in 1921. The idea that there was an Islamic civilization — there is no such thing. Islam in Afghanistan is different from Islam in Iraq. Even in Iraq, Islam in the South is different from Islam in the North. There is no such civilization because there are different countries, with different levels of cultural and economic progress. Afghanistan is less developed than Turkey, Turkey is different from Egypt, which is different from Sudan, and so on.
DC: It seems, though, at least among Muslims elsewhere, that the notion has become part of a political mythology.
SBE: Yes, and the reason is escapism.
DC: Can Iraqi expatriates play a role in the reconstruction of the country, working to counter dangerous elements and promote culture? What do you think about Iraqi archival material being posted on the internet, or the work of the Iraq Memory Foundation (IMF), an initiative started by former Iraqi exile Kanan Makiya?
SBE: The archives of the former regime are very important for historical reasons and for human rights reasons. The idea that some people who come from abroad, even if they are Iraqis, control these archives and use them for this or that reason, is morally wrong, legally wrong, and historically wrong. For example, if you read the daily newspaper in Baghdad, you would read that every day they publish security documents about the life of this person or that person. They put lives in danger and violate rights. Some of this information is not correct, and a lot of people were killed because of the publication of these documents.
The Iraq Memory Foundation is a private initiative financed, I think, by some American institution or American nonprofit. In Iraq we have a law and it organizes the work of the National Archives and the archives of all the ministries and state institutions. The whole archive issue needs to be looked at again, to change the laws governing archives.
The IMF works without being subjected to Iraqi laws, outside of Iraqi legislative and executive bodies, so they are outside the legal framework of the country, and we don’t know what they do with the documents. Some of them are extremely dangerous,and they could be used as political weapons against others. And in Baghdad, as I said, these documents are used against opponents, so they are very dangerous in the hands of private groups and institutions.
It’s not only the IMF that is seizing millions of documents. Even the CIA and other foreign agencies, even some foreign journalists, when they left Baghdad, they took with them a lot of documents from Iraqi institutions and ministries. We need to collect all these materials, bring them to Baghdad and set up a special committee to write new legislation and to distinguish between this document and that document according to their value, whether their value is related to security or to a human rights issue.
We thought — even I believed — that the downfall of the Saddam regime would be followed by deep political, social, cultural, and educational changes. Unfortunately the Americans and the majority of our selfish political elites have made a mess of the political process. After the Americans removed Saddam Hussein, the whole state system collapsed. The Americans proved to be very bad imperialists and the native elites to be extremely naïve people. They were not up to the task.
Anna Boghiguian and Robert Shapazian first met in 2003 on Anna’s rooftop, brought together by a mutual friend who thought something might resonate between the two, at the very least a bit of mutual Armenian love. They clicked, one might say, in an unlikely fashion, and thus began Robert’s more than occasional trips from Beverly Hills to Cairo, as well as a correspondence that spans phone lines, email, and encounters such as this one.
Boghiguian is an artist. Born in Cairo in 1946, she studied political science at the American University in Cairo, and later received a BFA in visual arts and music from Concordia University, Montreal. She has illustrated many books, including editions of poems by Constantine Cavafy and Carnet Egyptien by Giuseppe Ungaretti for Fata Morgana, which also published her own book, Images of the Nile (2000). Most recently, she showed her drawings as part of Catherine David’s “Contemporary Arab Representations” program. In 2003, the American University in Cairo Press published Anna’s Egypt, a compilation of her drawings, paintings, and writings.
Shapazian was the founding director of the Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles, where he worked for ten years. Prior to Gagosian, he was the director of the Lapis Press for eight years, a prize-winning book publishing company owned by the artist Sam Francis. He serves on the Photographic Committee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and studied English literature at Harvard.
Robert Shapazian: Well, Anna, here we are at your studio in Cairo, on the roof of an old building on an island in the middle of the Nile, with Cairo old and new spread 360 degrees around us. It’s a dazzling and dizzying site. And it feels like the density and vertigo in your very great drawings and paintings of the city.
Anna Boghiguian: To me, it’s not just a place on top of the building, but it becomes a place that floats in the air. I suppose it’s very good to breathe the air of Cairo, to view Cairo from the top, and to listen to the sounds. You see certain episodes of situations that you do not normally see, like camels moving early in the morning, buffaloes, couples kissing each other, boys swimming naked in the river, young boys polishing their Reeboks, or I don’t know what expensive tennis shoes, in the river while they are dressed in rags. And they polish and they polish and they polish like a Greek god. It’s extraordinary to see Cairo at five, six, seven o’clock in the morning. The way I paint, sometimes I feel that my vision or what I put on my canvas doesn’t convey all the experiences I have lived through in this city.
RS: Now, let’s face it — you aren’t the most ambitious artist. You don’t spend a lot of time making art. Instead, you spend a lot of time procrastinating, walking around Cairo, and traveling to foreign countries. You certainly aren’t one of those artists who reports in at eight o’clock every day and leaves at five o’clock. What is it that finally compels you to pick up a pencil or pen and make an image?
AB: There was a time when I used to draw and paint twenty hours a day. If I traveled or was in a hotel or in a city, I always went with my paper and my pencil, and I couldn’t let it go. It’s only in the past six years that I don’t work so much. But I still work seven hours a day. I work according to my needs. You see, I don’t start working when I wake up, but I wait until seven or eight o’clock at night and then work until three. Or suddenly I’ll start painting every day, but then I won’t paint for a week. It depends.
RS: And what brings you to the point where you decide to make an image?
AB: I don’t know. It becomes very automatic. You see, I don’t think at all. But I do think when I don’t want to paint.
RS: [Laughter] Oh, you think when you don’t want to paint. So you have this idea, “I don’t want to paint anymore.”
AB: Yes, I don’t want to paint because I want to rest. I think that resting is very important. But I’m beginning to realize that this resting includes socialization. And so you become more of a nervous wreck. Because when you socialize with people, you have to give them something. And whatever you give, it’s never satisfying.
RS: To them or to you?
AB: To them. I think this comes from their childhoods when their mothers may have put their diapers on too tightly or too loose. This has made most people very irritable. They want things to be done in particular ways. “You know the way it has to be. You didn’t give me enough.” I think it all may come from a simple thing like a diaper not being properly fitted. So I find socializing very difficult. I mean, it may be my own great difficulty, but I find relating very difficult. Especially in Cairo.
RS: But on the other hand you’re extremely sociable. When we go around Cairo, you’re always striking up a conversation with somebody. You’re very spontaneous and curious, and you get into conversations. But you have a side that’s also a little reclusive. You travel by yourself, you work by yourself. Art is a lone pursuit. So this is something of a—
RS: Right, a contrast. And of course, this is very alive in your art. How do you view your drawings and paintings in relation to the life around you that you live and see in Cairo?
AB: Some of the experiences come directly from my experience and some do not. I throw some away because I find that sometimes a social immaturity comes through in my hand. Cairo is a place of great contrast and confusion, and this is why—
RS: And the traffic. You said, to you, Cairo is all about traffic.
AB: Yes, there is a stream of consciousness going through Cairo, with all the cars and all the movement. It’s the motion of Cairo, this mentality of the Cairenes to own a car and to run around. Even if the car is completely falling apart and rusted, as most of them are, they still go around, and you don’t know where it will end. I draw a lot of cars, and I think this concept of the Egyptian mind and its mobility is a very interesting thing. Given the freedom, Egypt would be a very mobile nation.
RS: This multiplicity, of layers and confusion, is very present in your art, especially in your drawings. So many of your works look down into the vortex of the city, where things are moving and churning, like rushing water churning around a drain.
AB: Yes, it does have this aspect because of the movement. Maybe I haven’t been able to show it, but it’s the concept of motion, and motion is necessary. But as the motion in the country is confused, it can only rise up as vertigo.
RS: And what about smoking? You said you wanted to talk about smoking. How does smoking fit into the vortex and the floating and the—
AB: I think that my cigarette smoking is very upsetting to people. In Canada, it was very upsetting. But here in Egypt, yes, it’s okay, and in Paris and Italy it’s tolerated. I find my smoking has something to do with the dirtiness in my work. Like the cigarette comes, the butt falls in, part of the cigarette paper gets stuck on the paper and things like that. I’m a dirty smoker. There are clean smokers and dirty smokers.
RS: But this is something I have always thought very important, very unique about your work. It always has a quality of crumpledness or darkness or grime. Many times you can’t tell the difference between the graphite of the pencil and some random mark or smudge. You’re not sure if that’s the smudge of the pencil or if the drawing just got dirty.
AB: I think the drawing just got dirty. [Laughter]
RS: But of course, you allow this, you allow it to happen.
AB: I like the fact that they get walked on. I walk on them. They start having this quality of dirtiness. I think that if you make drawings too precious, it stops. If it’s too neat or too clean, of course, it becomes really pleasant to the eye to look at, and most of the people who look at this work are very clean people. I mean nobody who is filthy goes to a museum.
RS: Yes. It’s about cleanliness, order, clarity.
AB: Or usually they try to go to a gallery. You know, many people who are poor say they are always horrified to enter into an art gallery because they fear they’ll be looked down upon.
AB: I think it’s necessary to show we are doing art for the masses of the world, not for the one percent. But unfortunately, the thing one has to come to accept is, art is for the one percent. It’s only for the rich.
RS: But in a sense, I don’t think you feel very connected to that one percent.
AB: I think that I socialize with a lot of very rich people. And they are the type of people who seem to have problems with their diapers.
RS: The life that you’re leading is certainly not about the clean, polished, rich, getting-in-the-car-and-riding-around kind of thing.
AB: No, my socialization happens only by telephone.
RS: And often the way you dress and present yourself in public makes you look very eccentric. Rumpled and—
AB: I didn’t used to iron, but now I’ve taken to ironing my clothes.
RS: But somehow it doesn’t look ironed! [Laughter]
AB: It is ironed. It just comes from …does it look ironed? Look!
RS: Oh, I kind of see it now. Now let me also say that this dirtiness about the art, the smudge, the rumpledness, the—
AB: —it can also come from uncaringness.
RS: Uncaringness. That’s just what I was going to say. This quality is not at all premeditated in your work. It’s very natural, and it comes of its own self. A lot of times this dirtiness or somewhat derelict quality puts people off. One time I sent you to my friend at the New York Public Library to show him your extremely brilliant book about the world at the time of 9/11. I think that is a wonderful work of art, highly unconventional, and filled with life. I think it’s truly a work of genius.
AB: He told me it wasn’t well painted.
RS: Yes. So you went to the New York Public Library, you showed it to the curator, and he responded very negatively to these elements of, let us say, impurity.
RS: This quality work always reminds me of this very beautiful book by the Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows. There’s a portion in the book where he talks about the elegance and the beauty of grime. It is of the greatest elegance because it bears the marks of life acquired over time. Something old, or ancient, and yet shining from within. And I feel these qualities are very much in your work.
AB: Maybe. You know, I don’t give much thought to my work.
RS: Every time I come to Cairo, you’re always quizzing me about the art world.
AB: Yes, I find it very interesting.
RS: So what’s your relationship to the art industry, the galleries, and so forth?
AB: I’ll tell you. I find it’s like going to a free cinema, it’s like going to a free movie, it’s like going to a free Hollywood walk-around. It doesn’t have the glamour of Hollywood. It doesn’t have the glamour of anything. But it has all these people who seem like dolls, sitting behind desks and, usually, very well made up. They are usually dressed very expensively and usually they are very polite. And they usually look down at you. And I find that very interesting. And I find that it has some glamour, this thing.
RS: Does it? Is that glamour to you, a wish you could “get in”?
AB: No, I don’t wish to be them at all. When I talk and ask questions, the question of glamour comes to me because I find it very entertaining. I find the art world unreal and entertaining. I mean, I think the whole tragedy about the world of art is that it doesn’t deal with art. And this is extraordinary. It doesn’t deal with culture, and it doesn’t deal with humanity. It deals with neatness, cleanliness, conformism, and it says some technical things of complete unimportance.
RS: Now, you said you wanted to talk about money.
AB: Well, I said that I’m very interested in money, though at one time I thought it was unnecessary to make money. I suppose living in Canada makes you think that art should be for free. Who you are to ask for such sums of money? And of course, now this concept that you belong to the market to have a price is appearing in Cairo. You have to belong to the art market. Well, I’ll tell you something. The only thing that matters to me is to have money. And, being an Armenian, money is very important. Armenia as a nation, rootless for decades, has developed a sense that money gives protection, that it’s a wall of protection. This is true for many displaced persons.
RS: You’re not somebody who saves a lot of money, you’re not greedy, and you don’t make a lot of artwork to sell. You don’t really talk about money as it pertains to you. The only thing is that money gives you the ability to do certain things, like travel.
AB: I do need my money to travel. If I didn’t have money, it might upset me, but not terribly, because I would find another way of doing things like I did earlier when I didn’t have any. But now I’m old and it’s more difficult because you become tired more easily. Society won’t tolerate an old woman sitting on a sidewalk drinking a Coca-Cola. When you’re twenty, twenty-five, and you’re drinking Coca-Cola on the sidewalk, they say, “She’s having a good time.” When you’re sixty and they see your white hair, they say, “This one didn’t do anything with her life.”
RS: You do have a certain laziness about you. But you also are very engaged. You talk a lot, you’re looking around, you’re checking things out, and you’re going around the world. So there are these two things about you—
AB: I’m very lazy to get involved with people commercially. Because I—
RS: —and yet you have this professed love of money. Which you don’t actually have.
AB: I find it very difficult to socialize with art dealers, and I always feel that I have to go to their office and it has to click. And it never clicks.
AB: I don’t know.
RS: Is it them or you?
AB: I think it’s them. Is that possible?
RS: I don’t know. All I know is that you and the life you lead are not one of high materialism. Every time we go out, you have a few pounds in your pocket that are all crumpled and dirty, and they fall on the sidewalk. In your mind somehow there’s a strong connection to money, but in reality it seems like there’s no connection to money.
AB: I have a lot of money in my pockets all the time.
RS: [Laughter] But it’s crumpled and dirty and only in little bills.
AB: The little bills fall out, but I usually have a lot of money.
RS: [Laughter] Oh yeah, oh, that came from another pocket. Right.
AB: I do think that I have some kind of attachment to money, and I also think that could spend $100,000 very quickly. I could spend half a million and be poor again. But I haven’t figured out what the measure of richness is.
RS: What does that mean?
AB: What does it mean to be poor, and what does it really mean to be rich? I think these things have to do with the capacity of the human mind and what it can do to achieve what you want it to do. You can get anything easily if you’re destined to do what you want to do.
RS: How do you feel about yourself and what you want to be doing? To be getting what you want out of life?
AB: Well, I think that I’ve gotten some things that I’ve wanted out of life. I’ve gotten things that I wanted to get.
RS: Last time I was in Cairo, I was at this point in my life where I was very confused and everything was in chaos. We were in a taxi cab riding through a lot of traffic, and I asked you, “What are we supposed to be doing in life? I don’t get it. Have you figured it out?” And you looked through the windshield and said, “Well, you know, in the last analysis, I feel one should try to be as noble as possible. You know, it’s not easy to be noble.”
AB: “Being a human being.” Someone who loves people, human life. And the Dali Llama, who said it’s very important to be a good human being. But I suppose many people find me an atrociously horrible human being.
RS: In what way?
AB: You’ll have to ask some of them.
RS: You told me once that you were most fascinated by this quality of something mysterious at the core of life.
AB: Yes, there’s something very mysterious at the core of life. I began to realize when I was young that there is a great mystery which is also associated with a great fear in life. I suppose when life becomes familiar, and you become more knowledgeable, the fear about human existence fades away and life becomes much easier to deal with. The mystery starts unfolding from vagueness to clarity, from obscurity to clarity.
RS: You told me you felt that as you got older—
AB: —it becomes demystified.
RS: How do you capture this in your work? I feel it strongly in your paintings and drawings, but how do you actually try to accomplish it?
AB: I would like to use more texture, first of all. Except for those paintings in which I use wax, there isn’t enough texture in my work. I use wax because in my mind, it’s related to candles, and candles are what you offer to shrines in churches. They become part of an offering to divinity. Using wax creates a type of union with something ephemeral and at the same time divine. It becomes luminous.
RS: When you look at so much of the art that’s made today and that makes it into primary public view in the art industry, the publications, all the things propelled by high culture, do you see much of this luminousness, or the essential qualities that you personally so value?
AB: I think that some of the young artists who have become famous in the past twenty years had that essence in the first decade of their work. But eventually they became merely technically proficient and started catering to the needs of the few.
RS: And why do you think this is?
AB: Because I think they socialize with the few. Their realities become linked with the reality of the few. If I’m not mistaken, to be elitist means that you become so separate from the human tragedy that the reality of human struggle fades away and another layer of artificial reality is built up. The greatest art touches the most people.
In June of 2006, Bidoun invited Thomas Keenan and Trevor Paglen to launch the magazine’s Art and Politics series at New York’s PS1 Contemporary Art Center. Keenan, who teaches literary theory, media studies, and human rights at Bard College, where he also directs the Human Rights Project, has most recently been studying jihadists and their idiosyncratic uses of new media. Paglen, for his part, is an artist, writer, and self-proclaimed experimental geographer working out of the Department of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley. His work seems to defy the neat confines of discipline, and is at once social science, contemporary art, and even activism. Paglen’s most recent projects take up secret military bases, the California prison system, and the CIA’s practice of “extraordinary rendition.”
Keenan and Paglen’s work intersect in a number of ways, not the least of which is the circulation of information — how it is packaged, disseminated, hidden away. At PS1, the two took on secret prisons in particular. Here on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks and just days after President George W. Bush announced the transfer of fourteen of the CIA’s most high-profile terrorism suspects to Guantanamo Bay to be tried, they took on the current moment. Via Skype, no less.
Thomas Keenan: I’ve been thinking that this is an unusually interesting time to talk — Bush sends the ghosts into Gitmo [Guantanamo], and al-Qaeda announces a tape in which some of them appear with OBL [Osama bin Laden].
Trevor Paglen: Yes yes yes. Those things have been occupying my mind a lot this week. Let’s talk about these weird forms of visibility and invisibility.
TK: Maybe we should begin with the ghosts, and why you’ve been so interested in them and what you’ve been doing.
TP: I’ve been thinking about these ghosts quite a bit. Obviously there’s the question of the “ghost prisoners” in this “War on Terror” — a collection of who knows how many prisoners who’ve been kept “off the books,” denied access to the Red Cross, held in secret prisons and so forth. This means that the CIA and the White House have created a global infrastructure for doing this sort of thing. What I didn’t realize when I began this latest project (although I suspected from past work that this might be the case) is that there’s a whole domestic analog to all of this. For example, when you begin researching the means by which the CIA and the White House have manufactured these ghosts, you start to find an equally invisible and somehow nonexistent infrastructure embedded in the fabric of everyday life “over here.” You find, for example, aircraft companies whose boards of directors are composed of nonexistent people. You find nonexistent people who are somehow designed to disappear others. That’s how I started thinking about ghosts.
TK: I have a factual question for you. The President announced that fourteen “high-value” prisoners would be moved to Cuba and put on trial. They are indeed some very interesting people, and the jihadist forums have been extremely excited about their imminent appearance. At the same time, various news accounts noted that CIA officials had mentioned that somewhere closer to a hundred prisoners had passed through their secret camps. Do you know where, generically at least, the other eighty-five or so are now?
TP: The other prisoners are in a couple of places. First is Guantanamo. People like Binyam Mohammed went through this system of secret prisons, only to find themselves dumped off at Gitmo after years of disappearance and torture. In fact, some people in the DoD [Department of Defense] started talking about Gitmo as a dumping ground for CIA mistakes. Other prisoners have been transferred to places like Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and so forth. Most of these guys are presumably in local prisons in these countries. With the beginning of the WoT [War on Terror], the CIA essentially bought a lot of foreign intelligence services to do this sort of thing — mainly by funding these services.
TK: I like very much your word “ghost” because it specifies exactly the way in which these creatures do and don’t appear, at the same time, and because it identifies their strange past-ness, their status as memories or remnants. I think the human rights community could learn a lot if it took their ghostliness seriously, if it wasn’t entirely hamstrung by the habeas corpus mentality… because central to the War on Terror has been the military/intelligence community’s announcement that it has these people but it’s not going to say where or how they are. They have the status of open secrets, of visible invisibles.
TP: Exactly. In what ways do you think that the human rights community might reconfigure its thinking by taking ghosts seriously?
TK: By “learn a lot” I mean something like this: they are already pretty good researchers, pretty good at producing knowledge and writing it up. The human rights world excel at making things public, at exposing, revealing, displaying. You share that interest in knowledge — we talked about that at PS1 — as do I, and a case can of course be made for knowledge as a god in itself, or as testimony, bearing witness, et cetera. But human-rights activists want, rightly, more: They want the knowledge to do something, to get something done. And often they can — exposure can be an active weapon in the fight for rights. But when the object of the knowledge or the secrecy, the revelation, is already oddly public, the way these high-value guys have been, then merely revealing them and their hidden existence doesn’t do the same job.
TP: Yes, exactly. This tendency really makes me wonder if there’s a kind of latent idealism in these approaches towards activism — meaning that somehow the articulation of truths, of the idea (for example) has some kind of necessary relation to the world. I’m not saying that this isn’t so, but that it’s limited. Over the course of this project in particular, I’ve been interested in identifying places where — through the side-door so to speak — actions can be taken. There are a lot of contradictions in this world, as you can imagine, and I wonder if those contradictions represent weak points that pressure can be applied to. I’m thinking particularly of places like John Yoo’s office here at UC Berkeley, the lawyers who help the CIA set all this stuff up (and knowingly commit fraud in order to do so), or the aircraft companies that provide so many services. What do you think?
TK: That’s a very important point, and one too many left-wing critics of the GWOT [Global War on Terror] don’t attend to fully. I think one of the great interests of your projects for me has been your ability to work inside the publicly available databases and records, to use the information that’s already there, and assemble it into a pattern and a narrative that starts to make sense of otherwise very tricky things. Exploiting the seams, rather than assaulting frontally. Hmm, asymmetric.
TP: It’s counterintuitive at first — the GWOT seems so abstract, so “over there” but when you start to look under the hood, you find that it’s woven into everyday life in very real (i.e., brick-and-mortar as opposed to spectacular) ways.
TK: So, yes, there’s no monolith here. On the other hand, they (Yoo and company) are winning, at least in the domestic political sphere. (I think they’re losing seriously on the ground and in cyberspace, but that’s another discussion.) They have been able to hide and reveal simultaneously with great success, and the good work of activists and researchers has not really dented their strategies much.
TP: Well, Yoo seems pretty untouchable, but lots of people are extremely touchable — there are lots of people who enable this who are essentially small-time lawyers or small businesses. They are quite vulnerable to things like complaints with state bar and business associations and so forth. I’d be extremely interested to know about this latest video and to hear what the newsgroups are saying about it and the transfer of KSM [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] and company to Gitmo.
TK: The new video (released to Al-Jazeera yesterday and due online any hour now) is of course timed to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the WTC/Pentagon attacks. It’s called The Manhattan Raid, apparently, and may be as long as ninety minutes. It features archival footage of Bin Laden meeting with a number of the September 11 hijackers, as well as the “martyrdom tapes” of two of them. It was announced with a beautiful animated gif. The gif is typical of the advance publicity operations that the al-Qaeda media arm, as-Sahab [the clouds], runs for its big releases. These things are circulated to the moderators of the Islamist forums and are stuck at the top of every page, flashing away to announce the imminent arrival of an important new tape.This one shows the characters, the topic, the title, and promises that it’s coming soon…
TP: Very interesting. Tell me about the tape this week and what happened.
TK: I know everyone always says that Bin Laden and company are media-savvy, sophisticated, and all the rest, so much so that it’s a cliché, but it’s true — and I don’t think that a lot of people recognize how innovative and smart they are. They are certainly creating, actively, a global online community, in many languages (not just Arabic), that makes up a sort of counter-public sphere… using the strategies, or moves derived from them, of the typical information-commerce cyber- and TV-scape.
TP: This is really interesting. It seems to me that there are so many ways in which OBL and company use these tapes much in the same way that the White House uses secret information. Disclosing it in ways that are timed for specific political effects. Do you see anything homologous?
TK: Yes, there are lots of analogies… most notably that the tape is of equal use to OBL and to GWB [George W. Bush]. Each, these days, is interested in reminding every one about September 11 and who was responsible for it. What happens? The gif arrives, and that’s all… no press release, no text, no nothing beyond the flashing sequence. It circulates worldwide almost instantly, and then within a few hours Al-Jazeera has an advance copy (I’m not clear if it’s the whole thing or excerpts) that gives hints of the content, demonstrates that it has English subtitles, makes clear who’s in it, and further reminds everyone that OBL is still in charge and was the foremost responsible party for September 11.
TP: Is there information in these tapes, or are they more of “morale” boosters? Both?
TK: Information? Well, sort of. There was a lot of information in the tape that as-Sahab released on the anniversary of the July 7 London bombing — a real demonstration of AQ’s [al-Qaeda’s] authorship of the attacks, something which the UK authorities had always played down.
TP: The announcement this week of the prisoner transfer to Gitmo was extremely calculated in terms of the political effect the Bush company was trying to achieve.
TK: Well, he wants once again to take credit for September 11, to demonstrate the global reach of the organization, to inspire and fund-raise and recruit. It was a remarkable, more or less unprecedented, event, and he has yet to use up the credit he earned. I also think OBL wants to make sure that he stays on top of the jihad, that Iraq is not too distracting for his audience, that Hassan Nasrallah does not stay in the limelight too long, et cetera. There are deep internal divisions with the jihadist movement, a constant struggle for leadership, and this is a great publicity opportunity. The coincidence of the appearance of Ramzi Binalshibh and other ghosts on the tape and in Bush’s announcement suggests again that everyone sees opportunities in this anniversary… Let’s go back to your work, though, and your sense of what it is you are doing when you document, so patiently and accurately, the movement of the ghost prisoners. Can you describe a little of what you are doing, and why?
TP: Well, it’s extremely hard to document these movements in any meaningful way, but it can be done with a lot of legwork. Why do it? For me I guess it has to do with a lot of different things. The first is a kind of spatial/political question: what kinds of hidden relationships and collaborations does all of this reveal? What is the anatomy of the GWOT? I think that in some ways, you start to see some dramatic evidence of extremely unlikely allies and collaborations that have sprung up. In a sense, you’re describing a hidden landscape of sorts. That’s more a tool of seeing global politics, I suppose. On another level, I’ve also been equally obsessed by the infrastructure that you find “over here” — there are so many strange things. CIA planes acting like they’re going to Area 51 for example. Just bizarre things. Landings in places like Tulsa; cadres of pilots in rural North Carolina; airstrips in Florida. You start to see a landscape in the US that’s equally hidden. For me, this has a politics but also a strange — I don’t want to exactly say aesthetics, but something like that — it takes the familiar and makes it bizarre.
TK: Your invocation of aesthetics is important — and unusual. Activists don’t usually like to admit that there’s an aesthetic dimension to their work. On the other hand, they live and die by the aesthetics of publicity all the time, in an unacknowledged way.
TP: Ha ha. Yes. Well, I don’t consider myself an activist around these issues. At the beginning and end of the day, I think of myself as an artist. But ways of seeing are extremely crucial to politics. Sometimes I really do feel like a kind of surrealist more than anything else. Taking a lot of ideas from them and trying to do different kinds of work with them.
TK: I was looking back at my notes from our conversation at PS1 and thinking about an idea you made me have. I was interested in the fact that human rights activists always complain that they have no power, and at the same time it’s obvious that the basic norms and conventions of human rights discourse are now more or less globally accepted, that human rights have become a sort of secular religion. And on the other hand, they are powerless to stop genocides and mass slaughters (Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur), or to prevent the world’s most expressive and voluble pro–human rights democracy (our country) from effectively renouncing the Geneva Conventions and exactly that unspoken normative framework. So what do “human rights” actually do?
Various things, but chief among them might be something aesthetic, something about the laws of appearance or of perception. You made me see this: Both the jihadis and the US government are busy rejecting the well-established conventions, in different ways and to different extents, of course. And they both often try to hide that rejection, that erasure of the governing distinctions of human rights discourse (combatant/non-combatant, for instance), even while they boast about it on the side. The extremist Sunni militias in Iraq, for instance, release over-the-top communiqués about the evils of the Shias, but they never ever film their attacks on Shia civilians (their tapes, in Iraq and elsewhere, are almost always limited to attacks on military or official targets). Likewise there are no cameras in Guantanamo or Bagram or the Salt Pit. Both sides want to respect those norms at an aesthetic level. So the human-rights norms are functioning as a kind of aesthetic-regulation device, governing what you can show but not what you can do. Except it’s more complicated than an opposition between showing and doing, because the hidden doings are also made visible in their own way. Hence the ghost phenomenon.
TP: Yes, this reminds me of Marx’s beef with the young Hegelians. That ideology usually does not precede power but is rather the product of it. This is entirely related to the (sometimes) fallacy of “making visible” for its own sake, with the assumption that this has a direct bearing on power. You’ve gone into this in depth with your work on the politics of shame. It’s quite the same thing, isn’t it?
In the last year, several major magazines have reported on the frenzy of building that is Dubai. They all include images of the requisite landmarks of questionable taste, the “first” glimpse of Dubai’s fantastic islands, and a description of the massive influx of business trekkers. The whole scene rushed into the world consciousness as being equal parts budding financial center and playground for the über-rich built by Sheikhs. Indeed, Dubai is growing at phenomenal speed: one in six of the world’s cranes are here, and an estimated five hundred skyscrapers are currently under construction.
Such magnitude attracts not only those seeking to turn a quick profit, but also savvy architects like Pritzker Prize-winner Rem Koolhaas, who, together with his Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) and its research studio and think tank AMO, has recently started a number of investigations and projects in the Middle East, including two master plans in Dubai, a master plan in Kuwait, and one in Ras Al-Khaimah. To accommodate a wide range and diversity of projects throughout the world, OMA maintains offices in Europe (Rotterdam), North America (New York), and Asia (Beijing). The Beijing office is responsible for OMA’s largest project to date, the 575,000 m2 China Central Television Headquarters (CCTV) and Television Cultural Center (TVCC), currently under construction in Beijing and due for completion in 2008.
This past July, Markus Miessen met with Koolhaas to discuss the future of Middle Eastern cities, the “kinetic elite,” and the changing nature and role of spatial practitioners acting upon the global production of space. Here Koolhaas, for the first time in public, talks about OMA’s new Generics department. The office will show its current research on the Middle East in the Dutch Pavilion at the 10th Venice Architecture Biennale, running from September 10 through November 19.
Markus Miessen: You’ve recently been involved in a growing number of master-planning projects in the Middle East. Can you tell me about the nature of those projects?
Rem Koolhaas: We were, for the first time, invited to the Middle East by Dubai Properties to participate in a competition for a project in a central district called Business Bay. This was our first occasion to visit the Middle East, in August 2005. That visit really triggered a whole series of considerations. It started with the realization that there was an ongoing effort to downgrade Dubai — and, by implication, the Middle East in general — similar to how Singapore had been ridiculed in previous decades. Not Disneyland death penalty but Disneyland boredom. And, just out of contrariness to that, I began to take it very seriously. We actively started to pursue a number of opportunities in such a way that we would get a real sense of the Middle East and the Gulf. We are now working in Kuwait on the completion of a project that started as a shopping center and that will now turn into a significant part of the city. In Qatar, where we are working on a new campus where Arata Isozaki has also done a number of buildings, we are doing a library and the headquarters of the Qatar Foundation. It is not really a master plan, but an architectural intervention. We are also doing the Renaissance [a 300-meter-high revolving building conceived for an island in the center of Dubai], but we’re doing it at a different site. We lost the competition to Zaha [Hadid], but we’re doing it somewhere else.
MM: So the building is happening? Is it still a revolving slab?
RK: Yes, it’s happening. Zaha is going there now, but now ours [OMA’s design] has moved over to a beautiful point, where all the motorways converge. It’s in a central reserve, where, now that everything moves around it, it doesn’t have to move anymore. And its very close to a bird reserve, so we have a very beautiful image where you see it against the backdrop of flamingos. So the Renaissance is happening. Then we’re doing a master plan in that same Business Bay and at Dubailand [an entertainment complex under development that is expected to see completion some time between 2006 and 2007], and we’re doing two buildings for Porsche, Porsche One and Porsche Two. It’s very interesting: a country like this is not very big, but it has a number of invisible master plans everywhere, and those master plans are the products of Australian and British offices. One of them is called Halcrow, and it’s creating long and unsustainable things. The client asked us to look at the whole thing, which is almost an entire emirate. We looked at the statistics of how, in Dubai, advertising is only using something like twenty-one percent of the human race in terms of input. There’s an incredible irony because there’s an unbelievable amount of pink-skin advertising, while the city is getting darker and darker.
MM: Is the issue of demographics something you’ve been investigating for the Dutch Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale?
RK: In Rotterdam we’re currently working on a documentation of the entire transformation of this coastline. So in a way, it’s an accelerated engagement with the entire territory of the Middle East. What we’re also trying to do for Venice is to really analyze Halcrow. Nobody has ever heard of them. They’re six thousand people strong. They have a base in Australia and in England, and there is another office called Atkins, which also nobody has ever heard about. And what they do is, they create architecture so extravagant that in my idea — and this is a private opinion — it will soon be very difficult for top-rate architects to be distinguishable from them. That is a serious problem in general. What we looked at is to simply densify it and how one could reduce it so that it all fits in a band. In Dubai, we were asked to look at a recent master and make an extension of it, which probably is going to happen. You could say that all these efforts are somehow happening under the heading of introducing seriousness in a condition that seemingly, or according to the current discourse, doesn’t accept seriousness.
MM: Can you explain what you mean by seriousness?
