Why, they ask, would an arts magazine have such a cover?
The cover is borrowed from a moment in the 1940s, the word “Iran” in this particular incarnation was once “Jap.” And so tales of what regime is to be taken out next, black sites, scandal, botox jobs, amorous affairs had and fortunes to be made have long been (unlikely) siblings. For it is the indeterminacy of these narratives, their impossible ambiguity and their resistance to the project of defining origin, divining the bounds of Truth/Lie, that in fact holds them so closely together.
And so, rumors. As a magazine that is not bound by the professional codes that, say a standard news broadsheet is, we try our best to spread them — all the time. “Rumor” as the theme for this, our winter issue, came about in, you could, say, the most seamless, natural manner. We commissioned writers to think about different forms rumor has assumed in the world around them — whether it be via their currency in the genre of memoir writing, their (intimate) relationship to the generation of value in the art world, or their ability to foment an extraordinary collective hypnosis. Two artists’ projects — one by The Yes Men and another by a fortuitous meeting of Bidoun editors, an artist, and a newsroom graphic designer — aim to raise questions as to the potential power of the rumor as a technology of sorts, particularly given the packaging in which it may be delivered.
In the end, where the truth(s) end and the falsities begin in this issue is for you to decide. We think those lines hardly matter. It’s the fact that these stories are being told in the first place — that we are all complicit in desiring them, willfully exaggerating, spreading them — that is perhaps most revealing.
Rumors rarely tend to stay the same the further they travel. They are subject to exaggerations, imperfections, perforations and opportunistic pruning and preening depending on who hears what at what time of the rumor’s wayward life. To this end, we started a (fallacious) rumor and sent it traveling across the virtual globe, via networks of phone-lines and email informants. We were interested in seeing how the form and the content would fall in and out of synch, and to what extent the limits of a (imagined) truth may turn out to be.
Markus Miessen (architect, London) / Shumon Basar (writer/curator, London)
Richard Rogers just announced that he will withdraw from his position as architect-in-charge of New York’s $1.7-billion Jacob K. Javits Convention Centre and instead build a “parliament for opposition” in London, spearheaded by the activist group Justice in Palestine. His decision was welcomed by London’s Mayor, Ken Livingston.“
Stephan Trueby (architectural theorist, IGMA, Stuttgart)
Just heard about it on my mailbox: Richard Rogers withdrew from his commission to build a tower on Ground Zero. Instead he wants to build something like a London parliament for Oppositional Practice to help the Palestinians. From Silverstein to Palestine… Did someone say Anti-semitism?
Ines Schaber (artist, Berlin)
Rumor speak about the political stance of Rogers and his engagement for the Palestinians. In his office, he hosts Palestinian architects and he plans to fund an oppositional parliament. His political stance is questioned. What is the role of an architect? Did somebody ever speak about building?”
Nikolaus Hirsch (architect, Frankfurt/Main)
Contemporary architects aim at more than “architecture.” So does Richard Rogers. In a redefinition of the political role of architecture, he has been engaged for the Palestinian cause; he hosts and funds Palestinian architects who are a planning a new parliament. Ultimately, the political position will have the signature of Rogers’ architecture. Is the political made out of steel and glass?
Mark Hudson (editor, Diplo magazine, London)
Architecture is no longer frozen music but is instead frozen politics. Every building that is raised or razed contains inherent political significance. Today, there can be few buildings that would carry as much political electricity as a Palestinian parliament. Richard Rogers, an architect with an open and long-standing political association with the Palestinian cause, has helped to add to this building’s political dimension by ensuring that Palestinians themselves author the design through his hosting and funding of the Palestinian architects who are working on the design for this building.
Linda Samuels (architect, theorist and educator, Charlotte, NC)
Richard Rogers is working for both the Israelis and the Palestinians, refusing to take a side. He says the role of the architect is to build on the past to create a vision for the future, yet in this case it is uncertain as to what he means. He claims it is “out of his hands,” leading many to believe he is simply following orders from a point of neutrality. Others believe instead that this means it is “in God’s hands” rather than in the hands of man, and that Rogers intends to build a metaphorical bridge, from past to present, Arab to Jew, one territory to the next…
Michael H Shamberg (artist and producer, London)
Roger is working for the Palestinians and the Israelis. He refuses to take a position. He says an architect builds on the past, for the future, but it is out of his hands. What could he mean?”
Joseph Grima (editor and curator, Domus magazine, Milan and New York)
When accused of using his profession unethically, an architect named Roger who is working on the “security fence” between Israel and Palestine apparently responded: “I believe I am working for the Israelis and the Palestinians. They will both benefit from being separated. What’s so unethical about that? In any case I’m not taking a position on this. I’m sitting on the fence. That’s what architects do.”
Raqs Media Collective (art collective, Delhi)
Roger is building for the Palestinians and the Israelis. He says architects must work for the future and the past. He doesn’t want a position to be taken. He says we must all get on with it.
Philipp Misselwitz (urbanist and curator, Tel Aviv and Berlin)
Rogers wants to be liked by everybody and earn handsomely with it. In his view, architecture should not mess with politics and architects should not be forced to take clear political positions. Unfortunately, he represents the view of the vast majority of architects.
Jose Llano (apariencia Publica Collctive, Santiago de Chile)
Rogers desea ser querido y ganarselos noblemente. Segun esta vision, la arquitectura no deberia confundirse con politicos y los arquitectos no deberian ser forzados a tomar una posicion politica clara. Desafortunamente, el representa la vision de una inmensa mayoria de arquitectos.
Eleni Axioti (writer, London)
Even if Lord Richard Rogers enjoys being liked by everyone and makes good money from such people with his projects, he nevertheless thinks that architecture should have nothing to do with politics. Fame, power and money have nothing to do with architecture. Well, that’s what most architects would like to believe.
Aristides Antonas (writer/architect, Volos/Athens)
I heard a rumor, not anything new, but here it is. I heard that Richard Rogers is against politics in architecture. He thinks architecture has nothing to do with politics and one can wonder how he manages to handle his own financial politics concerning his office. Rogers cannot understand any kind of involvement of architects in the field of politics. According to Rogers’ opinion, they say, all aspects of architecture that are not considered “purely architectural” are excluded from what architecture could be. Surveys have indicated that most architects, even if they publicly do not accept his opinion to be correct, tend to agree with his sentiment.
Tim Rienets (architect/Urban Researcher, Zurich)
I have heard that Richard Rogers is against any involvement of architecture in politics. As far as possible, he completely manages the financial politics of his company by himself. He cannot understand any involvement of architects in politics. All aspects, which are not “purely architectural” are excluded from what can said to be architecture. Most architects they say, whether they agree with him or not, would share the same sentiments about architecture.
Peter Lang (architectural theorist/cartoonist, Tuscany/Rome)
Richard Rogers was to have said that he does not tolerate politics and architecture, though he said this instructing his cook to watch his wife and her possible lovers. It can only be assumed that such is the role of a thief, who guards his tongue and dispenses of his associates as he sees fit. Richard Rogers cannot mix politics and architecture, but he does know how to eat his foot, swallow his desert, and still get the job done.
Ben Aranda (architect, New York)
Not sure if I got this right but it seems that Richard Rogers’ wife, a cook, found out that her husband, an architect, hired someone who happened to be a thief to spy on her while she spent time with a friend, who he suspected of being her lover. It turns out that he was just being paranoid so while making its way down to his belly, his foot got stuck in his mouth.
Dubai Properties Sales Center
December 9, 2006–March 15, 2007
Culture Village, Dubai’s latest luxury real estate development, launches on December 9 with a set of exhibitions of Islamic coins, miniatures, Qur’ans, and calligraphic paintings by Mouneer Al Shaarani, plus new work by contemporary artists. Significantly, several collectors based in the emirate are loaning works for the first time. Objects on show include a rare ink drawing miniature by Muhammad Siyar Qalam (“Muhammad of the Black Pen”), dating from the late 14th century.
Billed as “a unique development offering an elite lifestyle in an intellectually stimulating environment,” the Dhs50 billion Culture Village had appeared to be yet another tourist and ex-pat-oriented real estate project, with an emphasis on faux-traditional architecture and a rustic souk. All the same, developer Dubai Properties, with consultant gallery The Third Line, has gone as far as to commission new work for the grounds around the Center from sculptor Mona Marzouk, United Arab Emirates-based installation artists Haig Aivazian and Loreta Burke, and graphic designer Amna Al Zaabi. Arwa Aboun’s 150-meter-long photographic installation features self-portraits showing the artist praying for rain. The Third Line is also including work by Laleh Khorramian and Huda Lutfi. Culture Village’s first phase is due for completion in 2009. Here’s hoping contemporary art has a permanent home in the 40-million-square-foot “village.”
Walid Raad: (We Decided to Let Them Say “We Are Convinced” Twice. It was More Convincing This Way.)
Henry Art Gallery
November 10, 2006–February 4, 2007
Walid Raad’s latest project presents photographs that the artist took at the age of fifteen during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Hitherto undeveloped, Raad’s just-realized negatives reveal images of ammunition, explosions, and, perhaps most interestingly, the curious act of watching war. Here we see ordinary Lebanese viewing the not-so-distant battle in much the same manner one would view, say, a sports match. Raad photographed occupying Israeli soldiers as well, at one point inserting himself within the frame, posing with the enemy. The playfulness, normalcy, even banality, of these images is extraordinary, while the latency of the just-realized image — the very fact that the negatives sat undeveloped until now and finally appear semi-scarred before us — raises questions as to the processing of memory at large. What form had this war taken in the historical consciousness prior to the development of these negatives? What form had the images taken in the artist’s own memory? And what is the nature of the relationship between the two? Working outside of his role as arbiter of the Atlas Group — a dynamic (fictional) archive that deals with various aspects of the Lebanese civil wars — Raad extends his investigations into the relationship between document, lived memory, and conceptions/constructions of history at large.
1st Biennial of the Canaries
November 27, 2006–February 10, 2007
Biennial fetishism does not seem to be coming to an end any time soon, as every corner of the globe, no matter how far-flung, seems to be launching its own. This winter, the Canary Islands will host their first biennial of architecture, art, and landscape. Hosted by the Cultural Department of the Government of the Canaries and executed under the direction of Rosina Gómez-Baeza, the Islands’ biennial debut brings together an ambitious program of visual arts, architecture, seminars, workshops, symposia, and film spread out over the seven islands off the northwestern coast of Africa. The biennial, according to its organizers, is conceived of as a singular event that not only takes on the particular situation of the archipelago as a connecting point between the Americas, Africa, and Europe, but also takes on themes of increasingly global, contemporary significance — population growth, tourism, cultural hybridization, immigration, and the environment among them. The arts section, composed of seventy international artists and curated by Antonio Zaya, includes Adel Abdessemed, Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Allora and Calzadilla, Hamdi Attia, Kader Attia, Olaf Breuning, Regina Galindo, Kendell Geers, Ori Gersht, Alfredo Jaar, Amal Kenawy, Kcho, Mona Marzouk, Shirin Neshat, Ester Partegás, Javier Tellez, and Anton Vidokle/Julieta Aranda. A symposium program will feature discussions on such topics as Diaspora politics, the leisure industry, and the relationship between the Canaries and sub-Saharan Africa. Participants in the symposium program, to take place in late November, include curator Catherine David, Tunisian essayist Abdelwahab Meddeb, Rabat-based gallerist and art critic Abdellah Karroum, Alexandria-based critic and cultural organizer Bassam El-Baroni, New York University African film specialist Manthia Diawara, and Cornell University professor and curator Salah Hassan.
December 2–14, 2006
Billed as a “working artists’ summit,” Fenenin El-Rahhal had its origin in Tokyo during the opening of the ‘Africa Remix’ show. Curator Simon Njami, artist Lara Baladi, and other participants debated how and where to continue the conversations and “creative encounters” provoked by the show; thanks to Baladi, they ended up in Egypt’s Western Desert. Thirty practitioners, including artists Bili Bidjocka and Ingrid Mwangi and writers Maria Golia and Rasha Salti, will trek for seven days, aiming to experience a “fleeting utopia” and reclaim the desert’s potential as a site for cultural exchange. The caravan will end up in Cairo for a four-day public conference at the Townhouse Gallery, coinciding with the Cairo Biennial and associated events. While the emphasis will be on process rather than outcome, the aim is to discuss issues and possibly make work based on the notion of territory. The organizers are inviting those interested in the project to contribute before, during, and after the event via a web forum.
Lapdogs of the Bourgeoisie
November 10, 2006–January 14, 2007
Curators Nav Haq and Tirdad Zolghadr continue their long-term exploration of the role of class in the production, direction, criticism, and dissemination of contemporary art in the delectably titled Lapdogs of the Bourgeoisie. Featuring ten artists, the show runs at Gasworks until January 14, 2007, and is then set to tour, developing local content as it goes, to Platform Garanti, Istanbul; Tensta Konsthall, Stockholm; and Cairo (venue to be confirmed). Maintaining that this yearlong research and exhibition project is an open question, proffering no foregone conclusions, the curators are aiming to investigate “how socioeconomic background still defines one’s career — and to what point this career might reflect or consolidate the very hierarchies in question.” The artists — Annika Eriksson, Chris Evans, Sylvie Fleury, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, San Keller, Hassan Khan, Michelle Di Menna, Marion von Osten, and Erkan Özgen and Sener Özmen were selected for their particular methodologies and analytical approaches, rather than for any previous engagement with the subject.
KargART Video Festival
Interdisciplinary cultural center KargART will launch its second international video festival in February 2007. Artist Gözde İlkin and curator Irmak Arkman, co-organizers of the event, are currently calling for entries in any format “outside the mainstream” — including short videos, animation, audio-videos, installations, performance and dance videos, documentaries, and video poems; the deadline is December 15, 2006 (email [email protected] for details). The organizers are also inviting participating artists to propose ideas for live performances and gallery installations, to appear alongside the running, single-channel program of video work.
