Yara El-Sherbini: Forms of Regulation and Control. Curated by Naeem Mohaiemen

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YARA EL-SHERBINI Forms of Regulation and Control Curated by


November 7 - December 15, 2020 1

Other Forms of Regulation and Control, 2020 3 hygrothermographs, plastic, metal, paper, ink, human hair 16 x 33 x 8 inches each




Does the film Free Willy explore invites the audience to become free will? It’s a difficult question, an active participant in the work and one I often ask my audience. itself, prompting slow forms of At the heart of my process social action. is the question, “How can I engage a wider audience, in Increased forms of control an unexpected way?”; this is within society—heightened by a followed by, “How can I invite pandemic that has normalized this wider public to explore track and trace, alongside varied global, social, and political deepening class and racial issues in accessible ways?” My fractures—is our battleground. answer is through play, humor, We can challenge new rules, laws, and participation, making and regulations if we look at what artworks which become entry is on the periphery of human points for everyday dialogue consciousness with humor and in a myriad of ways. Through surprise. accessible formats from popular culture such as mini golf, board I don’t make work in a vacuum; games, advice columns, and pub it’s too dusty and loud. Read quizzes, I draw my audience in within the frame of site, and scramble and reshape their context, and audience, Forms worldview, from world politics to of Regulation and Control is a personal perspectives. A sense response to 2020. When the of irreverent, cheeky playfulness pandemic lockdown became allows me to engage with sharp the new normal, I put aside topics in unusual ways; lightthe high-touch show I had hearted fun isn’t my end goal, but originally planned and created is usually a large part of my mode a completely new body of work. of engagement. A light touch, These new projects were made and gently subversive approach, in physical isolation, while social 4

strife was rapidly changing the rules we are meekly playing along with. In a climate of city-wide protests against racialized violence in New York, London, and beyond, I question the current state of things, from structural racism to the manipulation of surveillance data. Yara El-Sherbini (b. Derby, works in Santa Barbara) works with humor, play, and irreverence through the forms of games, quizzes, advice, and puzzles disguised as installations. Exhibitions in London include Somerset House, Tate, Hayward Gallery, The RCA, National Portrait Gallery, David Roberts Art Foundation, National Maritime Museum, Modern Art Oxford, The Victoria & Albert, and Iniva. In Britain she has also exhibited work at Manchester Art Gallery; Arnolfini, Derby; IKON gallery, Bristol; and BALTIC, Birmingham. Other exhibitions include the Venice Biennale; Case Arabe, Cordoba; San Telmo Museum of Art, Madrid; ZKM, Germany; and Lombard-Freid Projects, New York. In 2021 she will be touring her public artwork, Arrivals + Departures, throughout the UK; and developing Kick Off, a social practice artwork with the National Trust, UK.

Acknowledgements I would like to thank Yasser, Dalia, and Lamees, for your love, support, and giving me the time to develop this new work. Thank you Aya Haidar and Davina Drummond, for guidance and feedback that continues to shape my work. Art conservators Sharra Grow, Jakki Godfrey, Kate Wight Tyler, and Chris Parker, for your kindness and time. Grace Peterson and Sydney Wylde, for giving me a prized possession: your hair. Ashley Parrilla and Anne Barkett, your support was, as always, invaluable. Marwan Kaabour, you hit the nail on the head. Naeem Mohaiemen, for the debates, advice, and collaborations over the last decade. To all the CUE team; Lilly HernFondation, Corina Larkin, and Josephine Heston, I thank you. I worked with all of you—in Santa Barbara, San Francisco, New York, and all across the UK—across time zones, through a pandemic, whilst homeschooling kids.



