contemporary visual art+culture
broadsheet CRITICISM | THEORY | ART
VOLUME 43.1 MARCH 2014
Art Dubai 2014 • Contemporary: 313 Art Project, Seoul • Agial Art Gallery, Beirut • Sabrina Amrani Gallery, Madrid • Art Factum Gallery, Beirut • L’Atelier 21, Casablanca • Athr Gallery, Jeddah • Ayyam Gallery, Dubai/London/Beirut/Jeddah/Damascus • Baró Galeria, São Paulo • Bolsa de Arte, Porto Alegre/São Paulo • The Breeder, Athens/Monaco • Laura Bulian Gallery, Milan • Carbon 12, Dubai • Carroll / Fletcher, London • Chatterjee and Lal, Mumbai • Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai • Galleria Continua, San Gimignano/Beijing/Le Moulin • CRG Gallery, New York • Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris • D Gallerie, Jakarta • Experimenter, Kolkata • Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, Dubai • Galerie Imane Farès, Paris • Selma Feriani, London/Tunis • Galleria Marie-Laure Fleisch, Rome • GAG Projects, Adelaide/Berlin • Galerist, Istanbul • Giacomo Guidi Arte Contemporanea, Rome • Gladstone Gallery, New York/Brussels • Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris/London • Alexander Gray Associates, New York • Green Art Gallery, Dubai • Grey Noise, Dubai • Hales Gallery, London • Leila Heller Gallery, New York • Kashya Hildebrand Gallery, London/Zurich • Hussenot, Paris • In Situ / Fabienne Leclerc, Paris • Rose Issa Projects, London • Galerie Jaeger Bucher, Paris • Galerie Rodolphe Janssen, Brussels • Kalfayan Galleries, Athens/Thessaloniki • Galerie Krinzinger, Vienna • Lombard Freid Gallery, New York • Lumen Travo, Amsterdam • Elmarsa, Tunis/Dubai • Galerie Greta Meert, Brussels • Victoria Miro, London • Marisa Newman Projects, New York • Galleria Franco Noero, Turin • Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco • Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris/Brussels • Omenka Gallery, Lagos • Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore • Paradise Row, London • Pechersky Gallery, Moscow • Pi Artworks, Istanbul/London • Pilar Corrias, London • Galerie Polaris, Paris • Tyler Rollins Fine Art, New York • Schleicher/Lange, Berlin • Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg/Beirut • Gallery Ske, Bangalore/ New Delhi • Tashkeel, Dubai • Tasveer, Bangalore • Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris/Brussels • The Third Line, Dubai • Galerie Tanja Wagner, Berlin • Yavuz Fine Art, Singapore • Modern: Agial Art Gallery, Beirut • Aicon Gallery, New York/London • Albareh Art Gallery, Manama • Artchowk, Karachi • Elmarsa, Tunis/Dubai • Karim Francis, Cairo • Grosvenor Gallery, London • Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai • Lawrie Shabibi, Dubai • Galerie Janine Rubeiz, Beirut • Shirin Gallery, Tehran/New York • Marker: ArtEast, Bishkek • Asia Art, Almaty • North Caucasus Branch of the National Centre for Contemporary Art (NCCA), Vladikavkaz • Popiashvili Gvaberidze Window Project, Tbilisi • Yarat Contemporary Art Space, Baku. www.artdubai.ae
Contributors Diana Abouali: Until recently head of research and collections, Palestinian Museum, Ramallah, Palestine; previously, assistant professor Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Languages and Literatures at Dartmouth College, where she taught courses on Middle Eastern culture and civilisation; graduate of Wellesley College (BA) and Harvard University (PhD) Lara Baladi: Cairo-based Egyptian-Lebanese artist; during the 2011 Egyptian uprising, co-founded two media initiatives: Radio Tahrir and Tahrir Cinema, both projects inspired and informed by the eighteen days that toppled Mubarak’s leadership; Tahrir Cinema served as a public platform to build and share a video archive on and for the revolution; member of the Arab Image Foundation since its creation in 1997; publishes and exhibits worldwide Amelia Barikin: Brisbane-based writer and academic; currently researching the intersection of art and science fiction as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Art History, University of Queensland; previously taught art history and curatorship, University of Melbourne; editorial advisory board member of art history journal emaj; recent publications include Parallel Presents: The Art of Pierre Huyghe (MIT Press, 2012), and Making Worlds: Art and Science Fiction (Surpllus, 2013) Aaron Cezar: Founding Director, Delfina Foundation, London, where he develops and oversees its interrelated program of residencies, exhibitions and public platforms; sits on numerous boards, committees and advisory groups such as All Change Arts, Shubbak, the Young Arab Theatre Fund, the Marrakech Biennale and the Jarman Award 2012 Alan Cruickshank: Executive Director Contemporary Art Centre of SA and Editor Contemporary Visual Art+Culture Broadsheet since 2000; has spent the past two decades plus establishing cultural partnerships with greater Asia and the Middle East; curator Shifting Sands Symposium, Sydney and Adelaide 2013 Duygu Demir: programmer for SALT, Istanbul; among the exhibitions she worked on are I am not a Studio Artist, a retrospective of Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin (2011); Across the Slope-Ahmet Ögüt, SALT (2011); I Decided not to Save the World (Tate Modern, 2011 and SALT, 2012); Hassan Khan (SALT, 2012) and A Promised Exhibition - Gülsün Karamustafa (SALT, 2013); most recently wrote the Istanbul chapter of Phaidon’s publication Art Cities of the Future (2013); writer and nominator for Vitamin D2 (Phaidon, 2013), and edited Room of Rhythms-Cevdet Erek (Walther König, 2012) and I am not a Studio Artist (SALT, 2011); has contributed articles and reviews to magazines and online platforms including Art Asia Pacific, Art Unlimited and Ibraaz Michael Desmond: Canberra-based independent curator and writer with a long history in the arts. Over the last two decades he has developed many exhibitions and written numerous articles. Recent exhibitions included Present Tense: An imagined grammar of portraiture in the digital age, National Portrait Gallery, 2010; and Trigger Happy: New work by Ben Quilty, Drill Hall Gallery, 2013, both Canberra Juliana Engberg: Melbourne-based curator, writer, publisher, and designer; currently Artistic Director, 19th Biennale of Sydney and Artistic Director, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne; curator, Melbourne Festival Visual Arts Program 2000-06; senior curatorial advisor for the Australian presentations at the 2007 Venice Biennale Fulya Erdemci: Istanbul-based curator and writer; curator 2013 Istanbul Biennial; curator 2011 Turkey Pavilion, 54th Venice Biennale; Director, SKOR (Stichting Kunst en Openbare Ruimte) Foundation for Art and Public Domain, Amsterdam 2008-12 Adam Geczy: Sydney-based artist and writer, and lecturer at Sydney College of the Arts; most recent exhibition (in collaboration with Blak Douglas aka Adam Hill) BOMB, Museum of Contemporary Aboriginal Art (AAMU), Utecht, Holland; editor of the Australiasian Journal of Popular Culture, his latest book (with Vicki Karaminas) is Queer Style (Bloomsbury) Richard Grayson: London-based artist, writer and curator; currently artistic director Adelaide International 2014 Worlds in Collision for the 2014 Adelaide Festival Artistic Director, 2002 Biennale of Sydney, (The World May Be) Fantastic; his critical writing has been published by Art Monthly, UK and Broadsheet; has written catalogue essays and monographs on Mark Wallinger, Roy Harper, Mike Nelson, Susan Hiller and Suzanne Treister; recent exhibitions include His Master’s Voice, HMKV Dortmund (2013), and Rebirth and Apocalypse: 2012 Kiev Biennale Joana Hadjithomas+Khalil Joreige: Paris-based filmmakers and artists Ray Langenbach: Professor of Performance Art and Theory in the Live Art and Performance Studies Masters Program, Theatre Academy, University of the Arts Helsinki; holds a Research Fellowship at the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts; writes on cultural theory, visual art, performance and queer culture. His installations, video and performance art works have been presented in the United States, Europe and Asia-Pacific Guy Mannes-Abbott: London-based writer, essayist and critic; author of a singular series of texts: poems, stories and aphorisms called e.things, which have been exhibited, published and performed alongside the work of leading British and International artists; In Ramallah, Running (2012) is the longest and latest in this series of texts and projects; recently collaborated with Bombay-based CAMP on a film for Folkestone Triennial Basak Senova: Ankara-based curator and designer; curator 2014 Jerusalem Show VII, Al-Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art, Jerusalem; editorial correspondent for ibraaz.org; curator Pavilion of Turkey, 53rd Venice Biennale (2009); co-curated UNCOVERED (Cyprus) and 2nd Biennial of Contemporary Art, D-0 ARK Underground (Bosnia and Herzegovina); recently appointed the Art Gallery Chair of (ACM) SIGGRAPH 2014 (Vancouver) and curator, Helsinki Photography Biennial, 2014 Hamid Severi: art historian and curator, studied History of Art at University of California, Santa Brabara and has taught theoretical courses at universities and private institutions. He also writes articles for different magazines. The educational deputy at the Art and Architecture Faculty of Azad University in Tehran and the head of the research centre of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art are some of the posts which he has held in the past. He has curated many photography and video art exhibitions and has directed many conferences; currently a member of the editorial board of Art Tomorrow Magazine Russell Storer: Curatorial Manager, Asian and Pacific Art, Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane; member of the curatorial teams for the 6th and 7th Asia Pacific Triennials of Contemporary Art (2009 and 2012), and was a co-curator of the 3rd Singapore Biennale (2011); most recently, he curated the exhibition Cai Guo-Qiang: Falling Back to Earth at the Gallery of Modern Art (2013) Ania Szremski: Cairo-based chief curator,Townhouse, where she has been based intermittently since 2009; her writing has appeared in art21, Bidoun, Egypt Independent and other publications; has a dual masters in modern art history, theory and criticism and arts policy from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she wrote her thesis on the technoparanoiac drawings of Abdel Hadi al Gazzar and science fiction in early 1960s Egypt Ala Younis: Amman-based artist and curator; curated National Works, Kuwait’s first national pavilion at Venice Biennale (2013); her artwork has been shown at Institute du Monde Arabe (2013), 9th Gwangju Biennial (2012), Museum of Modern Arab Art in Doha (2012), New Museum Triennial (2012), 12th Istanbul Biennial (2011), Home Works 5 Beirut (2010), The Jerusalem Show (2009), PhotoCairo 4 (2008); co-director with Shumon Basar and Omar Berrada, 2014 Global Art Forum, Art Dubai Kathy Zarur: San Francisco-based doctoral candidate in the History of Art; in her research, she considers the recent entry of Arab artists into the mainstream art world, looking in particular at artists’ critical responses to the framing of their work via the paradigm of identity; assistant curator to Suzanne Cotter, the 2011 Sharjah Biennial; in the subsequent Sharjah Biennial, she co-produced Wael Shawky’s live installation Dictums 10:120
c o n t e m p o r a r y v i s u a l a r t + c u lt u r e b r o a d s h e e t Editor Assistant Editor Advertising Manager Publisher Design
volume 43.1 MARCH 2014
Alan Cruickshank Wendy Walker Matt Huppatz Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia Inc. Alan Cruickshank, Nasim Nasr
ISSN 0819 677X © Copyright 2014, Broadsheet, the authors and artists. No part of this publication may be reproduced without permission. Broadsheet is published quarterly by the Contemporary Art Centre of SA Inc. print post approved PP53 1629/00022 The Contemporary Art Centre of SA is supported by the Visual Arts and Craft Strategy, an initiative of the Australian, State and Territory Governments Editorial inquiries, advertising and subscriptions may be sent to the Editorial Office: Broadsheet 14 Porter Street Parkside South Australia 5063 Tel +61  8272 2682 Fax +61  8373 4286 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org www.cacsa.org.au Subscriptions: Contact the Administrator, Contemporary Art Centre of SA—email@example.com The views and/or opinions expressed in Broadsheet are those of the contributing writers and not necessarily those of the editor, staff or Board of the CACSA
Editorial Advisory Board International:
RICHARD GRAYSON UK Artist, lecturer and writer, London BORIS KREMER UK Curator, translator and writer, London ASTRID MANIA Germany Editor, writer and curator, Berlin CHRISTOPHER MOORE Germany Writer, Berlin; Editor-in-Chief, Randian online, Berlin VASIF KORTUN Turkey Director SALT, Istanbul JULIE UPMEYER Turkey Artist, Initiator, Caravansarai, Istanbul RANJIT HOSKOTE India Curator, writer, Mumbai COLIN CHINNERY China Artist, writer and curator, Beijing BILJANA CIRIC China Independent curator, Shanghai JOHN BATTEN Hong Kong Curator, art critic, writer PATRICK FLORES Philippines Professor Dept Art Studies University of Philippines, Manila SUE HAJDU Vietnam Artist, writer, Ho Chi Minh City RAY LANGENBACH Malaysia/Finland Artist, curator, writer, lecturer and critic, Kuala Lumpur and Faculty Member, Post-Graduate Studies, Finnish Academy of Fine Arts, Helsinki LEE WENG CHOY Singapore Writer and critic, Deputy Director & Senior Curator (designate) NTU Centre for Contemporary Art EUGENE TAN Singapore Director Special Projects, Singapore Economic Development Board Director national Art Gallery Singapore TONY GODFREY Singapore/Manila Art historian, writer, curator NATASHA CONLAND New Zealand Curator Contemporary Art, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tämaki, Auckland
ROBERT COOK Perth Associate Curator of Contemporary Art, Art Gallery of Western Australia RUSSELL STORER Brisbane Curatorial Manager, Asian & Pacific Art, Queensland Art Gallery REX BUTLER Brisbane Writer, editor and senior lecturer, University of Queensland BLAIR FRENCH Sydney Assistant Director, Curatorial and Digital, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia ADAM GECZY Sydney Artist and writer, Senior Lecturer University of Sydney CHARLES GREEN Melbourne Artist, curator, art critic and historian; Associate Professor, University of Melbourne IAN NORTH Adelaide Artist, writer and Adjunct Professor, School of Art, University of South Australia
c o n t e m p o r a r y v i s u a l a r t + c u lt u r e b r o a d s h e e t COVER: Fiona Hall, installation detail Out of my tree, 2013 Photo courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney from the 2014 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, Dark Heart Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 1 March–11 May, 2014
AN UNSHARED RESPONSE TO OUR HUMANITY Alan Cruickshank
WORLDS IN COLLISION Richard Grayson
IN RAMALLAH, RUNNING Guy Mannes-Abbott
ON THE LEBANESE ROCKET SOCIETY Joana Hadjithomas | Khalil Joreige
NO MORE STARS (STAR WARS): RÄ di martino Amelia Barikin 36
BLOOD AND LANDSCAPE: BEN QUILTY IN AFGHANISTAN AND AT HOME Michael Desmond
AH XIAN: HEALING THE WOUNDS Russell Storer
you imagine what you desire Adam Geczy | Juliana Engberg
WAEL SHAWKY: THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT Kathy Zarur
the social readymade: ahmet öğüt Duygu Demir 42
Valamanesh and Translocality Hamid Severi
THE PUBLIC DOMAIN HAS OPENED UP! Fulya Erdemci | Basak Senova
emancipatory desires: what do you think of ‘if the world changed’? Ray Langenbach
SHIFTING SANDS Alan Cruickshank
when seeing is belonging: the photography of tahrir Lara Baladi
NOTES ON CULTURAL EXCHANGE: MORE HARM THAN GOOD? Aaron Cezar
the work of art (institutions) in an age of manifestly unstable collective trauma Ania Szremski
art and culture under occupation: the palestinian museum and qalandiya international Diana Abouali
museum of manufactured response to absence and national works Ala Younis
volume 43.1 MARCH 2014
SAM SONGAILO 24 APRIL – 26 MAY
Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia
Joana Hadjithomas+Khalil Joreige, The Lebanese Rocket Society: A carpet , 2012 Photo courtesy the artists and Third LIne Gallery, Dubai
WORLDS IN COLLISION : ADELAIDE INTERNATIONAL featuring 9 international contemporary artists located across four galleries in Adelaide curated by Richard Grayson for the Adelaide Festival 2014 Visual Arts Program
JOANA HADJITHOMAS | KHALIL JOREIGE (LEBANON/FRANCE) 27 February â&#x20AC;&#x201C; 30 march
Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia 14 Porter Street Parkside South Australia 5063
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CONTEMPORARY ART WITH UBS
bindi cole. I Am
16 May to 10 August 2014 2014 Indigenous Ceramic Art Award The Drawing Wall #15: Reko Rennie
70 Welsford Street, Shepparton VIC 3630 p (03) 5832 9861 f (03) 5831 8480 e firstname.lastname@example.org w sheppartonartmuseum.com.au
Bindi Cole EH5452 (video still) 2012 digital video duration 10:21 minutes image courtesy the artist and Nellie Castan Gallery, Melbourne ÂŠ the artist This exhibition is proudly presented by Greater Shepparton City Council
re t n e c s t r a e l t n frema
d e e p s n o chicks scream
may 5 2 il r p a 5 n io exhibit
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Concrete 3 May - 5 July 2014
+ utopia album launch 5 april | fremantle arts centre inner courtyard
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Curator: Geraldine Barlow Concrete: a solid state, an aggregate of parts, a notion built upon the actual
Ground Floor, Building F Monash University, Caulfield Campus 900 Dandenong Road Caulfield East VIC 3145 Australia
www.monash.edu.au/muma Telephone +61 3 9905 4217 email@example.com Tues – Fri 10am – 5pm; Sat 12 – 5pm
AUTUMN SEASON 1 MARCH - 18 MAY 2014 S/M Wonderland Adam Geczy
Image: Elizabeth Hetzel, Elemental Fall, 2012 From the upcoming SASA Gallery exhibition Spaces of connection
Image by Adam Geczy, Rabbit Looking, 2014 (detail). Courtesy and ÂŠ the artist.
257 Oxford St Paddington New South Wales 2021 T +61 2 9332 0555 E firstname.lastname@example.org www.acp.org.au
50 Ways to Kill Renny KodgeRs The TwilighT girls & renny Kodgers OPENING: Wednesday 11 June, 6PM EXHIBITION: 12 June - 6 July 2014 WWW.Contemporaryarttasmania.orG 27 tasma street, north hobart, tasmania t +61 3 6231 0445
Image: production still from 50 Ways to Kill Renny Kodgers, courtesy of the artists + J端rgen Kerkovius
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Our programs include: Bachelor of Fine Arts (Visual Art) Bachelor of Fine Arts (Honours) (Visual Art) Graduate Certificate in Visual Art Master of Contemporary Art Master of Fine Arts (Visual Art) by Research
TESTING GROUND 22 Februar y - 4 May 201 4 A S alamanca Ar ts C entre exhibition toured by C ontemporar y Ar t Tasmania Curated by Julie Goug h 1491s, Ólöf Björnsdóttir, Trudi Brinckman, Darren Cook, Rebecca Dagnall, Sue Kneebone, Nancy Mauro-Flude, Jeroen Offerman, Perdita Phillips, r e a, Keren Ruki, Christian Thompson, Martin Walch and Siying Zhou Flind ers Universit y C it y Galler y State Librar y of South Australia Nor th Terra c e, Ad elaid e Tue - Fri 11 - 4, S at & Sun 12 - 4 www.flinders.edu.au/ artmuseum Nancy Mauro–Flude, Valetudo (detail), 2013, hand sequined-embroidered, knitted polyester flag, embedded AR layer, 300 x 180 cm, courtesy the artist
Program March - June 2014 Credit: Tess Allas, Charlie Schneider and Vernon Ah-Kee Andy Warhol on Aboriginal Art, photographic performance
Four Rooms 25 February – 6 April 2014 Curator troy-anthony Baylis
Room 1: Zane Saunders (QLD) Room 2: Jenny Fraser (QLD) and James Luna (USA) Room 3: Gordon Hookey (QLD) Room 4: Tess Allas (NSW), Charlie Schneider (USA) and Vernon Ah-Kee (QLD) Tandanya - National Aboriginal Cultural Institute 253 Grenfell Street, Adelaide
INFORM Presentations by industry professionals on all aspects of developing the business side of your practice. • • • •
12 March: Australia Council grants: in it to win it 9 April: Exhibitions 101 7 May: Arts SA Project Grant writing session 11 June: Optimize your online presence
INFORM Regional Access Picture Perfect: photographing your work • • •
Riverland, Sunday 2 March Bordertown, Sunday 30 March Tanunda, Sunday 25 May
How to price your work • Goolwa, Wednesday 30 April
Studio Sessions A rare opportunity to visit the private studios of some of Adelaide’s most successful artists and hear how they’ve established sustainable careers • •
a pdf magazine for emerging australian and international art, sound and film
3 March: James Dodd 7 April: Tom Moore
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Photo Essays from the Top End Join the Art & Heritage Collections mailing list to keep your finger on the cultural pulse of the University of Adelaide
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an unshared response to our humanity
ALAN CRUICKSHANK It’s sobriquet was Australia’s “meeting of the minds… [our] best and brightest”, summoned to Canberra to discuss how best to confront a range of problems supposedly facing the country. Shortly after being elected Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd unveiled the 2020 Summit, the idea, he said, to gather one thousand people and “shake the tree a bit and see what the nation’s got to offer”. The Australia 2020 Summit was held in April 2008, its aim to “help shape a long term strategy for the nation’s future”. Of the ten critical policy areas to be discussed ‘Creative Australia—the arts, film and design’ was listed at eight. The Australia 2020 Summit proved calculable in its feelgood verbiage, though a straight line might be drawn between it and the 2013 Creative Australia cultural policy.1 Vexing from the beginning was the Government’s deference paid to the perceived intellectual aura of film stars and fellow-travellers being representative of “Culture and The Arts” (and therefore the visual arts). The media banners at the time said it all: “Rudd names his summit team. Cate Blanchett will join the… steering committee of the Federal Government’s Australia 2020 Summit”2; and “2020 summit still Blanchett’s baby”3 with X-Man Hugh Jackman levitating in the wings for photo opportunities. Of the one hundred attendees for ‘Towards a creative Australia’, only six represented the visual arts sector—Melbourne curator Geraldine Barlow, Gallery dealer Jan Minchin, now Chair of the Australia Council Rupert Myer, Museum of Contemporary Art Director Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, National Gallery of Australia Director Ron Radford—and only one visual artist, Melbourne-based Australian representative at the 2007 Venice Biennale, Callum Morton. There were no South Australian visual artists, museum or contemporary art gallery directors or curators invited to attend.4
Above: Mona Hatoum, Waiting is Forbidden, 2006-08 Photo courtesy the artist and Alexander and Bonin, New York
It was about this time that I wrote elsewhere; “The realities of any contemporary (visual) art organisation remain immersed in the instabilities of its time, more profound and resonating than the individual or collective desires of it and its protagonists. In a globalised world of more money than ever, it would seem that such a certainty is neither cause for elation nor permanence of existence… Acclaim for the appendage “visual” in “The Arts” would still seem to be in abeyance. A case in point—the federal government’s pursuit of a “cultural policy” annexed by star ‘cultured’ opinions of film actors and authors, and populist press rhetoric.” As an illustrative, slightly less execrable example of representation was the ABC’s Artscape program on 15 December, 2011 which discussed a proposed “National Cultural Policy” with a “panel of experts”, being a cultural economist, an “award-winning” musician, a festival director and writer, an “award-winning” playwright and theatre company director, and a media consultant. (my emphasis). Not a visual artist in the house, though it was reported, “In the audience were… artists, musicians, broadcasters, philanthropists, arts administrators...” (my emphasis again).5 On and on it has gone. And on and on it goes. (The federal government in June 2013 announced that there would be twelve new members of the inaugural Board under the Australia Council’s new legislation, only one of whom, the aforementioned Rupert Myer, has any representative history with the visual arts.6) Several months before this so-called “panel of experts” held forth, as confirmation of this ethos of exclusivity of representation, The Australian newspaper presented an opinion piece by internationally renowned Australian writer, author and poet David Malouf.7 His article was footnoted, “David Malouf attended a recent meeting of major performing arts artistic directors to discuss the proposed national cultural policy. This essay is his response to that discussion.”8 (my emphasis) In reading Malouf’s words, doubtless of his passion for and commitment to “The Arts”, I felt compelled at that time to respond to his “response to that discussion”, to what more often that not presents itself as a quintessentially Australian characteristic (much like that of this country’s peculiar antipathy expressed by supporters of either sport or culture, that to like one you couldn’t possibly the other) of an all too familiar and prevailing bureaucratic, corporate and general public assumption that essentially identifies The Arts as ‘performing’ (read entertainment), incorporating an aversion to if not exclusion of (the shock of…) the cerebral, erudite, analytical and intellectual—visual arts. At a current juncture when the “visual” holds an ubiquitous and vibrant presence within the national cultural event landscape —the Adelaide Festival (Australian Biennial of Australian Art, Adelaide International and Artists’ Week), Melbourne Now, the Biennale of Sydney, and more—Malouf’s tribute requires a celebratory, worthy corruption to highlight an historical and ongoing catalogue against the “visual” and its internationally recognised and acclaimed practitioners.
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David Malouf, ‘SHARED RESPONSE TO OUR HUMANITY’, THE AUSTRALIAN, 5.10.2011 It is good, when we ask ourselves what we get from the performing arts visual arts—what they do it does for us, what they are it is worth—to recall what actually happens when we take ourselves off and become part of the audience at a play or a program of classical or contemporary or indigenous dance, or the opera, a musical, an orchestral or chamber concert, or the circus visual arts opening event or later in the stillness of the gallery, a curator or artist talk, or listening to critics and cultural theorists talk at a symposium or conference. The first thing, of course, is that we are there; bodily present in the same space and the same moment as the performers visual artists, curators, directors, critics, writers and cultural theorists. What happens then is uniquely for us. The other is that we are there both as individuals, with all our quirks, our habits of attitude and response, our individual nervous systems and interests and prejudices and, at the same time, since we are by training as well as by nature social creatures, as part of a uniquely constituted group: strangers sitting and standing beside and behind and in front of us whom we have for this occasion joined, and whose presence, and responses as we pick them up, will determine at least partly the way we see and hear what is about to happen and what we feel and think, comprehend, ruminate, conjecture, perceive, postulate, understand, evaluate, and ultimately (perhaps) appreciate. This business of presence is essential to all live performance visual arts openings, curator’s and artist’s talks, symposiums or conferences, whether the players participants are musicians visual artists, curators, art historians, philosophers, art critics or writers vigorously bowing and putting their arm and shoulder into it, or banging or blowing, or dancers leaping or holding themselves precariously balanced and still, or actors, or acrobats, or singers using their breath to create sounds that are almost miraculously the shape of emotions articulating the theme and context of their work and its art-historical, and/or contemporary cultural, philosophical or socio-political framework. Because all these performers visual artists, curators, directors, art historians, philosophers, art critics and writers are using the body their intellect—a body an intellect (perhaps) just like our own—at its the highest pitch of possibility and skill reach of their capacities, we too, as we identify with their effort, are made aware, and in a unique way, of what the body mind actually is, and this is essential to the sense we get of our own body mind, the exhilarations we feel, the rush of energy we get as the soprano reaches visual artist, curator, art historian, philosopher, art critic or writer for her high note or the acrobat goes flying across space and catches the bar achieves the epitome of their visual and/or theoretical articulation. We don’t need teachers for any of this. We learn how to be part of an audience through time, by being there; by attending; and how to be a good audience by raising our capacities to the pitch we call attention, which is itself a form of heightened presence or being. Of course the senses are differently involved from one field of performance exhibition, curator and/or artist talk, symposium or conference to another. In music visual art the primary element is sound sight, that facilitates comprehension, rumination, conjecture, perception, postulation, understanding, evaluation, and perhaps even appreciation. But part of the excitement at a an exhibition opening event, curator and/or artist talk, symposium or conference live musical performance lies in our seeing (and listening) where the various sounds are coming from and how they blend yet remain separate; in feeling the air around us vibrate as the soundwaves reach us; at a big climax realising how much of the excitement in a quite tactile way, comes from seeing all those bowing arms attack the strings in unison the artists’, curators’, directors’, art historians’, art critics’ and writers’ creative methodologies in material, technical, theoretical and philosophical approaches, culminating in varying degrees of understanding, rumination, conjecture, perception and evaluation.
Above: Wael Shawky, Cabaret Crusades: The Path to Cairo, 2012 Photo courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Galerie, Hamburg and Beirut
In theatre visual art, for all that the voice and language image, its meaning and context is primary, whether the text is by Shakespeare or Aeschylus or David Williamson, it is by Picasso or Man Ray or Hirst what we are likeliest to take away as a memory is the prolonged shower of gold in the first part of Benedict Andrews’s The War of the Roses and the flakes of ash turning slowly to mud, of the second; on the actor’s part a single gesture visual: the millions of life-sized handmade sunflower seed husks at the Tate Turbine Hall by Ai Wei Wei, forming a seemingly infinite landscape inviting us to look more closely at the “made in China” phenomenon and the geo-politics of cultural and economic exchange; the lotus flower painted courtyard site-specific work Blessings Upon the Land of my Love by Pakistani miniaturist Imran Qureshi, its physical immersion as startling as its psychological absorption, conversing with the culture, history, and political realities of the region; or the LED digital counting device installations of Tatsuo Miyajima that synch to the rhythm of natural events and the pulsing of life in individual subjectivities, establishing a rhythm as definitive as repetition itself and the inexorable passing of time. Astonishing how often a great actor’s performance visual artist’s work will glow in our memory as a body-habit that we recognise immediately as a reflection of our psychology or soul, the character’s visual artist’s or curator’s unique response both to his self and to the world. Olivier’s rolling walk as a kind of West Indian Othello; Ian Holm as Prince Hal, obsessively hugging himself as if he could never get enough affection or were permanently cold; Hugo Weaving’s compulsive shuffling of his feet, a kind of dance, very idiosyncratic and engagingly curious, as Astrov last year in Uncle Vanya. Most extraordinary of all, as I have retained the memory of it for more than 40 years, Margot Fonteyn, fluttering with every nerve in her body over her kneeling prince, to whom she is dancing an anguished and eternal farewell. The viewer’s immersion into the architectural installation of Isaac Julien’s multi-channel videowork Ten Thousand Waves that poetically weaves together stories linking China’s ancient past and present; the disequilibrium of Jannane Al-Ani’s repeated visual descent towards earth in Shadow Sites II; or the films of Yang Fudong, combining the lyricism of Chinese scroll-painting with loose expressiveness and stark tableau of dreamlike vague, reflecting upon the conundrums of idealism and ideology; Wael Shawky’s Cabaret Crusades, three film series using marionettes that ironically criticises the history of the establishment of modern civilisations while analysing religious conflict by shifting between myth and fact, with Amin Maalouf’s book The Crusades Through Arab Eyes as its major inspiration; or Emily Jacir’s “ardent, intimate, intensely political and beyond polemic” extended performance by proxy, Where We Come From, where as a holder of an American passport, she asked a group of Palestinians living within the occupied territories and elsewhere: “If I could do anything for you, anywhere in Palestine, what would it be?” and acted out their responses. The electricity produced by these moments of absolute presence, both the performer’s visual artist’s and our own, is irreplaceable. All this belongs to individual response. But we experience it at a live performance visual arts opening event in company; as individuals who are also part of a group, or later in the stillness of the gallery, and so on... Any writer visual artist who is accustomed to managing a reader’s viewer’s response in the privacy of the page physical, intellectual, psychological and emotional engagement of the gallery space or auditorium will tell you how disconcerting it is to sit in an audience and hear what he has written produced subjected to a group response, where individuals react according to their social as well as personal nature. When we become part of an audience we surrender part of ourselves and get something larger in return. For as long as the performance visual arts opening event, a curator and/or artist talk, or symposium or conference lasts we are part of a society, temporarily but immediately established, that is a smaller version of society at large;
where our social as well as our individual responses are in play. What moves us emotionally may be individual, but what involves judgment, either social or moral, is modified in us by the presence of others. We are more keenly observant of human folly or deficiency because we are in company and responsive to what our neighbours will be feeling. We laugh, think, comprehend, ruminate, conjecture, perceive, postulate, understand, evaluate, and perhaps even appreciate more readily, and louder studiously, because others around us are laughing thinking, comprehending, ruminating, conjecturing, perceiving, postulating, understanding, evaluating, and perhaps even appreciating. One of the strongest uses of being one of many in an audience is that it reinforces in us a sense of belonging, of sharing so much of what we are with others, or being at one with humanity as a whole. There is a real sense of refreshment in this, of recreation and pleasure, of release. As there might be from a similar contemplation alone in the gallery, or afterwards on the walk back to the car or waiting for the bus. If we are to look for an educational component in our taking ourselves off so readily to the theatre, the opera, to concerts, the circus a visual arts opening event, a curator and/or artist talk, a symposium or conference, it is probably here. Each audience, exhibition opening, artist’s and/or curator’s talk, symposium or conference we join attend is a new lesson in learning how to be one of many; in practising how, among strangers, to discover what it is we share. Notes 1 “Creative Australia, the Australian Government’s 2013 national cultural policy, celebrates Australia’s strong, diverse and inclusive culture. It describes the essential role arts and culture play in the life of every Australian and how creativity is central to Australia’s economic and social success: a creative nation is a productive nation.” See http://creativeaustralia.arts.gov. au/ 2 http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/rudd-names-his-summit-team/2008/02/25/ 1203788248520.html 3 http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/2020-summit-still-blanchetts-baby/2008/04/14/ 1208025090843.html 4 See the full attendance list at http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/full-list-ofparticipants/2008/03/28/1206207389365.html 5 http://www.ampag.com.au/_blog/AMPAG_in_the_Media/post/ABC’s_Artscape_discusses_ the_National_Cultural_Policy/ 6 http://www.australiacouncil.gov.au/news/items/news_features/New-Australia-CouncilBoard-Appointed. Mr Rupert Myer AM – Chair, Australia Council for the Arts; previously Chair, National Gallery of Australia, the Opera Australia Capital Fund, Commonwealth Inquiry into the Contemporary Visual Arts and Craft Sector and Kaldor Public Arts Projects; previously Trustee, National Gallery of Victoria; previously Board Member, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney; Currently Deputy Chair, Myer Holdings Ltd. 7 David Malouf is internationally recognised as one of the world’s finest and most versatile contemporary writers. Since his first collection of poetry in 1962, he has published novels, short stories, collections of poetry, opera libretti, a play and a volume of autobiography 8 http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/shared-response-to-our-humanity/story e6frg8n61226158384159
This issue has as its main focus the 2014 Adelaide Festival’s visual arts program, being Adelaide International: Worlds in Collision (curated by London-based Richard Grayson), Artists’ Week (co-convened by Copenhagen-based Lars Bang Larsen and Richard Grayson) and the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Dark Heart (curated by Adelaidebased Nick Mitzevich); the 2014 Biennale of Sydney: You Imagine What You Desire (curated by Juliana Enberg); Art Dubai, (Hossein Valamanesh will be presented by GAG Projects, Adelaide); the Shifting Sands Symposium, and related international biennales. The cover image is by Adelaide-based artist Fiona Hall, who is participating in the 2014 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Dark Heart, and who has been announced as the Australian representative at the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015.