Refreshingly, the festival aims to look simply at video as an art form, “freeing artists from rules, limitations, and concerns about ‘creating concepts.’” KargART has been set up as an alternative to Istanbul’s traditional cultural and tourist center, Taksim. Located in Kadıköy, the organization aims to support local practitioners alongside exhibitions of alternative work by international artists.
Basem Mansour: Fish Don’t Apologize
Albareh Art Gallery
February 8–11, 2007
An audio artist, Mansour composes pieces of electronic music first, adding installation and photographic elements later. Fish Don’t Apologize made its debut at Kuwait’s Dar Al-Funoon in February 2006. A year later, he has reworked the show and is presenting it in Bahrain, this time alongside collaborator Fritzi Metzger’s vast manipulated photographic prints of street scenes stretched and repeated, sometimes into abstract obscurity. Fish is a sensuous experience: a video piece is projected down onto dripping bath water; sardine cans with hidden speakers hang from the ceiling. Metzger’s best prints are pure nostalgia, recording Kuwait’s towers and offices dating from the 1960s and 1970s, that now face demolition, making way for new high-rises.
Kamrooz Aram: Night Visions and Revolutionary Dreams
Oliver Kamm 5BE Gallery
February 16–March 17, 2007
In Kamrooz Aram’s world, revolutionary mantras pale in the light of day and exalted heroes fall at the bat of an eyelash. In his latest show at Oliver Kamm Gallery, the New York-based artist presents a series of drawings and paintings that engage with the delicate creation of visual traditions — whether mythical, political, or spiritual — through symbols. Though he appropriates iconic imagery, Aram’s works are not fixed in a particular place or time; his highly stylized, verging on psychedelically abstract paintings and drawings are as diverse as his references — alluding, often in oblique manner, to everything from the Book of Revelation to Rastafari to contemporary war propaganda. Whatever the content, it is the monolithic worldview, the full-proof ideology, and the myth of advancement that are at stake here. An extension of his last series, which took the glorified nature of the Star-Spangled Banner as a point of departure, he subtly interrogates how we create and, finally, consume meaning — the layers within layers of his canvases exposing the constructed nature of the world around us.
Share Kabul Zoo: Staring agog at the lone Norwegian pig
In the suburbs of West Kabul, where the worst of the civil war once raged, lies a curious gem. Nestled among buildings still riven with bullet holes is an incongruously smart red-brick entrance bearing the words bagh-e vahshi, literally “wild garden.” Compared with many other sites in this city, such as, say, the bombed-out Darulaman Palace or the looted Museum of Kabul, Kabul Zoo is something of a miracle. For a small entrance-fee, families gather here weekly to appreciate the best of their local fauna, much of it hunted to extinction in the wild.
It’s not your average zoo experience. In addition to the unique collection — 116 Afghan and international animals — there’s an air-gun shooting gallery and a drizzle of sheep and goats wandering in from the street. It also isn’t always the most heartening sight: the vultures, with their enormous wingspans, look cramped; the brown bear is bored to distraction; and the wolves that howl from their tiny cage are nothing if not forlorn. The macaques, at least, are doing well. On a huge concrete climbing frame surrounded by a moat, they are, literally, laughing.
Set up in 1967 with the help of German zoologists, Kabul Zoo once boasted 200 animals, including a snow leopard, a near-extinct goitered gazelle, and a Caspian tiger. Largely unscathed in the 80s, the zoo hit problems during the civil war. Fighting in West Kabul destroyed many of its buildings, flattened nearly the entire district of Demazang, and dusted the site with unexploded ordnance. With no electricity or water and a bombed-out medical supply unit, it was a miracle that Aga Akbar, then director, managed to keep the place open at all.
The Taliban, who took the city in 1996, couldn’t see the point of the zoo. They stoned the animals and decided to kill them all. Then someone suggested that the Prophet loved animals and kept pets himself. So they allowed the zoo to continue, and it became popular with soldiers on leave from the front, who came to throw snowballs through the bars.
In all of Kabul Zoo’s collection, nothing has aroused such international fervor as Marjan the lion, who tugged at heartstrings and was a poignant symbol of the country’s suffering. Born in 1974 in Cologne, Germany, Marjan was donated as a two year old to the Afghans. Then one day in 1993, the twelve-year-old lion was basking inside with his mate, Chucha, when a soldier entered his cage on a dare. The protective Marjan pounced, and the man died within minutes. His brother, in revenge, threw in a grenade. Thinking it was food, the lion went to have a look, and it blew up in his face. Amazingly the beast survived, losing only an eye, some teeth, and his hearing. In old age, he looked battle-scarred, having survived two revolutions, jihad, civil war, twenty-eight freezing winters, and stoning by the Taliban. He died peacefully in 2002, just months before coalition forces made their way in. Other animals were not so lucky. One brown bear, Donatella, was discovered with a gunshot wound to her leg and a slashed nose (Taliban again). She died later from a related infection.
Oddly enough, the zoo persists as a popular distraction in a city with few entertainments. An average of 5000 visitors make their way to its grounds with each passing weekend, many of them munching on peanuts, staring agog at the lone Norwegian pig. With opium harvests at an all-time high, coalition forces sputtering, and the Taliban angling for a comeback, the zoo somehow remains an island of tranquility, albeit bizarre, in a land that is no stranger to turbulence.
Share Afghans in India and One Hotel’s Curious History: Bungalow in Bhogal
73 Masjid Road
New Delhi, India
0091 24374603, 24371482
Hotel Kabli is a ramshackle colonnaded bungalow tucked in the crowded folds of Delhi’s history. Behind it lie the congested lanes of Bhogal, one of the many pastoral villages engulfed by the postcolonial growth of the capital. Before it lies the restless (and increasingly vertical) real estate of Jangpura Extension, originally a refugee colony carved out of fields and scrubland to accommodate some of the thousands of Hindu and Sikh citizens who fled east from Lahore in 1947, as similar numbers of Muslims were driven west. Trains run past the hotel’s garden wall all day, the lament of their horns an almost ludicrously sentimental reminder of the histories of exile and homecoming that swirl around the stillness of this unlikely half-acre of New Delhi.
I know the Kabli is an anachronism, but I forget that as soon as I step through its gates — even when I see the Farsi Western Union sticker on the reception window, even when Inder Bir Singh, the young Sikh proprietor who has just shaken my hand, turns to address one of his guests in gentle, fluent Dari. And even though it’s now easier to get a macchiato doppio in this city than it is to come by a glass of the pale green Afghan tea that has just been placed before me.
Just entering these grounds, just the scent of this tea, is all it takes to remind me of the forgotten history that binds Delhi and Kabul. Not the history lesson of when the Mughal emperor Babur took Delhi (1526), or the Sikh Maharaja Ranjit Singh reached the gates of the Khyber Pass (1835), but of the ties that bind ordinary Afghans and Indians. Inder Bir’s grandfather, Pritam Singh, built this bungalow in 1947. “We had our own kiln, and every brick in the building is stamped PSK,” I’m told. K for Kabli, because Pritam Singh came from Kabul, where the family had lived — and continued to live — for generations.
Pritam Singh came to Delhi in 1920 to live with an uncle and receive an “English medium” education. He stayed on to make (and lose) a fortune as one of the contractors who built New Delhi. In 1942 he won a contract to build the runways of Palam (now Indira Gandhi International) Airport. He built the Bhogal bungalow as a guesthouse for his employees but came to live in a corner of it when he lost most of his money in a bank collapse — one of the minor casualties of the 1947 Partition of India. He returned to Kabul in 1969 to visit his dying mother, and his relatives convinced him to set up a guesthouse for Afghans in Delhi.
The hotel has thrived ever since, despite — or perhaps because of — the turbulent fortunes of Kabul. “Ninety-nine point nine percent of our guests are from Afghanistan,” says Inder, as his father Sukhbir Singh shows me the bulky ledger recording their Afghan guests: 2796 guests between May 23, 2002 and August 8, 2006.
Sukhbir and Inder Bir grew up in the Hotel Kabli. Although the last of the clan fled Kabul after the Taliban takeover in 1996, Inder Bir visited the Afghan capital in 2004. “I was overwhelmed,” he tells me. “I grew up with these people, and in Kabul news spreads fast. I met so many of our old friends.” “Hotel Kabli is world famous in Kabul,” I quip, and Inder Bir smiles.
On the day of my visit, all twenty rooms are occupied by Afghan families, mostly long-term guests. Some come for medical treatment, others to pass the winter. The rooms are clean and simply furnished. I’m disappointed to see false ceilings obscuring the high eaves, but I’m told they make the air conditioners more effective. AC is a luxury in a hotel where rooms cost just Rs 350–800. But I prefer the simple pleasures of the lawns and the catering, which is mostly self-catered, supplemented by two daily deliveries of fresh and deliciously hot two-foot naans from the Afghan bakery in nearby Lajpat Nagar.
As I leave, I’m introduced to one of the guests, Maliha Niyazi. She’s here to enroll her son in a local school, for an English medium education. When I hear she’s come from Minden in Germany, I’m as overcome as Inder Bir was in Kabul. My grandfather ran a hotel — Hotel Friese — not too far from Minden. How does she like the Kabli? I ask her in German. “Ganz toll,” she says. (“Super!”) Hotel Kabli is world famous — and not just in Kabul.
Share Introducing Cassius Al Madhloum: Apples and Beefsteaks
“You need to paint apples and beefsteaks. They fill you up, and then you get to sell the paintings, so what you have is art education as food supply, you know what I’m saying?” “Cassius” Al Madhloum speaks in a staccato rumble of enjoyable associations, the downtown Zurich bistro Café Perla filling with his marvelously deep, croaky voice, more typically associated with the patrician poise of strong silent types than the nervous soliloquies bubbling over in front of me. Cassius is a Jenin-born painter, a recent addition to the professional art circuit, first in the Middle East and the Maghreb, and now, possibly, Europe. Conversations with Zurich galleries are ongoing, hands are being shaken, proseccos sipped, nodding smiles exchanged, while friends are making the introductions (no, don’t bring any jpegs, just smile and do your croaky-talking-charm thing).
Cassius’s oeuvre has often been called “very formal” in temperament. Although empowered by the belief that it doesn’t take that much to paint, Cassius’s formalism is more heavy metal than flippant. His finest paintings include dabs of fluorescent red, silver glitter, glossy tape, or fields of darkest noir, which give a modern touch to the considered presence of international painterly traditions conveyed by drips, blobs, bars and bands. The thrust of what he terms “verisimilitude as gentle magic” is conveyed by the many subjects drawn from Arab and Iranian modernism, sometimes evoking the ways in which the mass media employ the same motifs. All in all, his work forms a handsome, if at times exaggeratedly conceptual reflection on the inevitability of reference.
Cassius doesn’t really admit to what are commonly termed artistic influences; instead, there are a number of artists — Thomas Kippenberger, Ingrid Serven, the late Leyla Al Mutanakker among them — whom he acknowledges as “role models.” He doesn’t respect his mentors for their artistic output (“Leyla, god bless her, she was many things, a designer, a marvelous cook, but she was not an artist”), but rather “for a way of harnessing the notion of art and bare life, art as bare life, not bare life as in [Italian philosopher] Agamben’s biopolitical gulag claptrap bullshit, but bare life as an existence perpetually on the margins of the institution. Taking life seriously through art, art as a model for doing and thinking, you know?”
Cassius has just stopped smoking, only last month, and his eyes are following every cigarette I light, to the ashtray and back. “So, Tirdad, have you read any Faouzi Rouissi? Rouissi is the man who introduced cultural studies to the Maghreb, dozens of studies of pop culture histories — I mean, he was the one who proved that Tunisians doing hip hop were not simply idiots, [that it was] not just false consciousness. I even came across an article where he’s tracing the science fiction paradigm in Arab soft rock.” He pauses, checks his watch, and I know I need to regain control of the interview but can’t bring myself to interrupt the captivating coffee table Castro show. “And so I attended a lecture of his in Tehran with my brother, my academic of a brother, and would you believe it, we couldn’t stay because my brother, of all people, was saying it was a bunch of university types trying to cash in on street cred.”
Cassius is wearing a corduroy suit of dark olive green, a new pair of Nikes and a heavy silver watch that makes clanging noises every time he emphasizes a point by thumping his left hand, usually twice, on the coffee table. Both Cassius’s parents are Palestinian. His mother, a housewife and an amateur boxer, once offered free daily lessons to women in the neighborhood, which explains both the pen name and the boxing glove leitmotif in the artist’s work. Cassius’s father was once a PLO functionary, eventually moving on to become a public relations liaison for the Norwegian consulate, and is now retired, working part-time as Cassius’s long-distance studio assistant. “I call him up and say, ‘Baba, I need something about space and time and technology, something with a ladder, something silvery you know,’ and he goes and paints it.”
Cassius emigrated from Jenin when he was eighteen, now living and working in various places in Tunis, Beirut, and even Tehran, where he just spent two years living with said brother, now a faculty member at Tehran University’s department of mechanical engineering. “So listen, do you know any Palestinian jokes? No? What a shame. We’re untouchable. No one makes Palestinian jokes in public. Not here, not in Tehran, not in the Arab world. Maybe in Israel. We’re noble victims, so no jokes. Anyway. A Palestinian, an American, and a Chinese walk into a restaurant…”
The joke is pleasantly xenophobic and quite uplifting. Very Bidoun.
“Listen, I’m going to tell you about this new project. You know they want to invade Iran any moment right? Well, me and this Swiss artist friend of mine, we’re opening a bar. All the whiskeys and Baileys and grappas and Johnny Walkers and Malibus lined up. The wallpaper, the furniture, the sound system, everything on standby. CD player on pause. The moment the troops come in, we just press play. So it’s a sort of temporary sculpture called Joseph Beuys Who the Hell is Joseph Beuys.” Cassius cracks his knuckles, twice. “I’m even talking to these guys who might do a band, called Cara-OK. They’re going to do medleys of hip hop classics, American underdog muzak from Public Enemy to Run DMC to B.I.G., just for the troops, right, because their music is our music, too.”