This Joke Kills Fascists There is a sharp irreverence, paired with lacerating wit, hidden under the surface of Yara’s process. It sits there so quietly that people often miss it, reading the projects only through the lens of interactive, public play. That is there of course, deploying the formats of the pub quiz, hidden treasure, card game, racing cars, mini golf, and knock-knock jokes. In public spaces, her audiences range from children to pensioners, leading critics to think of the work as “family friendly.” Underneath that pleasant, and pleasing, surface is roiling, dark humor and challenge, belied by her gentle tone. Even when she is dressed as a prim librarian for a project, provocation lurks underneath. Thinking of antecedents in British humor, this is not the manic energy of Fawlty Towers (1975-79), the England-shall-prevail of Dad’s Army (1968-77), or the pratfalls of Mr Bean (1990-95), though Yara has been adjacent 6

to that tradition as well. It isn’t the racially coded brio of Goodness Gracious Me (1998-2001) either, or the sad minstrelsy of Mind Your Language (1977-79), though audiences reach for that by reflex. Art criticism often looks for a box to put Yara into, but she has managed for two decades to refuse classifications and silos. From my own postcolony childhood library, the work carries the spirit of Agatha Christie’s elderly sleuth Miss Marple—Yara is looking over the garden wall and surveying the supposedly calm village, taking notes to map out the evil (and joy) under daily tedium, a set of knitting needles at the ready. Slaloming between polarities of political dystopias, I take brittle comfort from this quip, from her joke book Sheikh ‘n’ Vac (2005): Knock Knock Who’s there? Mosque Mosque who? I’m a Muslim, not a Communist

Our first encounter, at the Performance Studies International conference (2006) in London, set the mold for how I understood her ways of being. The day was dedicated to presentations on the burgeoning “war on terror,” and it was left to Yara to quietly remark, during a cigarette break, on the onstage performativity that projected each participant as personally in the crosshairs—even though we knew that by class positionality, employment, and social access, these speakers (ourselves included) were not the vulnerable class. “That’s a bit hard,” I murmured. “No, the opposite,” she replied, “I always want people to be real.”

cluster is named Tipping Point after Malcolm Gladwell. In Venice, a miniature golf course was a popular venue, but those who played it started noticing little traps; the spirit of which is also in her racing car game Roadmap for Peace (Palestine)—one of the high-touch works we had to shelve for this exhibition because of the pandemic’s sudden penalization of human contact. An early project, Auctions Speak Louder Than Words (2009), underscored social interactions infected with a raised eyebrow. Yara walked around a London art opening, charming collectors and curators, gathering their phone numbers in a little black book. People complied, mistaking her for a proactive ingenue. At the end of the evening, Yara suddenly climbed the stage and proceeded to auction off the black book. The ensuing frenzy of nervous bidding underlined the compact of art openings—the blending of sociality with networking, the instrumentalization of the introduction, and perhaps the hunger for a skeleton key.

That is at the core of what Yara has been working through, in projects that have seemingly gentle, friendly surfaces, with shards of discursive turmoil underneath. Works appear as an innocuous object and game, but start to think of the implications and your reaction will be a slight shock. The execution of A Carpet Bomb (2006)1 suggests a “cute” one-liner—a Road Runner cartoon-style bomb, covered in a Persian carpet. But spend a little That project would be impossible time looking at it, and your mind today, with everyone’s starts thinking of the term “carpet information self-published on bombing,” about who is the usual social media. Yara has already originator of that violence (not moved on to the next interIranian), and the maimed bodies vention—not going digital or in the aftermath. All that from high tech exactly, but moving this sweet object; it depends further into realms of the mind, on the beholder. The viewer always with simple interventions. who takes time to read the label Coming back to her notorious for the Hermes scarf-wearing jokes, in the process of designing skittle will remember that they this exhibition, and our recent are toppled by force, and her collaborative crossword puzzle 7