RK: Well, of course, it’s very difficult to answer this question. What is seriousness? During the first visit to the Middle East, we went to a massive real estate fair. It has a very ironic name: Cityscape. It really brought home the unbelievable vastness of the efforts there and the completely unknown quality of many of the people involved — the offices, the clients — a totally different world. Seriousness was in a way defined simply as nonparticipation in a quest for extravagance, either in a formal or thematic sense. And seriousness also forced us to look at issues like sustainability, shape, and continuity.
MM: How does one face the local realities on the ground when dealing with projects on such a scale?
RK: Maybe I should say that I feel that this engagement can have the same intensity — or, actually at this moment, has the same intensity — as our engagement ten years ago with China [at Harvard], where we also really made a concerted effort to understand a new culture, a political culture, an economic culture, as we were preparing ourselves to intervene. Here we’re intervening, so it isn’t just an a priori investigation. But, at the same time, I surprised myself. I thought that Asia, probably because I have lived there, would have the advantage of familiarity. But somehow here I find it much more familiar and accessible, partly because everyone speaks English, but also because many of the people involved are educated in America or in Europe. And that is actually a very nice part of it. In China, there isn’t a common language (which is exciting, in itself), but in the Middle East there are languages in common. We have been working with people with very mixed backgrounds. At Dubai Properties we talk mostly to a smart Syrian engineer, in Kuwait we talk to somebody with a Harvard MBA and somebody who studied at Columbia. In Ras-Al-Khaimah we talk to a Swiss person who has lived all his life in the Middle East, as well as to the Sheikh. So it’s very mixed. We also talk to women; it’s not only the male bastion that one might think it is.
MM: It’s no secret that oil dependency isn’t sustainable in the long term; a break away from economic dependence on oil can only be realized by reinvesting profits into holistic, long-term infrastructures and democratic reforms. How can an entity such as AMO help in terms of achieving long-term goals that outlive the age of oil-dependency in the Middle East?
RK: This is, of course, an ulterior motive. We are trying to commit ourselves to an effort that’s based on a model where there will be a number of regular conferences, one centering on design and another one on politics. We have announced that intention, and we’re looking for opportunities. I think our contribution in Venice will be a first, preliminary investigation.
MM: It seems that the Arab world is increasingly waking up to the fact that they need to provide an intellectual infrastructure for some of the things that are happening. For example, in a place like Dubai, it’s clearly necessary to investigate urban curatorial strategies that go beyond the idea of the theme park, to take on a certain sociopolitical dimension to avoid international perceptions of that city as nothing but an agglomeration of copies. How can think tanks like AMO make use of this trend?
RK: That’s what we are doing. But I think that so far we have simply done it as architects, rather than in the format of a think tank. The situation in Dubai is, in a way, more susceptible to a practical administration than to a theoretical framework. I’m sure that eventually we will get there, but not yet. We had to start from the bottom, like everybody else. I imagine that at some point an all-encompassing project will fall in our laps.
MM: Do you feel like you are already plugging into an existing infrastructure of likeminded people, people thinking along the same lines?
RK: I can’t say that we are meeting people who are thinking along the same lines. But we encounter people who have sympathy for what we are doing and for our arguments. The people we’ve met so far are all embedded in the business world, so that really dictates their perspective. Obviously we need to try to meet the political people; but that will happen sooner or later.
MM: In the past, you’ve described an international population whose personal lives are entirely subordinated to business demands, who travel hundreds of thousands of miles every year, who need not a home, but a home base — German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk’s “kinetic elite.” Do you think that Dubai might contain the qualities for such temporal nesting?
RK: [Laughs] For eight months of the year Dubai is incredibly nice, in terms of climate, and for four months of the year it’s incredibly harsh, like fifty degrees Celsius, which I like. It’s not a problem for me, but other people experience it as a serious obstacle. I am not sure yet whether it is Dubai or other entities in the Middle East that have some of the same qualities, maybe slightly more history and slightly more depth. For instance, what we have discovered is that in the early 1970s, each of these cities experienced outbursts of modernity, connected to the first moments when they found oil. As a result of that, there have also been sudden occurrences of interesting architecture, very smart architecture, also smart in terms of the climate. In Kuwait we met a gallerist in her eighties who was Andy Warhol’s gallerist — Andy Warhol was in Kuwait thirteen times during that time and had an Arab boyfriend.
MM: If the city is only a base for nesting, how important is program and content?
RK: At one point I presented a more rhetorical take on the situation. It was important to me to introduce a different position vis-à-vis the importance of centers, cities, and architectural excellence. But now it’s twelve years later, and I have to say that in practice I have become rather stable. For instance, I live in Holland for three weeks and then travel for one and a half weeks. So the kinetic elite has changed into some kind of kinetic acceleration once a month.
MM: Looking at Dubai’s urban growth, it seems clear that the construction industry has left architects on the sidelines. Within the realities of the recent hyper-development, accepted architectural values have become meaningless. Is this the end of architecture as we know it?
RK: It very well could be, but there is always a way of articulating a particular position. I think Dubai is definitely a battlefield where this question will be determined, and of course we are trying to deploy a number of strategies in that context. One of them is to launch a department of the office called Generics, on the one hand characterized by a refusal of obligatory extravagance, but on the other hand also a serious effort to see whether we could align ourselves with the building industry. And that is actually also part of the critical notion of the Renaissance: a building that is generated out of an elevator shaft. So, yes, on a very workmanlike level, but also on a sublime one, I think that you could devise strategies to regain initiative. And also, they are definitely not the recognized ends of architecture. They think it’s some kind of apotheosis of architecture. I don’t think that we should define our terms so negatively that you collaborate with contempt or with a kind of Mike Davis effect.
MM: So, optimistically speaking, it’s an opportunity.
RK: Yes, it’s an opportunity and an obligation to be really intelligent and really fast, but also very experimental. That is one thing that it offers without any doubt: an incredible field for experimentation.
MM: Planners in Dubai and China outbuild their American counterparts by four thousand percent each year. Is there still space for uncertainty?
RK: [Laughs] You mean for doubt? Do you imply that the situation in Dubai, for example, suggests some kind of certainty? Because in my experience it’s actually the reverse; you are building so much, one is building so much, a country is building so much, that perfection is receding, and there is a sense that you can make mistakes. Out of every eight projects, maybe one or two are okay, and the rest are somehow a mistake.
MM: What about the effects of such growth? If one constantly churns out new buildings, don’t they, at some point, grow to an overwhelming physical mass and leave little space for micropolitical urban space in the sense of space for conflict, space where social contracts still need to be negotiated?
RK: I think that the urban effect is really interesting — the language, the rhetoric, the aesthetic, the practice. That is a very important shift. Today we’re not building cities, we are building resorts. The resort has become the dominant DNA, in a certain way. That is also why there is this incredible quantity of Anglo-Saxon architects with a fundamental hostility to Dubai. It’s more an anti-city than a city, and that effect is already very noticeable.
MM: I have never been to Dubai. I’ve been to China a couple of times, and it seems possible to just about grasp the complexity of its urbanism, which, in many ways, is not too dissimilar to certain forms of Western urbanism. But then, if I think of Dubai, I only have this imagery of the towers and so on, and I never think of “city life,” as it were. I suppose what I’m trying to get at, with these questions about uncertainty, is that, if there is urban culture, there is also necessarily space for processes that can’t be planned.
RK: There is an old part of the city; there are also nice parts of the city that are definitely urban. There is the boulevard with the skyscrapers, and there are the resorts. We are now building some large complexes,and hopefully some of them in the end will turn out to produce urban space.
MM: In terms of the kind of improvisational urbanism you encountered during your research project in Lagos, do you believe that Dubai is lacking what one might call an urban corruption, or deliberate zones of conflict?
RK: There are definitely zones of conflict, and there is urban life, albeit of a fairly repressed nature. There is an enormous population of builders who live in camps, and you get a sense that inside these camps, life is far from pleasant. There are all kinds of uprisings. There are conflicts between different nationalities. But I think the totally unique thing about Dubai is that currently out of a population of 1.6 million, only 200,000 are said to be people from Dubai. So the expat is the main inhabitant. It’s in that sense utterly fabricated by a huge sum of people who have a limited commitment to the city but who all bring their own tastes and cultures. It’s the most incredible amalgamation; even in Kuwait it’s fifty-fifty. It’s really drastic how the expat is the founder of activity. What about Lagos?
MM: I think that the juxtaposition of the two could be interesting.
RK: I’m finishing Lagos right now. It took a long time before I knew how to do it. It’s only recently that I understood what I have to do. A very important part of the book [the forthcoming publication on the Lagos project] is about Lagos when it was new: Lagos in the seventies. When American, Japanese, Yugoslav, Chinese, Italian, and other architects really built all the apparatus of a modern society. In a way, there are some ironic similarities between Dubai and Lagos.The early descriptions of Lagos as a city-port being clogged by tankers full of cement is sounding totally like the Chinese condition, for example how Beijing is being prepared for a new future right now. So it’s a blueprint you still recognize. That has now become the key of the book, and so the book will be written as modernity going in reverse.
MM: Do you think that the recent events in Israel and Lebanon will have an effect on the nature of your projects in the region?
RK: It’s too early to tell. But I would like to reverse it and say that one of the reasons to take the region seriously is to try to work on that whole issue and to find confidence in the Arab world to address it.
MM: You have said that the market economy has corrupted our political consciousness; in regards to such consciousness, how do you personally deal with a project in a place like Dubai, where literally everything is available to those with money, while migrant construction workers are living in shielded-off ghettos, held hostage out of sight from tourists?
RK: Partly because it’s in the Middle East, it’s very politically inspiring and educational to be there. It feels very political being there, operating on a day-to-day basis, meeting people, and so forth. It is, of course, an extreme version of the market economy. Being deeply engaged in the political future of the entire area makes our involvement politically intense. I don’t know whether you have seen it, but at some point we claimed that it’s actually great that America has its own preoccupations because it introduces a new phase in globalization, which enables all the other parties to be much more themselves and to find their own, relative independence.
For the next twenty years, the issue will really be about how we approach Russia, China, India, and the Middle East. We have to find new ways of communicating, and that means inevitably that we have to renegotiate what “human rights” means, what copyright means, and what democracy means. There is a whole series of issues; at this point, neither side is in possession of definitive models or keys, so that’s a very interesting part. We are trying to address some of those issues.
MM: How does building in autocratic states differ from working in democratic regimes?
RK: You would expect a fairly easy answer, but I really don’t have an easy answer, because in all conditions it is about communication, conviction, negotiation, and compromise. Perhaps the greatest difference is that — theoretically — in dictatorial states, you could get away with projects of a much more radical emptiness or lifelessness, let’s say. But that has never been a temptation. In China, for example, there is absolutely no ability or ambition of the state to ram something down people’s throats; the friction or resistance with the city and the popu-lation has been stronger than anywhere else. In a way, this is not what you expect, and it totally reverses your thinking.That’s why, right now, it is very hard to generalize about these kinds of questions.
MM: In 1974, you wrote a script with Rene Daalder, the story of a group of wealthy Arabs buying up the Hollywood film archive to build a computer through which any celebrity could be reinvented on screen. How about your reinvention of the Arab World?
RK: I think the word reinvention is the key word of today. I think also this is what we were trying to do with the twenty-four-hour interview marathons at the Serpentine Gallery in London. It’s a word that I have always cherished, more than invention. I don’t know why — out of a profound sense of history, I guess. One is always part of a chain.
MM: Sometimes not building is the right answer. Could today’s architect be portrayed as an inquirer into hidden relationships, a space invader who ventures into territories that lie beyond conventional delineations of knowledge?
RK: I think it’s important to comment on the role of the architect, because ten or maybe twenty years ago,I was really skeptical about it. It seemed crazy to address contemporary issues with knowledge that, in many cases, was more than three thousand years old. But I think with a kind of subsequent flattening of almost every discipline, the architectural education is one of the surviving dinosaurs that accumulates many different kinds of knowledge in the same profession. By default, we have the benefit of an awkward combination that gives us the strength and the confidence to invade territories of knowledge that we are not familiar with. Right now, few professions have that. It’s a fluke, but it’s very beneficial.
MM: Architects are always too late when it comes to responding to a given condition. There seems to be an immense discrepancy between the acceleration of culture and the continuing slowness of architecture. How do you feel about patience in architecture?
RK: One cannot rate it highly enough. It is, for architects, an absolutely crucial aspect of the work, not only in terms of the scale and the duration of a particular building, but also in terms of how long it might take, through a never-ending series of aborted efforts, in order to achieve something. It’s a crucial part of architecture and, like the kinetic elite, was a rhetorical ploy at a certain moment. I think that the whole notion of acceleration is actually much less dramatic because you can read everything as transforming continuously and recognizably, but you can also see repetitions and almost stagnation. The discovery of Lagos’s condition in the seventies and Beijing’s condition today is a good example of that.
MM: You have argued that,in order to participate intelligently in development, one needs to abandon traditional architectural values. Attempting to create an alternative program often takes rhetoric that reveals the contradictions contained in existing spatial organizations. Do you think that reprogramming — like you did with the Serpentine Gallery in London this summer — can be applied to larger, urban scales?
RK: What do you think?
MM: I think it can.
RK: I think so, too. And what is interesting is that by simply doing master-planning, it was also a way to reconnect with one significant part of our own past. It seemed that the ability of the unbuilt to structure conditions might be superior to the ability of the built. I think it’s not exactly that, but the reprogramming of public space, for instance, is a vast enterprise right now. And it is an enterprise that we are also working on in Dubai. I gave a lecture in Holland recently where I didn’t start with Dubai or with China, but I started with America and Europe, basically showing how incredibly distorted our public realms have become. In that context, Dubai doesn’t look like an acceleration, but simply like a version of the same aberration. I think it will be highly interesting to look at the urban domain as a reprogramming effort.
It is 2:30 pm, and the diminutive Eliana Benador is sitting in the corner of the sumptuous Astor Court at the St. Regis Hotel in New York City. It is the perfect spot for someone who wants to see rather than be seen. Her black hair is swept back in an immaculate bob, and her eyes are painted with thick black eyeliner, giving her the appearance of a pocket Cleopatra. She is wearing a pristine tea-green suit; a thin silk scarf of the same hue is draped over her shoulder. A thick pearl choker is wrapped around her neck, four metal bracelets of increasing worth adorn her wrists, and two large golden rings resemble erupting carbuncles.
A classical guitar is being plucked at the far end of the room, its melody dipping in and out of the murmured conversations emanating from the handful of tables still occupied. The lunch hour has passed. On the linen-clad table in front of Mrs. Benador are a pager, two cell phones — one encrusted with tiny gems — and a large silver coffee pot. Leaning incongruously against one of the pillars that holds up the cloud-dappled ceiling above is a pair of metal crutches. Mrs. Benador contracted polio as a child.
With the jewels, the rounded nose, and the impossible-to-identify accent, Mrs. Benador seems quite Middle Eastern. “I always think, ‘There must be something, we must be connected.’“ But her connection to the Middle East is solely a professional one. Mrs. Benador was born in Peru and lived much of her life in France and Switzerland, although she doesn’t like to talk about it. “I don’t give much importance to that part of my life. When I do interviews I try and stick to the most important parts.” A fresh pot of coffee is called for. “I had lunch with a friend here,” she says.
Mrs. Benador is the president of Benador Associates, a public relations firm whose clientele are predominantly those hawkish bureaucrats known to the general public as neoconservatives. Founded, with what Mrs. Benador calls “serendipity,” on September 10, 2001, Benador Associates has ridden the rising demand for such strident voices. If you read something that advocates regime change in the New York Post, or if you see a “political adviser” on Fox News suggesting that Israel hasn’t gone far enough in its attacks on Hizbullah, there’s a good possibility that the appearance has been engineered by Mrs. Benador. She arranges speaking events for her clients, places articles in newspapers for them, and helps them address problems with their public image.
Which is good for them, as Mrs. Benador’s fifty-plus clients are hardly a lovable bunch. Benador Associates’ first member was the late AM Rosenthal, an executive editor at the New York Times, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, who, in the wake of the attacks on September 11, called for the bombing of the capital cities of Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Sudan. James Woolsey, former director of the CIA and the consummate Washington insider, was next to sign up. He had been calling for an invasion of Iraq since the early 1990s and has been one of the most vocal proponents of the United States’ bombing of Syria. Richard Perle, the fabled “Prince of Darkness,” soon followed. The former chairman of the Defense Policy Board had been a warm espouser of preemptive attacks on North Korea, Syria, and Iran for years. With three such conservative heavyweights at its base, Benador Associates rapidly began to attract more and more of the same. While there are some right-of-center doves among the ranks, like the erudite Arnaud de Borchgrave (“The real war on terror is about culture, ideas, and perceptions as much as roadside bombs and suicide bombs”), more commonly found are those like the happily beastly Michael Ledeen (“Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small, crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.”) With former clients including the disgraced former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, whose misleading reports on weapons of mass destruction helped pave the way for the invasion of Iraq, is it any wonder that Eliana Benador has been accused of preparing the ground for World War III? Mrs. Benador, however, refutes this idea.
“The Middle East is a section in the world I love,” she sighs, “because I have a lot of affinities with the Muslims and the Arabs. They are very warm people, very kind people, very expressive people, and I like that. I like that. I just came back from Dubai, and I was in Abu Dhabi… It was just very refreshing to have this direct contact with the Arabs and Muslims. It is also worrisome because you see all these people dressed like Osama bin Laden walking around, but the beauty of this is that that part of the world has this acceptance and tolerance of everything!”
Mrs. Benador’s preferred mode of responding is in a breathless stream of consciousness that elides all questions in her path. Certainly her love of the Middle East would seem a great positive, considering the knee-jerk hostility so many of her clients seem to bear towards the region. What does she in turn think of the obvious dislike the region bears for the United States, and the hostility its people feel to Americans who espouse the views of her clients?
“I think they [the people of the Middle East] should care about possible things, they should say what they feel. I really think they should think about becoming better themselves. Everything they do, they should do the best they can. The artists should have exhibitions, the musicians should show how beautiful Arabic [sic] music there is. And I think this is what one has to promote. That’s what’s going to strengthen them. I want to look for what’s common. Nobody wants terrorists, no one wants bombs. I mean, who wants terrorists? We’re not getting into anything sophisticated here, it’s just common sense.”
Indeed, no one would accuse Mrs. Benador’s clients of being overly sophisticated, for when faced with the Middle East, it seems impossible for any of them to shake free of well-worn Orientalist preconceptions. Given her own open-minded temperament, does Mrs. Benador perceive a lack of subtlety and understanding in her clients’ viewpoints?
“Eliana, Eliana!” Two men from a nearby table have spotted her and approach. One of them takes from his pocket a velvet cloth and, unwrapping it, hands it over to her. Inside the cloth is a choker strung with diamonds as big as frozen peas. “It’s so beeeeewtiful,” Eliana purrs, her brown eyes lit up by the luster. The jeweler offers her his business card. “Ohmigod! You have almost the same card as me!” she squeals. “We have to get together another time.” The jeweler insists that his work is better than that of even the esteemed jeweler Graff. Mrs. Benador is awestruck. “Really?” she asks, batting her eyelids. The jeweler, touched by her amazement, invites her to his store, and she asks demurely, “You will remember me?” “Why, of course!” roars the jeweler, and Mrs. Benador smiles, her hand reaching to her throat, her pearls shuddering at their sudden obsolescence.
There is a pause as she waves goodbye before turning back to me. “So. You saw me in action!” And yes, it’s true, here was Mrs. Benador at work: the flattery, the coquettishness, the finding of common ground with people she needs, and most of all, the making certain she’ll be remembered when she comes calling.
“The Middle East is a section in the world I love,” she sighs, “because I have a lot of affinities with the Muslims and the Arabs. They are very warm people, very kind people, very expressive people, and I like that. I like that. I just came back from Dubai, and I was in Abu Dhabi… It was just very refreshing to have this direct contact with the Arabs and Muslims. It is also worrisome because you see all these people dressed like Osama bin Laden walking around, but the beauty of this is that that part of the world has this acceptance and tolerance of everything!”
Mrs. Benador distractedly picks up the thread of our previous conversation: “That’s why I do the work I do, because it’s not only the glamour of public relations, it’s the human side of things. I do my small part in this whole machinery… I believe that communication can make our world better. I don’t want to become too idealistic, I’m very down to earth, but it’s also very difficult to follow the other path, where people keep complaining about everything. I had polio when I was a little baby. I could spend my life complaining, and I never do. I have no time for it. I travel the whole world alone, I have my life, I am a positive person, and I hope this will be a good example for everybody.”
Talking to Eliana Benador feels more and more like talking to a press release. Yet with all her exhortations to “be the best one can be,” and her belief in the power of communication making the world a better place, she sounds, at times, strangely far-out. On her website (benadorassociates.com) there is, amongst the company’s many accomplishments, a section called “From Eliana’s Desk,” in which Mrs. Benador has written down some of her own most personal thoughts.
“Today, sixteen years ago already, in Geneva, Switzerland, I gave birth to the most beautiful baby boy… it was so unbelievable, after the full-term pregnancy of nine months, and I was well and walking around till the day before… it was a miracle for me… my way to tell the world that I am a normal woman, blessed by G-d with a son, my own flesh and blood.”
Such moments as this make one wonder whether Eliana Benador is the hollow hub at the center of a wheel of influence. But a glint of steel does show through the affable exterior on occasion, especially when she is asked how Benador Associates finances itself.
“I don’t talk about finances. It’s just that I can’t. Remember I come also from Switzerland. It’s just too complicated and gives misconceptions. There is no funding by any governments, and there will not be. Nobody pays me. I’m glad that you’re asking this question because this [Bidoun] is going to the Middle East, and it’s very important they understand that I am not being paid by anybody.”
In the hall of mirrors that is political PR, such a vehement denial would seem to suggest that there is obviously something questionable about her funding. Yet with Mrs. Benador, it’s hard to tell whether she’s really hiding something, or whether she’s a sphinx without a secret. This is a woman who, on the one hand, can state four times over an hour that she “loves Muslims and Arabs,” yet can also manage to get her calls promptly returned by Dick Cheney’s office. Is she all surface, or all depth?
“Eliana! Eliana!” The jeweler is back, this time with a middle-aged blond woman in tow, sporting heavy eyeliner and no eyebrows. She shows us a diamond ring the size of a cockroach, eliciting a sharp intake of breath and another heartfelt “It’s beeeewtiful” from Mrs. Benador. “The best part is,” says the blond woman, “I bought it for myself!” Upon hearing this Mrs. Benador looks disapproving. “You shouldn’t tell anyone, you know.” She looks about her to make sure no one overheard. “But I’m very proud of it,” replies the chastened blond. Mrs. Benador, looking at the jeweler, admonishes him. “You know what you have to do, you have to get her a husband.” An explanation is not even attempted. Business cards are exchanged —this time no similarities are found — and the blond is ushered out.
Speaking of which, how does Mrs. Benador feel about being female in the predominantly male arena of power politics? Has she ever suffered because of her gender?
“When I stop to talk to my guys, and it’s very serious, I tell them we have to talk ‘man to man.’ I mean I don’t see any difference. I concentrate on my work, and that’s my only interest, and I think if we could all concentrate on what we are doing and do the best we can, the world would be better.”
Does she ever disagree or argue with her clients?
“Well, I’m very sweet. I’m always sweet when I have to say horrible things.”
What would those horrible things be?
“Well, sometimes I have to say that you’ve put on too much weight. Either you buy a new outfit, or we go to my weight-control person.”
The profile of Benador Associates has been soaring in recent months following an article written by one its members, Amir Taheri. In May of this year, Taheri, the former editor-in-chief of Kayhan — one of Iran’s oldest newspapers under the Shah — wrote of new sumptuary laws that would see all Iranian Jews forced to wear yellow insignia. Taheri’s story was immediately discredited as a fabrication, but by then it had been picked up by wire services and disseminated across the globe. Taheri had long been a critic of the present Iranian regime, but this article was seen by many liberal detractors as an attempt to prepare America’s hearts and minds for the invasion of Iran, through likening it to Nazi Germany. When The Nation asked Mrs. Benador about the veracity of the story, she responded, “As much as being accurate is important, in the end it’s important to be on the side that is right.” Does she still stand by these words?
“The guy [from The Nation] called me on the phone, he didn’t want to talk to me but to Taheri, and I said to him, ‘I would love to speak to you one day so that you and I can talk, because we are human beings living together’… But he was bugging me and bugging me and bugging me, and at one point I had enough — because I have a lot to do — and he was not saying he was going to write on me. So it was not fair, as he put it in a totally different context.”
So you don’t deny you said those words?
“Listen. I think we have to have a message for the people in the Middle East — they are wonderful people, bright people; they are brilliant people, they are committed, they are passionate, they are warm, they are welcoming, they have everything running for them to make something wonderful of their lives and their countries. When people tell me about American imperialism I say, America is not imperialist. When you are talking about McDonalds and Coca-Cola. I always say produce something that’s appealing. Who stops you? Who’s saying don’t do that? Arab art should be exported, Arab music should be exported, they may produce some great products, for God’s sake, there’s a lot they can do good.”
What does Mrs. Benador mean here? With her unique position as a filter for government policy, what is she trying to say? What insights is she offering into the well of neoconservative opinion? Does she not realize that worries of American imperialism might come from the many armed forces located in the Middle East? Does she not think her tone is somewhat patronizing? Is she really suggesting that all the Arab world needs is its own Coca-Cola? It is almost impossible to tell whether the difficulty of getting answers to such questions is due to an impenetrable professional wall Mrs. Benador has thrown up around herself, or whether she simply has the intellectual weight of a shuttlecock. The latter possibility, at times, seems the more likely, but then…
Mrs. Benador’s pager peeps and spurts. “One minute,” she says. “I don’t want this story going to Newsweek.” Suddenly there seems no doubt about her professionalism. Suddenly she is playing different news services off one another, editing her writers’ work in a breakneck burst of double-fisted cell-phone play, scrabbling to get her clients better positions from which to shout their loud and ominous message. Suddenly she is finished with her call, and continuing her spiel.
“When this guy in The Nation said I was not accurate, what he doesn’t know is that during the last presidential election, one of my friends is this guy who is an Iranian in finance, and he says there is a problem and says there is another Iranian guy who is attacking him. Well…”
And so it continued. One would think that anyone who has the clientele that Eliana Benador has would be some terrifying commingling of Henry Kissinger and Karl Rove, a homuncular Machiavelli whose words drip with insincerity and whose gaze fills one with fear. But this is not the case. In fact, Eliana Benador is really quite pleasant. She loves Muslims. She loves Arabs. Some say Eliana Benador is about to start World War III. You don’t have to be a genius to do that.
This is the corrected version of the interview with Ms. Benador and George Pendle.
On May 7, Alaa Abd El Fattah, my nephew, was detained by security forces in downtown Cairo at a demonstration in support of the Egyptian judges in their conflict with the government. He spent forty-five days in Tora jail. Three main impressions that stay with me from those days: 1. Manal, Alaa’s wife, and Laila, his mother, trekking to Tora jail to visit him. Laila spent five years, when Alaa was small, visiting his father, Ahmad Seif, in Tora jail. My heart broke for her, going through the same process again. 2. Seeing Alaa at one of his appearances before the prosecutor: the long-haired flower-child look had gone and there was this amazingly handsome young man with a shaved head and a thick black (Islamic?) beard. 3. Googling his name and finding half a million entries under “Free Alaa.” I guess, purely from my own point of view, this was when he stopped being my nephew and took possession of his own life.
Ahdaf Soueif: You’ve just been in detention, in jail, for forty-five days. If you could have had one item in there with you, what would it have been?
Alaa Abd El Fattah: My laptop tab’an [definitely], it would have provided hours of entertainment (books, comics, films, games). I would have used the free time to get some work done, and blogging from jail would have been much easier.
AS: I read your blogs from jail and some of what you wrote when you came out. It seemed to me that you were writing the very tip of your thoughts — is there more to come out?
AF: There are many reasons why it can never come out. We were engaged in a battle with the prison authorities, fighting for better conditions. We managed to win more rights than what the law allows us, and we hope that the next political prisoner who resides in that jail will inherit these rights with minimal struggle. If we were to publish any details about this, the prison authorities might get into trouble and the next prisoner will have no hope of regaining these rights. We were a group of forty-seven. Most of us didn’t know each other and the few who knew each other had a history of conflicts. The first weeks were full of friction, but you leave that kind of thing behind you when you get out. Talking about it now would just mean that we have to continue fighting even beyond prison walls-and we still need to work together.I’d love to convey what prison looks like, how it feels and smells, the small details, to talk more about how it felt, but I don’t have the talent for this kind of thing. The closest thing I can use to explain prison is school, but it’s not close enough. If I had a camera with me, it would have been different, it’s a visually fascinating place. Regarding the site being inaccessible, after the arrests, the Al-Jazeera documentary and the media attention, traffic on our server increased from an average of three thousand daily visits to around thirty thousand, straining the server and even crashing it.
AS: Is your political activism separable from your blogging? Can you describe the relationship between them? Are the authorities right to fear bloggers?
AF: Questions about cyberspace and a separate plane of existence always confuse me. A blog is just a tool, and blogging is using that tool. I suppose some people take writing seriously, and so the question makes sense to them, but to us it’s a very casual thing. It’s not like we were searching for a way to make our voices heard and then we found out about blogging. No, it’s the other way round. We found out about blogging, decided to play with it, and as a side effect had our voices heard. The blog is sometimes a space to tell a story (which is often a story of activism), sometimes a place to discuss things (which is often a discussion of what to do about a specific political issue), sometimes it’s a political pamphlet, sometimes it’s a flyer announcing a political event, sometimes it’s a wall full of graffiti, sometimes it’s a piece of a newspaper with some news item, an opinion piece or a film review. So I guess the answer is no, they’re not separable, and the relationship is too organic for me to describe. As for the authorities fearing bloggers, I don’t know if that’s even true. There are signs that they follow blogs, but no real signs that they fear bloggers (the fact that they put six bloggers in jail is irrelevant, if you arrest a thousand activists from Cairo you’re bound to hit some bloggers). But if the question is should the authorities fear bloggers, that’s a tough one. I like to believe that tools that empower individuals to publish, debate, and organize on the web have the potential of being threatening to authorities, and to be effective tools in liberating people and defending their liberties. But it’s only a potential. Maybe we’ll never reach that critical mass, maybe they’ll strike us down before then. Or maybe we’ll reach it, and it’ll turn out not to be enough. Eh, I’m doing a bad job of answering this one, let’s move on.
AS: You’re doing a good job. Questions tend to be dumb. I feel dumb asking them. It’s like asking if I would write what I write if I wasn’t using paper. Actually, that’s a valid question. If I had to chisel on stone I’d probably write shorter novels. In any case, my one comment is: Bidoun is particularly keen on your humor! So, be funny!
AF: I’m not in a very good mood these days, I don’t think I can be funny at the moment.
AS: How do you feel without the long hair?
AF: Dunno. I used to get depressed when I was forced to cut my hair at school, but in prison it was different. Technically they did not have the right to cut my hair (something to do with temporary detention), and it was obvious that they did cut it the moment I arrived in order to break me in — my colleagues got the same treatment despite already having short hair. But on the other hand, given how unsanitary prison was and how crowded the cells, cutting it was a smart thing to do, and I did expect worse. What sucks though is all these people who tell me I look better this way. Thank you, you just ruin the whole symbolic value of it. How can it be a sacrifice for the cause if it ends up looking better?
AS: On May 25, 2005, there were demonstrations against the presidential “referendum” in Cairo. After the heavy-handed reaction of the security forces, the protests never stopped. My perception is that you really got into the protests and all that on that day when you tried to protect your mother and the film you had in your camera. At least that was when I read your blog about working out what victory would consist of. Was that a defining moment?
AF: I know defining moments are supposed to be corny, unrealistic, literary devices, but that’s what May 25 was for me (and I’d say for many “activists” of my “generation”). The fact that they stole my laptop helped too. Not only did it give me enough anger to fuel three months of hectic “activism,” but it gave me a lot of free time. (What is one supposed to do without a laptop?)
AS: Given your genes and the environment in which you grew up, was it inevitable that you would become an activist?
AF: The word activist is meaningless. It was invented as part of a grand conspiracy to divide the world into groups of those who care and those who don’t or something. I believe that there are not activists and non-activists, there are only acts of activism and degrees of commitment, and in that sense, yeah, I was raised to be an activist. I think before May 25, my political involvement was just an excuse to spend time with my mum. The anti-war protests of 2003 and 2004 were actually a great way to see my mum and dad share something. Somehow the time spent together there was more private than in the big family meetings. Now we make several phone calls every day just ranting about the movement or some political happening. She visits me more often to help with posters, pamphlets, petitions and that kind of stuff.
AS: As early as five years ago I heard you spoken of as a guru. Is this a responsibility you welcome?
AF: [Laughter] This usually comes from people who don’t know technology. There is an aspect to Egyptian society that most people consider depressing, but it can be quite positive and that’s the fact that in all aspects of life, we seem to be getting the scrapings at the bottom of the pot. And so someone like me is a guru. But since I know real black-belt hackers, I know I’m not so hot.
AS: I’ve found myself, when trying to work out how to arouse public opinion, thinking in terms of presentation and “spectacle,” almost in advertising terms. I’m comfortable with that. Others are uneasy. What’s your take?
AF: I never thought of it in terms of advertising. I don’t think advertising works (the best koshary shops don’t do any advertising but everyone knows about them; the mediocre ones do advertising, but everyone knows they’re bad). I prefer to think of it more in terms of art. When I plan a street protest or sit-in or something similar, I find myself imitating the way my performance-artist friends think. Every act is a performance-a blog post is, a protest is, a visit to the prosecutor is, and you have to improvise not because you believe in it, but because all of us performers have missed the rehearsal. You have to treat the set as part of the performance. You can’t go to Nahya and do the same things you do downtown. If you go to Sayyida Zeinab you have to tackle that holy entity. Same for your audience. And we’re all audience. A lot of the planning is about how fellow protestors, bloggers, whatever, see you, not just how “the public” sees you. Is that different from thinking about advertisements? The first protest I co-organized we had state newspapers claiming we hired a professional PR company to do it, even though it was mashed up by six friends over a couple of days.