What Cassius’s supporters, even the undying enthusiasts, don’t know, is that over the last two years his most faithful clientele has been the Tehran lumpenbohemia, from the heroin dealers to the quasi-prostitutes to the fanzine philosophers. Cassius makes no attempt to keep this a secret. “They pay me with nighttime lessons in postexistentialism and street hermeneutics and sexual favors and amphetamines and so on. Sometimes we all wind up together around the kitchen table, sitting around having ultradeep conversations where we redesign the world from scratch.” He chuckles, a melancholic little chortle, and opens the Bidoun in front of him. “Apples and beefsteaks,” he mumbles, leafing through the magazine until he reaches an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist. “Art education as food supply.”
Share Iranian Pop Phenomenon Javad Yassari Caught on Film
One of the very few perks of being an Iranian these days is having the chance to sit back and take a good look at yourself in the mirror. You can find, acknowledge, and accept flaws, or fall in love with parts you like. (There’s more to being an Iranian, after all, than wearing chador or chanting angrily.)
Like what, you ask? Well, we have a chopped salad history of various religions and traditions, dressed in Arab, European, and more recently American culture. Despite our diversity, though, these days we’re shunned by pretty much everyone.
As a people, we Iranians have brought down dynasties, sabotaged revolutions, and fought wars, but we’re always caught by surprise when we’re invaded, oppressed — or shunned, for that matter — even though, as with any other old culture, it’s happened countless times. The difference between us and everyone else is our terrible documentation problem — along with our endless rewriting of our own history. Everyone in Iran is a talking head without airtime.
One example of what often gets erased in this endless historical revisionism is the existence of a pre-Revolution Iranian nightlife. Clubs, discos, musicians, performers, dancers, bars, and their patrons disappeared less than six months after members of the old regime headed for the hills. The shock of the Revolution and then the bloody eight-year war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq were distracting enough that everyone failed to see how losing some liquor stores could turn almost every other home into a mini-bar. And how the work of a few mediocre singers in nightclubs could transform our traditional music.
Enter a new film about the bazaari legend Javad Yassari. In a culture that doesn’t have a word for entertainer, someone like Javad has no right to exist. I’m not championing his work’s artistic value (if it has any). My issue is with the fact that he has been denied airtime for the past twenty-seven years, deemed, along with his contemporaries, both inappropriate and irrelevant. Now, a generation after the Revolution, we still don’t get pop music. We’ve had to reinvent popular music again, and again, and again. At the end of this broken chain of musical experimentation is contemporary Iranian pop music, based in Los Angeles, featuring bad imitators singing like pre-Revolution performers about things that don’t matter.
Javad Yassari’s portrait could illustrate the words “Iranian kitsch” in any encyclopedia. He dresses funky; looks like one of Saddam’s generals; sings cheesy songs about love, love, and love; and generally provokes all the testosterone-driven, manly aspects of one’s character. Did I mention the uncontrollable urge to dance like a truck driver? Very Iranian! (The Iranian side of us that we don’t speak of in front of non-Iranians.)
Tehran-based British writer Coco Ferguson became so fascinated by Javad’s myth and character that she set out to produce a film, looking back at his days as a national star in the 1970s and documenting his current work, including occasional stints as the main attraction at a “Persia Night” in one of Dubai’s dodgier downtown hotels. The documentary is mostly shot and directed by Bahman Kiarostami — another Javad admirer and a witty observer of what goes on in the boiler room of Iranian culture these days. In Dubai, the producer-director team spent evenings documenting Javad’s residency at a nightclub, where he excelled in his (somewhat downfallen) role as entertainer to Iranian nostalgists, businessmen, and traders busy drowning their sorrows, as well as slightly haggard ladies of the night.
The project is a long-term game — especially since Javad is ultra-hesitant and cautious about where and how he’s documented. Like almost all contemporary pop artists still living in Iran, he is alternatively ignored and banned by the Iranian authorities, but loved and admired by his peculiar fan base (truck drivers, as mentioned, and drunk North Tehran youth).
Despite the bans on pop and his paltry Dubai pay, Javad has managed to survive by running a small, one-man electronic appliance store in southern Tehran as a front, always choosing his next gig with a lot of caution. In many ways, his life story is as hilarious to watch as it is sad.
Films such as Kiarostami and Ferguson’s help turn myths into reality. As a result, yet another piece of “unknown” can be filed in the “known” file cabinet, helping the likes of me sidestep the ditches my father and his generation just crawled out of.
Not to forget the music: I think Javad Yassari’s brand of kuche bazaari singing is as organic and original as our hand woven carpets, and fun to listen to… But you’ll find that out for yourself when the documentary is released mid-2007.
In a popular TV commercial for Nokia, actor Gary Oldman proclaims with a blazing casualness that “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Indeed. In an ever-expanding world of wireless communication, internet addiction, and online communities, the Shakespearian quote resonates in many more ways than it used to.
MKMAEL is the title of Mahmoud Khaled’s ongoing, process-oriented art project, launched towards the end of 2004. The stage this young artist from Alexandria has chosen is the intangible platform of the world wide web. MKMAEL is also the nickname Khaled uses as a login for the instant messaging system from which he communicates and shares conversations with male contacts from the Middle East. The letters that make up this nickname are the first letters of the artist’s full name as featured in his Egyptian state identity card.
The many taboos and long-held assumptions surrounding sexual orientation and sexual identity in the Middle East have helped to create an artistic climate in which same-sex relationships and gayness are most usually referred to through the filters of self-censorship, metaphors, and other coded forms. The MKMAEL project is a discursive attempt at exploring the psychological and sociopolitical aspects of sexual identity construction and reconstruction in chatrooms. When eventually presented to the public, MKMAEL promises to be one of the first art projects emerging from the region to discuss issues pertaining to the psychology of cyberspace and cyber-relationships in the Middle East.
Over the span of the last two years, the part-fictional character MKMAEL has had both short-term and long-term online relationships, although to preserve his anonymity and to remain as emotionally uninvolved as possible, he never uses a microphone, real pictures of himself, or a webcam — and, of course, he never shows up on real dates. Khaled began the project with the intention of keeping it purely text-based, but gradually he discovered that the introduction of specially designed avatars added to one-on-one dialogues the compelling power of the image and the almost infinite possibilities of self-representation. The driving force behind the endless hours of instant messaging is, as Khaled puts it, “a pressing need to create documents, eventually leading to the creation of an archive that seriously represents and disambiguates this type of relationship and interactivity.”
The dialogues attest to the online reciprocation of lies, hidden desires, twisted social logic, and feelings of alienation among MKMAEL and his “buddy list.” MKMAEL delineates the boundaries between interaction in physical space and interaction through electronic interfaces in an attempt to demonstrate the inscrutable nature of reality in these rooms without walls.
It is in chatrooms that we find definite symptoms of the topsy-turvy world Debord foresaw in The Society of the Spectacle, a world where “the true is a moment of the false.” Throughout endless streams of text, Khaled plays a multitude of roles. For his fellow chatters, he is MKMAEL, a trans-local character with whom they can make conversation; for us he’s a cyber-situationist and contextualizing social agitator.
The MKMAEL archive is nearing completion, and Khaled has his ambitions set on premiering the project in the second half of 2007. “The installation,” as the artist describes it, will feature a structural presentation of the MKMAEL dialogues as process, document, and visual representation. Anticipating its public unveiling, one wonders whether MKMAEL will be food for controversy or food for thought, hoping that the latter will be the case.
Share Institutional Self-Censorship and Religious Sensitivity: Preemptive strike
Despite its principal association with repressive regimes, censorship is a recurrent topic of debate within cultural spheres worldwide. In Europe, in particular, the debate has recently entered more treacherous terrain. Religion, or rather, what has been interpreted as blasphemy and religious mockery, has now become the cause of most public complaints against the arts, having rapidly overtaken sex and violence to assume the number one spot. Jerry Springer: The Opera, for example, became a recent cause célèbre: before the musical was aired on the United Kingdom’s BBC Television — adapted from the original production, which debuted at London’s Battersea Arts Centre — word spread that the show included an overweight black Jesus, dressed as a baby, along with tap-dancing Ku Klux Klan members.
By the time TV airing came round, the BBC had received over 55,000 complaints, and its offices were being picketed by protestors. In this case, the BBC stuck with its decision to air the production, citing it as an example of work that had a right to be challenging in its intentions. But would they have been so bold if the production had mocked Allah, or the Qur’an? Highly politicized sensitivities, and the prevalent “fear factor” when it comes to Muslim communities, have contributed to a spate of self-censorship by European arts institutions.
Hotly debated incidences at Tate Britain and the Deutsche Oper come to mind. A display of work by John Latham at Tate Britain in September 2005 originally included God Is Great, an installation consisting of a large sheet of thick glass with copies of the Qur’an, the Talmud, and the Bible apparently embedded within it. Produced ten years prior to the 2005 show, the work is part of Tate’s permanent collection. At the last moment, it was removed from Latham’s exhibition due to concerns around political and religious sensitivities following the July 7, 2005, terrorist attacks on the London transport system. Latham was evidently upset by the decision to veto his work, citing that the work’s premise was that all religious teachings come from the same source, and insisted that a label be included in the show, explaining why the work wasn’t on display. The artist subsequently demanded that the work be returned to him from the Tate’s collection. The gallery, meanwhile, responded by defending its decision, expressing fears that the work would somehow be misrepresented and be given a political dimension that the artist had never intended.
A year later, Deutsche Oper came under critical fire for its decision to pull its scheduled run of Hans Neuenfels’s production of Idomeneo. The contemporary interpretation of the Mozart opera included an additional scene in which King Idomeneo presents the severed heads of the Greek God Poseidon, Jesus, Mohammed, and Buddha. Again, the opera was cancelled due to its apparent potential to cause offense to Muslims. Not that there had actually been any public complaints: the cancellation was triggered by a frightened opera-goer, who phoned the police after seeing it, fearing that it would trigger an extreme response from the Islamic community. This led to a furious debate in the German media over the right to freedom of expression in creative practice, with even German Chancellor Angela Merkel weighing in, commenting on the dangers of self-censorship borne of the fear of political incorrectness.
What is interesting, and of concern, about both Tate and Deutsche Oper examples is that their self-censoring actions were purely preemptive. In both cases, not a single person of Muslim faith had complained, yet commentators on the political right saw fit to describe the cancellations as “giving in to the terrorists.” The presentations were censored purely out of fear of the possibility of attracting the attention of those they might consider to be religious ideologues and grievance-mongers. As it happens, Muslim groups also raised their voices in criticism of the effects of these self-censoring moves. Regarding the removal of the Latham work at Tate Britain, for example, the Muslim Council of Great Britain commented that “sometimes presumptions are incorrectly made about what is acceptable to Muslims, and this is counterproductive.”
The idea that public institutions have somehow to maintain political neutrality is, of course, a fallacy. Museums, galleries, and other cultural institutions in Europe by necessity, and in keeping with their public funding, engage with the neoliberal agenda. Yet their very contemporary intentions to connect with artists’ political and social concerns often sits at odds with this. Could it be that institutions are not only preempting a critical response from Muslims, but are also preempting possible censorship from a higher authority? There have been many cases of city authorities censoring, or attempting to censor, works of art — from Mayor Giuliani trying to prevent Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary from being presented at the Brooklyn Museum, to Gregor Schneider’s Venice Cube (a 50-meter-high black monument shaped like the Ka’aba — being banned from San Marco square and the 51st Venice Biennale by the Venetian authorities, due to fears that it could turn the city into a target for terrorists. Have these high-profile acts of censorship by political leaders caused institutions to be more cautious with their presentations? It would seem so.
Occupying a contested space between political authorities and the public, museums and galleries can find themselves in a tough position — but perhaps it’s time that they themselves took on the role of debating the inadvertent effects of preemptive self-censorship on culture and society. After all, isn’t it the role of the arts to stimulate open debate, to create a space beyond the neat confines of realpolitik? The international media spotlight, vis-à-vis the curbing of freedoms of expression in the cultural sphere, tends to be trained on “the East.” Yet censorship when self-imposed is still censorship, and European institutions are lapped by particularly murky waters. The process by which exhibitions are “adjusted” and operas cancelled exposes the dominance of hearsay and fear over informed debate. Perhaps even more seriously, it also exposes mainstream cultural institutions’ lack of outreach, and channels for dialogue, when it comes to those stakeholders commonly defined in blanket terms as “the Muslim community.”
Share In Between the Public, the Work, and the Artist: Bojan Sarcevic: Understanding what you do
Bojan Sarcevic has contrasted Oriental muqarnas (details in Islamic architecture) to Occidental gothic architectural fragments. He has asked a Turkish maqam ensemble (a maqam is a traditional set of notes in Arabic music) to interpret a tune by Nirvana, along with other pieces of popular western music. Displacement, as well as a search for renewed semiotic tools, is a leitmotif in the art of the Berlin-based Bosnian-French artist.
In To what extent should an artist understand the implications of his or her findings? the polemical articulation of inquiry itself is a work of art. Using discussion and seminar settings, Sarcevic creates a platform from which to investigate the control of the artist over her or his work’s meaning, as well as the mediation between the artist, the work, and the audience. An invitation to realize an exhibition piece in collaboration with the Dublin-based Project Arts Centre and The Model Arts & Niland Gallery led to a discursive seminar and related activities in the spring of 2006, including film screenings and a very recently published book with transcripts of the discussion. The participants — Annie Fletcher, Will Bradley, Jan Verwoert, and members of the Otolith Group — were invited by the artist to elaborate on the given topic. At some point, all the operational terms were questioned and issues of intention, ethics, attitude, and legitimacy addressed.
“Once a work is done, it belongs to the public,” states Sarcevic, clearly aware of the instant fulfillment of this proclamation, when he was posing his initial question earlier. “How could an artist claim the authority to impose a meaning on a work?” And then, what is the source of meaning? Is it immanent, resonating within a concept, or is it rather that the context, time, and environment, with its social meaning, charge the structures with content?