Passing Comment (2020), I was reminded how I have become conditioned by American culture wars. “You can’t say that,” I sometimes said, to which her reply was, “Well why not? We have to push a little more.” Moving from London to California, Yara has raised two children, and established the artist duo YARA + DAVINA. The two have recently taken on large public commissions in post-Brexit England. Yet her solo work is underseen, and some of that owes to the expectations of hyphenated biography. Yara refuses that move, which means not being programmed into the once-ubiquitous regional and ideo-religious themed exhibitions. Her work remains opaque to the quick and lazy reading, and she won’t compromise. The title of Yara’s website used to have a linguistic play–Y.E.S. for her initials, followed by “I’m an artist.” That affirmative “yes” runs underneath all of her sarcasm, refusal, wordplay, and doubling back. To borrow from her kindred spirit Richard DeDomenici, Yara El-Sherbini is still an artist, and that is enough.

1 Included in the 2007 exhibition, System Error: War is a Force That Gives us Meaning at the Palazzo delle Papesse, curated by Lorenzo Fusi and Naeem Mohaiemen.


Naeem Mohaiemen (b. London, works in New York) combines essays, films, photography, and installations to research the idea of elusive utopias, shifting borders, rhizomatic families, and unreliable memory. His work exhibited at Mahmoud Darwish Museum (Ramallah), Bengal Foundation (Dhaka), SALT Beyoglu (Istanbul), Tate Britain (London), MoMA PS1 (New York), and documenta 14 (Athens/Kassel). He was a 2014 Guggenheim Fellow, and a finalist for the 2018 Turner Prize and the 2019 Herb Alpert Award. He is currently a Senior Fellow at Lunder Institute of American Art, Maine, and on the board of Vera List Center for Art & Politics, New York, and the film council of ICA, London.

Is Art A Waste of Public Resources?, 2020 Archival inkjet print, edition of 5 23 x 16 inches


THIS SPREAD AND NEXT Other Forms of Regulation and Control, 2020 3 hygrothermographs, plastic, metal, paper, ink, human hair 16 x 33 x 8 inches each






OCCUPIED/FREED, 2020 Plastic, metal 3 x 2 inches


Border Control, 2015 Plastic, metal, electricity 30 x 40 x 9 inches




LEFT Yara El-Sherbini as quiz mistresss for A Pub Quiz, 2009 PAGES 20-23 Questioning, 2020 Archival inkjet prints, edition of 5 30 x 20 inches each






The Context of Now: Yara El-Sherbini’s Forms of Regulation and Control Rosa Boshier “Audience engagement is at the heart of my work,” artist Yara El-Sherbini tells me from her home in Santa Barbara, while I peer at her on a screen from my Los Angeles apartment. Even across the pixelated space, I know this to be true. As we settle into our first virtual meeting in the midst of the 2020 pandemic lockdown, El-Sherbini keenly asks me about my own creative practice before we’ve even touched upon the topic of hers. This kind of reciprocity is the driver behind El-Sherbini’s socially engaged works. Many artists have turned their attention to, as writer Ben Davis puts it, “the vogue of ‘social practice.'”1 As art fairs, museums, and galleries take tentative steps towards work about institutional equity, racial justice, and climate change, the risk is that rather than structural change, these works require no more from the audience than a cursory glance. For El-Sherbini, there is always a demand for a deeper, slow 24

immersion, whether as a solo artist, or as half of collaborative duo YARA + DAVINA, working with UK-based artist Davina Drummond on large scale public artworks. Drawing from an ever-expanding network of fellow artists concerned with the potentials of collectivity and community, El-Sherbini strives to center her viewers through humor, play, and social inquiry. In the age of COVID, organizing an exhibition without physicality is a new mode many artists are having to face. El-Sherbini's attention to engagement still facilitates connection while managing to deprioritize touch. What sets El-Sherbini apart is the alchemy of touch present in all of her works, be it literal, metaphorical, or both. “When people become physically engaged,” she says, “it changes their interaction with the artwork.” This is apparent in videos and images of visitors smiling in delight and surprise as

Operation Brexit, 2017 Plastic, metal, battery 16 x 10 x 2 inches

they engage with El-Sherbini’s interactive games. El-Sherbini’s Operation Brexit prompts audiences to extract Britain from Europe in ten seconds or less. Rooted in popular culture, the artwork converts something known, the children’s game Operation, and subverts it for political and social inquiry. Forms of Regulation and Control, El-Sherbini’s current exhibition at CUE Art Foundation, hones in on the notion of control in a time in which the world feels uncontrollable. Focusing on social conditions most acutely felt in the age of COVID-19, like increased surveillance and police presence on the streets, El-Sherbini also asks us to examine other modes of surveillance and control that go largely unnoticed.