AS: Where do you see yourself five, ten years down the line?
AF: Not very far from where I am at the moment, I hope. I know I’ll always be working with computers. At the moment I work on technology for development, helping NGOs. But in Egypt you can’t do development work without hitting political barriers. Corruption, police interference, stupid laws and stuff like that is always in your face, at the same time people insist development work should be apolitical. I’m constantly required to act as if the government is really a democracy. Sometimes it feels like I’m the only one who notices these things. (The real explanation is, of course, that I’m just young.) So if I can’t find a place where people are willing to mix a little bit of politics, I might end up hopping to another country for a while. Who knows?
As a researcher and teacher of Arab and Iranian cinemas, I am interested in the economics of these cinemas in the context of the global film audiences they attract. Palestinian filmmakers are gaining exposure at major film festivals, not only through the selection of their films, but also in their increasing participation in the events that occur on the margins of these festivals — training programs for young filmmakers, co-production seminars and other institutional programs for developing film projects. At the Cannes Film Festival in May 2006 and in Ramallah over the summer, I interviewed some upcoming and established Palestinian filmmakers about where they see Palestinian cinema going, how the increased attention from international film institutions affects their work and how this international interest complicates the question of what defines “Palestinian cinema.”
Rashid Masharawi’s most recent feature film is Waiting. Originally from Gaza, Masharawi now resides in France, having been exiled from his Ramallah home by Israeli occupation authorities in 2002. His filmography includes Ticket to Jerusalem, Curfew, Haifa and many others, both fictional and documentary. He has been the recipient of several awards from major international festivals.
Kamran Rastegar: Tell me about your beginnings in filmmaking.
Rashid Masharawi: I made the first Palestinian short fiction film under the Israeli occupation. Nobody was thinking about cinema then. We were not allowed to make films — this was before the first Intifada. That was the law, under the Israeli military law. I got equipment from friends, Palestinians and Israelis, from Nazareth and Haifa, and I had a Palestinian friend from Beersheba, who was a Palestinian working in Israel. I put all of the production in his name because he had an Israeli passport. And another German friend, a cameraman — we pretended sometimes that it was his film, not my film. I was the director, but I was not supposed to be there, on location. So I was going secretly, and I knew that if they caught me I would be arrested. But so what? This was how I made my first two short 16-mm films. I made them by using different names, different identities, until the film was finished.
KR: How many times have you been to Cannes, and how was it this time? Are things changing, in your experience as a Palestinian filmmaker?
RM: I’ve been to Cannes five or six times, two times with films. When I was here in ‘96 with Haifa in the Un Certain Regard section of the festival, it was the first time they added the Palestinian flag to the flags on the promenade — it was after Oslo. Since then, Michel Khleife, Hany Abu Assad and Elia Suleiman have had films here, and this year Elia’s on the jury. I did a lot of work talking to people to make them understand that there are Palestinian films, that it’s art like any art, like any cinema. Now, that’s been achieved.
So I’m less worried about having to promote Palestinian cinema and can promote my own projects. My dream for Palestinian cinema goes back to 1995, when I decided we need two things: to see films and to produce films. As you know,we don’t have cinemas — only the Kasaba Cinematheque in Ramallah. And no institutions. So the first thing I did was establish the Cinema Production Center, in Ramallah, a non-governmental organization. And I made a mobile cinema, showing films around Gaza, West Bank, Jerusalem, and once a year, I had a film festival for kids. We were showing films in schools, refugee camps, cultural centers. I started to arrange small funds for Palestinian filmmakers from inside Palestine, to support Palestinian cinema and to make other people used to the idea of supporting our cinema. All my plans to establish this Palestinian cinema base collapsed slowly after 2000 [the beginning of the second Intifada]. The mobile cinema had difficulties moving from place to place,productions became risky, and since mid-2002 the Israelis haven’t allowed me to return to Ramallah, to my home and the Cinema Production Center,and so slowly, slowly it’s been frozen. But I am happy with what we did, because many of those young Palestinian filmmakers are at film festivals, producing their own films, making their own contacts, and Palestinian cinema is coming along.
KR: So is “Palestinian cinema” a reality now?
RM: I think what makes “Palestinian cinema” exist is individual filmmakers. It’s independent filmmakers who make auteur films. Their relationship to cinema keeps this project alive, the Palestinian cinema. I’ll tell you, my struggle is to make a film as a Palestinian film, and have it distributed in the world like any other film. I want the film to be discussed in cinematic contexts, outside of the frame of Palestine. I really feel good about the last two years. I feel there is a group of Palestinian men and women filmmakers who are really starting to think of cinema as media, as an image, as an art.
Palestine is not a country; it’s not even autonomous. Palestine is only a “situation”: in the same day, you can wake up in the morning in a state, in the day it’s a war, by the evening it’s an Intifada, and the day after it’s autonomous again. And you have, at the same time, a president, ministers, and over your head the helicopter of the Israelis, and the checkpoints, and the settlers, and, and… It’s getting worse now, it’s getting much worse. Most of my friends have not been paid for the last three or four months. In Gaza they are trying to find ways to deliver food to the people. So, Palestine only exists in the cinema. Palestine, in the cinema, has history, it is a beautiful country in the Mediterranean. It has Jaffa, it has Haifa. Cinema is also memory. Palestine in the cinema is not only a political situation. It’s a people with culture, language, art, with negative and positive sides. We exist in cinema as a nation. As a nation like any other nation. The filmmakers have managed to put this idea into the world, while politicians failed to, or haven’t done so until now. Even if we make non-political cinema, it will have a major political result, because what do we want? We only want to be like others. In the cinema, that can happen.
Buthina Canaan Khoury is a Palestinian filmmaker based in the West Bank village of Taybeh. Her latest work is the feature documentary Women in Struggle.
Kamran Rastegar: What is the benefit of coming to international festivals, for you as a Palestinian filmmaker?
Buthina Canaan Khoury: I have met people I would never be able to meet in Palestine — for example, Syrians and Lebanese,who cannot come to Palestine.And we in Palestine have to come out in order to meet other Palestinian colleagues, as even in Gaza you can’t meet them in Palestine because there is no access between Gaza and the West Bank.
KR: Does that mean that Palestinian cinema in a sense exists at least partly outside of Palestine?
BCK: Well, Palestine is not a unified country — yet. As you know, there are Palestinians who live in Israel, Palestinians who live in Gaza, Palestinians who live in the West Bank, and each of those can’t communicate easily with each other. So the best thing is for us to leave Palestine in order to interact with each other and to get to know each other’s work.
KR: But do you think there’s also a negative consequence of that, in the limitations that come from producing cinema that has to look outside of Palestine for spaces to exist for Palestinian filmmakers to meet, not to mention for funding, and so on?
BCK: Of course there are limitations. Once you don’t find the money in Palestine, and you can’t find it in the Arab world, you right away look to Europe, because that is the only place where you can find funds. In that sense, there are all sorts of conditions — it’s not easy to get that money. And as independent filmmakers, we’re always faced with what is called“being balanced”; making films to do with both Palestinian and Israeli issues. My previous film, Women in Struggle, had to do with Palestinian women ex-detainees. And I had a very, very, very tough time raising money for this topic because I was constantly facing the issue that “it has to be well-balanced,” and how can I find Israeli women who are exdetainees? [Laughs] Because they don’t exist! Why can’t we talk about our own issues, our own problems, without linking to the Israeli view?
Nahed Awwad is a Ramallah-based filmmaker. Her previous films include Going for a Ride?, The Fourth Room and 25 km, which was the recipient of the New Horizons award in the Al-Jazeera International Documentary Film Festival. She is working on a new feature-length documentary.
Kamran Rastegar: You’ve made four films to date — how have you made them?
Nahed Awwad: The first two films I made on my own, using a borrowed camera from a friend and using editing software on my own computer. The third film I made through my school — in 2003 I studied at the European Film College in Denmark — using the school’s facilities. My latest film was made through a Swiss-funded production workshop. And I’m working now on another film with a French producer.
KR: So, from a borrowed camera and home computer to now working with European funded projects and European producers, I’m curious if you feel entering into this new area and working through European institutions has forced you to compromise at all, or if there have been any limitations put on you?
NA: Well, I personally would not allow that to happen. I’ve been lucky to meet people who share my ideas. As Palestinian filmmakers, we do largely make films for the outside. We want them to really know what’s happening, and to do so we need to use their own language, but without compromising. But for sure, many Europeans look for a certain thing,they want certain stories. This is a restriction because other stories may not get through. I think maybe we need to work for an alternative, like a Mediterranean film market. Even feature films can be made independently — many are even made in Europe without much money. So we should take advantage of this, maybe look for alternatives.
Hazim Bitar is a Palestinian-Jordanian filmmaker, based in Amman. He has directed many documentaries, including Jerusalem’s High Cost of Living, Overdose and Growing up in Amman’s Suburbia, and is a founder of the Amman Filmmakers’ Cooperative.
Kamran Rastegar: What is the relation of Jordanian filmmakers to the question of Palestine?
Hazim Bitar: After our first two years at the AFC, we managed to establish some kind of presence for what I call “Jo-Pal cinema.” Given that a majority of Jordan’s population are people with either Palestinian or Jordanian-Palestinian roots, not to mention the general concern with Palestinian issues — the occupation, human rights — Jordanian filmmakers by and large have been heavily influenced by developments in the occupied territories, and as such have responded to the needs of their Palestinian compatriots,at least in the realm of filmmaking. So most of the filmmakers in Jordan,regardless of their background, have at least at one point produced a short or long drama or fiction addressing the issue of the occupation. So Jo-Pal cinema today is a de facto movement, it is the fusion of the Jordanian and Palestinian perspectives, and it’s here to stay. It’s because the Jordanian culture by and large is totally inseparable from Palestinian experience, and vice-versa. Our primary market, if we can use that term, has actually been the European audience. Even though the western audience is forgiving and flexible, they do expect that we reciprocate by not continuing to produce simplistic films, but to produce films that portray the complexity of the situation, that go deeper, beyond the simple story of the victim. I hope that the next generation of both Palestinian and Jo-Pal filmmakers will be able to live up to those expectations.
Annemarie Jacir is a filmmaker based in Ramallah. She has directed or co-directed several short films including Like Twenty Impossibles, Quelques Miettes Pour Les Oiseaux and An Explanation: (and then burn the ashes). She is in production on a feature fictional film.
Kamran Rastegar: What kinds of limitations or expectations do you find when looking for funds outside of Palestine?
Annemarie Jacir: What European funders and producers are looking for in Palestinian cinema is an Israeli partner or coproducer, so that they feel safe. There are several incredibly talented Palestinians with Israeli citizenship who have been doing well — Elia Suleiman, Hany Abu Assad, Tawfiq Abu Wael, to name a few. Given Israeli discrimination, it’s amazing they’re making better films than most Israeli Jewish filmmakers. It’s similar to the Palestinian writers inside Israel in the sixties, who managed to create amazing works, like Mahmoud Darwish, Emile Habibi, and Tawfiq Zayyad. But it has to be said that as Israelis they do have access to both Israeli and also European opportunities, both to study cinema and to access funds for production. This access is much more than anything that West Bank or Gaza Palestinians have. With the exception of Rashid Masharawi, I don’t know of a single West Banker or Gazan who has been able to get out there and make a feature film.
As I have been fundraising for four years for my current production, Europeans I meet to discuss the production with constantly ask me why I don’t have an Israeli partner. They see us as a package deal — they can’t possibly conceive of Palestinian filmmakers as just being Palestinians and having nothing to do with a colonial entity called Israel. So there are limitations on us, in terms of the content as well. There’s a propensity of interest in supporting Palestinian cinema that implicitly promotes an idea that people in the West Bank and Gaza are “Palestinians” and they are under occupation, and those Palestinians in Israel are“Israeli Arabs,”and they have patriarchal and social problems. Essentially, filmmakers are encouraged to deal with the occupation only if it’s in the West Bank and Gaza and the 1967 borders, in a sense pushing the two-state solution as the backdrop to any cinema. But try to talk about 1948, the nakba, the right of return, and they don’t want to touch you. Stories that take place within the 1948 borders, historic Palestine, are supported if they are sweet, rural stories about loveable villagers and their social problems — stories that are palatable to Israelis and Americans.
What I think is interesting is that Palestinian cinema has gotten a lot of attention in recent years. Cinemaphiles know Palestinian cinema — they know about Elia Suleiman and Hany Abu Assad. There are many others, but those guys deserve credit for what they’ve done. But what I don’t understand is that Palestinian filmmakers are still stuck in a hole. We actually aren’t getting much support, we don’t get much funding, and who is actually telling our stories, who is telling the Palestinian story when you go to festivals and see all the films that are being shown? Israelis. Israeli filmmakers are getting funds, getting attention for telling our stories. This is what I don’t understand.
KR: So you’d prefer that Israelis don’t make films about Palestinians?
AJ: It’s a well-known fact that Palestinians have been fighting against invisibility for decades. Our artists have been killed, our intellectuals have been killed,our books are prevented from being published. And now, intentionally or not, a new generation of Israeli filmmakers is participating in that, in an erasure of Palestinian voices. Leftist Israelis are becoming superstars on the festival circuit, with films about the wall, about the occupation, about checkpoints, about prisoners. They can take advantage of both European funds and “third world” funds, and also have access that Palestinians don’t — they travel the country freely, enter areas we cannot, visit families in other towns when it’s illegal for us to, get permission we cannot obtain. There’s something colonialist about that. This tiny number of filmmakers also gives an impression outside that there’s a real, viable, leftist Israeli movement. If I were cynical, I’d say it’s a really good way for an Israeli filmmaker to start a career, to make a film that’s a little critical of the occupation. You get funding, you get invited to festivals, you travel the circuit, you get a lot of attention. Because everyone knows that Europeans aren’t going to screen pro-apartheid,right-wing Israeli films. Those films are screened in Israel for Israelis. To get out of the ghetto that Israelis have created for themselves, that’s what an Israeli filmmaker has to do.
Ahmad Habash is based in Ramallah and has directed the fiction film The Moon Sinking and many short animated films, including A Life’s Wish and Coming Back.
Kamran Rastegar: How is it being a Palestinian filmmaker — an animator, at that — based in Ramallah?
Ahmad Habash: Here the situation is very particular, in Palestine. There are always problems, drama, stories, events, scenes. So in some places you go and say, “I’m Palestinian,” and people say, “Ooh, come here, how is it to be a Palestinian, do you have a film?” and so on. Another issue is that my [Palestinian] passport doesn’t allow me to travel very much. It doesn’t give me freedom to be able to come and go. I have a West Bank ID, I can’t travel to Jerusalem, I can’t go to 48 [Israel]. I can’t work on an international film; I can only work if the film is produced entirely here in the West Bank. It’s a major problem in this country. Even if a production is to be shot fully on the West Bank, often the producers will favor someone who carries a Jerusalem ID. Or, one from 48.
KR: So what do you think Palestinian cinema is?
AH: When I watch European films, it strikes me how, since they work freely, they can make films about daily dramas, about normal life. When we make films, the occupation always has to be present, either in a very apparent way or even indirectly. But here, sometimes life can be normal. For the people in Gaza, okay, it’s really bad, I know… but if you look at what’s happening in Sudan, and at least we’re still alive!
Sometimes animators here [in the West Bank/Palestine] get together, but there isn’t a movement here as with cinema. Even if I have good contacts outside, I still have one problem, which is that when I go to look for funds, I feel that since I’m a Palestinian, sometimes the reaction is… um, not as if I’m begging, but…
KR: As if they’re giving you charity?
AH:Yes, as if they’re giving money not because you are skilled or have a good idea, but because they think, “You don’t have anything, miskeen [you poor thing]!” That’s a problem. I want my work to succeed because it has value, because it’s good.
Orhan Pamuk is Turkey’s most prominent novelist. He is the author of seven novels, a collection of short stories, one screenplay, and a memoir based on Istanbul, the city in which he was raised and continues to live to this day. Pamuk’s novels, quintessentially postmodern, provide for intricately woven, serpentine fabrics in which the dead speak, omniscient narrators play tricks on unassuming readers and impersonation is an art. Kara Kitap (The Black Book, 1990), for example, recounts the tale of a lawyer whose wife goes missing. Though its ambiguous politics and overwrought style have irked some, its verbal haze doubles as a rapt tour through a city’s back streets. A young man whose life is one day changed forever by an encounter with a book is the subject of his fourth novel, Yeni Hayat (New Life, 1995), a tale at once Borgesian in its premise and trademark Pamuk in the roundabout manner in which he navigates readers to a non-point. Benim Adim Kirmizi (My Name is Red, 2000) is doubtless Pamuk’s most widely read novel. This story, set in sixteenth century Istanbul, begins when an Ottoman sultan commissions an illustrated book to celebrate his formidable dominion — an act of representation that is deemed an affront to sacred Islam.When one of the commissioned miniaturists disappears, a mystery ensues that smacks of true crime. And then there is Kar (Snow, 2000), often deemed Pamuk’s most political work. In this tale of a poet and political refugee who has spent twelve years in Germany, Pamuk lets neither the secular nor the religious off the hook.
In 2005, criminal charges were brought against Pamuk for having “publicly denigrated Turkish identity.” The author had raised the issue of the Armenian Genocide of 1915–1917, as well as the massacre of Kurds in Anatolia, to a Swiss publication, complaining that both issues, in the end, were taboo in his native Turkey. Charges were dropped in early 2006, though only after a hate campaign against him was initiated by ultra-nationalist voices.
Here, the author engages in a conversation with Lex ter Braak, director of the Netherlands Foundation for Visual Arts, Design and Architecture. Together, they take on Orientalism, the author’s previous life as a visual artist, and the pitfalls of being called upon to represent Turkey. It should be duly noted that in a 2005 interview with the Paris Review, Pamuk said to his interviewer, “I sometimes feel nervous because I give stupid answers to certain pointless questions.” We think he managed to escape the clenches of the pointless here.
Lex ter Braak: When I consider all of your novels at once, I think — and maybe I’m wrong — that there’s a development. In the beginning of your career, you had a fairy-tale way of telling a story. But in your later books, Snow and Istanbul, it seems as if the characters are more connected to their social and political surroundings.
Orhan Pamuk: No, in fact, it was the other way around. In my first two books, I was realistic, and I was looking to nineteenth century western realistic novels. My later books — The White Castle, The Black Book, The New Life — are more poetic, though I do not want to name the form. The only social commentary I make is in Snow, which is selfconsciously political and not meant to be entirely realistic. You may be wondering about the progress, change, or development of my novels because Snow happe-ned to be my most internationally popular novel, and a lot of people, especially outside of Turkey, focused on its journalistic side. But for me, although Snow has a lot of journalistic or realistic material in it, it also has a surrealistic, strange side. I began to write it three years before 9/11, and when I published it in Turkey, 9/11 was only three months past. Because of all the heightened attention paid to Islam and terrorism, which of course was also in the agenda prior to 9/11, Snow was very current and became popular beyond my expectations. But I have to resist being labeled as a social novelist. I never was… it was never my aspiration.
I understand the touchiness about so-and-so traveler’s misrepresentation of the Arab because it was that attitude that legitmized the victimization of the Arab. But the Turk was never victimized. Ottomans and today contemporary Turks are very proud to have led the Middle East for so many centuries. Why should they claim to be victims? Right? The Turk’s glorification of Edward Said’s book is about enjoying not being an oppressor, but also posing as a victim.
LTB: But it seems as if the distance between Snow and reality is smaller than, for example, the distance between My Name Is Red and reality. It seems similar to novels by George Eliot describing nineteenth century England. Reading your novels, you gain a similar idea of how a small community or a big city functions in the beginning of the twenty-first century.
OP: Yes, I look to nineteenth century novels, but what I am doing is also self-consciously aware of the modernist novel. And that means that my books contain a certain self-awareness, the awareness of writing fiction in which fiction is not only a description of reality, but a sort of reality in itself. The modernist representation of art is not just a reflection but also a texture in itself, containing an expression of the author’s world rather than an expression of the outside world only. All my novels combine these ideas. Since my intention is not to reflect reality, but to follow the modernist dictum, I produce my alternative realities. But since I am from a troubled part of the world, even if I create my own alternative realities, people read my books saying, “Oh, this is a living Islamic author, let’s see the problems here.”
Since I wrote Snow, there have, of course, been problems. But it is important to note that I do not look at subject matter. The way my mind works — when I first have an idea for a novel and then proceed to dream it, develop it, and organize my artistic energies to write it — is that it never reflects the real world completely, but rather it invents something artificial that would be fun to read, that has a strong sense of reality, a slice of life in it.
LTB: In a catalogue essay you contributed for the 2006 exhibition Without Boundary at MoMA, the text addresses itself to the reader as a speaking image. It says that meaning will get pressed into the body. Does meaning hurt? Might the text even hurt the writer?
OP: That voice developed from self-plagiarizing the voice in My Name Is Red.
LTB: A legitimate thing.
OP: But not a charming thing. But then I was also trying to improvise.
I was trying to find a voice to address some of the problems of premodern art, Islamic art, or “modern Islamic art,” one of which is self-confidence. Unfortunately, the problem of the representation of reality becomes more important than the artist or author deserves or wants. And it’s a very troubled relationship. While non-western artists want the same freedom — or burden, depending on who you are — of representation that western artists want or look for, they feel an immense responsibility towards belonging to this part of the world and representing this part of the world. And of course, because of that, if you come from my part of the world, people will look for the measure of reality in your work. Even as far back as when I published The Black Book, I remember that it was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review by a journalist who had been to Turkey, because I’m a Turk. My Black Book is semi-fantastic, grotesque, horrifying, and sometimes hyper-realistic. The journalist who interviewed me said, “Well, I was in Istanbul, but it was not like that.” [Laughter]
Because of clichés about Islam or Turkey or the Muslim world, artists from that part of the world are thoroughly self-conscious about representation and understanding.
LTB: Somehow I think that your novels are also about the impossibility of shaping a final meaning about life. Life or reality.
OP: Or the cruelty of giving the final verdict. For me, the art of writing novels is not imposing a meaning, but rather producing a texture in which various interpretations of realities are possible. I would rather focus on the joys of finding a meaning, than on reaching a meaning.
LTB: A year ago, a very famous Dutch art critic came into my house and saw all my books and said, “What a waste of time to read all those novels.” For him literature is something that is really dead.
OP: I would say that his kind of understanding of reading literature, which implies that one could have done something more useful with one’s time, is very utilitarian. I think it is very premodern to look at books as objects that will educate you, or benefit you, or to consider reading as an intellectual investment you could somehow rely on in the future. With his statement, this art critic implies that, unfortunately, reading literature is a wrong investment. Right?
OP: Well, I think that fiction teaches us something essential about life. I have learned a lot about life from fiction — from Dostoyevsky, from Tolstoy. My understanding of major categories of life comes from fiction rather than the laws of psychology. But I will tell you something. For me, the urge to write and read fiction is not utilitarian. Instead it is like playing with toys. When I was a kid, I just wanted to play with my brother, or with this toy or that toy, without knowing why. The instinct to write fiction has that aspect, and the instinct to read fiction has that aspect.
LTB: Do you think that that is a common instinct or an aberration? After all, I know many people who don’t read.
OP: I think there is a human instinct to read. Here I could be called essentialist, but I really believe so. In the human mind there is an instinct to find stories, alternative realities, fantasies, to play around with reality. Of course, all of the arts — like drama, poetry, fiction, cinema, and television — are a result of this instinct. We all need a regular dose of fiction. Here I do not refer only to literary fiction; it may be television, fiction or whatever. We need alternative realities, and our mind produces them. If we suppress this need, our dreams supply it.
LTB: In Istanbul you wrote that you started as a visual artist but later became an architect and then a writer. Being a visual artist did not satisfy you. Why?
OP: Between the ages of seven and twenty-two, I wanted to be a painter. Then suddenly I wanted to write. I cannot explain why that happened in one statement, but a good full answer is the four hundred pages of Istanbul, which is half autobiography and half about the town. That is the only way I can answer that question.
LTB: Did the change of artistic discipline alter your attitude to reality? Is there a difference in vision and perspective between being an architect or a visual artist?
OP: I am less concerned about reality and more concerned with, like you said, attitudes toward reality. Architecture that means drawing, not being, not forming your brain as an architect, was a good thing, that was a fun thing. What worried me as an architect was the importance of handcraftsmanship, precision, and neatness. I did not have those talents. Also, from my experience, I think an architect is a really social person, a man who knows how to back-slap the patron — the person who gives you the money, who gives you the project. You can be a genius architect, but if you cannot get a commission or you do not know how to… how to translate this? … how to get along with the rich and the powerful, you are nobody.
LTB: But as a visual artist you address yourself to the world and to tradition in other ways than you do as a writer.
OP: First, there is not one single attitude you develop. For me the visual arts is about using the material, mastering the material, and mastering your hand. I think your hand does the art. And the relationship between the brain and the hand, as with pianists and their music, is very important
for art. Of course, I think artistic training is about learning the history, but it is also about teaching your hand to obey your mind, which is really serious business.
Person from background: That’s a very conservative attitude.
OP: I do not know, maybe. [Laughter] But anyway, I did not have that attitude. And that is how I saw art and my future, and I was troubled by that. I was not sure that I wanted that, or that I was going to be that. I had anxiety about mastering the material,or teaching my hand to go to my mind, so to speak.
LTB: Yes, but you could have developed yourself as another kind of artist. For example, contemporary artists are working now with video, and there is installation art, or whatever.
OP: I like them very much.
LTB: You like them? No, you do not?
OP: No, I do.
LTB: There are many other possibilities besides just being a craftsman.
OP: Yes, but when I started… when I made that decision in the early seventies, that kind of art was not around. Was it?
LTB: Maybe not here.
OP: But look, on the other hand, I do not consider, say, collage or surrealism or early conceptual art as different from more traditional arts. Most of the time I see those artists as also having to master and play around with the material.
LTB: In almost all your novels, you describe very common daily objects in a very, at least for me, beautiful way. Sometimes I think that that is the heritage of your once being ,or trying to be, a visual artist.You put much of your energy and focus into describing common things. Like an artist who picks things out of real life and does something with them. Always lovingly done.
OP: The book I am writing is a development of that idea of telling a story through objects. I am somehow fascinated by focusing on the object, inspired perhaps by surrealists putting the object in a frame, so to speak. I try to relate my work to the Balzac kind of inventory of middle class interiors.
LTB: Exactly, yes, yes.
OP: Looking at characters not as people or spirits representing psychological situations or dramas, but rather as personas surrounded by a series of colors, objects, things, bric-a-brac… It is this kind of thing that interests me. The success of Balzac and other nineteenth century novelists comes from their ability to capture the personality, the character, of a person, especially in middle-class interiors, by describing the space that person is inhabiting. This kind of descriptive energy and power of writers to tell about the objects that surround a character really addresses my heart. I try to do a similar thing in my way, perhaps inspired by surrealists and by conceptual arts. Focusing on things in such a manner will of course throw life to the story.
LTB: Yes, but it also reveals your love for your characters.
LTB: Because you don’t describe those objects in an ironic way.
OP: Oh, yes.
LTB: It’s really full-hearted. You’re embracing more or less a whole world.
OP: It is an effort to embrace, even in a very unexpected way, to affirm the work. The joys of writing fiction, in fact, come from not negating. You can negate when you are speaking of morals or ethics. On the other hand, in matters of daily life, I like that affirmation. I enjoy the pleasures of capturing reality as it really is, by paying attention to colors, shades, positions, strangeness, anachronistic objects, and so forth.
LTB: One thing I like so much in your novels is that you’re playing with the western idea of Orientalism. I, as a western reader, learned from Edward Said that it is wrong to give yourself over to Orientalism because it is our way of the West being the world.
OP: You learned this from Said?
LTB: Yes, I think so. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think that’s what I read in Orientalism. As a Turkish writer and reader, you wrote in Istanbul, you learned to look at the city from a western point of view. And of course, in the novel you were there, with your own background, but there was no rejection of what those writers and those artists have painted or written or said about the city. This gave me a completely new feeling and a new idea about Orientalism.
OP: Said’s book is brilliant. I admire him very much.That is a great book that essentially criticizes the western representation of the Orient. Now, after the success of Said’s book in the West, it was also successful in his Orient, and the reading of Orientalism in those parts of the world has become very politicized. In Islamic countries, reading that book is a very nationalistic act. A person criticizing an Islamic country from the inside is suppressed because that society is not open.
For example, in Saudi Arabia you cannot criticize the state, you cannot criticize the army, and you cannot criticize the religion. You cannot even write openly about the horrible state of women there. Once you start doing that, everyone will call you an Orientalist.
The abuse of Edward Said’s great book in Islamic countries serves the interest of the ruling powers there. My situation, or a Turkish situation, is that this country was never a colony of the West. And since we never were, we should not have wounded spirits like other countries or nations who were colonized. The colonizers’ oppression left a scar in the spirit of those countries. In those cases I understand the touchiness about so-and-so traveler’s misrepresentation of the Arab because it was that attitude that legitimized the victimization of the Arab. But the Turk was never victimized. Ottomans and today contemporary Turks are very proud to have led the Middle East for so many centuries. Why should they claim to be victims?
LTB: I agree.
OP: The Turk’s glorification of Edward Said’s book is about enjoying not being an oppressor, but also about posing as a victim.
LTB: Okay.So there are uses from both sides. [Laughter]
OP: Oh yes, when you do not have that wound or that scar in your nation’s spirit, then the misrepresentations of civilization — by, for example the nineteenth century French writer Pierre Loti — are also a bit of fun.You cannot talk about something before there is a text. All discussion about the town, about the object, about the beautiful girl, starts with a previous text. The first Turkish prose writers who wrote about Istanbul relied on the travel texts of the Orientalists, but they were not wounded because the country was not victimized. There was a little problem with nationalism, but that was a minor thing. So Pierre Loti’s idea of Turkish civilization is just a simple sugarized version of my culture. No one bombed Turkey because of Pierre Loti.
Recently appointed co-director of exhibitions and programs, and director of international projects, at the Serpentine Gallery, Hans Ulrich Obrist, perhaps the most prolific curator of his generation, has recently arrived in London. A significant activity in his practice has been, and continues to be, the interview. His Interviews Volume 1 was published in 2003, a prodigious five hundred-page publication that gives a sense of the scope of ambition of his ongoing project. On the eve of the first 24 Hour Interview Marathon — an event Obrist initiated with architect Rem Koolhaas — Nav Haq caught up with him to discuss his ideas about interviews as a research methodology, how they have played an inherent role in his curatorial practice and why he believes they can generate cross-disciplinary dialogue.
Nav Haq: My understanding is that you have been conducting interviews from a very young age, perhaps even since your teenage years. Can you recall how you first became interested in giving interviews?
Hans Ulrich Obrist: My curatorial work has come directly out of conversations. When I was a kid, perhaps sixteen or seventeen, I went to see Fischli & Weiss, and they said I should go see Boetti. And so I watched artists such as these working directly, which was important as my first contact with art. I visited many artists regularly, but Fischli & Weiss were the ones I visited the most. I watched them work on their film The Way Things Go. I was born in the studio of Fischli & Weiss. I was born in ‘68 but was then “reborn,” if you like, in their studio. I did my research into visual art throughout the eighties, but then in ‘91 I thought it was time to begin working more directly with visual art and to present work in a domestic setting. So I did my Kitchen show. I thought it would be interesting to do something unspectacular, something just in my kitchen. I invited six or seven artists to participate,and the show was seen by around thirty people. People from the Cartier foundation came to see it, and they found it somehow special, after which they gave me a grant. This was to visit Paris, live there and work as a curator. Out of this I then had a very intense dialogue with France. I conducted many studio visits with artists and conducted lots of interviews. Around ‘93 I was in touch with Museum in Progress in Vienna, a very interesting initiative that I collaborated with throughout the Nineties. The initiative often conducted interviews, and I would conduct interviews with artists in TV studios — with artists such as Vito Acconci and Felix Gonzales-Torres. However I found it more interesting to conduct interviews in a more informal setting like over a coffee or in a taxi, and I thought it would be interesting to find a way to record the interviews without dragging people into a recording studio. From that moment onwards I did audio recordings, and then in the mid-nineties they brought the digital camera onto the market, which I then started to use. It has become a research method and the basis for my curatorial practice over the last eleven or twelve years. I have an archive of 1,600 filmed conversations, most of which I have only used as text transcriptions, and not yet presented as video. I haven’t figured out yet completely what to use. Most get transcribed. The whole project is a complex dynamic system with feedback loops — a learning system.
NH: You have conducted a vast number of interviews, as your recent publication Interviews Volume 1 demonstrates, with many practitioners — artists, architects, theorists, even scientists. To what extent do you consider this a part of your role as a curator?
HUO: At the same time as when I went to the studio of Fischli & Wiess, in a thrift store I found a book by Alexander Dorner, who ran the Hannover Museum in the twenties, and then went to the United States. The book became my guide. It’s not only about the museum but looks at object and process, and discusses the museum as being an environment of uncertainty. It was very visionary. He had one thing in this book that he emphasized, which was that in order to understand the forces effective in the art world, it is important to look at the other fields of knowledge. I am based in the art world, and from there I make these excursions into other fields. It was Francois Julien who once said that as a European philosopher he didn’t go to China to be exotic, but he works in China in order to understand European philosophy. For me it’s not been about leaving the art world, nor to consume differences, but I try to go into architecture and venture into other fields. My projects have started to work in relation to these other fields, and with architecture it has become particularly intense. Along this process I’ve interviewed many architects in order to understand that field better. I go with the idea that exhibitions are knowledge production and should be closely linked with memory. Discussions with artists and architects of an older generation allow a dialogue with practitioners of the current generation through my projects. I think we should have a movement against forgetting, and I hope to be able to contribute towards that movement.