As a visual contribution to the same project, Sarcevic realized “subtle interventions” on the walls of the space — templates that seem to be investigated by fragile constructions the artist refers to as minuscule instruments. They seem both exploratory and archaic, formed in brass, a material reminiscent of a past elegance of expressionist interiors but also of nautical tools, like objects invented by a Cartesian mind, placed atop landscapes seen from a satellite perspective. Similar spatial arrangements can be found in the artist’s recent installation, Sometimes a man gets carried away — maps created by décollage, paper seemingly torn off in a vandalizing act, leaving monochrome territories of rough fjords on the surrounding walls and sculptures that appear like schematic topographic maquettes — again, one finds an orchestrated use of tools to allow for an ambiguous investigation of form.
Previous sculptural works were inspired by the period of expressionist architecture “from the time it was not yet in the service of industry, but more referential to art and nature,” which according to the artist provides him with a “pool to serve from.” Replace the Irreplaceable is one, perhaps more telling, example. At first glance, the piece might remind you of an exaggerated model of Eric Mendelsohn’s Schocken Department Store in Stuttgart, which was torn down in the 1960s. In its monumental attitude, combined with anthropometric measurements, it performs a dynamic gesture that embodies the visionary approach of a generation of architects who coined the master narrative of modernist ideology. Then again, Sarcevic’s isolated interior fragments claim autonomy and somehow recall what Robert Smithson wrote about the works of colleague artists in an essay from 1966: “Instead of causing us to remember the past like the old monuments, the new monuments seem to cause us to forget the future… They are not built for the ages, but rather against the ages… Both past and future are placed into an objective present.”
Sarcevic’s latest sculptural prototypes seem part of one ongoing work in progress. The decision to assign his concern to the realm of open debate and declare the setting an inclusive work of art, allows for yet another lens through which form and meaning can be translated.
The international auction houses are, naturally, grand masters in the art of hype and hyperbole. Following Christie’s first auction in the Arab world, of modern and contemporary art in Dubai in May 2006, dealers, artists, and the media followed suit, hailing this as the most important development in the art market since the “discovery” of Chinese contemporary art, and as evidence that there is a burgeoning regional market for regional art. Doubling pre-sale estimates, the sale of Indian, Arab, Iranian, and western art reached $8.5 million, with fifty-three new artist records set, including eight for the soaring Indian market.
Few established Indian buyers had made the short trip from Delhi or Mumbai, but a clutch of Gulf-based collectors, several new to contemporary art and the auction process, were willing to invest heavily — and for international market observers, this was the real news. A new United Arab Emirates-based collector working in the diamond business, who spent around $2 million during the evening, took the top lot, Rameshwar Broota’s Numbers; estimated at $80,000–100,000, its price soared to $912,000. Egyptian painter Ahmed Moustafa’s Where the Two Oceans Meet (2001) was the only Middle Eastern work in the top ten; estimated at $100,000–120,000, it sold for $284,800.
There have, of course, been other sales of contemporary Arab and Iranian art but, boosted by Christie’s typical pomp and professionalism, the May 24 sale did appear to denote a new commitment from regional collectors — or, at least, for the first time in public, at auction. Fifty-three percent of the buyers came from the Middle East, and of these, eighty percent were from the UAE. Christie’s move to set up an office in Dubai and launch their program of sales in the region with art (rather than jewelry, for example), seen by some as a gamble, has so far paid off: sixty-three percent of registrants to bid were new to the auction house.
Artist records were set for key modernist painters from the region, including Ahmed Moustafa, Lebanese abstract painter Paul Guiragossian, Iraqi Dia Al-Azzawi and pop iconist Chant Avedissian, some realizing twice or three times the estimates for their work. Christie’s had admitted before the sale that their estimates were deliberately conservative, aimed at kick-starting a market. They were aided by a handful of keen buyers dotted in among the Hello! crowd, including Dr Anwar Mohammed Gargash, minister of state for Federal, National, and Council Affairs in the UAE Cabinet, who paid triple the estimate for the opening lot, an unremarkable work by Iraqi Shakir Hassan Al-Said.
By the time auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen, president of Christie’s Europe and the Middle East, had reached the selection of Iranian art, the crowd had thinned out, leaving front rows of experienced collectors and consigners, including Dubai gallerists, former director of the Tehran Contemporary Art Museum Alireza Sami-Azar, and London-based curator Rose Issa. Still, there was room for anomalies that exposed the immaturity of this market, or perhaps the “gotta have it” mantra of the Dubai shopper. A Shirin Neshat image in an edition of 250 went for ten times its estimate, and for almost double that of another of the Iranian New Yorker’s works, also from the Women of Allah series, in an edition of ten. Farhad Moshiri’s textured map of Iran, talked up by Pylkkänen before and during the sale, was bought by a young UAE-based British expat for $48,000, four times its estimate.
The tales spun about the auction, through the summer and autumn, have entered the realm of fantasy. Some disgruntled dealers labelled the Arab and Iranian market — on the basis of its one outing — a seller’s rather than a buyer’s market. Others have been wagging their tongues about fake phone bidding and hyped estimates. “Agents” have been stalking artists in Tehran, promising a way into the next sale — on February 1, again at Jumeirah Emirates Towers hotel — and the golden ticket to those Dubai dollars. Christie’s, in the meantime, is keeping its head and looking to repeat the formula, maintaining conservative estimates; works already consigned include another calligraphic painting by Ahmed Moustafa, plus works by Chafic Abboud and Syrian realist Louay Kayyali.
Compared with the animated bidding for Arab and Indian works, interest in a handful of western works in the May sale was lackluster, but that hasn’t deterred the organizers of the inaugural Gulf Art Fair, scheduled for March 8–10, 2007, at Dubai’s Madinat Jumeirah resort. Indeed, at Frieze Art Fair in October, for the first time, British, American, and European dealers seemed aware of, even fascinated by, Dubai’s potential as a center for the international contemporary art market — something that seemed unthinkable when the London fair began four years ago. The Gulf Art Fair has signed up 33 galleries to date, including Galerie Baudoin Lebon (Paris), Lisson and Albion (London), and PaceWildenstein (New York), among other big guns. Like Christie’s, they’re stressing their long-term commitment to the emirate and the regional art market.
Besides Dubai’s prospects as an artistic cash cow, there was also palpable interest in Arab artists at Frieze — again, for the first time. Beirut-Hamburg gallery Sfeir-Semler focused on Beirut. Its stand included both Lebanese and international artists making work about the city, and gallerist Nathalie Khoury reported “incredible buzz” for the Middle Eastern work, including photography and installation by Akram Zaatari, Walid Raad, and Marwan Rechmaoui.
Istanbul’s Platform Garanti had been invited as part of the artists’ program, and in that capacity, collected a library onsite during the fair. Townhouse Gallery, Cairo, used their corridor space wisely, exhibiting a wall collage by Lara Baladi, which drew considerable attention from Italian curators and collectors, and installing a booth, mainly showing Wael Shawky’s powerful work The Cave (which was also included in a video program curated by Christine Tohme).
William Wells, Townhouse director, said that Shawky’s work “drew strong interest from the influential British art scene and was also seriously followed by Israeli visitors.” Those investing in Townhouse artists were largely from the Arab diaspora, but Wells notes that the increased international awareness of the Middle East that followed 9/11 has yet to dip: “I thought that interest in artists from the region might taper off, but it’s, in fact, the opposite. The problem is, can we sustain this interest as a contemporary art community without repeating ourselves?”
Share The Case for Independence: Curatorial non-conformity and its discontents
I thought to myself the other day that there were way too many curators of contemporary art shows, that they’re multiplying like DJs — anyone can be one, but only a few really know how to make people dance and go crazy.
My own work as a curator has forced me to think of new ways to manage art events in independent contexts. I would like to make people dance. I’ve seen too many exhibitions with no specific line and little relation between different participants, too many group shows with no soul. This banal way of working makes the curator a simple coordinator instead of a theoretician who cooks up a concept complete with just the right art pieces as an ensemble.
It’s important that the curator be close to artists in order to understand their way of working, so that they may find a perfect complicity. In the modern world of overloaded communication systems, new radical acts are possible, providing curators with more interesting options in their work. Today you can operate as a small independent space and at the same time reach established international artists; you can organize world-class events with minimal funding. Curators are now equally involved in expressing ideas, just as artists today are not merely involved in expressing beauty.
As projects become bigger, and take longer to prepare (in terms of the researching of artists, contents, and financial support) the work of the curator takes on different meanings. Networking becomes a crucial element in finding artists, opportunities, and experiences that widen the curator’s practice. Curating is no longer just about bringing individual superstars together, but also about building a series of conceptual frames within which you can hang just the right pieces to make your ideas communicable — hopefully with some sort of significance beyond the immediate art community.
These networking processes can provide consumers with a multiplicity of messages, different forms of artistic practice, and different ways of experiencing these practices. This is not only interesting from a curatorial point of view; the work of meeting people and defending ideas in public is an artistic act in itself. It is partly the connections that are made between people in these public spaces that influence whether an exhibition will be accepted or rejected, discussed or ignored, promoted or criticized. It’s not only about putting artistic talent on display, but also about creating a network of people who can help make an event come together, almost organically. The curator’s attitude can be similar to that of the artist/performer in his desire to seduce audiences with his ideas and concepts.
Independent curatorial projects often provide just the space and freedom for building these novel networks — executing that exact ‘complicity’ that I spoke of before. I’ve been running independent art spaces and events throughout Europe since 1991. In that time, I’ve confronted the same problem over and over again: how do we make politicians and big sponsors trust independent projects? What strategies do we use to make them understand that independent venues and events are important, even if they do not necessarily bring in massive economic development, that they play the role of a parallel, independent, fully functioning eco-system? How can we ensure that independent events be accepted, not marginalized?
Sensitizing audiences, existing and potential, to the possibilities afforded by independent arts spaces and projects is one step. Involving them is another step. But perhaps the most important thing is to work closely with artists, continue to offer them platforms they enjoy, that allow for production through experimentation and the transformation of space — privileges afforded to many independent projects. No white cube, no perfect gallery, but rather a flexible everything approach. Then, we can start talking about making people dance.
Share On Failure: Hans Ulrich Obrist, Anton Vidokle and Tirdad Zolghadr in conversation at the opening of unitednationsplaza
Part exhibition, part school, unitednationsplaza was launched with great fanfare last October in Berlin. The multi-pronged seminar and residency program was inspired in large part by the cancellation of the European biennial known as Manifesta, originally to be held n Cyprus and seemingly ridden with troubles from the very beginning. Under the rubric of unitednationsplaza, approximately sixty artists, writers, theorists, and a wide range of audiences will meet for discussions, seminars, and encounters of all kinds over the course of one year. On the eve of its launch, co-organizers Anton Vidokle and Tirdad Zolghadr sat down with Hans Ulrich Obrist, co-director of exhibitions at London’s Serpentine Gallery, to ponder, among other miscellaneous things, the birth of the idea behind unitednationsplaza, the pitfalls of a romanticized we-are-the-world internationalism, and the fate of unrealized projects at large. unitednationsplaza’s debut Berlin meeting was eventually held under the (provocative) banner “Histories of Productive Failures: From French Revolution to Manifesta VI.”
unitednationsplaza is organized by Anton Vidokle in collaboration with Liam Gillick, Boris Groys, Martha Rosler, Walid Raad, Jalal Toufic, Nikolaus Hirsch, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, and Tirdad Zolghadr. See www.unitednationsplaza.org for information, including schedules and reading materials.
Hans Ulrich Obrist: I think it would interesting to begin with the Manifesta project, which sort of originated and then transformed itself into this school. In some ways a lot of people thought the cancellation of Manifesta meant a failure, but from this project, failure seems a very useful thing — it actually produces something else.
Anton Vidokle: Ah yes. Manifesta. The initial idea came about because my two co-curators, Mai Abu ElDahab and Florian Waldvogel, and I felt that rather than join the kind of continuous chain of international global festivals and cocktail parties traveling from one capital to another, we would create a kind of a pause, move away from the market and create a situation that’s more geared toward research, discussion and production rather than display, or the presentation of a new generation of artists for the market. Ironically, our little “disruption,” doing a school rather than a biennial exhibition, was overshadowed by the effectiveness of the authorities in Cyprus and Nicosia. Their disruption was much stronger and they just cancelled the thing.
HUO: I wanted to turn to the idea of transnational context. In this current moment of a polyphony of centers, we’re far away from the idea of a sort of quest for the absolute center, that New York stole the avant gardes from Paris, and so on. And second question, why Berlin?
AV: Well my move to Berlin was really directly related to the fallout from Manifesta. I realized there are basically two ways you can go about realizing the project in some way — either as a biennial format where lots of people from all around the world come to a specific place; and then in terms of circulation of ideas and a conversation, it really works. Or, you can do it in a very central location that actually has a vast international cultural community. Unfortunately, New York or London are impossible because they’re such expensive places. Berlin is really a unique situation it was still possible to realize this project in an independent, self-funded way, without reliance on various funding sources, official agencies, government sources, and so on.
It’s important that Manifesta tried to move itself from central Europe to its periphery, and that that kind of movement was not possible, was much more complex [than imagined]. If one approaches large cultural festivals and tries to export them to a much more complex place, or maybe not such a much more complex place, you run into almost a wall. On the other hand, trying to move to Cyprus was almost like trying to export or distance the kind of problems that already exist in central European cities. To deal with the issue of separation between Islamic and Christian communities, and all those tensions, you don’t have to go to Cyprus, you can stay in Brussels, you can stay in Amsterdam. By moving it out to Cyprus, it was almost to try to pretend that this problem does not exist in the center of Europe. So I think that there is a whole range of issues that probably are too long and too complex to try and cover in this interview, but they’ll become even more important in the next five, ten years.
HUO: Tirdad, could you talk a bit about this whole idea is that a nation or citizen can actually becomes a borderline, and the polyphony of centers?