The exhibition begins with El-Sherbini’s signature mode of investigation: to disarm her audience in a series of brightly colored questions neatly displayed in frames on the gallery walls. Using the form of questions, El-Sherbini relinquishes any position of the artist as expert by turning her art objects into a query for the viewer. This wall of inquiry evades a one-dimensional point of view. The questions, directed at current events and social assumption, are equal parts humor and critical thought: Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez was called a “fucking bitch” by Ted Yoho, a fellow member of congress. His apology included the lines “I cannot apologize for my passion or for loving my God, my family and my country.” How 25

many times this year have you apologized but not really meant it? A. Once B. More than once C. I never apologise

real engagement activate the space and thus complete the art piece. Creating an entertaining and interactive environment, El-Sherbini asks audiences to examine how they know what they know, and why.

Through the vehicle of play, The framed questions ease El-Sherbini gives participants audiences into the excavation the opportunity to exchange, of various social issues that they reshape, and widen their enter through El-Sherbini’s work. worldviews. She pushes Nodding to much-circulated news clips and public events such creative practice beyond the as AOC's famed “I am someone’s artist’s private vision and into the public realm. In this way, daughter, too” takedown of El-Sherbini positions the artist as Yoho’s misogyny on the House a service provider, generating floor, these questions prompt dialogue and debate via creative audiences to recontextualize iconic moments in contemporary production. Her works inspire a prismatic understanding of history in relation to their own various political and social issues lives, habits, and relationships. ranging from border control to institutional racism. Topics are This means of investigation is never presented as absolutes, reminiscent of El-Sherbini’s but rather, as starting points to continuing series A Pub Quiz, in re-examine our fixed ideologies which a faux-bookish El-Sherbini and perspectives decked out in thick glasses and black pencil skirt, clipboard in In many of El-Sherbini’s pieces, hand, leads audiences through the moment of contact converts an often hilarious, thoroughly the piece from an object to enthralling trivia night that an experience. Such is the draws upon everything from case with Border Control, an pop culture to racial bias. These performative trivia nights, hosted experiential sculpture originally commissioned in 2015 by the in local pubs, trouble notions of Museum of Contemporary Art knowledge acquisition through Santa Barbara, that reimagines a set of provocative trivia the game BuzzWire as the act of questions pertaining to current crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. social, global, and/or cultural Armed with a magnetic handle, contexts: How many squirrels players have one minute to cross. has Iran arrested on suspicion of If the metal of the handle touches spying? By supplying answers the metal of the sculpture, for the quizzes, audiences are warning sounds and lights are immediately animated, and triggered. Through interactivity integral to the work; it cannot and play, the piece makes exist without a community of the ephemerality of borders people. These moments of 26

accessible in a nuanced way. The piece evokes the precarity of the border, the fragility of the human lives risked to cross, and the power both wielded and implied by man-made demarcations. Facilitating touch in a touchless world, the piece reminds audiences of the invisible yet concrete ways we have been separated due to the often-arbitrary delineations of nation-states. At some point during a visit to El-Sherbini’s exhibition, audiences are bound to encounter the piece OCCUPIED/ FREED (2020), though they may not know it. This subtle intervention re-configures the gallery toilet locks to indicate “occupied” when in use and “freed” when available, provoking questions of ownership and geopolitics. The piece identifies occupation of land as a form of control, and points to how a border is implemented to regulate the movement of people. Other Forms of Regulation and Control (2020) serves as the centerpiece and namesake of the exhibition. The work spans the gallery’s main space and features three hygrothermographs. Unseen by most visitors, hygrothermographs are small machines used in all major galleries and museums to observe the environment of the space on a graph and control it to protect the artworks. These machines are often out of sight, on the periphery of the space, but here they are the artwork.