NH: Besides convergence, is it also for you a case of leaving something in order to reflect back on that thing you have left?
HUO: This is very interesting. Initially it was always one person going to see another person — this is the normal interview setting. As one says in English, two’s company, but three is a crowd. At a certain moment about six or seven years ago, I started to go to see people with other people. For example, I started with Rem Koolhaas, who has become a very good friend, to go see people who were very important to him when he was a young architect, such as Philip Johnson or Venturi Scott Brown. I went to see with Dominique Gonzales-Foerster and also Philippe Parreno a lot of people who have been influential to them, such as an Argentine novelist who is influential to Dominique, Edgardo Cozarinsky. This method allows for a lot of different formats and different ways of approaching particular elements of a person’s practice. There are different formats that have evolved. It’s almost like context has allowed for all kinds of interview subcategories. I tried to write down the other day the different kinds of interview categories that exist, and there are eight or nine different categories of interviews. In the beginning, I did art interviews, science interviews, architecture interviews,but it just “happened” to become interviewing with three people in this way. This is a form that can lead to convergence that comes out of mutual curiosity. At certain times, in ‘93, ‘96, ‘98, I thought about leaving the art world, as I thought it was too narrow, but the art world allows these different contexts to happen; it’s the most interesting field. This is to do with going beyond the fear of pooling knowledge. I do think the different fields are quite segregated. If an architect speaks, it’s architects who go to listen. If an artist speaks then it is the art world that goes to listen. I always believed in aiming for moments of change, and my sixty-four interview project has to do with desire, and because cross-fertilization between fields is missing.
NH: How do you decide who to interview? Are the discussions always intended for publication?
HUO: I just always do them anyhow. Maybe only ten percent have been published, with hundreds unpublished. I believe that one part of your activity as a curator is not necessarily public. I think it is interesting to have unrealized projects.
NH: When an interview is published it presents a certain transparency around your own practice as a curator. What do you believe that this transparency has to offer an audience?
HUO: Hopefully it can be a toolbox that encourages the production of reality. When I started to read about art it started with David Sylvester. I read his interviews with Francis Bacon which were very long conversations. And also I started to read a book by Pierre Cabanne on Marcel Duchamp. It is three very long texts where he interviewed Duchamp in three very long sessions. For me these two interviews are key because they are long-term interviews series. If you sit down again and again with someone, things start to happen that may be interesting for someone to read. So far I have maybe not yet conducted a very long interview that is as good as these interviews with Bacon and Duchamp, but I try. I try to give an unprecedented insight into works over sustained periods of time, and it’s an accelerated activity that I have. Unlike exhibitions where you have deadlines, conversations are where I can forget about time, or even liberate time.
NH: There has been much discussion lately around curatorial practice and how the role of the curator has, to a great extent, taken over a function traditionally held by critics, partly because curators have taken over the mantle of discussing artistic production. Do you believe that conducting interviews also visibly allows for your practice to extend into the spaces normally occupied by critics?
HUO: For me it is interesting to read artists’ writing. I have edited Gerhard Richter’s writing, for example. I don’t think that curators writing criticism, or publishing interviews replaces traditional criticism but I think both curating and criticism are today in a rather fragile position. The market is unbelievably strong and has a bigger effect on the ground than curators and critics. Young emerging curators do not get enough support. I do feel that criticism and curating should be strengthened. How curators can be involved in the diversity of the art world is really important. There are curators, artists, critics, gallerists and collectors, all of whom are forces.The art world in the best case is a polyphony of these different forces. As the visionary poet and philosopher Edouard Glissant says, the homogenizing forces of globalization also have an impact on the art world. Glissant’s talked of mondialité, which is the chance for increased global dialogue but at the risk of a loss of diversity and complexity.
NH: Presently the main complaint about art criticism is that it is too detached from the production of art and exhibitions. Do you believe the presence of curators such as yourself who are up to speed with artistic production, particularly through conducting interviews, is a way for art criticism to advance?
HUO: Hopefully, the whole knowledge-production side of artwork is getting stronger. Curating is very paradoxical because you could say, on the one hand, there is a lot of discussion around curating. There are symposiums, platforms for exchange and also a lot of texts published on the subject. But it could be said that there’s a whole missing exhibitions literature. I think it is astonishing that we have curatorial schools, but we have no literature on the history of exhibition curating.What is missing are key texts. Dorner is still not in reprint, Pontus Hulten, or Seth Sieglaub or W Sandberg are not in print. Obviously it is a new field, but there is a whole history of exhibitions missing. People always say to me, “Are you the grandson of Harald Szeemann?” He’s one of my mentors, and obviously when I was a kid he was an incredibly important figure of reference in Switzerland. But the story of curating is much longer than that. I am interested in the pioneers from the early twentieth century, such as Felix Feneon, Dorner or Harry Graf Kessler.
NH: Of course, there is always a discrepancy between an actual interview conversation and what eventually appears in printed form. This is most often due to the editing process in between. Do you edit your own interview texts?
HUO: It’s always a very multi-linguistic thing. When I grew up in Switzerland, there was no big city, but one thing I could do there was learn a lot of languages. There are a lot of Italian interviews, Spanish interviews, and Russian; a lot in French and many in English, German and Chinese. Editors transcribe them and do a pre-edit, and then I do an edit. It can be published immediately or even ten years later, or go into the archive, where there are even interviews in languages I cannot speak. Especially funny was the interview with Oscar Niemeyer in Portuguese, and also interviews in Chinese. Niemeyer refused to answer questions in French and spoke in Portuguese. When the interview was transcribed it really wasn’t very coherent. It was like a cadavre exquis.
NH: I find interviews interesting because they take on a form that both is and isn’t temporal.The actual interview discussion itself possesses temporality, yet when it exists in printed form, it can take a shape that continues to have significance for different reasons at other times. Everybody has a different “critical metabolism.” Have you had the experience of revisiting one of your own previous interviews and developing a different understanding of an artist’s practice?
HUO: This happens super frequently. I met Gustav Metzger yesterday for a long interview.I’ve had discussions with him before, in ‘96, ‘87, then I’ve been out of contact, and ten years later we connected again with some questions but a lot had changed. You revisit questions you raised ten years previous and your perceptions change. It happens a lot. Interviews happen in strange situations. For example, with Anri Sala, we travel a lot in airplanes, in taxis, and cars. Whenever we have a minute we record things, and make what you might describe as “interviews on the move.” It is a very physical activity and a collective project.
It’s interesting you talk of “metabolism” because metabolism is quoted by a lot of architects now, referring to biology, ideas of urban development, and industrial design. It’s about movement in relation to the city. Last year we developed an interview series in Tokyo with all the members of the Metabolist movement of the Sixties. The idea for the interview marathon here at the Serpentine started out in the city of Stuttgart, and we thought we could develop a stage where we could set it up to last twenty-four hours. We had twenty-four completely amazing people and drafted a kind of fragmentary project. This was the point of departure for the interview marathon in London (when Rem Koolhaas and I interviewed sixty different practitioners about their work and the London of the future, and many other issues) — to attempt to engage with a complex city and develop a fragmented portrait of the city and its mutation.
Shahidul Alam’s work as a media activist and director of the award-winning Drik Picture Library (drik.net) has inspired many to blend cultural production with political work. Shahidul deliberately locates his work squarely inside Bangladesh, often defiantly placing himself against local stakeholders such as government ministries, the US embassy, and the World Bank. At times, he has paid a price for his solitary defiance: Drik’s phone lines have been cut, exhibitions have been cancelled, and during anti-government demonstrations in 1996, Shahidul was stabbed by unknown assailants. Drik’s journey over the past decade highlights the relative privilege of those who live between worlds, within easy reach of a diasporic space of safety.
Besides Drik, Shahidul set up the Bangladesh Photographic Institute, Pathshala (South Asian Institute of Photography) and Chobi Mela (Festival of Photography in Asia). His work has shown at MoMA, the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, the Royal Albert Hall, and Kuala Lumpur National Art Gallery.
Filmmaker, writer, and tactical media artist Naeem Mohaiemen directs Visible Collective, which works on art interventions on hyphenated identities, loyalty tests and security panic. Project excerpts have shown as installations and lectures. He showed with the Wrong Gallery at the 2006 Whitney Biennial.
Naeem Mohaiemen: In the 1980s, you left London to move back to Dhaka and start Drik. In your writing, you’ve talked about the need to locate media work outside he dominant narrative spaces. Both you and your partner, anthropologist Rahnuma Ahmed, also consciously made a decision to conduct all your work in the Bengali language, Bangla, even in the difficult case of transliterated email.
Shahidul Alam: I returned to Bangladesh, where I was always going to be. The biggest need was to change the way majority-world countries were portrayed. I was working with a London-based studio, and the only pictures they ever seemed to be interested in were pictures of disaster or poverty. So being based in Dhaka was a fairly automatic decision.
My partner Rahnuma and I were involved in the anti-military junta agitations at that time, so I began documenting that movement. It was a much more “lived” experience than I had felt before. The move towards speaking Bangla and the introduction of new media were, in combination, a mechanism aimed at reducing the digital divide. Without international lines, faxes, or money to make expensive calls, we needed to find other ways to communicate. So setting up Bangladesh’s first email network was an obvious choice.
The introduction of written Bangla in Roman text dramatically changed the demographics of participants in our internet network, which brought home the centrality of the vernacular, even in urban, literate circles. Since then we’ve brought out several books and a photography magazine in Bangla. Later we developed a Bangla font that could be used on the net, which we used in the online magazine I was publishing, so we could reverse the information flow.
NM: I’m thinking of the imagine.art.after project, curated by Breda Beban, which brought together artists who left home and now live in London, and others who remained in “the country of their birth” (a misnomer anyway — I don’t know where I fit since I was born in London, grew up in Tripoli and Dhaka, and work in New York and Dhaka). This brings to mind all the differences in privilege, access, interests, methodology and networks that are created when artists migrate. Bangladesh has a different trajectory from the exile dynamics in locales like Lebanon, Iran or Sri Lanka, but at times we’ve had equally volatile eruptions, especially the turbulent Seventies with coups, counter-coups, and dirty wars. Those in exile or in diasporic conditions may choose to locate in “the belly of the beast,” to challenge from inside. But for this to work, diaspora cultural producers need a theoretical and practical framework for exchanges between those who “stayed” and those who “left.”
SA: Leaving aside my overseas education, I was conscious of the fact that I was highly privileged in Bangladesh, by the fact that I had the opportunity to study and did not have to worry about tomorrow’s meal. We had all used the resources of this country for our education, but wealthier countries were reaping the benefits of that training. Through us, Bangladesh was effectively subsidizing the West.
If enabling social change is measured, it is in Bangladesh that one can get the maximum returns for one’s efforts. This works at a personal and emotional level, and also if you evaluate how we can change our lives. But there are obvious risks of working in Bangladesh, particularly for journalists for whom this is said to be the most dangerous country after Iraq [according to the Committee to Protect Journalists].
NM: Well, I know that when I tried to show a rough cut of Muslims or Heretics in Dhaka, the film was refused until you used your networks. I understood then that the risk of recrimination from the Islamists was borne by Drik; the fact that I work in New York provided a strange kind of insulation. This is what made me think of the overlapping and divergent paths of diaspora versus “back home.” What do these terms even mean when many have dual passports, conflicting loyalties and multiple workspaces?
SA: Being overseas allows one to work with greater impunity and substantially lower risk. Technological benefits, as well as greater mobility, and the ability to network gives advantages that working here does not. Traveling on a Bangladeshi passport also makes a lot of my international work quite difficult (I was off-loaded from flights twice after 9/11). I see clearly different roles for those who work within and those outside. Moral judgment and self-righteousness shouldn’t enter either sphere.
You live in a country that has bombed twenty-two nations since World War II and is clearly responsible for more civilian deaths in recent history than any other nation. To be a taxpayer and therefore an accomplice to the most brutal nation on earth does require a lot of redemption! Having said that, to pay the taxes and utilize the benefits, to be able to turn the machinery in one’s favor and to actively subvert the normal course of the machinery may well be a strategically viable position — but it has to be carefully measured.
NM: You have a history of taking anti-authoritarian positions in your struggles inside Bangladesh, which involve a level of actual danger. There were situations when you were covering the Ershad junta, and the collapse of the first rightist Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) regime, where you came under physical attack. From the early days of Drik’s work as an internet provider, the email service as well as your phone lines came under constant interference from government authorities. When Drik sponsored screenings of Muslims or Heretics, one of your employees received threatening phone calls. But I also note the recent Time magazine cover story “Bangladesh: Rescue Mission” carried a photograph of the Prime Minister, taken by you. How do we negotiate these interfaces with power?
SA: Our anti-establishment position has been perceived (by governments) as pro-opposition, regardless of who is in power. Hopefully it also reinforces our credibility as being non-partisan, in the sense of party politics. When we put together the exhibition The War We Forgot on Bangladesh’s liberation war of 1971, the government asked us to remove the images that showed revenge killings by Bangalis against Urdu speakers. We replied by pulling the entire exhibition from the National Museum and holding it in Drik’s gallery instead. The government was left with egg on its face because visitors constantly asked why such a show was refused by the National Museum. Our credibility and network (local and international) dissuades governments from bothering us unless we seriously become a threat. It’s gauging that distance that is critical. One needs to feel the intensity of the heat without getting too badly burnt.
NM: There is an iconoclastic orientation in your work. You documented the outre, diamond-studded wealth of Prince Musa, the adom bepari or human exporter who makes millions sending poor Bangla migrant labor to the Middle East. You have a habit of catching the powerful in unguarded moments: Prime Minister Zia surrounded by sycophants, ex-dictator Ershad enjoying a wedding feast after getting out of jail, former Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif entourage-less at an airport. You also clashed with both the Dutch and French embassies for some strange dress code that didn’t allow you to attend a formal dinner wearing sandals. How do these provocations fit with political re-orientation for our icon-blinded politics?
SA: I suppose I’ve never been awed by these icons and have been more observant of their human attributes. Part of our condition is we deify or vilify our political figures, losing the opportunity to sift out the good and build anew. Godfathers support such idolatry as it is essential for their survival. I must admit some pleasure in bringing down these deities a peg or two. Maintaining such a position is not easy in Bangladesh.
NM: Drik has always maintained the difficult position of not being dependent on donor money but surviving instead through your own commercial assignments. You also have an honorable commitment to internal wage equity, so that your salary is only slightly higher than the entry-level employee. But some of the photographers you train eventually leave to take higherpaying jobs with NGOs and foreign donor agencies. What are your thoughts about this dynamic?
SA: Being financially independent is essential for the credibility of a media organization. But we do take on contractual work, some of which is derived from grants. From a donor perspective, “partnership” can be simply a pretty word to use, and consultants and machinery continue to be tied to sources of funds. So donors assume a subservience in any partnership they enter into. The USIS [United States Information Service] reminded us that they would never work with us since we opposed Clinton’s visit to Bangladesh. Similarly, the British Council reminded us that Bangla-right’s [banglarights.net] opposition to the invasion of Iraq would jeopardize future projects. They would never demonstrate such arrogance in their own countries (and have learned never to try it again with Drik). We know that we are black-listed by many donor organizations and will never get work from them, but we take that as an indicator of our success.
Our salary structure does cause problems, and things like our equal bonus policy is not always welcomed by those in higher ranks, and yes, we do lose people to NGOs and donor agencies, which is not a bad thing. What disappoints me is when bright energetic youngsters with spark get head-hunted by the donors and turned into well-paid clerks who do the donkey-work for their western counterparts.
NM: Last question: whose work are you tracking at the moment?
SA: Pedro Meyer [zonezero.com], Tyng-Ruey Chuang and Shunling Chen [Open Source Software Foundry], Steven Gan and Premesh Chandran [malaysiakini.com], Martin Chautari Group [Nepal], Marcelo Brodsky [Buena Memoria], and tehelka.com.
Khalil Rabah’s work lies somewhere at the demarcating line between the hyped-up essentialist consumption of “subversive” work by an ever-hungry art industry and the very serious task of engaging with the issues of nationhood, essentialism, and representation within the Palestinian context. The Ramallah-based artist, who has dragged trees into gallery spaces, repeatedly pounded olives with a rock, and created — perhaps you can say absurdly — a museum, an airline company, and a biennale, seems to be playfully aware of the risks and rewards of his position.
Rabah was born in Jerusalem in 1961. He studied fine arts at the University of Texas, and has taught at the Department of Fine Arts of Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem. His work has been featured in the Istanbul, Sao Paolo, Sydney, and Kwanju biennales, as well as in many other exhibition contexts.
In September, Rabah discussed his museum project with Mai Abu ElDahab, one of the curators of Manifesta 6, the itinerant European biennale for contemporary art, whose latest installment-to-be was finally canceled given troubled politics with its host country Cyprus. Here the two take on the question of whether there is an art scene in Ramallah, the last Istanbul Biennial and something Rabah has obliquely coined the United States of Palestine Airlines. This interview took place on Skype.
Khalil Rabah: I am here finally.
Mai Abu ElDahab: Hello hello.
KR: You never told me what happened with Manifesta?
MAD: Jesus, it’s a long story. Read Artforum or Frieze. Where are you?
KR: Leaving the hotel in Amman where I just arrived from Venice and going back to Ramallah. Eventually.
MAD: What were you doing in Venice?
KR: We are planning to hold the Second Riwaq Biennale in October 2007, so we thought of going to the Architecture Biennale in Venice — networking, kissing, that’s what I did a lot of…
MAD: What’s the Riwaq Biennale?
KR: It’s a biennale in Palestine focused on architecture, art, and design. The first one took place in 2005 in Ramallah. It is another attempt to see what can come of a biennale in Palestine.
MAD: How was the first one?
KR: Quite successful here but on a small scale. This time we want to involve people from abroad. You know it’s crazy going to Venice for two days and spending two days to get there through Jordan and the same coming back. That’s why I will initiate USPA in March.
KR: United States of Palestine Airlines.
MAD: For whom?
KR: I will open the main office in London, first in Knightsbridge, in March 2007. This will be the airline’s first encounter with people.
MAD: Tell me more…
KR: PDF will design the corporate image, airplanes,uniforms,mileage cards,tickets, offices, an airline magazine with routes, etcetera.The office will issue mileage cards, memberships… anyone who comes to the airline opening can get a membership card. Through the membership card you get a serial number that allows you to access certain information about airline activities on the internet.
MAD: What is PDF?
KR: PDF is the Palestinian Design Force, which also designed the new Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind at the Acropolis in Athens, close to the new Acropolis Museum, which is being built now. You can visit the museum until September 29, 2007. It was commissioned by the Contemporary Art Museum in Athens.
MAD: But isn’t a museum a monumental space of preservation, a place for dead objects? Is this a final gesture in your work or pure narcissism?
KR: It’s somehow more interesting to be undecided regarding meanings. The museums you are referring to are different — you know, ours has no board of trustees, directors or anything of that sort.This one does what it wants, where it wants.
MAD: But your choice of a museum automatically implies a monumentality.
KR: This is about identity, or invention, the synthetic.
MAD: Is the gesture personal,about Palestine, or is it playing with other references to museums like Marcel Broodthaers or Meschac Gaba?
KR: It will be interesting because the Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens wants to acquire the work to install in their new museum — a museum inside a museum, a total mummification, eternal. It is a way of redefining Palestine for me, or making a place from a non-place.
MAD: Tell me a little about the reception of the museum, the audience response.
KR: They keep asking if it is real.
MAD: What does that mean? It is real if they are standing in it, no? How do you respond?
KR: November Paynter from Platform Garanti [in Istanbul] wrote something about it.
MAD: What did she say?
KR: “It’s important that people ask about reality as they do with films and literature. So why not about art?”
MAD: How do you respond?
KR: Dreams can eventually be manifested as paintings, sculptures, videos… That’s what she was saying about art.
MAD: What do you think?
KR: I no longer differentiate much between art and life.
MAD: Speaking of November Paynter, what did you think of the Istanbul Biennial?
MAD: Why? What was interesting?
KR: It was great for the Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind to have the opportunity to invite a team from the Riwaq Center for Architectural Preservation in Ramallah as part of the “work” in the biennial. Members of the anthropology department of the Center worked in Istanbul for one week, researching old photographs from the time of Sultan Abdel-Hamid in particular. Sometimes the museum is perceived as a psychic and intellectual project, but here it was collaborating with a real institution in the form of the Riwaq Center.
MAD: What about the show itself?
KR: I thought there were great works and working with [curators] Vasif [Kortun] and Charles [Esche] and the team was fun. It was good exposure.
MAD: Exposure to what?
KR: Lots of people came and are interested in developing works together. The parties were also great.
MAD: Like whom? And what works interested you?
KR: I liked Phil Collins’ work and Halil Altindere.
MAD: There’s a lot of criticism of the way art from the Arab world and other non-western contexts is represented, though the Istanbul Biennial is seen as one “successful” forum. What do you think? How was your work framed in the context of the show as whole? Are you critical of the existing exhibition models?
KR: In Istanbul, it had something to do with the curators and making a non-monumental biennial.
MAD: But are you critical in general of how Arab or Palestinian art is presented or do you not consider the context in that way?
KR: You know it’s sexy to say something about Palestine — it is immediately political.But I do this kind of work because I am aware of this. I try to control the reception.
MAD: How is your work received in Palestine? Have you shown in the museum there?
KR: I always have had criticism here from the official art establishment, but it’s fun with the contemporaries.
MAD: How do you mean? Is there an art scene in Ramallah? Who sees your work? Are there writers? Reviews?
KR: Here’s a story. You know there were eight pieces for sale at a recent auction at the Sakakini Cultural Center. They were all sold during the auction, something we farcically called the “3rd Annual War Zone Auction” that was created to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Palestinian Museum of Humankind. Of course it was not the third annual, but really the first ever. Referring to it like this provided a sense of history. Anyway the museum conducted this auction, call it fake or real, and as we collected the money, three people refused to pay. They thought it was a performance — and guess what? These were three artists. That gives you an idea as to the art scene in Ramallah.
MAD: That’s too funny! Do you enjoy it though?
KR: One of the things I am trying to do and the reason I am trying to have a biennale in Palestine, is because maybe we will recognize the urgent need for such an industry, cultural production, knowledge dissemination, and participation. You know when we started to establish the al-Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art in Jerusalem, people were asking us what a contemporary art foundation was in the first place.
MAD: Why do you think someone like [curator] Okwui Enwezor says, “Palestinian artists do not partake in the globalization of the art world the way other artists do”?
KR: I don’t understand this statement.
MAD: Me neither! Do you think public art as an aesthetic gesture is still relevant? I know you’ve been involved in public art projects which are always somehow connected to the community in which they exist. Do you think that is a significant factor in your choices?
KR: It’s not a significant factor in my choices to manifest some aesthetic ideas and forms as public,but sometimes it can have a life which extends into the public domain.
MAD: Can you give an example from your work?
KR: As I mentioned, I am currently working on a project called USPA, and it is a very personal work. It has the potential to become a public institution. Like the Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind,the works that ignited the collection of the museum are very personal, yet at one point — especially when we built the museum in Athens — I could see that it too could become a public institution. This is what interested me about such things, because they explore alternative institutional building.
MAD: Your work used to be much more formal and loaded with symbolism, like a show you once had at the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo. Now it seems much more conceptual. How did it change?
KR: I think maybe the work related more to artifacts. Symbolism became the fog, the accepted dogma, a familiar language that I wanted to use to narrate a reconstruction of something.
MAD: Where did you study art?
KR: I didn’t study art. I took an extra semester in the art department, mainly painting, to get a double degree with architecture. At the time, my father thought I must become an architect with a traditional lifestyle. An art degree was a form of rebellion.
MAD: I thought you studied in the US? Where and how was it?
KR: At the University of Texas, but mainly in an informal way. I read what I wanted and went to museums and was doing works that I realized later in life had to do with art.
MAD: Can you tell me a little bit about Texas?
KR: I have to admit that I managed to get a good education in architecture but after some work experience, I was very bored and had to leave. I thought my life would be more interesting between Ramallah and Europe.
MAD: You have an American passport, don’t you?
KR: I do, it’s one of the best things that happened in my life. Can you imagine how I could possibly move around, traveling with my Palestinian passport?
MAD: Why do you have an American passport?
KR: Ninety percent of the Ramallahites are American passport holders; it is the largest Palestinian community outside of Palestine.
MAD: Is there anyone specific you would like to work with?
KR: I would like to do an art project with Irwin and maybe Phil Collins. But I am especially interested now to work on a second Riwaq biennale.
MAD:Bidoun wants to know if you would rather have dinner with Noam Chomsky, Michael Jackson, Tracey Emin or Angelina Jolie?
KR: If I could have dinner with all at the same time, that’s fine with me. Otherwise I am not interested.
Much has been made of Elaine Scarry’s winsome voice, her fey demeanor, her eccentric solicitude for the well-being of each living thing in her garden, to the last sweet pea. Facing this figure of almost Dickensian benevolence, it can take a moment to sink in that she’s correcting you. Sometimes it takes more than a moment. You could be a perfect fool in the company of Elaine Scarry, and she’d suffer you — not gladly, to be sure, but graciously enough that you might remain none the wiser.
In the world of post-9/11 public intellectuals, Scarry, who is a professor of English literature at Harvard, seems cast against type. Her writings regarding the “war on terror” make bold claims, but rhetorically they’re rooted in gentle persuasion and an intricate deployment of technical arcana; there is little in the way of imperial strategy or polemical swagger.
That said, Scarry’s forbearance for fools is measurably diminished in the move from the living room to the printed page. In an essay titled “Five Errors in the Reasoning of Alan Dershowitz,” she praises the lawyer’s “light, bright spirit,” but only after eviscerating the obscure logic of his proposal for “torture warrants” and outlining the casuistry whereby “he protects his arguments by giving them deniability.” If Scarry is a rare bird, something steely glints under the plumage.
Her passionate opposition to torture dates back to her landmark 1985 book, The Body in Pain: the Making and Unmaking of the World, which considered pain from medical, political, military, legal, and literary perspectives.
In the late 1990s, she stirred controversy by hypothesizing that a series of airplane crashes, including EgyptAir 990, might each have been caused by electromagnetic interference emanating from military exercise areas on the Eastern Seaboard of the US.
Her political writings turn largely on the notion of “consent” — the state of informed willingness on the part of citizens when their country goes to war. In 1991 she argued in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review that the constitutional right to bear arms guaranteed government transparency and citizen participation in military decisions. A 1998 article maintained that the structure by which the American citizenry ratifies acts of war had broken down with the abolition of the draft. And in a provocative response to 9/11 called Who Defended the Country? she compares the actions of passengers aboard United Flight 93 (who voted to attack their hijackers and wrest control of their aircraft) to the helplessness of the official US military response on the same day (scrambling F16s and looking on while the Pentagon was hit); using this example, she makes the case for not only the ethical necessity but the strategic efficacy of a more egalitarian model of national defense. More recently, she debated former Assistant US Attorney General Jack Goldsmith about the applicability of US military manuals of conduct to the treatment of detainees. A detailed study of war and social contract theory is forthcoming.
Meanwhile, Scarry continues to write literary criticism, and in Dreaming by the Book and On Beauty and Being Just develops and expands the phenomenological and aesthetic inquiries latent in The Body in Pain. Here, Scarry sits down with Curtis Brown, an avowedly adoring advisee and student of hers, and takes on literature, war, discipline, and punishment.
Curtis Brown: How did you move from your training in literary scholarship to writing The Body in Pain?
Elaine Scarry: There were so few literary texts with descriptions of physical pain in them that just of necessity I had to look at any kind of text that had a motive for putting something into words about pain. So fairly early on I contacted the international secretariat for Amnesty International and asked if I could come in. And I was amazed that they could send — to people like you and me, who aren’t in pain — a description of people who are in pain, and have you actually get it and be able to do something. Amnesty’s literature remains amazing to me. It’s not just that they communicate pain, but that they do it without letting it flip over into a situation where we’re enjoying our immunity from pain, which can sometimes happen. Suddenly I was able to look at the actual statements of prisoners themselves. And then I looked at the work of a physician named Ronald Melzack. He developed the McGill Pain Questionnaire, after having listened to the patients in his pain clinics and taken seriously the language they were using. This was the late 1970s. In some of these other areas, there was a greater commitment to language as actually capable of communicating something true than there was in English departments.
CB: Literary scholars were almost euphorically invested in making arguments about indeterminacy and incoherence, about the gulf between language and reality.
ES: To my mind, the cost of incoherence is profound. Let’s take, say, nuclear submarines. I now know that they use extremely low frequency radio antennas, and sending three letters of the alphabet takes fifteen minutes — that’s what it means not to have language. Not what people were saying in English departments. I wasn’t writing in a spirit of repudiation, however. It’s just that at the time… I remember, for example, a very inventive and ingenious scholar of eighteenth century literature telling me that the body is just a “construct.” I told him to come tell me that the next time he had a cold. Pain is not a verbal construct. When something like suffering becomes almost impossible to put into language, it’s a disaster.
CB:The Body in Pain is striking in its use of lists, long lyrical lists that include novelistic details, details drawn from testimonials, statistical reports, and so on. The multiple trajectories of your subsequent work — into phenomenology, aesthetics, and public policy — are all there in the earlier work at the level of style.
ES: There was a moment in the writing of that book, in looking at the structure of torture, in which it suddenly seemed the whole thing was laid out before me. That chapter as it appears now is almost identical to how it was written, except one thing: originally, there was a point near the end of it where the central premise germinated. I realized that if this was true about torture, then the following must also be true-and there was a paragraph about war, a paragraph about Biblical writings, a paragraph about the structure of the artifact. Each of those paragraphs eventually became a long chapter; it was as if the whole book’s architecture had been embedded within the focused argument of that first chapter. I began that book with an absolute aversion to talking about creation. At that time, there was this pervasive idea that suffering helps you create. And it just didn’t seem right to me, to think that having cancer, say, would help someone create, that having terrible burns or being blown apart in war could help you create. So I had this prejudice — “creation” was coming nowhere near this project. Then, of course, the entire second half of the book came to be about the structure of creation. Its centrality was made clear to me by laying out the structure of torture. With that laid out before me, I could just see that that’s what torture was, that the infliction of pain was the unmaking of the act of creation itself. That the two things had everything to do with each other.
CB: Just not in their traditional Romantic sense, creation as somehow born of suffering.
ES: Yes. Literature as a discipline has been foundational to me and ninety-five percent beneficial; it is premised on a belief in language, even if there are local forms of disbelief. So I don’t want to be seen to be coming around to another criticism of English departments, but at that time it would have been seen as hopelessly simpleminded to believe in something so stark as an opposition between pain and not-pain. Or making and unmaking. These things were thought to be thoroughly mixed up with one another. I don’t think they are. For example, in the first chapter of The Body in Pain, I use Sartre’s fantastic story “The Wall,” which is about what happens to you when you think you’re going to die in the next few minutes. I remember having it pointed out to me by a philosopher that Sartre (and others) posited a complicity between the prisoner and the torturer, and that I hadn’t included that view. I replied that I had only used the parts from Sartre that were true. I know that there are interesting phenomena such as sadomasochism, but these happen to be phenomena that don’t bear centrally on the nature of pain. Lovers can control the pain they enjoy, if they enjoy it. This isn’t normative for torture.
CB: After Abu Ghraib, Mark Danner described torture as “a scandal that survived its disclosure.” Do you think the status of torture in the American consciousness has altered in the wake of such revelations?
ES: I think it’s incontestable that American practices in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere have not only weakened the laws against torture, but also greatly diminished the taboo. Arguments for torture that previously had been dismissed for their thinness and sophistry are being resuscitated. This is obviously true of the false and self-serving “ticking-bomb” argument. But it’s also true of the so-called “necessity” defense of torture, which has been used to explain every war crime ever committed. It was used at Nuremburg, for example. It’s based on the preposterous idea that the international prohibitions against torture were created without envisioning possible extreme conditions that would make it seem necessary. As all military handbooks say, every international law is written with the idea of military necessity already in mind.
CB: When did the interest in consent first arise?
ES: There’s a moment right at the end of the war chapter in The Body in Pain where that happened. All throughout that chapter, I had been trying to differentiate structurally the “contest” of injury from any other kind of contest you could use to determine winner and loser. I was drawing examples from different forms of war — seventeenth century war, twentieth century war, nuclear war, and so on. At the end of the chapter, I was trying to figure out why it was that people who oppose torture (until the period we’re in now) are absolute about it: there are international prohibitions; there’s extraterritorial jurisdiction in US law — it’s one of the very few crimes that can be tried in US courts even if not committed on US soil or by a US citizen. It’s very unusual and absolute, whereas if you look at all the antiwar literature, there’s nothing like that kind of absoluteness. Even those passionately opposed to war always have provisions allowing countries to go to war if they’ve tried everything else. I realized that the reason for that is that in torture there’s zero consent, whereas in war there’s a great deal of consent. I then realized, however, that in nuclear war this was untrue. Nuclear war much more closely approaches the model of torture than the model of war. At that moment I realized that if that’s true, then I’ve got to work on that, and in discharging the weight of The Body in Pain, I realized there was another equally burdensome project to be done.
CB: You make a point of acquiring specialized languages (tort law, electromagnetic influence, military conduct manuals, constitutional law) before writing about subjects of general public interest (air safety, homeland defense, a compulsory draft, treatment of detainees in the context of the war on terror). Your work, perhaps more than that of other “public intellectuals” to whom you’re compared — Edward Said, Susan Sontag — puts great emphasis on disciplinary expertise. On the other hand, the range and example of your work suggests that such expertise is not about formal credentials, but is available to anyone with the resources and the patience.
CB: Is this a conscious ethos or a natural result of your work methods?
ES: I think it evolved of necessity. In the case of pain and injury, there just weren’t enough examples in the canonical literature; I had to immerse myself in other materials. Now, is that really true about Edward Said? Take Said and music, for example; he probably knew more about music than I do about any subject at all.