Tirdad Zolghadr: I think that this Cyprus fiasco raises a certain issue that I really appreciate, namely that this internationalism with a utopic slant — which was also noticeable in icons of this type of discourse such as the last Documenta — has overheated expectations to a point where people forget that this is, on the one hand, not a level playing field, and on the other hand, it’s a construct that is very much embedded within European art history, and is very difficult to translate. Basically, with this internationalism, fostered by these enormous expectations, we’re now getting a kind of backlash. People are frustrated, they don’t have any kind of resolution to the enormous demands that are placed upon art now, that are supposed to reflect polyphony, transcend boundaries and reframe them, easily subsume them into a discourse that everybody can partake in. People are drawing the wrong conclusions from situations like Cyprus and are saying, “Oh, well we should’ve known it all along. Art should stick to Berlin, New York, London.”
One lesson to be learned is the need to be very careful with the kind of discourse that assumes that polyphony is really possible at this stage. Another effect of these very high aspirations — this is the flip side of the utopianism — was the worry that contemporary art would just take over everywhere, that there would be Vanessa Beecroft and Douglas Gordon colonizing the world. And this too is a red herring, because as we saw in Cyprus, you don’t have to worry about the local. The local will pop up and redefine any flippant internationalism no matter how strong, sexy and glamorous it seems to be. At the moment we’re not in a situation where things just kind of slip and slide and then overtake a local art scene or a local infrastructure with that ease.
And so you’re caught in a double bind: on the one hand, art is taking super interesting forms in places like Sharjah and Tehran and wherever, taking forms that can participate in an international dialogue; on the other hand, you’re trying to remind people, “Don’t get too overexcited.” It’s not a level playing field, the situation of polyphony is still stilted and very partial. And that’s the kind of trick question that I find myself grappling with.
HUO: Now you’ve sort of defined the frame, the context and the history, let’s start talking about what’s going to happen in Berlin, what came out of the Manifesta/Cyprus experience. Whenever you’re in a city you have another field of reference — for example, when I went to Dubai for the first time, I suddenly had a completely different reference cadre. India is an hour and a half away. The Gulf states are all an hour flight away. I had the feeling that when Anton called me from Cyprus many times that had happened as well, because you’d never been to that extent to Beirut and never been so involved with Tehran. It opened a completely new set of proximities. Has that influenced what you’re doing in Berlin?
AV: Yes, absolutely, for me the best thing about the experience was that it created an excuse for me to familiarize myself with artists and writers that work in the region, and to try to understand a lot more of the specifics of the kind of discourse that takes place, which is tremendously interesting, sophisticated and challenging. On the other hand, with this proximity you can be close to something and at the same time it becomes impenetrable. You happen to travel with a Swiss passport, one of the most powerful passports in the world. Even with an American passport one encounters more difficulties — for example, it becomes very tricky to go to Iran. But if you have a more complex passport, such as a Mexican or Lebanese one, or something like a laissez-passer — [as do] Palestinians, and a lot of Iraqi refugees — then your movement is completely constricted. On Cyprus it was even more complex: here’s a tiny little island, but can’t easily cross from one side to another, because ideologically, the crossing implies certain political connotations. This is precisely what brought the entire project down. This sense of internationalism was possible at a certain point during the high period of Modernism, because it was also fueled by a shared ideology, namely Marxism. The new internationalism that we would like to [see] happen shouldn’t only follow international finance, but needs a more substantial ideological structure. I don’t think this exists at the moment.
HUO: I’d like you now to talk about the content of the conference here — we should announce it in Bidoun, right?
TZ: Absolutely. The question was how to frame an opening conference for Anton’s institute. He wanted to imbed the institute in something larger than the Manifesta situation. In the course of various emails, he kept using the word “failure”, and I suggested that the actual conference be based on the question of productive failures. Then Anton came up with the perfect subtitle, “From the French Revolution to Manifesta VI: A History of Productive Failures.” As you put it yourself, it’s really trying to point out that this apparent dead-end could be transfigured into something even more complex and interesting. On another level, the question of failure is interesting because there is this rampant art world defeatism as soon as you try to speak about art and politics. There is this very pervasive sense of an impossibility of moving forward, of everything being subsumed, co-opted, instrumentalized and so forth. It’s a defeatism that, needless to say, is not exactly productive, not exactly leading us to new places besides ever more complex and creative forms of paranoia. So the idea of the failure conference was also to see if we were asking if we were always coming to the same formulaic…
HUO: You’re calling it “failure conference”?
TZ: The Failure Conference. [Laughs] This was the starting point, to try and come up with questions that would lead to a new perception of the classic failures in the art world and beyond — and some of the speakers will be talking about political failures, in the way that political symbols for these so-called failures have been completely drained of their content, and yet still manage to spark hope or political optimism. Another dimension, is to try and jumble up the strict division of labor. In the conference we are trying to find very small, unpretentious, unspectacular ways in which art could be discussed in a new way, and some of these are going to be quite surprising. So one surprise is the format of the dinner toast. We’ve invited someone who is presumably very experienced in very officious toasts, namely [the politician] Adrienne Goelher, to hold a toast at the dinner, and so there will be the classic situation where everybody is clinking their glasses and then people will expect a two, three, four minute, very boring, “I want to thank Anton for da, da da…,” and then she will launch into a thirty-five minute talk on art and politics in the frame of this failure problematic as we staked out.
HUO: This addresses the question of the format, but I’m interested in knowing a little bit about politics, and failure.
AV: Well, failure can become useful, but it requires some work. Let’s say, for example, that Manifesta 6 is cancelled and everybody continues from that point on as though nothing ever was planned or nothing ever happened, then it is only a failure. But then if some work is put towards it, if it satellites, if it translates into new energy for other projects, if the ideas developed in the process of working on this situation that failed continue, then there is a potential for it to become productive
TZ: Yes. It’s not one-dimensional, it’s a question of packaging. You could say that the definition of failure is not necessarily based on known criteria. On the contrary, it’s essential to understand failure as a positive category in most cultures. Look at what Christianity is based on — excruciating failure, and it’s fetishized as a failure. Perhaps Shiism is even more extreme as an example. Structuring certain events as a failure has a bonding effect, some kind of collective therapeutic effect which in itself has a productivity. And so the very notion of failure is really enjoyable to revisit. Hans, I was wondering if you, in the course of all your projects, have been tempted sometimes to categorize some things as clear failures? Or do you bracket that category and prefer to postpone the judgment?
HUO: In the first place, some of my research has been into unrealized projects, which obviously touches on failure. We’re working with Anton on the agency of the unrealized project as a subject for an e-flux project. There are projects too big to be realized, too small to be realized.
AV: The biggest unrealized project…
HUO: Yeah, Communism. [Laughs] The other day, Doris Lessing pointed out to me all the novels in non-democracies that have not been written because of self-censorship, that sort of unrealized dimension of work. My Chinese friends have always told me that failure is an unbelievably positive value. In China, failure and learning from failure, produces reality. And Cedric Price, the great urbanist, saw that. He said that western society has a problem with making failure into something positive.
TZ: One of the speakers at the conference who has a really great take on failure is Diedrich Diederichsen. He’s been fascinated by the whole evolution, the development of one subculture after another, each one declaring the preceding one as a failure.
HUO: My last question really, is a question of sustainability and long distance running. Obviously, conferences come and go. And maybe then one moves on. Something I observe when I travel is a desire or necessity for something more sustainable. Exhibitions which may slowly evolve over five or ten years, which are also learning systems, or conferences, are two of the same thing. This unitednationsplaza is something that, as I understand it, should be a long-distance runner. Anton said that it should at least be a couple of years. What’s next, and how you take it from here?
AV: For me, the problem is that there’s a tremendous interest in discourse in the art world, but it’s always marginalized into this absurd situation sometimes. The perfect example is when recently I was invited to speak at a conference at the Moscow art fair. The conference actually took place in this completely marginal space — a building that was literally under a staircase. We were squished into the corner and asked to talk about things. Of course, the hierarchies were obvious: there is the real business of buying and selling and displaying art, and “knowledge production” is put under the staircase, out of view, out of range. This whole project is a desire to privilege the more ephemeral or ethereal part of cultural production. No exhibitions, no display. Obviously, it’s an experiment, and I don’t know whether there is a public for it, one that will continue returning to the lectures, seminars and symposiums that we will organize for a year. The possibility of this public being really engaged, wanting to deal with this complicated, theoretical, maybe somewhat pretentious topic, could be the most rewarding, or the most meaningful outcome. Then the idea is to try to articulate a model, that if it’s successful and productive, could be then implemented by other groups, other people, other institutions in their own context.
TZ: Aside from the theme and all that, I’m looking forward to simply having conversations with the same team of artists and practitioners over a year and a half. To have the time to do that is completely different and I hope that the plaza will go on for many years to come. That’s the perfect sentence to wrap up this up…
In which the editors collaborate with an artist to commission a newsroom graphic designer to visually render the report of the International Independent Investigation Commission Established Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1595 (otherwise known as the Mehlis report).
On February 14, 2005, explosives equivalent to 1000 kg of TNT were detonated as a motorcade made its way past the posh St George Hotel on the Beirut corniche, just steps away from the Mediterranean. The motorcade belonged to Rafik Hariri, a self-made billionaire who had served as his country’s prime minister from 1992 to 1998, and again from 2000 until his resignation in October 2004. Hariri, along with twenty-one others including his bodyguards and the former Minister of Economy, were all killed. In the hours and days following the assassination, there was no dearth of rumors circulating as to possible culprits, motives, final-minute scenarios.
For some hours after Hariri’s death, the BBC speculated that the US or Israel may have in fact been to blame for the assassination. The Syrian foreign ministry echoed these sentiments. On July 4, 2005, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1595, establishing an independent international investigation of the former prime minister’s death. The team, headed by a German judge named Detlev Mehlis, presented its initial report to the Security Council on October 20, 2005. The Mehlis report implicated top Syrian and Lebanese officials, with special regard for Syria’s military intelligence chief, Assef Shawkat, as well as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law. A second report, submitted December 10, 2005, upholds the conclusions from the first report. On January 11, 2006, Mehlis was replaced by the Belgian Serge Brammertz. In cities around the world, we have followed this investigation with great interest, anxiously awaiting the release of every UN report. We read the reports with a mixture of ambivalence, pleasure, and surprise. We responded, intrigued by their curious form, for these reports read like mystery thrillers.
On the eve of the Lebanese government consenting to send the assassination to an international tribunal for further investigation, the editors and the artist referenced above commissioned a graphic designer from a major mainstream international newspaper to engage with the Mehlis report, to take on its presentation of time and place — with a focus on the chapter relating to the use of prepaid telephone calls made in the days and hours before the assassination (pages 57–58; sections 199–203). In the end, the SIM card, and prepaid phone cards generally, become the basis for linking almost every single one of the suspected players. Some links are direct, others are once-removed; and yet others are twice-removed. What is perhaps remarkable is the coincidence of all these individuals being linked to, for example, the prepaid card identified as 03925152 (section 200; page 58). In accepting this task, the designer was recreating the very act that takes place in newsrooms across the world, every day: that of reducing a complex set of facts and relationships into a consumable graphic form. We assume that the relationships charted here also formed the basis on which some players were ultimately arrested.
And perhaps it had to be this way; the resulting map was to be expected. We have anticipated that an artist or a designer somewhere would eventually visually map the information in the report. How could they not, given the currency of information-mapping in contemporary art, graphic design, financial, news, and meteorological reporting. In more ways than one, the visual map published here has been drafted numerous times, in pencil and ink, on napkins and notebooks, by readers of the report across the globe who sought to make sense of the facts, players, and connections listed in Mehlis (as the report came to be known in Beirut). Indeed, it seems as if the report’s published information encourages the kind of formal play evident in this seemingly-complete-yet-clearly-lacking diagram. This formal play parallels the kind of political play surrounding the entire Hariri investigation, in Lebanon, and in the United Nations. Connect the dots in a particular way, and you may blame the Syrian regime. Connect them another way, and you may blame Lebanese President Emile Lahoud. Connect them yet another way, and place the blame solely on the shoulders of the politico, Tarek Esmat Fakhreddine. There is no shortage of connections to be made here. As such, and as seasoned residents of Lebanon and Syria anticipated, the investigation has been reduced to signifiers that can easily become the anchors of any number of political stories.
What we come to know and how we come to know anything from Mehlis or from this published graphic remains a generative question. This is not to restate the obvious, namely that this on-going UN investigation was never about the truth but, rather, about politics. Surely, anyone who has scratched the surface of this assassination and its subsequent investigations has long ago concluded that juridical prosecution has taken a back seat to political prosecution. We need not revisit the interests of the major players (the United States, France, Iran, Syria, as well as proxy players in Lebanon such as Hezbollah, and the March 14 forces) as they have been jockeying for the past months in the UN for the most honorable and just position with regards to uncovering all of the facts related to the assassination, and to bringing all of those responsible for this crime to justice. It was clear then, and has become more clear since, that this investigation is one more negotiating card in the hands of the US and Europe in the on-going and far more present need to address Iran’s nuclear program, as well as Iran and Syria’s support of insurgents in Iraq. Given the limited investigative arsenal we can deploy to, for example, try to find out whether a particular SIM card was indeed tracking Hariri’s convoys, we must opt out of this game, lest we find ourselves in the face of a false choice: support an impartial investigation or politicize all findings and thus render any inquiry meaningless.
In this Part I, we chose to come close but also to move away from this diagram, for it can only draw us into the kind of game we are not equipped to play. The defense of this or that political player, of his or her juridical innocence and guilt cannot be our sole nor primary area of concern. This is not the urgent question par-excellence here. Or rather, this is not the urgent question par excellence for us. As such, and with this first, we have figured out what we do not want to pursue, a position we make clear by publishing this text along this fraught, incriminating map. Needless to say, we only hope that we may figure out soon what ought to be thought, produced, written, and stated. This is a long-term endeavor that will in part depend on the unfolding political and legal drama at hand.
Share Fake Memoirs and Truth As Style: Are you there, God?
Few childhood experiences were as torturous to me as going to confession. (What doesn’t a twelve-year-old boy have to confess?) But I was a resourceful child, and before long I had formulated a plan to combat the blushing shame the occasion demanded. By stitching together the most venial sins I could imagine — taking the Lord’s name in vain, being ungrateful, lying (how true!) — and intoning them in a different order each time, the elderly priest who heard my confession remained gainfully employed, and I was spared the embarrassment of revealing all the roiling, bubbling, unsightly things that slithered about in my conscience.