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worlds in collision RICHARD GRAYSON It should be re-affirmed that the creation of a counter-culture, in itself a haphazard, chancy and unpredictable affair, has profound political implications. For while the Establishment, with its flair for survival, can ultimately absorb policies, no matter how radical or anarchistic (abolition of censorship, withdrawal from Vietnam, Legalised Pot etc.) how long can it withstand the impact of an alien culture?—a culture that is destined to create a new kind of man? Richard Neville, Play Power, 19701 In 1971 Leonard Cohen flew from Montreal to Switzerland to meet his friend Henry Zemel, who was making a documentary for Canadian television about Immanuel Velikovsky, the Russian catastrophist and psychoanalyst. Cohen had first become interested in Velikovsky’s writing after reading an article in a copy of his father’s copies of Readers Digest magazine and maintained a strong interest in his theories about relationships between cosmology and evolution and how religion and myth were human responses to real, historical, catastrophes of celestial origin. The evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould made a synopsis for his readers of these narratives in the essay ‘Velikovsky in Collision’: “Not long ago, Venus emerged from Jupiter, like Athena from the brow of Zeus—literally! It then assumed the form and orbit of a comet. In 1500 B.C., at the time of the Jewish exodus from Egypt, the earth passed twice through Venus’s tail, bringing both blessing and chaos; manna from heaven (or rather from hydrocarbons of a cometary tail) and the bloody rivers of the Mosaic plagues (iron from the same tail). Continuing its erratic course, Venus collided with (or nearly brushed) Mars, lost its tail, and hurtled to its present orbit. Mars then left its regular position and almost collided with the earth in about 700 B.C. So great were the terrors of these times, and so ardent our collective desire to forget them, that they have been erased from our conscious minds. Yet they lurk in our inherited and unconscious memory, causing fear, neurosis, aggression, and their social manifestations as war… This may sound like a script of a very poor, late-late movie on TV; nonetheless, it represents the serious theory of Immanuel Velikovsky...”2
Velikovsky’s first book had been published in 1950 and he expanded his ideas in numerous publications over subsequent decades. Despite the cold shoulder from the scientific and educational establishment (as exemplified in Gould’s description)—his ideas became widely circulated outside academia. The CBC film that Cohen took part in—he can be seen asking questions about the sexuality of gods and the workings of mass amnesia—was broadcast in 1972, and a separate documentary by the BBC went to air in 1973. By 1974, the American Association for the Advancement of Science felt it timely to convene a public seminar—as they had previously done to look at the evidence about UFOs —to put these ideas again under scientific scrutiny, and Velikovsky and his theories were interrogated by Professor Carl Sagan, who also felt it necessary to rebut them in his popular series ‘Cosmos’. This was both the highpoint of Velikovsky’s visibility and the point where his theories begin their retreat from the public gaze. Although dismissed by the scientific community, there was something in the cinematic spaceopera scope of his vision and in the ways that his theories suggested occluded layers of material truth behind legendary events that spoke to the wider cultural imagination. And not only the demographic that subscribed to the Reader’s Digest, but to individuals such as Leonard Cohen, who in disparate and various ways were in the process of developing subjectivities more diverse than the world described by the Digest in that short and spectacular efflorescence of free-form activity of the 1960s and 1970s collectively known as the “Counterculture”. There are as many understandings of what constituted the counterculture as there were participants, and if refracted through the prism of the anti-war movement, the civil-rights movement, the women’s movement, sexual liberation, the investigation of hallucinogens, experiments in communal living, musical avant-gardists, Pan African jazz cosmonauts, Eastern mystics, Yippies seeking to levitate the Pentagon, Electric-Kool Aid Acid testers, Diggers asking that you “Remake yourself as you want to be, now!”, or Timothy Leary exhorting to “Tune In! Turn On! Drop Out!” Any combination of these and other ideas that were being frantically enacted and explored by a generation seeking wider possibilities of imagining what it might be to be fully human. What linked this hotchpotch was a rejection of existing structures, an openness to other models of the world and a demand for new and expanded levels of experience and meaning outside or beyond that of ‘straight’ society and establishment values and received models of knowledge. It was a stumbling search for enlightenment through a synthesis (and synaesthesia) of philosophy psychedelics, revolutionary politics, tantric sex and a close reading of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. A pamphlet at the 1967
‘Human Be In’ at Golden Gate Park started with the lines, “[A] new nation has grown inside the robot flesh of the old” and concluded, “Hang your fear at the door and join the future. If you do not believe, please wipe your eyes and see.” Velikovsky was in Switzerland at the invitation of Alfred de Grazia to teach at the University of the New World. De Grazia, a political and behavioural scientist and former writer of psychological war manuals for the CIA, was also editor of the American Behavioural Scientist magazine, which had dedicated a special issue to Velikovsky. He had established the university as an alternative to mainstream educational systems in order to model approaches fitting for the emerging new Aquarian culture. There were no hierarchies, no exams, and all learning was to be playful and joyous with a free interplay between various disciplines. Velikovsky’s fellow professors included Ornette Coleman and William Burroughs. Burroughs described the school in letters to Brion Gysin and Anthony Balch: “University supervise health threat, this is the ‘cut up’ on day of my arrival. There is in fact a strange virus peculiar to Haute-Nendaz (the village housing the university)… I feel normal in the morning, quite ill by three pm—chills, light fever, by five pm delirium, mental disturbance, splitting headache. Cross checking I find most of the students have had the same symptoms for three weeks to a month after arrival… They attribute this to the ‘vibes’ as they call them.” He continued: “As you suspected no pay. No money in fact. University may fold at any time. De Grazia left before I arrived leaving no one in charge. Faculty and students suing a vacuum for breach of contract. University under police surveillance, drug scandals the lot… the students are a gas. This is really a beautiful place and silent. Such silence. Have turned up veterans of the Hotel Chelsea, friends of Allen Ginsberg, Alex Trocchi. Tim Leary lives just over the next glacier. If this was a going concern it would be a gas for all of us to teach here. All in all having a fine time and wish you were here.”3 The years since Velikovsky’s residency at the University of the New World have seen a retreat of such ideas of grand transformative enterprise. As Burroughs’ letters indicate, there were challenges in getting these new utopian structures and ideas to work in actuality, especially given the conscious rejection by the people involved of received organisational structures and hierarchies, compounded by the considerable operational difficulties presented by being as high as kites through Page 21: Benedict Drew, The Persuaders, 2011-14 Photo courtesy the artist and Matt’s Gallery, London Above: Paul Laffoley,The Zodiac Wheel, 1967 Photo courtesy the artist Opposite: Fred Tomaselli, Dark Star, 2013 Photo courtesy the artist and James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai
an enthusiastic embrace of drugs and altered states of consciousness. Inevitably their enactment led to a betrayal of early ideals, not only in Haute-Nendaz but across the counterculture as transmuted from a crucible to explore new ways of being, into a site for the making of products in new markets of fashion, music and style; traded by a new generation of hippy entrepreneurs to the emerging consumerclass of youth. Its anti-materialist legacies and non-linear approaches were further eroded and occluded by newer radical narratives of Economic Liberalism and ideas of the free play of market forces, which had little space for ideas of open-ended constructions of human potential and association, encouraging instead new formations of the individual as an economic unit and atomised intelligence, a consumer satisfying a set of immediate, notionally rational, self-interested drives. When the command economies in the Soviet Union and its satellites collapsed at the end of the 1980s, it seemed that the logics and operations of the market were invincible and changing from a political, economic and ideological construction into a Natural Law. A ‘truth’, the questioning of which was akin to refusing the existence of gravity. And like natural laws such as gravity, the narratives of economic liberalism allow no exclusions—this is how things work—there is no part of the world where things fall up. The categorical shift of the market and its expansion into the realms of the abstract increasingly shaped ideas and outcomes of contemporary art. The function of art as a high value commodity—both abstract and actual—to be traded and consumed by highvalue individuals and institutions, has become so dominant as to deny or problematise wider agendas of change and transformation that shaped the development of progressive art practices: be these ideas of art as a revolution of consciousness, an agent of social change, as something that is stubbornly oppositional, arcane, esoteric or perverse, art as a laboratory of approaches that lies outside of—or in vital opposition to—quotidian and bourgeois structures of value and meaning. Practices that were once oppositional, alternative and avant-garde are now establishment and ideas of art as a transformative or revolutionary enterprise increasingly constitute a sort of foundation myth that gives an auratic glow to stylistic innovations, to new lines of production for the market. Outside the commercial sphere—in the tattered remains of the social, non-market arena—these histories translate into ideas of art having an instrumental or utilitarian function, where artworks, galleries and museums are considered to have some sort of vague, non-specific, broad-spectrum benefit to individuals or depressed communities
and towns and bleak traffic interchanges, and with outcomes that hopefully can be quantified and measured in terms of health, happiness and economic well-being. In parallel, the revolutionary ideas and agendas that modern art once considered itself to be but a part of—as an avant-garde of wider social change—are themselves increasingly corralled into the spaces of contemporary art. Ideas that were once intended to rewire civilisation or redefine human potential are now only allowed expression and free play in the white walls of the Art Gallery or the Art Department seminar, as it seems that they can no longer function properly in the world outside. This bandwidth reduction increasingly shaped understandings of the intentions and histories of many practices that influenced the development of contemporary art: spiritual, esoteric and mystical agendas sidelined in favour of formal or conceptual understandings of their role and functions; oceanic theological yearnings marginalised in favor of intellectual, philosophical and ironic constructions. Utopian imaginings are becoming an endangered species, unless ironised, unable to cope in the altered eco-system. At the same time, the ‘contemporary art world’ can be seen as taking on the function of a conservation park for rare and exotic species; princes and potentates once collected exotic lions and rhinoceri in their private gardens as symbols of power and other abstract values, and now oligarchs, arms dealers, developers and bankers, start-up enterprises and corporations, collect and fund contemporary art. Galleries and art fairs become a way of extending the reach of the market into immaterial realms—a monetisation of abstracts and ideals—where works that speak of human emancipation and potential outside the trammels of capital are now collected, bought and traded for the entertainment of the very rich. It seems possible however, that we might have arrived at a circumstance where these developments have reached a pause, a point that in the future will be seen as their apogee, that the endless expansion of money might be about to slow. In the wake of the crash of financial systems that started in 2008, we can, for a moment imagine that the natural law of the market had lost its inevitability, as the ‘invisible-hand’ becomes a metaphor again, not the manifested agent of a god-like system. As John Gray (The New Statesman’s lead book reviewer) says, “militant truth is always harmful to civilisation (becoming an open ended license for savagery and oppression)”.4 This moment may be just a blip; certainly we are told that the systems are returning to ‘normal’ (at least until longer-term limits to ever expanding markets and consumption become evident in catastrophic environmental
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degradation and rising sea levels), but there remains a new nervousness and the potential that, despite their increasingly forceful re-articulations, the market paradigms, which have shaped our culture over the last few decades are for a moment less absolute, that there are spaces for other possibilities and ideas that operate independently of the absolutist claims of this dominant narrative and that we may detect new constellations of association and possibility. The last few years have witnessed a rekindling of interest in ideas and styles associated the 1960s and early 1970s counterculture; things which, until recently, had been considered entirely uncool and beyond recuperation other than for comedy purposes. Part of this has to be the mechanics of contemporary culture’s inexorable nostalgia. Punk and post-punk have been picked over and reconsidered, so logically what lies in the murk of pre-punk is next in line for zombie reanimation. But perhaps we might identify other reasons and resonances in this interest. Significantly the counterculture, although unfolding against the backgrounds of the Vietnam War, the possibilities of nuclear destruction and overtly hostile cultural and political forces, was, at its core, the last essentially optimistic movement in recent cultural history in the West. One which was not only reactive, but was proposing the possibility of generating ways of living and understanding, which were non-alienated and that were truly alternative (as well as in opposition) to society at large. It is this other-worldliness that made it so rich for dismissal—never trust a hippy, as the punk movement had it—and which made the way it crashed and burned into new-age spirituality and hip solipsism so wearily inevitable. But it is this core sense of expansive potential that makes it of such interest today, when it comes to ways of seeking strategies to imagine and develop alternatives to the grinding hegemonies of the ‘robot flesh’ of the real world. The world we inhabit today is shaped by ideas and events deriving from that period in more significant ways than are usually recognised: not only in the areas of social, sexual and racial attitudes, where progressive values that first emerged as radical utopian alternatives have become mainstream in much of Western society, but crucially in the operations of the digital spaces that increasingly shape our activities, imaginations and our sense of potential. The Internet traces direct links to individuals and events with roots in the counterculture—from John Perry Barlow to Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog—and the ghosts of these visions continue to roam its seemingly infinite spaces. The development and expansion of these technologies, even when they seem merely to innovate new ways of selling things, suggest the possibility new relations and structures outside or beyond those that have determined our recent history. The developing digital cultures and their links with the historic countercultures might, optimistically, be imagined as forming a bracket
around the period of market hegemony and suggest a possibility of a cathexis, where some of the ideas from the past may be instructive in thinking about the new. Music, although a dizzyingly fast declining cultural and market force, has been experiencing (perhaps because of the freedoms given by this decline) an efflorescence of experimentation and revisiting of earlier forms. From freak-folk bands borrowing from the cultural eclecticisms and enchanted sylvan imaginings of the Incredible String Band or the psychedelic reaches of the Grateful Dead, to bearded Sydney and Williamsburg hipsters revisiting ideas of ‘getting it together in the country‘, as groups such as Traffic and The Band once did, the approaches of the counterculture are gaining a surprising new currency. There have been compilations and festivals of new psychedelic music and outside vaguely formal re-articulations, wider experimental music scenes from electronica to hauntology continue to investigate and reclaim lost narratives and to trace expressions of radical imagination based on the unworldly, the uncanny and the immaterial. These approaches and ideas have been explored by Erik Davis, who has written extensively about the relationships between myth, magic and mysticism and the emerging technological and digital realms and the expressions of both popular and high culture. He has tracked and unpacked ways these interactions inform and inflect each other in publications, such as TechGnosis: Myth, Magic & Mysticism in the Information Age (published in 1998 and republished in 2004): The Visionary State: A Journey through California’s Spritual Landscape (2006) and Nomad Codes: Adventures in Modern Esoterica (2010). He described in the introduction to Techgnosis how: “I will discuss how the discovery of electricity sparked animist ideas and occult experiences, even as it laid the groundwork for the information age. Next I will recast the epochal birth of cybernetics and the electronic computer in a transcendental light provided by the ancient lore of Gnosticism. Then I’ll show how the spiritual counterculture of the 1960s created a liberatory and even magical relationship to media and technology, a psychedelic mode of mind-tweaking that feeds directly into today’s cyberculture. Finally I’ll turn to our ‘datapocalyptic’ moment and show how UFOs, Gaian minds, New World Orders and techno-utopias that hover above the horizon of the third millennium subliminally feed off images and compulsions deeply rooted in the spiritual imagination.”5 His approaches have been both revelatory and influential. In visual art, Lars Bang Larsen recently curated the exhibition Reflections from Damaged Life: An Exhibition on Psychedelia at Raven Row in London, which set out to
question “what psychedelic art might be”; the Radical Enlightenment project running out of Geneva University in association with Yann Chataigne Tytelman. “Radical Enlightenment” is a concept from the writing of Jonathan Israel, Professor of Modern European History at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, whose work investigates the histories of the Enlightenment and posits the unfolding of two Enlightenments: “One the mainstream Enlightenment of Kant, Locke, Voltaire and Hume—which has constituted its public face —the other is shaped by lesser known figures, such as d’Holbach, Diderot, de Condorcet and Spinoza”,6 who provided the Enlightenment’s heart and soul. The two Enlightenments, Israel suggests, divided on the question of whether reason reigned supreme in human affairs, as the radicals insisted, or whether reason had to be limited by faith and tradition—the view of the mainstream. The mainstream’s intellectual timidity constrained its critique of old social forms and beliefs. By contrast, the Radical Enlightenment “rejected all compromise with the past and sought to sweep away existing structures entirely”.7 The description of a 2013 symposium by the current Radical Enlightenment project stated that it, “intends to invoke the spirit of a radical Enlightenment by gauging exchanges between art, science and counter-culture. Topics addressed in the seminar include mystical experience, medical experimentation, wayward cybernetics, military theory and network theories, electronic music, television and technologies of conditioning, robotics, trans-humanism and futurology, as well as hermetic philosophies and sorcery.”8 In Berlin, Anselm Franke and Diedrich Diederichsen recently staged The Whole Earth: California and the Disappearance of the Outside tracing the resonances of the Whole Earth catalogue across the worlds of cybernetics, nature, romanticism, psychedelia and computer culture, the environmentalist movement and digital network culture. Worlds in Collision is not an historical show, nor are any of the artists known for their relationships to that historical counterculture. However the exhibition has been conceived in relationship to these intriguing investigations and reassessments, and is a celebration of practices and works that in one way or another suggests the possibility of another sort of ‘real’, of something else either underlying or breaking through more fixed understandings. Ideas of how science and technology, along with their methodologies—collection, comparison, analysis and indexing—can act as portals to wider dimensions is a theme in the exhibition. In turn, these dimensions are perhaps those we cannot yet know or map, nor are they necessarily entirely knowable through the approaches and syntaxes of instrumental
reason—and so suggest the limits of orthodox modelling. Seen in this way, the technology operates as an agent of transformation as well as alienation, and becomes inflected and shaped as much by the promises of early modernity as the outcomes of postmodernity. They suggest a function of “re-enchantment” as much as the mechanisms of “disenchantment”, as posited by Max Weber, the “historical process by which the natural world and all areas of human experience become experienced and understood as less mysterious; defined, at least in principle, as knowable, predictable and manilpulatable by humans; conquered by and incorporated into the interpretive schema of science and rational government”.9 The implied refusal to entirely accept the mainstream reading and the demand for ‘more’, along with the manifest interest in heterodox and the alternative models echo previous strategies, but are, at the same time, of this moment. Taking its title from Velikovsky’s most famous, albeit now increasingly forgotten, publication, Worlds in Collision presents a number of contemporary art works and practices, (and speakers and commentators), that in various and different ways, operate at —or just beyond—an edge or a boundary. Each work operates at a place where one state or model ends and another begins, or at least, may begin: a moment where worlds collide, overlap and shift. Stephen J. Gould wrote: “Velikovsky would rebuild the science of celestial mechanics to save the literal accuracy of ancient legends”.10 He meant this as a dismissal, but in its perverse insistence that there is meaning in approaches outside ‘normal’ construction and the demand that indexes which are normally seen as incompatible, might operate as different facets of a reality, and might also work as a rationale. Notes 1 Richard Neville, Play Power, London: Jonathan Cape, 1970 2 See Stephen Jay Gould, ‘Velikovsky in Collision’, Ever since Darwin (1977); http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/gould_velikovsky.html 3
William S. Burroughs, Rub Out The Words: The Letters of William S. Burroughs 1959-1974, New York: Ecco Books, 2012
4 John Gray, ‘The barbarism of reason: John Gray on the Notebooks of Leopardi’, The New Stateman; http://www.newstatesman.com/ books/2013/09/barbarism-reason 5 Erik Davis, TechGnosis: Myth, Magic & Mysticism in the Age of Information, New York: Harmony Books, 1998 6 Kenan Melik, ‘Seeing reason: Jonathan Israel’s radical vision’; www.rationalist.org 7
Radical Enlightenment press release, Palais De Tokyo, March, 2013
Richard Jenkins, ‘‘Disenchantment, enchantment and reenchantment: Max Weber at the Millennium’, Max Weber Studies, vol. 1, no 1, 2000: 11-32 10
Stephen Jay Gould, op cit.
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in ramallah, running Guy Mannes-Abbott Here follow five of the seven highly condensed ‘running’ texts which chart my habitual explorations of Ramallah’s interiors—within city limits. In the book itself, they interleave much longer essays at the archipelago of hills and linking wadis or valleys of Ramallah District down to the plains in the west and Jordan valley in the east. The latter texts run up to the Occupation’s limits, along those limits, venturing off-limits as well as beyond limits to compose a uniquely intimate portrait of the place—viewed by an outsider. Running connotes many things: my hope was to find ways to experience and record something of the interior life—times and places—of everyday Ramallah, beyond the interdictions and overt presence of military Occupation. That intention was extended to the place beyond or without the city in an attempt to relay something of the Palestine that was and will be again. In this sense and despite the imprisoning grip of a peculiarly brutal Occupation that is now visually familiar, even over-familiar, these texts convey something of the rhythms and small details of a ‘liberated’ Palestine. In writing about Ramallah, the pseudo ‘capital’ of ‘Camp Palestine’, in the second decade of the twenty-first century I am also recording its exception: the ways in which it condenses the world that we have generated, how it works and what it has become. I don’t expect it to speak well of us when read back from the future. In the book itself, the texts are accompanied by artworks made by Jananne al-Ani, Francis Alys, Emily Jacir, Paul Noble, Khalil Rabah, etc., in response to my writing. The intention was to generate a series of relations with other voices and ideas which would test my own writing and keep the work of the book ethically open.
Images by Guy Mannes-Abbott, 2010 Top: Ain Arik to the plains of Palestine Middle: Surda to Ain Qiniya wadi with qasr, Roman spring, settler road (463) and Palestine development on Surda ridge Bottom: Bili’in and I Within Limits and tear gas cannisters
I am running in Ramallah. Running through, around and on Ramallah; hill of God, god of hills. Running almost 1,000 metres above Mediterranean Sea level, almost 1,000 feet further above Dead Sea level. Running on the seven hills that Ramallah is said, with radical understatement, to inhabit. Everything in Ramallah is a hill or hills in apparent infinity; up and down and up, sharply, severely, steeply, gently, deceptively, constantly. Everything between hills is becoming Ramallah, spreading, forging, declaiming the old and new, for now, forever? Running connotes residence; a home being run from or to, one nearby. I’m making Ramallah homely by running here, leaving some of myself out there, drawing into myself whatever is here. Shortening and lengthening my time. Running is a proof of my existence, my proof that, as the poet wrote, “I exist.” The essence of running involves “exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits” which is also a “metaphor for life”—according to the novelist. It doesn’t sound like much, until you do it. Running in Ramallah, I encounter things that are conflicting even contradictory but little I could describe as paradoxical. Despite its sweetly sophisticated humours this is not a place that can afford paradox. I’m running in Ramallah and it is painful. * I’m running in Ramallah, but not for long. Running extends my residency; it works slowly by taking me to places I would not otherwise go, repeatedly. It works fast by taking me to many places as quickly as Google, but concretely. I’ve been there, been back and can go again in no time. Running discourages thinking or conclusion, concentrates on the present. The present is what is, how things are for now. I’m running in the present and peculiarly alive to the details of what is around me. Running down I pass teams of builders arriving on site. I run out on the main road into yellow taxi-busses or servees, UN-badged 4x4s, mothers driving children to school and again on our return loops. Running through Bat’n al Hawa, the road is up; work not underway until I return, an object of mirth, recognition and warm encouragement. Westerly panoramas once began here but the view is now of trench work and substrata, the spraying of sticky tarmac one day, a smooth new surface another. At the end is Zamn, beacon of up town Ramallah, which opens at downtown hours but their coffee is weak, expensive. On deluxe al Tireh Street I settle into my rhythm and watch police guards changing shifts along the newly mansioned ridge which leads to the city’s north-west extremity. I pass them standing armed in groups of four at junctions along the way, offer greetings, share smiles. Passing me they do the same. When I reach the city’s
new panoramas at the end of the ridge today, four soldiers stand guard with muscles, big guns and a matching jeep. We amuse each other before I step aside to look out myself, begin the run back in to town. Overtaking me on al Tireh’s incline, each waves an individual greeting to the cliche I embody, the joke that I get, the ambiguity of the fact that it is me that is running. When I am not running I’m thinking, details stack up. The present acquires depth and dimension, things become complex. They change; everything. I am one of very few people in Ramallah who can prove their existence merely by running in the hills. One of few here who don’t need to exert themselves to the utmost just to prove that they exist. I’m the only person I see who is running in Ramallah. * In Ramallah, I’m running within bodily limits; the muscular fruits of midnight runs along the river in Central London. Here I run from the centre to its limits, as far as I’m able. Within my limits means running for twice as long if not twice as far as in London. Ramallah is small and so am I. I’m running within the limits of what I understand of what I can see in Ramallah. I pass Edward Sa’id Street which is easy, though repeatedly Mahmoud regrets its modest scale. Down past al Raja’a (Hope) Street which is less easy but surely always involves the same deal? In any case I keep running far beyond Hope Street and back again. “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”, the novelist points out, “whether or not you can stand anymore is up to the runner (her)self.” Running takes me places I would not otherwise go; past the end of Rachel Corrie Street, for example. It takes me along the ridge past the beginnings of Dalal Mughrabi, Nile and Nativity Streets and out to George Habash Square. On my return I concentrate on the writers who seem even more arbitrarily heralded in this way; streets named after Lorca and Louis Aragon, for example. I circle back to Edward Sa’id Street, just as I did to him and his work. In Ramallah, nobody recognises or cares about al Jihad Street or the tarmac of George Habash Square. The game of naming is the oldest colonial trick, paid for this time by USAID. Yet seeing the names going up intrigues me in ways that seeing traditional stone houses or refugee apartments take on a number does not. Stories of love or hate attach to names in ways that they don’t to the number 21 or 118.1 Everyone here blames Occupation and official Palestinian weakness for the cancelled memorialising of Dalal Mughrabi Square. The same, apparently, happened with George Habash Square. Perhaps I’ve “seen the name on a map”. I stop running at Lorca Street halfway up a long hill where the road bends beyond sight of friendly guards outside the Chinese Embassy. I can’t help laughing
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out loud when I realise what I’ve done again. While Dalal Mughrabi was too controversial for a square to be named after her, the signpost I run past seems overlooked or unseen. As I approach Rachel Corrie Street I think of older ‘sisters’ met here who are finding ways to turn protest into substantive commitment. Near the bottom of the road named for her a big Caterpillar digger is at work, making for complications. It is me that is running.
sages also liken the immanence of Brahman—their unrepresentable divine spirit—to that of fire in wood.
Walking or climbing the final steep stretch home, habit etching residence in these hills, I understand better an elliptical phrase of the novelist’s. Long term projects, he wrote, involve both concentrated focus and endurance. They involve “continuing to breathe while holding your breath”. Impossible seeming, it might be a potent enough paradox for how Ramallah is—at least for now.
Running concentrates a sharp pain in my left calf muscle, strained in a distant wadi two days ago. Blissed-out, I’d looked up from the terrace to breath in the contoured rhythms and tripped on a loose rock. I winced and walked on for miles with only a badly grazed boot. Running is something else but I confront growing pain with even strides and calm constancy. What did the novelist say about pain and suffering? It’s a hard run along al Tireh but I keep going to the end— and there it is!
* In Ramallah, I’m running beyond my own bounds. Running with a hard earned, slow building invincibility which is nothing but the joy of the run itself. The way my body feels; warmed throughout, muscles singing, stone in raining sweat. The capability lent me; the homeliness of that feeling, a muscular mastery of place. I just kept going, pushing beyond my limits to new heights of endurance and strength. A great feeling, can it last? I’ve been puzzling past trees in the middle of narrow pathways. Fruit trees and conifers fill pavements around al Jihad Street. Along Bat’n al Hawa, holes are shuttered in new concrete for the coming trees. Mature ones fill the pavement along al Nuzha Street, named to signal a nice place for a walk. It leads downtown where traffic is lively, chaotic, jammed up but rarely aggressive. There’s a rhythm to it; drivers allow for pedestrians—even runners—who steal along or across the tarmac. Space is Occupied but the use made of it is extravagant, improvised, negotiable. Underneath modernity’s pavement is a place that is peculiarly Palestinian. In Ramallah I’m eating and drinking in comradely circles. Coffee pots are ambushed, little cups, glasses relayed. Circles form around breakfast at 11; tahini tricks, zaatar omelettes, baby cucumbers and breads draw arms in and out under the vines, the poly-tunnel or olive trees below Silwad. For lunch at four in enervating Jericho, we surround a big hot pot of stuffed vine leaves, chicken and tomato sauce as it’s turned onto a platter in the back-office. Hands dive, peck and revel. In al Jalazon refugee camp a beautifully prepared dinner on big round platters of things finely stuffed and sumac’d is eagerly consumed by similar means. Running in Ramallah, I’m thinking of the resistance offered by fire. The Occupation has stolen the earth and air of Palestine. Even the water has been stolen and siphoned back for two hours a day into big black plastic butts crowding every roof top in town. When he showed me a photograph of himself at the Mediterranean coast, during an illicit visit to his ancestral home, “Abu Muhammad’s” face wore the sea’s open horizon again. Fire is something else. Venerated for millennia in India,
In Ramallah I am running on fire. * In Ramallah, running to the last, I reach my physical limits.
Running in Ramallah has bound me to the place and set me against notions of space. Place is worn, freighted, complex. Space is seductive, abstract, dust-free. I’m running in an actual place, which is how I knew that George Habash Square exists. Many believe the sign has been removed, disallowed, banned but here it is: no-one surrendered. It’s not marked on any map I own, except where I’ve written it myself. I half ran out here and there it was standing up against the settlements in the Palestinian hills. Square George Habash it reads and since there’s no G as such in Arabic its got two J sounds. It’s me that is running. In Ramallah, I’m limping past a street sign. “Dalal Mughrabi (1958–1978) ‘Born as a refugee in Lebanon in a family that was made a refugee from Yaffa in 1948. She joined FATAH and participated in a guerilla operation (Martyr Kamal Odwan Operation) with 12 others in occupied Palestine where she was killed.” Hoping to ignite an uprising, she invested heavily. I only know enough about her to understand why she breached the limits, wonder what other ambitious 20 year old refugees think of her now. In Ramallah, running doesn’t dissolve the pain but heightens and hardens it. I struggle to limp most of the way back, past the guards and Lorca Street but at least I get to pay witness. At the end of the ridge this morning it was clear enough to see Yaffa beyond Bil’in and the vast white cities below. It’s almost as distinct as the view from Deir Ghassanah in the north, on the hill where their shahids are honoured. Words matter, everywhere. Walking in Nablus, I admired the spontaneous memorials which have turned into a bureaucratic process in Ramallah. That is; a rehearsal for nationhood. Funny how a sign at George Habash Square is meaningless until it no longer exists. Funny again, altogether, in the coming Palestine. It’s me that was running… Guy Mannes-Abbott’s visit to Australia and his participation in 2014 Adelaide Festival Artists’ Week, is hosted by the Contemporary Art Centre of SA, Adelaide.
on the lebanese rocket society JOANA HADJITHOMAS AND KHALIL JOREIGE It begins with an image we discover in a book.1 The image is of a stamp with a rocket on it. The rocket bears the colours of the Lebanese flag—an image we don’t recognise, we don’t understand. It does not belong to our imaginary. What does it show—a weapon, a missile, a rocket for space exploration? Is it serious or just a fantasy? Did the Lebanese really dream of participating in the conquest of space? It’s hard to believe and rather surreal. We ask our parents, our friends… No one remembers anything, no one knows what we’re talking about. It is 2009 and we begin our research. A web search for “Lebanese rocket” yields only images of war, specifically Hezbollah missiles targeting Israel and Israeli missiles targeting Lebanon. When we search for “rocket” or “conquest of space,” we find many images, but no trace of our Lebanese rocket. But we do find some useful information. The adventure began in the early 1960s, when a group of students from Haigazian University in Beirut, led by their mathematics professor Manoug Manougian, designed and launched rockets into the Lebanese sky. They produced the first rocket in the region. While the United States was preparing to send its first Apollo rocket into space, while the USSR was on the verge of launching the first manned spaceflight, Manougian and his students began their research on rocket propulsion. A crazy challenge for a tiny country! We go through the daily newspapers from that period. At first, we find very few details about Manougian’s rocket research, except for the dates on which his rockets were launched. More than ten rockets were launched, each one more powerful than the last; their range increased from twelve kilometers to four hundred and fifty and even six hundred kilometres, reaching the stratosphere. The State and the army helped with logistics and financing and provided the scientists with a permanent launching base in Dbayeh. The Lebanese Rocket Society was born. A stamp—the very one we had seen—was issued to celebrate the event on the occasion of independence day in 1964.
It was a scientific project, not a military one. Manoug and his students wanted to be part of the scientific research going on at the time, when the great powers were vying for the conquest of space. The period from 1960 to 1967 (when the Lebanese space project came to an end) was considered by many to be a time of revolutions, with the possible alternative offered by the panArabism of Egyptian President Abdel Nasser, before the Arab defeat in the 1967 war. Lebanon was just emerging from a civil conflict between Nasserists and pro-Western groups, which in 1958 had led to the landing of fifteen thousand American Marines to support the latter. When elected President, General Fouad Chehab needed to bring society together under a strong and centralised State, which made the space project convenient for the political interests of the time. This made for two opposing strategies: On the one hand, the state could use the project as a symbol for its army, which hoped to weaponise the project. On the other hand, the scientists from Haigazian University, mainly Armenians who came to Lebanon from all over the Arab world (Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and so on—Manougian himself was born and grew up in Jerusalem) were convinced that only through research and education could peace be built.
Strangely, this project has totally disappeared from individual and collective memory. No one really remembers it. There is no trace of it in our imaginary. This absence surprised us. It was like a secret, a hidden, forgotten story. As artists who have built a great part of our work on stories buried or otherwise kept secret, we were interested in this type of narrative and the way it resisted the dominant imaginary. With this, we began doing in-depth research and making a film on the Lebanese Rocket Society. 1. The UnrealiSed Imaginary The representations of the rockets do not call on any imaginary of our past. Is this gap in our imaginary due to an absence of images of the rockets? In Beirut, we find an album of photos by Edouard Tamérian that the members of the Lebanese Rocket Society offered to President Chehab. At Haigazian University, where the project was born, we find a few images, and then we find a few more at the Arab Image Foundation. There are about ten altogether. They were taken by photographers Assad Jradi and Harry Koundakjian. Both photographers lost their negatives during the Lebanese Civil War. Jradi lost his in 1982; when Israel invaded Lebanon, his brothers got scared and burned the negatives. Koundakjian lost his when a bomb fell on the Associated Press offices where he kept his images.
When we meet Assad Jradi, he tells us something we find quite interesting: during the civil war, all the photos he took were out of focus. He didn’t understand it, he still doesn’t understand it: he couldn’t capture clear images—the outlines, the features were all blurred. This immediately reminds us of a text by writer and artist Jalal Toufic, who asserts that during a war, the images taken are necessarily out of focus. The photographer is subject to imminent danger, has little time to focus, and his compositions are erratic. His images are nearly always blurred by the speed of war. After the war, the fuzziness still present in the images is due to the withdrawal of what is photographed, which is no longer there to be seen. Toufic argues that, because of this withdrawal, part of the referent cannot be precisely located, whether in matters of framing, of focusing, or both. This is also what we have focused on in our own research: referents that cannot be located. We begin to work on the film, using as a starting point the absence of images. But very soon the situation changes. We end up finding images of the Lebanese rockets in Tampa, Florida, with Manoug Manougian, the professor who started the project before leaving Lebanon, never to return to the region again. From the smallest to the largest rocket—from Cedar 1 to Cedar 8—Manoug kept all the films and photo archives! He saved everything for over fifty years. Even when we see these images, we do not completely recognise them. The history of that period was written without them, maybe because most of the witnesses—those who participated in the project—left Lebanon and are scattered all over the world. This may also be a consequence of the Lebanese Civil Wars, which took with them memories of the past. Or even before that, it may be a consequence of the June 1967 War between the Israeli and Arab armies. When the space program was halted definitively and suddenly sometime after the 1967 war, it was the end of a certain idea of the Pan-Arab project that was supposed to unite the region and inspire people to shape their own destiny. The end of this project shattered an alternative vision, a progressive and modernist utopia that promised to transform our region and the world. Such is the phantasm that we have inherited from the 1960s, and even if we refuse any kind of nostalgia or idealised link to it, it keeps haunting us. Our research on the space project is in a way a reflection on those years and those mythologies that changed after the war of 1967. But maybe what has changed the most is the image of ourselves, of our dreams. We just can’t imagine ourselves having undertaken a project like the Lebanese Rocket Society. But while that imaginary
has withdrawn, perhaps telling the story could enable the photographs and documents to somehow bring it back. It is what we attempt to do in the first part of our film. And as the narrative unfolds, we ask ourselves: How were we able to totally forget this story? 2. Different Reconstitutions It is not the first time we have faced oblivion and invisibility. They were what first prodded us to make images in the aftermath of the Lebanese Civil Wars. Artists of our generation have often investigated the writing of history and the difficulty of sharing it. For certain cultures, permanency stems from the act of redoing, destroying, and reconstructing. But in a country that has preferred amnesia, what does it mean to save traces, archives? If we need history, how can it be written without our being mesmerised by memory, whether individual or collective? How to think about history, about its manipulation, its rewriting, its function, while trying to understand which representation of ourselves we choose, or which we allow to be chosen for us? What is left of the space project today? No commemorative stone or monument relates the adventure of the rockets. Facing this absence, how can this story be told in the present? What would it mean today to think about this forgotten story and reconstitute part of it? What does it mean to reproduce the gestures of the past today? Issues of reconstitution and re-enactment can be said to go way back in our lives, before even our practice and research. In 1922, Joana’s paternal grandfather and his family were thrown out of the city of Izmir by the Turkish army.
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They took refuge in Lebanon, having lost everything, including the contents of a safe holding the dowry of Stephanie, the mother of her grandfather. At first they lived in real misery, and her grandfather furiously tried to recover the family estate and the contents of the safe. When negotiations with the Turkish government proved successful and the safe was finally opened, there turned out to be a big hole in the back. Its contents had been stolen. Joana’s grandfather then rented a safe in a Lebanese bank and began, with great determination, to reconstitute his mother’s dowry. It took his whole life: from the two silk handkerchiefs, to the drachmas and rubles, to the diamond ring and bonds. Nevermind if some of the currencies had lost their value, everything had to be exactly as it was before. This is the original instance of reconstitution Joana observed, and it gave her much food for thought. In 1999, while shooting a film on the Khiam detention camp, those questions of reconstitution arose in a very practical manner: the camp of Khiam, located in the area occupied by Israel and the army of South Lebanon, was a camp about which much was heard but no image was ever seen. There was a kind of impossibility of representation. We met and filmed six detainees who had been recently freed. Through their testimony, the film is a kind of narrative experimentation, an exploration of the way the image, through speech, can be built progressively on the principles of evocation; this work echoes a long reflection on latency that we have been carrying out.
In the film Sonia, Afif, Soha, Rajae, Kifah, and Neeman, who spent about ten years in detention, recall the camp and narrate how they managed to survive, and to resist, through the creation and the clandestine production of a needle, a pencil, a string of beads, a chess game, and a sculpture. Faced with a total lack of elementary and necessary objects, the detainees developed and exchanged astonishing artistic production techniques. When we met them, most of them wanted to demonstrate how they made these objects. They wanted to reproduce their gestures in front of the camera, to recreate the objects for us. We had very long discussions on the subject: the gestures they had made, in spite of fear and torture, arose in the camp from their rage, their will to survive, to disobey, to preserve their humanity. Spending hours rubbing olive stones against the wall and getting bloody fingers trying to pierce them —how can one reproduce that? Very soon, their gestures appeared, in our eyes and in theirs, as fake, out of context, just the opposite of what they were trying to convey to us. Reconstitution seemed
impossible. Only speech could really evoke all this, underline its strength. When the camp was dismantled in May 2000, it was possible, at last, to go to Khiam. The camp was later turned into a museum. However, during the war of 2006, it was totally destroyed by the Israeli army. Faced with ruins, there was a debate about rebuilding the camp as it had been. But is it possible to reconstitute a detention camp? What would that mean? And if it’s not possible to reconstitute the camp, how to keep a trace of it? In 2007, we again filmed the six detainees we had met in 1999. We asked them to react to the destruction of the camp and also to its possible reconstitution. They shared with us their reflections about memory, history, reconstitution, and imagination. They seemed to us somehow defeated. With the liberation of South Lebanon and the dismantling of the camp, the “winners” of the moment had no real consideration for them. The history of the camp was being rewritten without them. In the film, many of the former detainees mention the Ansar camp, which was much larger than Khiam, and which was also demolished. Today, on the site of the Ansar camp there is a restaurant, an amusement park, a swimming pool, and even a zoo.
The former detainees mention this camp as if they feared that Khiam would someday also be forgotten. It is a question of the trace, of the monument, of reconstitution. But how does one proceed? Can we rely on our memories, our perception? How can transmission occur? How to ensure the transmission of testimonies when faced with the impossibility of reconstitution and the danger of disappearance? When, in 2001, Jalal Toufic asked us to comment on our work for a special edition of the magazine Al Adab, we simulated an interview with Pierre Ménard, a fictitious character create by Jorge Luis Borges. In Borges’ short story “Pierre Ménard, Author of Don Quixote”, Ménard wants to rewrite identically the famous novel by Cervantes, but without merely copying it. Rather, he wants to place himself in the same writing conditions as Cervantes in order to find the original process which gave birth to the novel. Borges describes this whimsical and surreal work as philosophical proof of the superior, nearly overwhelming power of the historic and social context that surrounds a literary work. In the interview, Pierre Ménard criticised us for burning, in our project Wonder Beirut, postcards of the 1960s. The burning was
meant to imitate the destruction of the real buildings depicted in the postcards by bombings and street battles. Pierre Ménard said: “We had spoken about them and I had keenly advised you to do a literal version of the literal version, a literal photograph of the literal photograph. To photograph anew these postcards, yes, I do agree! But why burn them? You could have stopped just before that.” I have here two images, one taken by the photographer in 1969, the other of this same postcard, dated 1998. Even if the photographs, as you say, are basically identical, the picture from 1998 is infinitely richer and subtler than the original photograph from 1969. It is amazing. By simply photographing these images you invented a new path, that of deliberate anachronism and wrong techniques. To simply reproduce them in 1998 would have been a revelation. To burn them is an understatement that weakens the strength and the power of the work. In Pierre Ménard’s opinion, redoing a gesture is never redoing it. It is doing it for the first time. It is like ecmnesia, the emergence of old memories, of the past relived as a contemporary experience. It is like dejà vu, this false temporal recognition due to a confusion between the present situation and a similar but not identical one in the past. 3. A Trace of a Trace: The Reconstitution of the Rocket Cedar 4 Faced with the absence of any record of the adventure of the Lebanese rockets, we feel the desire to rethink it in the present. While we are working on the film, we have the idea of redoing these gestures in the form of various art installations. The first one consists in producing and offering to Haigazian University, where the project began, a scale reproduction of the Cedar 4 rocket, eight meters long and weighing a ton. The rocket is built in a factory in Dbayeh, mounted on a truck, and then transported through the streets of Beirut to Haigazian University. In doing this, we try to combat a narrowing of significations and of our territory. Those rockets were first devised in a Protestant university, directed by a reverend dean who considered this research a gesture of peace through education. Nowadays, the same object is synonymous with war and perceived only as a missile—knowing of course that missiles and weapons are a major political topic in Lebanon. Doing this is also an affirmation that this is not a weapon but the result of the research of a group of dreamers and scientists. And it’s here, on the campus of the university, on this territory, that it will be recognised for what it is: an artistic and scientific project.