CB: What I mean, I suppose, is that when he weighed in on political issues, he did so as a man of letters, a humanist, a Palestinian speaking truth to power, etcetera. These things, rather than disciplinary expertise, were his source of rhetorical authority. He didn’t debate Jack Goldsmith about the nuances of the Geneva Conventions, international law, and US military conduct manuals.
ES: I see the distinction you’re making. I do have a sort of scholarly caution. There are certainly those who are more confident speaking with a large architectural vision of things. I don’t have that confidence, at least not until I’ve gone across the minute surfaces. I suppose there is also an ethical choice. The structure of one’s position with regards to the suffering of others shapes one’s perceptions and thinking almost completely. This happens to lawyers as much as to prison officials. And I’m sure it happens to those of us who study literature. In The Conduct of the Understanding, Locke says that the surest way to stop thinking is to read in only one field.
CB: Are your various disciplinary endeavors mutually inflecting?
ES: Very few people see them as such. But I have difficulty even imagining them as disparate, they are so folded into one another.
CB: Some themes in your work are idiosyncratic for intellectuals on the left. I’m thinking of your emphasis on the second amendment (the right to bear arms), your argument for reinstating the draft, your argument for a citizen military… Do you have a libertarian streak?
ES: Maybe without knowing it. But one result of my method of thinking — through details instead of in overview — is that I often land on things that are politically inconvenient. After both Who Defended the Country and On Beauty, I had people ask me if I was “giving succor” to the right wing. But you can’t not say something about which you have conviction. I think the extreme parts of the right wing are completely wrong about what the idea of a militia means in the constitutional writings. But their intuition that the population has been disenfranchised by present military arrangements is certainly right.
CB: Did the argument of Who Defended the Country? flow directly out of the extraordinary circumstances of United 93? Or did the story of that flight merely provide the occasion for a thought experiment about the need for more democratic and distributed control of military power?
ES: It’s again the concrete details. I was in Torino on 9/11, at a conference on advanced application of electromagnetic theory. It was mostly electrical engineers and physicists. I had been asked to present the thesis about TWA 800, SwissAir 111, and EgyptAir 990 to a session on electromagnetic interference, with very central people in that field. I actually gave my lecture on the morning of 9/11; it was 3 pm Italian time when the attacks in the US were underway. Watching the coverage on CNN and the BBC, what I couldn’t understand — as someone who’s listened to so many tapes of air traffic controllers — I could not understand the amount of time that had elapsed before the plane hit the Pentagon. It was staggering that within a relatively generous timeframe, the Pentagon couldn’t defend the Pentagon. (With Flight 93, it was still unclear what had happened.) In the context of my work on consent and nuclear war, I had given hundreds of lectures, and someone would always say, “Yes, but these constitutional rules, and the social contract, et cetera, can’t be incorporated into this fast world of nuclear weapons,” and so on. I would always say, “Do we throw out the constitution and social contract? Or do we throw out the things that go too fast?” But I always just accepted that that was a problem. This argument about speed, though, has turned out to be a complete fabrication.
CB: In terms of the reception of your work by specialists, do you find that they want to police the boundaries of their expertise? Do they pull rank?
ES: No. Something like the opposite is true. When I talk to people at the very heart of a discipline, like law, they’re able to look impartially at what I say. And this is certainly true of electromagnetic engineers. Either my work in those areas is convincing or it isn’t. As you take one step back from there into a lay setting, however, people will say, “You can’t say X because you’re not in field X.” Similarly, colleagues in my discipline are not impressed by my work on electromagnetic interference, but those in electrical engineering and physics take it more seriously. We should bear in mind, as we talk about this, how recent the disciplines are, and how interdisciplinary thinkers from the past were. Arthur Waley, the sinologist who translated The Tale of Genji, knew something like eight languages. Thomas Hobbes — whom I’ve been working on for my current book on war and social contract — translated The Iliad. The Iliad is 16,000 lines. That was no hobby.
Like an impossible lovechild from a late-night, drunken three-way between Joan Didion, Roland Barthes, and Susan Sontag, writer Wayne Koestenbaum inherited all their stylistic wonder and laser-beam smarts, but with the added point-blank jolt of sex. Celebrated for his searching work on opera (The Queen’s Throat), Andy Warhol (Andy Warhol), and on the politics and pleasures of iconicity (Jackie Under My Skin), Koestenbaum should be just as admired for his poetry (I recommend Rhapsodies of a Repeat Offender, The Milk of Inquiry, and Best-Selling Jewish Porn Films) and fiction (Moira Orfei in Aigues-Mortes and the forthcoming Hotel Theory).
Koestenbaum safeguards the belletristic tradition of the essay; he provides it with diplomatic immunity to travel to zones from which too many would bar it — theory, philosophy, psychoanalysis. Liberation is his siren call.
Bruce Hainley: I’d like to begin this sitting on a bench at the intersection of poetry and politics. The title of your most recent book, Best-Selling Jewish Porn Films, recalls an early essay of yours, which when first published was, I seem to remember, called “The Aryan Boy Who Pissed on My Father’s Head.” I’m interested in the way your writing continuously pulls toward porn while retaining all its stern, Sontagian glamour and purpose. Where do you situate the porn-poem, or poem-porn, given the precedents of Shelley’s “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”?
Wayne Koestenbaum: I’m ready to talk politics and poetry and everything else under the sun. I got splinters on my butt-cheeks from sitting so long on this bench. And then the splinters got infected. I was worried I’d have to amputate flesh gobbets. But then the Valium kicked in, with its little-studied antibiotic properties. So I’m raring to go, ass in gear. The porn-poem: to write a poem is pornographic, in the senses of wasteful, useless, awful, ignored, debased, hurdy-gurdy, repetitive, regressive, navel-gazing, ass-licking, time-killing, boring, ludicrous, transcendent, dilated. I’ve been reading mischievous L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E practitioner Charles Bernstein lately (he’s against National Poetry Month, thinks it’s bad for poetry). Also Slovenian writer Tomaz Salamun, also Austrian pathbreaker Ingeborg Bachmann. I’m feeling entranced, once again, by the possibilities of language that ignores the supervisor. It’s my regular May/June fever, the high of rediscovering poetry’s rankness, naughtiness. And, for me, these days, naughtiness exists in being minimal. Some of the most exciting pieces at the MoMA, New York, on a recent visit were by Walter De Maria and Ellsworth Kelly, nice old-fashioned staunch minimalists. Looking at them, I think I “got” — perhaps for the first time — what a thoroughly anal pleasure, like gin, minimalism can be, so spiked with content in its refusals and excisions, its “Why bother?” So “up there,” as Andy would say. Like a good old-fashioned hit of poppers. Like Warhol’s goodbye to art. Like rambunctious poet Ed Smith. Or Sturtevant. The porn-poem is there, where Smith meets Sturtevant. Poetry is politics on poppers?
BH: A friend wondered if you considered putting Jewballs on your list of bestsellers? Or is that a flick that remains to be greenlit?
WK: I wonder if I’ll ever buy a digital movie camera and start making porn, as I’ve always promised myself. As for Jewballs: we’re still looking for funding. One possible backer thought the title referred to an esoteric variety of highballs.
BH: I was intrigued to hear your new aim is to be charmless. I found that breathtaking, a reveille. Art depends on finding new ways to be artless. To ignore the supervisor: does this equal embracing the charmless? Does the charmless have exemplars but no supervisors? Is it akin to Barthes’s “neutral,” the elusive, beige topic of one of his last seminars? I’m in a summer funk, the psychic equivalent of “June gloom,” I guess, not utterly unpleasant — the jacarandas bloom — but not simple, not simply.
WK: Ah, summer funk. I’m feeling it, too — though the peonies, globular and rain-damp and pendulous (actually, fallen) in the backyard (“the” backyard), push me a few inches closer to ebullience. Today I’ve been reading Ingeborg Bachmann very slowly and in German (with utter reliance on the en face English). Her version of our “l’heure bleue” is “die blaue Stunde”: is your funk blue (blau, bleu), or is it colorless, greige? Funk, in its blankness, its charmlessness (isn’t funk a state of being temporarily unable to be charmed by the world?), belongs to the fiefdom of text, or at least of a charmless, neutral, artless writing. Yes, Bruce, let’s set sail, the two of us, in our drunken boat, for charmlessness, for what Bachmann calls “toter Hafen” (“dead harbor”). Her early work was intensely lauded — she won gobs of prizes for her first two books of poetry. But then, at least officially, she stopped writing poetry, turned exclusively to prose. That swerve, that turn away, has something to do with a refusal to continue being charming, or else an acknowledgment that she was never very charming to begin with! I’m trying to think productively, and ecstatically, about being in a funk, since we both seem to be in one, and since so many of our shared reading pleasures (from Maurice Blanchot to Elizabeth Bishop, from James Schuyler to Jean-Jacques Schuhl) deal with turgid moods. I think, therefore I can’t move. I think, therefore I can’t write. I can’t write, therefore I write.
BH: Injection! — as Liz demands in Boom!, Josephy Losey’s Sardinian masterpiece. I wonder if a little bit of scorpion venom might recalibrate our moods? I see from an article in the paper that Rufus Wainwright will be, um, redoing Judy’s famous (infamous?) Carnegie Hall performance this week. According to the article’s writer and its subject, he’s too young to have a camp relation to Judy’s song. I’m interested in camp’s toxicity — its shame leaves residues no soap or ceremony can lustrate. I admire Rufus Wainwright, I admire his earnest trebling, but I would never confuse it with trial, the life, her own, that Judy sang. But why wouldn’t Rufus redo Liza with A “Z,” something in sync with his age and something that would, or someone who would, however rightly or wrongly, possibly, potentially, put him in touch with failure’s freefalls and the risk of camp’s radioactivity? I couldn’t believe that Wainwright invoked 9/11 to explain how he first came to listen to and appreciate the tonic garland of Judy’s Carnegie intervention. I don’t care if it’s true — as you state: “in this artifice that I call law” — but I do care that he doesn’t have the chic to say that he was raised on Judy and/or that he was just coming up for air from a three-day crystal-meth sex bender (who’s to say getting wasted-booze, orgies, pills — wouldn’t be a valiant way to pay homage to Judy?) and when he raised his head from the toilet the sound of Judy singing to Harold Arlen played in the background of the dive he woke up in.
WK: Confession: I’ve never heard Rufus W sing. Which means, I haven’t cared to cross the street. From afar, I groove on his “son” vibe — son to greater, other stars, a Liza frequency. Too young to have a camp relationship to Judy? That’s like saying, too young to understand how to look properly at a Cézanne. It’s called, do your homework. It’s called, Connoisseurship 101: how to recognize the watermark on the backside of a Dürer. Every time I listen again to Judy at Carnegie Hall, I take more and more seriously her vocal power as, what she calls it in one of her interstitial monologues, “work.” “When I work,” she says, “I get very warm.” She pronounces “warm” like the first syllable of “wombat.”
BH: Last night, I read, in the debut issue of Soft Targets, a small section of your forthcoming book (novel-cum-philosophical intervention?), Hotel Theory. Thrilling! I used to consider myself way too stupid for theory, one of the retarded children Judy helps Burt Lancaster nurse in one of her last films — directed by John Cassavetes (think of the theory, the acting lessons, the METHOD Gena Rowlands learned on set watching Judy tutor her husband) — until, with the salubrious, remedial night schooling of Avital Ronell and Lydia Davis, I figured out that theory, at its best, yearns for stupor, channels stupidity, breaks knowledge down into non-knowledge, encourages drugged states, liquored relapse, reserving hotel-room — like interstice and aporia for dreaming about the real and the language it participates in. As much as you are furbishing theories of hotel existence, aren’t you also drawn to “back” an ellipsian hotel called Theory, the Connaught as well as the Hacienda Hot Spring Inn that Theory, too often used as prison or corporate headquarters, has-since Joseph Cornell and Jean Rhys, since Warhol-long been? I mean, didn’t Socrates hold forth in the equivalent of the Hollywood Spa, letting the door to his day-rented special room open for those who were interested? I screened Kuchar films today in class. His theory is called Hold Me While I’m Naked.
WK: I’m glad you understand that Hotel Theory is not a theory of hotels, but a hotel named Theory, ie, a place where certainty falls apart, or where stupor gets an airing. Yes, Warhol and Rhys and Cornell, and a few thousand other gurus, have spent years in thinking’s equivalent to Socrates’s Hollywood Spa. I’m still crawling through Ingeborg Bachmann as part of my Stupidity Project, ongoing, lifelong. Not so much to think myself “smart” because I’m reading German poetry, but to know myself “stupid” because I can’t read it, can’t understand it, can just grasp at the nouns. I can only cope with the nouns, which are profoundly — in any language, but especially in German — oases of the non-interstitial. Something that I hope Hotel Theory does is put the noun (and the nonce, and the ponce) back in theory, or at least dumb down theory, return it to muteness. Hold Me While I’m Naked is a terrific title, and demonstrates an entire poetics of the title. Aren’t certain artists and writers and thinkers mostly located in their titles? Or, if not mostly, at least most intensely? Because the title is the most exhibitionistic (pornographic) part of a work, and it’s often been a place of parsimony (Poems, by John Keats). Parsimony has a cruel charm, but I prefer, usually, the overflowing and messy, hence my admiration for Hold Me While I’m Naked. I finished watching Ozu’s Late Spring last night. His films are difficult to separate. Here are some of his most famous films: Early Spring (1956); Early Summer (1951); Late Autumn (1960); Late Spring (1949). He’s working the terrain of the parsimonious title. The weirdly doppelgangerish, non-referential, matte title. As if he were titling every one of his films The Neutral. There’s something Robert Ryman-esque about his insistence that early or late seasonality means so much. Frank O’Hara was born on June 27, 1926. Ingeborg Bachmann was born on June 25, 1926. Two days apart. History was busy, making poetry happen. And, incidentally, Anna Moffo, soprano, shimmering muse, was born on June 27, 1932 (or, some accounts say, 1935). Do these facts matter? I think they do. Or else we make them matter.
BH: Today, 8 June 2006, I saw someone I knew was a male movie star (B-list?) waiting at the grocery deli counter. Lean and worked-out, he was in a white T-shirt and jeans, kissing his girlfriend. She was trying for a Betty Page fifties look, and it almost worked. I couldn’t think of the minor hunk’s name, although I new it started with “G-.” The only Gname that would spring to mind was Gayatri Spivak. So I saw Gayatri Spivak and her girlfriend waiting for sandwiches. When I got home I remembered: Giovanni Ribisi. In Hollywood, he translated Of Grammatology and went on to great acclaim as a post colonial theorist (A-list, but of a desultory sort).
WK: Are you a fan of Eva Hesse?
BH: I like some of Eva Hesse — but what I like, I like a lot. I admire her works on paper — “covet” may be a more accurate term — perhaps even more than her more famous sculptures. She’s major on the level of mess-making and deployment of toxic materials as art. I guess some might say the toxic materials she used killed her or contributed to her early demise, but maybe she was interested in killing art. Thus, the toxicity of what she made art out of. She spoon-fed art poison pabulum.
WK: At noon today, I visited the Eva Hesse retrospective at the Jewish Museum. Yes, the works on paper — completely utilitarian, in the sense that beauty, when it’s paying attention, is useful in its uselessness. I love Hesse’s interest in Nothing, her tolerance for its muting incursions. She actively courts Nothing, she wants its gravitational torpor, its fecal drop. In photos of Hesse, I noted her Sontagesque chic. Did Eva and Susan meet, correspond, discuss the “body,” its maximalism or minimalism? Eva’s mother, Ruth, committed suicide in 1946. Which, obliquely, brings me back to Ingeborg B, who died, famously, from a fire, self-set, in her Rome apartment. In her poem, posthumously published, “That it was worse yesterday than today,” she has a one-on-one with a black beetle in her apartment. She says of the beetle (Kafka’s Gregor, implicitly): “To finally stomp on me / also occurs to him, and to me / in my madness, I being the same one who stares / at both me and the beetle, holding a novel / heavy enough to kill this beetle.” Again, by this time in her career, she’d ostensibly stopped writing poetry. Is a book of poetry heavy enough to kill this beetle? Perhaps not. That explains her flight to novel-writing. But I think she simultaneously believed in poetry’s aggressiveness. It seems polite to say that poetry is a force against destruction, but Bachmann (and you, and I) seem to concur that poetry, allied with the poetics of the foul mouth, battens on destructiveness: writes Bachmann, “Not wanting to remember anything, wanting to destroy / what memory is left, so strange, wanting to destroy.”
What does it take to be a renegade in Egyptian literature? The following is a conversation between two writers of distinctly different generations, though both famously underground. Ahmed Alaidy, at thirty-one, has been the talk of Cairo’s literary scene since the 2003 publication of his novel An Takoun Abbas al-Abd (Being Abbas El-Abd). Alaidy’s novel, radical in form, recounts the tale of a disturbed video rental clerk, his psychiatrist uncle, and a nihilistic cosmetics salesman, Abbas El-Abd. Some have gone as far as to call it the first truly popular Arab novel since the 1950s, an irreverent look at middle-class culture replete with jabs at mall life, dating, and street fights. His original use of language, a cut and paste vernacular drawn from international consumer culture as well as the streets of Cairo, stands as a landmark in a literary tradition that tends toward the rigidly classical. The English translation of his debut novel, by Humphrey Davies, will be available from the American University in Cairo Press this fall.
Mustafa Zikri, at thirty-nine, paved the way for the likes of Alaidy. His first collection of short stories was published by Egypt’s Kafkaesque Supreme Council for Culture in 1995. He has since published four novels and written two film scripts, one an original story, the other an adaptation of a novel by Brazilian author George Amadou. Zikri’s works seem consumed by violence, of both the literal and figurative variety; his novels and screenplays are explorations of the peripheral, even ugly, characters that give a city like Cairo its contours. His commitment to form — or better, non-form — has been deemed unconventional, if not outright controversial, and his Center Ahmed Alaidy, left films, low-budget, rough around the edges, have developed a cult following. Afarit al-Asfalt (Devils of the Tarmac, 1996), for example, delved into the secret lives of Cairo’s ubiquitous microbus drivers, recounting the fantasies of both drivers and passengers in a context in which anything goes. His Hura’ Mataha Qutiya (Drivel about a Gothic Labyrinth, 1997) documents a breathless stream of consciousness, care of a protagonist named, interestingly enough, Mustafa. In one scene, a couple — acquaintances of the protagonist—take part in a love scene in the basement of their posh home. Later, the narrator describes the sensation of sleeping in a room in which the ceiling seems to be constantly descending, weirdly echoing the subterranean nature of the love scene. One rarely knows what is real or fiction, as it all seamlessly collapses into a single claustrophobic state, an amalgamation of turn-ons and neuroses. And finally, al-Risa’il (The Messages, 2006) takes on the stream of consciousness form again, though in its midst, one is left feeling that the protagonist — or is it the author? — is addressing the novel as a sort of letter. To whom, we never learn.
Mustafa Zikri: Before we get into the writing of Being Abbas El-Abd, how was it getting started? There’s always a difficult stage right before the writing. How was it for you?
Ahmed Alaidy: For me, getting something published meant paying money, so there was no possibility of my writing literature. All I could do was write what was in demand in the market, which is entertaining light writing, detective novels or humorous stuff. So I used to write short humorous stories for a small publishing house as part of a satirical series.They commissioned pieces from me as part of a collective series.
MZ: But you, being by nature a writer, couldn’t. You had to have your own series.
AA: I won’t lie to you. I tried but I couldn’t. Like I’ve always wanted to write a detective novel, but I couldn’t. I’m not going to claim that I was above that kind of thing. I just couldn’t. Then I left that first small publisher and went to another publisher, and there I did a long story in book form. For the next work, he said to me, “Look. You don’t come across as a comic writer. You write in a different style. So write whatever you like.”
This is what later became Being Abbas El-Abd. After he read it, he told me he couldn’t finish it and he said, “You’ve called it ‘boring’… This stuff isn’t boring, it’s shit!”… After that there was Muhammad Hashim, the owner of the publishing house Dar Merit, who has a reading committee of writers and journalists. I thought, “Anyway, the work’s been rejected by an ‘under the stairs’ publishing house, so I wonder what a heavy-duty house like Merit will do with it. I’ll give it to him to read, so he can give it a final slapping around. I’ll learn some things, and then I can throw it in a drawer.” So I told him, “Look. Read it. I’m not thinking about publishing it, and I don’t have any money to publish it. I know you don’t read [things submitted for publication] yourself and it’s already been turned down, so I’d really like you to tell me why it’s bad so I can have the benefit of your opinion.” A little while later, I was surprised to hear him telling me he was going to publish it. At the beginning, there was no chance that it might sell.
MZ: What kind of preparation went into the writing?
AA: Part of the “research” for the book was listening to a psychiatrist on a radio program who did “psychodramatherapy.” I spoke to him on the air, and he thought I was genuinely sick, meaning he thought that instead of my telling him about my problem by saying, “I’ve got this friend whose problem is thus and so,”I was telling him,“I’ve got this novel and this character has got this, that, and the other.” Also part of the research was that I had a colleague who worked for a time in the Abbasiya Hospital for Mental Disorders. He used to tell me about the secret world there. Even things that may have been the least of what went on were so terrifying that I couldn’t use them in a novel.
Are you fond of mind games?
MZ: I’m always governed by the narrowness of my world. It’s a semi-neurotic world. Neurotics are always that way. They repeat themselves a lot and they don’t forget their obsessions and they try a lot. The neurotic is always like a child. He doesn’t give up because he can’t reach a packet of cigarettes because he’s too small. He may try twenty times,and those twenty times don’t mean to him that it’s impossible, and he’ll go on trying—
AA: Till either he grows taller or the table grows shorter.
MZ: That’s right. Nothing is impossible for him. In my work you always find paragraphs or sentences or characters or situations or the use of a certain accessory, such as the telephone, and cigarettes and coffee, in an obsessive way. I squeeze them dramatically in order to get something out of them. It’s like having an obsession. You can’t get rid of it. And the law that says, “That’s enough!” or “It’s impossible!” just isn’t there. It’s that kind of obsession that more or less makes you — when you’re reading a sentence,and it’s repetitive, for example, in Mirror 202, in a dialogue on the telephone — transfer the same dialogue to another place in a different form, with slightly different pronouns. Anyway, as far as I can, I change the perspective and I change the constructions. That’s why I’m always in need of an arsenal of games and formats, very large numbers of pronouns,so that I can feel that there’s a difference. I always need huge numbers of formal stratagems, to a morbid degree. I also really love drama,so much so that people say, “If you could just build drama [in your writing] the way you build it in your movies and keep going down that road, you’d be really great.” But the problem is I’m greedy. The moment I start writing with a pen, and I become aware that it’s a pen, that’s it — I’m not going to build drama the way I do it in the movies.
AA: You don’t need to?
MZ: Right. I don’t need to. It’s a great pleasure in literature that one can fragment the drama, like in The Messages. There’s a general context, as it were, that a man is sending messages to his beloved—a classic theme in literature from long ago.
AA: You yourself used a code inside the text of The Messages: a letter addressed to a certain person and the reader can’t decode it, but he’s aware that something’s going on right beneath his nose.
MZ: I felt when reading the novel Being Abbas al-Abd that its language was very new. Did you think about that? Or did it come naturally, on the basis that you think about language that way?
AA: There are things I was aware of. I knew I was going to manage the chapters as though they were short stories. I knew I was going to have a flashback chapter and a present-tense chapter, but what was going to happen and how, no, of course, I didn’t know that. And then there was the problem that after five rounds of deletion and writing, I said to myself, “What do you think you’re doing? What have you got to do with literature? You’re a marketing person.”
MZ: But the mixed language you used in your writing was something unusual.
AA: Quite simply the idea was that the hero has schizophrenia, which means, to put it extremely loosely, that the human brain makes two signals “Act!” and “Don’t act!” — like the zero and the one on a computer. It sends one signal for each action from the brain to the body, but the brain of a schizophrenic sends the two signals at the same time, so you find him hesitating or talking disjointedly. So the question that I asked myself was, “Can I write a novel with a disjointed narrative without losing the reader?”
Now, you always choose characters that are deformed and very marginal.
MZ: They’re not even marginal because even the marginal characters of the eighties in the movies by directors such as Muhammad Khan and Khayri Bishara are really footnotes to a main text. They [my characters] belong to something basic, what I call the “underground” and the genuine underground never has any class ambitions whatsoever. The person who has class ambitions is the one who is able to leave his own class and join another. The genuine underground type resembles the middle-class type in that the underground character lives and dies in [his own class]. The middle-class person always or usually stays where he is. He has no ambitions and he can’t achieve success. The person who realizes a shift from below to the middle class is the one who moves ahead. That’s why there’s nothing strange in the fact that the history of the novel emerges from the middle class. And that’s a magical world, because it’s a slightly schizophrenic world.
AA: There are two of your novels — Mirror 202 and Nudge From a Strange World—where you speak sometimes of the novelist’s dream of starting a work at page 200, then going to page 199, and so on, and the closer he gets to the beginning the more mysterious it becomes. In Mirror 202, the work begins at the middle of the book. What I mean is there was a movie called Memento and before that there was Irreversible, where the events start at the end and finish at the beginning. Was that what you had in mind?
MZ: You know… I always have ideas like that in mind.
AA: And the easiest thing, then, if you can’t do them, is just to write about them?
MZ: Right. Because I’m well aware that that’s impossible, that it would even be a bit naïve to carry out a project of that sort, so there’s a certain novelty in your imagining a project of that sort and writing about it. What I mean is that what I’m talking about in Mirror 202—the form of the book that I’m imagining, with half of the book an introduction to the middle page and the other half an introduction to the back [of the book] — isn’t something that I ever thought could be implemented, it’s just an imagining of the project in that form. I really love form, and I’m always attracted by things that relate to form.
AA: In Mirror 202 you used a special technique that’s akin to putting down splinters from the mirror and then reassembling them so that we see our complete reflection in the mirror, which thus is completed itself — the reuse of the same excerpts more clearly arranged.
MZ: In the first arrangement versus the second the pronouns change, the connecting sentences increase, or there are figurative and metaphorical uses.
AA: Was this the work you found most exhausting?
MZ: That’s correct. And it’s one of my works that’s closest to me.This is the most “formal” (dependent on form) of my works and at the same time, when I look at it, I find in it parts that are highly classical, in the feelings, in the dramatic structures.
MZ: Do you keep to a particular genre when you write?
AA: The novel not only has to compete with other novels, it also has to compete with the movies, with going out with your friends, and with great drugs. It has to get past a lot of things to reach a demanding reader. Just like, at the level of reading, comic strips are considered to be the highest level of autism, because except for the reader’s moving his eyes from one picture to the next, there’s no movement. I write comic strip stories, too, and I’ve done screenplay drafts. So I tried to mix a number of genres of writing so as to draw the reader in, in order to make him responsible for the novel as a whole and as though the novel didn’t belong to the person who wrote it, but to the person who’s reading it as well. As an attempt to involve the reader, I omitted the end of the last chapter; I’m not talking about leaving the ending open but about a chapter that the reader can sit down and finish for himself.
There’s a story told about you that when the storage space for graduation projects was converted into a cafeteria, they came across your graduation project and the professor had written comments on it asking for changes in the screenplay, and that you’d written beneath his signature thanking him and refusing to make any changes.
MZ: [Laughs] I passed and that’s enough. The objections of the ones who passed me were along the lines of, “Why didn’t you do a graduation project that could be shown outside, on the market?” and I was against that. I wanted to test the institute’s resources to the limit. In other words, I had more integrity than they did. I couldn’t accept doing something two-faced. I knew that I was writing a screenplay that would be my graduation piece [for consumption] inside the institute, and so I made it very experimental and extremely different,and there was virtually no possibility of doing the things depicted outside because there was a lot of sex and stuff.
AA: You don’t have a copy?
AA: You’re famous for not keeping your screenplays.
MZ: Right. For the cinema, even though for literature it’s not that way.
AA: Is the cinema as a medium stronger than literature and of more impact on the public?
MZ: On the contrary,literature is the stronger medium. But the cinema has more influence on the public, without a doubt.
AA: Do you do a lot of research before working on your novels?
MZ: No. Because generally speaking, for novels, research is suspect artistically. Are you supposed to go to some place and live with the people there so that you can write about them? That’s nonsense. Even research connected to books is suspect, in the sense that… like in the novel Perfume or The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. That’s all research but it’s very intrusive. It’s all homework.
AA: The novel The Yacoubian Building [by Alaa El Aswany] deals with political life in Egypt and tries, in one way or another, to reform society. It goes beyond the idea that it’s just an enjoyable or literary work. Does literature owe politics anything?
MZ: When you sit down with Alaa, you find that these are his convictions, that literature has a “moral” and a goal.
AA: Like [Egyptian writer] Sonallah Ibrahim?
MZ: Of course, Sonallah Ibrahim’s the same. The problem is that there’s nobody who’s working against his convictions. Alaa is a politicized person, the [real] people he writes about are politicized, and they all play the same game. At this point it’s finished, you’ve moved far away from literature, from art, because high art has never been about reclaiming your rights or blackening people’s reputations. Rather, there’s a spirit in the arts that is one of total abstraction. There shouldn’t be in art a narrow view that says, “Art has to be this way.” It’s no surprise to discover that when Yacoubian was translated into English, they took out that whole superciliousness of the writer, as when he speaks of al-shadhdh jinsiyan [the sexual deviant] — all that moral superciliousness they took out! It was changed and they made it as though he was talking about [homosexuals] magnanimously, because in the West that’s a taboo.
AA: Every writer has a taboo. What are your taboos?
MZ: What do you mean by “taboo”?
AA: Things you would never think of doing in your writing.
MZ: I suppose my taboo is writing that is political or social.
AA: What do you think of the saying that there is no new writing?
MZ: No. Of course there’s new writing. And because every writer gets old and becomes “old hat,” there can’t be a solution. Meaning that I remember my reaction to Being Abbas al-Abd. I felt that I’d become old, even though the difference in age between us… you know, you were born in 1974 and I was born in 1966. It’s a feeling that’s a little painful as well. But it has its own consolation. There can be an old writing and a new writing, but there’s always a new writing. This is the writer’s consolation: though he may be a bit old in his area, it’s still an area over which he has mastery and where he’s strong, and strength has nothing to do with time, which is why in the end literature — or music or the arts in general — is one of the least historically bound things,very much so. There is no time, or the time is a bit different. They remain in the end things that concern mankind, outside of time.
AA: What’s your view of the literary scene in Egypt at the present time?
MZ: Depressing. It calls for despair, but a bearable despair, not one to incapacitate the writer. Meaning that there are outlets, albeit meager. You have to confront the despair through writing.
Mohammed Fares has been to a place almost none of us will ever go. One of only two Arabs to have ventured into space, the former Syrian fighter pilot tells Hugh Macleod about life in the stars and the lessons he brought home with him.
Hugh Macleod: On July 22, 1987, you blasted off in a Soyuz rocket from Baykonur in Kazakhstan with two Russian cosmonauts on a mission to the then Soviet space station, Mir. Of the whole amazing trip, what was the worst moment?
Mohammed Fares: The few minutes before takeoff. We had been in the rocket for three hours, and we were just sitting there waiting for someone to press the button to launch us. I can still hear those seconds ticking away in my head. The Russians played me songs by Fayrouz to help me relax! They need not have worried, though. When they tested our blood pressures and heart rates, my rate was 84 beats a minute, while the Russians were at 125. I was not anxious, because God decides my destiny.
HM: The only other Arab who has ever been into space is Sultan bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, former fighter pilot and grandson of King Saud. How does a prospective Syrian engineering graduate from Aleppo end up flying around the earth in a spaceship?
MF: I remember as a child watching from our garden close to the military college as air force fighter jets flew overhead. I always knew I would like to see the ground from far up. When I left school I had the grades to get into a civil engineering course. Instead, I enrolled in the military academy and started learning the ins and outs of the MiG jet fighter. I graduated fifteen days before the start of the 1973 October War with Israel, but I was too young to participate in it. In 1984, Syria and the Soviet Union signed the Intercosmos agreement, whereby the Soviets would provide training for non-Russians. The Soviets believed that fighter pilots would make the best cosmonauts because of our ability to withstand g-forces. In Syria we went from fifty pilots, to ten, then four. Then the Soviets came and chose myself and Munir Habib to go to Moscow. I think I was picked because I was in very good health and have strong nerves. Contrary to normal people, I become anxious if my son makes a silly mistake, but when there is a really big problem, I feel more relaxed.
The Russians played me songs by Fayrouz to help me relax! They need not have worried, though. When they tested our blood pressures and heart rates, my rate was 84 beats a minute, while the Russians were at 125. I was not anxious, because God decides my destiny
HM: It is safe to say that almost no one who reads this magazine will have ever been or will ever go into space. Can you tell us what it was like for the 7 days, 23 hours and 5 minutes you were up there?
MF: Well, the first thing is, it is just so tiring. You constantly have the feeling of falling, like at the top of a rollercoaster. You are actually falling around the earth at 26,000 km per hour. For most astronauts, five days is enough. But for me, every moment had its happiness. I felt my body free of gravity, and then I looked to the earth and asked myself: “What is this? Where are we? We are in a dark place. How far from the land we are. How are we to eat, how to sleep in this space,moving like the birds?” This was a new feeling for human beings who have spent thousands of years on the earth, weighed down by gravity. No one can really feel what the whole vision of the earth is, except the man in space. From space you don’t see tanks, planes, or armies fighting each other, only this dark calm in which the earth is as a mother. From space the earth is not your country, but your mother. But then there’s the problem of sleeping. It is very hard. You tie yourself down to the floor and to the wall, but still you move about. On the fifth night, I discovered the best way to sleep was curled up like a child in the womb!
HM: But you didn’t go into the starry firmament to gaze in wonder. Tell us the reasons for the Russians sending a Syrian into space.