One time, shortly before Easter, as I was reeling out my oh-so-hygienic stories of ingratitude and swearing, I heard the old priest give a little groan. Presuming this to be some form of encouragement, I continued my inventory of minor transgressions. When I had eventually run out of things to say, I waited for the priest to offer me absolution. But there was no response. I ventured a whispered “Father? ” — there was still no reaction. Getting up off my chair I stepped toward the curtain of white gauze that separated us and cautiously pushed my hand through it to tap the priest on his knee. Still no response. I ventured a slightly stronger shake of his leg. As I did so, the priest tilted toward me in his chair and, as I sprung back, toppled to the ground like a broken statue.
I must have been in shock, for as I stood there, looking at the crumpled body on the floor, I was gripped by an overwhelming urge to urinate. Unbuttoning frantically, I freed myself just in time to let loose a stream of urine, directly onto the head of the dead priest. I screeched in horror, and spun my body around, but in doing so only managed to soak the Bible, crucifix, and picture of Pope John Paul II that sat on the priest’s side table. As I sobbingly doused the rest of the holy room, only one thought came to my mind, and with it a strange satisfaction: without doubt, this was going to be my last confession.
Why do we enjoy reading about other people’s misery? In A Philosophical Enquiry (1757), Edmund Burke suggested that such enjoyment was a natural manifestation of sympathy. “The delight we have in such things, hinders us from shunning scenes of misery; and the pain we feel, prompts us to relieve ourselves in relieving those who suffer; and all this antecedent to any reasoning, by an instinct that works us to its own purposes, without our concurrence.” Sympathy may well be the foundation of our moral conduct, says Burke, but it is also the cause of our disturbing appetite for spectacles of suffering.
Fortunately for us, this appetite is generously catered to by the school of the confessional memoir. Bookstore tables groan under the weight of such morsels of misery as is offered up in James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, with its tales of masochistic alcoholism; J T LeRoy’s The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, his account of being a male truck-stop prostitute; and Augusten Burroughs’s Running With Scissors, which sheds light on the technicalities of giving blowjobs to pedophiles. There’s something almost shameful about reading such books, for we do so with a rubbernecking, car-crash concern, warm in our own catharsis over the burning wreck of the authors’ lives. Yet what would happen if, looking closely at the car crash, we saw that the victims were covered in fake blood, that the flames were nothing more than colorful paper — that for all intents and purposes it was a faux-crash?
As luck would have it, a recent epidemic of faked confessional memoirs has allowed for plenty of chances to study this rum conundrum. Within the last year, Frey was charged with fabrication, LeRoy was revealed not to exist, and Burroughs was accused of gross exaggeration. These revelations have been building for some time now. In 2005, the writer Nasdijj, who had written award-winning memoirs of growing up with fetal alcohol syndrome on a Navajo reservation, was revealed to be Timothy Barrus, a (white) writer of gay erotica. Ten years prior to him, Benjamin Wilkomirski’s lauded Holocaust memoir, Fragments: Memories of Wartime Childhood, was similarly denounced as a well-written fiction.
There has been much hypothesizing as to whether these counterfeit tales of misery and woe are peculiar to our prurient, fame-obsessed age. But the seeds for these deceits were planted long ago.
“I was a great sinner for so small a boy,” wrote St Augustine in his Confessions, and with these words the confessional memoir was brought bawling into the world. In Confessions he took great pains to tell of the young Augie’s youthful wicked ways. We read about his adolescent lust (“floundering in the broiling sea of my fornication”), his stealing pears (“if any part of one of those pears passed my lips, it was the sin that gave it flavor”), his cheating at games with friends (“simply because a vain desire to win had got the better of me”), and his getting up to all sorts of mischief on the mean streets of Carthage during the fourth century AD.
More conversational and less comprehensive than an autobiography, the Confessions laid down not only the tone, but also the format for all subsequent memoirs. There was the time spent in misery and/or decadence, the turning point and rejection of the old ways (in Augustine’s case, like so many of his modern successors, this was prompted by the death of a close friend), and the subsequent slow ascent toward redemption.
It is true that there have been some minor changes to the format over the past 1600 years. The quality of misery seems to have been subject to inflationary pressures; the wretchedness now on offer makes the saint’s stolen pears look like very small beans. And there’s been a shift in the memoir’s objectives. While St Augustine attempted to reach a resolution with God, his secular successors seem intent on the more fundamental aim of survival. Nevertheless, the most unfashionable element of the Confessions — the strong didactic flavor — has survived unchanged. If by his revolutionary show of honesty, he hoped to convince his readers that the one true faith is in Christ, today’s confessional memoirs — even books as sensationalistic as Jenna Jameson’s How to Make Love Like a Porn Star — claim inspirational qualities as well as titillation.
For this, Jean Jacques Rousseau is as responsible as Augustine. Rousseau reinvented the memoir for a secular age in his own Confessions. In the late eighteenth century, redemption was no longer to be found in the godhead, but in a universal aspiration for liberty. (Similarly the confessional writings of the Romantic poets would see the divine replaced by the merely sublime.) But while some authors used the memoir format to chart their growth of experience and moral improvement, the genre was already being ushered down a less righteous route.
In 1822, Thomas de Quincey wrote a learned and entertaining account of his addiction to opium. Confessions of an English Opium-Eater was wrapped in the proviso that “it will prove not merely an interesting record, but in a considerable degree useful and instructive.” So far, so memoir, but Quincey slyly realized that much of the memoir’s power was not about redemption, or even elucidation, but depredation. He wrote in his introduction, with a certain mock-horror, “Nothing, indeed, is more revolting to English feelings than the spectacle of a human being obtruding on our notice his moral ulcers or scars.” Those precious “English feelings” did not prevent his book from being a huge public success.
When asked if his poems were confessional, the poet Robert Lowell explained, “They’re not always factually true. There’s a good deal of tinkering with fact. You leave out a lot, and emphasize this and not that. Your actual experience is a complete flux. I’ve invented facts and changed things… yet there’s this thing: if a poem is autobiographical — and this is true of any kind of autobiographical writing and of historical writing — you want the reader to say, This is true.” By differentiating between what is factually true and what the reader thinks is true, Lowell put his finger on the crux of our recent troubled relationship with the memoir, that we have failed to understand that “truth” (as opposed to fact) is nothing more than a literary aesthetic.
When a confessional memoir is revealed to be false, we cry out in disgust because we feel our sympathy has been unfairly traded on. But we don’t acknowledge the pleasure we have taken in the spectacle — the car-crash — itself. In our dismay, we portray ourselves as having been motivated purely by altruism and not by aesthetic satisfaction. At the same time, our insatiable lust for ever-more-depraved stories has prompted an increasing number of falsified confessions.
Bearing this in mind, the public reaction in the case of James Frey, the most vilified of all the fake memoirists, is even more disturbing. When sections of A Million Little Pieces were revealed to be less than entirely true, the reading public realized that it could no longer enjoy the spectacle of personal suffering as presented in the memoir. It was then that a crucial transference of attention took place — from the invented suffering of Frey in the memoir, to the indubitably real suffering of Frey’s public humiliation. His big mistake was that he hadn’t counted on the depth of our hunger for the aesthetic of truth. When he fabricated parts of his memoir he wasn’t being immoral as so many critics suggested. He had merely cheated us out of our truth fix.
When the psychoanalyst Theodor Reik coined the phrase “the compulsion to confess, ” he forgot to mention the equally strong urge to hear confession. Thanks to St Augustine’s literary invention, we’re as addicted to truth in the memoir as smokers are addicted to nicotine in the cigarette, and if we’re robbed of that truth by authorial falsehood or too much poetic license, we must replace it with a substitute — usually by pillorying the author himself. Such is the hidden malicious character of sympathy.
Thus if the story that began this article were untrue, if the old priest had never died, if the incontinent desecration of the confessional had never occurred, it really would matter. Even if the story contained (as Frey said of the falsified parts of his memoir) an “essential truth” of my own mortification at the act of confession, the reader’s delight would be diminished in some way. Clearly, I would be foolish to write another word.
Share London’s Nocturnal Blues: Beyond the bling
At night on the Thames, skippers of elderly tugboats tell horrified and delighted deckhands about the headless torsos of African girls found washed up on the shore downriver the previous week. They talk about the illegal immigrants who try to steal into the country by water: Lithuanians and Ghanaians and Iraqi Kurds who are squeezed by traffickers into near-airless tin containers welded to the bottoms of foreign ships. The containers, and the corpses inside, are only discovered when the ships harbor at dry dock. “Poor bastards,” sigh the bargers.
Careless talk costs lives. London is the CCTV capital of the world. The fear of shoebombers, nonnative intellectuals with attitude, and disaffected prole boys eager for a ballistic shortcut to redemption means that the city is being monitored as never before. Mosques are swarming with informers and undercover police. Savvy keystroke cops comb backstreet cyber-shacks and internet cafes, checking to see if the migrant kids who spend their evenings trawling for ethnic porn are also visiting terrorist sites. The shelves of religious bookstores are scoured by security officers looking for inflammatory pamphlets or cassettes castigating the immorality of the West.
Communication, under these conditions, goes into retreat, moves sideways. It occupies different spaces. A clutch of Fujian waiters, none of them in possession of working papers, huddle around the kitchen table at the back of the Soho restaurant where they labor fourteen hours a day for $200 a week, chatting and gambling before they catch the night bus home to the one-room flats they share with three other people from their village. A dead-eyed slumber of stubbly private-cab drivers sit in a smoky Notting Hill basement room, swapping insights about which routes not to take, one of them telling an only slightly embellished tale about the sexual come-on he received earlier that evening from a pretty girl. It turned out (“What a surprise!” laugh the others) that she didn’t have enough money for her fare.
Subterranean stories: the flushers who wade through rivers of tampons, rats, and fatty quicksand, to keep the city’s sewers functioning, like nothing better than to laugh. They’ll cackle as a hungry gang member finds an orange amid the filth and promptly starts eating it. Or at the desperate worker who loosens his uniform and has a dump in a corner. Life in the sewers is hard, and humor — the coarser and blacker the better — raises flagging spirits. One flusher bought his wife a bouquet of flowers on their wedding anniversary. “I suppose you’ll be expecting me to open my legs for you,” she remarked. “A vase will do,” he replied. Another remembers the night he emerged from a sewer at Leicester Square, dripping grime and shit, only to find a young female tourist peering at him. He held out his hand: “Smell that. That’s Canal N˚5, that is.”
Aerial stories: many of the cleaners who polish and shine the top floors of the corporate towers in London’s Docklands business district don’t exist. Employed by violently penny-pinching sub-sub-contractors, they’re illegal migrants whose names are not to be found on any official ledgers. They have no recourse to the law if their salaries are randomly docked, or if they get hurt because of shoddy safety equipment, or if they’re sexually harassed. So they keep their heads down, their lips tightly shut.
They notice things, though. That the CEO earns £2680 an hour, while they earn a mere £5. They bridle and chafe. In their minds they’re somewhere else. Sometimes, as dawn is rising, the cleaners take a break from crumb-picking and mousetrap-shifting. Their night’s work is almost over. The offices are as clean as the hills and golf courses of the foreign kingdoms to which they dream of migrating. They stand up tall, proud of the reformations they have wrought. Just for a minute or two, they allow themselves the luxury of imagining that they are the shirt-tucked, chauffeur-driven masters of the universe, lording it over the snooty pen-pushers and keyboard-dabbers whose garbage they have spent the last seven hours collecting. “Clear out your desks and leave!” they fantasize declaring.
In an introduction to Berji kristen (1984), Latife Tekin’s novel about the slum and squatter towns found in Istanbul, John Berger wrote, “Rumor is born of the irrepressible force of a community’s imagination deprived of shelter or any guarantee.” But rumor also helps, in however piecemeal and fractured a fashion, to create the possibility of community. The exaggerations, gags, and proverbs make up a ragged, multi-authored narrative from which is forged a raw and temporary nation for those people who cannot locate themselves in the grand narratives and lofty language of the state.
Beneath London, in badly heated areas marked “No Entry,” rooms little bigger than broom cupboards, are found Polish and Nigerian and Italian and Jamaican subway cleaners. They speak heavily inflected English, an undercommons Esperanto. They plot unionization campaigns. They exchange examples of bad management practice. They participate in underground information networks, many of them comprised of gossip masquerading as fact, about fresh passport scams, family-benefit concessions the government has introduced, new contracting firms that offer cleaning recruits an extra week’s holiday each year. For these new and lonely Londoners, rumor is a lifeline, a passport to a happier time and place.
Share Narges and The Case of Iranian Docudrama: If Dante had come with illustrations
“Avoid suspicious places, and none of you should spend time with your mother in crowded passageways, for all those who see you do not know she is your mother (and this may provoke suspicion).”
—From “Dubiousness and Rumor; Two Press Vices,” Maroof Publications
It was around 10 pm when I asked my friend to call me a taxi. I was going to a party in Central Tehran. The taxi arrived, I climbed in, and we took the long and curvy Modarres highway into the city. Traffic was impossible — it always is — and at about 11, still far from my destination, the driver leaned back and asked, “You mind if I drop you off here?” To my confusion, he added, “I have to rush back home to catch the last bit of Narges on TV.” I had little choice but to get out; my driver looked a bit too much like Reza Zadeh, the Iranian weightlifting world champion. I paid my fare and continued my journey on foot. On the sidewalk, I passed by a couple. The girl was practically dragging her boyfriend along-to, I soon realized, a waiting television: “I hear that Behrooz gets AIDS in Italy and dies, I think it has something to do with his dirty cousin…” I stepped into a store to buy cigarettes and found ten men sitting on cardboard boxes watching a scratchy television. It was Narges again. I waited until the commercial break for them to hand me my pack of Bahmans, smoked a quarter of the pack while watching the last minutes of the show, and went on my way. I’d lost all hope of getting to the party.