Furthermore, making a sculpture as a tribute to the project and those dreamers means giving a materiality to that absent imaginary. It also means questioning the possibility of a “monument” (with all its connotations) to science, insofar as our society has very few unifying elements, little shared history, and many community or sectarian monuments erected by micro-powers. It also means overcoming the nostalgia for what used to be, the regret over what could not be achieved. We attempt to tell the story, to extend the gesture of the Lebanese Rocket Society into the present, to activate the chain of transmission. It means somehow respecting the archives when narrating this story, and at the same time eluding their excessive authority, as well as the charm of the photographic process. It is essential to avoid fetishising the image. What is at stake is not conformity to an original. The gesture does not refer to the past. The gesture recalls it, but happens in the present, reaching for the possibility of conquering a new imaginary. To question this process, we tried to restage, to relaunch the rocket itself. We remembered a discussion we had with the photographer Assad Jradi. Looking at one of his images, Assad believed that he had screwed up the photo and he was furious: he photographed only the trace of a rocket, a spoiled, unusable photo. We disagreed and said that we loved the photo, which we considered highly artistic. He looked dubious. There lies the difference between the document, its producer, and its use: to us, the image was artistic, while to Assad, it was rubbish. This gap expresses the transfer of the very stakes of the image. In our view, this image was a trace, the trace of a trace. It gave us the idea to replay what had been played. Once again we requested the authorisations—about ten of them—to parade the rocket through town, but instead of moving the entire rocket, we transported, six months later, its cardboard outline in two pieces. We no longer feared being arrested or bombed, or causing an accident or a drama. We went along the same route, with the same convoy, to block the streets and attempt a photographic experience. With the help of two other photographers with digital cameras, and with our own argentic camera, we were to photograph the rocket passing through the frame during the time exposure of the photo, which meant that the photo depended on the speed of the convoy, the distance travelled, and the distance at which we stood from the moving convoy. Such an experience can only be carried out through repetition; various tests had to be conducted, many attempts for each image,
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starting all over again, blocking the streets, the highway, sending the convoy through once more until we found the right speed both for the truck and the camera shutter. Since the outline of the rocket was white, the streaks behind it were ghostly, like the trace of a trace. This led to the Restaged series, a photographic reenactment of the event of transporting the rocket. These gestures of rebuilding the rocket and restaging its passage through the city differ from a traditional reenactment. In a traditional reenactment, you do again something that has already been done. Usually, the purpose is to relive important moments in history, to bring back to life and transmit a historic heritage. Re-enactment of this sort has a pedagogic and an illustrative aspect, as seen in common practices of recalling and recording social history. Usually it is based on communication strategies. An established power would like to make it known that a certain event occurred, and resorts to theatrical form. What we are talking about is different. The notion of re-enactment we are working with is not a representation or an investigation of a past event in order to better understand it. It is not a repetition or an illustration. Rather, it is an experience: it consists in introducing an element from the past into today’s reality and seeing what happens. 4. Between Reenactment and Reenaction: On Ruptures, Past, Present, and Science Fiction In the preface to The Crisis of Culture, Hannah Arendt defines the notion of breach as the moment of rupture in which man, caught between past and future, is compelled to project himself into an uncertain future, and therefore into the possibility of starting something new, of inventing himself in uncertainty. Arendt begins her article by quoting René Char: “No testament ever preceded our heritage.” This aphorism testifies to the abyss created after the Second World War. Arendt describes a situation that is “at odds with tradition”. Work, or more precisely action, should not attempt to link both. It is not a question of reviving a tradition or inventing a replacement to fill the breach between the past and the future. This very breach is at the heart of our vision of reenactment, facing a rupture which at the same time questions the relation between two worlds, between a past and a future.
Opposite: Group portrait taken before the launch of Cedar 3, 1962. Image from the Lebanese Rocket Society Archive
Record” is at the heart of the animated film that ends our documentary on the Lebanese Rocket Society. The uchronia we developed with Ghassan Halwani imagines a Lebanon in 2025 where the space project did not cease in 1967. Strangely, in the Arab world there are very few science fiction works that imagine the future, not only in cinema but also in literature. These various tributes to dreamers are individual attempts to, as Hannah Arendt says, move in this breach between past and future. Like a game of reference and historical crossings … That is maybe where history, past, present, but also science fiction and anticipation, can be questioned, where we can project ourselves into a future, even an uncertain one. Note 1 The book was Vehicles, edited by Akram Zaatari and published by the Arab Image Foundation and Mind The Gap
The point, therefore, is to invoke a story to be able to reconfigure, to reinvent ourselves, and at the same time to experiment, to perform in the present, in doubt and uncertainty. Rather than re-enactment, we should call it “re-enaction,” like an experiment, a restaging, a restart. In our work as filmmakers, we assemble the elements and let things happen, hoping something unusual will arise. Re-enaction is doing something that has already occurred, but for the first time, such as repeating a gesture that did not originally registered in the collective consciousness. The traditional definition of re-enactment—“do once more in the present what occurred in the past”—could be replaced by “do for the first time something that already occurred.” This brings us back to Pierre Ménard. What is required is not to communicate but to experiment, to discover, to search without knowing the ultimate result. The possibility of failure always exists. Above all it is a matter of experience but also of negotiating with reality, within reality, aiming at creating new situations, new contexts, new meanings. Such an experiment is a sort of resistance to existing powers, a strategy of opposition and contestation.
Page 28: Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, The Lebanese Rocket Society: Restaged no. 6, 2012 Page 29: Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, The Lebanese Rocket Society: Restaged no. 7, 2012 Above: Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, The Lebanese Rocket Society: A carpet 2012 (installation of tapestry rug, archive documents and three videos) Photos courtesy the artists and Third Line Gallery, Dubai
What is performed in the Lebanese Rocket Society is the gesture of dreamers, the will to push against limits, to consider that science and art are the place of this possibility. In such a case, the rocket appears no longer as an object of war but refers to a scientific and artistic project. Such an action should not be a collective one that could be seen as an instrument of patriotism or nationalism. It is a personal and singular experience, an individual effort, a singularity which attempts to reconfigure and link itself to history. It does not stem from a place of power or of knowledge, from a place of certainties, but rather from a place of doubts in the face of the unknown and the future. It is also a recognition of filiation, a tribute. This is what we try to get at in the installation The Golden Record. Starting in 1962, the Lebanese Rocket Society began installing in the heads of the Cedar rockets a radio transmitter, which broadcast the message “Long live Lebanon”. This reminded us of the American space exploration missions, such as Voyager 1 and 2, which carried on board a goldplated copper disk as well as a cell and a needle to read it. Engraved on the disk were sounds selected to draw a portrait of the diversity of life, history, and culture on earth, a message of peace and liberty, a “bottle thrown into the sea of interstellar space”. We wondered how we could represent that period of the 1960s through sound. This led to the creation of “The Golden Record of the Lebanese Rocket Society,” a soundtrack created from sound archives of the 1960s, based on the memories of the various members of the Lebanese Rocket Society. It is a portrait and a sound representation of Beirut and the world in the 1960s. “The Golden
Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige have collaborated for fifteen years as filmmakers and artists. They have focused on images, representations, and the history of their home country, Lebanon, questioning the region’s imaginaries. Together, they have directed documentaries such as Khiam 2000–2007 (2008) and El Film el Mafkoud (The Lost Film) (2003) and feature films such as Al Bayt el Zaher (1999) and A Perfect Day (2005). Their last feature film, Je Veux Voir (I Want to See), starring Catherine Deneuve and Rabih Mroue, premiered at the Cannes film festival in 2008. Their artworks have been shown in museums, biennials, and art centres around the world, in solo or collective exhibitions and are part of important public and private collections, such as Musee d’art Moderne de la Ville de Paris; FNAC France; the Guggenheim, New York; the Centre Georges Pompidou, France; V & A London, the Sharjah Art Foundation, UAE. They received the 2012 Abraaj Capital Art Prize for their work A Letter Can Always Reach Its Destination. In 2012 they released their feature documentary The Lebanese Rocket Society: The Strange Tale of the Lebanese Space Race and presented a series of artistic installations around this 1960 space project.
This text was published in e-flux journal 43, March 2013 (see http://www.e-flux.com/ journal/on-the-lebanese-rocket-society-2/). Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige will be presenting works from the Lebanese Rocket Society series at the Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, Adelaide, in Adelaide International 2014: Worlds in Collision, featuring nine international contemporary artists across four galleries in Adelaide.
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no more stars (star wars): rä di martino AMELIA BARIKIN The decaying, sand-swept dome is flanked by desert dunes and framed against a cloud-flecked sky. The ruins of a circular, industrial structure lie crumbling in the foreground, partially submerged beneath the shifting sands. “These are the remains of Luke Skywalker’s house”, Rä di Martino explains. “He was raised by his aunt and uncle, who had a moisture farm on the planet of Tatooine.”1 In 2010, Rä di Martino spent a month in the Tunisian deserts, tracking down the sets where Star Wars was originally filmed. Although the locations have now become something of a dedicated pilgrimage site for Star Wars fans (there are companies that host ‘Tours to Tatooine’, and the ruins are also listed as a “must see” in The Lonely Planet guide to Tunisia), at the time of Rä di Martino’s visit their whereabouts was still relatively unknown.2 With the aid of a local Tunisian guide and a rented quad bike, di Martino found the abandoned sets in the salt plains of Chott el Djerid, some fifteen kilometres short of the Algerian border. As she recalls: With only my Google map as a guide, I struggled at first to find anything. Then I met a driver who knew the desert well and offered to take me to the sites… like many people, I saw Star Wars when I was young, so it felt very nostalgic… The sand was brownred and the speckles of salt sparkled in the sun. These are not real ruins, of course. They are just rubbish that has been left by a richer country in a poor country. But at the same time, they have a monumentality about them because they resonate with our childhood memories. Star Wars looks futuristic to us, yet this is the biological decay of past imaginations.3 What is a ‘real ruin’? Isn’t ‘ruination’ simply the end result of entropy, the material affect of time, no matter what the structure’s original purpose might have been? Indeed, when the Skywalker home was first built, it was already artificially aged, coated in a thick patina of fake desert dust. If this was the future, it was neither gleaming nor shiny. The organic simplicity of Tatooine’s mud-pit dwellings and the scrapyard junk-stores of the Sand People were in stark contrast to the sleek, high-tech interiors of the Empire’s Death Star. In Lucas’ universe,
Tatooine was clearly a galactic backwater. As Luke says to C3PO at the beginning of the film, “If there’s a bright centre to the universe, you’re on the planet that it’s farthest from.” John Powers has described Tatooine as “a place that was modern, but not new, a future long occupied, unfinished, worldly. Modernity is the presumption that the natural environment for man has yet to be built. Lucas was the first to imagine that future built environment as already old”.4 Although Powers is right in his characterisation of modernity as both speculative and future-focused, Lucas was hardly the first to imagine the future through the ruins of the past. We need only think of Nicolas Poussin’s ruin-strewn landscapes of the 1600s, Joseph Gandy’s Soane’s Bank of England as a ruin (1830), or Hubert Robert’s 1796 visionary rendition of the Louvre as a crumbling ‘future ruin’. Piranesi’s wildly imaginative etchings of a ruined Rome, or the mock ruined temples that dotted literally hundreds of aristocratic estates across Europe in the eighteenth century, also come to mind.5 Indeed, the 1700s was marked by a serious craze for ruination that seeped into almost all aspects of creative practice, from poetry to art criticism to garden design. Gardens
were adorned with artificially ruined abbeys and deliberately dilapidated stone bridges; ‘classical’ columns and temples were carefully constructed to appear teetering on the brink on collapse. Spurred by the rediscovery of the ruins of Pompeii but also perhaps with an eye to the fragility of ‘great’ civilisations, the ruin became a catalyst for a new kind of melancholic pleasure for eighteenth century aesthetes, one best summed up in Diderot’s claim of 1767 that “the ideas ruins evoke in me are grand. Everything comes to nothing, everything perishes, everything passes, only the world remains, only time endures. How old is this world! I walk between two eternities”.6 However, if di Martino’s No More Stars (Star Wars) might initially appear as a contemporary update of ‘Ruinenlust’ (an aesthetic she would also have gleaned from her time living in Rome), its debts lie equally with the entropic visions of Robert Smithson, the wastelands imaged by Jane and Louise Wilson, or the degraded futures of J.G. Ballard’s science fictions.7 As both Ballard and Smithson well knew, ruins encourage a kind of conceptual time travel. They are structures that offer both glimpses of potential futures (with time, this will happen), while prompting
Page 33 and opposite: Rä di Martino, No More Stars (Star Wars), 2010 Photos courtesy the artist and Monitor, Rome
the re-imagining of the past (what happened here?). It is this temporal permeability that lends the ruin its science fictional qualities, as numerous contemporary artists including Tacita Dean, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and The Otolith Group might attest. For these artists, as for di Martino, it is the ruin’s cache of potential that is its most endurable attraction. The ruin, as Brian Dillon has noted, offers “an invitation to fulfil the as yet unexplored temporality that it contains”; the ruin as a way of envisaging what is not yet made, or what might have been; the ruin as an allegory for science fiction.8 Beyond this science fictional element, Rä di Martino’s interest in the Star Wars’ sets is emblematic of her long-standing fascination with navigating what she calls the “loop” between fiction and reality, described by the artist as a kind of “continuous ping-pong” state, where “reality changes the imaginary, and the imaginary changes reality”.9 Although exploring this loop has been a recurrent aspect of di Martino’s practice—from her early short films such as the Pasolini-esque Between (2001), which featured a character ‘lost’ in another character’s narrative and unable to effectively communicate, or La Camera (2006), in which two actors recited verbatim other people’s recollections of films that had influenced them—with No More Stars (Star Wars), the exchange between reality and fiction gains an extra dimension. After the release of her images, a group of Star Wars fans, appalled at the dilapidated state of Luke’s home, organised a campaign to restore the crumbling edifice to its former glory.10 The restoration left the structure looking like a ‘white igloo’ in the middle of the desert, gifting it with a newness clearly absent from the original film, and making Rä di Martino’s images into both documents of a lost monument and premonitions of its possible future. Jean-Christophe Royoux, speculating on the end of narrative in art and cinema, has linked the ruin’s resurgence in contemporary practice with its potential to act as a metonym for the ruined state of contemporary representation itself. Uncoupled from narrative, representation is now remade, he suggests, out of the rubble of a semiotic wasteland. In applying this to cinema, Royoux traces the origins of ruination back, firstly, to the displacement of cinematic narrative onto singular images in the process of film consumption—the so-called ‘freeze frame’ effect, in which a movie is remembered more for its singular images than for its plot or narrative—and secondly to the transformation of cinema from a sequenced flow of images (montage) into an ‘accumulation of images’
(a heap of still frames). By the time of Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma et de la télévision (1998), Royoux argues, the cinema had become “nothing but an immense archive composed of the debris left by the subjective memory of films… as if the history of cinema could from that point on (could) be understood only as an ‘introspective’ one, a conversation that each individual has with himself through cinema”.11 I suspect Rä di Martino would also find something compelling in this claim. Instead of a ‘story’, her work exposes an archive of mnemonic fragments, each part of a landscape purpose built for representation. Critically, in illustrating his argument, Royoux also makes reference to a number of photographs of abandoned film sets, captured in the Algerian desert by the artist Marco Poloni in 2006. In Poloni’s The Desert Room, Royoux explains, images of the hotel depicted in Michelangelo Antonioni’s famous film The Passenger  are blended with archival images and contemporary ones made by the artist for the exhibition… the film set—today converted into an old-age home for veterans of the Algerian Front de Libération Nationale—is juxtaposed against various phases of its transformation.12 Royoux’s reading of the layering of fiction and history, material and cinematic reality in Poloni’s work leads towards his identification of a contemporary reciprocity between ‘tracks’ and ‘traces’ (le tracé and la trace) in the ruins of contemporary representation. Although Royoux does not say as much directly, such reciprocity might also be said to mark the archival and mnemonic aspects of contemporary artistic production, a diagnosis that speaks most clearly to those artists who act as archaeologists of the present. “One might say”, he writes, “that the trace is the tangible element of memory; that which constitutes an archive, that which tends toward ‘volume’, a ‘material’ dimension: drawings and photographs… unlike the other arts, cinema is imprinted directly on memory without leaving tangible traces: it is when it is exhibited (exposed) that cinema produces traces. Tracks, on the other hand, represent a ‘going toward’: a forward movement that clears the path of the real.”13 Tracking the traces of cinematic memory—is this what Rä di Martino is after? “It is clear”, she has remarked, “that we need to find our own way through the real and the unreal, even though, in reality, they are all real.”14 As structures purpose-built for the elaboration of fiction, the abandoned Star Wars sets partially illuminate these circles of logic, but the effect is amplified as the locations are re-discovered, re-photographed and
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re-circulated as frozen images. di Martino’s works might then be described as both ‘tracks’ and as ‘traces’ in Royoux’s sense of the term. As material traces of a decaying cinematic environment, her images offer a tangible exposition of cinematic memory. As representational ‘tracks’, they serve to ‘clear the path of the real’, forging a route away from the barren salt plains of Tunisia and back towards a galaxy far, far away. Notes 1 Rä di Martino, interview with Sarah Phillips, ‘Luke Skywalker’s House: Rä di Martino’s Best Photograph’, The Guardian, 7 March 2013; http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/mar/06/lukeskywalker-house-ra-di-martino#, accessed 20 Jan, 2014 2 For first-person accounts of tourist visits to the sets, see Stefan Roesch, The Experiences of Film Location Tourists, Channel View Publications: UK, 2009 3 Rä di Martino, in Sarah Phillips, ‘Luke Skywalker’s House’. See also Chiara Bertola, ‘Chasing reality through the remains of imagination’, in Andrea Busto (ed.), Rä di Martino 2011-2001, Fregi e Majuscole trans., Carlo Cambi Editore: Poggibonsi, 2012: 14-20 4 John Powers, ‘Star Wars: A New Heap’, Triple Canopy issue 4, 11 November, 2008. Available at http://canopycanopycanopy.com/ contents/star_wars__a_new_heap, accessed 27 Jan, 2014 5 For a study of the shifting history of the ‘ruin aesthetic’, see Rose Macauley, Pleasure of Ruins, Walker and Company: New York, 1953 6
Denis Diderot, ‘Le Salon de 1767’ in Diderot on Art II: The Salon of 1767, John Goodman trans., New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995: 198 7
There is a quote from Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) on Rä di Martino’s website: “Deserts possess a particular magic, since they have exhausted their own futures, and are thus free of time. Anything erected there, a city, a pyramid, a motel, stands outside time.”
Brian Dillon, ‘A Short History of Decay’, in Ruins, Documents of Contemporary Art, London and Cambridge, MA: Whitechapel Gallery and MIT Press, 2011: 18 9
“Forse l’idea di un loop, tra l’immaginario e la realtà, in cui l’immaginario cambia la realtà, e la realtà cambia a sua volta l’immaginario in un ping-pong continuo.” Rä di Martino, interview with Chiara Bertola, ‘Dov’è la realtà?’, Flash Art 294, June 2011; http://www.flashartonline.it/interno.php?pagina=articolo_det&id_ art=742&det=ok&articolo=R%C3%84-DI-MARTINO 10
An alternate version of the restoration by Mark Derbul, Star Wars fan and tour guide to Tatooine, can be found at: http://www.npr. org/2012/07/01/156050161/fans-save-luke-skywalkers-tunisia-home
11 Jean-Christophe Royoux, ‘Beyond the end of narrative: allegories, constellations, dispositifs’, Michael Gilson trans., in Marie Fraser (ed.), Explorations narratives/Replaying Narrative, Le mois de la photo à Montréal: Montréal 2007: 309 12 Jean-Christophe Royoux, ibid: 304-305. NB: George Lucas also originally wanted to film Star Wars at this same site where Antonioni’s The Passenger was shot, but Fox deemed Algeria too volatile a location. J.W. Rinzler, The Making of Star Wars: The Definitive Story Behind the Original Film, Ebury Press: London, 2008: 98 13
Rä di Martino cited in Chiara Bertola, op cit: 20
Rä di Martino’s No More Stars (Star Wars) will be presented at the Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art, Adelaide, Adelaide International 2014: Worlds in Collision
blood and landscape: ben quilty in afghanistan and at home
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MICHAEL DESMOND The carparks made me jumpy and I never stopped the dreams Or the growing need for speed and novocaine So I worked across the country from end to end I tried to find a place to settle down, where my mixed up life could mend. Don Walker, Khe Sanh (1978) In the 1978 Cold Chisel song Khe Sanh, singer Jimmy Barnes lamented the despair and loss of social direction of Diggers returned from the Vietnam War. Ben Quilty painted ‘Barnsey’ for the Doug Moran Portrait Prize in 2009, thirty years after the song first publicised the traumatic legacy of battle to a cynical generation. It’s not hard to imagine that two years later Quilty could hear the words of the lament in his mind when, as the Australian War Memorial’s official war artist in Afghanistan, he was depicting a new generation of serving soldiers. Quilty spent just over a month in Afghanistan with Australian troops in Kabul, Kandahar and Tarin Kowt in 2011 and was occasionally taken on patrol into the countryside. He described the experience as frightening and disturbing. He made numerous sketches, took photos and made notes—the essential routine of a war artist. While making sketches of the soldiers, Quilty listened to their stories, getting a better understanding of the trials of active service. In return for this sharing of confidences, Quilty made a large mural of a rampant kangaroo and emu complete with writhing snakes and diabolic skulls to decorate the base in a virtuoso display of spray painting, a miscegenist mating of street art with the Australian coat of arms. The war artist scheme generates work for the AWM in Canberra —the mural was intended to give something directly to the troops. Land Cruiser (2007), a work that similarly uses the Australian coat of arms, referred directly to the domination of the land by invading settlers. The twisting of the official government logo was popular on the base, but its full implications might not have been understood. When Quilty returned to Australia to complete the commission, he declared himself a changed person. On his first night in Afghanistan, the base was hit by three rockets and an American servicewoman died. Quilty felt and saw the tension in the troops and imagined its impact—“I was there for five weeks, the others had five months or more to serve.” He spoke with serving and returned soldiers and felt the residue of that pressure. Like the war artists before him, Quilty recorded his time in Afghanistan with sketches and talks
to troops, but he differed from the others in that he followed up with meetings with veterans back in Australia. Their stories changed him. The sketches made in situ were almost exclusively observational—Quilty’s interpretation would be made in the studio on his return. Back in Australia he talked to soldiers and then invited them to pose. The men and one woman were asked to pose naked, choosing their own characteristic position—without the protection of uniform, rank, equipment. Naked and vulnerable humanity, posed in connection to duty: they fear, they hide, they wait. There is no armour, just the veins, muscles and sinews of the flesh. Quilty was impressed by their regular regime in the gym and the high level of fitness he saw—the soldiers are constantly training, literally as a matter of life or death. Painting the nude, particularly the male nude, is out of favour: it’s a long time since the heroics of eighteenth century Neoclassicism held sway. Quilty reclaims the tradition just as he has the tradition of painting in the grande manière, the elevated and rhetorical manner of historical painting exemplified by Poussin and David (this, despite the expressionistic paintwork). The moral lessons of history painting are attended to in the Afghanistan commission and subsequent series of Rorschach landscapes but the heroism and virtue of the eighteenth century has been lost, leaving classical stability, clarity and a nobility of ambition. This is particularly evident in the symmetry of the landscape paintings made after the Afghanistan series. In his painting of the Defence Force soldiers, Quilty does not maintain the established tradition of ‘the bronzed Anzac’. There is dignity but not the fearless “one Aussie is worth five of the enemy”, not the mighty Anzac who created mateship, nor the tough-as-nails larrikin, disrespectful of authority. Not that these qualities are dismissed, but rather that they are added to. These naked humans show the soldier who is vulnerable, who is anxious after nerve-wracking tension, the soldier who serves but holds back fear to contain it internally till it eventually warps personality. Quilty depicts the human psyche crouching in a foxhole protecting itself. Asked to choose their own pose, one that they adopted in duty, Lance Corporal M. sprawls like a warrior on a temple pediment, but without the marble skin he is vulnerable. “The pose for this painting was chosen by Captain S. and reflects a memorable and terrifying experience he had as an officer in the Australian Army in 2011”, says Quilty. “Under constant fire from insurgents in the Helmand Province in Afghanistan, Captain S. spent eighteen hours taking cover behind a low mud-brick wall.” Captain Kate Porter, the only woman soldier in the group is shown
Opposite: Ben Quilty, Lance Corporal M, after Afghanistan, 2012 Below: Ben Quilty, Air Commodore John Oddie, after Afghanistan no. 3, 2012 Page 38: Ben Quilty, Captain Kate Porter, after Afghanistan, 2012 Photos courtesy the artist and Jan Murphy Gallery, Brisbane
stiffly posed with her arm defensively in front of her. Behind her, an ominous black shadow serves as a morbid reminder of human frailty. The paintings in the touring exhibition After Afghanistan are bold, graphic and expressionistic, built with oozing clots of paint and powerful brushstrokes of red, black, purple and brown. Paint, inevitably in Quilty’s work, is his prime vehicle for conveying feeling. Dribbles strike a lugubrious note in many of these works, particularly the portrait of Air Commodore John Oddie. Blood? Tears? Paint? The over ripe flesh colours speak of corporeal tension, as does the muscular contours of thick impasto, relieved by the innately sensitive beauty of the glossy, turgid, paint surfaces. Drama is created via jumps between thick and thin areas of paint, as well as the striking contrasts in colour and the tight framing of the figure. This body of work marks a milestone in Quilty’s technique in terms of his greatly varied paint facture and in painting directly from life rather than from photographs. His visceral technique supports the emotional response of the subjects to their wartime experience and to a sympathetic interpretation of their state of mind by the viewer.
This is not the neat-edged sexuality of Lucian Freud, nor is it quite the meaty animus of Francis Bacon, though both are clearly antecedents. Quilty’s soldiers exhibit a certain fatalism, a degree of introversion. Wilhelm, the disillusioned officer and narrator on the German TV drama Generation War, which deals with conflicts of conscience in the Hitler era, noted that the stress of war is not about the action; it’s about the waiting. The masterwork of the show is perhaps the portrait of Trooper Daniel Spain. His face, sketched on bare canvas with a few incisive lines of colour, is placed next to a black cloud. The metaphor is graphic, immediate and devastating. The muscle car of Quilty’s earlier works, the Torana, has been replaced by a savaged and torn Bushmaster, the army’s armoured vehicle designed to protect its occupants like a carapace around a quivering humanity. The broken vehicle matches the broken men. A personal favourite is the image of the pullulating base at Kandahar, a floating black cloud seething with malevolent energy that is half Howl’s moving castle and half the whirling Tasmanian devil of Looney Tunes fame.
Post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD is a factor of the kind of rigidly defined manhood that Quilty has explored in previous works and he has used the commission to draw attention to the Australian veterans suffering from the condition. One cannot but think that in some ways the Australian War Memorial got more than it bargained for. Quilty insists that he was encouraged to comment without any agenda. The portraits confront the Anzac legend, revise and enlarge it, moving from the mythological, forged in fire, bronzed Anzac of the last century, to something more realistic reflecting who we are today and what we know of stress. In that sense the portraits reflect the reshaping and reconfiguring of existing political and cultural systems in the post-war era. Seeing Afghanistan, Quilty became aware of its dry, rugged landscape and its history of resilience which he felt had affinities to Australia. Transparent might after Afghanistan (2011), refers to this correlation. To a reproduction of Arthur Streeton’s iconic The purple noon’s transparent might (1896), Quilty added a range of rocky mountains and to ensure recognition, the inscription “Afghanistan”. Interestingly Streeton’s title, taken from Percy Bysshe
Shelley’s poem ‘Stanzas Written in Dejection, near Naples’ refers to the power of human emotion to infect thoughts of nature. Looking at the gullies and scrub of Afghanistan, Quilty imagined parallels with Australia both in the arid geography and in seeing a conquered land. The idea of indigenous resistance and the bloody earth as a witness to human tribulation and conflict was to drive the following series of works, the Rorschach landscapes. The largest of this series will be displayed in the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, and will add an eerie sublime to the theme of the exhibition Dark Heart. These pictures show surreal landscapes perhaps made uneasy by human passions. Fairy Bower Rorschach (2012), for example, notes the site of a nineteenth century massacre of indigenous peoples. Quilty’s dark heart for Adelaide is an island (presumably Australia) which, like the portrait of Kandahar in his Afghanistan series, shows geography as a place imbued and shaped by human emotions. The painting shows a lush, yet gloomy island against a twilight sky. For me it conjured up Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, with its implicit colonial violence and racism, and in the idea that what we see of the world outside us is actually a projection of what is inside. Quilty’s After Afghanistan focused on portraits, but in the Rorschach landscapes, people are near invisible. That’s the point. Knowing something of the history of the Kandahar base, Fairy Bower or our island home, we people it with emotional forces according to our beliefs and our conscience. The Rorschach is a means to bring this about free association. The “frontier wars”, as they are called, between settlers and indigenous inhabitants in Australia in nineteenth century are a topic of much contemporary debate. There are no fallen soldiers from these wars recorded in the Australian War Memorial. The indigenous peoples from this moment are absent. Representation of the frontier wars in the memorial is currently being argued between academics, indigenous people and the institution. Despite the ‘Sorry speech’ by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2007, it is clear that Australia still has unresolved issues deriving from the clash of cultures in the nineteenth century. Australia’s own case of national PTSD is unlikely to be resolved with the change of government and what seems like a coming time of revisionism. The school curriculum is under scrutiny with indications of a return to the nationalist platform of the Howard era —reintroduction of religious studies, support for a colonialist view of Australian history, pride in military prowess. Quilty’s work (and politics) confronts this new climate.
2014 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Dark Heart, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide will be presenting the work of Ben Quilty, 1 March–11 May.
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ah xian: healing the wounds RUSSELL STORER Ah Xian’s figures are never complete or pure. They are bodies in transition, from the bandaged hands, feet and heads in his early paintings and plaster sculptures to his renowned busts—truncated individuals separated from but standing in for the whole. These latter works are elaborately decorated in an extraordinary array of designs and techniques, including cloisonné lotuses, lacquer dragons, painted landscapes and jade or ox-bone scales, obscuring or enhancing facial features and physical characteristics. Dense patterning also covers Ah Xian’s fullbody sculptures, giving them the appearance of being wrapped or tattooed, or perhaps overtaken by a hidden force that transforms them into gorgeous, if somewhat disturbing, alien beings. The figure has been the focus of Ah Xian’s work for the past thirty years, and has provided the base for extended explorations of migration and cultural displacement, emotional and physical trauma, and humanity’s relationship to its environment, be it natural, social, or spiritual. While living in Beijing in the 1980s, part of an avant-garde scene of artists, filmmakers and writers, Ah Xian painted nudes, a provocative subject at a time of anti-spiritual pollution campaigns. To Ah Xian, nudes represented liberation from political control, and despite being taken briefly taken into custody and having paintings confiscated during the 1983 campaign, he continued to paint them in compositions that reflect an atmosphere of tense confinement.1 The Palace Lady series (1985-86) depicts female nudes bounded by the claustrophobic architecture of the Forbidden City, while The Wall (1987) series on rice paper feature ghostly nudes that meld into rubbings and monoprints of forbidding brick walls. Ah Xian first visited Australia in 1989 for a residency at the Tasmanian School of Art, along with fellow artists Guan Wei and Lin Chunyan, at the invitation of director Geoff Parr.2 His return to Beijing preceded the Tiananmen Square massacre of 4 June that year by a mere few weeks. The shock of this event led to him and his brother, fellow artist Liu Xiao Xian seeking political asylum in Australia in 1990, following his participation in an exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney.3 Ah Xian describes his emotions at this time as “very low, dark and sad”, bearing a sense of “anguish and betrayal”:
There was the feeling of being cheated—because my generation grew up, in primary school and high school, through the Cultural Revolution… what I was told and educated was something bright, the communist propaganda of a beautiful future—which after all was nothing, a dream.4 This despair permeates the first works Ah Xian produced in Australia, which were also his final paintings: the Heavy Wounds series (1991), which had its first showing at the Irving (later Sherman) Galleries in Sydney, alongside works by Guan Wei and Lin Chunyan. Structured by stark geometries of walls and apertures, the series continues with the brick motif of
his earlier paintings. Ah Xian’s primary reference, however, is official First Aid posters published during the Cultural Revolution era (1966-76), circulated in preparation for what then seemed to be a potential conflict with the Soviet Union. For each of the fifteen paintings in the series Ah Xian appropriated the posters’ figures and body parts wrapped in slings and bandages, as well as their sequential diagrams of bandage-tying techniques. These elements are placed in surrealist arrangements evocative of de Chirico or Magritte, and flatly rendered in a Socialist Realist style, conjuring a bleak air of personal isolation and social fragmentation.