MF: I was working on what was then the Syrian space program. Syrian scientists had prepared 100 experiments but the Russians said that would be too many for our eight-day trip, so we settled on thirteen. I had my own room to conduct research on the space station. We gave the experiments Arab names: Qassioun, Bosra, Palmyra. Some of the tests were to see how the human body reacted to time in space. Others were surveying air and water pollution and tracking African-Asian fault lines.
HM: What happened to the Syrian space program?
MF: Let’s just say we faced many scientific problems,and it was closed down soon after I returned. But the experiments I did for Syria are known and used throughout the world. One Russian cosmonaut even got his doctorate based on our experiments. Now I work in air force administration, and I travel the country encouraging young Syrians to take an interest in space and technology. I wish there were better scientific progress in Syria. The Israelis launch spy satellites, while we launch Arab satellites to broadcast television.
Serial Cases, a collaborative video project organized by ten international curators, aimed to highlight the parallel histories of artists in Middle Eastern and European countries. The project was presented in eight cities between November 2005 and March 2006 www.nomad-tv.net/serial_cases. Israeli curator Eyal Danon’s contribution, Trespassing, featured films and artists’ videos documenting projects, performances, and happenings in Israel and Palestine.
Palestinian/Israeli group Artists Without Walls, for example, set up two video cameras positioned at the same spot on either side of Israel’s “Separation Wall” in the Palestinian village of Abu Dis. The cameras were connected to two video projectors, each one projecting the image on the opposite side in real time, creating a virtual window and allowing people on both sides to see each other. Annan Tzukerman’s Anxious Escapism is a personal video about the artist’s struggle to be embraced by settler society. In the course of the journey, he transforms into a wild settler, in fact “crossing the lines” between himself and his hosts. Ruti Sela and Ma’ayan Amir furthered their exploration of young Israeli society with a film about online dating services. Trespassing also included films and video projects by Avi Mograbi, Clil Nadav, and Nira Pereg.
Basak Senova, one of the curators involved in Serial Cases, talked to Eyal Danon about the concept and act of trespassing. Danon noted that “the selection shows works by Israeli artists who themselves commit the act of trespassing. This act can be physical or mental. However, it implies more than a simple act of changing sides and loyalties: they trespass the unseen but profoundly existent borders of ethnicity and professionalism, despite political and social pressures.”
Basak Senova: The act of “trespassing” takes on different implications during the stages of actualization, representation, and dissemination of the works. In most of the selected works, when the trespasser commits the act of trespassing, he himself becomes threatened by anyone communicating or interacting with him. This very act also embodies the basic paranoia regarding the anarchic nature of the forbidden zone. Who is the intended recipient of these acts of trespassing?
Eyal Danon: There is no difference in the act of trespassing as executed by an artist or any other citizen. Because all systems of control and surveillance monitor the environment to trace and eliminate any act of trespassing, it’s obvious that in these cases the artist becomes part of the paranoia, and is the living proof for the necessity of the system he or she tries to oppose. However, the artist stays on the border, making the act of trespassing a continuous rather than a momentary action. The continuity of the act is a privilege only the artist can have, being still on the “side” of the system, from the same ethnical, national, gender group. It differentiates him or her from the regular “clients” of the system who would not be treated with the same tolerance. So the intended recipients are the people — soldiers, settlers, Palestinians, pupils, police — who are in direct contact with the artists during the act, and also the future audience. However, the important thing is not the appreciation of the act, but its realization. By being simultaneously in and out of the system, the artist turns the act of trespassing into a tool through which the audience can both view and question the structure being criticized.
BS: Throughout your selection, the artist’s interaction with the political situation and its control mechanisms is indicated by physical objects (high concrete walls, checkpoints, mechanical surveillance systems), by the executors of regulation (the authorities, soldiers, settlers) or by illustrated mental blocks. These control mechanisms (operating on physical, physiological, social, political,territorial,and military levels) must have already defined clichéd identities [of Palestinians/Israelis] in order to cognitively map the region. Do you see any danger that artists and their purported activist acts could paradoxically serve the system through fulfilling these identity roles and normalizing these reactions?
ED: The extremely high usage of such mechanisms stands in complete contrast to the extreme absence of any public debate about their necessity, price and influence on Israeli society. It’s true that endless excuses can be found for any type of implemented security mechanism, but that this implementation can go through without any questioning indicates the fact that the Israeli public has willingly given up some of its freedom and civic obligation to the military system in exchange for the feeling of security. This exchange gives almost endless power to the army, exarmy,and all other kinds of security experts.
The fact that the action has so little public echo enables it to function without being a direct threat to the system, without being yet another excuse for more security mechanisms. At the same time, it does have an effect on the audience, a minor effect, maybe not wider than the borders of the art scene. But this effect is important since the information and debate is missing within the art scene as in any other part of Israeli society.
BS: In the selection, Avi Mograbi violently resists the authorities: his work Details 3 and 4 views two corresponding scenes filmed in the Occupied Territories. The first one documents soldiers attacking him, while in the second, he attacks them. Annan Tzukerman subtly depicts his attempts to be embraced by a settlement community. What is the social and psychological significance of these works in terms of mobilizing fear?
ED: I don’t think it is a coincidence that during the last two or three years, when these works and actions were taking place,some other processes that never quite got much public attention and influence occurred eighteen-year-old men refusing to serve in the army, pilots refusing to bomb in the occupied territories, women’s organizations monitoring the behavior of soldiers at checkpoints, and more. Now, the increased attention the wall gets from international artists as well as other groups of activists brings to the surface a diversity of motivations and interests, most of which are not very relevant or influential to the people directly harmed by the wall. The wall is such a magnet of interest because it became the essence of the conflict. The complexity of the Palestinian-Israeli struggle has always coiled outside spectators as it went through various filters of the mass media, so the presence of such a clear and stable symbol attracts all the attention and efforts. Therefore, in many ways, the wall serves as a canvas that different motivations and intentions can cover.
BS: To what extent does the content and discourse of these art-related projects differ from that of the mass media?
ED: For The Road Map project, Sandi Hilal, Alessandro Petti and Multiplicity made two journeys both of the same distance,first on Palestinian roads, then on Israeli roads. Finally, they showed the difference in duration between the journeys. This work was born of very simple research that showed the direct effect the wall and the checkpoints had on daily Palestinian life. It is different from any mass media report, which in most cases will deal with these issues only when a security problem (suicide bomb attack, the assassination of Palestinian leaders) occurs. Israeli media, at least mainstream, only deals with the wall as it serves the public interest, as a great success in preventing terror attacks. The price Palestinians are paying is not of any interest.
BS: Do these art-related projects reflect the inner conflicts and diverse nature of both Israeli and Palestinian societies?
ED: At least in the Israeli context, the art projects are the inner conflict. The wall is considered a positive policy by the government, not only because it is regarded as an efficient means against “terror.” It also fulfills the subliminal fantasy of Israeli Jews about breaking away from the Middle East and reconnecting to Europe by sealing the country from any influence from the region. Any project that questions the price we pay for maintaining the wall, the price the Palestinians pay, and so forth, stands in conflict with whatever is transferred through the mass media and public opinion in Israel.
BS: However, along with the number of local and international art-related projects targeting the wall,there is a constant,evergrowing focus on the region. In a way, it indicates a pattern of repetition and excess that could lead to a “normalization” process. What is your strategy against this process? Or do you already consider yourself as part of this process?
ED: You are right. The problem with many of these projects, and this is also something that was considered by Artists Without Walls in their video piece April 1st, is that at the same time as resisting the wall, they accept its existence, they provide ways of living with it. I don’t think there is an ideal strategy here that would be considered wise to follow. At the end of the day, the most valuable projects are those that are done out of sincere motivations, with a real desire to learn and influence in the long term. These are projects that are not marked by only a single event, but are also a process of collaboration and study.
BS: Digital Art Lab has been circulating April 1st in Europe. What kind of response are you aiming for?
ED: We are not circulating the work. Just like any other work, it is invited to exhibitions and festivals as part of the international interest in the wall, in some cases because of the reasons I described earlier. The problem with April 1st, as well as with any other action surrounding the wall, is that it had zero reference in Israeli media. The only media present at the event itself was international.
BS: How do you define your position as a curator in this act of trespassing?
ED: I can say that my position becomes clear to me as part of the mental process of trespassing I was describing before, the process the artists go through themselves. I see myself in the same spot, and by making this selection, I was trying to emphasize a phenomenon that is still at its early stages.
For those who rue the demise of Iran’s reform movement, a visit to the Mah-e-Mehr Institute for Culture and Art is an exercise in nostalgia. Step out of the Islamic Republic of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with its pious, anti-western philistinism; here, in a north Tehran side street, there is a paved garden and a tastefully designed café where boys and girls can meet to drink latte and discuss, say, expressionist woodcuts. A young woman wearing a riveting lavender suit escorts you into an atrium dappled with light. There, Ali-Reza Sami-Azar, who teaches modern art history at the institute, chats to Shadi Ghadirian, an Iranian photographer. Some well-dressed Tehranis are coming out of the sculpture class of Parviz Tanavoli, the father of modern Iranian sculpture. The paint gleams. The women trail classy vapors. Mah-e-Mehr’s three owners, all of them gallerists, received permission to teach the theory and practice of art under the previous, reformist government of Mohammad Khatami. Their institute is a monument to the recent past.
Khatami’s was the first Iranian government since the 1979 revolution to concede that culture need not necessarily be an agent of the official ideology. The culture minister, Ata’ollah Mohajerani, supported writers, filmmakers and pop musicians whose work had nothing to do with the orthodox Shia theology. In Sami-Azar, a trained architect whom Mohajerani appointed to head both Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art and the government’s regulatory body for the plastic arts, the minister had a willing accomplice. Sami-Azar reduced censorship, promoted Iranian artists abroad and built institutional links with the western arts establishment. With two major shows at the museum, a retrospective of British sculpture and an exhibition of superb modern western art from the vaults, Sami-Azar showed that he was that rare commodity in revolutionary Iran: a globalist.
He stands before me now, jovial and energetic. His shaven cheeks and immaculate navy blue suit, and his solicitude toward the lavender lady, identify him as a reformist gallant. Sami-Azar has dark, bunched eyes and brows, which make him seem intense, but he’s an engaging, rather than a profound, conversationalist.
Christopher de Bellaigue: What has happened of note in Iranian art since Khatami left office?
Ali-Reza Sami-Azar: The answer is that nothing has happened in the arts — at least not inside the country. In the ten months since I stood down, Museum of Contemporary Art has put on two exhibitions, including the current show of Iranian photographers, and neither has been particularly well received. When I was at the museum, we staged five or six exhibitions each year and the place was a hub where artists could meet. The museum is no longer a hub.
CDB: The museum isn’t the place to gauge official attitudes.What’s going on outside?
SA: It’s the same story. Take the new government’s attitude towards Mohajerani’s plans to open modern art museums in several provincial cities. The project is gathering dust. I myself was asked to design one of the museums, in [the desert city of] Yazd. It’s now several months since I delivered my design to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, but the ministry still
finds excuses to delay going ahead.
CDB: All the same, things could be a lot worse. The feared crackdown on all facets of western culture hasn’t happened. Galleries are still opening in Tehran. Exhibitions are taking place.
SA: That’s correct. They haven’t, for instance, reinstated the old system whereby a gallery needed to get a separate permit for every exhibition it wanted to hold.But I think it’s important to distinguish between the political liberalization of Khatami’s time, which has halted, and the social changes that took place in the same period, which cannot be reversed. In art, these changes are manifested in the rise of new media in art, the emergence of more young artists, many of them women, and the arrival of an identifiable community of Iranian artists, unified and talking to each other.
CDB: What about rising awareness of Iranian art outside the country? I’m thinking specifically of this spring’s MoMA exhibition, Without Boundary, which showcased the work of fifteen artists who have roots in the Islamic world, and the recent Christie’s auction of Middle Eastern art in Dubai.
SA: These are definitely encouraging developments. Of course I’m proud that the MoMA exhibition was curated by an Iranian, Fereshteh Daftari, and that no fewer than five of the artists were Iranian.
CDB: I wonder how much of a victory that really was for Iranian art. The show’s stated premise was the diversity of artists from the Islamic world, and yet by displaying them together, it seemed to reinforce the impression that they need a collective label, rather than undermine it.
SA: I don’t agree. I think one of the aims of the show, which was to challenge stereotypes about art from the Islamic world, was successfully achieved. And it showed how these people are coping with the western environment in which they find themselves.
CDB: Turning to the recent auction, where Iranian, as well as Arab, Indian, and Pakistani artists raised their profile, is there a little bit of you that’s worried by the exit of Iranian works of art?
SA: No. I’m happy that a market is growing. There was a Farhad Moshiri piece in Dubai that was estimated at $6,000 and it went for $40,000! Yes, it will take time for the market to settle. There’s still a discrepancy between prices you pay for a work of art inside [the country] and those you pay abroad. For example, you can buy a Tanavoli more cheaply in Iran than you can abroad. I’m not worried by the departure of this art. One of the things we did during the last government was remove the stipulation that Iranian works of art must get a permit to leave the country. It’s important for Iranian art to get exposure.
CDB: Where do you think Iranian artists are currently showing the most creativity?
SA: It’s striking that, in general, Iranians are very daring in photography and video, and tend to be less innovative in traditional media such as painting and sculpture. Somehow new media lend themselves to the issues that Iranian artists are tackling, and Iranian artists, or the best Iranian artists, are very issue-based.
CDB: Anecdotal evidence suggests that, for political reasons, curators are coming to Iran less frequently. The next generation is not being discovered.
SA: Iranian art is strong enough to survive. It may be that, in my own time, artists grew 94
too dependent on government support. Iranian artists are having to stand on their own two feet and, in the long run, that may not be a bad thing.
CDB: What is your dominant recollection of your final, controversial show of “decadent” western art?
SA: Well, as you know, there are a couple of pictures in the vaults, including a Renoir nude, that we couldn’t exhibit for reasons of Islamic propriety. But in my opinion, another controversial work, Francis Bacon’s Two Figures Lying on a Bed with Attendant, whose central panel depicts two naked men, is not an obscene picture. On the contrary, it’s a psychologically acute work depicting loneliness, and I insisted that it go in the show. Minutes before the private opening, I was told that the authorities had removed the central panel and put it in the back. As the visitors started touring the show, I rushed to the basement to fetch the missing panel, and had just put it up when the first visitors reached it. Unfortunately, I had to take it down by the time the exhibition opened to the public. Victories in this country are rarely unmitigated [smiles wryly].
While only a few thousand tourists and a handful of journalists are allowed to enter the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea capital city of Pyongyang each year, Eva Munz, Christian Kracht, and Lukas Nikol went to North Korea to take photographs of a country of gigantic simulation, of which few images exist. In their forthcoming book, Die Totale Erinnerung, Kim Jong Ils Nordkorea (The Total Recall, Kim Jong Il’s North Korea, published in September 2006 by Rogner & Bernhard in Berlin), their photographs are accompanied by citations from Kim Jong Il’s On the Art of Cinema (University Press of the Pacific, September 2001). The North Korean dictator has a passion for cinema, dizzyingly intricate rules and regulations, his extensive wine collection, and Mazda RX-7 sports cars. “The producer from hell,” as John Gorenfeld called him in the Guardian, officially approves the ideology of films in story conferences, while the narratives are still being developed — controlling and improving North Korea’s international image. Within the context of Munz’s, Kracht’s, and Nikol’s recent travel to North Korea, Mauricio Guillen tries to reveal their found “realities” on the ground.
Eva Munz was born in Munich and studied filmmaking at Munich Academy of Film and Television. Based in Bangkok, Shanghai, and Berlin, she directs commercials, music videos, and short films. She also writes for magazines such as Der Freund.
Mauricio Guillen: Eva, I would like to draw attention to the nature of this interview; I’m formulating the questions in my studio in Hackney, London, and you’re reading them in Shanghai. Could you tell me a litle bit about your background and explain what exactly it is you do that keeps you traveling so much?
Eva Munz: I enjoy being in places that I can’t understand: the distant flashes of neon billboards speaking in tongues that are not my own — I find this reassuring,even comforting. I have lived and worked in Asia — namely India, Thailand, and China — for almost eight years and, although I call Berlin home now, I am still drawn to the East. Besides writing and photography, I’m trained as a filmmaker and have shot a lot of commercials all over Asia, in and about what Don DeLillo elegantly terms “the Esperanto of jetlag”: Toyota, Nivea, Kirin, Motorola, and Electrolux.
MG: You, Lukas Nikol, and Christian Kracht managed to spend some time together in one of the most hermetic places in the world, North Korea. Under what circumstances did you manage to get access to the place?
EM: Christian, Lukas and I planned to attend the 9th International Pyongyang Film Festival. We had heard about Kim Jong Il’s foible for movies and hoped very much to be able to see some North Korean films. Kim Jong Il has written a book titled The Art of Cinema, which is a rather didactic guideline for revolutionary filmmaking, in accordance with North Korean “Juche” ideology. The book is quite a bit more radically Marxist than say, the theoretical work of Eisenstein and Pudovkin, or the films of Dovzhenko. Our group was invited to attend the opening ceremonies. Oddly enough, the opening film was a heavyhanded Egyptian drama strong on pyrotechnics and Arab patriotism. In the evening, back at our hotel, we saw ourselves on local television, a bunch of foreigners amongst a large number of gray-garbed party officials. So our interest in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was in effect kindled by film, by the wish to be inside an empire of images.
MG: What exactly were the motivations to make a book about it?
EM: When we traveled to the DPRK, we had no intention of putting this book together. Some months later, Lukas Nikol and I looked at the massive number of pictures we had taken, and it hit us that Kim Jong Il is a great artist and that the DPRK is his masterpiece, a kind of gigantic 3-D installation, where the boundaries of reality, simulation, and simulacra have become so blurred that you wonder whether this man is a genius or if this is all accidental. In the course of the time we spent there, we became a part of his installation.
MG: Your photographs portray a country caught between the state media’s projected reality and what Baudrillard calls simulation. How can we, as remote spectators, get an understanding of the actual realities on the ground?
EM: We will absolutely not get an understanding of actual realities in everyday lives of the people because no foreign visitor will be able to socialize with, say, even a cab driver. Reality is the image the DPRK would like foreigners to see, period. We’re shown the beautiful things, the attractiveness of the DPRK. Why question a beautiful simulation, a Confucian simulation? After a day or so, you will start to come up with your own narrative anyway.
MG: In the group of images I have been given,you seem to make a conscious comparison between archival material of what appears to be political propaganda and the recent images you have produced there. In doing so, are you trying to point out how little things have changed in that part of the world, also suggested in the book’s title Die Totale Erinnerung (Total Recall)?
EM: The book’s title came to us because of the inherent melancholy of the place and the retro-futuristic timelessness it chooses to project. It reminds you of a Zeitmaschine or a kind of science fiction movie produced a long time ago. I felt a kind of nostalgia for a time I had not lived in, not experienced except in dreams. I kept thinking of Godard’s Alphaville — devoid of high-tech gadgets, gritty architecture, accompanied by a monotone phrase, “Bonjour, comment-allez vous. Je vais bien, merci.” A feeling of Chris Marker-like melancholy suffused everything in North Korea with a gentle glow.
MG: There seems to be a perfectly functioning subway system in Korea, which is only operative during official visits. During such occasions, public transport — more specifically the subway system — seems to be in use. I’ve been told the commuters are hired actors simulating travel. This is a grand statement to make about a place we know little about; it draws attention to the very edited daily reality of a country. Can you please clarify this rumor?
EM: I believe it is true. The subway train you mention is very much a set piece. On many occasions we were led through a huge set where every Korean was installed like an extra. Suddenly a flower shop would pop out at a deserted square, with one saleswoman who had exactly one bouquet on sale, and she would suggest we buy it and place it at the feet of Kim Il Sung’s golden statue. In the state library people would stare motionless at their computer screens, occasionally glancing over their shoulders to see whether we were still there. When asked, they explained that they were studying the country’s intranet. When our group left the room, Lukas and I would usually remain longer to take pictures and found on one occasion that once we had left a room, the lights were shut down and the student-extras just went home.
MG: How much of a gap do you think there is between the daily reality of North Korea and the way it chooses to present itself to the external world?
EM: There does not seem to be any daily reality. Thus its presentation to the external world is a representation, a hologram, if you like.
MG: As a foreigner, how do you negotiate the political reality of a place without falling into clichés? How do you avoid becoming an extension of, say, a Lonely Planet or Wallpaper* magazine navigator?
EM: The Lonely Planet seems to suggest that you “discover” a place, that you find the“ hole in the wall where you can knock back some cheap beer with the locals” or, in Wallpaper-speak: “kick back those Prada mules and indulge in the sumptuously appointed Korean spa.” When traveling to the DPRK your itinerary is locked down and there is no way you can go anywhere on your own, so these publications are as redundant in the DPRK as they are for traveling to any other place in the world.
MG: As someone who has managed to get access to North Korea, and based on your personal experience, how do you imagine this place in the future? How do you think your project contributes to that future?
EM: Obviously I would wish for a reunification of the peoples of Korea. We very sincerely and humbly hope to contribute to this goal with our book.
Fajr Film Festival
January 20–30, 2006
February 9–19, 2006
Venice Film Festival
August 30–September 9, 2006
Toronto International Film Festival
September 7–16, 2006
For some years now we’ve been hearing about a “crisis” in Iranian cinema: “When we don’t have enough movie theaters, why do we produce so many films?” But each year the number of films increases, as does that of firstor second-time filmmakers (this year sixteen young directors made their debut). We blame satellite dishes and popular television series for the lackluster boxoffice showing. We feel that the DVD black market, with as many vendors as there are sidewalks in Tehran, offering a variety of films uncensored and as cheap as $1 per film, is choking Iranian cinema to death.
When the Fajr Film Festival arrives in late January, however, everything changes. This festival is the Nowruz of Iranian cinema. Not unlike the arrival of the Persian New Year, we forget our social and economic preoccupations to celebrate the event with pomp. Here, in the middle of winter, Iranian cinema wears a new dress, and all its producers and filmmakers and viewers celebrate that which they mourn throughout the rest of the year. Wherever you find yourself in the megalopolis of Tehran, you will be bombarded with street, television and newspaper campaigns that summon the spirit of Fajr.
Fajr Festival 2006 was the first festival under a new president and his administration. Cinemagoers were curious to see how the event fared with the Ahmadinejad administration in charge. But, other than the usual propaganda, nothing else was brewing. Last year, too, the administration announced that it would financially and morally support “spiritual films.” No one knows, of course, what criteria define such films. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that most of the entries dealt with such topics as betrayal, lust and love, none of which has anything to do with “spirituality” as I understand it: Yek shab (One Night), Chaharshanbeh Suri (Fireworks Wednesday), Havoo (The Second Wife), Asr-ejom’eh (Friday Afternoon), Bagh ferdows panj-e ba’d az zohr (Bagh Ferdows, Five in the Afternoon), Qatl on-line (Murder Online),_ or Asb (Horse).
Even though lines outside movie theaters dwindle with each passing year, worthy films bring in their own crowds, complete with black-market ticket sales. Films made by directors such as Jafar Panahi, Ebrahim Hatamikia, or even Asghar Farhadi, or movies in which stars appear, are sure bets. Also, the number of screenings for Iranian films (far more than the typical two or three screenings) is a boon. When a film is good, there is time to spread the news.
Fajr Festival attendees have become more savvy: they can detect what film in the festival will be removed from the screen later — either for political reasons, like Jafar Panahi’s Offside, which shows how the ban on the presence of female football fans in stadiums plays out, or for not being commercial enough, like Shabaneh (Nocturnal),by Omid Bonakdar and Keyvan Alimohammadi, which movie theaters will not touch because they assume that their seats will remain vacant. More than ever in post-revolutionary Iran, entertainment is the name of the game as movie theaters are encouraged to make money and do not rely on government subsidies. But, the Fajr Film Festival is still a place where we can see fugitive films.
In the seven-person jury of the Iranian section of the festival, the name of at least four “film spiritualists” could be seen, the most famous of which was Majid Majidi. No wonder, then, that many awards went to like-minded directors — including the Best Film for Be nam-e pedar (In the Name of Father), directed by state-lauded filmmaker Ebrahim Hatamikia, whose film last year, Be rang-e arghavan (In Purple Color), is still in quarantine because it dealt with the personal life of an Iranian intelligence officer. What was interesting, however, was that this very same jury recognized several countercurrent films: the urban drama Chaharshanbeh Suri (Fireworks Wednesday) by Asghar Farhadi, which paints a bitter picture of urban life in modern-day Tehran; Be Ahestegi (Slowly) by Maziar Miri, which attacks misogynistic beliefs and practices; or intellectual and minimal films like Kargaran Mashghul Be Karand (Men At Work) by Mani Haghighi or Asr-e Jom’eh (Friday Evening) by Mona Zandi. This jury even awarded a prize to the child actress of Havoo (The Second Wife), a hackneyed comedy by Alireza Davudnezhad in which a married man marries again, flirting with a third. Stranger yet was the Best Actress Award going to Hediyeh Tehrani, who, a few years ago, caused religious types to boil over when she was to play the role of Ayatollah Khomeini’s mother in a movie by Behruz Afkhhami. Nevertheless, the first film festival under Ahmadinejad’s watch gave its prize to her,though she was not present to receive it when her name echoed in ceremonial Vahdat Hall.
While until a few years ago, all Iranian films that hoped to be screened during the year had to make a show at Fajr,this year, Iran’s most famous female film director, Tahmineh Milani withdrew Atashbas (Ceasefire) from the festival entirely and quietly screened it a few months later because she couldn’t get her latest — an Iranian version of Mr.and Mrs. Smith deploying two megastars (Mahnaz Afshar and Mohammadreza Golzar) — past the selection committee for the competition section.With revenues exceeding a million dollars in Tehran alone, Atashbas has broken all sales records. The public screening of Atashbas is a unique phenomenon not only at this particular juncture, but also in the entire history of the Islamic Republic.
The ramifications of President Ahmadinejad’s election were uppermost in the minds of non-Iranian visitors to this year’s Fajr Film Festival. Would we find a rapid return to the more conservative elements that had epitomized Iran in the early nineties, or would the decrease in state control — most directly in evidence during the period of Ayatollah Mohajerani, President Khatami’s Minister of Culture, who spoke openly of the need for artists to pursue their art unfettered — continue? To all outside appearances, little had changed, with most film-industry practitioners resolving to simply wait and see.
A reassuring vitality was in evidence among a number of films presented for international film festival programmers and other industry personnel. Among them were Berlin competition entries Jafar Panahi’s Offside and Rafi Pitts’ Zemestan (It’s Winter). Maziar Miri’s Be Ehestegi (Gradually…) and Nasser Refaie’s Sobhi Digar (Another Morning), both second features for promising young directors, also went on from Fajr to screen at Berlin, in the Forum and Panorama sections respectively.
Panahi’s latest focuses on the prohibition against women attending football matches. Shot during the Iran-Bahrain World Cup qualifying match, half a dozen young women independently of each other dress as young men in order to watch the match. Their ruse fails, and they are arrested and held in a pen by soldiers, where they can only hear the crowd’s roars. It’s a witty and pertinent film which has been distributed worldwide — although Panahi’s wish that it play commercially during the World Cup may have proved a mistake, with potential audiences in the US and Europe tending to stay home to watch the football rather than his film.
In complete contrast, Pitts’ Zemestan (It’s Winter), adapted from Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s novel, is the somber story of Marhab (Ali Nicksolat), a young, unemployed man, drifting into a small town looking for work and falling in love with a young woman whose emigrant husband has been reported dead. A comment on Iran’s ongoing high unemployment, Pitts’ subtle narrative, supported by Mohommad Davoodi’s stunning photography in a bleak, snowbound landscape, features fine performances from non-professional actors, not least Nicksolat. Paris-based Pitts has produced a rewarding cinematic experience currently receiving the festival and commercial exposure it deserves.
The premise of Kargaran Mashghool-e Karand (Men at Work), Mani Haghighi’s second feature, screened in the Berlin Forum, is glorious: four men, returning from a ski trip, discover a large phallic outcrop of rock hovering over a deep ravine. Immediately they set out to topple it. Based on an original idea by Abbas Kiarostami, the metaphor for masculinity at its most ridiculous (or does the outcrop signify patriarchy, which they significantly fail to dislodge?) is enchanting, and there are moments to relish but overall the film is a little stretched on content.
Another study of men, Chand Kilo Khorma Baraye Marassem-e Tadfin (A Few Kilos of Dates for the Funeral), shot in black and white, is Saman Salour’s surreal tale of two lost souls living in a remote, deserted gas station. A wonderfully crafted metaphor for modern life, the film moves outside the realist trajectory that has largely characterized post-revolutionary filmmaking. After Fajr, it went on to screen at Edinburgh International Film Festival and win the Cinecinema Auteur award at Locarno Film Festival. Asghar Farhadi’s Chaharshanbeh Souri (Fireworks Wednesday), an investigation of a failing middle-class marriage as observed by a young woman cleaner who is about to be married herself, also showed at Locarno. A film of good intentions, it is difficult to see it destined for an international life.
A surprise addition to the Fajr program was Abolfazl Jalili’s Gol ya Pouch (Full or Empty) in which a naïve young teacher (non-professional actor Navid Raisi) arrives in a small town looking for work. Thwarted by arcane bureaucracy, he initiates a series of money-making schemes, all of which fail, as does his attempt at love. Jalili is a maverick one-man band successfully working outside the established film community. Bahman Farmanara’s A Little Kiss, features a long-exiled, ill writer, Sa’adi, who returns to Iran to see out his last days. Typically for Farmanara, the film is a lament of exile, the need to return and a metaphorical critique of the current regime. While not as fully realized as his previous films, there is much to treasure in this work by a mature artist.
Following the success of Iranian films in Europe over the summer, Bahman Ghobadi’s highly anticipated Niveh Mong (Half Moon), the story of an old Iraqi Kurdish singer heading home to perform with his ten sons, made its debut at the Venice Film Festival. Ghobadi’s visual composition is stunning, and the opening scenes are playful, but this road movie ultimately loses its way.
The other main festival of the fall, Toronto, bagged powerful drama Khoonbazi (Mainline), codirected by Rakhshan BaniEtemad and Mohsen Abdolvahab, which details the attempts, inevitably doomed to failure, of a young drug user to break her addiction and the overwhelming frustrations of her mother to help her. One of Bani-Etemad’s most compelling films, Khoonbazi stars her daughter, Baran Kosari, in a memorable performance.
Actress-director Niki Karimi was also in Toronto with her second feature Chand Rooz Ba’d (A Few Days Later) in which she stars as Sheherazad, a woman on the verge of divorce. True to Karimi’s avowed intentions of making films outside the mainstream, the film is more concerned with Sheherazad’s internal torment and indecision in the midst of the daily minutae of her life. It is to Karimi’s credit that she manages to render this effectively. While this film may not find commercial success it’s clear that she’s becoming a director to watch.
Iran became the highly successful newcomer on the international block in the late eighties. This year, it produced an unprecedented number of films traveling internationally and extended the range of subjects and genres, while largely maintaining the quality of filmmaking. Will Iranian cinema continue at this level? In his closing speech at Fajr, Iran’s Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Mohammad Hossein Saffar Harandi, focused exclusively on the need for nations to ensure the vibrancy of their cultures in opposition to those “usurpers” who would subsume them. Appropriately enough, the government funded smaller, independent sales agents to attend for the first time the Berlin Festival.Clues as to what kinds of films the government might wish to see promoted, however, may lie in the Minister’s written reference to “the advancement of the country’s cinema and art in keeping with the new general movement in Iran.” We can only wait and see.
The Third Line
August 27–September 16, 2006
Something happens when documentary photographs are taken out of the context of the daily newswire and framed and exhibited in a gallery. Somehow the level of news fatigue subsides, revealing images that are immediately more intimate and complex. A web of relationships becomes apparent — between those in front of the lens, between photographer and subject, between image and viewer.
The documentary photography exhibition “Moving Walls” takes the “the world in conflict” as its starting point. Curated by Stuart Alexander and Susan Meiselas on behalf of the Open Society Institute, the exhibition debuted in the US as a show of sixty photographers; whittled down to seven, it then embarked on a tour of the Middle East, the Caucasus, and Asia. In Dubai, the Third Line added local photographer Bendar Al-Bashir to the mix, presented a season of documentary films,and hosted photojournalism workshops alongside the show.
Of course, the media is saturated with images from the Middle East, particularly “hot spots” on the journalists’ beat — currently, and recurrently, Lebanon, Iraq, and Palestine. But it’s rare to see an exhibition of international documentary photography in the region. Thankfully, besides more conventional subjects such as Eric Gottesman’s collaborative work with HIV/AIDS sufferers in Ethiopia,the show’s curators included stories from the US — Gary Fabiano’s understated portraits of homeless people and their possessions; Edward Grazda’s reportage of mosque life in New York in the early 1990s, and Andrew Lichtenstein’s study of life inside America’s prisons.
The show also featured Lori Grinker’s portraits of war veterans, from World War I to Iraq, and two strong stories from Eastern Europe — Aleksandr Glyadyelov’s images of street kids in the Ukraine and James Nubile’s exposé of the myth of ‘liberation’ in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union following the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Surprisingly,against images by veteran photojournalists such as Grinker, Nubile and Lichtenstein, newcomer Al-Bashir’s series of color portraits of sex workers, juxtaposed with observational images of their places of work, was outstanding. His work was at home in the gallery: demonstrating a confident use of color, he appeared to eschew the temptation to editorialize his subjects — perhaps he is influenced more by contemporary art documentarists, such as Rineke Dikjstra and Jitka Hanzlová, than by the world of print photojournalism. Krishna and Narenda With Apprentices, a portrait of the teenagers with two boys of maybe seven or eight,is devastating in its portrayal of the cyclical continuum of abuse. Al-Bashir also included a portrait of Mohammed, a teenager from Beirut, with a stark photo of his place of work — a beachhead, strewn with dilapidated fairground cars.