Humidity and temperature are measured by inserting a piece of human hair into the machine. These particular machines use phenotypically Caucasian hair as the baseline for monitoring the space. El-Sherbini displays the three hygrothermographs on pedestals. The charcoal grey and clear plastic machines, complete with delicate green graph paper, appear scientific in nature. Set in the middle of a quiet space save for a methodical ticking noise, the sole presence of three machines is unsettling and immediately elicits the question of what they are monitoring. In each machine the hair used has been changed to one of the three ethno-hair profiles based on race: "Asian," "Caucasian," and "African" (also classified as “Afro” in some studies). By supplying the machines with these three “scientific” classifications of ethnicity, El-Sherbini exposes racialized mechanisms in the everyday and invites the audience to monitor what happens to a space when whiteness is not the default. Graphs documenting the environmental changes recorded by each machine will be cumulatively displayed, weekto-week. Moving the machines out of the shadows and into the spotlight signals the invisible forms of regulation and control within society at large. This alluring minimalism is a simple yet powerful intervention, changing the element by which we measure the world around 27

us, and candidly displaying the results, thus raising questions about how we collect and interpret data.

with art conservators about their role in determining what work is archived and shown in exhibitions. The piece invites a critique of the larger global environment, but also the hierarchies of visibility in the art world, further destabilized by El-Sherbini’s close consultations with art conservators as opposed to curators.

Utilizing a machine that monitors temperature based on racial distinctions, El-Sherbini lays bare the racialization of science, and the way institutional power and authority are used to justify racial hierarchy. It symbolizes many fraught histories at once, an Extracting from the everyday, implicit reference to the myriad El-Sherbini upends broadly ways in which race has been used accepted assumptions about as a form of control, from Jim the world we live in. El-Sherbini’s Crow laws to recent quantitative exhibition opens up a wider demographic “insights” on conversation about historical the impact of COVID-19 in and ongoing patterns of state communities of color. The piece surveillance and power. COVIDinverts the fictions of biological 19 is unprecedented, but the racism, echoing writer Saidiya social circumstances it sheds Hartman’s assertion, “Fact light upon are age-old. Under the is simply a fiction endorsed guise of safety, certain freedoms with state power.”2 Exploring are being restricted, from who these issues makes the piece has access to education, how we profoundly current, revealing the use public transport, and where layers of social regulation present we are permitted to go. This in the treatment of COVID-19 and attention to the historical context the tracking of Black Lives Matter of now invites audiences to protests. rethink the invisible systems that separate us from ourselves and Like so many of El-Sherbini's each other. Using critical forms of works, in Other Forms of play, El-Sherbini highlights how Regulation and Control the these forms of control do not audience propels the piece. live in the abstract, but affect our The viewer literally controls the daily lives. environment; the audience’s breath changes the humidity, and thus the machines’ readings, 1 Davis, Ben. "A Critique of Social provoking a moment of change Practice Art," International Socialist through being. Review, 1 July 2010. isreview.org/ As the hygrothermographs are used by art conservators who often work behind the scenes, El-Sherbini has been engaged in critical conversations 28

issue/90/critique-social-practice-art. 2 Hartman, Saidiya. Saidiya Hartman & Arthur Jafa, Hammer Museum, 6 June 2019. https://hammer.ucla.edu/ programs-events/2019/06/saidiyahartman-arthur-jafa