The generic blandness of the figures in Heavy Wounds—which the artist notes are “a bit chubby with short hair and Mao clothes, typical Cultural Revolution appearance”—suggests that the trauma suffered in China post-Tiananmen was collective as well as individual. In Heavy Wounds series #4, a man’s head is bandaged by hands that reach into the frame, while behind him a row of wrapped heads turn their backs to the scene. All are bound in the same fashion, like an assembly line; there is no interaction or empathy. In Heavy Wounds series #10, a young
Page 39: Ah Xian, Evolutionaura 13: Tai-lake Stone-1, 2011-13 Above: Ah Xian, Heavy wounds series no.4, 1991 Photos courtesy the artist
woman stares blankly at the viewer, her arm in a sling, surrounded by medical objects and diagrams. Along the bottom of the frame runs a sequence of numbers that recurs across the series, suggesting a process of dehumanised control. In almost all the paintings there are areas of traditional stylised wave patterns, which Ah Xian explains as being an element of peace, introduced to provide balance to what is otherwise relentlessly grim subject matter. While the bandaged bodies carry the evidence of violence, they might also indicate recovery and healing. Ah Xian describes coming to Australia as offering a chance to “calm down” and find respite from the anguish he felt in China. Yet expressions of confusion and loss remained in his practice for a number of years, as he worked through living between contrasting cultures. Two installations that followed Heavy Wounds, Deduction #2 and Fading Books (both 1996)—in which portraits of the artist, the Buddha, the Mona Lisa, and other figures are repeatedly faxed or photocopied,
gradually degrading each image—trace the dissolution of identity as his previous life faded into memory. The parallel disappearance of figures from Chinese and Western history, alongside that of the artist, has been interpreted by curator Melissa Chiu as a reflection of “Ah Xian’s struggle with different cultural values since his migration to Australia”, and a chart he created at the time listing the opposing attributes of ‘East and West Civilisations’ attests to his search to understand the dynamics of cultural difference.5 Ah Xian’s attempt to reconcile the divided self of his migrant identity has found its fullest expression in his busts, which were launched in the late 1990s with the China, China series. Cast from live models, including family and friends, these works were made in porcelain, first at the studios of the Sydney College of the Arts and later drawing on the skills of artisans in the famed kilns of Jingdezhen. The introduction into his work of a classical Chinese material, infused with deep histories of craftsmanship and global trade, enabled Ah Xian to address his own mobility and to find a way back to China, both physically and conceptually. The distance and relative peace that living in Australia provided shifted his perspective from urgent political issues to personal and artistic concerns; the works explore Chinese culture through aesthetic traditions rather than current social realities. Of the generation of Chinese artists who grew up during the Cultural Revolution and who formed an avant-garde as Western books and ideas flooded into the country, Ah Xian struggled with what this meant for his Chinese heritage. While the new possibilities enabled by European philosophy and modern art were intoxicating, they were also threatening. In a presentation at a forum in 1998, Ah Xian argued that Chinese artists should be “able to tell stories about ourselves by using our own language”, not just “the foreign languages we have learnt”, but also noted that this language had been degraded and devalued from within. Chinese high culture, through decades of State repression and destruction, and the “tidal-wave of Western influence”, was reduced to folk or tourist art, facsimiles of a glorious past.6 Ah Xian’s engagement with porcelain, and later lacquer and cloisonné, was a rescue mission of sorts: he reinvigorated classical techniques by bringing them into the sphere of contemporary art. In turn, contemporary art gained the benefit of great craftsmanship and strong traditions, goals not always esteemed or pursued in the field.7 Ah Xian’s choice of the bust as his central form in China, China is partly practical—he was unable to create a life-sized figure in porcelain—but also links it to a tradition of Western portraiture that reached back to the Romans. Emperors, saints and
other prominent figures were rendered in marble, bronze or wood, with enormous effort expended into creating perfect likenesses. The tradition continued through the Middle Ages and into the Baroque, and saw a twentieth century revival in totalitarian regimes with cults of personality around their leaders—it was busts of Mao and other communist heroes that Ah Xian encountered as a boy in China.8 Ah Xian’s likenesses are created through casting live models, and his portrait of Dr John Yu notwithstanding, are always of everyday, unidentified people.9 The commemoration of ordinary yet unnamed individuals performs a number of functions. It provides each bust with a unique identity, a soul, rather than the repetition of an iconic form. That they are not idealised figures—there are slouched shoulders, weak chins, prominent ears—brings them into the real world, even as they are being elevated into the realm of immortality. It also enables the works to move continually between the individual and the collective—each unique bust is part of a larger series, an anonymous community, identified only by sequential numbers. An important source for Ah Xian is the Terracotta Army of China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang (259-210 BCE), which, across more than eight thousand figures, has individual features for each. This funerary reference is an important one: the single unifying characteristic across all Ah Xian’s busts and full figures, through all of his series, is their closed eyes, connecting them to the tradition of death masks. The lack of a direct gaze shuts the subject off to us—they appear to be in another realm, that of the spirit. The introspective nature of Ah Xian’s figures has intensified in recent years, moving away from the elaborate, virtuosic decorations of the China, China and Human, human series toward simpler, if no less compelling, forms and techniques. His 2007 Metaphysica series was cast in bronze, another medium with a long and revered history in China, while also linked to Western traditions of figurative sculpture. Attached to the crown of each bust is an object, sourced from Beijing’s street markets, that contains some kind of symbolic value. Drawn largely from Buddhist and Daoist iconography and folklore, the objects include animals and mythical figures, representing belief systems of faith and superstition. The position at the top of the head makes the link between the mind and the spiritual world; Ah Xian has stated that the “skull is like a skylight to link up our emotions and soul with something up there”.10 Ah Xian’s newest series continues to contemplate humanity’s creative and spiritual dimensions, but takes a more sombre turn. Evolutionaura, an ongoing series begun in 2011, and completed in 2013, also incorporates objects sourced from Beijing markets, in this case scholar rocks, which include limestone
sourced from Lingbi and Lake Tai as well as semi-precious stones such as agate and turquoise. These stones are valued for their unusual and sometimes biomorphic shapes, their subtle colours and glossy surfaces, and the resonant sound they make when struck. Objects of aesthetic contemplation, they are featured in Chinese gardens, as well as the miniature landscapes known as penjing (tray scenery), an influence on the Japanese bonsai. As part of the Chinese literati traditions of retreating into the countryside to find spiritual sustenance and moral direction, and of deep appreciation of specific forms and qualities in nature, the scholar rocks continue Ah Xian’s mining of classical Chinese culture, while gesturing toward more troubling aspects of contemporary life. The busts in this series, also cast in bronze, have been layered with gold leaf, traditionally reserved for those of the highest rank or for religious figures. The meanings of specific materials are central to Ah Xian’s work, and the capacity of gold to indicate high value and a separation from the mundane world is used to full effect. The pure surface is broken by the application of the stones, which are not elegantly positioned above the heads like haloes, but inserted into different parts of the bust, so that they appear to slice into or burst out of the body. The startling shapes of the rocks and their violent contrast to the smooth golden skins of the busts generate in several sculptures a sense of conflict. Works such as Evolutionaura5: Agate-2, where the bust is dotted in a regular pattern of red agate beads, evoke disease, while the blue stones erupting from Evolutionaura7: Turquoise-3 resemble enormous tumours. Other works, however, appear calmer and more balanced: in Evolutionaura2: Xuanyuan Stone-1, the rock sits atop the bust’s head like a crown of clouds. Ah Xian talks of this series as emphasising humanity’s relationship with the natural and spiritual worlds: both their essential interconnectedness and our increasing estrangement. The role of culture in this dynamic is expressed through the use of stones chosen for their aesthetic properties, but the fact that the stones can be bought cheaply from Beijing streets suggest that culture has become a mere commodity, a trinket for tourists or for Chinese who have lost deep connections to their past. Nicholas Jose notes that many of the stones contain iron, which might suggest the trade in iron ore from Australia to China, which has “brought wealth to both countries”, with the gold—also mined heavily in Australia —a symbol of the prosperity won by defiling the earth.11
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Evolutionaura, along with the previous series Concrete Forest (2008-09), with busts cast in concrete and then pocked and scored with the imprints of plants, marks a subtle shift back into sociopolitical territory for Ah Xian. In some ways the pierced busts hark back to those early, broken figures in Heavy Wounds, yet the trauma inflicted on the gilded bodies comes not from the external power of the State, but is the mark of an internal struggle. This might be between the fleeting attractions of wealth and prestige and the slow, lifelong quest for spiritual fulfilment; or maybe between the weight of a troubled yet culturally rich past and the lightness of a peaceful if still alienated present. Either way, Ah Xian’s serene-faced figures continue to churn with private thoughts, transforming those things we can’t see but feel intensely, into small memorials for the flawed human condition. Notes 1 Roni Feinstein, ‘Ah Xian: A journey to China’, Art in America, February 2002: 108 2 For a discussion of Australian connections to the Chinese avant-garde scene, see Nicholas Jose, ‘My China Project’, in Suhanya Raffel (curator), The China Project (exhibition catalogue), Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2009: 56-62 3 The exhibition was part of the First Sydney International Festival of New Music and Visual Arts, organised by pianist Roger Woodward, who had met Ah Xian while touring China 4 All quotes by the artist, unless otherwise attributed, are from conversation with the author, 18 January 2014 5
Melissa Chiu, Breakout: Chinese art outside China, Milan: Charta, 2006: 185-186
Ah Xian, ‘Self-exile of the Soul’, TAASA Review, vol.8 no.1, March 1999: 9
7 Kathryn Wells, ‘Ah Xian, Ancient crafts, contemporary practice–a new language of art’, artist interview, September 2011, <http://www. craftaustralia.org.au/library/interview.php?id=ah-xian-ancientcrafts-contemporary-practice>, accessed 19 January 2014 8
Dieter Brunner, ‘The Bust and Immortality’, in Ah Xian: Sculpture (exhibition catalogue), Städtische Museen Heilbronn/Kunsthalle Recklinghausen/Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, 2007: 43
9 Dr John Yu AC (2003-4), glazed ceramic, commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra 10
Ah Xian, unpublished artist statement 2009, quoted in Tarun Nagesh, Ah Xian: Metaphysica (exhibition catalogue), Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2013 11
Nicholas Jose, ‘Ah Xian: Mining materiality’, Artlink vol.33 no.4, 2013: 12
Eight works from the Evolutionaura series will feature in the 2014 Adelaide Biennial: Dark Heart, Art Gallery of South Australia. A selection of works from the Heavy Wounds series will be on display at the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, from 27 March 2014.
you imagine what you desire The 2014 Biennale of Sydney: You Imagine What You Desire is an evocation celebrating the artistic imagination as a spirited describing and exploration of the world through metaphor and poesis. It makes enquiries into contemporary aesthetic experience, and relates this to historical precedents and future opportunities to imagine possible worlds. It reminds us that powerful art is not divorced from the cultural conditions, political, social and climatic environments in which it is generated. That indeed it often exists to provide a meta-commentary on these aspects of societyâ&#x20AC;&#x201D;and even, sometimes, act as an antidote and propositionâ&#x20AC;&#x201D;as a future vision. Sydney-based artist and academic Adam Geczy and Biennale of Sydney Artistic Director Juliana Engberg discuss You Imagine What You Desire.
BROADSHEET/ADAM GECZY: Your Biennale of Sydney is described as “optimistic” in a media release, a description that has also been used for previous Biennales. It might be testing credibility to imagine the obverse, that the exhibition is lined with pessimism, since that would have a negative affect on the potential audience. However, do you think this optimism runs the risk of populism and art as entertainment? JULIANA ENGBERG: Really? Thinking back over a few we have recently seen there has been a focus on indigenous communities and connectivity (Catherine de Zegher and Gerald McMaster, 2012); postcolonialism as interpreted from the position of a British boundary rider (David Elliott, 2010); art as a set of rotating avant-gardes (Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, 2008); new and crossing territorialisations (Charles Merewether, 2006); and more, we could go on. There might have been a lurking optimism in some of these editions, but I don’t recall that being stated explicitly: I didn’t experience them all as being optimistic either —perhaps in Richard Grayson’s, Biennale of Sydney: (The World May Be) Fantastic in 2002, which was derailed somewhat by 9/11 when optimism took a bit of dive, but resurfaced in his event. Anyway, to answer the first part of your question, I’m hoping to infiltrate the Biennale with works that have a feral kind of energy, and that have the capacity to ignite a bit of positive energy in the audience. I’d like to think that energy will motivate people to think about their world, the cause and effect of their place within it, and think about the shifting dynamics of communities as they seek ways of being in the world. I’m interested too in our cognitive capacities and the visual plays we invent to test our perceptions, and release new information that remains sometimes latent within us. I think the use of the word “optimistic” is also a reaction against the negativity, the pretty much nihilistic proposition about art and its uselessness put by Artur Zmijewski in his 7th Berlin Biennale (2012) last year. I just don’t believe that. I think art is important, useful and yes, can be powerful in helping us interpret and think through our human condition. I don’t mean it can solve the world’s problems, nor even that it can be, or has to be a catalyst for change. To me those are rather grandiose propositions, and slightly outmoded ideological concepts, a bit naïve. But I still believe art is intrinsically important in that it taps into our unspoken anxieties, hopes, desires and speaks from and to a collective consciousness. I see no problem with the Biennale being popular or entertaining. I don’t assume either of those propositions to be mutually exclusive of interesting, thought-provoking, sometimes confronting. I like the audience. I’d like them to find some good spirit in the enterprise.
ADAM GECZY: Various commentators, critics and curators have queried the viability of public art festivals such as biennials for reasons mooted in the previous question, but also because they turn art into a kind of open pageant. Moreover, the biennale phenomenon that has increased in momentum over the last two decades has spawned its own aesthetic, such that there are now ‘biennale curators’ and even ‘biennale artists’. What is your view on this? JULIANA ENGBERG: To your first point, I would probably call it a carnival, in the sense that Bakhtin meant, rather than a pageant. To your second, the shape and approach of biennales is varied and multiple. For me, no biennale is like another; they each have their own life force. For this reason, and for reasons of site, context and history, there are many variations on the structure. Some tend towards a very local set of ideas: for instance, the recent Istanbul Biennial, which focused on issues of contested territories, was a very particular culmination, broadening out to issues of protest and the polis under pressure. At the same time you have the Biennale de Lyon, another midsized gathering, considering ideas of narrative, sometimes somewhat whimsically, through which a number of subjective propositions flowed, and the Venice Biennale, with its central focus on esoteric and obsessive, selfstyled cosmologies and the independent national pavilions. These deliver a plurality of art that I find very exciting to engage with. Contexts deliver different outcomes: Lyon is not Berlin is not Istanbul is not Venice is not Gwangju is not Yokohama is not Sharjah is not Taipei is not Adelaide is not Tarrawarra is not
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Sydney; and so forth: the title “biennale” is a bit of a red herring if it makes you think they are all similar. To your third point, obviously when cities are mounting a biennale they are inclined to ask people who might have experience to do it, it’s a big thing after all; but not always, so yes, some curators do a few. To your point about biennale artists, actually when I go to many biennales I am always impressed by the lack of crossover in many instances. If you see enough of them, the plurality of the biennale world is quite breathtaking. I think you can form that view, that there are ‘biennale artists’ if you do not see many of the smaller institutional, artistrun, commercial, graduate shows around the world that feed so many of the little biennales and your world-view is formed from a couple of large biennales, of which Sydney is one of course. I’d like to think some of the new artists I’ve chosen will be picked up and taken on to other opportunities and that might include other biennales. ADAM GECZY: Some of the artworks in your exhibition are interactive and participatory. In the aftermath of the influential “relational aesthetics” phenomenon, such art has been criticised for the manner in which it vouches for sociability and community in a way that is highly stylised, marketable and therefore more about pleasure for its own sake than instruction or real social change. In other words, such artists enact a kind of spectre of protest, but the work and the institution works from the premise that no real protest will take place. What is special about the works in your exhibition?
JULIANA ENGBERG: I’m not sure ‘protest’ is the epicentre of Bourriaud’s description of relational aesthetics. His is not so situationist a thought, although there are some historical links I guess. But that’s neither here nor there. Yes, some of the works are interactive, some have controlled participation activities orchestrated by artists. Artists have, for some time now, been hoping to engage audiences in non-passive ways. To make art live again, especially after the rather dead-end patch of postmodernism, when art became a hostage inside the theory house —had its juice sucked out of it. Artists have been looking back to the works of happenings and fluxus performance, and kinetic sculptures recently to reacquaint themselves with that feral energy which includes the audience in the art experience or assists the audience to rethink the ordinary. When Hubert Czerepok stages his children’s protest, he is of course very aware
Page 42: Mircea Cantor, Sic Transit Gloria Mundi (video still), 2012 Photo courtesy the artist, Galerie Yvon Lambert, Paris; Dvir Gallery, Tel Aviv and Magazzino, Rome Page 43: Douglas Gordon, Phantom (video still), 2011 Photo courtesy the artist and Galerie Yvon Lambert, Paris
that this is a mock event—but who knows what residual power might be activated in his young participants—who knows if some of them might later realise that they have a voice and that they can influence the way things are in the world? Just because something is playful doesn’t mean it has no power. I think, in fact, play is a very powerful agent for motivating thoughts and behaviors. ADAM GECZY: What will your Biennale of Sydney achieve that others have not; what does it seek to contribute? What for you would be the optimal set of definitions by which it will be remembered? JULIANA ENGBERG: It’s not a competition. I’m not looking to take my Biennale up against others. That’s a really redundant kind of idea to me. I see what I do as part of a continuum of activity and being a fan of art I see all that has proceeded before me as a valuable part of the bigger picture to which I am adding elements. It contributes new works for the audience to see and engage with. I hope people find it interesting. I imagine it might be remembered for its intense visual contribution and for works that stimulate the imagination in the audience through sensory and tactile means.
ADAM GECZY: In past Biennales of Sydney curated by non-Australians, the selection of Australian artists is either noticeably begrudging or follows a sort of pie chart of proportionate representation (one from Tasmania, three from NSW, two from South Australia etc.) which betrays a lack of insight. And the artists have also been almost entirely from commercial galleries (where the curator does the state-by-state gallery hop). Your knowledge of Australian art is in-depth and reflects considerable investment. Can you articulate the reasoning behind your selection of the Australian artists and where they stand vis-à-vis their international colleagues? JULIANA ENGBERG: I have no way of knowing if other curators have been begrudging, and I would resist agreeing with you on that as I do not have first-hand knowledge of or access to their thoughts. I have seen no pie charts either. My selection is based on interest and artists and works that have relevance to the curatorial itineraries and ideas I’m pursuing. I treat Australian artists as being international, I do not see them as separate from their international colleagues. Never have.
ADAM GECZY POSTSCRIPT: To conceptualise, produce and direct an international biennale of prominent standing is always a huge undertaking. It involves risks and its organisational schedule is never to be underestimated. It is also all too frequently a thankless task, since the art world, or art worlds are so diverse that any result will be apt to court criticism from some perspective, or attitude. This said, there is, I believe a strong onus, implicit or not, placed upon curators and artistic directors to be culturally wide-ranging in their outlook. In his book (Welcome to the desert of the real) in response to ‘11 September’, Slavoj Zizek courageously and presciently notes how suddenly books about Islam had become international best-sellers. In his eloquent diatribe he mentions how after the invasion of Iraq, the Left academia rallied to the cause of Islam, arguing that the West failed to understand the ‘true’ Muslim. Certainly symposia and publishing flourished on this over-compensation to understand the ‘enemy’ better.1 No-one can deny that the calamities that began over a decade ago have witnessed a burgeoning of exposure of Middle Eastern artists. So one is tempted to ask the extent to which choices of curators of large-scale exhibitions are guided by pressures exerted as a reflex against broader international issues? Moreover, and this is a question far from being limited to the present Biennale of Sydney, do we think that curators are steered by the desire to reflect or even compensate for world events? On the other hand, as recent debates in these pages and elsewhere attest, for example about the viability of the Asia-Pacific Triennial, we need collectively to reconsider what it means to have biennales in places like Sydney in an age of globalism, or globalisation. In a recent essay entitled ‘Globalisation and Contemporary Art’, Peter Weibel comments that, The rise of art from Arabia, Asia, Africa and South America, amongst others, in Western institutions is nothing other than the legitimate attempt by other cultures, nations, and civilisations to strip the West of its monopoly of exclusion. As Hans Belting once wrote, “the definition of modern art… was based on a double exclusion”. These artists from Arabia, Asia Africa, South America, and elsewhere, do not want to integrate into Western culture; at most they want to break down these mechanisms of exclusion.2
Weibel poses a more empowering and positive view of what at worst in some curatorial cases has been ethnic tokenism, the use of identities to populate a museum that then places under systematic aesthetic control, a ploy that attempts to readdress colonisation (through inclusion and representation), but which enacts the opposite, that of institutional circumscription according to the Euro-American paradigm of the museum. Instead, he suggests that artists of non-First World countries might inhabit these spaces in a begrudging and subversive way and that we may read them as examples of slippage and dissent. It is also worth re-pondering the word “optimism”. One of the key characteristics of postmodernism, with its debunking of “master narratives”, is to call into disrepute notions such as optimism when used as a social rallying call. After all, were socialism and communism anything but optimistic? The utopian claims of radical politics and the avant-garde were also steeped in optimism. For example, when we turn to the Surrealists, it would seem preposterous for us today to think that a ‘revolution’ could be affected through exposing the general public to out-of-the-ordinary images. Yet, at the same time, we would have to say that here and in innumerable other historical cases, it was optimism that buoyed the group and allowed them to produce the kinds of work that they did. Hence, it was their optimism that did in some sense affect change, even if that change had not been that which they had envisaged. Still, even if “optimism” is a kind of vector for engagement, for communication, for positive wonder and sharing, we remain in the penumbra of the shadow of President Obama’s first campaign which liberally made use of the four letter word “hope”, a sibling term, if not a synonym, to optimism. But although Obama’s win was a cause for extraordinary ebullience
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and optimism—starting with the inalienable and material first instance of a black man as President, which could open the avenue for other such instances—Obama’s stewardship has not quite lived up to the hope to which he aspired. This is not to say we need to adopt postmodern cool, irony, or detachment. Some good art has come from that but it is exhausted. After all these positions, when deployed too long, have become inscribed by their own imminent annulment. This said, what of “realism” over optimism? We are living in ‘End Times’: our world is overpopulated, we are witnessing massive environmental degradation, and worse. For example, I read an article by environmentalist and global warming activist Tim Flannery recently that one of the unspoken calamities facing our seas is the exponential rise in jellyfish, which, among many things, clog up power plants as well as deplete plankton and krill. This just serves as a detail to a questioning that optimism could be seen as a smokescreen. After all, in the age of the so-called “postcritical” (Hal Foster et al), have we lost the ‘tragic’ in art? Can optimism be seen as offering false promises? Notes 1 Slavoj Zizek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real, London: Verso, 2002: 33-4 2 Peter Weibel, ‘Globalization and Contemporary Art’, in Hans Belting, Andrea Buddensieg and Peter Weibel eds, The Global Contemporary and the Rise of the New Worlds, Karlsruhe and Cambridge MA: ZKM and MIT Press 2013: 21
Opposite: Michael Cook Majority Rule, Memorial, 2014 Photo courtesy the artist and Andrew Baker Art Dealer, Brisbane Above: Wael Shawky, Al Araba Al Madfuna I (video still), 2012 Photo courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Galerie, Hamburg and Beirut
wael shawky: the butterfly effect
KATHY ZARUR In a scene in Wael Shawky’s Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show File (2010), fires rage around the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, casting an orange light on the faces of marionettes engaged in acts of violence that came to characterise the brutal history of the Crusades. Based on Amin Maalouf’s book The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, the video is one in a trilogy that tells this history.1 Shawky brings together a variety of aesthetic traditions such as two hundred-yearold marionettes from the Lupi Collection in Turin, sixteenth-century maps painted by the Bosnian polymath Matrakçi Nasuh and the hypnotising rhythms of fidjeri, a traditional form of Bahraini music associated with the once dominant industry of pearl diving. Simultaneously repulsive and aesthetically lush, the series intrigues and captivates. The major production required the labor of puppeteers, artists, directors, musicians, videographers,
as well as financial support through an artist residency at Cittadellarte-Fondazione Pistoletto. Although Shawky’s exhibition history had included notable venues such as the Venice Biennale (2003), Istanbul Biennial (2005), Tate Modern and Kunsthalle Winterthur (both in 2007), Cabaret Crusades brought the forty two-year-old artist art world fame. While Shawky’s oeuvre is diverse, a number of themes recur in his work. One is the authority of the word, and the ways in which the word becomes a vehicle, through which people understand both history and the world around them. The late Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote that; “History means both the facts of the matter and a narrative of those facts, both ‘what happened’ and ‘that which is said to have happened’.”2 Shawky explores this concept in Cabaret Crusades. While the Trouillot quote seems
to pose the question of whether or not truth can be found in historical narratives, such issues seem to concern Shawky very little. What resonates instead is the author’s function in the process of telling a story. Shawky chose The Crusades Through Arab Eyes to tell the history because of the author’s method, which revolved around first person accounts of the events written by Arabs. In Cabaret Crusades, Shawky takes both Maalouf’s book, as well as primary texts and uses them to similarly shape the story told in his films. Some writers of those texts, such as Usama ibn Munqidh, even become characters in the work. Shawky is next working on the third and final film of this series, with research taking place in Italy and production in Germany. In fact, all films have been produced in Europe, adding to the complication of their construct, for while the story both comes from the perspective of Arabs and is told in Arabic,
it is produced in Europe, the origin of the Crusades. What emerges in this process is a shuttling back and forth of authority that breaks down the ability to pinpoint where it ultimately lies. This perhaps confounding approach to production is typical for Shawky. While he primarily exhibits film (video), his production process entails a great deal more than meets the eye. After a gestation period during which several sources, histories or aesthetic traditions are joined in an unexpected juxtaposition, he sets about designing an installation. He describes this process as intuitive, but it is also informed by keen observation and consultation. His productions are often large and require the work of teams of musicians, editors, researchers, set designers, visual artists, producers etc. Once the installation has been produced, he stages and records a performance that is repeated until he obtains the perfect take. The video is the final product after this extensive production. This was especially the case in Dictums 10:120 (2013), a live installation performed at the Sharjah Biennial, which juxtaposed traditional Sufi qawwali music with artspeak, that often cryptic language spoken by the art world. The process of arriving at the lyrics sung by Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad, famed qawwals hailing from Karachi in Pakistan, was lengthy. Press conferences and curator tours from the previous Sharjah Biennial were translated into Urdu, subjected to a collective editing process and then crafted into lyrics. While Shawky was present for each step, he was careful to limit his involvement, only making sure that the original words were not changed. With the understanding that the process of translation is itself an alteration of meaning, Shawky insisted that nothing else should change. And just as his Cabaret Crusades production team could not understand the Arabic used to tell the story, neither could he understand the Urdu spoken in Dictums. This postmodernist approach to authorship was also an institutional critique focusing on the role of the curator. By insisting on maintaining the integrity of the original texts, Shawky seems to treat the word of the curator as sacred, almost as though it were a religious text. Their utterance by spiritual singers pushed this concept further, although the lyricsâ&#x20AC;&#x201D;convoluted fragments translated into Urduâ&#x20AC;&#x201D;were incomprehensible to the majority of the audience.
Opposite: Wael Shawky, Dictums 10:120, (performance 11th Sharjah Biennial), 2013 Page 47: Wael Shawky, Al Araba Al Madfuna II (video stills), 2013 Photos courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Galerie, Hamburg and Beirut
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Initiated as a live installation commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation, it premiered in video form early this year at the Lisson Gallery in London. The exhibition included drawings and an assemblage of Pakistani truck art, a sound installation, a silent film featuring Ayaz and Muhammad singing and wildly gesturing in their signature way, as well as the second video in the series, Dictums: Manqia I (2014). In the latter, herds of a valuable breed of camel roam the deserts of the United Arab Emirates. Only the very rich can afford the black mezayna camel, as they are called, which are entered into competitions, with attention to their rarity and beauty. In tandem, the two videos refer to the growth and development of the UAE upon the discovery of oil in the 1950s. The first highlights the significant role Pakistanis have played in building the UAE’s economy. Similarly, Pakistanis were central to the project. Biennial technicians made selections of the texts for the lyrics; a poet was flown in from Islamabad to Sharjah; artists Saamia Ahmed and Fatima Zahra Hassan provided important guidance; and in a form of reversed import, a small team travelled to Karachi to record and produce the music.3 The Lisson Gallery exhibition brings the relationship between the two countries to the foreground through a melding of their cultural traditions: camel breeding, truck art, qawwali music and poetry. Shawky is currently working on another video series, Araba Al Madfuna (2012–), one of which will show at this year’s Biennale of Sydney. This work was inspired by a trip Shawky made ten years ago to the Egyptian village after which the series is named. In the videos, children perform the role of adults and tell surreal tales written by the late Egyptian novelist Mohamed Mustagab. Co-produced by Sharjah Art Foundation and the Viennese art festival Wiener Festwochen, the second in the series, Araba Al Madfuna II (2013), depicts children traversing the landscape in an Egyptian village as they tell two tales: one about a village whose occupants lose the ability to speak and the other about a queen who kills her husband four days after their wedding night, only to remarry and repeat the gruesome deed over and over. Playing adults, the boys sport fake moustaches with their heads wrapped in turbans and wear the galabiyeh (a traditional male dress in Egypt), while the girls cover their hair with the hijab. They speak in adult voices, provided by a voiceover track to which their lips are synched while they gesture their hands in typically Egyptian fashion. The Arabic they speak is not one that is colloquial in any region of the Middle East, being classical Arabic, prevalent in literary texts from around the
seventh to ninth centuries, and a descendent of it, modern standard Arabic is today reserved for formal settings. The children perform with remarkable sincerity, their performance straightforward and without the affect that sometimes comes with professional actors. Shawky prefers to work with children, for their limited experience ensures they know little to nothing about the histories and concepts his works engage. As he says, children have no preconceptions about the work to decide how they will approach their acting. They simply follow direction, resulting in an enchanting and authentic performance. In the first video in the series, Araba Al Madfuna I (2012), a group of boys sit around the perimeter of a darkened room, taking turns telling the story about residents in a village who seek final counsel from one patriarch after the other, each of whom directs them to “get a camel!” or “get a mule!” In each case, the villagers develop a relationship with the animal so obsessive that their physical features eventually transform until they begin to resemble the animal. Mustagab writes that “even the bodies of the [villagers] grew taller and their necks longer, their voices mixed with the nasal sound of water flowing from narrownecked jugs, and their eyes grew bigger and the ears shorter. Very soon, their lips had become cleft and their feet had splayed out.”4 Seemingly oblivious to the uncanny story being told, a boy digs a hole in the centre of the room. During Shawky’s visit to the village a decade ago, he was privy to a scene not dissimilar to the one in the video. Such holes exist in many homes in El Araba Al Madfuna, which is near the ancient Egyptian city of Abydos and Osirion, a structure whose origins are under dispute. Over the decades, villagers have dug holes in a search for a natural material believed to be sought after by jinn, a type of spirit described in the Holy Quran. To possess this magical substance gives access to jinn, in particular the ability to make wishes come true. Araba Al Madfuna illustrates Shawky’s fascination with the belief and even the possibility that some materials possess metaphysical properties, a fascination that recurs in his work. As an art student, Shawky developed an attraction to Joseph Beuys because of his use of materials, in particular fat and felt. Shawky’s approach to using and featuring specific materials in his art is guided by the complex histories such materials connote. Asphalt, for example, figures in several of his works. In Asphalt Quarter (2003), a group of children lay down an asphalt runway going nowhere in the middle of the desert. As is typical in his
approach to making art, the concept is a blend of his own experience, research and an existing text. In this case, it derives from Shawky’s early years in Mecca, Saudi Arabia and a novel by Abdul Rahman Munif called Cities of Salt, which describes the transformation of Saudi Arabian society with the discovery of oil.5 The concept is based on a slice of Saudi history: during the early years of oil exploration, European oil companies hired locals to build the infrastructure required to excavate. As Shawky tells it, they could not know that their work would lead to the tremendous changes their society has since undergone. The discovery of oil not only propelled the country into financial ascendancy, but also spurred on rapid modernisation. Similarly, the mass migration of people from Egypt to Saudi Arabia impacted on Egyptian society in ways that were unimaginable at the time.6 This concept, the tremendous yet unpredictable impact that individual acts could have on society, echoes in Shawky’s conceptual approach as well as his mode of production. By using actors or musicians, who have neither a relationship nor a care about the themes in his work, something magical happens. While as mentioned earlier, this strategy leads to impressive performances, what makes Shawky’s work so moving is his exploration of the butterfly effect, or the tremendous potential embedded in a seemingly simple act. Notes 1 Amin Maalouf, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, trans. Jon Rothschild, London: Al Saqi Books, 1984 2
Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, Boston: Beacon Press, 1997: 2
3 The song was produced by Gumby Pinto. Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad’s fifteen person qawwali troupe was accompanied by Zeeshan Lalani on guitar, Bradley Dsouza on bass and Mubashir Admani on keyboard. The performance in Sharjah also featured fifteen additional UAE-based singers 4
Mohamed Mustagab, ‘The J-B-Rs’, in Tales from Dayrut, Humphrey Davies trans., Cairo and New York: The American University in Cairo Press: 106
5 Abdul Rahman Munif, Cities of Salt, Peter Theroux trans., New York: Random House, 1987 6 One example in a larger pattern of migration from other Middle Eastern countries to the Gulf upon the discovery of oil
The 19th Biennale of Sydney: You Imagine What You Desire will be presenting the work of Wael Shawky, 21 March–9 June, 2014
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the social readymade: ahmet öğüt
DUYGU DEMIR A clever conceptualist, a witty jester, and recently, a passionate social organiser, Ahmet Öğüt is an artist who cites historical pranksters and tricksters, such as Nasreddin Hodja (a thirteenth-century Sufi wise-man figure, known as a pedagogic and satirical storyteller), Till Eulenspiegel (a popular impudent trickster figure from Middle Low German folklore) and their twentieth-century successors, actors and filmmakers Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati, as figures whom he admires. Though his projects have taken a “social turn” in recent years, his works are marked by an unyielding sense of humour, an acute awareness of invisible social codes and an ability to adroitly pack these ideas, along with candid analyses, into forms—or what the artist himself calls the “social readymade”.1 Öğüt first made his mark on the Turkish art scene through his playful works that investigate the power and reach of State control. Born in Diyarbakır and of Kurdish descent, he experienced and observed firsthand many absurd moments of the State’s manifestation of power. Early works, such as a 2003 untitled photographic series made with Osman Bingöl, referred to the proximity between political figures and army officials —documenting a role-play performance with scenes, such as the army official sticking his hand in the mouth of the politician, or the politician chasing the soldier with a handheld camera. The video What a Lovely Day (2004), in which undercover police, parked at a deserted roadside, stop and search civilians, touched upon the looming presence of undercover police in daily life, as well as the random searches and identity card checks citizens are regularly subjected to—especially in the conflict-prone southeastern region of Turkey. Since public space serves as the symbolic realm, where the push and pull between the individual and the political is acted out, it features prominently in Öğüt’s practice. In Somebody Else’s Car (2005), a pair of slide projectors shows the artist targeting
two parked cars, and within moments transforming one of them into an Istanbul taxicab and the other into a Turkish police car (using only colored paper cut-outs), Öğüt mischievously hints at the codes of identification and the ways in which public space is activated by the visual presence of these codes. In the short animation Light Armored (2006), a camouflaged armoured vehicle, similar to those used by the Turkish police, is shown as it is hit by small stones thrown by unseen assailants. It is obvious that this vehicle belongs to the police forces or the army and the attack seems to be a pathetic, almost comical attempt, as the stones bounce off its armor without causing any damage. The simple piece was originally shown on the digital billboard atop the Marmara Pera hotel in a touristic area of Istanbul. Perhaps not so surprisingly, it was taken down after complaints from the local police on account of the work’s potential for provocation.
It seems that acts of vandalism, censorship, copying (or appropriation) befall Öğüt’s works more frequently than that of other artists.2 These stories were the subject of a recent performance entitled The muscles behind my eyes ache from the strain (2013) held during the Istanbul Biennial’s opening week, and which referred to Light Armored, as well as other works that were censored, stolen, attacked or appropriated. While Öğüt told the misfortunes that befell his works, while standing on the top of the Galata Tower, a curious crowd was instructed to gather on the rooftop of a nearby building, facing up at the tower, but unable to hear the artist. Instead, Öğüt’s words were interpreted and delivered by a lip-reading specialist with the help of a pair of binoculars. The content of Öğüt’s lecture-performance was determined by the abilities of the lip reader and was, at times, fully coherent and unintelligible at others. Among other stories, the viewers learned that his helium balloon
work entitled Castle of Vooruit—in the shape of Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte’s floating rock from the painting Le chateau des Pyrénées (1961)—which launched near the Vooruit Arts Centre (a reference to the socialist history of Ghent) was mysteriously shot with bullets more than once. As in Somebody Else’s Car or Light Armored, cars and roads feature prominently in Öğüt’s practice—not only because they reflect an interest in public space and how it is organised, but also because they signify the fast transformation of a country like Turkey, simultaneously slapped in the faced with modernity, nationalism and economic growth. His installation Across the Slope (2007) consists of a modified Fiat 131 Mirafiori balanced precariously across an artificial slope constructed in the gallery space. Elongated to resemble a limousine, this locally-assembled, middle-class automobile hints at the invisible obstructions to naive bourgeois aspirations. A year later in 2008, Öğüt subtly transformed the main exhibition hall at Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin by covering its 400-square metre floor with asphalt for Ground Control. This seemingly minimal gesture created a chain of associations: a sense of public space continuing into private; the State’s presence through infrastructure in both physical space and the collective psyche; and a reference to the symbolic power of road building in rural areas of Turkey, implying improved access, security and also increased government control. The futile act of stone throwing in Light Armored can be read in connection to a more recent work, which will also be the work that the artist will re-visit for the upcoming Biennale of Sydney. First realised at Lisbon’s Kunsthalle Lissabon, Stones to Throw (2011) is an installation as well as a mail and public art project. The artist employs the practice of “nose art”, which refers to a kind of decorative painting or design—painted in World War I on the fuselage of military aircrafts—on stones he collected in different cities. These stones, adorned with borrowed aircraft graffiti, are first displayed in the exhibition space and later sent to the artist’s hometown of Diyarbakır, one by one, replaced on their designated plinths by the courier’s delivery forms. At the very end of the exhibition, all but one stone remains. Meanwhile, the stones sent to Diyarbakır are received by the artist’s friend, who randomly places them on the streets of the city and documents them before they disappear into the urban fabric. Unlike the animated and hence hypothetical stones that bounce off the armoured vehicle in Light Armored, here the “stones to throw” that are sent to Diyarbakır refer to the hard-to-believe, but yet concrete phenomenon of a growing number of children, who are being arrested for throwing stones.