Edward Grazda began his documentation of New York’s mosques in the early to mid-1990s. His use of simple, black-andwhite photography, and his references to the events of September 11 in the wall text, dates the series as if to another age; “we hoped to reveal an alternative image of American Islam,” he writes, almost nostalgically.
Generally, the exhibition did rely on extensive wall notes, captions and, in some cases, statements from both the photographers and subjects — a move that could have jarred slightly in the context of a contemporary art gallery. Indeed, perhaps the subtler work emerged as the strongest. Besides the discovery of Bendar Al-Bashir’s work, James Nubile’s combination of quotations from the Geneva Convention and grids of images from Eastern Europe — portraits, landscapes, studies of graffiti and architecture — allowed for more interpretation on the viewer’s part. One image sticks in the mind: a group of men, some in military uniform, others not, looking down — from embarrassment or respect, perhaps into a grave?
The “Moving Walls” photographers seemed to revel in the freedom they’d been given to indulge in sincere political and social statements. Far from reportage, these are personal statements expressing emotion and outrage.
Objects in Conflict, Israeli and Palestinian Stories
Arti et Amicitiae
May 18–June 4, 2006
In times of conflict and war, the dominant media discourse shifts all too easily into recounting death tolls, numbers of wounded refugees, and costs in material damage. What is often forgotten, or processed for the sake of “breaking news” into consumable bits,a re the personal stories of those who suffer at the hands of violence. If armed conflict is always dehumanizing in every respect, then its by product is that individual subjects — men, women, and children — are reduced to two dimensions, caught up within the larger machinery of militarism and politics.
We tend to invest the objects that surround us with meanings and narratives; a familiar, if not tired, artistic strategy is that of excavating those meanings. Safeguarding the integrity of the object calls for sensitivity in matters of mediation and (re)presentation. The latter becomes most urgent when an artist or curator tries to take up a political point, or at an extreme, when a political agenda seems the most prominent feature of a project.
Such is the case for “Objects in Conflict, Israeli and Palestinian Stories,” an exhibition conceived of by Dutch journalist and art historian Nadette de Visser. Held at Arti et Amicitiae, a white cube space in Amsterdam, the exhibition’s stated aim was to “place the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a personal context” through the showcasing of sixteen objects, all beautifully photographed and accompanied by the accounts of their owners, half of them Israeli, half of them Palestinian. Exhibitions such as these always walk a fine line between political activism and aesthetics; finding a way for the two to reinforce each other, rather than cancel each other out, is a difficult task. Yet if the objective was to highlight “the conflict seen through the eyes of individual people with their individual story,” then the format of presentation, choice of venue, and omnipotent signature of the curator all worked against it.
De Visser seems to have resorted to a “one size fits all” formula in presenting her images and textual accounts: whether we are viewing the spectacle of a Palestinian cameraman killed by Israeli Defense Forces in Nablus, the dogtags of a refusenik, the key to the ancestral home of a dispossessed family, or the jacket of a survivor of a suicide bombing in Jerusalem,such objects are each constrained within a uniform aesthetic. Granted, the photographs — by Israeli Associated Press photographer Oded Balilty, who is, by the way, only mentioned and credited in the colophon of the quadrilingual (English, Arabic, Hebrew, Dutch) exhibition catalogue — are beautiful still lifes. Nevertheless, the uniform approach renders the pictures and stories unengaging for the visitor, eventually becoming an exercise in serializing drama. Moreover, the photographs themselves aren’t “action shots” of the personal objects, but staged artistic translations, devoid of any contextual and geopolitical information, let alone the presence of their owners. The singularity of the objects and personal narratives can’t speak within this format, and it’s a pity. The use of static media, such as photography and text, reinforces this and somehow erases the voices of de Visser’s interviewees, transforming them from subjects in conflict to mere constructed objets d’art on display.
For an undertaking seeking to counter media headlines and TV visuals,the choice of medium is decisive.Lebanese artist Lamia Joreige’s ongoing documentary project “Objects of War” (which was not featured in this show) is a case in point. By asking her subjects to talk about an object that, for them, is a symbol of the Lebanese civil war, she literally offers her interviewees a platform to express their own voices, engage in their own authorship. The editing and framing is careful, yet minimal and unobtrusive. At no point does the viewer feel the filmmaker’s interference. On the contrary, Joreige takes on the role of an archivist, a chronicler of untold stories, and a historian. We don’t find that forced aesthetic morphing of personal everyday objects into images for a coffeetable book, as is the case with the Amsterdam show.
De Visser inserts herself into a narrative that isn’t hers. Why, for example,does she insist on including a story of her own about a closed soap factory in the old city of Nablus? Where does that position her? Can a curator, bystander, and observer, within such charged subject matter,simply wedge herself in as a participant? Is it ever justifiable for a curator or an artist to edit and objectify the hardships of those caught up in violent conflict — for motives that are questionable at best? It seems revealing that de Visser’s name is the only one appearing (in huge letters, no less) on the cover of the catalogue.
Around the World in Eighty Days
ICA/South London Gallery
May 24–July 16, 2006
Presented across two major venues in London, “Around the World in Eighty Days” used Jules Verne’s novel of the same name as a starting point for “considering art, history, and the social construction of places, spaces. and identities, from both a local and global perspective.” Through the book’s particular perspective of the nineteenth century colonialist era, this exhibition-as-a-journey investigated London in terms of how the city’s diverse and ever-shifting artist population reflects its history of migration and internationalism.The exhibition included a somewhat peculiar selection of artists, ranging from interesting emerging artists based in the UK, such as Rosalind Nashashibi, Alexandre da Cunha, and Francis Upritchard, to standard post-colonialist stalwarts such as Zineb Sedira and Yinka Shonibare. Whether the artist population is reflective of society at large in these terms is a significant question, but perhaps more relevant is whether the diverse nature of London’s artistic community is really grounds enough for such a large-scale exhibition.
Embarking on our journey at the ICA’s presentation, Mona Hatoum’s work Map (1999) consisted of a large map of the world configured from countless glass marbles placed on the floor. Knocked around by the comings and goings of visitors,the map was designed to gradually shift and dissipate over the eighty-day duration of the exhibition, and so comment on the fluidity of geographical boundaries. However, the organizers had surrounded the work with a museum-style cordon that prevented visitors from getting close to it, negating the intention of the work in the process. There were a couple of highlights to the show, including Runa Islam’s captivating short film First Day of Spring (2005) and also da Cunha’s fancifully kitschy sculptures of flags Velour Series (2005–6). But in general, the exhibition design left little opportunity for works to come into their own. The walls of the galleries were painted blue, with short excerpts from Verne’s novel presented throughout in gold vinyl text. The intention was no doubt to give a sense of being in another era, journeying through a piece of fiction and through a geographical setting. Visually speaking, the design was overly dominant and at times ran the risk of eclipsing the exhibited works.
The South London Gallery’s presentation was noticeably stronger, mainly due to the curators’ closer, discursive relationship with participating artists. The gallery was cleanly divided into sections for sculptural and wall-based works, and a space for video. Unfortunately, the blue backdrop was again dominant, and the show only included a few strong works. Shonibare presented Man on a Unicycle (2005), another of his sculptural works illustrating his ongoing concern with African identity and its relationship to Europe’s colonial past.
Initiated by Jens Hoffmann, the outgoing head of exhibitions at the ICA, the exhibition is the first in a series that takes renowned works of fiction as a point of departure. My main concern with “Around the World in Eighty Days” was that it was formulated in a way that was too much about illustrating the grand ideas it was aiming to tackle. The exhibition also claimed to focus on artists born outside the UK but currently based in London. However, not all the artists met this description — Yinka Shonibare was born in London and Rosalind Nashashibi in Surrey, for example. Did the exhibition intend to “racialize” the practitioners involved in order to highlight a certain ethnic diversity? It is too easy, and perhaps unfair, to see Around the World cynically as a box-ticking exercise in presenting cultural diversity. But in some ways it did visibly define in ethnic terms many of its participants — a common problem in many British public institutions today. It even presented a clear generational divide in methodology used to investigate tropes of globalization, with the older generation here being interminably preoccupied with representing postcolonial identity and the younger exploring more nuanced fields of inquiry.
Ahlam Shibli: Trackers
Max Wigram Gallery
July 14–September 16, 2006
As Ahlam Shibli’s exhibition opened in London, Israel and Hizbullah were declaring open war on each other over the capture of two and the killing of eight Israeli soldiers, which made for ironically serendipitous timing for viewing the artist’s images of the Israeli soldiers’ colleagues embracing. Shibli’s particular twist is that the soldiers she depicts are Bedouin, employed by the Israel Defense Forces primarily as trackers.
Her series of eighty-five black-and-white and color photographs depicts the soldiers — all volunteers; conscription is not enforced for the Bedouin within the Israeli state — as they start their training, go home on leave, and graduate. (It took Shibli seven months to obtain permission to shoot.) Looking at some of the photographs, it is impossible not to think of Rineke Dijkstra or Adi Nes for the fact that the boys pictured look so young, vulnerable, and sexy. Desire and war go hand in hand, as Jean Genet — among others — would attest to, and Shibli’s images fit neatly into the ongoing dramatic tension between the two.The Palestinian artist, born in Galilee and living in Haifa, captures face-on headshots of pouting boys smeared in camouflage grease,more laid-back portraits of the same boys in states of pure boredom or exhaustion, resting their heads against each other’s shoulders as they shelter from a simulated grenade attack, and others of them standing awkwardly, still in uniform, alongside their mothers at home. One soldier runs along a dirt road, his shoulders hunched, cupping a grenade in his hands as if trying to win an egg-and-spoon race — indeed in most of these photographs the boys look as though they could be taking part in some elaborate game or theatre.
Shibli’s shots of the boys together, loaded as their interactions are with gawky adolescent wariness and their desperate need to assert themselves, are particularly striking. In one photo-
graph, two of the boys clasp hands and bring each other close; the looks on their faces display an unreadable combination of affection, attraction, domination, and contempt. Shibli has a Magnum photographer’s eye for a captivating photograph with just the right amount of punctum and studium, and many of the images in the series are bang on in their simultaneous fascination with the doubled Other side, and cool detachment from it.
In nos. 20 and 22 in the series a group of boys, home for the weekend, whirl through the desert on horseback and far into the distance, as if trying to escape their weekday lives, kicking up a trail of dust as they do. Number 23 shows a boy standing with his horse,his pose softened and relaxed. Shibli notes that ownership of these animals is the boys’ way back into their Bedouin identities, a means of reintegrating themselves into the desert lives that they betray by working for the occupiers. At the end of their three years’ service they’re given money for the downpayment on a house — these houses, some still being built, are photographed here amid the general dilapidation of the Negev, and with their high walls and air of isolation they sum up the perversity of the situation perfectly.
As well as showing the geography of the area, Shibli also takes still lifes of gravestones and the local graveyard with a few plastic chairs set up in it, of walls displaying photographs of soldiers inside the trackers’ houses, and the tents in the training camp — all of these displayed according to category. It is the photographs of the boys themselves, however, that remain the most desperately compelling. In her seminal book The Body in Pain (1985), Elaine Scarry charted how war is played out on the human body,and imagery plays an essential role in this process (for one textbook example, see the near-absence in the western media of images of dead or injured “Coalition” soldiers). These Bedouin trackers’ bodies, like those of every soldier, are so attractive because they are so easily blown up, torn apart, debilitated — or, as in the current context of Israel’s attacks on Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, captured, an act possibly more devastating to an iconography than mere violence. And this immanent fate is an essential part of their appeal.
UCLA Hammer Museum
April 20–July 23, 2006
Upon entering the sparsely decorated Walead Beshty installation at the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center, I couldn’t help but yawn.
In the main gallery, we were presented with four large-scale, discolored photographs, said to depict the now defunct Iraqi diplomatic mission in Berlin. The photos showed through their discoloration an image of a dilapidated, abandoned room filled with various political ephemera — collapsing walls lined with books, nonfunctional phones set atop dust-covered desks— objects that have now become relics. In the museum, Beshty attempted to “extend the odd stasis of the mission.” There the artist set up what he called a “Cold War waiting room”: two black leather armchairs stood alongside photographs separated by a table with various books strewn across it, books that replicated those found inside the building.
The short backstory was that the photographs were damaged by the x-ray machines at the airport during Beshty’s return trip from Berlin. Finding this an uncanny metaphor for the realities of travel, what with baggage searches and surveillance, Beshty decided to leave them as is. To further illustrate the idea, he placed a revolving mirrored plinth in the center of the room, bearing his damaged luggage, broken and rifled through during travel.
So we had a waiting room and a few badly ruined photographs, along with an attempt to evoke a feeling of political stasis — but all without critique or resolution. Instead, Beshty fixated on the “other space” that the photograph recreated, a space existing on the threshold of two political bodies in ruin, those in East Berlin and Iraq. In turn, this odd stasis, this limbolike space, replicated the essence of photography.
That said, Walead Beshty’s installation was a regurgitative treatise on an oft-cited theory. Michel Foucault’s idea of an “other space” proposes that an untouchable archetypal reality, or form, exists via an untouchable representation captured by cameras, photo booths, and mirrors. His 1967 book of Of Other Spaces was a brilliant treatise on the nature of experience. To see Beshty providing a physical manifestation of Foucault’s theory in this form makes “art” seem a bit tiresome.
Is anyone else bored with artists exploring the meaning of their medium as the sole basis of their work? Does the public really want to know the intrinsic meaning of a photograph? Isn’t conceptual art that is founded upon a redefinition of its own medium a vacuous, narcissistic idiom?Who would want to read a poet rhapsodizing about the structure her poem?
The problem with art that is solely conceptual is that it argues that art exists in theory only. An art that is so invested in its own idea is a lifeless, decadent, superfluous art. Presenting an object that explicates its own objecthood is the most banal, boring, tautological argument. Beshty’s practice is purely representational, not creative. It doesn’t demand change, and it doesn’t really do anything itself. It merely presents us with a damaged photograph and a “problem” we already knew existed.
The Road to Damascus: Discovering Syrian Cinema
Film Society of Lincoln Center
May 5–18, 2006
Cinephiles across North America have at last begun getting to know Syrian cinema after a prolonged obscurity for the country’s filmmakers, care of a touring retrospective packaged by the international arts nonprofit ArteEast. Having gestated fitfully for years, the series, titled The Road to Damascus or, alternatively, Lens on Syria, is at once the least bidden and most intriguing repertory discovery of the season.
The series encompasses nearly half of Syria’s total film output of the last thirty years — feasible because no more than two or three projects are completed annually, with virtually all production and distribution managed by the governing Ba’athist party’s centralized, Soviet-style National Film Organization. Redolent of Marcuse’s “repressive tolerance,” there’s just enough promise of artistic freedom to keep Syrian filmmakers negotiating a bureaucratic labyrinth, as decades wear past between finished films. (The Faustian turn is that praise garnered by those films that have sporadically surfaced in international venues may be leveraged indirectly as cultural capital by the Assad regime.) Nonetheless, the confounding and unifying trait of this daredevil cinema is its steadfast oppositional temper.
Besides making these hitherto elusive films available, the series also frames a canon, to the extent one has arisen from this straitened and politically isolated terrain. Included are all the milestones: The Dupes (1972), a Syrian production by Egyptian director Tewfik Saleh; Mohammed Malas’s Dreams of the City (1983); Oussama Mohammed’s Stars in Broad Daylight (1988); and Nabil Maleh’s The Extras (1993). Several of these directors share a sensibility marked by eidetic tableaux suggesting a private cosmology with affinities to the Symbolist poetics of Aleksander Blok. Indeed, Oussama Mohammed’s Sacrifices (2003) is a bucking tilt-a-whirl of Symbolist excess. An imposing, elderly patriarch expires without naming an heir, and the families of his three grandsons tussle in a delirious dynastic-succession allegory; viewers will leave reassured that their own kin are pillars of sanity.
Subject of a capsule tribute tucked into the series, the documentarian Omar Amiralay emerges as perhaps the most incisive talent in the cohort. Having decamped for a time to Paris on learning he was slated for state reprisal, Amiralay tapped European financing streams and honed the forensic method of his early efforts like Everyday Life in a Syrian Village (1975). The auto-critical impulse felt in many Syrian auteur films is most apparent in Amiralay’s later revisionist statements. A Flood in Ba’ath Country (2003) deconstructs his own naïvely triumphalist Film-Essay on the Euphrates Dam (1970), and There Are So Many Things Still To Say… (1997) retraces the setbacks of the Arab-Israeli conflict from the cancer ward where playwright Saadallah Wannous, Amiralay’s collaborator on Everyday Life, lays dying.
While there’s often a tumid quality to the features in this sense, the discipline of the short form has yielded at least two trim nonfiction masterworks: Amiralay’s The Chickens (1977) and Mohammed Malas’ The Dream (1981).
Resembling agitational “third cinema” in close-contrasted monochrome, The Chickens is a rapier portrait of assisted economic ruin. The desperately poor villagers of Sadad are induced with state subsidies to try their hands at poultry farming; blindsided by disease, overhead costs and their own cupidity, they end up facing demise. Amiralay skips from slicing windmill blades to a rotating Mercedes-Benz hood ornament to a lit-up hotel logo swiveling on an axis, mocking the villagers’ base materialism while associatively implying a chain of guilt. Elsewhere he graphically matches the honeycomb of stacked egg cartons with the vacant windows of freshly built proletarian housing blocks.
Malas was in Beirut a few months prior to Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon,and with a small crew visited the Sabra,Shatila, Burj al-Barajneh, and Ain al-Hulweh refugee camps, filming interviews with ordinary Palestinians, civilians and militants alike, most of them among the hundreds later massacred by Gemayel’s Phalangist militia on Israeli watch. The Dream is a rainbow at midnight, fearfully beautiful in stippled 16mm pastels, preserving the refugees’ voices and gainsaying their misfortune through recollected dreams interspersed with song (“Father, I have seen eleven planets”). One rickety matron shows off the makeshift carbine supplied by her son, declaring, “Of course it works!” There is disarming humor — one militant is seated before a poster of Che Guevara, their tousled manes merging in outline — and above all, a frank, easy fellowship, that in hindsight loads the film with tragic ballast.
Contemporary Arab Representations Act III (The Iraqi Equation)
Fundacio Antoni Tàpies
April 28–June 25, 2006
Contemporary Arab Representations is a project initiated in 2002 by Catherine David, made up of seminars, exchanges, exhibitions, and publications in several European art centers. ‘The Iraqi Equation, the third installment in this series, began with a conference at the University of Seville in 2005 with readings by author Ali Bader, journalist Käis Al Azzawi, and sociologist Pierre-Jean Luizard. At the same time, the Tàpies Foundation in Barcelona played host to an exhibition program, revealing a project with a variety of forms of public participation, from media installations to artistic films and documentaries. Herein was a wealth of information on Iraq, its current culture, and its sociopolitical and religious conflicts.
Following the focus on Lebanon, Egypt came to the stage in David’s series.The singularity of the current,third exhibition is that Iraq is a country still at war, a fact that undeniably constrained the curator’s ability to meet with those involved, whether in Jordan, London, Brussels, or elsewhere.
Contemporary Arab Representations wades knee-deep into its subjects’ current events — a refreshing approach and a far cry from the trend common at L’Institut du Monde Arabe, for example, or the British Museum, where generic artist exhibitions are selected on the basis of national origin or identity only. The social and political complexity of Iraq makes its representation from a single vintage point impossible. David seems to understand that one must look at a nation’s history and literature, and beyond, to even begin to comprehend its artistic production.
Entering the gallery space of the Tàpies Foundation, before reaching the main platform, visitors passed the “Bench of Democracy” (Democracy, 2005), a work by artist, architect, and designer Talal Refit. This passage was framed physically by images of twentieth century Iraqi modernity, photographs taken from the archives of the Arab Image Foundation, reproduced for the exhibition and presented in a slideshow. These photographs bore witness to life in pre-war, postcolonial Iraq.
From there, the public was invited to an open, media-filled space that presented current events amidst a kind of Baghdad Cafe decor, with real ottomans and tables where pamphlets, texts, books, and web addresses replaced the traditional tea and treats. The background wall was a huge fresco, a reproduction of Faisel Laibi Sahi’s mural, Cafeteria in Baghdad.
The exhibition continued in several projection rooms, allowing visitors to interact with documentaries,witness accounts, and more. There was work by Maysoon Pachachi, an Iraqi documentary filmmaker exiled in England who plans to create a school and a film festival in Baghdad. And by Hana Al-Bayati (born in Aurilllac in 1979), a filmmaker and journalist with a background in politics and art, who made On Democracy in Iraq, a movie documenting a meeting of the Iraqi opposition in London, three weeks before the American invasion. Tariq Hashim (Baghdad, 1960) who studied theater and film in Baghdad, Copenhagen, and Bulgaria, returned to an Iraq deep in war, after twenty-three years of exile. He taped sixteen hours of film, culminating in the movie 16 Hours in Baghdad (2004). Filmmaker Baz Shamoun attempted to rediscover his country after twenty-seven years of exile in Where Is Iraq? (2003). Another work by Talal Refit (Kirkuk, 1957) completed the exhibition space with an animated drawing entitled Epilog (2005).
Barcelona presented other documents, publications, and documentaries by filmmakers, authors, analysts, and activists who chose to film in their country (Koutaiba Al-Janabi, Sinan Antoon, Nedim Kufi, Scheherazade Qassim Hassan, Saadi Youssef).
A collection of documentaries showed people living in Iraq in ordinary fashion or, alternatively, working toward an elusive peace — subjects far removed from the clichés usually presented by the international media.
David’s exhibition attempted to give voice to Iraq’s real actors, an alternative to prevailing reductionist representations. At the same time, this voice is more intended for the western public than for citizens of the Arab world. After all, European institutions are the ones welcoming these exhibitions. Such organizations are usually more prone to distancing themselves from Middle Eastern conflicts, cleaving to mere representation. The non-drama of David’s everyday scenes contrasts with the spectacular images of the mass media, both from the East (AlJazeera, Al-Arabiya) and the West (CNN, EuroNews). Is the impact of such an exhibition in a European art center that important in the case of Iraq? Are artistic activities rightly mixed with political activism?
Contemporary Arab Representations forces us to reflect on our relations with Islam, the Arab world, and other cultures beyond. In light of Iraq’s current situation, it is difficult, if not impossible, for Iraqi artists to express themselves in their motherland. These artists have no choice but to speak up in foreign countries, with their own countries’ histories continuing to inform the content of their activity.
All the same, the violence of its subject matter almost distracts from the exhibition, hijacking the very message it wishes to convey. At the end of David’s installation, the Iraqi equation remains unresolved. This is an exhibition of testimony; the public awaits another encounter with works that may take us beyond simple facts and sound bites. Iraqi artists continue the struggle to recover their country, their heritage, outside the bounds of a conventional gallery space or museum. Expression, we should remember, is a luxury during war time.
The Unveiling of Hishshik Bishshik
May 16-20, 2006
Founded in 1969, the Sultan Gallery was something of a pioneer in Kuwait’s small-scale art scene. The gallery relaunched in May this year with an ambitious agenda to “challenge people’s assumptions about Arab art,” according to director Farida al-Sultan. Sultan’s first exhibition was a group show by seven young artists: co-curators Fatima al-Qadiri and Khaled Al Gharabally, as well as Phillip Wisniewski Otero, Tareq al-Sultan, Ali al-Sarraf, Lauren Boyle and Munira al-Qadiri. From its outlandish title, best translated as “Sleaze for Please,” (Arabic slang in its basest form) ‘The Unveiling of Hishshik Bishshik’ aimed to provoke a public more familiar with conservative, polished and even pretentious approaches to art.
Through a mixed bag of photographs, graphic art, videos and kitsch sculptures and installations, the artists provided a critique of the global addiction to consumerism — perhaps nowhere more evident than in the Gulf. As such, the artists dwelt on the shiny, seductive, almost post-apocalyptic nature of living in a culture dominated by the mall. A first for Kuwait City, the artists collaborated on a workshop-style show that was brilliantly organized yet (happily) remained rough around the edges.
Ali al-Sarraf’s photo series UN-OCS, featuring a man posing in a macho biker-fighter suit wrapped in danger tape, though labored and obvious, managed to take a worthy stab at tackling the sensitive subject of the male ego. Alongside Khaled Al Gharabally’s and Lauren Boyle’s Unisex Uniform Radical Movement, it went some way in forcing Kuwait’s cultural scene to
encounter new, even unconventional, forms of self-expression. Gharabally’s and Boyle’s video piece documented a mass of people from different parts of the world, identically dressed in tight, golden suits, wandering around New York’s Central Park. “A strip-down to the bare essential of second skin, a reflective body wear, a silhouette — our bodies themselves become the shared experience,” explained Al Gharabally.
Fatima al-Qadiri’s Neon-Orientalism, a series of photographic portraits, explored the idea of the veiled woman’s “co-habitation with extinction” — a hackneyed subject in Middle Eastern contemporary art generally, but one that still retains taboo status in Kuwait and the socio-cultural scene in the Gulf generally. Sayyarat wa Mikyaj (Cars and Make Up), an array of black prints on colored cardboard traced the “evolution” of the female figure — the artist’s own face — from the basic skull, through a range of hairstyles and make-up, to the bushiah or niqab,an absolute veil that renders the face either visually non-existent, or virtually seductive,depending on your point of view.
Both Tareq al-Sultan and Phillip Wisniewski Otero focused on the ubiquity and power of marketing and advertising in the media. Otero’s quirky short film featured a semi-human creature battling a monolithic satellite station, before finally ridding himself of the all-controlling antenna on his forehead. Shot amid the ruins of a satellite station in the Kuwait desert, Otero layered the images using intricate video montage. Also working in video, Munira al-Qadiri’s raw film attempted to portray the trauma of those nightmares that leave a lasting impression on daytime experiences.
While some of the work was “in progress,” or seemed to approach clichéd themes, The Unveiling of Hishshik Bishshik felt like a small coming-of-age in Kuwait. The artists were bold in their aim to tackle latent approaches and ideas in a fresh way. By unveiling the spirit of hishshik bishshik in public, they hope that more artists will be inspired to follow suit.
Open Studio Project
The Townhouse Gallery
May 1-15, 2006
Bustling downtown Cairo is significantly busier than some of the more touristic or upscale neighborhoods of this city, such as Zamalek (where the Cairo Bienniale usually takes place) or Giza (where the embassies and big hotels are). Townhouse, embedded in a neighborhood filled with car repair shops, street eateries, and sidewalk cafes, is a quintessentially downtown venue that is open to the street below and inclusive of its activity. Somehow, the Townhouse staff is intensely focused amidst the noise, music, arguments, laughter, bad smells, good smells, political demonstrations, and lazy breezes wafting in and out of the always wide-open windows.
So when I arrived at Townhouse as one of the curators in residence for the Open Studio Project, it was immediately clear that this was an ideal place to host a sound program. Though this wasn’t the first Open Studio at Townhouse, it was the first one delineated by a specific medium — that of sound. Curator Clare Davies seized upon this as a way to experiment with a new model, as well as a way to bring Cairo’s homegrown sound practitioners into contact with a network of practitioners from other parts of the world. The aim, it seemed, was to build a worldwide network out of common interest and proximity, as well as through a well-designed website tracking sound activities. Perhaps because of co-sponsor Triangle Art Trust’s own interest in diversifying cultural representation, the invited practitioners hailed from various parts of the world. This year’s residents included: Rajivan Ayyappan (India), Anabala (Turkey), Regine Basha (US), Carlo Crovato (UK), Charbel Haber (Lebanon), Adham Hafez (Egypt), Geert-Jan Hobijn (Holland/Germany), Hassan Khan (Egypt), Myizer Matlhaku (Botswana), Greg Niemeyer (US), Maryam Rahman (Pakistan), Mahmoud Refat (Egypt), Mohammed Al Riffai (Egypt), Basak Senova (Turkey), Staalplaat Soundsystem (Holland/Germany), Paulo Vivacqua (Brazil) and Cynthia Zaven (Lebanon).
To our relief, “sound art” was not presented as a fixed term and the program retained the healthy character of an unlikely interest group still massaging its own parameters,its audience and its specific context somewhere between music and art. We also seemed to have been purposefully selected to represent wildly different production and circulation backgrounds: installation artists, video artists, sound engineers with commercial experience, experimental musicians from the club circuit, lo-fi noise performers, a choreographer/dancer, a spoken word performer/percussionist,a video artist,a new media gaming designer, a pianist and composer, fusion musicians and two curators with vastly different approaches. Though we all had engagement with sound on some level, our concerns sometimes varied dramatically. At first many of us seemed a bit stunned by the widely cast net we were caught in and the United Nations–like representation. But soon this revealed itself to be the most refreshing part of the program (too many pure sound artists in one room is not a good thing anyway), the arrangement managing to debunk our various preconceptions about what sound art is supposed to be, and allowing us to relax into more unlikely and individual correspondences with one another.
Also helpful was the insistent backdrop of Cairo’s densely aural downtown environment — the ultimate binding equalizer. For many of us, just learning how to cross the street together was the beginning of a bonding experience. Then came taking cabs, deciphering car honks, buying supplies, knowing when to rest, when to drink water, where to eat koshary, when to smoke, when to work, where to play. I would say it took an average of about four days to finally plough through the thick air of noise and dust and begin to articulate oneself in it. Once through, it all became rhythm, movement and beat.
This year saw Open Studio events, talks, screenings, and workshops sprawled throughout other sites in the downtown area, extending the context for production but making it difficult to negotiate physically and time-wise. The surroundings also seemed to cause some confusion for the few but dedicated visitors who were trying to keep up with it all,especially when major sandstorms and demonstrations interrupted the week. Most exciting were the more spontaneous jam sessions and dialogues that began to build between Cairenes and visiting artists — such as an extraordinarily layered performance by Charbel Haber, Mahmoud Refat and Hassan Khan at the Townhouse factory space, where Refat and Khan’s turbulent soundscapes were punctuated by Harbel tooling away with parts of his electric guitar. Also great was witnessing Botswanan drummer Myizwer Matlhaku lead a free-form percussion session with a number of local dumbek players, and excited discussions between Paulo Vivacqua and Mohammed Al Riffai about sound as material form. For the final weekend,Townhouse secured an abandoned building, the Hotel Viennoise, for a temporary exhibition of installations and performances, giving the artists a chance to occupy some ambitious spaces. Some pieces worked really well in this territory, while others felt more forced and awkward. Given the two-week schedule and diversity of our approaches, we might have benefited more from focusing on intramural sessions on the nature of production, process, dissemination and presentation of sonic works, rather than from the pressure of producing a final guerilla-style exhibition for the public — placing sound works back into the demands of a visually dominant format. Perhaps the “show” could have been realized as a follow-up to the residency, rather than running contiguous with it. But sound works found fertile ground in Cairo, and my hope is that it continues to thrive.
Images of the Middle East
August 12–September 20, 2006
Images of the Middle East had been on the drawing board for several years as the latest addition to a series of festivals organized by the Danish Center for Culture and Development. Given the Danish military engagement as part of coalition forces in Iraq and Denmark’s increasingly strident debate on immigration from the Muslim world, the project was charged from the beginning. It was further complicated when the publication of a series of caricatures of the prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper in late 2005 set off the now infamous “cartoon crisis.” Agreements were cancelled and funding withdrawn by partners in the Middle East, while the festival was increasingly seen by some Danish politicians and leading industrialists as a vehicle for the reestablishment of Denmark’s reputation abroad, which had suffered badly from the debacle. In the end, the pressure of these political ambitions combined with the project’s lofty stated ambitions to increase awareness and counter prejudice — and the fact that the program’s funding came in large part from Denmark’s national third-world-aid program — made for an event that was perhaps doomed to suffer under the multiple weights it shouldered.
As part of Images of the Middle East six or seven exhibitions of contemporary Middle Eastern art were situated in Copenhagen proper, while more were spread across the country in a range of spaces and institutions. Participating curators had to abide by certain criteria of geographical diversity. While wellintentioned, the politics of this diversity sometimes collided with curatorial strategies that might have been stronger if not limited by the rubric of nationality or ethnicity.
Take for instance the exhibition “Taking Place,” held at Charlottenborg Exhibition Hall, thematizing “everyday experience.” Among particularly strong works were Joanna Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s film Khiam (2000), an account of the experiences of detainees in a prison camp in southern Lebanon. Here, detainees recalled how they crafted miscellaneous objects such as little texts written on wrapping paper with pieces of lead recovered from a battery, or dolls knitted from the threads of a blanket. Describing this production as an act of defiance and self-preservation under inhumane conditions,the work could be the point of departure for a discussion of trauma and aesthetic production, or the complex ethics of documenting suffering. In short, Khiam explored the mechanisms of conflict and oppression in a nuanced manner.Simply aligning that with“everyday experience” in the Middle East seemed irrelevant, at best. Noteworthy here also was Emily Jacir’s Sexy Semite (2000–2002), a series of mock personal adds placed in New York’s Village Voice by Palestinians hoping to start relationships with Jewish partners, hence allowing them back into Israel under the laws of return.
In the meantime, a joint project by the Copenhagen Contemporary Art Center, Nikolaj, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Roskilde, “Coding: Decoding,” featured a pairing of Hala Elkoussy and Yael Bartana at CCAC, and Lamia Joreige and Zineb Sedira at MoCA.These shows escaped the pitfalls of mandated multiculturalism by reducing the number of artists and boasting an impressive screening program of approximately fifty video works and documentaries. In its breadth, the screening program compiled the works one wanted to see there (among them, a strong representation of the Beirut scene) as well as works by lesser-known artists. More importantly, it served as a mapping of artistic strategies and ongoing cooperation in the region, delineating a new geography instead of playing by the rules of the old one.