This essay was written as part of the Art Critic Mentoring Program, a partnership between AICA-USA (US section of International Association of Art Critics) and CUE, which pairs emerging writers with AICA-USA mentors to produce original essays on a specific exhibiting artist. Please visit aicausa.org for more information on AICA-USA, or cueartfoundation.org to learn how to participate in this program. Any quotes are from interviews with the author unless otherwise specified. No part of this essay may be reproduced without prior consent from the author. Lilly Wei is AICA’s Coordinator for the program this season. Rosa Boshier is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her short fiction, essays, art criticism, and creative nonfiction have appeared in or are forthcoming in Joyland Magazine, The Offing, The Acentos Review, Guernica, The Rumpus, Hyperallergic, Literary Hub, Vice, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Guardian, and The Washington Post, among others. She has taught writing, Latinx cultural studies, and art history at The California Institute of the Arts, Otis College of Art and Design, and Pacific Northwest College of Art.

Mentor Dawn Chan’s criticism and journalism appears in theAtlantic.com, Bookforum, the New York Times, New York Magazine, NewYorker.com, the Paris Review, and the Village Voice, among other publications. She also frequently contributes to Artforum—where she was an editor from 2007 to 2018—and her essays have been anthologized by Whitechapel/MIT Press, ITI Press, and Paper Monument. The recipient of a Warhol Arts Writers Grant and a Thoma Foundation Arts Writing Award in Digital Art, Dawn is currently visiting faculty at Bard’s Center for Curatorial Studies.


CUE Art Foundation is a visual arts center dedicated to creating essential career and educational opportunities for artists of all ages. Through exhibitions, arts education, and public programs, CUE provides artists, writers, and audiences with sustaining, meaningful experiences and resources. CUE’s exhibition program aims to present new and exceptionally strong work by under-recognized and emerging artists based in the United States, and is committed to exhibiting work of all disciplines.


Exhibiting artists are selected via a hybrid process, featuring solo exhibitions curated by established artists, alongside a series of solo and group exhibitions selected by an annual Open Call. In line with CUE’s commitment to providing substantive professional development opportunities, curators and Open Call panelists also serve as mentors to the exhibiting artists, providing support throughout the process of developing their exhibition. We are honored to work with artist Naeem Mohaiemen as the curator of this exhibition.



Theodore S. Berger Kate Buchanan Vernon Church Marcy Cohen Blake Horn Thomas K.Y. Hsu Steffani Jemison John S. Kiely Vivian Kuan Rachel Maniatis Aliza Nisenbaum Kyle Sheahen Lilly Wei Gregory Amenoff, Emeritus

Polly Apfelbaum Katie Cercone Lynn Crawford Ian Cooper Michelle Grabner Eleanor Heartney Trenton Doyle Hancock Pablo Helguera Paddy Johnson Deborah Kass Sharon Lockhart Juan Sรกnchez Lilly Wei Andrea Zittel Irving Sandler (in memoriam)

STAFF Corina Larkin Executive Director Beatrice Wolert-Weese Deputy Director Lilly Hern-Fondation Programs Manager Sharmistha Ray Development Manager Josephine Heston Programs Associate


CUE Art Foundation's programs are made possible with the generous support of foundations, government agencies, corporations, and individuals. MAJOR PROGRAMMATIC SUPPORT PROVIDED BY The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts Anholt Services (USA), Inc. Aon PLC Chubb

Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP Clifford Chance

Compass Group Management LLC Merrill Corporation

The Milton and Sally Avery Arts Foundation, Inc. The Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation Wilhelm Family Foundation

New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature

This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council This project is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts


All artwork © Yara El-Sherbini. Cover image: Other Forms of Regulation and Control, 2020. Other Forms of Regulation and Control and OCCUPIED/FREED photography by Erica Urech. Border Control photograph by DNA Imagery. A Pub Quiz photograph by Hugo Glendinning. Operation Brexit photograph by Ben Peter Catchpole. Is Art A Waste of Public Resources? and Questioning graphic design by Marwan Kaabour. Catalogue design by Lilly Hern-Fondation.