Until recently, characterising the practice of artist Ahmet Öğüt was an easier task: one could say that above all, it was the whimsical sensibility and humour, as well as the strong but subtle resistance against power structures that was the running thread in his drawings, sculptures, installations, videos and artist books. However, with his most recent projects, Öğüt seems to be slowly departing from the role of conceptual jester and shifting towards becoming a creator of instances of alternative collectivity or pockets of radical democracy. While Öğüt’s work still at times comes back to situations specific to Turkey, referring to political, historical and economic issues in his native country, in his most recent works the artist isolates and explores universal instances of inequality or restricted freedom. Sharply directed at the art world’s own failing systems of fair-minded professional conduct and exploitation of free labour, his project Intern VIP Lounge (2013), commissioned by Art Dubai Projects within the larger framework of the Art Dubai fair, comprised a VIP lounge conceived for the unpaid interns volunteering at the art fair. Playing off the absurd levels of exclusivity of the art fair itself, this project not only turned the hierarchical system on its head but this gracious mockery—complete with chocolate fountain, table tennis tournament, massage, popcorn and its own program of talks (in mirroring the fair’s own talks’ program) and purposefully selected screenings of films and video works, such as Andrew Norman Wilson’s Workers Leaving the Googleplex, Pilvi Takala’s The Trainee, Mark Leckey’s Green Screen Refrigerator or Marianne Flotron’s Fired (by Marianne Flotron) —actually offered a refuge for art world’s unacknowledged labourers. An even more intricately organised and constantly developing project is The Silent University, which Öğüt initiated in collaboration with the Delfina Foundation and Tate Modern in 2012. An ongoing undertaking with numerous authorial participants, The Silent University is becoming an entity of its own, existing both inside and outside the parameters of an art project. On his personal website, it is not listed under Öğüt’s own works, as he stresses that he is only the initiator of what he describes as an “autonomous knowledge exchange platform by and for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants.” He explains the structure in the following way: “It is led by a group of lecturers, consultants and research fellows. Each group is contributing to the program in different ways, which include course development, specific research on key themes, as well as personal reflections on what it means to be a refugee and asylum seeker. This platform will be presented using the format of an academic program.”3
The Silent University was first developed with immigrants and asylum seekers in the United Kingdom, who are unable to perform their professional occupation of teaching due to their restricted visa status or a lack of official work permits. Working with members of this growing demographic, Öğüt formed a community of people allied through frustration at their inability to teach. As an intricate bureaucratic exercise involving classrooms, schedules, lecture notes and students, the project’s first public presentation at Tate Modern was a testament to failings of systems: due to legal issues preventing payment, it was decided that the lectures would not be delivered and the teachers remained silent. Now, after a reconceptualisation, with an active website and a registration system, in which those who are interested in accessing the content produced by The Silent University are asked what skills and how much time they can offer in exchange, anyone can register and listen to the lectures, as well as read articles or translations online. The lecturers are paid each time, so they deliver their lectures instead of remaining silent, but the lectures are always given in the preferred (and often native language) of the lecturer. In the autumn of 2013, in an expansion of the project, The 1st Conference of The Silent University took place in the Maxim Gorki Theatre in Berlin. Some of the highlights included a lecture about the history of Kurdish literature held in Kurdish by Sherko Jahani, and a presentation by Behnam Al Agzeer about ten types of Arabic calligraphy in Arabic. In an interview, Öğüt stated that he is “not interested in definitions like ‘art’ or ‘social project’, but rather in how we use the facilities each can provide. We often underestimate the potential of art, its capacity to achieve things. The Silent University is encouraged by necessity, urgency and need. It’s both people’s and institutions’ concern to think and take action on this issue. The Silent Universitycan easily collaborate with an art institution or an NGO, as long as it’s not described and understood as a ‘project’ or a ‘workshop’, but as an organisation that demands policy changing.”4 The Silent University now has an office in Montreuil, Paris, in collaboration with Le 116 Centre d’Art Contemporain. Earlier in 2013, the university collaborated with Tensta Konsthall in publishing its reader with articles and interviews focusing on issues such as asylum rights’ activism or gaining influence through local organising. It was awarded the Visible Award at the Museum of Arte Útil, which took place at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven. Despite, or because of, the willing involvement of numerous art institutions, the question of whether The Silent University is an art project or not might follow. At the first conference
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for The Silent University, organised at Tate Modern, the question “When is it art and when is it creative organising?” arose. It is not easy to answer such a query. However, Caleb Waldorf of the Public School, Berlin, suggested that the question is beside the point, observing that, “Art as activism is a concern for critics and institutions but should not be a concern for the practitioner.”5 As someone who has adopted an overarching strategy of pointing to the space between the political and the personal, it could be said that The Silent University, as an artistic and social endeavor, falls perfectly in line with Ahmet Öğüt’s prior practice. It would only follow naturally that his practice will be all the more resourceful as it thrives in those fissures. Notes 1 From a conversation between Ahmet Öğüt, João Mourão and Luís Silva, on the occasion of the exhibition Stones to throw, held in Kunsthalle Lissabon in April 2011; http://www.kunsthalle-lissabon. org/index.php?/ongoing/ahmet-oeguet/ 2 For more misfortunes that befell Öğüt’s work, including the stolen Guppy 13 boat in Amsterdam, refer to the article by H.G. Masters in Art Asia Pacific, March/April, 2011 3 Introductory statement from Silent University’s official website; http://thesilentuniversity.org/ 4
‘The Silent University’ interview with Ahmet Öğüt in Sleek magazine, November 26, 2013; http://www.sleek-mag.com/ showroom/2013/11/the-silent-university/
5 Stephanie Bailey, ‘Alternative to What? A roundtable discussion at Tate Modern contemplates the role of alternative education’, Ibraaz online platform, 21 December 2012; http://www.ibraaz.org/ news/47
The 19th Biennale of Sydney: You Imagine What You Desire will be presenting the work of Ahmet Ögüt, 21 March–9 June, 2014
Page 49: Ahmet Ögüt, Stones to throw, 2011 Opposite above: Ahmet Ögüt, Stones to throw, 2011 (installation view from Apex Art, New York) Opposite below: Ahmet Ögüt, Light Armoured (animated video still), 2006 Photos courtesy the artist
valamanesh and translocality1
HAMID Severi Where do I come from? A work of 2013 by Hossein Valamanesh is an elongated format of a map of the world reconstructed by using small cut-up squares of the map. A Persian poem is formed: “Where do I come from? What was my coming for? Where am I going? Won’t you show me my homeland?” At first glance some similarities come to mind between this work and French artist Paul Gauguin’s Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? (1987-98). Both works are elongated in format and have almost the same words inscribed; three questions without question marks are created from each artist’s country of origin and neither intended a direct catechism by their words. Gauguin’s painting is figurative and a fictional narrative of Tahitian people and myth with words written in upper corners, while Valamanesh’s work is a collage of maps, but both should be read from right to left. Some one hundred and fifteen years apart, apparently, they signify major different issues, intentions and approaches. Moving from the centre (France) to the periphery (Tahiti) in the late nineteenth century, Gauguin, although he was half-Peruvian and lived in Peru as a
child, is an example of a white male, European romantic artist, escaping from real life to a fantasised paradise. As Abigail SolomonGodeau in her influential article Going Native states: Gauguin “leaves home to discover one’s real self; the journey out, as writers such as Conrad have insisted, is, in fact, always a journey in”.2 In demystifying Gauguin’s desire to ‘‘go native’’, Solomon-Godeau writes: “[T]here is, in short, a darker side to primitivist desire, one implicated in fantasies of imaginary knowledge, power and rape; and these fantasies, moreover, are sometimes underpinned by real power, by real rape.”3 In contrast, Valamanesh who was born in Iran, moved to Australia in 1973, to follow the woman he loved. After living for four decades in Australia, he created Where do I come from?, not as an ontological question, nor as a nostalgic feeling for homeland. He uses Jalal aldin Mohammad Rumi’s poem4, in which the fundamental questions concern life and the universe. The homeland he indicates is not interpreted as a geographical place. Most often another line of Rumi is used to clarify the issue: “The homeland of the gnostic is forever that spiritual country that is nowhere and
everywhere”, the land about which Rumi says, “That homeland is not Egypt, Iraq or Syria/ That homeland is the place which has no name.”5 Although Valamanesh is fond of Rumi and his poems, a mere, established reading of spirituality or Sufism is not his purpose here. Usually there are also other layers of irony, life experiences and contemporary discourses in Valamanesh’s oeuvre. In this work, he does not use a map of the universe, but of Earth; as he points out, “it is made of words”.6 And the words are made of another map of Earth. Compared to his other works, it becomes clear that it is not so much a question of origin, destination and purpose of life, but more a question of longing/belonging, migration and identity. Valamanesh somehow identifies himself with Rumi, who was born in Balkh—a city in contemporary Afghanistan, but at that time part of Iran and a major Persian cultural centre. Rumi, who studied in Aleppo and Damascus, lived most of his time in Turkey and wrote most of his poems in Persian. Understandably, his nationality and ethnicity are controversial issues between Iranians and Turks who both claim him. A Marxist during his early life in Iran, Valamanesh who became fascinated in Australia by both Aboriginal ideas and Buddhism, is nevertheless enduringly drawn to the poems of Rumi. How can this happen? Because he does not see the poems as escapist metaphysical poetry, but he sees in them a meaningful encounter to existence, ordinary objects, daily life and contemporary issues. Valamanesh does not try to interpret what Rumi says, but rather what his poems offer in seeing and experiencing the world. Thus, Rumi’s encounter with the world is more important to Valamanesh than his Sufi teaching or philosophy. To understand Valamanesh better, one should contextualise him within his biography and other works. It seems from his childhood, Valamanesh was engaged with dislocation. He moved from one city to another in his childhood due to his father’s job. In 1969, when he was twenty years old, he acted as an elephant in one of the most famous theatrical plays in Iran, The City of Stories. In the drama, an elephant came to the city to drink water, but fell down, breaking one of his ivory tusks. Other animals, suspicious of the stranger, tried to exploit him and demanded documents to prove he was an elephant and to show where he had come from. The elephant constantly had to fight to prove his identity.
Valamanesh arrived in Australia in 1973, the year that multiculturalism was introduced as an official policy. His early works in the late 1970s and 1980s display ochre colors, earth tones, and nostalgic memories of homeland. In 1980, on the one hand he constructed Dwelling, a vernacular Persian house in an Adelaide park. It brings to mind Melucci’s writing: “In the age of speed we no longer have a home. We constantly have to build one, like the three little pigs in the fairly tale, or like snails we have to carry it on our backs.”7 On the other hand, in Earthwork (1981), to mark his imprint upon Australia, his new home, he imposed his fingerprint on the earth. This adherence to the local most likely was a response to his experience and to globalisation, which at that time was gaining momentum in the world. As modernisation fostered traditionalism, globalisation introduced the issue of the local. Michael Savage explains this phenomenon clearly: “Many globalisation theorists want to abolish the distinction between the global and the local, yet it is also clear that without some reference to the ‘local’, the meaning of the ‘global’ also becomes obscure. This unstable tension between the local and global goes to the core of globalisation theory.”8 Valamanesh’s work from this time deals mostly with cultural history, personal memory and objects, such as traditional Iranian shoes, giveh, mother, grandmother, the local, home and homeland. But gradually, toward the late 1980s, some changes occur in Valamanesh’s oeuvre. For example, in New Arrival (1988), the long shadow, dark entrance, angular stairs, and undecided figure all make the work a different look at place. Sober, more mysterious in tone, and full of anxiety, the work is far different from the serene and sweet tones of his earlier works. The following year, in his public work, this anxiety of the local intensifies; Knocking from the Inside (1989) could be considered a turning point. This poem of Rumi is written on the stone: I have lived on the lip of insanity, wanting to know reasons, knocking on the door. It opens, I’ve been knocking from the inside! This work is a sign of his doubt, hesitation and rethinking on external searching. His notion of locality has altered. The change matches Savage’s point: “A key point made by these writers was that the local is not transcended by globalisation, but rather that the local is to be understood through the lens of global relationships. Globalisation, therefore, produces new forms of localisation in a dialectical relationship that Robertson (1995) popularised as ‘glocalisation’, where ‘globalisation’ has involved the reconstruction of ‘home’, ‘community’ and ‘locality’.”9
Page 52: Hossein Valamanesh (collaboration with Nassiem Valamanesh), Passing time (video still), 2011 Right: Hossein Valamanesh, Hasti Masti #1, 2013 Below: Hossein Valamanesh, Longing Belonging, 1997 Photos courtesy the artist, Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide, Rose Issa Projects, London and Grey Noise, Dubai
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In the 1990s, to Valamanesh, choosing either/ or in terms of here or there, East or West, and origin or destination is no longer the question and in-betweenness is accepted. This is not to say that locality loses its importance, but the local is understood differently. It is at this time that Marsha Meskimmon’s remark should be noted: “ In Valamanesh’s work, there is not a singular location that is, forever or immutably, home, but rather, the record of an elemental act that has transformed the material trace of the past, remembered home within the present: an unhomely arrival, a home (be)coming.”10 In the outstanding 1997 work Longing/Belonging, a photograph records the burning of a Persian carpet in an Australian landscape. The sticks of wood are arranged to resemble a camp or ritual fire. Fire in Zoroastrianism has a purifying function, as well as a fertilising one. The carpet, of course with all its connotations with Iran and home, in this artwork and others, such as Runner, has also to do more with migration and constant mobility rather than settling. Settling in Australia also seems not to be permanent, as we do not see any permanent sedentary sign. There is no preference for Iran or for Australia. The title makes the work more complicated; what is the referent for “Longing” or for “Belonging”? It is not as simple as it appears, and this is true for many of Valamanesh’s works. Within this work, all the connotations associated with longing, belonging, community, homeland (origin or destination), voyage, and identity come to mind. It is here that the work does not emphasise a particular place, but rather the dialogue between places. Valamanesh later said; “But where one belongs or what our longings are is not that clear cut.” It is at this time that globalisation theories give way to a new ones, namely, translocality: “In comparison to the discussions under the paradigm of globalisation, which emphasise mobility, flows and the transgression of boundaries, translocality conceptually addresses the attempts to cope with transgression and with the need for localising some kind of order.”11 Valamanesh does not use a direct theoretical approach, but his understanding of the age is parallel with contemporary theories and discourses. This can be observed in other layers of the work too. The opposition between carpet and landscape cannot be reduced to the dichotomy between nature and culture. In Valamanesh’s works, nature is not a given; nature is seen through culture, through imposing his fingerprints on earth, and through writing with natural elements. Some of his works with writing engage this concept of translocality. The usage of written words occurs frequently in Valamanesh’s work. Hasti Masti #1 (2013) is a playful work both conceptually and visually.
The written word hasti means “existence” and masti “drunkenness” or “intoxication”. In 2010, Valamanesh created the work Still Standing, which in his own words dealt with the notion “that the entire world is intoxicated”. Now, these two key words are written in a visual rhythm with minimal differences between the initial letters of the two words. Masti is a recurrent word in Persian poetry and Sufi literature, which is mostly interpreted as symbolic of divine love that intoxicates the soul. In this work, the words are written beautifully but not in a professional, calligraphic way. Somehow naïve, the words, although legible, become patterns differentiated by colour. It reminds one of dot painting, dhikr and meditation. Its visual playfulness allows one’s mind to read it differently each time. In everyday Persian language, hasti masti could also mean, “You are, you are drunk.” To interpret it this way also brings an element of playfulness to its sound, and contrary to the first more serious reading, the emphasis will be on the first syllable of the words and repeating it brings a playful rhythm. But a more important element of Hasti Masti #1 is its colour. Well aware of the relationship between text and color, and completely unlike his other works which use mostly organic, natural, and warm materials (saffron, earth, wood), here one sees simple black, red and blue. These colours are not related to nature and bring the tricolors of flags to mind. Perhaps this is a reminder of the relationship between language and culture, the arbitrariness and conventionality of language. As locality emerged from globalisation, adherence to local identity has become a trend with many artists who used particular motifs from their religious, cultural and ethnic heritage as a way to resist globalisation. Soon this particularism became a formula and was used by a global establishment to prove the existence of multiculralism. In Iranian contemporary art, calligraphy, calligraphy-paintingand artworks inscribed with Persian words are more saleable fetch higher prices. Not to be trapped in this marketoriented pattern, pigeonholed identity and self-exoticising manner, Valamanesh does not limit himself to purely Persian text. Valamanesh also uses written English, frequently and with much care. No Love Lost is one example. There are two versions of it. In the first version, it is clearly written with a crown of thorns (Euphorbia milii) in the very legible and cold manner of geometrically—ordered characters. The second version is a bronze casting of delicate tree branches, executed in a playful manner with lovely curves of expressive character. Both versions draw our attention to language itself. It is perplexing to see Valamanesh working with a crown of thorns. Its oddity goes further to another level,
to see a work by Valamanesh about hatred is unusual. Why does this expression seemingly imply a contradiction? He elaborates: “No love lost is an English idiom meaning two people hate each other! When I was making the work, I didn’t think of that but was just putting three words next to each other and being playful. For me, it meant that no love is ever lost or wasted... I know of the other meaning but it wasn’t important to me. When you think or write in a second language, sometimes you see odd meanings in words and phrases.”12 As he abandoned adherence to a particular place, the interaction of places and in-betweenness become important to him, and his playfulness with language seems to be in a similar vein. With asemic writing, he goes onestep further, beyond Persian, English, or any other language. A bronze casting of branches, Grafting—a 2012 collaboration with Angela Valamanesh—is a pseudo-script alluding to runes, where some of its characters look like figures in expressive poses, others like English or Persian letters. They are not legible but are beautiful, delicate, and self-reflexive. The tension between nature and culture (timber branch and bronze casting), word and image, as well as reading and seeing, all become subjects of contemplation. Instead of conveying a message through words, it makes us wonder about physicality and materiality with a visual poetic sensitivity. As it is about the world, it is about the language too. Notes 1 An early version of part of this paper was given as a lecture in 2012 at the Artists Forum, Tehran as part of the symposium “Translocality in Contemporary Art” 2
Abigail Solomon-Godeau ,’Going Native’ in Post-Impressionism to World War II, Debbie Lewer (ed.), Malden, MA: Blackwell: 2006: 306
Solomon-Godeau, op cit: 313
These are a few lines from one of the most famous poems attributed to Rumi. Shafiei-Kadkani includes this poem among those attributed to Rumi and mentions the doubt in this poem looks more to Khayyam than Rumi. See Jalal al-Din Rumi, Selected Poems from the Divani Shamsi Tabriz, Cambridge MA: Cambridge University Press, 1977 5
Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Knowledge and the Sacred, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989: 323
Quoted by Anja Peleikis in Lebanese in Motion: Gender and the Making of a Translocal Village, Bielefeld: Transcript-Verlag, 2003: 13
Michael Savage, Gaynor Bagnall & Brian J. Longhurst, Globalisation and Belonging, London: Sage Publication, 2005: 2
Marsha Meskimmon, Contemporary Art and the Cosmopolitan Imagination, London: Routledge, 2010: 74
Ulrike Freitag & Achim von Oppen, Translocality: The Study of Globalising Processes from a Southern Perspective, Leiden: Brill, 2010: 8 12
Email correspondence with author, 9 February, 2014
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the public domain has opened up! Fulya Erdemci in conversation with Basak Senova PART 1: BEFORE THE BIENNIAL Fulya Erdemci is the curator of the 13th Istanbul Biennial, Anne Ben Barbar Mıyım? or Mom, Am I Barbarian? The theme for the Biennial was decided well before the eruption of protests in Turkey, ignited by the planned demolition of Gezi Park on Istanbul’s Taksim Square. The 13th Istanbul Biennial takes the public sphere as its thematic focus: a concept oftdebated in terms of content and definition. It intends to explore the public sphere as a “matrix”, while considering “the role of art through inquiries into current-day spatial and economic policies, forms of democracy, the concepts of civilisation and barbarianism”.1 In this interview, Erdemci considers the impact of the Turkish protests on the upcoming Istanbul Biennial. Basak Senova: How do you read Gezi Park as a public space, thinking about how it was before, during, and after the resistance? Fulya Erdemci: Although Gezi Park has been overtaken bit by bit by private enterprise and has thus been further constricted each year, it is still the only green patch to breathe around the Taksim area that hosts 1.5–2 million passersby daily. The park was extensively used by the people before the government’s plans to build a shopping mall with a ‘cultural’ function in the form of re-constructed Ottoman military barracks. After the reactions against the plans for Gezi and Taksim (more than one hundred and twenty thousand signatures were collected), it was placed under cordon sanitaire by the police. On May 31st, Taksim Square and Gezi Park were both occupied by the people and totally transformed for the next two weeks until they were violently evacuated by the police on the 15th and 16th of June. These two weeks saw a ‘revolution’, maybe not in terms of overthrowing the government or similar concrete gains, but certainly as a transformative experience. Basak Senova: To what extent can we consider these two weeks as a ‘revolution’ and how do you observe the outcome of this?
Fulya Erdemci: The ‘life co-produced’ in Gezi Park did so with collective imagination, and now continues at the forums happening every night in the neighbourhood parks throughout many different cities. This is showing us that another world is possible. In Gezi Park, diverse, even clashing world views and practices came together: a multitude of people of all possible backgrounds. There were grassroots organisations and associations of feminists, gays and lesbians, animal rights, environmentalists, anti-urban transformation collectives, a range of radical leftists, anticapitalists and revolutionary Muslims, student collectives, hackers, football fans, artists, film makers, Kurdish and Armenian organisations, nationalist organisations, unions, chambers of architects, city planners, lawyers, doctors, educators, etcetera. This created an anonymous, self-organised, collective life of joy and solidarity. The Utopia materialised! After Taksim Square and Gezi Park were ‘sanitised’ of the police, the youth began to settle in the park, collecting trash, replanting flowers that were crushed and helping street animals that had been affected by the tear gas. The park—with its library, infirmary, veterinary clinic, small vegetable garden, çapulcu2 (“looters”) classes, children’s workshops, Gezi radio, daily newsletter, Capul TV, open discussion spaces under the title of democracy workshops, music performances, and film screening areas—hosted hundreds of tents. Common production and life materialised at the park and cracked open the door of a new world and future possibilities. Each evening, citizens coming from work flooded into Gezi and Taksim and partook in this transformative experience. After the evacuation, Taksim Square, and especially Gezi Park, was seized by the police forces and closed down to the public for more than three weeks. On the 9th of July (the first day of Ramadan) it was re-opened to ‘certain’ publics—as we were violently stopped and not allowed even to come close to it—with the condition of it being used as a ‘park’ again (none of us could understand what that meant). However, the Çapulcus have been able to get back to the park again and have started using it for diverse purposes, from holding forums, painting workshops to celebrating the Çapulcu wedding.
Basak Senova: Speaking of the public domain, the theme of the Istanbul Biennial has been highly inspired by the reasons behind the civic uprising in Turkey. Eventually, with the resistance that started on 28th May 2013, Turkey has been subject to enormously schizophrenic and intense reactions, violence, hopes, clashes, and awareness. In this context, how will this complex situation reshape the Biennial? Fulya Erdemci: Actually, the conceptual framework of the 13th Istanbul Biennial articulates three axes: a theoretical one based on the notion of the public domain as a potential political public forum, and a practical axis that takes urban public spaces and violent urban transformation as the praxis sites. As you know, the title of the Biennial—Mom, am I barbarian? is a quote from Turkish poet Lale Muldur, which forms the artistic axis of the exhibition in terms of unknown or yet to be invented languages, as well as art’s relation to poetry. Before Gezi, we planned to realise many projects that intervene with the public spaces of Istanbul, including Gezi Park and Taksim Square as well. Basak Senova: In a manner of speaking, you are now rethinking and reshaping the structure of the Biennial in accordance to the situation in Istanbul, and across Turkey. Fulya Erdemci: What is happening in Istanbul right now is larger than life and certainly, it is not comparable to any exhibition or art event. We are all very surprised, exalted and full of hope again. The so-called public sphere, which was merely a probability or a potential, has been split open with such creative energy that the streets have begun to talk, sing, dance, walk and interact. The questions posed in the conceptual framework of the Biennial —which is directly related to the public domain as a political forum and urban space as the spatial component of the democratic apparatus—have alchemically unfolded and entered into the domain of experience. This has changed and transformed us all. It has opened up new horizons we could never have anticipated. The extremely humorous, creative, collective, anonymous and self-organised living and action that came out of the Gezi occupation taught (and is still teaching) us how diverse and even clashing world views and practices can
live and act together. As you may recall, this was one of the main questions that were posed in the conceptual framework of the Biennial in the ‘Public Alchemy’ component. This was conceptualised to focus especially on the notion of ‘making publics’, and will pose the question of ‘one common world’ in a contemporary context, as raised by Bruno Latour: And yet, we are all in the same boat, or at least same flotilla. To use Neurath’s metaphor, the question is how to rebuild it while we are cruising on it. Or rather, how can we make it navigate when it is made of a fleet of diverging but already intertwined barges? In other words, can we overcome the multiplicity of ways of assembling and dissembling, and yet raise the question of the one common world?3 Basak Senova: How about the title, which refers to the term “barbarian”? Fulya Erdemci: The term “barbarian” refers to the rights of citizenship. It refers to the antonym of politis, the ‘citizen’, coming from the polis, in the ancient Greek city-State. It is a term that relates inversely to the city and the rights of those within it. What does it mean to be a good citizen today, in Istanbul for example? In the midst of the ongoing urban transformations—the ‘battleground’—does it
mean to conform to the existing status quo or take part in the acts of civil disobedience? Can’t we imagine another social contract in which citizens assume responsibility for each other, even for the weakest ones, those most excluded? For me, what is happening in Istanbul, Ankara, Antakya, Izmir and other cities is related directly to civil disobedience and for demands of freedom of speech, justice as well as the will to assume responsibility for fellow citizens, even the most excluded ones. From this perspective, the whole resistance is about a new social contract. “Barbarian” also indicates to the new and unknown languages that we need to learn to understand others, or we need to invent or reflect on the ‘world to come’. We all feel that the existing theories and formulas fall short of defining new ways/models of living together and of governance, but art can open up that possibility for collective imagination. Therefore, artworks in the Biennial are calling upon or intending to create novel unorthodox languages (or learn the unknown ones). These languages could help our understanding of the new collective culture and languages of the Gezi Resistance that have been appearing like nebula. Furthermore, I believe that the Biennial can function not as a tool for an immediate change, but as a process of thinking and above all, as a possible way of constructing new subjectivities symbolised by the ‘barbarian’. Likewise, the ‘Agoraphobia’ theme in the conceptual framework is unfortunately
actualised by the violent suppression of the protests by the police forces and by the silenced reactions of the central Turkish media and censorship, symbolised by the penguin documentary that was broadcasted on CNNTurk during the heated police attack and the resistance on the night of 31st May. Basak Senova: In the context of the Biennial4, what do you think about the activist movements incorporating the resistance? Fulya Erdemci: During and just after the Gezi occupation, we didn’t have much time to think and work on the Biennial. As everything is very recent and still in process, it is not easy to respond to the situation through a biennial-scale exhibition. However, the conceptual framework of the Biennial has already articulated these issues, and the artworks and projects were selected in accordance with such considerations and criteria. I believe that the exhibition can open up a space for thinking around the transformative experience that we have been going through. When I was structuring the exhibition before Gezi, I never intended to commission or include directly in the exhibition the immediate, spontaneous activist or protest art that was supposed to happen in the streets, as I believe that they shouldn’t be domesticated or tamed in the institutional frames to which they are reacting. However, I am thinking that it may be possible to highlight them if they are there already.
Basak Senova: How will the Biennial respond to the current situation?
Notes 1 Today’s Zaman, ‘13th Istanbul Biennial aims to creat a debate arena for public’, 9 January, 2013
Fulya Erdemci: Now the Biennial is on the verge of radical changes: we are considering withdrawing from the urban public spaces totally and giving the stage to what has happened and is still happening in the parks, streets and neighbourhoods without capitalising or framing them. After all, we seriously question what it means to collaborate with the authorities to realise art projects on the streets with their permission, while the same authorities have been trying to suppress the resistance violently, including the most peaceful performances, actions and demonstrations such as Man Standing or the collective Ramadan dinners (Yeryuzu Sofralari) on the streets. Now we are organising meetings and forums to ask the opinion of the artists, curators, critics and activists to reach a final decision.
Basak Senova: Along the same line of thought, how do you perceive the new generation, who were the main actors of the resistance, in comparison with the previous generations? Fulya Erdemci: The spirit of the resistance movement was blown by the youth and was grounded in a civic and social perspective, with honest and dignified gesture demanding freedom. The desire to divorce from the given ideological positions and the current political rhetoric is as strong as the demand for freedom and is exemplified by some of the slogans and graffiti used in the occupation: “You don’t have to tear gas us sirs, we’re sensitive children enough already!”; “You’ve meddled with the generation that beat up the police at GTA!”; “Disproportionate wit has been employed against the police” and “Damn certain things!” This generation had been accused of being apolitical and only caring for computer games that they have in fact been playing collectively in cyber space. However, now we all know that they were exercising collective action and self-organisation while enjoying themselves. Besides, as Sırrı Süreyya Önder mentioned in one of his interviews, they are not apolitical but anti-political, rising up against antagonistic politics. Instead, they promote an agonistic public sphere that is based on debate but not specifically on consensus at which the weakest voices are repressed. Likewise, instead of multicultural discourses, they gather around rights, exercising Rancière’s “impossible or in-between” identities. Unlike the previous generations, they don’t ask for rights or expect services from the authorities, but instead, with an outburst of collective intelligence, humour and creativity, they subvert the mechanisms that oppress the public sphere and call for a new paradigm.
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After the Prime Minister referred to the protestors as çapulcu (a bunch of looters), the term was quickly adopted and reclaimed by protestors with a witticism reflective of the creative humour of the movement 3 Bruno Latour, ‘From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik–or How to Make Things Public’, Reader of Bucharest Biennale, Pavilion 15, 2012: 213 4
The conceptual framework of the 13th Istanbul Biennial, 2013
Opposite: Halil Altindere, Wonderland (video still), 2013 Photo courtesy the artist and Pilot Gallery, Istanbul Below: Jorge Blake, The Castle (El Castillo), 2007 Photo courtesy the artist
PART 2: AFTER THE BIENNIAL Fulya Erdemci: Certain art works (including poetry or other forms of literature or film,) have the capacity to create a transformative experience, and open up the possibility of moments of utopia in our daily routines. Activism and art can have the same aim of social change in times of urgency, and they can learn from each other, such as the recent times we have been experiencing. Nevertheless, they have different processes, experiences and impacts, and cannot be evaluated with the same criteria. I believe that each work in the Biennial has the capacity to open up the seams of the system to show the possibility of the otherwise. Its power comes from bringing the very personal and very public realms together to open up the possibility for collective imagination. Although I believe that art functions in the symbolical realm, in certain times of urgency—such as those we are going through—it may have an immediate impact. For instance, the Sulukule platform, Networks of Dispossession, Serkan Taycan’s Between the Two Seas (2013) (the canal Istanbul project), Wonderland (February 2013) by Halil Altindere, Gezi drawings by Christoph Schäfer or Monument to Humanity–Helping Hands (2011/2013) by Wouter Osterholt & Elke Uitentuis were able to create heated public debates. As I see it, art can open up a space for a transformative experience and has the capacity to foster the construction of new subjectivities, symbolised by the barbarian. Art can create a reflective experience appealing to our emotional intellect. It encourages us to halt and think about what we really need now
in the midst of such turmoil (with increasing State violence, detentions and arrests) and other powerful transformations. The reaction towards the exhibition was quite mixed. Some criticised it for not having taken place in the projected public spaces, which they saw as a sign of giving up, and not reflecting Gezi more directly; also the exhibition format. Yet for others, the exhibition articulated the questions posed by Gezi, fully deploying the power of art and without undermining the resistance movement. I cannot say if people liked it or not but it certainly opened up a long awaited debate. Although the Biennial withdrew from the public spaces to private venues, and with the interest of the public (337,429 visits in five weeks), the Biennial venues themselves became the ‘public spaces’ that people gathered in. Basak Senova: Could you define the structure of the Biennial by taking the artists’ input and inter-dialogue into consideration? Fulya Erdemci: Following Walter Benjamin’s reading of history I approach the future without losing sight of the past—this can be a method to mark the temporality of the exhibition. In this sense, I endeavoured to crack open a historical aperture between today and the end of the 1960s and 1970s, in terms of social change, urban transformation and artistic practices. The most significant common denominator between these two periods is the quest for ‘another world’. These decades also witnessed artists developing new artistic practices challenging urban transformation and gentrification processes in cities such as Paris, New York and Amsterdam. Therefore, for this exhibition, novel artistic practices from 1960s and 1970s were
brought together with more recent practices such as Mierle Laderman Ukeles with Amal Kenawy; Gordon Matta-Clark with LaToya Ruby Frazier; and Stephan Willats with Jose Antonio Vega Macotella. Furthermore, through the practices of Academia Ruchu in urban public spaces and specifically Jirí Kovanda’s performance Theatre (1976), it became possible to contextualise the current performative protests like Standing Man by Erdem Gunduz within the art historical backdrop of the 1970s. Geographically speaking, because of education and governmental policies and support, artists from the USA, England and Northern Europe have more possibilities and experience in the field of art-in-public domain. However, when we look at what is problematic in the cities and in the urban public spaces in last couple of decades, mostly the South and the East parts of the world appear on the map: Mexico, Brasil, Argentina, Peru, Turkey, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, Tunusia etc. Hence, in order to reflect the geo-politics of the globe at present and anchor time spatially, in the exhibition I privileged certain geographies such as Latin America, North Africa, the Middle East and Turkey where the question of public domain and transformation of cities has been a burning issue for the last two decades. Besides, artistic practices engaged with poetry /literature, music and performance were also experienced through the works such as Castle by Jorge Mendez Blake, Pivot by Shahziah Sikander, Violent Green by Lale Muldur, Kaan Karacehennem and Franz Bodelschwingh, 13 Essential Rules for Understanding the World by Basim Magdy, Co-Action Device: A Study by Inci Eviner—with the participation of forty artists, writers, musicians, performers—or Shortening the Long Position by Goldin+ Senneby. Basak Senova: Could you reflect on some of the specific projects which are closely linked with the Gezi Resistance? Fulya Erdemci: Although I deliberately didn’t ask any artists to make work about the Gezi Park events, a couple of projects are directly related to it; for instance, Christoph Schäfer’s visual narratives. He and the Right to the City activists supported the Gezi resistance from the beginning by organising a series of initiatives in the “Park Fiction” park, which they rescued a few years ago from being appropriated by the urban regeneration of the Hamburg port area. They even renamed it as “Gezi Park Fiction” on the night that the park was forcefully evacuated by the police. He visited Istanbul several times to meet with artists and activists much earlier than Gezi. And during the resistance, he joined some gatherings eg., for the Yedikule Bostans and the “Earth Tables” protests. Having focused on the city
as a collective production place, his drawings of the Gezi resistance, specifically the Earth Tables, was a way of protesting, just by gathering to have dinner together after sunset at the kilometres-long tables on Istanbul streets and parks during the Ramadan, establishing new coalitions alchemically formed amongst multiple publics, such as Muslims, atheists, anarchists, leftists, nationalists, environmentalists, gay and lesbians and so forth. Additionally, although certain projects such as the Wonderland video by Halil Altindere or the I am the dog that was always here (Loop) by Annika Erikson were conceived and realised much earlier than the massive Gezi protests, they are very much expressing the major issues and the common sentiment related to ongoing violent urban transformation and gentrification that subsequently triggered the Gezi resistance. Halil Altindere’s Wonderland focuses on the displacement of three hundred Roma families due to the gentrification of Sulukule, one of the oldest neighborhoods and the earliest transformation sites in Istanbul. This very special neighborhood was changed into luxurious residences, constructed by Toki, the governmental organisation that functions through public-private partnerships. The video has a form of music clip, in which Tahribad-i Isyan (Destruction of Revolt), a hiphop group born and raised in Sulukule, tells the story about their neighborhood expressing their anger and protest against inequality. In the film we follow them through the demolished houses and above the roofs of newly built apartments. Annika Erikson’s poetic video, on the other hand, narrates the current process from the eye and experience of a street dog pushed out to the outskirts of the city. Maider Lopez’s project Making Ways related subtly to the habits of finding collective solutions to the ever-emerging situations or to obstacles that you often come across in Istanbul. She concentrated on the pedestrian crossing in Karaköy, which is a major transportation hub connecting the Asian side to the European side of the city. She filmed this crossing from an aerial perspective and extracted and highlighted the routes, which people take. Additionally, having mined the practice of Istanbullars of self-organisation through the simple daily actions like crossing a street, she created a “users manual”, giving possible instructions on how to cross the roads, such us: “ If unsure, follow a person who appears to be doing it well”, “Taking action is easier when a group is generated” or “Self-organisation creates collective ways”. Certainly there are other projects directly related to urban transformation in Istanbul such as the “Networks of Dispossession”, by the collective that grew out of Gezi occupation, which consists of a network of maps showing the relationships
between the actors of urban transformation, the major development companies, media and the government (see Broadsheet volume 42-3) ; or the Sulukule Platform, a grass-root organisation that the artists and activists started in 2006 to react against the gentrification of the Sulukule neighborhood and the displacement of the Roma families. Finally, Between the Two Seas project by Serkan Taycan aims at creating an awareness around the “Canal Istanbul”, a mega urban transformation project to open up a canal on whose banks two cities with one million residents were planned to be built. Basak Senova: Following the Gezi resistance, you took the decision to withdraw the Biennial from urban public spaces. Could you explain the reasons for and the consequences of this decision? Fulya Erdemci: The Gezi resistance, and the public protests exposed that the authorities suffer a strong sense of agoraphobia. Instead of listening and responding to the voices in the streets, they preferred to violently repress these voices by force (thousands of people were permanently injured and seven died). For this reason, we began to question what it means to realise art projects in the urban public spaces with the permission of the same authorities that do not respect their own citizens’ freedom of speech. In two forums that we organised in a neighborhood park at the end of July, we discussed such questions, insights and possible further actions with artists and activists and other participants. Drawing on the political theorist Chantal Mouffe, our conceptual framework was that the raison d’être of any art project in the public domain is to open up conflict and to make it visible and debatable. However, Gezi had already opened up such a conflict and made it public. To collaborate with the authorities would have given them the opportunity to regain their lost prestige and legitimacy after Gezi. This would have led to the instrumentalisation of art in favor of the authorities. In order not to collaborate with these authorities, we decided to withdraw from public spaces and to continue the discussion in the exhibition venues. In this way, like John Cage’s silent composition 4’33”, we aimed to point out presence through absence: by asking the audience to listen to the voices of the streets. Certainly, this decision was followed by many conceptual, practical and relational complications, including a spatial one. Only at the end of the first week of August, were we able to secure the three additional venues, thus having to re-negotiate the projects and re-adapt plans in a very short time. Thanks to the endless efforts and energy of the Biennial team and the artists, it became possible.
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However, since we have decided to not collaborate with the authorities, the Biennale was not promoted on the billboards in the city (Officially the foundation (IKSV) and the Biennale have an ongoing agreement with the municipality to have billboards all around the city). Furthermore, out of fourteen projects that were planned to take place in public spaces, we lost three projects in total. In all other instances, artists could fit their ideas into their new situation or simply make a completely new project. That is what happened with Elmgreen & Dragset for instance. They had another project, which was to take place in a specific urban space; however, when we decided to withdraw from the urban public spaces, in a month they came up with a totally different project‚ Istanbul Diaries, in which seven men were hired to write their diaries daily in the exhibition space. Tadashi Kawamata on the other hand presented the drawings of Gecekondu/Landed-by-night he planned to realise in Taksim, Tarlabasi Boulevard, Halic Dockyard and Karakoy Square. The light installation Intensive Care by Rietveld Landscape designed to point out to the obscure future of the contested Ataturk Culture Center at Taksim Square couldn’t be realised but was transformed to an interior installation. Their idea was to make the building “breathe” with certain crisis moments, to mark its precarious “in between” situation: if the building is still alive or if it is dying. Only during the Gezi occupation, were we able to learn that actually it was under demolition. Besides, we radically revised the public program and transformed it into more ground up artist-organisedevents like workshops, walks/tours, talks, performances, music sessions, screenings and lectures by Networks of Dispossession, Sulukule Platform, Maxim Hourani, Hector Zamora, Hito Steryl and so on. In the five-week-period of the exhibition, thirty-nine events were realised. As a consequence of this decision to withdraw from the public venues, along with all the obstacles and drastic developments during the preparation period, some projects were lost and some major changes were made, but if you ask me if I am content with the Biennale, yes I am. Part 1: ‘The public domain has opened up! Fulya Erdemci in conversation with Basak Senova’ was first published in www.ibraaz.org, 29 July 2013. Part 2 was commissioned by Contemporary Visual Art+Culture Broadsheet Magazine.