It is said that roughly thirty million Iranians watched the Narges series this past year on IRIB3, thanks to the people at the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting Center-seven days a week and always at 10:45 pm, on the dot. IRIB is the one and only TV and radio broadcasting organization in Iran, its head selected directly by the Supreme Leader (the previous head of the IRIB was Ali Larijani, now the chief nuclear negotiator). IRIB produces a huge quantity of programs each year, from soap opera serials such as Shab-e dahom (a Qajar woman falls for an outlaw and he dies in the end) and Saheb delan (a Ramadan serial that reenacted stories from the Qur’an, also a successful production) to comedies like Pavarchin (the slapstick tale of a family who move from the country to the city; they have weird accents). But of all the programs on offer, Narges, the story of a twenty-something orphan and her travails, has been by far the most popular.
One Iranian blogger divides Iranians into these five categories:
Those who watch Narges passionately and don’t give a damn about what others think of them.
Those who don’t watch Narges but don’t care if others do or not.
Those who don’t watch Narges and tease those who do.
Those who don’t officially watch Narges because they want to be high-class, but who sometimes watch it in secret.
Those who don’t own a TV to watch Narges.
On the same blog, a doctor posted his patient’s particulars, collected during a night shift:
…I was watching Narges and got short of breath.
…We were watching Narges and suddenly noticed our mother had fainted.
…Before Narges, doc, I had eaten something, doc.
Narges lives in a house with her sister, Nasrin, and sick mother. Nasrin ends up in a relationship with Behrooz, a rich man’s son, a connection disfavored by both families. They get married in spite of their parents’ disapproval, and Nasrin’s mother dies the day of the wedding. Later, Behrooz travels to Italy illegally, where we are led to suspect he gets HIV (though this is a nasty word and never actually mentioned; he shows the telltale symptoms). Later, we find out that it was only a false threat — a warning of sorts (we have no AIDS in Iran). Narges, for her part, is involved in a relationship with an engineer named Ehsan Saeedi, who recently went through a divorce with a materialistic and ambitious — I’d say seductive, too — woman named Shaghayegh. Rumors fly that Narges and Ehsan got together before the divorce was complete — disgraceful.
Somewhere around the thirty-sixth episode, we see Mansour, a do-gooder engineer figure, pull over his car to answer his ringing cellphone (an educational no-driving-while-talking gesture). In the next scene, we see him lecturing in a nuclear power plant: “Now it’s time for the East to rise… we are in need of a scientific movement.” He launches into a fifteen-minute-long diatribe about the benefits of nuclear energy and an independent energy sector. In a different scene, when she learns that she’s pregnant, Nasrin is pushed by her cruel father-in-law, Shokat, to get rid of her child. She steps into a netherworld where she’s encircled by old hags and shrews. Petrified, she finds her way out and decides to keep the baby, staying true to her morals and God. In the same episode, we see Narges, sporting a chador, happily catching the public bus like any good citizen.
Many Iranians relate to the characters in Narges. We curse Shokat and pray for Narges. We were happy when she got married and cried when her mother died. And besides, what else is there to do at 10:45 pm but watch state television? Especially if you prefer IRIB to the garbage beamed in by Iranians in exile.
Still, the characters on the TV screen appear sterilized. In the world of Narges, threats of sanctions are imperial bluffs; the cops are all righteous; and nonbelievers commit crimes, drive big cars, and send their children to the West. (They usually die or repent their crimes.) On IRIB serials, there is no bribery, no corruption, no abortion, no sex, no alcohol. When there are such things, it’s the doing of outlaws and corporate crooks. In this utopia, you can usually distinguish between the good and evil either by their physical appearance (as if Dante had come with illustrations) or by their choice of words. You see, the creators of Narges are not exactly masters of subtlety. Their version of reality is a carefully managed one.
Maurizio Cattelan: Hello, my name is Maurizio. What’s your name?
Roman Ondák: My name is Roman.
MC: Can you spell that, please?
MC: How are you?
RO: I’m fine, thanks.
MC: Where do you live?
RO: I live in a small city. And where do you live?
MC: I live in New York. I work in an office.
RO: I work in a hotel, but I do not live in the hotel. I live with my family. My home is near the hotel, so I walk to work every day.
MC: I also walk to work every morning. I don’t work on Saturday afternoon or on Sunday. I have a three-week holiday in the summer.
RO: When I walk to work, I pass a small shop at the end of our road. I buy my newspaper there every day. This is the only shop that is open on Sunday, so it is always very busy. They sell milk, eggs, biscuits, tea, and coffee. You can get aspirin, toothpaste, or a writing pad there. It is a nice little shop.
MC: I live in a small flat near the railway station. I have a sitting room, a bedroom, a bathroom, and a kitchen. The building is old and dirty, but my flat is clean, and the sitting room is very comfortable. I have a lot of books and records and a color television. From my bed, I can hear the trains coming into the station.
RO: I have a cheap plastic camera. On a sunny day I can take good pictures with it. But I can’t take good pictures in bad weather, and I can’t take pictures of moving objects, like a horse or racing car. The pictures I take indoors with a flash aren’t very clear.
MC: My television is near the window. There are a lot of books on the shelves above the television, and there’s a chair between the television and the table. The table is against the wall, under the window. I cook my food in the kitchen and carry it from the kitchen to the sitting room. I eat my dinner at the table.
RO: This evening I am going to the cinema. I sometimes go with my wife, but this evening I am going alone. My wife is nice, but she talks a lot, and when I go to the cinema, I like to watch the film. The film I am going to see is an old one, but it is very good. It is a Hitchcock film.
MC: I think there is too much violence on television and in our society. There are too many war films on television, there is too much crime and too many murders. There was violence in the old cowboy films, of course, but in the old cowboy films there was no confusion between good and bad. The hero was very good, and the villain was very bad. Now there is confusion. The hero is often a criminal. I think the effect on children is very bad.
RO: Everything changes. Once, a lot of people went to the cinema to see silent films. Then when talking pictures started, nobody wanted to see silent films anymore. But people still went to the cinema, and everybody knew the names of all the great film stars. Now we have television. People sit at home night after night watching their favorite programs. But what is going to happen to the cinema?
MC: Well, in my office, I have a grey telephone, and at home I have a black one. They both work very well, and they are very useful. But last week I passed a shop and noticed that the window was full of telephones. There were green telephones, blue telephones, red telephones, big telephones, small telephones, and one elegant gold telephone. “Why?” I thought. “What are they all for? Are there people who have different kinds of telephone in every room?”
RO: People often ask me for my telephone number. But I have not got a telephone, so I tell them to ring me at work. Why do I not have a telephone? I think the telephone is expensive, and I prefer to write letters. There are not many people I want to speak to in the evening, and I do not want to speak to anybody at breakfast time. When I want to use the telephone in the evening, I can always use the box at the end of the road.
This conversation between Roman Ondák and Maurizio Cattelan was coincidentally recorded when they met for the first time at an English course for beginners.
When I first moved to Tehran as a journalist in the late 1990s, I was scandalized by the chaos of traffic in the streets. The polluting shared taxis that seemed to hold a monopoly on public transport. I decided to devote one of my first articles to the subway — or lack of it. At that time, none of the metro lines worked, even though the project, a French idea, had apparently existed since before the Revolution. And so one day I met the young man heading up the metro company. He spoke French, learned from his studies in Belgium, and introduced himself as Mohsen Hashemi.
“You… Your family is the…”
“Yes, that’s my father.”
Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani: a darling of the revolutionary regime; a close associate of Ayatollah Khomeini; a member of parliament, later president of the Republic, twice, between 1989 and 1997; head of a family whose economic empire stretched from the production of pistachios to the assembly of Korean cars to the management of an airline company.
Instead of delving into why it might take another twenty years to launch the eight planned metro lines, the discussion turned to politics, a subject close to Mohsen’s heart. His father was, naturally, the best politician in the country. I wondered why the Pistachio Crown Prince was bothering with the ill-fated metro.
It took me less than a week to understand. The anniversary of the Revolution, celebrated each year in February, was coming up. That Friday, I got in an old man’s Peykan, darbast-style (“door closed,” meaning you’re paying for a private taxi), for a tour of key revolutionary sites. But the tour had only one theme: Rafsanjani. Every luxury building we glimpsed belonged to him. Every suspended construction site was his doing. Every traffic jam was ascribed to Rafsanjani for stealing the funds earmarked for a bridge or bypass that would’ve eased traffic flow. The American business magazine Forbes had apparently ranked Rafsanjani as the world’s forty-sixth billionaire. Only forty-sixth! (In one of those moments when rumor threatened to seduce me completely, I checked this out — it, of course, wasn’t true.
Ghassem, the taxi driver, had excellent sources: his passengers. Together, they indulged in the cheapest, most universal psychological treatment available: taxi-therapy. The sessions covered all sorts of common hang-ups — the regime, the mullahs, the Afghans, the Arabs, and Rafsanjani.
It dawned on me that shared taxis in Tehran, more than a means of transport, are a veritable gossip factory, spinning their way around Tehran and against the interests of M Rafsanjani. Besides rumors of embezzlement and huge Swiss bank accounts (whose pin codes some taxi drivers professed to know), cruel jokes were made at his expense. The former president had a plethora of nicknames: “Koussé,” meaning smooth-face (Rafsanjani did not sport a beard) and resembles kouzé, meaning shark; “Akbar Shah” (King Akbar); and “his eminence in a red robe,” as coined by Akbar Ganji, an offense which landed the famous dissident in jail.
If Rafsanjani had any hope of returning to power via the ballot box, those taxi rumors had to be crushed, and what better way than via the rise of the metro?
In February 2000, when the metro was about to launch, Rafsanjani ran in the parliamentary elections. The first results were catastrophic, and it took three months of careful ballot recounts for him to join the list of thirty Tehran deputies, at No 26. At the end of May, he ended up resigning from this hard-won position. In the taxis, he’d been dubbed “Aga Si” (Mr Thirty, referring to the election list) and “Aga Asensor,” illustrating his climb back up during the recounts.
By 2005, two metro lines were running, but it still wasn’t enough to guarantee victory, for Rafsanjani was beaten in the second round of the presidential election by the country’s current leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
From a technical standpoint, a taxi is the perfect rumor factory. A closed, anonymous space, surrounded by noise, one can exit at any moment. Iran’s political isolation means that ideas are filtered through the sputtering of shortwave radios, the read-between-the-lines copy of local newspapers, and the lousy television shows of the Diaspora in the United States. There is, of course, the ever-reliable internet, but this is only accessible to the bourgeoisie (including foreign journalists).
The country’s intellectual seclusion, accompanied by taboos instituted by the Islamic Republic, tend to prevent public research on the Revolution from being carried out and diffused. The sport of spreading conspiracy theories, which are rumors’ bigger sisters, has gained particular popularity. In taxis, we hear that the Revolution was orchestrated by Americans to weaken the country just when the Shah was making it powerful. We discover that the Revolution was a British plot to take back control of Iran, where Americans have settled far too comfortably. A secret alliance exists between the clergy Shias and the British. The media bytes contradicting these theories — such as the Rushdie affair, which for a long time ruined Iran-British relations — are only proof that the plot is in truth larger and much more sophisticated than most had thought.
There are those who stereotype this accusatory tradition as sore-loser syndrome. After all, Iran is a quasi-European, Aryan nation situated (as if by mistake) between Afghanistan and Iraq; a peaceful nation, it is continually invaded by barbarians; sophisticated, its people are classified by the media as brutes; superior, they are humiliated daily by the state of their economy.
The regime benefits a great deal from these so-called conspiracies, never missing an opportunity to fuel them in speeches on “internal enemies” and “foreign hands” at work in the country. Disclaimers are rare. (In 1998, when his son disappeared, Mohsen Rezai, former chief of the Revolution Guards Corps, claimed he had proof of an Israeli-led kidnapping. “Not at all, daddy, I had had enough and I ran away to the United States,” his son replied on the radio station Voice of America.)
I, myself, had an opportunity to assess intimately the power of the rumor. When I was on holiday away from the capital once, the owner of the apartment I was renting in Tehran sold it for a good price. On my return, I found my belongings scattered in the courtyard and the locks changed. I was going to protest, demand compensation, and justice and show that I had paid my rent each month, when my old landlord told me, “If I were you, I would leave quietly. You transformed my apartment into a brothel.” An additional surge of rage strangled my throat when he added, “I know the person responsible for extending your visa very well, and I took the liberty of writing him a letter, signed by two other tenants, to denounce the sexual orgies you organize, along with the date of each event and the description of its participants.”
Some time later, when I had settled into another apartment, I found myself facing the official in question. He confirmed receiving the letter. I explained the story and specified that the two other signatories, persons of old age living alone, had signed without understanding and had since recanted their tale.
“Be assured,” the official said, “your private life does not concern me. Still, for unrelated reasons, I am not authorized to let you leave the country.”
Nothing would be the same. Friends turned their backs. Dubious enemies appeared out of nowhere. One day, an article published in a conservative newspaper expressed astonishment that a perverted spy like me had been allowed leave to stay in the country. I left Iran a short while after, remembering that Ghassem, the taxi driver, had told me one other story about Rafsanjani — one that involved the former President being walked in on while dancing the polka, surrounded by fifty Chinese prostitutes in his posh Niavaran residence.
Share What Noah Knew: Old models for new conditions
What follows is an abridged version of the speech given by Fred Wolf, a Halliburton representative who spoke at the Lexis-Nexis Catastrophic Loss conference held at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Amelia Island, Florida on May 9, 2006. With the help of Dr Northrop Goody, the head of Halliburton’s Emergency Products Development Unit, Wolf demonstrated three SurvivaBall mockups, an advanced new technology that will keep corporate managers safe even when climate change makes life as we know it impossible. During the presentation, Dr Goody showed slides, diagrams, and videos describing the SurvivaBall’s many features.
For the integral multimedia presentation of the SurvivaBall, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3a3XBnMe5Q_.
Thank you for inviting Halliburton to speak at this conference on catastrophic loss, on this panel on disaster preparedness. A lot of you work with the insurance industry, of course, and that’s why today I want to speak about something that’s a major preoccupation for all of us here, whether in reconstruction, or insurance, or actually any industry — and that’s safety.