At the National Museum of Photography, an exhibition entitled “Under the Same Sky” featured, among many works, Yto Barrada’s short video, The Magician (2003). Showcasing an aging magician in Tangier on the verge of losing his grip on his trade, the video evoked the fragility of existence in general, and of life in Tangier — an immigration hub to Europe — in particular. By shifting the focus from the physical passage of Tangier’s Strait of Gibraltar to the emotional economy of migration, Barrada managed to highlight a dissonance between photographic realism and the complex realities it sometimes aims to represent. This point recurred throughout the exhibition. Such was also the case in Shirana Shahbazi’s series Goftare Nik/Good Words (2001), a slick architectural arrangement of photographs mapping a collision between vernacular languages, such as Iranian billboard iconography, and a documentary style reminiscent of both August Sander and Thomas Ruff. While the curators of the exhibition seemed to argue for the universal nature of the dissonance between photographic realism and complex realities (as manifested in a recurring theme of borders), the artworks seemed to say that it is not quite so simple.
Throughout the city, billboards and “image-cubes” aimed to engage a broader audience than the typical art-going circle. Featuring, among others, portraits of Iranian women by Farhad Moshiri, the billboards were criticized by some as taking too many liberties in mocking certain clichéd aspects of the Middle East, such as the iconic veil. In a full-page interview in a Danish newspaper, Moshiri complained that he was misunderstood, which to me seemed the natural outcome of being held hostage to a campaign so obviously framed as a populist one.
Although an awareness of the dangers of institutionalized multiculturalism was present throughout the shows (not to mention in the associated seminars and workshops), one was left wishing that exhibitions had taken a more overtly critical stance. But such was the game. Having had so many aims and ambitions, it is difficult to choose a measure by which to assess the festival as a whole.All the same,I was happy to see many strong works presented, it’s just that I was sometimes left wishing that I had seen them somewhere else.
Image War: Contesting Images of Political Conflict
Whitney Museum of American Art
City University of New York
May 19–June 25, 2006
After the first Gulf War, the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard notoriously asserted that that the conflict hadn’t really happened. The carefully filtered and packaged set of media images that emerged from that war and circulated, constituted a sanitized simulacrum of the conflict, emphasizing the spectacle of US military technology rather than the devastating human toll of war. The result was a war experienced by most as, literally, an “image war,” an unrelenting nonstop feed of images that became banal and lulled viewers into an apathetic stupor. In the intervening years, the stakes have risen dramatically, as increasingly sophisticated digital technology has transformed the media, making it easier and faster to capture, process, distribute, and consume information. Image War: Contesting Images of Political Conflict, organized by the 2005–2006 curatorial fellows of the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program, brings together recent work, in various media, that reflects on the contested status and complex circulation patterns of images of conflict and violence, both historical and recent, in the contemporary digital mediascape.
Joy Garnett’s Kill Box (2001) recreates in paint one of the high-tech visual representations that defined the first Gulf War; palette and smear are carefully manipulated to approximate the surreal color and digital blur of night vision and remote targeting technologies. Painting’s unique qualities of surface and gesture allow a human element to enter a cold and remote digital image of destruction. In Amar Kanwar’s Ma Win Maw Oo (2005), the viewer’s experience of an iconic image of the pro-democracy struggle in Burma — once familiar, now forgotten — is extended through digital animation. A combination of measured pace, soft focus, and slow pans and zooms make the photograph breathe, literally bringing it back to life. Jon Haddock’s Screenshot Series (2001) recasts photographs emblematic of the Vietnam War — General Loan executing a Vietcong, napalmed children fleeing a village, the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk — in the isometric perspective of The Sims video game. This shifting of perspective frees the space and time of the original historical moment, long fossilized in photographs.
Haddock’s remediation also points to the widespread cooptation of images of violence and conflict into forms of entertainment. The often historically inaccurate, even “feel-good,” heroism and courage that characterizes representations of US military endeavors in Hollywood films is critiqued in RSG’s Black Hawk Down (RSG-BLACK-I) (2005); the film is re-edited to remove every frame with a white person. This removal of the erstwhile protagonists transforms the film from a valorization of the US military into a portrait study of the Other as imagined by Hollywood: Somalis as shadowy warlords, vicious hordes, and abandoned children. Dinh Q. Lê’s Persistence of Memory #14 (2000–01) also draws on Hollywood imagery, literally weaving together an obscure black and white news photograph, possibly from a Vietnamese source, and a recognizable color image from Apocalypse Now, to produce a single image that conveys the two contrasting national experiences of the Vietnam conflict. The juxtaposition points up the close relationship between these two media forms; the almost spectral news image seems to haunt the bombastic Hollywood still.
Johan Grimonprez’s Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1997) uses a comparable strategy, appropriating and remixing archival footage related to the modern phenomenon of airplane hijacking. A voiceover consisting of excerpts from Don DeLillo’s novels Mao II and White Noise adds a first-person narrative revealing the complex psychologies behind such actions and complicating the simplistic view of terrorists as categorically evil. The historical depth and geographical breadth of his sources suggests that, contrary to post-9/11 assumptions about radical Islamism, hijacking has a long and checkered history and emerged as a strategy of violent protest against authoritarian state structures in the context of a global radical leftist movement.
A reliance on images of past violence to mount oblique critiques of present geopolitical crises is a strategy commonly adopted by contemporary “political” artists who fear their work will be prematurely dismissed as literal or agitprop. However, it also suggests, ominously, that the state’s attempt to control, directly and indirectly, the capture and circulation of images of war horrors has been successful (barring the occasional leak, as in the case of Abu Ghraib). The lack of real action in An-My Lê’s photographic series 29 Palms — tranquil black and white images of marines training for conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan in the Mojave Desert — approximates the type of war coverage allowed by the state and highlights the efficacy of state censorship. Lê created this series in lieu of actual images of conflict after being refused embedded status in Iraq. In a different geopolitical context, Coco Fusco mounts a symbolic but ultimately futile gesture of protest in Dolores From 10 to 10 (2002), recreating “lost” surveillance footage of the illegal twelve-hour detention of a factory worker in Mexico by her employers, held on suspicion of union organizing.
In their recent book, Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War, the activist collective Retort asserts that the present moment allows for and demands that resistance to state control over the image be waged at the level of spectacle. These works are critical, but they lack the scale and grandeur to reach out; they lack the rawness, potency, and immediacy of Thomas Hirschhorn’s recent exhibition Superficial Engagement, for example,which inundated and overpowered the viewer with horrific and graphic images of the mangled bodies of Iraqis, forcing audiences to bear witness to the true atrocities of an unjust imperial war.
Word Into Art: Artists of the Modern Middle East
The British Museum
May 18–September 3, 2006
“This exhibition brings together the works of over eighty contemporary artists from the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. Whether living in or away from their homeland, the art they produce shows strong links with their artistic heritage.” So we are informed by the wall text at the entrance of the Word into Art exhibition (subtitled “Artists of the Modern Middle East”) recently on show at the British Museum. Underneath the text, photographs of the participating artists were placed in rows, with their printed names neatly identifying them.
The (if one is to be kind) misguided curatorial decision to introduce the exhibition in this format underlines the problematic nature of the endeavor. Grand and general statements are made about both art and artists (culprits pinned to the wall, members of some tribe deciphered for us through the lens of anthropology), a specific unified and fixed artistic heritage is presumed, and maybe most problematic is the absolute assurance that what they produce (not as individuals, but as representatives of the Modern Middle East of the title) is strongly linked to that heritage. For the Middle East, the argument goes, will always remain in thrall of an imagined tradition, by a past that gloriously recedes, static and fixed, while the cultures of other regions become the harbingers of modernity and development.
We are informed that most of the works are from the collection of the museum, whose policy since the mid-80s has been to collect modern art from the region — as long as it possesses a textual element, and therefore may be tied into their collection of (admittedly fine) Islamic calligraphy. Other than the obvious lack of sophistication of such a curatorial approach, its passive acceptance of a Victorian model of linear history, of cause and effect, of essential identities, and the apparent confusion between art as a self conscious conceptual and intellectual practice and art as an essentially decorative skill, it is also a model that denies its subject—in this case modern art from the Middle East — the possibility of functioning within different (more generous, less restrictive) genealogies. It thus places severe restrictions and limitations on itself as a collection, while laying totalizing claims to the corpus of work that it possesses. This is obviously an approach that excludes a tremendous amount of the most interesting and dynamic work being produced at the moment. Such fallacies are typical of an arrogance whose sole redeeming factor might be that it is blind.
This is a highly condescending exhibition, where artists’ works (regardless of formal quality or conceptual underpinnings) are used to demonstrate a specific thesis about the region. The dominant metaphor at work here is that of “possession” — a collection of glamorized artifacts whose function (symbolic value) is to normalize and validate specific ideological (dare we say racial?) agendas; the “Middle East” is an essentially unmodern place, its relation to modernity derivative of western influence and only accessible through some kind of reaffirmation of a basic predetermined identity. The exhibition’s linear progression through four numbered sections — Sacred Script; Literature and Art; Deconstructing the Word; and History, Politics and Identity — clearly resonates with the essentialist implications that seem to prefigure the exhibition itself.
Other than the inane nature of such generalities, these are headings that give us, the viewers, easy access to what must seem to be traits of a specific cultural landscape. This approach leans heavily on a classical anthropological model, where the works become examples of a cultural landscape, alienated from the viewing experience, a foreign Other to the art object, trophies from faraway cultures. The progression from the sacred to history and identity inextricably links these concepts to a chain of causality that frames our viewing experience. The works on display are supposed to reflect some essentialized truth about that culture. Last but not least, it is important to point out that the title of the exhibition makes one more totalizing reduction: that this is an essentially and historically artless place (that old cliché: Middle Eastern cultures have to discover art by transforming their mainly literary heritage through an interaction with western culture). All aforementioned points are underlined and enhanced by the plethora of Qur’anic verses, Arabic sayings, and lines of poetry (translated into English and calligraphically rendered on the walls) that punctuate the exhibition.
It thus comes as no surprise that this is an exhibition that succeeds in bringing together all the worst traits of the state-sanctioned, mainstream decorative art produced in the region. Ironically enough it is the region’s nationalist, state-sponsored productions that most neatly fit within the British Museum’s perspective. Abstract calligraphic doodles and (the ever present) Sufi references are surrounded by megalomaniac colorful sculptures that would fit quite nicely in the gardens of the Creativity Center in Cairo. Faux naïve village scenes and Bedouin happenings are framed by the more tasteful pop-orientale of Chant Avedissian’s glamorized nostalgic wallpaper, as well as the decorative melancholic, which seems to be dominated by Iranians like Shadi Ghadirian, Bahman Jalali, and Malekeh Nayiny. Although the stalwarts of the modernist scene (of different trends and countries) in the region are present—such as Rachid Koraichi, Mohamed Abla, Youssef Abdelke, Shafic Abboud — the exhibition also attempts to cross ethnic and regional boundaries by a few representatives of non-Muslim culture: the Japanese Kouichi Foaud Honda and the (unproblematized) Israeli Michal Rovner. These additions, however, are not enough to render inclusiveness more than illusory, or token. Including works on the basis that they include text brings together a number of anomalies that remain unexplained. Youssef Nabil’s trendy narcissistic photograph, for example, was more fitting for a glossy lifestyle magazine.
The museum here (much like a neo-con think tank relying on local consultants) makes arguments of cultural superiority, which are implicit and unspoken, all the more salient. Most disturbing was to watch this act of validation at work in relation to Muslim and Arab visitors, who, on both my visits, seemed to passively consume the museum’s position. The works on show became ciphers of their own identity, and a positive sense of ownership (easily translatable to a sense of a specific essential identity) was communicated in some of the conversations I had with different visitors. It seems that the shadow of the institution strikes deep, and I was left with the unsettling thought that what is being subtly confirmed, affirmed and maintained is one specific image.
The following is an excerpt from a 2005 interview between John C Welchman and Los Angeles–based American artist Mike Kelley. The interview introduces a volume of interviews edited by Welchman entitled Mike Kelly: Interviews, Conversations and Chit-Chat (1986–2004), published by JRP Ringier, Zurich & Les Presses Du Réel.
Born in Detroit in 1954, Mike Kelley is one of the most influential artists of his generation. While attending the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, he co-founded a band called Destroy All Monsters that used nonmusical instruments like vacuum cleaners and squeeze toys to make music. After graduating in 1976 with a BFA, Kelley moved to Los Angeles to attend the California Institute of the Arts. Kelley did his first public performances that year in Los Angeles, using many of the sculptural works he was making at school as props. In 1978, he gave up painting. His graduate thesis show consisted of a collection of plywood birdhouses.
Kelley’s works provoke, but never just for the sake of it. His preoccupations span desire, pop culture, the juvenile, sociopathology and kitsch. Among other things, he has negotiated music, video, performance, writing and even curation. In 1982, he made his first work in video, The Banana Man, featuring a character indirectly derived from the children’s television show Captain Kangaroo. In the late 1980s, he began creating stuffed-animal works from toys and handmade natty afghans purchased at thrift shops. He made his Garbage Drawings, based on the Sad Sack comics, in 1988. In 1993, the artist curated The Uncanny, an exhibition of unusual interpretations of the body. His last major exhibition was Day is Done in 2005 at Gagosian Gallery in New York City. Drawing on common American tropes — from school plays, Halloween or dress-up day at work — Kelley covered the cavernous Chelsea space in a quasi-religious, apocalyptic freak-show pageant of photographs, dolls, music videos, horror films and props. While his immediate concern seems a contemporary American culture that is irrational, dark, pointless, Kelley’s work transcends context — finally enlightening us as to the performative nature of ritual in your culture, my culture, any culture. Either way, it’s all very bizarre, while Kelley seems one of the last artists to defy the confines of the neat, digestible, reductive art that increasingly populates our surrounds.
John C. Welchman: OK Mike, we’ve got copies of the interviews here, 12 conversations with a whole range of people going back to 1986, when you talked with Michael Smith, through to this latest interview with Jeffery Sconce on the Uncanny show in 2004. Tell me something, first, about what the interview process means to you. Most of these are conversations in which you take the lead as the interviewer and you’re mostly foregrounding various aspects of the diverse work of these other people. What does that feel like,being out in front, as it were? And how has that experience evolved for you over the last decade or so?
Mike Kelley: Actually the collection isn’t as uniform as that. There are a lot of different situations here, ranging from interviews in which I wanted to talk to someone to get more information about them, to situations in which I was paired-up with somebody, like Richard Prince, just so that our two names were together—very Interview magazine style. It was the same with the John Waters talk. On the other hand, there are several interviews I was asked to conduct because I knew the artists very well, Jim Shaw and Tony Oursler, obviously, and to interview them in depth for a monograph. And then there are things I was asked to do with people I didn’t know so well …maybe an editor thought I would have an interesting point of view…
JW: People you didn’t know, like…
MK: Larry Clark. Or at least I didn’t know him well at the time. So there’s actually quite a variety of relationships here between me and the interviewee. In most cases I was approached by a publication or institution to do the interview, it wasn’t my idea.
JW: We’ve talked about this a little bit, here and there,but you’ve had a fairly diffident relation to the interviews and their process, right, viewing some of them as a bit throwaway?
MK: Some of them are throwaway, and they’re designed to be throwaway. That was the aesthetic. The Harmony Korine, John Waters, Richard Prince, and Kim Gordon were done for very light kinds of magazines, pop publications that didn’t want anything heavy… in fact they didn’t want us to talk about anything really. They just wanted patter, chitchat, something hip. And of course I’m not so interested in these, but, you know, they’re in the book. Whatever.
JW: How do you feel about the intimacy forced on you by the interview situation, where you sit with someone face to face and effectively cut out the rest of the world. I’m sometimes struck by the strangeness of switching the tape recorder on and trying to bracket out all noises from elsewhere. This seems to produce either a kind of intensity, or, sometimes, even a kind of embarrassment. But it puts you in the way of another kind of knowledge; the kind we use to write when we write, or that we use when we make art or music, or whatever it is. Can you talk a little bit about that?
MK: I know what you mean. But most of these interviews aren’t those kinds of interviews, where you sit down and really get in to depth and let it go where it goes. Most of them had a point or a purpose, mandated by the publication. They had limitations, sometimes severe, on the number of pages, or they had a specific job to do — the Shaw and the Oursler had to range over the artists’ careers. So I couldn’t talk too much about one thing, and we couldn’t go too far. I could do a whole book with Tony Oursler or Jim Shaw, for example, discussing all of our ideas and interests and endless overlaps and disagreements. And I’d like to do something like that, but that’s not what any of these are, really. For the most part these interviews were done for a specific reason. Maybe the most open interview here is the Jutta Koether, which really had no point or objective. I did it simply to have a conversation with Jutta because in the German context she hadn’t really been given much voice, except through her own writings. So the magazine wanted somebody from outside of the Cologne art scene like me to interview her. They could have asked Albert Oehlen do it, but I suppose they thought that the Cologne scene was too incestuous or something.
JW: OK, we’re talking about the nature of interviewing, in an interview, and I’m reaching for this substrate within the interview format that gets close to its center of gravity. And you’re saying that you understand what that is, but that there’s a real sense in which a lot of the interviews here, a couple excepted, don’t really have it. Is it possible to speculate on what this thing is, this peculiar specificity, in the abstract? I mean, what are it’s possibilities and do they really exist?
MK: Sure, it’s what you get in a great conversation. But unfortunately, I think a lot of these interviews reveal the limitations of the art press. You’re never given enough time to go into depth, or you’re given instructions to cover somebody’s entire output, which is impossible. You can’t get into, say, the beauty of all the poetic details of one specific work of art. I could do a whole book with Jim Shaw about one drawing, talking about all the influences and all the aesthetic history that informed it or that it suggested. In fact, that’s what you never get to do in writing unless you write something yourself, because you’re always trying to convey to somebody something that’s very complex, and you have to make it simple.
JW: Perhaps what we’re skirting around here relates to what Roland Barthes called the “grain” of something, that intimate texture that you encounter when you look at something really hard or when you talk about, or hear, it really deeply, rub up against it…
MK: Or when you read a great piece of writing about thinking something through, really thinking it through,as in a great piece of philosophical or critical analysis.
JW: Going back over this list of interviews, and bearing in mind the deeper notion of the interview, this Platonic form that puts us in the shadow of True Discussion, are there any places, any things, any topics that you wish you’d have really rubbed up against with some of these people …but didn’t have the chance? In other words, I guess I’m asking you about the imaginary of your missed opportunities in this volume, the spaces between your exchanges. There’s a sense in which a lot of your recent work is about cathecting new genres of representation through memorial spaces—the blanks and leftovers between space, memory, and perception.So my question: what are some of the blanks and leftovers that you might want to fill in here?
MK: I hate to bring his name up because it’s so omnipresent, but I love Andy Warhol’s novel A: A Novel (taped 1965; published 1968). What I didn’t like about Interview magazine was that it was purposely about nothing. They’d get two people together who didn’t know each other well and they would blather on. Maybe certain things are revealed by this. But what’s great about A — the transcription of a whole day in the life of factory superstar Ondine — is that you really get to understand how this person thinks… without any talk about big ideas. I think that’s what an extended or really good interview or discussion can get to. The things we have in front of us are more about professionalism. It’s like, OK, I’m given a limitation, how do I deal with this limitation? The Kim Gordon conversation, for example, is specifically about that. It’s not a great interview. But it was not designed to be a great interview. It was designed for a tiny little zine. I was given these parameters. I have to deal with the restrictions aesthetically. It’s an exercise. OK, a little pop interview is appropriate because it fits the zine-like nature of Fama & Fortuna Bulletin, which are little artist’s books, a little giveaway. But I can’t do that with a Michael Smith interview for High Performance, or a Larry Clark interview for Flash Art. In these cases I have a job to do: to get across something about their work and communicate some notion of why it was important at the time to talk about it. I have to address major issues.
JW: There’s something a little perverse here though, because, if I’m hearing you correctly, conversation and exchange between people sitting in their own enclosed space — something you might think would be very informal — is governed in the art world by a very restrictive paradigm. The dialogue is commissioned, and you’re asked — almost forced — to do it. You have this many words and such and such an obligation to cover key aspects of a career. It’s almost like saying that you, as an artist,could only work by commission,that you could only do portraits, or whatever …and that would be anathema to you — and to most artists, for that matter.
MK: I have never been given the freedom to do a book the way I’ve wanted to do it. Never. I have never been given carte blanche to do something the way I really wanted to. There’s always an institutional limitation on it in some way or another. Always a page restriction, a money restriction… always something. Only in my own artwork do I have such freedom. Take the Poetics Project, for example. Tony Oursler and I did a series of almost endless interviews with art/music crossover artists and there were no limitations, but there’s also no distribution for it. The discussions have never been printed or circulated.
JW: But you’ve done a couple of projects like this, right? You did the…
MK: Cross Gender/Cross Genre. There’s been no interest in publishing that, either.
JW: Tell me a little bit about that project, because my next question is: how has the nature of the interview situation played in and across your work in general? I think it has traversed it in many ways. Even in your early drawing-like paintings, there’s a sense in which the different regimes of text are dialogues. They’re dialogues of different voices that come sometimes from you, sometimes from others,and are sometimes caught somewhere between the two.There’s clearly a dialogic component here. And your performance pieces, while organized around the concept of the monologue, also, I think, took on a kind of internal self-interviewing process. You did several tape loops in dialogue form as part of the Arena series and associated works. And there are numerous other examples.
MK: The performances were fractured monologues. I always thought of them as being somewhat dialectical, dialectics through dramatic dialogue — false dialogue: monologues randomly split into voices. All novelistic writing is essentially done like this. It’s false dialogue. It’s one author trying to pretend they’re composed of multiple voices. And basically, that’s what I do. I try to make it more apparent by getting rid of the pretense that they’re different voices. And I think that’s something that was endemic to the new novel in the 1960s, and in Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers (1943) with all those characters—but everyone knows it’s Genet fantasizing. He doesn’t try to hide it, and I think I come from that way of thinking. Now dealing with other people, of course… that’s different.
JW: What is the difference for you between the compromised circumstances that you’ve just described, with you being asked by a magazine or whatever to interview another artist, and the reverse situation in which someone interviews you about your own work? You’ve obviously done dozens, hundreds even, of these other interviews. Is there essentially a mindset difference that you take to these encounters?
MK: Well, when somebody comes to you, they have some goal in mind, something they want. And so you either have to stick to that or you have to fight against it. Of course, when you’re being interviewed by somebody you have to keep that in mind: is it OK that I’m limiting myself to their set of questions? This is especially a problem when filmed interviewees are talking about their own interests. You end up pontificating about subjects… when really somebody’s asking you things, but hiding their questions. In a text the situation is clearer, and you can see what’s going on. You can tell somebody is asking questions and their authorship is apparent. But in film interviews, editors often take pains to hide the set-up. I really dislike that. I always think interviewers should be present in film interviews so their subjectivity is present. Yet in ninety-nine percent of film interviews they’re hidden. The idea of history is generally about an abstraction, of trying to take something very complex or individuated — mass individuation — and turn it into a standard. What’s the standard idea of this complexity… when, of course, it’s only interesting if you actually hear the peculiarities of the individual voice? Abstraction is interesting at the level of the idea and a great thinker can get you involved in generalizations and broad concepts. But there’s also something fascinating about this individuation, its specificity. Like you might tape an exchange with a mentally handicapped person and learn a lot about their social milieu that’s extremely informative …even though they’re not great thinkers. This is the kind of thing an interview can give you. The kind of information that you don’t think is important can reveal a lot of things that are culturally repressed — or culturally unconscious, as you say — and that’s very useful information.
JW: It’s like a kind of double thinking that leads to double writing, I guess, because you’ve got two thoughts, two people and then two writings of those thoughts. It’s a spiral, like a little strand of DNA. I suppose some of the best interviews are going to be extraordinarily revelatory in that vein. Though frankly — this is another question to you — I sometimes find that most interviews don’t manage to do this.
MK: No, they don’t.
JW: Do you have any thoughts about who the great interviewers were? You mentioned Warhol… I think one pole is a sort of deadpan rascal who almost inadvertently speaks, or precipitates, social truth.
MK: Well, he had a particular approach, which was to force the person to pose until their shields broke down, often out of sheer boredom,and they just start to go off. They start to talk and then inevitably reveal themselves in some way or another. Or, at least, they reveal their defense mechanisms. I don’t know. The great documentary filmmakers are very good at this. I’m trying to think of a good example… in a very in-your-face kind of way Michael Moore is good at this… though he works more confrontationally.
JW: Well, he forces responses out of normally quiet corporations by embarrassing, by bringing the media and the camera into their lobbies and atriums so they can’t possibly throw him out on his ass… and if they do, he’s already got a lot of what he wanted.
MK: He forces professional people to speak about things they don’t want to. But he manipulates response. Of course, you’re only going to get a certain kind of reaction in this situation, and he knows that. It’s always an embarrassed response, something that reveals that these people are phonies. That’s his whole point. That’s what he does.
JW: That’s very televisual though. Do you think there’s a way that written interviews can precipitate this kind of social embarrassment? I’m not sure… maybe there is?
MK: Sure, yes. I do. I’m trying to think of a good example.
JW: I mean obviously it’s much easier on camera, because it’s all about expression, it’s about gesture, it’s about the fear of the camera and all that can act as a pantomime of social self-revelation.
MK: There are also people who are very good at interviewing and at the same time hiding their intentions and their interviewees look foolish. There’s a whole tradition of this.
JW: Yeah, probably on the radio. Probably in an earlier era than the one that we grew up with, right? It’s really more the 1940s and 50s.
MK: That’s what the right media is really good at these days. Bill O’Reilly, for example, is really good at getting people on air and keeping the questions so limited that they can’t really respond and making them look foolish. This is a very typical right wing strategy.
JW: And Bill Maher on the other side is also very adept at doing it. He actually is able to do it through a certain kind of… I would call it false generosity to the right because he invites the right in but he’s got a sharp enough wit that he can deconstruct them pretty easily.
MK: These are people who have an ax to grind. They’re not really interviewing people. They’re trying to get them to reveal something they don’t want to reveal and it’s all indebted to a particular, preexisting, point of view. I’ve long been a fan of the “wandering” style of documentary, as in the earlier work of the Maysles brothers (Albert and David). Salesman (1969) follows booksellers, bible salesmen, as they go on their rounds. You really learn something about these people. But I don’t know if the filmmakers working in this style, like Frederick Wiseman (High School, 1969), went in with any particular intention to get something specific from their subjects. What they offer is just a milieu, a bland milieu. It’s kind of horrible. But I’m much more interested in this.
JW: It’s very difficult though, I mean there’s a great question here: one of the things about interviews is that wherever the interview is — even here in your living room with a glass of wine — we’re completely off-duty, we could be doing other things, but there’s always a set-up. I mean the way were talking in the room over there when you were looking for that piece of paper and I was looking for an address on the computer… we moved into a whole different domain and everyone does that.
MK: We’re trying to make sense.
JW: Yeah, well, we’re also professionals and we know what we’re doing; but there’s another level, I think, even if we were amateurs… even if we asked your uncle Ted and my auntie Joan to sit down with a tape recorder in front of them and interview each other, they would switch into another mode that would be a product of the construct.
MK: You switch to public mode. Everyone of these interviews does this.
JW: Exactly. Well, that’s my question, because it’s incredibly difficult to produce a deferment of the set-up that allows people to emerge through their hesitation, or uncertainty …or professional framework… Maybe only time…
MK: It can be reached through time.
JW: And maybe through alcohol and drugs.
MK: But then you also get a certain kind of response.
JW: Right, then you’re hyped up.
MK: Like I could give you a bunch of drugs and I know what I’d get… to a certain degree.
JW: Hey, I’m not sure about that [laughter].
MK: OK, you’d reveal yourself in a certain way, but is that really a portrait of John? No, it’s not, because that’s not how you are twenty-four hours a day. It’s a portrait of you inebriated. This idea of revelation…
JW: The confessional free play of the mind.
MK: I think that’s overplayed, you know.
JW: Which brings me to another thing that’s always interested me, something that we’ve already hedged around in our discussion. As a consequence of the fact that there’s a setup, there’s another thing that always happens in an interview, or most interviews, even with people that know each other, and that’s embarrassment and awkwardness. There’s something a little nervous. There’s something… however it plays out… whether it has to do with the cycle of pathology of your relationship with the other person, whether it’s to do with the context, with the thing you know that’s going to be eventuated in print… there’s always this nervousness and embarrassment… I actually love those moments.
MK: I do too.
JW: And I think they’re really creative… Do you think you can take this a step further in another piece? One part of your current interest in the vernaculars of downtime Americana could take the form of a long piece of writing. I don’t see why not.
MK: Well, that’s related to my interest in anonymous mass culture. What I’d like to do is interview auteurs in various fields. I’ve become very interested in notions of auteurship relative to forms that are not generally thought of as having authors… that are basically invisible. I think it would be very interesting to explore this. For example, I’ve become interested in auteurship in pan and scan.
JW: Pan and scan?
MK: Pan and scan is the refilming of a widescreen film for television. Somebody has to do that. This is not a job one gets recognition for. Yet, there must be a hierarchy of pan and scan directors… people who are known for being good at it… turning a widescreen film into a squareformat film… that’s a form of directorship that’s completely unrecognized.
JW: Don’t machines do this?
MK: No, people do it.
JW: It would be great to interview the people who do that…
MK: …to develop an auteur theory of pan and scan… to interview film directors and ask them who they would choose to pan and scan their films. Who’s good at it? Of course, nobody actually wants their films to be panned and scanned, just like no writer wants their essay chopped in half. But if you have to have somebody do it, constitutes good pan and scan? That interests me. Why do people want films panned and scanned anyway?
JW: That’s the pressure of TV…
MK: The pressure of television, right. The pressure of something that’s completely outside anybody’s desire and yet you have to conform to it. I’m curious about work that’s produced under those kinds of restrictions right now.
JW: When you say you want to interview protagonists involved in filtering forms of cultural invisibility — presumably this would be just one chapter or one installment… and there are other domains that interest you?
MK: I’d try to find a number of things like that.
JW: Did those kinds of situations arise when you were thinking through the extracurricular project?
MK: I don’t know where this came from. I got to thinking about it simply because I was angry that I couldn’t find widescreen versions of films. I could only get the pan and scanned versions. I was always arguing with the manager at the video shop. He didn’t even understand what I was talking about. I tried to explain it to him: “Look… you’re losing close to a third of the film.” But he didn’t understand, he couldn’t see it even when I pointed it out. And I realized that ninety percent of cultural production is like that. Nobody sees it. On TV, for instance, I’m very interested in commercial directors, the people who direct the mundane ads. What is the hierarchy of that? There must be people who direct certain kinds of commercials… like, are there directors who just do drug commercials?
JW: For a while in the 1960s, my father just did medical commercials.
MK: See, so that’s a specialty, and there must be certain conventions of that.
JW: I can see how that fits with one of your art world concerns, because it’s about ritual and it’s about repetition. It’s about professionalism again.
MK: And cultural invisibility.
JW: Yes, about doing something so well you can’t see it’s there.
MK: A quality being hidden.
JW: This is the kind of thing that operates just below the level of the skin; in other words,a circulation system that you can’t quite see because it’s not on the surface…
MK: …because it’s there every day. It can’t be seen. My relationship to media is like a slow-growing tree. It’s taken me some thirty years to recognize auteurship in these omnipresent forms. It only ceased to be invisible to me when I started to work with those forms myself. I realized that there is nothing that’s invisible unless you let it be invisible. And then the question is: culturally, why is it invisible? That’s the big question. Why is it invisible?
JW: Do you think new media has complicated this question by making it schizophrenic? I mean, using the computer in a basic everyday way you encounter this division: on the one hand, an intense reinscription of the individual… the blog, the email, text messaging — all kinds of ciphers of modern day individuality; and then, on the other, you have this massive structural system, the internet itself with all its dependent apparatuses, which are themselves all systems, pure systems operating with an extension we’ve never seen before. So we have this extraordinary separation between one and the other, self and system, and the new compounding of the two in cyber-culture. I think it’s in a different dimension.
MK: Well, the attraction of new media is that it’s novel. It becomes boring as it becomes endemic. That’s happening with blogs already. When everybody has a blog, it will become like any other common form of communication… like letter writing. Who’s a good letter writer? Of all the letters that have ever been written, only a few have been brought to light and examined. The great auteurs of letter writing have probably never been discovered. So, such a thing has to be brought into the world of aesthetics and looked at critically before notions of quality can be established.
JW: Well, but there are two levels of fascination: one would be auteur theory, which is essentially that the letter writer or the blogger is superb within the limitations of the genre. Byron wrote great letters. He was also a reasonably good poet. And you get that many times in the history of literature. But then you have this other level of occasions, in which such and such a person is a great stylist and writes with an eccentric flair, which one could rationalize in literary terms as “excellent”; but what’s interesting in the end is the obsession with their niche. Exactly what you were talking about before, this idea of working, rubbing a surface so intensely that you puncture a death into it just by the friction of repetition, professionalization, perfection, and ritual.
MK: This is why I’m harping on about Jim Shaw. Jim’s problem is that people don’t really see what he does. This is a guy who knows more about the iconography of mass media than anybody I’ve ever met in my life. He knows all the illustrational styles geared toward particular worlds ofproduction. Do people give a shit? No, they just want to see it generically, as garbage culture. That’s not how he sees it. They don’t want to see how Jim Shaw sees it because they don’t want to think about. They are happy with the way things are… as far as pop art goes. With somebody like Jim, because his work is so historically complex, people just want it to go away… to refuse to talk about it in an intellectual manner. They want to dumb it down to their level… the art world’s level of understanding of mass culture. It pisses me off.
JW: Well it’s interesting with Jim because he’s got three modes of address to this knowledge bank. One mode is to appropriate,as in the thrift store paintings which are just “taken” by reproducing and representing them elsewhere; another mode is to dream about popular cultural forms and to produce interesting mediations of these dreams in various media; and there’s another mode still, which would be — the most interesting mode, I think — instinctively to reinvent cultist forms as in Jim’s Oist project. But the art world loves appropriation. Sometimes that’s all they love.
MK: They don’t want to spend the time with work that really takes these omnipresent terms and does something different with them, because then they would have to understand the terms themselves.