Oppiste: Jorge Galindo & Santiago Sierra Los Encargados (video till), 2012 Photo courtesy the artists and Galeria Helga De Alvear, Madrid
emancipatory desires: what do you think of ‘if the world changed’? RAY LANGENBACH It happened again, that uncanny way the Singapore political sphere bites into the cultural events in its domain, consumes the flesh and spits out the bones. In 2006 the hors d’oeuvre was the first Singapore Biennale: ‘Belief’, which coincided with the World Bank and IMF meetings, thereby sending out a clarion call that the government had appropriated art as the new stud in its stable of means for capital production and accumulation. Again in 2011 the Singapore elections stole away the theme of ‘Open House’ (and its naturalised corollary, “home”) from the Biennale, as significant numbers of the Singapore electorate voted against a host of government policies. Among the controversial policies were social engineering initiatives of the previous decade to make the national ‘home’ into an ‘open house’ for foreign talent to replace local talent lost to the brain drain and low birthrates. And in 2013, following an accident when one of their countrymen was run over by a public bus, Indian laborers rioted on 8 December. Their angry response to persistent abjectification1 spilled over in Little India and into the local and global news, precisely when the Singapore Biennale was positing the hypothetical “If the world changed”—clearly not enough for the Indian migrant workers. In the days and weeks following the riots, the letters to the editor pages of the national press and on local blogs were flooded with blatantly racist and culturist diatribes by the Singaporean public against migrant workers in general, and Indian workers in particular, blithely ignoring the fact that since the 1950s migrant labourers had built so much of the hard infrastructure of the city-State. The question of who properly belongs in one’s home of course raises the issue of who does not. Who is allowed to build the home, serve the dinner or take care of the kids, but has no right to live there? At the beginning of his article on the political demise of the Leftist politician Lim Chin Siong, Tim Harper in 2001 presented a picture of the intellectual life of the island during the colonial period, prior to the cleansing of pluralistic political discourse in Singapore following the rule of the People’s Action Party (PAP) post-independence.2 Much of Singapore’s heterogeneous discourses on the left—the vibrant Social Realist movement in painting and woodblock printing (influenced by Lu Xun’s Shanghai-based publishing house3), activist street theatre, literature, essays, and public critical social discourse—all disappeared into the artists’ closets as the PAP followed the British lead with even greater enthusiasm, suppressing the Left and critical discourse concerning State developmental policies. Jumpcut to the 1990s when Singapore was firmly established as the region’s primary economic, shipping and transportation hub. A new desire arose in the ruling party, to capitalise on a recently burgeoning global and regional art market. In 2001 Dr. Ow Chin Hock, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs echoed Harper’s thesis, voicing the need for Singapore to become a “talent hub”, which would draw the best minds of the world to the island. Singapore has always been one of the main crossroads of East and West, being strategically placed on the major shipping routes. Over the years, we have built on this advantage, constructing a world-class air and sea transportation network, as well as a sound financial, physical and legal infrastructure to attract foreign investments… To become a knowledge hub, we need to further build up our intellectual capital.4
Ironically, Ow’s “knowledge hub” was a latter-day attempt to revive the very profile of Singapore that the PAP government had intentionally and proactively suppressed since independence, first through censorial assaults on Chinese-educated intellectuals, civil society movements, cultural productions, and then, from the mid-1970s through the 1990s, English-educated intellectuals and their cultural productions. Following the economic downturn of the late 1990s and 2001, the government sought to stimulate the economy by providing assistance to small and medium businesses and investing in infrastructure. In addition, they brought in foreign professionals to improve the international profile of Singapore’s knowledge-based industry, and to replace those Singaporeans who did not return from their educations abroad, or had left for foreign jobs. While keeping their own intellectuals on a short leash, the Singapore government “adopted a tourist[ic] cultural policy and an urban cosmetics policy which have reinforced each other”.5 PAP Member of Parliament Yu-Foo Yee Shoon argued in Parliament in 1990 that Singapore was wellplaced to “absorb the best of Eastern and Western arts and culture for the smooth development of tourism and economic development”, so that both tourists and international investors could enjoy “a certain degree of cultural life”.6
THE ARTISTS’ GENERAL ASSEMBLY 1993-1994 Despite the rhetoric about ‘brain power’ and ‘cosmopolitan air’, a few years later in January 1994, the Minister of Information and the Arts, George Yeo, lead an attack against a small group of young performance and theatre artists. Two arrests were made following the Artists’ General Assembly, a weeklong arts event at the 5th Passage Art Space that included performance art, which had become the most vital genre of art production in the country. The government saw an opportunity to suppress two noncommercial art forms: performance art and the Marxist Brazilian theatre director, Augusto Boal’s Forum Theatre—“concerned that new art forms, such as ‘performance art’ and ‘forum theatre’ which have no script and encourage spontaneous audience participation pose dangers to public order, security and decency, and much greater difficulty to the licensing authority. The performances may be exploited to agitate the audience on volatile social issues, or to propagate the beliefs and messages of deviant social or religious groups, or as a means of subversion” (emphasis added).7 Such artistic works could be openly critical of government policy, could help develop an independent civil society, and foment the ideals of direct democracy. The prosecution of the artists indicated a clear division between the top-down design of ‘cosmopolitan air’ for tourists, “foreign talent” and economically privileged Singaporeans on the one hand, and the homegrown cultural initiatives generated by and for the younger generation of Singaporean cultural works and intellectuals on the other. It was a common assumption of the time that the government was aware that new immigrants and knowledge workers on renewable work visas could be kept on a shorter leash than young Singaporean nationals. The revoking of the permanent residency permit of Sharaad Kuttan, a Malaysian intellectual who had lived for many years with his parents in Singapore, and had been part of the editorial team of a National University of Singapore Alumni Association journal that carried articles analysing the Artists’ General Assembly and Forum Theatre crackdown, indicated just how short those leashes were. A year after this last major clampdown on the local postmodern artists, Director of Corporate Affairs at MITA Tong Min Way in 1995 declared the government’s intention to develop “cultural tourism” as a “distinct industry”. At the same time, Minister George Yeo’s rhetoric revealed a nostalgic desire to return to Singapore’s preindependence history as an intellectual crossroads: We want to make Singapore a centre for the arts partly for its own sake and partly because we need the arts to help make us a centre for brain services. We want talent from all over the world to meet here, to work here and to live here. They must enjoy being here—the people, the food, the music, the cosmopolitan air. We cannot work the magic without the arts. This is why we will be spending quite a lot of money—about a billion dollars—over the next five to ten years building new cultural facilities and expanding existing ones. [emphasis mine].8 These positions were underscored by the 2000 Singapore Renaissance City Plan I (subsequently followed by II and III).9 The overall intent was to engineer a new Singaporean citizenry as a “gracious and knowledgeable people”10 while attracting financial and human capital by investing in cultural products and hosting major international art exhibitions, such as the biennales. The first of these was mounted in 2006, with the title of Belief. The second in 2008 was entitled Wonder. The third was Open House, and the fourth was this year’s If the World Changed. In her short reflection on the Biennale, Mayee Wong asks, …is the SB2013 an attempt at regional introspection, or a strategic consolidation of Singapore’s metropolitan influence as Southeast Asia’s contemporary art capital? It is quite clear that the Singapore Biennale has always been staged to complement Singapore’s promotion of itself as a global city-State.11
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The possibilities are not mutually exclusive. The “experiment”, as it was referred to by the curators and administrators themselves, involved eliminating the role of the Biennale Director and contracting regional curators.12 It could have opened a new kind of artistic discourse in the region by engaging with the cultural, theoretical and aesthetic issues brought to bear by the art works. But, unfortunately many of the curators did not take up the challenge and revealed very little about their process and ideas after making their selections. The thin-stapled Short Guide provided for the public to carry around the exhibition contained most of the information about the individual art works that the large Biennale catalogue contained. And it was not much. The publications taken together gave the impression that the curators simply did not know much about the art works and artists they selected, and, perhaps not wanting to bite the hand that feeds, they shied away from grappling seriously with the larger contextual questions that Mayee Wong touched on concerning the State’s desires for regional leadership. Since a number of the curators were artists in their own right, they apparently saw the opportunity to promote their own work in the catalogue as a perk of the job13. This resulted in some degree of disengagement from the job at hand—professionally curating the region. For whatever reason, this curatorial pantomime resulted in an exhibition largely devoid of an articulated discursive ground for the public. What we might call the “curatorial mind” was out to lunch. For example, as a conclusion to the catalogue, the Singapore Art Museum editors asked the curators about their curatorial process. The results were revealing. “There are many kinds of curators and therefore, many approaches to curating. In coming on board as one of the co-curators for the Singapore Biennale 2013, what was important to you, and what did you try to do?”14 Some, including Tan Siuli from Indonesia, Misouda Heangsoukhoun from Laos and Kawayan de Guia from The Philippines took on the question seriously, speaking of new representations of vernacular works, and correcting misunderstandings of local practices by international audiences. Indeed, the question should have at least elicited some interesting information concerning curatorial methodologies, strategies, priorities and prejudices. But a surprising number of the curators offered responses that were flippant, coy or inarticulate. The Singapore curator, David Chew, wrote the single word “Representation”. Not to be outdone, Tamares Goh took the opportunity to mix her metaphors: “I approached a burning flame so as to connect”; Erin Gleeson simply wanted “To Learn”; Fairuz Iman Ismail hoped he would “Keep a straight face when encounter any problems”; Khairuddin Hori provided a mute drawing of a smiling face. Not a teaspoon of methodology, or strategy or polemics or theory or historicisation or critical analysis in these sadly severed rhetorical limbs? Perhaps they were intended to function as rhetorical prophylactics, meant to shield the curators from having to justify their methodologies. Or, perhaps they were signifiers of an earlier disenfranchisement for some? Pointing out just such a disenfranchisement that otherwise would not have been apparent to the public, one of the Malaysian curators, Yee I-Lann revealed that the theme of the exhibition ‘If the World Changed’ was selected by administrative fiat by the former Director of the Museum Tan Boon Hui and the Singapore Art Museum team15 before the regional curators were invited to participate. Coincidentally, the Singapore team made up one third of all the curators (twenty-seven) in the Biennale. This exhibition was not built from the ground-up with a commitment to egalitarianism, but engineered to appear so. There seemed to be a ghost in the machine pulling levers behind the curtain. Recalling the artist Sol Lewitt’s famous dictum concerning the methodologies underlying Conceptual Art: “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art”, I wondered whether there was an unfulfilled desire for the Biennale to be structured as a conceptual gesumptkunstwerk in itself? But, alas, this ghost in the machine could not itself manifest knowledge production and circulation across cultural boundaries without strong
curatorial agency, and an intellectual communitas that was missing in the exhibition. In place of a rigorous yet playful conceptualism, this same condition that provided the pithy curatorial insights also infected many of the art works, the wall labels and the catalogue entries about the artists. A number of countries seemed to lack any form of coherent curatorial concept or critical dialogue between curators and artists. In some of these instances, there seemed to be discernible curator anxiety over their selections that manifested in the form of an over-determined political slant to the exhibition’s hermeneutics for even the most formalist works. The descriptions on the wall labels and in the catalogue essays often functioned as idiomatic performatives, determining how the public should understand the works. This included works that the curators buttressed with didactic re-packaging to translate a particular vernacular milieu into an imagined global audience. In other cases, formalist concerns of artists appear to have been deemed insufficient justification for inclusion. This curatorial strategy of emphasising social theory, political alterity and resistance to hegemony is somewhat ironic in what has historically been one of the most resolutely apolitical nations of the world. But perhaps it was precisely this ubiquitous phobic response toward political events in Singapore (a condition that has been gradually changing in recent years as the opposition parties and civil society groups have been gaining support) that stimulated this regional curatorial reaction. But a number of the works weren’t designed for the theoretical or political roles the curators wanted them to play. For example, Jainal Amambing’s My Longhouse Story painting series from North Sabah was described by Khairuddin Hori in the catalogue only in terms of outmoded sociological and anthropological theory. They were presented as examples of Arnold van Gennep’s rites of passage, disregarding any distinction between liminal ritual states and normal daily life events. The painting of a boy walking to school with his dog, or learning traditional music, was described by the curator as Sabahan rites of passage that in some uncanny way were supposed to be similar to liminal female rites amongst the Ashanti tribe in Ghana! The curator’s cut-and-paste text then launched into a description of longhouse life that could have been culled from the pages of a Lonely Planet guide. Nothing was offered about the artist’s style that was developed for children’s book illustrations, or how they fit into the lineages of that genre, or the surfaces, tropes or patterning in the works. The text is almost completely divorced from the work. Questions accumulate here concerning the impact of the Biennale on the artist’s intentions and skill set. When imagined as book illustrations these works make much more sense than in their present form as canvases measured in metres rather than centimetres. Why should everything be scaled up to ‘biennale scale’ so as to be received as ‘high art’ rather than popular illustrations? Why not show the actual children’s books? There seemed to be a rupture of conflicting desires in the dialogue between curator and artist. What was hidden from view overwhelms the works displayed. Another example was Long Live Food by the Malaysian artist Poodien, a digital collage of Chinese Socialist-Realist posters and paintings from the period of the Great Leap Forward, commissioned by urban interior designers Nani Kashar and Peter Kiernan for the Chinese Food Court at the Publika Mall in Kuala Lumpur. In another example of semiotic fogging, the exhibition Short Guide declared that “Poodien’s manipulation of the propaganda images points to the nostalgia and blatant commercialisation that attend to these images today, which all too easily ignore or abandon recent meanings and histories.”16 But in fact the artist did not indexically “point to the nostalgia and blatant commercialisation”, rather he himself blatantly commercialised the images. What is brilliant about the work is that it sells Chinese food in Kuala Lumpur with exactly the same body of lies that the original propaganda images in China were disseminating; namely that there were no famines during the Great Leap
Forward and the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s disastrous agrarian policies were actually successful and produced abundant food for the populace. So in a classic Socialist Realist inversion, fat babies, fatter pigs and the plethora of food function as signifier of the commodities on sale in the food court, and as a memento mori—a contrapuntal reminder of death. Lastly Poodien’s work is made through a process of plucking and pilfering from the Chinese propaganda artists of the past, literally foraging their product, flattening into digital bits, twice removing from their context, then forcing them into cultural contexts and purposes unimaginable to their original creators: to sell food in a Malaysian Chinese foodcourt and as a high-end commodity in a biennale in Singapore. This what, how and why is exactly what should have been provided in the catalogue by the curators. There were though several bona fide politically engaged works. The extraordinarily intelligent and skillful social-magic-realist Detritus depicting an infamous Manila landfill by Leslie De Chavez carried forward a historically politicised lineage of Philippine monumental and mural painting that does not shy away from abjection, poverty, and despair. Vietnamese Nguyen Huy An’s The Great Puddle, a brilliant, captivating and difficult installation of Chinese ink transmuted the political sphere through a stripped down minimalist aesthetics, providing an anamorphic projection of the desk of a official or bureaucrat. The musky smell of Chinese ink, denoting the shadow and scent of corruption, permeated the room. The viewer is led forward by the desire to see, forced to find the anamorphic projection (the signifier of corruption) from the single perspective point from which it is totally resolved as a three-dimensional bureaucrat’s desk. No other work in the Biennale so effectively engineered a psychogeographic experience with such economy of means, producing an irresolvable and oscillation between the architectonics, the medium and the work’s topic. The work functioned precisely like the viciously circular paradox: “This sentence is false.” Unfortunately, the uncanny stillness of the pool of light-defying liquid ink was annihilated by the Museum’s extraordinary decision to appease public complaints by placing a very loud industrial exhaust fan in the gallery. Yet, all was not lost, as the decision to ameliorate the stink of corruption through a technical fix indexed quintessential PAP behavior.17 WHAT DO YOU THINK OF ‘IF SINGAPORE CHANGED’? As if to demonstrate that things have indeed changed, the opening essay in the catalogue is by Susie Lingham, a former co-founder of the 5th Passage, the artists’ organisation that hosted the 1993-94 Artists’ General Assembly and was dismembered during the government crackdown on Performance Art (and Forum Theatre) immediately
following that event. Now she is undergoing what must be a confusing rebirth, as the Director of the Singapore Art Museum. Similarly, the entire generation of the 1980s and 1990s (including such artists as Lee Wen, Amanda Heng, Vincent Leow, and Suzann Victor) have over the past few years received National Medallions and restrospective exhibitions in the very Art Museum and by the national arts establishment that had spurned them and their work two decades earlier. So Lingham’s rise can perhaps be seen as a component of the government’s continued commitment to establish Singapore as a regional art centre in synch with their economic pragmatism. But this techtonic shift, from suppressing local postmodern art to promoting it does not tell the whole story. There remains active suppression of cultural writing, films, theatre, performances and other works of art when they are critical of government or its policies, past, present and future, with intellectuals still losing positions and being persecuted when their view of Singapore history conflicts with the ruling Party. Elsewhere in the city was another exhibition, appropriately entitled Ghost: The Body at the Turn of the Century at the Sculpture Square galleries, curated by Alan Oei. The exhibition ran parallel to the Biennale, although it was not formally adopted as a parallel event. Ghost included works by Lee Wen, Amanda Heng, Loo Zihan and others and closed on New Years eve in the middle of the 2013 Biennale. Loo presented Artists’ General Assembly–The Langenbach Archive, photos, videos, correspondence, official university and court documents that together coagulate to form a picture of the 1993/94 event. The whole evening had an uncanny Night of the Living Dead feel, infused with a combination of nostalgia and anger. Naturally the group present began to discuss the meaning of the gathering. Following Loo’s tour of his installation, we turned to the question of what exactly had changed or not changed in the past twenty years. We acknowledged again that the government ban on the licensing of the performances of Josef Ng and Shannon Tham had never been lifted, and the censorship regulations were for the most part still in place, as described by Loo in a paper he recently delivered in Hong Kong and Helsinki. All video content shown in exhibitions ia subjected to classification, and this classification should be displayed clearly alongside the work. You are required as an arts manager to secure a couple of licenses to show video work as part of an independent art exhibition. The first is the Arts Entertainment License which will permit you to stage an exhibition, the second is the Film Certification which will provide a rating for the video. Should you intend to show any work which is rated NC 16 and above, you would require an additional Film Exhibition License which will allow you to screen the video in public, provided you are able to fork out a deposit of S$20,000, which will be confiscated if you are unable to prove that you have performed due diligence in verifying the age of every member of the public who will encounter this video.18 Several days later, the performance artist Lee Wen issued a long public New Year’s resolution, entitled “I am license… Or why I think licensing performance art is not necessary” of which this is a (verbatim) excerpt: I made 2014 New Year Resolution that I will not present performance art in Singapore under the compulsory need to apply for a license. And no I don’t blame the government. I don’t blame the PAP and don’t mention my mother but I blame my country. Yes I am still ashamed of my country. And this country includes you and me. A country who put good art and artists on trial and make them criminals. And now after twenty years say let’s move on, the world has changed! Not yet changed as it should if you ask me! But it should.19 It would be a good idea.
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Page 60: Vu Hong Ninh, Little Soap Boy, 2009 Photo courtesy the artist Opposite: Loo Zihan installation view of Artists General Assembly archives Photo courtesy the author
Notes 1 Editorial Board of The New York Times, ‘Singapore’s Angry Migrant Workers’, 27.12.2013; see http://www. nytimes.com/2013/12/28/opinion/singapores-angry-migrant-workers.html). Accessed 27 January, 2014. The Singapore government objected to the conclusions that the workers were exploited and angry. Singapore Sunday Times, ‘Singapore objects to New York Times’ editorial on riot in Little India’, 14 January, 2014; http://www.straitstimes.com/breaking-news/singapore/story/singapore-objects-new-york-timeseditorial-riot-little-india-20140114). Accessed 27 January 2014 2 Thelma Harper, ‘Lim Chin Siong and the “Singapore Story”’, Comet In Our Sky: Lim Chin Siong in History, Tan Jin Quee and K.S. Jomo eds, Kuala Lumpur: INSAN, 2001 3
Koh Nguang How and Joyce Fan, History Through Prints: Woodblock Prints In Singapore, National Art Gallery, Singapore, 1998-99. Wall label texts and personal communication (1998)
4 Ow Chin Hock, Graduation Speech, MDIS-University Of Bradford Graduation Ceremony, Mita News; 5 November, 2001 5
Lily Kong, ‘Cultural policy in Singapore: negotiating economic and socio-cultural agendas’, Geoforum 31, 2001: 409-24
Yu-Foo Yee Shoon, Parliamentary Debates, 23 March 1990
The Straits Times, 21 January, 1994
George Yeo, ‘Developing the Arts: How Asia Can Promote the Coming Renaissance, Asiaweek vol. 7, July 1995
MICA Portal: http://give2arts.sg/advocacy.aspx?i=r Plan
10 The website of the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts; http://app.mica.gov.sg/Default. aspx?tabid=20 11
Mayee Wong, ‘Would the World Change? Worlding Southeast Asia in the Singapore Biennale 2013’, Article: The Singapore Biennale Review, December 2013; Singapore: 5 12 In an interview the Cambodian-based curator, Erin Gleeson profiled the regional curatorial process—it began with a shortlist of artists by three curators (two from SAM and one other local), and followed by a visit by the SAM curators they then reviewed the Open Call proposals from Cambodia. The curatorial decisions were then organised into a “region within region” of Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar. Finally the choices of the local team were presented to the entire 27 curatorial team for final approval. Viviana Majia, ‘An Interview with Erin Gleeson’, Article: The Singapore Biennale Review: 10, 2013, a publication of The International Association of Art Critics, Singapore, Lee Weng Choy and Kathy Rowland eds: Singapore: 2014 13 For example, in his essay in the ‘Reflections’ section of the catalogue, the Myanmar curator, Aye Ko promoted his own gallery and art collective, in a nation with many competing artist collectives and spaces struggling for recognition. Charlie Co, Faizal Sidik, Kharuddin Hori, and Yee I-Lann presented either their gallery, collective or their own work 14
Catalogue of the Singapore Biennale 2013: If the World Changed, Joyce Toh (ed.), Singapore Art Museum, 2014: 190
Sharaad Kuttan, ‘An Interview with Yee-I-Lann’, Article: The Singapore Biennale Review, op cit.
Khairuddin Hori authored the short text on Poodien in the Short Guide, Singapore Biennale, Singapore Art Museum, 2013:24 17
The Peoples’ Action Party (PAP) has been the ruling party in Singapore since 1959
18 Loo Zihan, ‘Fetishising Censorship: Queer Bodies and Pub(l)ic Desires’, paper delivered at the conference Shifting Dialogues II: Objects of Desire: Sexual Artifice in Asian Art and Performance, Asian Art and Performance Consortium, Kuvataideakatemia, Helsinki, 2013 19 Lee Wen, Dead Art Daydream Action No.1, posted on January 7, 2014 by Concrete Dreamer; http://republicofdaydreams.wordpress.com/2014/01/07/dead-art-daydream-action-no-1/: Posted 7 January, 2014. Accessed 8 January, 2014
ALAN CRUICKSHANK The origins of the August 2013 Shifting Sands Symposium lay elsewhere. It’s initial focus was upon the “Asian” art phenomenon of the past two decades, provoked by Rustom Bharucha’s 2007 seminal OzAsia Festival keynote paper ‘Whose Asia?’, an interrogatory amongst other issues into what it was that the West (and Western art) continually referred to, and regionally marked, as “Asia”, an indulgence broadly not taken on by its inhabitants. Further meditation upon this and other encroaching aspects realised the denouément that Asian, or South East Asian, North East Asian art—whatever the tag—post-GFC had sustained an evolutionary rollover, a reactive consolidation in cultural sector “hardware”, ie. infrastructure, with very little “software”, simply because it was, and still is lacking. Like the Asian Economic Crisis of the 1990s, Asia lurched from its impact with a resurgance that seemed to say “never again”. Circa the late 1990s Singapore, for example, plotted its Renaissance City masterplan, that now sees it exulting a Singapore Biennale, a broad platform of museums including the yet to be opened National Art Gallery Singapore (its predominant focus being Southeast Asian Art), the Singapore Art Museum (which drives the Biennale), performing arts festivals and theatres, a government initiated ex-army barracks of commercial and quasi-independent run galleries that includes the newly opened Centre for Contemporary Art, Art Stage Singapore (“WE ARE ASIA” art fair), Singapore Art Week, a Formula One Grand Prix, multiple Integrated Resorts (read casinos) and more, with a grand vision for presenting to the business and tourist world that it is a safe, stable, mature cosmopolitan global city with a culture of business cando, and in erasing its ubiquitous “sterile” tag, being art-cultured as well. Hong Kong, being always in competition with Singapore has followed suit, even down to “reclaiming” land upon which to build iconic monuments to culture and equal if not greater global recognition. The ‘China thing’ had also moved on, from the organic ratbaggery of the Fuck You exhibition period and before, to a system now markedly colonised by the EuroAmerican hegemony of investors, collectors, financiers, directors, curators, and of course, the multiple controls of English language. Such a
phenomenon was undoubtedly of interest for a symposium but the reality had become less about art and artists than the region’s “hardware” (China’s extraordinary surge in building museums for example). And so the symposium’s focus was re-engineered x-degrees west on the global map towards the MENA (Middle East North Africa) region, one that presented a locus of nascent cultural activity only just exhibiting the superficial markings of yet again EuroAmerican colonisation. The socalled ‘Arab Spring’ really had little to do with the symposium’s change of focus; more so research trips to the Sharjah Biennial and Art Dubai (both in the United Arab Emirates), and further research into grassroots activity in countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey and “Palestine”. The ‘Arab Spring’ may have facilitated a greater global focus upon art and related activity in the region, but quality art and artists preceded it. The concept of a symposium in Australia, of all places, focusing on contemporary art and artists of the MENA region, both amazed and enthused all those who were invited to participate. One discussion at documenta (2012) concentrated upon then current art and political developments in MENA, with a comparison to Australia, happily if not benignly existing un-tyrannised by its distance from a region of turmoil and revolution. Further discussions at the 2013 Sharjah Biennial and its parallel program March Meeting, followed by Art Dubai and its Global Art Forum, quizzed people with an extensive on-the-ground knowledge of recent cultural and related activities. And here I most sincerely thank Nat Muller, Omar Kholeif, and Sarah Rifky for their advice and assistance. The Shifting Sands Symposium was held in Sydney and Adelaide in August 20131, presenting wide ranging socio-cultural and historicalpolitical issues from the MENA region and (by default) a contextual comparison with, if not connectivity to, Australia. Though geographically far removed Australia has some connectedness with the region predominantly through its military and immigration histories of the past century—eg., Australia’s recent military participation in Iraq and Afghanistan, which follows that of both World Wars in Egypt, Palestine and Syria; the massive migration of Lebanese to Australia due to the 1975-1991 civil war and the “30,000 Australian citizens” caught in Lebanon in 2006 during the war between Hezbollah and Israel; displaced people from Iraq post-2003 and Iranian “refugees” post-2009; the Gillard government’s 2012 abstention from voting for Palestinian territories being granted observer status at the United Nations, having been elected a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council; and most recently, the first “Australian citizens” fighting and being killed in the Syrian civil war. The Australian cultural landscape has long been assisted by an infrastructural platform of multiple levels of government funding, and corporate and public patronage. While there are some instances of the latter in the MENA region there is effectively no (or little) government support. Given the current dynamic of regional and national turmoil, art practices from the region have as their catalyst multiple layers of historical and contemporary socio-political concerns that on the surface, and from the physically removed perspective of Australia, would seem to deny or query the pursuit of art making. Nonetheless, MENA artists continue to make art and MENA institutions continue to present their art, to international recognition. The following texts in this issue bring to a publishing conclusion the papers presented at the symposium. For previously published texts in this journal, please refer to Volumes 42.3 and 42.4, 2013. For further reading on art and culture in the MENA region I recommend the online platforms (especially) Ibraaz (www.ibraaz.org) and ArteEast (www.arteeast.org). Note 1 www.cacsa.org. au/?page_id=592
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when seeing is belonging: the photography of tahrir
Lara Baladi Photographs of Cairo’s Midan Tahrir taken on the “Friday of Victory,” a week after a popular uprising forced President Hosni Mubarak to relinquish power, represent a better tomorrow—the birth of a new Egypt. These images portray Liberation Square as an oasis of peace and justice, a paradise regained, an icon of freedom and renewed Egyptian identity. Have these photos of Tahrir Square replaced pictures of the pyramids as the ultimate Egyptian cliché? In August 1990, herds of Kuwaitis sought refuge in Egypt. These tourists-in-spite-of-themselves flocked to the pyramids every day. My debut in photography coincided with this, Saddam Hussein’s first invasion of Kuwait. I too was there on the Giza plateau, photographing the pyramids. That winter, Operation Desert Storm became the first war to be broadcast live on television. The perversity of how this invasion was represented
re-affirmed Guy Debord’s theory in The Society of the Spectacle: “All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.”1 The dark image in the convex screen was filled with occasional explosions in the night sky of an obscure city, CNN’s big fat logo ever-present in the lower left corner. As this “clean, bloodless” war was broadcast minute by minute to the world, in an instantaneous mediation of unfolding events, America’s overwhelming military response and its new, elaborate surveillance technologies became subject to much criticism and analysis. Jean Baudrillard, in his controversial and often-cited text on that period, went as far as to suggest, “The Gulf War did not exist”. And indeed, the images that saturated our TV screens were perceived as surreal by many and inspired a whole new market of video games where soldiers, tinged by the green glow of infrared, crawl through the night.
A decade later, in 2001, the “casualty-free” representation of the Gulf War achieved in 1991 by CNN was turned on its head by a new generation of documentary photographers and filmmakers. ‘9/11’ was the first, major historical event to be documented by thousands of people with digital cameras, more thoroughly and effectively, as it happened, than by the mainstream media. They recorded the horror of people jumping out of buildings, people covered in ashes running through the debris and carrying the wounded—trying to escape hell. But beyond recording, those who witnessed and photographed the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York contributed to the breaking of a long established monopoly on the representation of reality. Citizen journalism was born. In a little corner shop in London, the image of a plane exploding into the twin towers flashed on TV. While gathering my groceries, I asked the shopkeeper sitting under the screen what this was. She glanced at it fleetingly over her shoulder and said, with a shrug, “It must be a film.” Never in the history of cinema had a scene of this amplitude been shot. Action movies have been trying, and failing, to catch up ever since. Reality has surpassed fiction. So the Gulf War turned warfare, for many, into a computer game. In the Wikipedia entry for “Gulf War” for example, a header reads: “’Operation Desert Storm’ redirects here. For the video game, see Operation: Desert Storm (video game).” But ten years later, the photo and film amateurs documenting the collapse of the one hundred and ten story towers in lower Manhattan re-humanised reality. The first step toward the democratisation of photography was George Eastman’s invention of the Kodak camera. In 1888, with the slogan “You press the button, we do the rest”, Eastman transformed a cumbersome and complicated procedure into something easy and obtainable. Photography, until then affordable only by an elite, became even more accessible after 1975, when another Eastman Kodak engineer, Steven Sasson, came up with another major invention: the digital camera. By 2001, a majority of people in the West had one. Snapping photos was no longer the hobby of amateurs but a fully integrated aspect of most people’s daily lives. In the following decade, as cameras made their way into mobile phones (smart or not), webcams were embedded in laptop and desktop screens and people uploaded millions of images to social media sites, the global democratisation of photography took on a new dimension. With the emergence of social media, mass media lost even more ground on the distribution of information. Social media, in which the user could participate in the process of selecting and distributing information and make images instantaneously available worldwide, overshadowed traditional visual media. It competed with mainstream media, thus further sharing the power by shifting the hands holding it. “The power of letters and the power of pictures distribute themselves and evaporate into the social media such that
it becomes possible for everyone to act instead of simply being represented”, observed the influential media artist, theorist and ZKM|Centre for Art and Media Karlsruhe director Peter Weibel in a recent article, ‘Power to the people: Images by the people’.2 The shift was felt worldwide. When Israel attacked Lebanon in 2006, Lebanese online activists and bloggers attracted enough of the world’s attention to put international pressure on Israel and help stop the war. Short-lived but devastatingly destructive, this war lasted long enough to spark the beginning of a new trend of online political activism in the whole Arab region. On 25 January 2011, I was at home in Cairo with a few friends. None of us knew, beyond the unusual, eerie silence in the street, how unprecedented the protests were. To distract ourselves from the growing tension outside, we played a game of Memory, illustrated with black and white photographs from the archive of the Arab Image Foundation.3 As I played with these past images from the Arab world, little did I know that the history of the region, of Arab photography and of photography at large was about to take a quantum leap. Photographing in Egypt was prohibited in many areas during the Mubarak era; I was arrested no fewer than seven times over fifteen years for taking pictures in various parts of the country. Fear-mongering propaganda made people paranoid, feeding an ever-present and general suspicion of the camera, and by extension, of the ‘Other’. Complicit as societies become under dictatorship, Egyptians had for generations bowed to routine police humiliation in broad daylight, and worse brutality in the darkness of their torture chambers. Very few images of these crimes had gone public. The 2008 Mahalla protests by textile mill workers revived the notion that we had a right to see and be seen. Egyptian activist Hossam el-Hamalawy4, blogged then, “the revolution will be flickrised”, pointing to the need to document and disseminate the regime’s repressive procedures. Seeing would mean believing and revolting for those blinded by the national media, which persistently concealed the reality of the power in place for thirty years. This was never truer than in Tahrir Square during the eighteen days of the 2011 revolution. Here, and in the whole region during the Arab uprisings, the act of photographing became not only an act of seeing and recording, it was fully participatory. At the core of the Egyptian uprising, photographing was a political act, equal in importance to demonstrating, constituting civil disobedience and defiance. In the midst of the emergency, all theories on the subjectivity of photography suddenly became irrelevant. During the eighteen days, people in the square took photos because they felt the social responsibility to do so. Photography became objective; photography showed the truth—yes, a Truth made of as many truths as there were protesters in the square, but nonetheless one that urgently had to be revealed at this turning point in history. The camera became a non-
violent weapon aimed directly at the State, denouncing it. Photographing implied taking a stand against the regime; it was a way of reconquering territory and ultimately the country. Photographing meant belonging. In his classic BBC series Ways of Seeing5, John Berger tells us, “The images come to you. You do not go to them. The days of pilgrimage are over.” Commenting on our experience of images in the digital age, Slavoj Zizek argued that “what goes on today is not ‘virtual reality’ but the ‘reality of the virtual’”. A media revolution also took place in Tahrir, when the reality of the streets reached the reality on our screens. The images coming to us through our screens, finally, were “reality”. Thousands of people moved, photographed and stood together in solidarity against totalitarianism. Protesters held above their heads signs and slogans by day, and the blue glowing lights of mobile phones, iPads and even laptops, by night. While signifying the demand for social justice and freedom, these devices were not only emanating a light of hope reminiscent of the dancing flames during the protests of the 1960s; they were simultaneously absorbing the ambient light, thus recording from every possible angle, in every possible quality and format, life in Tahrir. Around the world—except in China, where the government banned the word “Egypt” from its Google search engine—images of Tahrir spilled into living spaces. Transcending computers, televisions screens and other virtual channels, the images inexorably spread the energy of the square. As Zizek said when interviewed about the Arab revolutions, “It was a genuine universal event, immediately understandable… It is every true universality, the universality of struggle.”7 Unlike during other conflicts that had provoked a media shift, namely the Gulf War and ‘9/11’, people all over the world identified with the protesters in the square. Tahrir became everyone’s revolution. Arab uprisings and Occupy movements followed in a chain reaction. Was image-making impacting the world and shaking its order by helping people rethink their relationship with political power? The mainstream international media grabbed the event and sucked everything it could out of it. While it supported the crowds in Tahrir, it also diminished the revolution’s momentum by referring to it in the past tense after the eighteen days and moving on to other news, thus confirming McLuhan’s theory that “you can actually dissipate a situation by giving it maximum coverage”. At this point, ordinary people had embraced the power of online images to such an extent that television news, often way behind the news on the ground, started broadcasting videos shot by amateurs or activists that had already gone viral on the web. Never, since the invention of the camera, had a historical event been so widely documented, with more videos and photos than there were protesters in the square. The new economy brought about by digital photography has exponentially amplified photography’s intrinsic factory-like quality, which is both its greatest promise and its greatest threat. On the one hand, anyone who owns a camera can produce limitless images for free. On the other hand, the abundance of rapidly distributed images is accompanied by a lack of critical distance; for example, images altered in Photoshop are mostly taken at face value. This contributes to a general desensitisation to reality. Vilém Flusser, in his 1984 book Towards a Philosophy of Photography, rightly warns us of the dangers of this hyper-democratisation of photography in the digital age: “Anyone who takes snaps has to adhere to the instructions for use—becoming simpler and simpler—that are programmed to control the output end of the camera. This is democracy in the post-industrial society. Therefore people taking snaps are unable to decode photographs: they think photographs are an automatic reflection of the world.” During the Arab uprisings, a great number of shaky and blurry mobile phone videos shot in Syria, Libya and Bahrain, uploaded every day onto the Internet, were not “decodable”. Many battle scenes, highly pixelated and graphic, resembled each other, yet, nothing in them was clearly definable or, in itself, recognisable. Only the titles revealed the videos’ content. Viewers easily disengaged from following or attempting to understand how these uprisings were evolving and if they did, once again they referred to and relied on the mainstream media, thus handing the power back all over again.
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How long will the most extensive, multi-vocal documentary ever made—the extraordinary and unedited portrait of Egyptians in Midan Tahrir one finds online—survive in the ephemeral virtual archive? With most of the images of the eighteen days vanishing into a bottomless pit thanks to Google’s PageRank algorithm, will the vision of a possible new world people glimpsed in the Square die along with its digital traces? Although the endless proliferation of images in Tahrir was produced for our own national consumption rather than that of a Western audience, images from the Midan almost instantly turned old clichés of Egypt on their heads. The angry Arab terrorist became a dignified peace warrior. “Egypt! Help us. One World, One pain”, read banners in the protests that erupted in Wisconsin in the USA, three weeks after the Egyptian uprising. The once “dirty Arab” had transformed into a politically and socially conscious citizen. President Barack Obama even declared in a television speech he gave after the ‘Battle of the Camel’ (2 February, 2011) in the midst of the eighteen days: “We should raise our children to be like Egyptian youth.” In French, the word cliché means “photograph”; for the rest of the world it refers only to a stereotype that, while familiar, conceals more truths than it reveals. The most enduring Orientalist Egyptian cliché of them all, the Giza Pyramids, has been upstaged by the bird’s eye picture of a million people in Tahrir. Images of people circumambulating the tents in the centre of the square resonated, at times, with images of people walking around the Kaaba in Mecca. For about a year after the revolution started, Tahrir itself was a pilgrimage site for revolution tourists. One of the oldest debates in photography is about its relationship with death: “Photographs are a way of imprisoning reality”, writes Susan Sontag in On Photography8. “One can’t possess reality. One can possess (and be possessed by) images—as… one can’t possess the present but one can possess the past.” The fear of death and the fear that the vision born in Tahrir would vanish soon after President Hosni Mubarak stepped down may have been another reason why people took images incessantly while they were there. Ultimately, photographing in Tahrir was an act of faith. As if recording the ecstatic reality of the present would remind us, in the future, of the Square’s utopian promise, and help us to keep hope when the real battle would start.
Page 64: Paul Noble, Family is Infinity (or, Hard Labour), 2010 (from Guy Mannes-Abbott’s book In Ramallah, Running, Black Dog Publishing, 2012) Photo courtesy the artist and Gagosian Gallery, London Page 65: Lara Baladi, The “Friday of Victory” after Hosni Mubarak’s fall, Tahrir Square, 18 February, 2011 Photo Lara Baladi Opposite top: Protesters during a speech in Tahrir Square, 8 April, 2011 Photo Mosa’ab Elshamy Opposite bottom: Lasers project “It is not a coup” onto the facade of the Mogamma building, Tahrir Square, after Mohammed Morsi’s ouster early July, 2013 Photographer unknown Above: 3 July 2013 NASA photograph photoshopped image circulating on facebook July 2013
After 25 January, 2011, the Square continued to be the centre of protests, a synonym for political power and the barometer for the revolution’s failure or success. Images of the square became part of our daily visual consumption routine. At times Tahrir appeared to be a parody of itself; at times the centre of renewed hope. Whether it was the revolutionaries, the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafis who took Tahrir Square, owning the square meant owning the revolution and by extension, Egypt. As the battle for the square worsened, Tahrir came to represent a divided nation. Rifts between Egyptians intensified during and after the first presidential campaign that followed Mubarak’s toppling, in which Brotherhood figure Mohamed Morsi won under dubious circumstances and with a surprisingly small mandate. In the midst of economic free fall, he issued a constitutional decree granting himself virtually unchecked power. Egyptians took to the streets again, having lost all trust in his promises to support the revolution and Egypt’s interests at large. Only six months into his rule, Egyptians were more bitterly divided than they’d ever been. In May 2013, a group of young Egyptians launched a national petition calling for early presidential elections. The movement Tamarod, known in English as the “rebel” campaign (but meaning “mutiny” in Arabic), invited Egyptians to occupy Tahrir and the premises outside the presidential palace on 30 June, the day when the petition would be submitted to the Egyptian Supreme Court. Tamarod collected twenty-two million signatures, an enormous number in a country with an electorate of fifty-one million, and comparable to the twenty-six million who voted in the second round of the presidential campaign. On 30 June, Tahrir Square filled with more protesters than it ever had. As all the squares in Cairo were occupied with people demanding the removal of President Morsi, a NASA photograph of Egypt from the sky—showing the Nile illuminated, with a Photoshopped caption, “Egypt lights the way for the world revolution”—circulated on social media. The photo was an apt illustration of the experience of the overwhelming majority of Egyptians who, if only for a moment, united in a common goal and spirit. The intensity of the euphoria experienced on the ground burst once more onto every TV screen. But this disturbed the West’s political agendas and assumptions, particularly those of the USA. While Obama had bent over backwards to support President Morsi, his administration refused to call the president’s toppling a coup or in order legally to continue to give the annual $US1.5 billion in aid that Egypt’s army had become used to. Nevertheless, their support of the Brotherhood meant that this time around, Tahrir’s banners were dominated by anti-Obama slogans. Egypt was now defying the very core of the democratic process. Messages like the following circulated on people’s Facebook walls: Know that almost every democracy in the world has now been dragged into this public debate about what is democratic legitimacy... Yes, Egyptians have questioned [the] ballot box legitimacy, and YES, we asked our army to intervene when we found our political opponents bringing out their militias. Since the uprising on 30 June 2013, the removal of President Morsi on 3 July and the following massacre of his supporters outside the Republican Guards Club on 8 July, the role of the army has, yet again, been brought into question. However, in the early days, many Egyptians used social media to voice their anger that Western media portrayed what had happened as a “coup” rather than seeing it as military intervention in support of and responding to mass mobilisation against the divisive and very undemocratic rule of President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.
In the days immediately following this new turn of events in Egyptian politics, twenty-two Al Jazeera journalists resigned, accusing the Qatarbased network of airing lies and misleading viewers. Reporting for Al Arabiya, Nada Altuwaijri9 characterised these resignations as “criticism over the channel’s editorial line, the way it covered events in Egypt, and allegations that journalists were instructed to favor the Brotherhood”. Meanwhile, CNN’s broadcasts reminded us of its biased coverage of the Gulf War; the network’s coverage reflected its own narrative rather than the reality on the ground. CNN not only naively confused images of pro-Morsi with anti-Morsi demonstrations, but was also bluntly oblivious to the voices of the majority of the Egyptian people expressing their will. CNN’s crew was thrown out of Tahrir Square, along with many other foreign journalists, because protesters refused to be misrepresented—from the start, this revolution has been about self-determination in media as in society. Nevertheless, the Egyptian army regained control over the national media and gave President Morsi an ultimatum to resign. He refused. The army arrested him and he is now undergoing what many people would call a show trial. As time passes and the intentions of the army remain unclear, the regime stranglehold on the media is fully re-established. On 30 June, the power of the image was handed back to the people, for the people. Someone even tweeted that a meteorite should fall on Tahrir. Did this message imply that Tahrir should officially be the sacred pilgrimage site for a redefined Egypt? At the time it felt for a moment as if Tahrir could become the Mecca of a rebirthing Arab world, one in the process of seeking a new political practice and redefining democracy in ways the West has yet to imagine. With a little more distance, the last revolt looks more like a popular movement co-opted into a full-scale counter-revolution—yet one more stage on Egypt’s long and painful road to representative politics. When Napoleon Bonaparte addressed his army before the Battle of the Pyramids, he said, “Soldiers! Forty centuries behold you!” Tahrir, by dethroning the pyramids, brought Egypt back to the present. A different version of this text was originally published in the catalogue of the exhibition Cairo, Open City: New Testimonies from an Ongoing Revolution, Museum Folkwang in Essen, Germany, and then updated for Creative Time Reports (http://creativetimereports.org/2013/09/16/larabaladi-photography-of-tahrir-square/) following the events that took place in Egypt during the summer of 2013. Notes 1 Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, Paris: Buchet-Chastel (Original French) and Cambridge, Massachusetts Zone Books (English Translation), 1967 2
3 The Arab Image Foundation is a non-profit organisation established in Beirut in 1997 that collects, preserve and studies photographs from the Middle East, North Africa and the Arab diaspora; see http://www.fai.org.lb/home.aspx 4 Hossam el-Hamalawy is an Egyptian journalist, blogger, photographer and socialist activist. He is a member of the Revolutionary Socialists and the Center for Socialist Studies; see http://www.arabawy.org/ 5 Ways of Seeing, 1972 BBC four-part television series that criticises traditional Western cultural aesthetics by raising questions about hidden ideologies in visual images 6
Slavoj Zizek, The Reality of the Virtual; see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RnTQhIRcrno
Slavoj Žižek, #1 Arabian Revolution-OmU; see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v9Ok0JzUL_c
Susan Sontag, On Photography, London: Penguin, 1977
9 See Nada Altuwaijri, ‘We aired lies: Al Jazeera staff quit over “misleading” Egypt coverage’; http://english.alarabiya.net/en/media/2013/07/09/Al-Jazeera-employees-in-Egypt-quit-overeditorial-line-.html
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notes on cultural exchange: more harm that good? AARON CEZAR Cultural exchange is generally considered to be a positive activity in terms of developing mutual understanding among nations. However, there are critical issues in regards to residencies and the politics of mobility and hospitality when artists are asked to assume the role of diplomats. Delfina has a twenty five year history of supporting international artists through residencies, first with Delfina Studios (1988-2006) and then Delfina Foundation (2007–). Over this long period, the organisation has had to constantly reconsider and reposition itself within the discourse of cultural exchange and the power dynamics that underlie any such activity. This contribution is a series of notes, or reflections, on cultural exchange. It charts the history of Delfina and cites a few examples from our experiences over the last six years in particular, and how our programs have evolved during this time to reflect the constant shifts in our thinking about cultural exchange. DELFINA’S HISTORY The roots of Delfina Foundation began with Delfina Studio Trust, an organisation set up in 1988 as a residency and studio space in Stratford, East London. It grew into London’s largest residency space after moving into new premises in Bermondsey, South London in 1992. Across nearly twenty years, over four hundred artists from around the world were provided with studios, residencies and exhibitions. Delfina Studios worked internationally and it became renowned in the art world due to the large number of artists who gained significant commercial and/or critical success. More than a dozen Turner Prize nominees were supported at the very early stage of their careers at Delfina Studios, such as Mark Wallinger, Keith Tyson, Anya Gallacio, Martin Creed, Catherine Yass, Tacita Dean and Jane & Louise Wilson, to name a few. Delfina Studios played an important role in the development of the British and international art scene by providing opportunities to artists who were leaving the confines and comfort of art school to face the reality of the real world. Delfina Studios became both a community of global artists, from Latin America to the Middle East to the East Asia, and a conduit for many into an international career until it closed in 2006. Delfina Foundation launched as a new independent organisation in 2007 to support the next generation of artists and thinkers through artistic exchange. A NEW REGIONAL FOCUS For the first six years, Delfina Foundation had a geographical focus upon the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region. Through an interrelated residency and public program, Delfina Foundation developed opportunities for MENA artists in London, and British and European artists, in turn, undertook residencies in the MENA region in partnership with organisations in Damascus, Beirut, Muscat, Ramallah, Dubai and Halabja in Northern Iraq, to name a few. The residencies were not always based on bilateral or mutual exchanges (with one artist coming and one going); rather the Foundation ran residencies in London on an on-going basis, and it sent artists and curators to undertake residencies in the Middle East when it was possible through partnerships.
Above: rendering of Delfina Foundation Page 70: the Delfina Foundation, London
CULTURAL EXCHANGE AND WEIGHTY EXPECTATIONS Cultural exchange is a much-touted concept in the arts. Like other buzzwords such as “sustainability”, “capacity-building”, “access” and “diversity”, cultural exchange is often cited by arts organisations, politicians, funders and artists alike as “a good thing”.1 But in light of rampant fear of immigration in many countries, for example the UK, and the fear of ‘foreign intervention’ in many countries like the Middle East, I have been questioning what is gained and what is lost when the language of cultural exchange is used to describe what we do at Delfina Foundation. Does the starting point of cultural exchange necessarily need to privilege differences rather than similarities? At what point, does cultural exchange create more harm than good? Despite the extremely positive aspects of cultural exchange, which are widely known, it must also be acknowledged how harmful it can also be when artists and arts organisations are co-opted by government or economic agendas, or when culture is used to paper over diplomatic cracks or ideological tensions between two nations. Furthermore, cultural exchange is often based on the notion of nationalism, where there is an expectation for artists and arts organisations to be a role model or cultural ambassador. When Delfina Studios closed and Delfina Foundation opened with an initial focus on the Middle East and North Africa, we were often questioned about our new geographical remit and sometimes even viewed with some suspicion. Why did the Delfina narrow its sights on the Middle East? What was it hoping to gain from engaging with this ‘troubled’ region?
THE MIDDLE EAST: AN ARENA OF SPECULATION In Delfina Foundation’s first year of operation (2007-08), the hype around Middle Eastern art was at one of its highest points. Farhad Moshiri, who is one of Delfina Studio’s former resident visitors, became the first Middle Eastern artist to break the million-dollar mark at an auction in Christies Dubai. The Gulf Art Fair (now known as Art Dubai) had just launched. Major institutions like Tate Modern were beginning to develop Middle East acquisitions groups, funded by patrons from the region. The Louvre and Guggenheim Museum partnerships with Abu Dhabi were announced; the Marrakech Biennale was finding its feet and the Sharjah Biennial was re-affirming itself as an international contender. Qatar, meanwhile, was plotting its own entry into the international art world. It was a time of potential, and speculation, for many, such as gallerists hoping to populate the new museums rising from the Gulf; über curators searching for the next hot exotic thing; and museums in the West attempting to address the gaps in their collections from this overlooked region. All these developments inspired Delfina Foundation’s Middle Eastern focus. In and amongst this speculation, our founding trustees recognised that many artists felt excluded from these hyper-developments. At worst, artists were being sent the wrong messages about the art market being the only place where one’s work would be validated, especially since budding art markets arguably deter experimentation, risk-taking and taking time out to further develop one’s practice. At the same time, artists were also feeling isolated from the international art scene. The backlash of the attacks of 11 September, 2001 meant that visas were still complicated to secure. In the media and political spheres, there was still very divisive language of ‘them’ in the Middle East and ‘us’ (mainly) in the West. Additionally, the media had certain expectations of artists to ‘tell the story of their people’, to be political and to speak on behalf of the ‘downtrodden’: women and minorities. When Delfina Foundation was established, it was a very confusing time for artists who had to navigate these expectations and the immense speculation about the region. A CULTURE OF CONTRADICTIONS As an organisation based is in the UK that was initially working exclusively with the Middle East, we had to recognise the very complicated history that Britain has with the region. We had to acknowledge the power dynamics that underlie not just our exchanges, but any sort of East-West or NorthSouth exchange. The present is just complicated as the past. Today, Britain celebrates and promotes the value of tolerance and openness and its sells this to the world. Recently, the GREAT campaign was launched on the back of the Olympics to export Britain’s brilliance in the arts, sport, education, and other key cultural and economic sectors. But, at the same time, the UK has a very onerous and restrictive points-based visa process. The Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami is an internationally recognised filmmaker who has railed against the bureaucracy, refusing repeatedly to be fingerprinted as part of the application process.2 But for Delfina, it has been disconcerting when artists who are less famous or less sought after, say, from Gaza or Iraq, are denied entry to Britain. In 2013 during Edinburgh’s famous international festival season, journalist Tiffany Jenkins wrote an article about the Turkish theatre director Mine Cerci who was denied a visa to present her own show.3 The company had to rehearse via Skype and Cerci never got the chance to see her show performed live. Such sweeping visa controls are harmful to cultural relationships; they become a form of intimidation. Jenkins ended her article in The Scotsman writing, “these policies have a damaging effect on us all. The restrictions reflect a destructive climate of fear surrounding immigration and this is preventing cross cultural-collaboration. We should open the borders and bin the red tape.”4 It is contradictory when one aspect of the UK government champions (and sometimes funds) our programs when another attempts to block operations simply because an artist is from a certain place or labelled according to particular demographics.
MAKING ROOM FOR THE INDIVIDUAL Cultural exchange does not necessarily allow for individuality. Experience at Delfina Foundation has found it can be harmful to artists when a label such as “Arab” or “Middle Eastern” is the defining factor why they are selected for certain opportunities. In the case of the Middle East, there has been a proliferation of exhibitions about women, war, religion and most recently revolution, following the so-called ‘Arab Spring’.5 Such exhibitions have presented a dilemma for artists who seek exposure for their work but do not want to be limited by the context in which it is exhibited. Such nationalistic or ethnic labels, as well as the curatorial exercises that exploit them, can limit how an artist’s work is interpreted by the public, as well as how they are perceived as individuals. In one Delfina project, a year-long exchange between the UK and Palestine called Points of Departure, we found that labels can also be just as problematic for British artists too. Just as the artists-in-residence from Palestine did not want to be defined by the Israeli occupation or the Separation Wall when they came to Britain, British residents in Palestine did not want to be defined by the Balfour Declaration.6 The danger of cultural exchange is that it can reinforce stereotypes just as much as it can lead to mutual understanding. As a Western organisation working with artists from the Middle East, we realised that we needed to dispel stereotypes and create a context where artists from the region could share their insights into global concerns. Additionally, we refined how we communicate our objectives as an organisation. When we speak about our collaborative work across countries, we do so now through the notion of artistic, rather than cultural exchange. It is a small nuance but important, because artistic exchange can be interpreted as individual perspectives of artists based on their shared practices, whereas cultural exchange is centred on the collective views of a nation or ethnic group based on their shared customs and beliefs.
EMPOWERING ARTISTS TO EMPOWER OTHERS: THE SILENT UNIVERSITY AS A CASE STUDY Delfina Foundation has overcome many of the pitfalls of cultural exchange by giving autonomy to artists and to respond political agendas on their own individual way. The Silent University exemplified how empowering artists to do what they do best as individuals can provide a rich and unexpected context for others. The project also demonstrated how there can be a greater impact of cultural exchange when it is in the background rather than the forefront. In 2011, the Foundation formed a partnership with Tate to offer a year-long residency to an artist to produce a participatory project. Ahmet Öğüt was selected because of his artistic practice which incorporates interventions inspired by social and political realities of everyday life and recent history. The only requirement for Öğüt was that there would be sustained dialogue with a group of participants over the course of year and some type of public outcome at the end. Both would be decided by the artist, in collaboration with Tate, after a period of research. Therefore, the artist was given complete freedom to devise a project. As a Kurdish/Turkish artist who works internationally and is often dealing with visa issues, the artist decided to engage refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in the UK who faced more severe mobility issues. He particularly focused on those who were unable to work professionally in the UK because of their uncertain status. It was humbling conversations with London’s immigrant groups that largely helped to define the project. Unlicensed taxis driven by Iraqi refugees who had been university professors back home highlighted the economic loss of such people, and asylum seekers, in places of ‘safe haven’. The Silent University was born from such conversations and a period of research. The Silent University is an autonomous knowledge exchange platform by and for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. It aims to raise awareness of the systemic failure and the loss of skills and knowledge through the ‘silencing process’ where these individuals are not empowered, or even welcome, to contribute to their new home country. Over the last few years immigration and asylum debates in Europe have led to increased xenophobia, changes in immigration policies and the rise of right-wing extremism. In this context, European Union member States have been adopting national measures that limit the rights and benefits given to asylum seekers, such as the right to work, housing benefits, welfare provisions and education opportunities, amongst others. All refugees in The Silent University had not worked legally in the UK for many years (as much as twelve years in one case), at odds with the fact that a good proportion of immigrants coming to Europe have university degrees.7 The Silent University was inaugurated at Tate Modern in November 2012 with a symposium, a screening program, a publication and a Resource Room. It was subsequently housed at Delfina Foundation and The Showroom in London. It contains contributions in the form of essays, books and films that resonate with themes of the project. The highlight of The Silent University’s events, however, was a series of silent lecture performances at Tate Modern given by the participants on subjects as diverse as Arab calligraphy and HIV prevention. These actions empowered the participants. For example, a group of lecturers, consultants and research fellows were identified, who took a leading role in developing courses and research on key themes as well as personal reflections on what it means to be a refugee and asylum seeker. Courses can still be freely accessed through the Silent University website (http://thesilentuniversity.org). The website now serves as an exchange platform between individuals wanting to teach and receive courses. The Silent University is an inspiring project that manifests the role that artists can affect in conceiving and reconfiguring the political, social and economic landscape of our time, and a testament to how the imagination can affect social change, and how cultural exchange must be a two-way street in order to empower individuals.
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The project received significant media coverage in the UK but its aspiration is to spread beyond the UK to other European countries and internationally. Currently, The Silent University is based at Tensta Konsthall with ABF Stockholm in Sweden, one of the countries of Europe with the highest number of asylum seekers. After Tensta Konstall, The Silent University will open in Le 116 in Montreuil, Greater Paris and the Maxim Gorki Theatre in Berlin. Already, there have been exchanges with some of the London participants travelling to meet new participants in other countries. THE EVOLUTION OF DELFINA FOUNDATION As our perception of cultural exchange has shifted, Delfina Foundation has been working to evolve its residency program to focus less on the geographical differences between artistic practitioners and more on the common practices that they share. This new approach will centre on themes around which we will invite or select artists, curators and thinkers from the Middle East and other parts of world, including Latin America, Europe, Africa and Asia. In January 2014, Delfina Foundation re-opened a newly expanded space in central London, near Buckingham Palace, and became London’s largest international residency program, with a capacity to host six to eight artists, curators or writers at any one time. It also launched a new residency program around thematic seasons which change every three months. The inaugural program will focus on food, interrogating and instigating issues related to the global politics and ethics of food production, distribution and consumption. Through research, performances, dinners and discussions, the residents have been unpicking mankind’s complex past and current relationship to food, agriculture and the environment. Although Delfina Foundation has had strong geographical focus on the Middle East and North Africa, its new seasonal themes are international in their scope. Participating artists, curators and chefs will hail from Kenya, Indonesia, America, Lebanon and the UK, to name a few countries. The ultimate goal of the Foundation is to create a home for artistic research and production that is transnational, cross-disciplinary and highly collaborative. It is interested in the notion of a ‘think tank’ and what an experimental, arts-led laboratory can produce by bringing together artists, curators, activists and other cultural practitioners from around the world. With each theme, we are not interested in creating or following trends but in how we can raise the level of critical discourse on certain subjects that might, in turn, affect some sort of political change. This reverses the process in which artists are co-opted by politics; instead, we hope to infiltrate politics with bold artistic strategies. This text includes brings together presentations delivered at the Shifting Sands Symposium, and the National Art Studio Korea’s symposium Moving Artist, Expanding Residency: Art Studio and International Exchange together with elements of an article, The Silent University, published online in InterArtive by Aaron Cezar and Laura Carderera. Notes 1 http://www.demos.co.uk/files/Cultural%20diplomacy%20-%20web.pdf 2
The Balfour Declaration was a letter by UK’s Foreign Secretary in 1917 that was seized upon by Zionists as support for the establishing the state of Israel 7 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-24813467 or originally reference/report: http://www.cream-migration.org/ publ_uploads/CDP_22_13.pdf
the work of art (institutions) in an age of manifestly unstable collective trauma1 ANIA SZREMSKI THE TIME FOR THEORY IS ALWAYS NOW2 In autumn of 2013, around the midpoint of then recently deposed President Mohamed Morsi’s rule, Townhouse was facing a delicate, but dangerous problem. At the time, the parameters of the public sphere in Egypt were being drawn precipitously tighter by a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated State, and tensions were running high in the aftermath of the violent protests against the video The Innocence of Muslims,3 which had just gone viral. Two participants in a workshop at the gallery wrote short stories containing subject matter that some deemed offensive to Islam, and rumors about those stories somehow began circulating outside the gallery. The stories, which we had thought were relatively innocuous, proved to be a major trigger. The gallery was threatened. One of the authors was kidnapped, beaten and abandoned on our street. The aggressors threatened to destroy the program’s final exhibition and the gallery along with it. Individuals pledging allegiance to both sides fought in the street. What was happening at this moment within Townhouse presented a microcosm of the country at large, which was becoming violently polarised, with a newly politicised populace emboldened to use inflammatory rhetoric and physical force to impress their viewpoints upon others. Having endured under the Mubarak regime for more than a decade, Townhouse was used to, and adept at, navigating censorship. But since 2011, the rules of that game did not just change, but seemed to vanish entirely; they were dissolved and rewritten each day. The ‘ground beneath our feet’ was constantly shifting, leaving us unable to orient ourselves visa-vis an opaque power structure, and determine what was safe or not, and what was worth risking. In this instance, violent repression was not enacted by State forces but by an inchoate group of individuals who did not affiliate with any particular political or religious party. In the aftermath of this, stunned and exhausted by what had happened, we were stymied by the questions we were now confronted with. Even within the Townhouse team, we disagreed about our approach to the greater issue. What was our institutional responsibility to this situation? Were we supposed to protect our constituents by censoring the stories, or risk their safety by insisting on providing a free space for expression? With our constituents so diametrically opposed, how could we be mindful and respectful without diluting and domesticating our program? But more to the point, why were even operating? One particular project, which received major foreign funding, was an educational program meant to strengthen the civil society sector and “encourage democracy”. A utopian dream, given Egypt’s political context at the time the program was conceived, and something impossible to achieve—a goal that reflected the euphoric optimism of the spring of 2011. Townhouse is a non-profit organisation founded fifteen years ago as an exhibition platform for contemporary visual artists, particularly those marginalised by government and commercial sectors; to not only provide exhibition opportunities but a forum for open debate and critical expression. While it rapidly expanded over the following years
to encompass an outreach program, a theatre for performing arts and a local and international residency program, the essential core of its mission remained unchanged. But even within the framework of this mission was it right for us to create a program based on such a clear political ideology? Were we right to offer such educational programs that, frankly, go beyond the scope of our expertise, when another institution for example, might be able to achieve this better? And to what extent were we in fact pandering to our funding partners with a certain revolution-fetishising mandate? In essence, these concerns presented two fundamental questions: what exactly are we doing, and why are we doing it? Since that iconic eighteen-day period following the 25th January beginning of the Egyptian Revolution in 2011, as an institution, Townhouse has not had time to resolve these questions. And so for the past three years, along with the majority of the country, we have been marking time in a strange confusing impasse from which neither of us can disengage. Borne from the profound trauma of that revolutionary moment, we are overwhelmed by the present. The revolutionary experience has been one of an extended oppressive present, a radical zooming into the immediate. Living in it, one is always waiting for something that is about to happen—a speech, an attack, an announcement. The future exists only as an uncertain fantasy, and the past is confused and rapidly forgotten, keeping us in an almost psychotic state of amnesia, as we repeat the same actions over and over again, forgetting what happened last time. ART AFFECTS REALITY PRECISELY BECAUSE IT IS ENTANGLED IN ALL ITS ASPECTS4 How is an arts institution to operate in this overwhelming present? The institution is not protected from this affective realm—we are not an ivory tower removed from the experience on the ground, and this is particularly true of Townhouse. Situated just off Tahrir Square and maintaining an unusually porous relationship with the street and the neighborhood, there is no safety buffer between Townhouse and the everyday life around us; political events affect us in a raw and unmediated way. Every level of our operations deeply engages us as an active participant in social and political life5—we negotiate corrupt government bureaucracy every time we renew a business license or file our taxes, sometimes forced into complicity with the system, other times managing to skillfully subvert it with artfully crafted legal fictions. At the economic level, we hire individuals in a host of sectors—administrators, technicians, cleaners, architects, painters, carpenters, translators and designers; we commission work from the local glass dealer, metal smith and car mechanic; our staff and audience are perhaps our local coffee shop’s most lucrative clientele. On a daily basis, we negotiate with the local police station and street gangs alike to maintain the peace and carry on with the business of everyday operations. Townhouse is embedded in every layer of the country’s political, economic and social being. When that starts to fray and unravel, like everything else in the country, we also start to fray and unravel.
So how do we cope? Let’s define an art institution as fundamentally a space (whether real or virtual/imagined) and the people who work within it. It would follow then that our institution has been as disoriented as the individuals running it since 2011. In the immediate aftermath of 25 January, we adopted a responsive mindset, of reacting to the immediate reality as opposed to a long-term curatorial model based on research and planning. We reached well beyond our mandate, opening our spaces to journalists and activists, hackers and ‘zine makers, sometimes turning our theatre into a centre for goods to take to the field hospitals in Tahrir Square. In retrospect, we’re not entirely sure if this was the right course of action, but at the time it seemed like the only thing we could do. In this amorphous, directionless present, like the country at large, we were trying to chart a different course—change finally felt like an option. But for more than two years of living and working like this it has been exhausting—this mode of operation is not sustainable. Townhouse has always been an institution caught between the axes of resilience and precarity. To call itself an “institution” already implies a sense of long duration, a desire for sustainability, and permanence. An institution gives a space for extended time, a space to reflect, to research, to historicise. Unlike other countries in the region, Egypt does have a significant modern art museum and a plethora of art education palaces, which would traditionally provide that extended time; but, subject to the whims of the Culture Ministry, these institutions have failed to do so—so Townhouse has strived to provide that space and time instead, for supporting not only the production of artwork, but also for developing critical language, curatorial thinking, and writing contemporary art histories. But the resilience and durability needed to support those activities is often illusory. Townhouse is pressed by its funders to become sustainable (and hence resilient)—to be able to ‘weather the storm’ of the ongoing situation and come out on the other side, steadfast and unchanged. To that end, in the mid-2000s we created a Board with an offshore nonprofit entity,
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and a strategic plan with fundraising goals, those artfully crafted legal fictions to navigate the obscure and threatening bureaucratic mechanisms of the Mubarak years. However, what is written on paper and living in a reality of contracts, bank accounts and tax ID numbers is different from that reality on the ground. In practice, Townhouse has hardly been a model of resilience through the years. A core commitment to the same basic goals and values that are shared by a team of likeminded individuals has kept it operating for the past fifteen years, but as an institution, it has not always dealt with change, and has at times emerged cracked, chipped away, with parts broken off—irrevocably changed. This has been a risky mode of working, but it is also a mode that has allowed Townhouse to become what it is; those cracks become windows for new ideas and opportunities to seep through, the breakages allow for new growth. In daily operations, particularly given the conditions within which Townhouse operates in Cairo, striving for steadfastness and sustainability can kill an institution, making it slow, rigid and impermeable. The more institutionalised it has become, the more cautious, wary in the face of the tax collector, the auditor and the funder; becoming ever more complicit with the institution of the State. In its decisions, whether administrative or curatorial, Townhouse has always had to navigate between these two axes of resilience and precarity, constantly playing a guessing game of when it is worth the risk, and when that risk might founder the organisation.
Above: Townhouse, Hussein El Me-mar Pasha Street, off Mahmoud Basyouni Street, near Tahrir Square, Cairo
Over the last year or so, questions around institution building have been at the forefront of art scene discussions in Cairo, as dozens of new initiatives have mushroomed across the city since 2011. In 2011-12, our conversations pivoted upon the dilemma of “no time for art”. Is it too soon to work? How is it possible to work in these conditions? Many artists stopped producing altogether, or left the country to take up residencies, or devoted themselves entirely to activism. While there were many media reports, especially in the West, fetishising a sudden flourishing of artistic activity in this supposedly freed public sphere, in reality, the gears turning the motors of the cultural scene slowed, and even sometimes stopped, occasionally fitfully starting up again. Production occurred in bursts, followed by extended depressed lags. There was (and still is) a feeling that an entropic force was at work; anything could become undone at a moment’s notice. Perhaps the desire to build new spaces (apartment galleries, commercial galleries, alternative cinemas, etc.) was to carve out something solid in the midst of this shape-shifting, amorphous cloud of negation and impossibility. More new spaces were opened than there was artwork to put in them. Since last spring, discussions about institution building and alternative forms of organisation have taken place publically and privately at many of these new spaces, such as Beirut, Cimatheque and Nile Sunset Annex. For some reason, the conversations have changed from what to do about artistic production to what to do about infrastructure in this time of crisis? Some artists have complained about this introspection, accusing curators and administrators of naval-gazing instead of supporting their practices. But perhaps we have intuitively guessed that only chipping away at the latter problem will help us to address the former. So, in that vein of inquiry, what can the institution do in this moment of precarious impasse, besides desperately groping its way through an unknown territory, always finding itself in a position of reaction? It is possible for an institution, for example, to take a strong critical and political stance, defying neutrality and mandates to “democratise” culture? There is an emerging anti-intellectual climate in Egypt (shaped by the State and so-called independent movements, like the Creative Expression Front), with its imperative to be anti-elitist and provide populist, easily accessible cultural programs. Due to the lack of a strong critical writing culture, there is also an intense fear on the part of many practitioners of
being criticised, of being authorial, of taking a strong position. Perhaps this is an understandable coping mechanism in a time of precarity. But to refuse negation and neutrality by adopting a strong critical position (including being clear about one’s politics), and providing a space to stake a claim, express an opinion, be critical—something that is continually becoming harder to do in this country today—is a potential way of pushing forward through the impasse. Perhaps even more importantly, at a time when curators in Egypt are heavily pressured to frame local artistic production in terms of social engagement and political relevance, the art institution can provide an alternative space free from the burden of that moral/political imperative, for those artists adopting positions of negation and turning away, or creating a space for uselessness. And by extension, the institution can be a place for play, a softer version of risk, allowing for experimentation without dire consequences. Finally, the institution can choose to become as transparent as possible in its operations and decision-making processes, acknowledging how, as Berlin-based filmmaker and writer Hito Steyerl has stated, “politics resides within arts production, distribution, and its reception. If we take this on, we might surpass the plane of a politics of representation, and embark on a politics that is there, in front of our eyes, ready to embrace”.6 FORCE MAJEURE: THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF PERFORMANCE (NO GUN, AND NO GASOLINE FOR THE ROAD)7 I wrote the above words in a more optimistic moment, during a brief time of quiet prior to President Morsi’s removal from office on 3 July 2013, and the deaths of hundreds (if not thousands) that followed, events that have ushered us into a new chapter in this unfolding transitional moment. Again we have been radically re-absorbed into the present, suspended in a state of disbelief and paranoia, distracted from the mundane tasks of running an arts institution, by constantly checking the developing news on Twitter, looking out the window to determine where the gunshots are coming from, having our meetings drowned out by the noise of army helicopters flying low overhead. With the country operating in a state of emergency, the limits of free speech are rapidly being drawn inwards, nearing a point of strangulation. Our internal conversations about how to reorient Townhouse with a stronger sense of purpose, have been put on hold, once again. I often lose hope, questioning the value of any of the plans for the coming year, when all I can see is the potential for failure. Nonetheless, we acknowledge that there is much Townhouse soon can’t or won’t be able to do; and that things will come undone that we won’t be able to put back together. But the one value or goal that can steer us in some kind of forward direction is aspiration—acknowledging the impending obstacles, but aspiring to do something anyway, even if we know the object of our desire can swiftly be taken away from us, without warning. And this persistence alone can be a profoundly political action. Notes 1 This title is loosely borrowed from Lauren Berlant’s ‘Cruel Optimism’, a text that informs much of this text which has been adapted from my presentation given at the Shifting Sands symposium 2 “It is not simply that I am nearsightedly unable to envision the future beyond, perhaps, the next few years. The mainspring of my resistance is the belief that the time for theory is always now.” Teresa de Lauretis, ‘Statement Due’, Critical Inquiry 30.2, 2004: 365 3 Innocence of Muslims, a controversial anti-Islamic movie uploaded to YouTube in July 2012, was perceived as denigrating the prophet Muhammad, causing demonstrations and violent protests in Egypt and other Arab and Muslim nations 4 Hito Steyerl, ‘Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Post-Democracy’, e-flux journal 21, 2010 5
Thanks to Mohammed Abdallah for making this point
Hito Steyerl, op cit.
7 Excuses for non-performance according to USA contract law: mistake; misrepresentation; frustration of purpose; impossibility; impracticability; illegality; unclean hands; unconscionability
Above: Townhouse third floor studios
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art and culture under occupation: the palestinian museum and qalandiya international1
Diana Abouali The past two years have seen the establishment of many new and important cultural initiatives in the occupied Palestinian territory that are international in both scope and outreach—the Palestinian Museum, which is currently under construction in the West Bank town of Birzeit and set to open in the spring of 2015, and Qalandiya International, a new art biennale, which had its inaugural launch last November 2012.2 These two initiatives—one an institution, the other a series of art exhibitions—are interesting case studies for how museums and large-scale cultural events can operate under military occupation. But more than providing insights into how they operate under unfavorable circumstances, the Palestinian Museum and Qalandiya International offer interesting meditations on their respective themes—cultural heritage management and exhibition production, through the ways they negotiate those current political realities. What the Palestinian Museum and Qalandiya International have done is gone beyond their mandates to offer ways in which a disenfranchised and fragmented people, can re-imagine and enact new notions of nationhood. PALESTINIANS: FRAGMENTED AND DISENFRANCHISED Twenty years have passed since the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the Government of Israel signed the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords3, and yet one would be hard pressed to argue that life has improved for the majority of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.4 Negotiations have come and gone, no final status talks have ever taken place and no State has been declared. Twenty years later, Palestinians remain disenfranchised and under occupation, arguably more fragmented now than they have been
since 1967. For the most part, Palestinians living under occupation today do so in either one of two large open-air prisons: the Gaza Strip, which has been under blockade since 2007; and the West Bank, strangled and partitioned by a 700km concrete separation wall that keeps Palestinians in (or out, depending on which way you look at it), and pockmarked with more than five hundred military checkpoints and barriers to ensure that no Palestinian goes where they shouldn’t.5 The construction of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank continues at an unstoppable pace, and the number of settlers has doubled from 260,000 in 1993 to 520,000 in 2012.6 These settlements, which sit on forty-two percent of West Bank land, much of it confiscated private Palestinian property and off-limits to Palestinians, are a major source of political instability. The situation in the West Bank is one of a fragmented geography, an archipelago of small island-towns in a sea of Israeli colonial rule. The consequences of Oslo can be seen in other sectors of Palestinian society. Politically, Palestinians are suffering from “national disunity” with two separate ruling authorities, the Palestinian Authority (set up by the PLO) and Hamas, loosely governing their respective constituents in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Economic conditions have worsened; poverty has spread in the West Bank and Gaza, with unemployment rising and the economies contracting. GDP per capita has remained essentially stagnant in the West Bank since 1999, but has actually decreased in Gaza. Food insecurity is now a major issue of concern, not only for families suffering from siege in Gaza (57% in 2012), but in the relatively more affluent West Bank.7
Socially, the picture looks equally bleak, particularly in the field of education. Net-enrollment ratios in primary schools dropped from 91.7% in 2001 to 83.9% in 2007, and in the West Bank alone, twenty-two percent of secondary school-aged children were not enrolled in schools. Access to quality education remains out of reach for most children; test scores for students in government schools remain low for both the West Bank and Gaza Strip.8 In East Jerusalem, where the condition of schools is considered even more dire, with inadequate infrastructure, overcrowding and generally substandard education services, thirty-six percent of Palestinian schoolchildren in East Jerusalem do not complete twelve years of schooling.9 The Palestinian national curriculum continues to emphasise memorisation and rote learning; teachers receive little training in effective teaching methods, and schools facilities are lacking.10 The damaging impact of poor-quality education on the Palestinian labor force, society and cultural production cannot be overstated.
Restrictions on movement because of the separation barrier have disconnected West Bank towns from one another, affecting the economy as well social relations. Cultural life in East Jerusalem has suffered tremendously from the separation wall and checkpoints, which has sundered the city from its natural environment and curtailed the ability of residents from Jerusalemâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s neighboring West Bank towns to travel to Jerusalem. Even for those Palestinians who can travel freely between the West Bank and Jerusalem, namely Jerusalem ID holders, the arduousness of crossing Qalandiya or any other checkpoint and the unpredictability of possibly hours-long delays discourages many from making the trek. Jerusalem, the
long-standing religious and cultural centre for Palestinians, is the focus of an intense policy of de-Arabisation by the Jewish State, which in equal measure means de-Islamisation and de-Christianisation of the city both culturally and demographically. De-Arabisation is the attempt to eradicate Jerusalem’s Arab, and specifically Palestinian character, by slowly erasing its Arab identity and history, and by forcibly reconfiguring its demographic makeup. It is an attempt to “un-write” historical facts and alter the urban fabric of the city so as to recast it in a form compatible with Zionist ideology that sees Jerusalem as an exclusively Jewish city.
Page 75 and 76-77: Palestinian Museum project images by Henegan Peng Architects Page 80: view of landscape from hilltop of museum site
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MISSING PUBLICS In such an inhospitable political, economic and cultural circumstances, what purpose can building a museum or even inaugurating a new art festival serve in Palestine, and what role can they play in possibly reversing some of these forces that are slowly undermining Palestinian social fabric? Focusing on cultural heritage as a national or nation-building enterprise is a welldocumented one; indeed, building museums, along with conducting censes and making maps, are what nations—and particularly, newly independent postcolonial nation-States—do.11 For a people living under occupation, the establishment of museums that provide opportunities for the articulation of a coherent national narrative at odds with the occupier’s version of events serves to reinforce the people’s rights to self-determination and to live freely on their land. The Palestinian National Authority is aware of the importance of cultural heritage’s role in creating and reinforcing a national narrative, and has invested much money and effort in establishing
new museums. The Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage, a division in the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, lists more than thirty Palestinian museums in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.12 The vast majority of these museums are ethnographic or archaeological, sometimes in the form of site museums, and many were established after the Oslo Accords.13 A recent Palestinian National Museum Policy (PNMP) paper called for “visible, tangible progress” to be achieved by 2013 toward ten objectives (they include audience research, professional training and capacity building for museum employees, development of online platforms, and the reclamation of the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem, appropriated by Israeli in 1967) in addition to the establishment of a Museum Steering Committee to oversee the policy’s execution and implementation.14 The PNMP notes the “great hardship” that cultural heritage professionals face when trying to work under Israeli occupation that has lasted for more than forty years, but offers a glimmer of hope by identifying an opportunity for this sector to do something new and great: The deep and untold damage to museum infrastructure caused over decades of occupation provides a difficult backdrop for this policy. But it also presents a real opportunity. There is freedom to create quite new kinds of museum and heritage activity that are rooted in Palestinian traditions and meet Palestinian needs. There is no need to replicate traditional forms or systems and there is freedom to experiment.15 If this opportunity has presented itself, it has for the most part not been seized.16 While a number of museums have been opened since the formation of the PNA, they have not made much noticeable effort toward offering new kinds of activities, programming or exhibitions. They remain traditional in type and character, demonstrating little innovation or creativity, and thereby reinforcing the notion of museums as mausoleums for ancient artifacts of little apparent relevance to the present. Most, if not all, museums tend to offer or reinforce the notion of a singular, linear narrative of Palestinian history devoid of alternative perspectives or experiences. As essential as coherent national narratives are, it does not mean that there should be little room or acknowledgment for alternative narratives, for different experiences, nor would such acknowledgment weaken the impact or veracity of that official narrative. Rather, a productive “negotiation of that tension” ought to take place.17 Because they do not, Palestinian national identity is presented as uniform and monochromatic as a result. One of the weaknesses I see in many museums in Palestine is the fact that these museums are entirely about something rather than for somebody.18 They are about reinforcing a national(ist) agenda or showing a collection of archaeological or ethnographic artifacts, and while these may make for serviceable missions for some museums, they are not sufficient to make them relevant to a population that is predominantly young, and like most youth, more concerned with their future (and in Palestine, it is a bleak one) than with their past. These museums may hold their collections for the benefit of present and future generations, but scant thought has gone into how those generations might benefit from them. Little, if any, consideration for who is actually going to be visiting the museum, and what he or she should or might want to get out of it, is to be found either in programming or exhibition planning, design or display. Is the mere fact that artifacts are grouped together on dusty glass shelves enough? Surely that is an important service—the preservation of Palestine’s ancient heritage, especially in light of an Israeli cultural policy that seeks to appropriate it from Palestinian territory illegally, or eradicate some aspects of that history altogether—but it never really goes beyond that. When schoolchildren visit these museums, are they captivated by what they see, or merely held as a captive audience? The public is not only missing from the programming and exhibition designs found in West Bank museums; the public is, quite simply, missing. I have been unable to find any visitor studies carried out by or on West Bank museums, but it is my impression that visitor rates are quite low. It might be a fallacy to say there does not exist a culture of museum-going in
Palestine, but if there is any truth to this statement, it is not because there is a lack of museums. When I say the public is missing, however, I do not simply mean that it is physically not there. What’s missing is a conscious effort at making museums spaces where a public can take shape. The museum has the potential to be a space for public (civic) engagement and dialogue; a public sphere, in a sense, where people can come to engage with the information offered and presented there, to exchange ideas with others, to question their own assumptions (and whatever assumptions the museum exhibitions might be making), and where opinions can be formed and expressed. Part gallery serving as a conduit for culture and part informal learning and educational venue, the museum can and should be a public space where discussions about issues relevant to the community occurs by allowing for the free expression of multivalent experiences and memories, even and especially when they are at odds with the prevalent national narrative of Palestinian history or its predictions for its future. It can and should be a “safe place for unsafe ideas”,19 where our collective past and future can be spoken of in a way that reflects a variety of opinions that, in turn, mirrors the richness of Palestinian experiences, both inside Palestine and outside, namely in the Palestinian diaspora. ENRICHING NARRATIVES AND RECONFIGURING SPATIAL REALITIES: THE PALESTINIAN MUSEUM AND QALANDIYA INTERNATIONAL At the outset of the previous section, I questioned how museums like the new Palestinian Museum and cultural events like Qalandiya International, can or should deal with the current situation in Palestine. I believe that they can offer ways to deal with the temporal rigidity of the Palestinian historical narrative as presented in most museums (as well as in educational curricula and through official expression), and the territorial fragmentation of the failed Palestinian State. The Palestinian Museum, currently underconstruction, is a flagship project of the Welfare Association, a Palestinian NGO that provides development and humanitarian assistance to Palestinians living in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the refugee camps in Lebanon.20 The first rumblings of the museum project appeared in 1997-98 as the brainchild of a group of Welfare Association board members, which included the renowned late Palestinian-American academic, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod. At that time, the Nakba, or the Palestinian Catastrophe of 1948 that led to the displacement of 750,000 Palestinians from their homes and dispossession of their land, was still a living memory for many of them.21 The memory of those events were the inspiration for the Museum’s first iteration (the Museum of Palestinian Memory it was called), whose primary mission was to commemorate the Palestinian Catastrophe through the construction and establishment of a modern museum. It was not a coincidence that talk of such a commemorative institution took place around the time that it did, for 1998 marked the 50th anniversary the Nakba. The half-century milestone seemed to both reinforce the feeling of irredeemable loss and galvanise efforts to preserve a people’s memory. This sense of urgency would be derailed two years later by the outbreak of the second Intifada in 2000. By the mid-2000s, the museum project was finally revisited in earnest; in 2008, Beshara Doumani, a prominent historian of the Middle East based in the USA, was appointed director, and oversaw the reconfiguration of the concept and purpose of the museum from a memorial anchored in a painful past to one that celebrates Palestinians as a people with a living, productive and vibrant culture—a museum that “mobilises rather than commemorates”.22 While certainly not the first museum in Palestine, it will be the first devoted to the celebration and exploration of Palestine’s modern and contemporary history, broadly speaking.23 The Palestinian Museum is not a national project in the sense that it is not overseen, operated, or supported by the ministerial body responsible for museums and cultural heritage in the West Bank. It is very much a private affair (with PNA seal of approval, of course), yet its mandate is very similar to what a national museum might claim to do: “celebrating, preserving and promoting the history, culture and society” of Palestine.24 It is also hard not to see the construction of the Palestinian
Museum as separate from other nation-building projects undertaken by the PNA. However, the Museum’s planners are keen to avoid repeating what other postcolonial national museums (or even those archaeological or ethnographic museums that dot the West Bank and East Jerusalem) have done.25 The Museum intends to present non-authoritative narratives on Palestinian history and culture, promising a plurality of narratives and voices rather than advocating one version over others. Its lack of a collection speaks perhaps to its nontraditional approach and further distinguishes itself from other museums in the region. This lack puts the onus on its staff to produce exhibitions through research and fieldwork, by relying heavily on creativity and clarity of both concept and vision when developing the exhibitions and their storylines. By default, the focus of the museum’s efforts thus turns outward rather than inward; greater importance is given to the audience/visitors the museum is trying to serve (and of course, attract)—again in terms of content by making sure that it engages audiences by asking good questions or encouraging visitors to ask their own, but also in terms of exhibition design, education content, and other kinds of programming. While all this does not necessarily guarantee the inclusive and participatory approach the Museum strives toward—for much depends on the staff’s dedication to this aspect—the lack of a collection can mean the promise of a beginning unburdened with the limits imposed by a collection that can easily be placed on permanent display and left at that. I would argue that the Palestinian Museum is not merely a new museum in Palestine; it has the potential to be that new kind of museum urged for by the PNMP mentioned above that serves its public through the promotion (and when possible, the preservation) of tangible and intangible heritage, the creation of knowledge, scholarship and new thinking about that heritage and its history, and—by bringing the two together—the display of that heritage in interesting, creative and innovative ways. It is self-consciously reaching out to Palestinians everywhere, those living in Palestine and those in the diaspora, in an effort to involve as many people as possible in the sharing and shaping of knowledge about themselves and their history. It presents itself also as a transnational museum, unrestricted by the territorial limits of State and nation; rather, it works in spite of those limits, understanding that since the expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland and dispersal around the globe, the Palestinian people had rendered common understandings of nationhood as based on a fixed, defined territory, to be inapplicable here. In the words of the Palestinian Museum’s erstwhile director, Beshara Doumani, the Palestinian Museum can be less about nationhood or statehood, and more about peoplehood: [I am not imagining] a museum-state as much as a museum-nation. By this I mean that the emphasis is on agency and peoplehood, not on state power and statebuilding. The museum can attempt to be an embodiment of the Palestinian body-politic, but in a transnational not territorially-fixed setting. It becomes, in a sense, an arena for the performance and reproduction of this peoplehood by Palestinians.26 If the Palestinian Museum manages to become the inclusive museum it wants to be when it opens in 2015—one that encourages audiences to participate in the shaping of narratives about Palestinians, to make it that “arena for the performance and reproduction of peoplehood”, then it will really have accomplished something new, not just in terms of cultural heritage and museums in Palestine, but for museums in general. And if it manages to be that inclusive museum, by building itself around a community (both physical and real), this will mean that the community can and will have a stake in the museum’s success. The community, the public, thus will have ownership in the museum, and this ownership will guarantee its success for generations to come. If the Palestinian Museum can be a space where multivalent voices can be heard, and where alternative non-authoritative narratives of Palestinian history can be expressed, then Qalandiya International offers innovative and creative ways to resolve the fragmentation that plagues
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Palestine as a land and people. Qalandiya International was inaugurated in November 2012, and is Palestine’s second biennale.27 The two-week contemporary art festival was the joint effort of seven Palestinian cultural and art organisations based in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Israel: Riwaq-Centre for Architectural Conservation (Ramallah/Al-Bireh), alMamal Foundation for Contemporary Art (Jerusalem), A. M. Qattan Foundation (Ramallah), Palestinian Art Court-Al Hoash (Jerusalem), International Academy of Art-Palestine (Ramallah/Al-Bireh), Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre (Ramallah), and The House of Culture and Art (Nazareth). Pooling their resources and programming together, Qalandiya International offered audiences two weeks of art exhibitions, installation pieces, performance art, film screenings, symposia, book launches, and guided walking tours held in various locations throughout historical Palestine, and even in Amman, Jordan, home to the largest concentration of Palestinians outside Palestine. This collaborative effort was meant to “forge links across a fragmented reality; [Qalandiya International is] a take on unity”.28 This fragmented reality can be understood in multiple ways. In one sense, the fragmentation is the result of the 700km separation wall that snakes its way around the West Bank, disabling the movement of Palestinians within the West Bank and cutting off its cities, and particularly Jerusalem, from one another. It is also about the separation of those Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip from those living inside Israel (also referred to as “Israeli Arabs”), as well as those living abroad as a result of forced expulsion or for economic necessity. Finally, the fragmentation is a reference to the lack of Palestinian national unity; two separate administrations govern in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, led by the PNA (dominated by Fatah) and Hamas, respectively. Inside Palestine, and in particular the West Bank and Gaza, the reality of Palestinian fragmentation is a powerful and daunting one, an often-insurmountable obstacle that limits personal horizons, interferes with social and cultural life, and impedes economic growth. The ironic choice of “Qalandiya” as the biennale’s name is a nod to the current geopolitics that they are working in defiance of; Qalandiya, the name of a village, a former airport, and a refugee camp, is also, since the second Intifada, a notorious checkpoint that separates Ramallah and Jerusalem. Through its name, Qalandiya International pays homage to a “Qalandiya” (and by extension, Palestine) that was and can still be a point of contact and a zone of cultural exchange. While the Palestinian Museum is keenly aware of its transnational character, it is more about narrative and allowing for alternative ones, rather than about space and place. There will be a brick and mortar museum to be sure, but the real transnational and participatory museum it hopes to be will be found in digital platforms and virtual reality. Qalandiya International, on the other hand, is very much about place and location, geography and physicality. It is about experiencing Palestine on the ground, and as a meeting place where art can be seen and engaged with. It is about thumbing its nose at a colonial project that intends to divide not just the land, but also the land from its people and the people from each other. Qalandiya International offers the possibility to experience those places of separation and division as junctions instead, with the creative promise that junctions hold. Working in defiance of facts on the ground is what unites Qalandiya International and Palestinian Museum. The establishment of the biennale and the museum is more than an affirmation of the liberational potential of art and culture. One could indeed argue that cultural heritage in the form of museums or art festivals is “a technique of government in the Foucauldian sense and as an integral part of a State-building (in addition to nation-building) project”, providing a way in which the nation-State can be envisioned in the absence of a strong State.29 But one can easily argue, twenty years after the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, that Palestine is more than just a weak State; it is a failed State that finds itself under occupation still. The Palestinian Museum and Qalandiya International offer something different altogether: a reconfiguration of nationhood and peoplehood in spite of a divided and fragmented population and geography.
Notes 1 Many thanks to Leila Farsakh, Sahar Bazzaz, Ihab Jadallah, Yara Saqfalhait and especially Dana Sajdi for help with this essay and its earlier iteration. At the time of the Shifting Sands Symposium, I was Head of Research and Collections at the Palestinian Museum, a position I held from August 2012 until December 2013 2
http://www.palmuseum.org; http://www.qalandiyainternational.org. The Mahmoud Darwish Museum, dedicated to memorialising the life of Palestine’s national poet, was also opened in 2012 3
The Oslo I Accords, known officially as the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements (DOP), and signed in Washington, D.C. on 13 September 1993, provided a framework for future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and the establishment of an interim autonomous authority in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, ultimately leading to a permanent settlement based on UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 4 Oxfam, for instance, has stated that, “life for millions of Palestinians is worse now than it was twenty years ago, as the government of Israel has expanded its settlements in occupied territory and increased its control over Palestinian land and lives… Twenty years of missed opportunity has undermined progress on Israel-Palestine peace and has left millions trapped in poverty.” Oxfam International Press Release, 13 September 2013. http://oxf.am/Uaw 5
‘Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories’, in Amnesty International Annual Report 2012; see https://www.amnesty.org/en/region/israel-occupied-palestinian-territories/report-2012 6
Oxfam Press Release. The final numbers also includes settlers living in East Jerusalem settlements, and in outposts, which are settlements “built without [Israeli] government approval but with the support of various government ministries, the army and the Civil Administration”. B’Tselem, By Hook or by Crook: Israeli Settlement Policy in the West Bank, July 2010
14 The unpublished policy paper, Palestinian National Museum Policy 2008-2013, was commissioned by the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities with assistance from UNESCO and prepared by Sally MacDonald (Director of UCL Museums and Collections) and Dr Beverly Bulter (Lecturer in Heritage, Museum and Cultural Memory Studies, UCL) in 2008 15
Palestinian National Museum Policy 2008-2013: 3
One major exception to this is the Birzeit University Museum, whose exhibitions I have found to be innovative, creative and engaging 17
Ursula Biemann, ‘A Post-Territorial Museum: An Interview with Beshara Doumani’, A Prior #22: 166-173
18 I am, of course, paraphrasing Stephen E. Weil, ‘From Being about Something to Being for Somebody: The Ongoing Transformation of the American Museum’, Making Museums Matter, Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2002: 28-52 19 Elaine Heumann Gurian, ‘A Savings Bank for the Soul: About Institutions of Memory and Congregant Spaces, 1996’, Civilizing the Museum: The Collected Writings of Elaine Heumann Gurian, London and New York: Routledge, 2006: 93 20 The Welfare Association was founded in 1983, and currently manages an endowment of $50 million. It receives program funding from various granting agencies, foundations and governments, as well as from private individuals. So far, private cash or in-kind donations have covered construction costs for the Palestinian Museum. Program and operation costs are covered by private donations, a grant from the Arab Fund for Social and Economic Development, and the Welfare Association. See http:// en.welfareassociation.org
7 Socio-economic and Food Security Survey 2012: West Bank and Gaza Strip, Palestine. Palestine Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), and the World Food Programme (WFP). http://unispal.un.org/pdfs/UNPCBS_SocEconFoodSecSurvey2012.pdf
21 Between 1920 and 1948, Palestine was under British civil administration (British Mandate). Previously, Palestine was under Ottoman rule. The flipside of the 1948 Nakba (Catastrophe) was of course the declaration of the State of Israel on 78% of the land comprising Mandatory Palestine. One could argue that the Nakba did not end in 1948, but is still ongoing through the Israeli government’s policies of land confiscation and colonisation, population transfers, and ill treatment of both Palestinians living in the Occupied Territory as well as in Israel
Jean Gough, ‘The Situation of Children in the Occupied Palestinian Territory An Overview’, This Week in Palestine, Issue no. 154, 2011. The author was (in 2011) the Special Representative of UNICEF in the occupied Palestinian territory 9
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Failed Grade: East Jerusalem’s Failing Educational System, August 2012; http://www.acri.org.il/en/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/EJeducation2012en.pdf 10
See Dua Dajani and Sky McLaughlin, ‘Implementing the first Palestinian English Language Curriculum: A Need for Teacher Improvement’, Mediterranean Journal of Educational Studies Vol. 14 (2), 2009 11
Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London; New York: Verso, 2006
Beshara Doumani, ‘The Palestinian Museum: Vision, Structure and Content’, 2010 (unpublished paper)
There are two (national) museums in Ramallah that are modern in scope, but they are commemorative institutions dedicated to two prominent Palestinians of the last century: the Mahmud Darwish Museum, and the Yasser Arafat Museum 24
25 Rodney Harrison and Lotte Hughes, ‘Heritage, Colonialism, and Postcolonialism’, in Rodney Harrison (ed.), Understanding the Politics of Heritage, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010 26
For a list, see Directory of Museums in Palestine, Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage, Ramallah, 2009. These include private and municipal museums, as well as those run by the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities
13 Exceptions include the Abu Jihad Museum for Prisoners’ Affairs at Al-Quds University in Abu Dis, the Mahmoud Darwish Museum in Ramallah, and the Yasser Arafat Museum (under-construction), also in Ramallah
Biemann, ‘A Post-territorial Museum’: 169
The first was the Riwaq Biennale, organised by the Riwaq-Center for Architectural Conservation (Ramallah) and founded in 2005. See http://www.biennialfoundation.org/biennials/riwaq-biennial/. In 2012, the Riwaq Biennale operated as part of the Qalandiya International events
Chiara De Cesari, ‘Creative Heritage: Palestinian Heritage NGOs and Defiant Arts of Government’, American Anthropologist 112 (4): 625-637
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museum of manufactured response to absence and national works Ala Younis IN 2011, I WAS INVITED TO CURATE A MUSEUM COLLECTION ON THE ABSENCE OF 400,000 PALESTINIANS WHO LIVED AND WORKED IN KUWAIT UNTIL 1991 Museum of Manufactured Response to Absence (MoMRtA) is a nomadic collection of commissioned objects that conjure the fragile and fragmented, fading memory of a unique Palestinian society that emerged in Kuwait; one that contributed to and lived its national modernisation and pioneering projects. The museum’s objects conflate pieces from this past: accumulated, negotiated, dismantled and reassembled, in order to make sense of the present and propose a way to address or reclaim an unchronicled legacy. Therefore, every one of the museum’s exhibits had to be either an impossibility or an exaggeration, and to be located between two temporal markers: 1948 and 1990. These two points, of entry and departure, are marked out in A Ruler, a golden timeline of this golden age. The exhibition’s layout mirrored that of a famous Palestinian alphabet poster in which every Arabic letter corresponded to an iconic Palestinian image. In the museum, each object becomes a Palestinian letter from Kuwait. Palestinians first arrived in Kuwait as visitors involved in educational missions two years before oil was discovered in the Burgan Field in 1938. With the exploitation of Kuwait’s large oil fields triggering an influx of investments into the country, foreign labour was needed to complement the national workforce.1 Kuwait offered Palestinians to celebrate their anniversaries, produce and sell their traditional craft, speak the dialects, and fundraise for support. It might have won the hearts of many, and made them think of Kuwait as a second home. For those who left, they still speak of its time favourably or with a sad tone of regret. Palestinians have moved from Kuwait, once and forever, as a result of the Iraqi invasion in 1990. Bruno Fantoni’s artwork Buick, a wing-mirror carved from white marble, warns the visitor that “objects in the mirror are closer than they appear”.
He loves a land And leaves it. I am what I say and what I shall be; I shall make myself from myself And choose my exile. My exile is the backdrop of the epic scene, I defend the poet’s need for both The morrow and memories, […] And I defend a land kidnapped by myth. Can one return to anything? That before me drags what lies behind and hastens on; There’s no time on my watch to pen lines in sand, But I can visit yesterday As strangers do.2
In the school grounds of the Abdullah Al-Salem Secondary School, annual celebrations were held in commemoration of the establishment of the PLO. Between 1967 and 1976, many of Kuwait’s public schools held evening shifts to accommodate the large numbers of Palestinian students who arrived in Kuwait following the 1967 war. The first sentence that appears in the Kuwaiti curriculum for elementary writing and that is referenced in the notebook Copy is “Hamad has a Pencil”. In this museum, Hamad can be seen with a pencil accompanied by fellow student Humus who carries a pen in three drawings printed on 35mm transparencies installed in slide viewers. At that time, Hamad and Humus might have read and collected issues of the magazine Al Arabi, published in the museum in the form of a light box rather than in print, announcing the news of the completion of a bridge that connects Failakah Island to Kuwait City. Failakah was the subject of a series of unrealised or closed museums, and is the proposed home for MoMRtA. Within the collection too, and featured on the cover of Al Arabi magazine, is Museum, a Lego brick model depicting a museum by IM Pei, a suggestion for the design of MoMRtA’s building. Identical to those inhabited in Kuwait, architectural plans of apartments, in three or four storey modern buildings are etched in the work Home using the game Etcha-Sketch and encased in its famous red frame.
The museum’s collection is on the time of “We are all for Kuwait, and Kuwait is for us”, a famous phrase by Emir Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah (1978–2006) reiterated by nationals. The phrase is carved in gold in the form of a Necklace, that is impossible to wear as its chains are two stiff parallel cylinders that refuse to bend in order to connect its links. After a journey of more than ten hours, darkness fell. Then, the smuggler pointed to a distant group of lights and said: “That is Kuwait. You’ll be there in half and hour.” And do you know what happened? It wasn’t Kuwait…3 What is to be added to a story so that images become a translation of its words? From Kuwait, iconic Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani sent his love letters with decorated covers. In 1963, he published Men in the Sun, depicting three Palestinians dreaming of reaching Kuwait in order to secure employment. Yasser Arafat adopted his checkered kuffiyeh when he was in Kuwait. In 1957, he too, applied for a visa to Kuwait. There he worked hard to establish the groundwork for Fatah’s future financial support by enlisting contributions from the many wealthy Palestinians working there and in other Gulf States. The small coin denomination Fils (by Mesrop) grows into a special issue, centered with an opening of about five percent of compulsory deduction from Palestinian employees’ salaries paid to the PLO, the rest being spent on their costs of living in Kuwait itself. The Kuwaiti “fils” has grown to resemble the Palestinian “qursh”. Another work, Conditions, by Khadijeh Yosef, represents time at a standstill, in the form a pillow embroidered with a screenshot from an Atari video game, a symbol of the technological marvels and lifestyles enjoyed by those who lived in Kuwait at the time. Palestinians in Kuwait and Kuwaitis were indeed to be challenged by the same dangers and threats. Perhaps the most famous of these was the oil spills. Hanging from the ceiling of the museum is an electrically charged glass lighting fixture in the shape of an oil drop on the verge of leaking that happens to be a Lightbulb (by Pieke Bergmans.), while a real-size reproduction of an oil tank is presented as a Trophy (by Rebbeca Joselyn) within the museum. The museum attempts to free its objects from the confines of a specific structure or site for permanent display, favouring the rotating of its collection in exhibitions hosted by other museums and spaces both inside and outside of Kuwait. Its first exhibition, however, undoubtedly had to take place in Kuwait. An awareness of national identity, insofar as it is the antithesis of a competing identity and a precondition for confronting that alternative, demands that the Palestinian experience be documented and fixed in two forms. The first form is the duty of the writers, yet which writer is capable of writing the definitive national Palestinian history, of setting down this history in a single systematic and comprehensive volume? How can the writings of Palestinian poets and novelists be come a “national literature” in the broader social sense of the term? At this juncture the question (itself a crucial one) moves from the province of “writing” to that of national cultural policy, which preserves the historical events and objects of the Palestinian people in libraries where they continue to live.4 MoMRtA is an independent authority that reflexively poses questions on who possesses the right to produce a museum like itself. It was premiered under the patronage of Kuwait’s National Council of Culture, Arts and Letters at the Museum of Modern Art in Kuwait in May 2012.
IN NOVEMBER 2012, THE COUNCIL INVITED ME TO CURATE KUWAIT’S FIRST NATIONAL PAVILION AT THE 55TH VENICE BIENNALE A link to Sami Mohammad’s website was sent to me among other suggestions of pioneering Kuwaiti artists. On his website, I was intrigued by one image: the stories that surround and images that document the artist as he stands next to a statue of a Sheikh twice his size in a workshop were of an interesting quality; they illustrate an alternating power dynamic between an artwork and its maker, a State and its citizen, and a ruler and his subject. It was in 1988, when the private Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai Al-Aam, commissioned sculptor Sami Mohammad to produce a bronze statue of the country’s late Emir, Sheikh Sabah Al-Salem Al-Sabah (19651977). Mohammad depicted the ruler smiling with one hand raised in greeting. A fibreglass copy of this statue’s hand is prominently displayed in National Works, the exhibition on show at Kuwait’s first pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale. Alongside this hand rests a bronze bust of Sheikh Abdullah Al-Salem Al-Sabah (1950-1965), itself an early test piece of a detail from another statue by Mohammad commissioned by the same newspaper in 1971. These working models, together with other photographs and prints chosen from the artist’s studio present the visitor with partial glimpses of a unified whole, and mirror the artist’s own journey to a foundry in Basingstoke, carrying no more than a maquette of a face, from which he fashioned the finished body. Different figures that had emerged in preceding years and ones that would come out in following years sit on the same page in studies by Mohammad for a podium or platform that would bring together statues of the late 11th and 12th Emirs of Kuwait. To imagine all the thoughts that must have occurred to the artist while working on a private commission that depicts a ruler. But Sheikh Sabah Al-Salem Al-Sabah, as the sketch confirms, passed away twelve years before the statue was finished. Similar was the fate of Sheikh Abdullah Al-Salem Al-Sabah, who passed away seven years before his statue was unveiled in a commemoration ceremony. The statue of Sheikh Abdullah Al-Salem depicts the emir enthroned, his foot thrust forward, while his left arm rests on a weighty tome representing the Constitution. On the side of the throne beneath the Constitution are reliefs of a builder, worker, bureaucrat and female student, on the other side is the figure of Justice, depicted as a woman, while on the back is a sailor, and their rendering recalls Mohammad’s early works. The two statues are not famous in Kuwait, and especially not among the younger generation. Neither of them, which are very different to Sami Mohammad’s usual work, was displayed outside their site at the newspaper’s headquarters in Kuwait. The status of the statues received a boost during the Iraqi invasion of 1990, when soldiers, unable to pull them down, shot at them instead, marking them with scars that remain to this day. The artist had to flee from troops sent to ask him to make a statue of Saddam Hussein. Following the third Gulf War, a bust of Saddam himself was placed in the private Kuwait House for National Works museum. To have a statue for the late Abdullah Al-Salem at the heart of Al-Rai Al-Aam. What does this mean and what is its purpose? The answer to this question is a reality that is an unquestioned given: Because this publishing house was established in the time of the father of democracy, and the patron of development... to have a statue for him on this great anniversary—National Day, to have him to stay with us as long as Kuwait stays free, dear and generous.5 Mohammad was a volunteer with the popular Kuwaiti resistance, formed in response to threats to annex Kuwait into a Greater Iraq issued in 1961, the very year that Mohammad became a full-time artist at the Free Atelier (Al-Marsam Al-Hurr) in Kuwait. It was also the year Kuwait won its independence from British Mandate, set up a fund for Arab economic and social development with a capital of 50 million Kuwaiti dinars, and became a member of the Arab League.
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When first established in 1961, the Kuwait Fund was without precedent. Here was Kuwait, a tiny country, until recently among the poorest places on earth, establishing a development fund in the year of its political independence. While welcoming its newfound prosperity it was declaring a willingness to share its future wealth with its Arab neighbors.6 It also dispatched a diplomatic delegation (including the head of Al-Rai Al-Aam) on a tour of the Arab world in a bid to assert the independence and international standing of the State of Kuwait. As this was taking place, Kuwait itself became a ferment of new construction, creativity and political awakening. National Works disassembles symbols of grandeur in post glorious times in an attempt to re-interpret Kuwait’s modernisation project. With its oil wealth, Kuwait pioneered many of the strategies for development in industries, whether economic, educational, artistic, democratic, or built, in the Arabian Gulf. Within the country, the proportions of the built environment grew, reducing the size of individuals in relation to their surroundings. Images of figures standing amidst construction, near or on top of mega structures, operating machines triple their size, or gearing oil pipes to pump the equivalent of millions of dinars, reverberate strongly with Sami Mohammad’s celebratory act of making these honorary statues. The looks and smiles of those standing in pictures from Kuwait are mainly celebrations of the self and of the power discovered within. Here I am, receiving an honor once again, after 18 years. I have worked very hard to meet the expectations of those who entrusted me, and for one year I spent my time between my studio and a foundry in London casting the statue in bronze so that the work could be presented in a complete manner. There were certainly many obstacles, but they all disappear into the distance when I see people stand in front of my work full of admiration and appreciation. They strongly inspire me to continue working for my dear nation.7 The second part of the exhibition comprises a selection of back-lit photographs by Tarek Al-Ghoussein. The artist was born in Kuwait in 1962 to a diplomat who was part of another official delegation tasked with brokering Kuwait’s UN membership, although it would only complete its mission in 1963, after the Soviet Union vetoed its first application. In his autobiography (Five Nationalities and the Home is One, 1981), printed by the Kuwait Government Press, Al-Ghoussein’s father documents the critical period of 1961 to 1963, through details from letters and meetings, as well as his own commentary and feelings, which precipitated from the country’s energy around its recent independence. For National Works Tarek Al-Ghoussein produced a series of photographic works that are part of K Files, a larger scale project in which the artist collects and archives materials garnered from his family history, antique shops and the Internet. The photographs show the artist standing in a variety of locations in Kuwait and act as an exploration of these places and the extent to which what was produced within them constitutes National Works: oscillating between the twin poles of individual and nation. Situated in these landscapes, the artist is being measured against them, and against the very process by which the modern nation is constructed: a relationship in which power and agency alternate between producer and product. These relationships of person and place take us back to the figures depicted on Sheikh Abdullah Al-Salem’s throne.
Page 81: Hamad Likes Humus postcard Above: installation view National Works Kuwait Pavilion, 55th Venice Biennale, 2013
Here, Al-Ghoussein positions himself in the playground of the Abdullah Al-Salem School, a place which acted as a launch pad for students of many different nationalities, who would go on to run institutions both within Kuwait and abroad, then again in the Qasr Al-Salam, an architectural marvel which was used for receiving guests of State before being destroyed in the war and subsequently abandoned, and once more in the Kuwait Stock Exchange, where investment and trade perpetuate Kuwait’s fabled wealth. The great wealth created by the rise in oil prices in the 1970s led to a seemingly endless appreciation of Kuwaiti stocks; there was also a shortage of stocks to trade, which gave rise to an over the counter market in Kuwait City where shares in companies domiciled elsewhere in the Gulf were traded. The market capitalisation of the Kuwait Exchange and the Souk Al-Manakh combined ranked third in the world, behind the USA and Japan, and was greater than that of the UK, with all its foreign listed companies, despite Souk Al-Manakh’s collapse in 1982, erasing $US94 billion in paper wealth overnight, or after Kuwait’s 1987 British Petroleum’s deal was opposed by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and forced the Kuwaitis to reduce their BP holdings to 9.9%, having to sell over half of their stakes. Kuwait has long sought the assistance of contemporary pioneers in other countries to speed up its modernisation. Kuwait’s National Assembly, its white edifice looking out over the waters of the Arabian Gulf, is another site chosen by the artist. In 1969, the architect of the Sydney Opera House Jorn Utzon was invited to tender his design for the building. The State stipulated that the construction of the National Assembly be a purely local project. Utzon’s elegant solution was to conceive a building constructed of a number of identical cement units that could be cast and moved on-site. The exhibition guide contains photographs of the architect and labourers on the building site, images which starkly depict the individual surrounded by the monolithic slabs of the construction work: man against a backdrop of development projects financed by the millions of dollars flowing through the country’s oil pipelines. The building houses one of the region’s most politically active parliaments. It is known for its serious public interrogations of ministers and prominent figures in Kuwait, and the first suspension of parliamentary immunity in the country indeed was of assembly member Abdul Aziz Al-Masaeed’s, founder of Al-Rai Al-Aam Newspaper, and in the same year he commissioned the first statue.
In another image the photographer is shown on Umm Al-Ghaz, a manmade island created in the early years of Kuwaiti independence to facilitate oil drilling. In 1962, Kuwait produced almost 680 million barrels of crude oil; and made its inhabitants have the highest per capita income in the Middle East. In the background of this image we see the Kuwait Towers. It is the individual in relation to location/project/State/nation and vice versa. Perhaps all works carried out in the context of Kuwait’s modernising project take on a ‘national’ character, private and public alike: from the founding of a bank, school or construction company, through to artistic and educational endeavour. The exhibition is being held in Palazzo Michiel, an ancient palace built by one of Venice’s twelve founding families. Local heritage laws, which forbid defacing the interiors or altering their colours, have had a profound influence on choices made for this exhibition’s layout. The form the end product has taken is due in large part to the spirit of experimentation. It is impossible to be reductionist when discussing the Pavilion’s exhibition, to interpret it with preconceived assumptions based on the artists’ more famous works, where they live or the interpretations that have traditionally been associated with their output. The Kuwaiti Pavilion’s exhibition adopts the same approach to the modernisation project as it does towards the business of repairing the country’s long absence from the Venice Biennale: filtering historical, artistic and modernist narratives through the concerns of relativism, patronage, innovation, citizenship and status. And if time can be defined an element that stops things happening all at once, then a sense of time in the exhibition almost ceases to exist: the impact of a select number of artworks, compressing together the span of Kuwait’s modern history, referencing in their minutiae everything from building, decay, conflict, peace, poverty, wealth —hints at the formation of a super-moment in which, much like an encyclopedia, a sense of ‘the everything’ is seemingly catalogued within the boundaries of a single location, and all at once.8 Notes 1 The Palestinians in Kuwait in 1957 numbered 15,173 (7.3% of the population); in 1961, 37,482 (11.7% of the population); in 1965, 77,712 (16.6% of the population; in 1970, 147,696 (20% of the population); in 1975, 204,178 (20.5% of the population); and in 1981 they numbered 299,710 (20.9% of the population). In 1990, the Palestinians in Kuwait were estimated at 400,000 (18.7% of the population). Government employees have put the number of Palestinians in Kuwait following the war at 450,000. In 1995, they numbered 26,000 (0.01% of the population.) These figures are taken from Table 2.10 in Palestinians in Kuwait between 1957 and 1995 from Hassan A. Al Najjar, The Gulf War: Overreaction & Excessiveness, Dalton GA: Amazone Press, 2001 2 Mahmoud Darwish, ‘Counterpoint (for Edward Said)’ in his collection Same as Almond Flowers or Farther, Beirut: Riyad Al Reyyis Publishing, 2005 3
Ghassan Kanafani, Men in The Sun, The Arab Research Institute, Beirut, 1963
Dr. Faisal Darraj, Identity, Culture, Politics: A reading of the Palestinian condition, Amman: Dar Azmina Publishing
5 Abdul Aziz Masaeed, Director of Dar Al-Rai Al-Aam, Sheikh Abdullah Al-Salem Al-Sabah statue inauguration exhibition brochure, published by Dar Al-Rai Al-Aam, Kuwait, 1974 6
Robert McNamara, President of the World Bank 1968-1981
7 Sami Mohammad, artist statement, Sheikh Sabah Al-Salem Al-Sabah statue inauguration exhibition brochure, published by Dar Al-Rai Al-Aam, Kuwait, 1989 8 Kuwait Pavilion at 55th Venice Biennale; Kate Busby explores Tarek Al-Ghoussein and Sami Mohammad’s presentation at the 1st Kuwait Pavilion, Harper’s Bazaar Art, September/October 2013: 70-72
Top: Bruno Fantoni, Buick, 2012 Photo courtesy the artist Middle and bottom: installation views National Works Kuwait Pavilion, 55th Venice Biennale, 2013
2014 Program 31
Opening Night: 30 Jan
Opening Night: 6 Mar
Opening Night: 10 Apr
Opening Night: 15 May
Opening Night: 17 Jun
Opening Night: 26 Jun
Opening Night: 31 Jul
Opening Night: 4 Sep
Opening Night: 9 Oct
Opening Night: 13 Nov
Artist Talk: 27 Feb
Artist Talk: 3 Apr
Artist Talk: 8 May
Artist Talk: 14 Jun
Artist Talk: 24 Jul
Artist Talk: 28 Aug
Artist Talk: 2 Oct
Artist Talk: 6 Nov
Artist Talk: 11 Dec
Front Space: Avni Dauti, Sheena Colquhoun
Front Space: Michael Prior
Front Space: Next Wave Festival ECP: Rosemary Willink
Front Space: Made Spencer Castle and Alice Mathieu
Reading Room: Tully Moore World Cup Breakfast Bar
Reading Room: Tully Moore World Cup Breakfast Bar
Reading Room: Fleur Summers
Reading Room: Kate Just
Front Space, Gallery 1: Guy Benfield
Front Space: Nikos Pantazopoulos Gallery 1: Nicole Breedon
Gallery 1: Lillian O’Neil and Laura Delany
Front Space: Liquid Architecture 2014
Gallery 2: Danae Valenza
Gallery 1: Next Wave Festival: Henry Jock Walker and Tarp Space
Front Space: Arie Rain Glorie and Torie Nimmervoll
Gallery 3: Kit Wise
Back Space: Salote Tawale
Gallery 2: Bridget Ryan and Brodie Vera Wood
Gallery 3: Kieran Stewart
Gallery 1: Michelle James, Rosie Isaac, Joshua Stevens Gallery 2: Audrey Tan, Kenny Pittock Gallery 3: Jessica Jacob Back Space: Scarlett Rowe
Gallery 1: Andre Piguet Gallery 2: Baden Pailthorpe Gallery 3: Isadora Vaughan Back Space: Lizzy Sampson and Herve Senot
Gallery 2: Saskia Doherty
Front Space, Gallery 1, 2, 3, Back Space: West Space Annual Fundraiser Exhibition 2014
Gallery 1: Oscar Yanez
Back Space: Jacqui Shelton
Gallery 2: Eric Demetriou
Gallery 3: Anthony Johnson
West Space gratefully acknowledges the support of the Australian Government through the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body; the Victorian Government through Arts Victoria and the City of Melbourne through its Arts and Culture Triennial Program. West Space also receives funds from Creative Partnerships Australia
Front Space: United Collective – Keely Macarow, Neal Haslem and Mim Whiting
Gallery 3: Daniel Stephen Miller
Member of CAOs
Gallery 1: Scott Miles Gallery 2: Sean Bailey Gallery 3: Linda Tegg Back Space: Anna Higgins
Gallery 1: Sarah CrowEST Gallery 2: Akira Akira Gallery 3: Grant Nimmo
Back Space: Isabelle Sully and Lewis Fiddock
Back Space: Elena Betros
West Space is proud to present our 2014 exhibition program. Listed here is our application based exhibition program that will be presented across all of our gallery spaces throughout 2014. We are especially excited to be rent free for exhibiting artists in 2014.
Sponsors L 1, 225 Bourke St Melbourne 3000 Tues–Sat, 12-6pm westspace.org.au