And buckle your seatbelts, because we have a real treat for you today. At the end of this talk, my colleague Dr Goody will unveil a mockup of a brand new solution to one particular safety problem, [one] that could one day prove essential to anyone in a position of responsibility, including all of us here.
So. First of all, let’s define our words: what do we mean when we say “safety”? Well, for us in the corporate world, the most essential form of safety is simply the safety to achieve what we need, as we need it, and how we need it.
Whether I’m in reconstruction, energy, manufacturing, or insurance, if I’m taking a risk, I want the government’s hand to be pulling me safely over the obstacles, not laying obstacles in my way. I want to be safe to minimize the risk to my investments as I see fit, without being told what’s right and what’s wrong.
Insurance firms are also concerned with safety, another form of it, a special-case definition: the safety of people. Because their own safety depends so much on that special form of safety, insurance has become quite worried about some grave new dangers to people that we’re seeing in the world around us. I’m talking about climate change and the natural disasters it brings.
Indeed, the numbers could look frightening. In the 1950s, insurance had to pay $4 billion per year for disasters. Now it pays about forty times that, or $150 billion each year. And it’s getting worse; Munich Reinsurance has written that “climatic change will lead to natural catastrophes of hitherto unknown force and frequency” triggering losses of “many hundreds of billions of dollars per year.”
To make things worse, there are some who believe that this is only the start. In nature, things often change very suddenly, and scientists feel that the things we’ve seen so far may be minor compared to what could happen.
For example, Arctic melt has slowed the Gulf Stream by thirty percent in just the last decade; if the Gulf Stream stops, Europe will become just as cold as Alaska.
Or it could go the other way — methane released from melting permafrost could cause a heating cycle, making human life unlivable outside air-conditioned hotels like this one.
Or, as the oceans heat up and expand, ice sheets could slip off Antarctica — meaning most of the earth’s major cities will flood!
Even if none of this happens, some scientists tell us the changes we’re likely to see will greatly increase disease and migration and could exacerbate growing tensions within our societies possibly to the point of civic unrest or even war.
This sort of thinking has even influenced some insurers. Lloyd’s of London has stated that climate change could easily bankrupt the entire insurance industry, and Munich Re suggests it could topple global capital markets as a consequence.
Given the science, these worries cannot be called unreasonable. But panicking isn’t the answer.
If we panic and try to stop climate change, seventy percent of carbon emissions will have to stop. That’ll be a huge blow to our way of doing business: government intervention will become the rule, and we’ll have thrown out the baby with the bathwater.
To remain profitable in a macroscopic loss situation, we must integrate disaster into our global business vision, and not allow immediate dangers to interfere with our general, longer-term concept of safety.
We at Halliburton, for example, assure our safety not despite, but via, the ambient danger — in reconstruction, relocation of refugees, peacekeeping. These arenas are synergistic: where there’s conflict, there’s reconstruction; where there are refugees, there’s conflict; where there’s conflict or reconstruction, there are bound to be refugees.
Sometimes danger presents broad new opportunities. In New Orleans, for example, Katrina pruned the city, removing people from economic black holes and allowing a redevelopment process that’s gratifying for all of us. Although real estate values plummeted immediately following the disaster, much commercial real estate is already over its pre-storm values.
While we don’t suggest that everyone make climate change the core of their business plan, I can personally guarantee you that level heads will always be able to turn lemons into lemonade.
But as Warren Buffet, the oracle of Omaha, so astutely said, you must follow the Noah rule: predicting rain doesn’t count, building arks does.
I can personally guarantee you that we as a society are more than ready to build arks against these conditions — in some cases, we’ve already done so.
Keeping the ark of our interests afloat in a world of increasing disquiet is the job of our defense industries, and they do it quite well — here’s the Green Zone in Baghdad.
Likewise, secure neighborhoods protect us against the unknown in our own societies — this security checkpoint built after the Rodney King riots protects a community on the edge of Los Angeles.
For those of us in positions of responsibility, however, who might have to take charge in a crisis, even more innovative solutions will be needed. We can’t be satisfied with mere survival, but must guarantee, at every instant, the capacity and resources to keep our thumbs firmly on the triggers of progress.
From an insurance perspective, this is more essential than any other safety challenge, since it will guarantee the continuing liquidity of the insured enterprise. And the only way to do this is to maintain a highly sophisticated boots-on-the-ground strategy.
I’d like now to introduce my colleague, Dr Northrop Goody, who’s the head of our Emergency Products Development Unit at Halliburton. Dr Goody will be showing some mockups that his unit has developed, and will explain the unit’s various features.
[Dr Goody calls for volunteers and begins helping them on with the suits.]
As Dr Goody prepares the suits for demonstration, I want you to do a little thought experiment. Imagine you’re sitting in your office, and suddenly you get the reports: there’s a catastrophe. Let’s say it’s a flood with high winds and also some fires, accompanied by an outbreak of dengue, or “breakbone fever.” You’ve been getting the warnings for weeks, but suddenly it’s upon you, and, boy, is it bad.
But you can see that the situation holds promise. You’ve recently invested in equipment that could be repurposed to address water damage. Much of that stock is offsite — in a warehouse fortunately located well above sea level. Also, you recently invested in a new security force that could be redirected to profitably help impose some semblance of order, especially since ten million refugees are threatening to arrive from the next country over, which recently experienced an even worse climate event.
The only problem is, you aren’t sure you can maintain your management structure and data integrity in a condition to safely achieve these results. How will you not only survive, but also continue to function and thrive in the chaos of a disaster?
[Fred Wolf is now put into a suit as well by Dr Goody, and Dr Goody explains the features of the suit. Wolf sums up from within one of the suits.]
Thank you Dr Goody, that was very nice.
I want to end with a sobering note: this isn’t a magic bullet. You all surely have contingency plans within your corporations to deal with climate change disasters — I hope you do, anyhow. But none of that’s worth anything unless your managers survive, and that’s what this is about: the most important form of safety.
We’re going to have a working prototype model within six to nine months, and we’ll be happy to come do a demo in your home offices. I’ll come around and get your business card to put you on the list, but first we’d like to take any questions you might have.
Share Archetypal Intellectuals, Devastated Revolutionaries, Kitsch Mythologies, and a Writer Who Dared to Look at Herself: The Disenchanted
It is the mid-90s, and I’m sitting in a bar, drinking a cold Stella beer. I am somewhere on the Sinai coast. Next to me, an older man is sitting sipping his whiskey-neat. He looks like someone who works with money, not abstractly, with the arrogance of a banker or a stockbroker, but more directly. Maybe he’s a contractor? As it turns out, he’s laying the electricity grid of the whole of the Sinai Peninsula. We talk. The name of Arwa Saleh is mentioned (no idea how or why), and the man suddenly breaks out into a heated rant on the pretentious corruption of artists and left-wing intellectuals — their uselessness, their danger to society, the ways they can damage other people. He reveals that he is (to my utter surprise) Arwa’s brother — brother of the Arwa Saleh who threw herself off a Cairo balcony less than a month ago. His diatribe is suddenly contextualized.
To speak of a suicide — especially the suicide of a poet, artist, or writer — is to touch the glamour of dramatic gestures, the abandon of the unspeakable. A glamour that sustains itself precisely by glossing over the immense pain and despair leading to such an absolute act. To speak of suicide is, in a sense, to banish it beyond conversation. But maybe it’s apt and even productive to treat Arwa Saleh’s suicide as a metaphor that arises out of her one published text, the fascinating rumination on a generation and its convictions, El mobtaseroun (The Premature). The leaders of the generation under the microscope, the so-called 70s student movement, are now mostly at the helms of (largely co-opted) liberal-minded NGOs, who survive off of handouts from international agencies with different agendas. That is, if they don’t kill themselves, as Arwa did.
El mobtaseroun might not be especially brilliant as philosophy or radical as a revolutionary manifesto, but it is absolutely necessary. It has an urgency that gains in significance through the wide-reaching impact this generation has had, albeit unconsciously and in opposition to its stated aims, on contemporary Egyptian society. It points out how language — or, more accurately, discourse, a system of using language within historical context, is a main operator, the arbiter between self-defeat and the possibility of action. Saleh’s concern is not for style or dogma but rather the burning need both to critique and to validate an experience whose echoes still resonate within the cultural life and politics of this city.
Saleh’s introduction to the book is fascinating, an incisive analytical introduction written five years after the primary text itself. She states that upon reading the final proof, she was shocked to discover herself alienated from earlier political positions and even more from the very impetus to profess a political position that takes concern and empathy over the plight of a nation as a basic starting point. This is a documentation of the change in consciousness not only of a person but also of a whole society. Saleh was honest enough to decide to come to terms with what had changed within her own understanding of the self in relation to a public discourse — even while disavowing it. By relying on the age-old literary trick of disclaiming responsibility for the text we’re about to read, she places the whole experience within the parentheses of history.
And it is truly devastating to hear Saleh state “that all utopias in the world cannot overcome the joy of human warmth.”
ARCHETYPES AND LINGUISTIC TROPES
Different chapters introduce us to different archetypes of intellectuals. In The Intellectual as a Pessimist, we tackle the illusions that helped sustain the very workings of the movement and were simultaneously its downfall. Statements that became truths — producing history is easy and simple, society is to be condemned, and thus we possess a natural moral high ground. Statements that led to alienation, nihilism, and hence corruption and personal class aspiration. Saleh’s text demonstrates how the intellectual who gains in stature (in the eyes of the very bourgeoisie he so feverishly detests) by performing the role of the alienated critic, becomes the beloved of the object of his condemnation and is slowly but surely seduced into its orbit.
These are the memoirs of a complicated, obsessive, and disenchanted love relationship with Marxism. The disenchanted lover is not necessarily one who has lost faith so much as one who needs to come to terms with the driving motives behind that love — to uncover the bourgeois roots of all romantic gestures and most interestingly to analyze how those gestures played a part in the nascent birth of the Egyptian republic. The illusion that the 70s generation harbored, of being the dialectical antithesis to the fascist nationalism of the Nasser years, is uncovered as a construct of that very nationalism (which helps explain the later move of Marxists into the Islamic camp en masse). Nostalgia is explained as a movement that yearns for the context that produced it. The prematurity Saleh refers to in her title is the consciousness of a generation that was unable to forge its understanding outside the system that produced it — the very bourgeois need for validation — and was therefore unable to become a truly popular movement.
Language is clearly at play, as a source of power for the different actors on the stage of political involvement, and even more importantly as the means by which the zeitgeist comes to understand itself, discovering its own will and action.
HEGELIANISM AND THE CORRUPTION OF THE INTELLECTUAL
In discussing history, Saleh manages to sidestep the dangers latent in the Hegelianism of Marxist thought, that insistence on anthropomorphizing history and giving it a human face that suits their goals. She calls for a more dispassionate and modest approach that recognizes the power of a force that is not always reducible or comprehendible, where imagined rights and wrongs do not take their place automatically in some worked-out progressive diagram of human happiness and fulfillment. In her discussion of revolutionary kitsch — its totalitarian/authoritarian romantic sentimentality — Saleh insists on analyzing how kitsch functions across ideology, rather than through it — based on metaphors and linguistic tropes rather than concepts or ideas only. The profound possibility that ideology itself is unable to function without the layer of kitsch is touched upon. This is devastating stuff, for revolutionaries are, by Saleh’s description, self-interested romantics in love with ideas. The introduction of a superstition — a whisper around the corner, a way of speaking to yourself and imagining an audience that witnesses your every move on a stage-becomes the driving force behind one’s sacrifices. The stage of history itself is where we operate. Saleh states, paraphrasing Kundera, that “kitsch is a mask that hides death behind it” — an especially potent statement in hindsight. For within the empire of mutual gestures, political movements, utopias and hopes, the hysteria of demands, the narcissism of demonstrations, the drama of refusal, resides a deep illusion harbored by class. A bourgeoisie, enthralled by its own power to assert ideas and change the course of millennia.
It is therefore disheartening to see street movements such as Kefaya (although watching crowds chant “No, no, to Hosni Mubarak!” from my balcony last summer was like an amphetamine rush) adopt a similar discourse where an ethical and moral high ground is presumed. To see that the subtle understanding of political power as a form of linguistic play, an understanding of who and what we are in relation to the operations of power, is still lacking.
Share Sex and Stereotype on the Sub-Continent: It’s Altaf your tailor, come to take your measurements
“White men love you. They spend so much time worrying about your penis they forget their own. The only thing they want to do is cut off a nigger’s privates. And if that ain’t love and respect I don’t know what is.”
—Toni Morrison, Sula
I approach Scott Poulson-Bryant’s Hung: A Meditation on the Measure of Black Men in America (Doubleday, 2005) with some trepidation, as if rifling through a friend’s underwear drawer. I’ve known Scott for a few years in a hip-hop/fashion/worlds-collide capacity. In all this time, we’ve never felt compelled to whip out our tools and do a comparison. This seems an odd omission because, based on the evidence in his book, this is a topic that comes up ad nauseum at bars, at home, in restaurants, and, of course, in the gym.
The Mandingo myth is everywhere in modern America, especially as regards polyglot lives. Take Hollywood, for instance. No one wants to see Denzel Washington locking tongues with America’s sweetheart, hence the removal of the original sexual chemistry subplot in The Pelican Brief. The only time Denzel does “the white thing” is in He Got Game, where Milla Jovovich is a hooker and therefore two subversions cancel each other out. Miscegenation is simultaneously nightmare (Sammy Davis Jr) and marketable commodity (Kimora Lee Simmons). Michel Houellebecq transmits sexual envy into the smoothly articulated complaint that French girls “only want to sleep with African and Arab men.” These compulsions are also explored in Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles Trilogy, where a convergence of race, sex, and crime provides the substance of a hard-boiled French noir.
Free-associating backwards through the decades, we find stories about Muslim rapists in pre-Partition India that scratch the same fascination/repulsion itch. As we learn in the narratives of the time, Muslims were kidnapping Hindu women because of the “low standard of morality among the mass of Muhammadans, the prevalence of polygamy, and the numerical inferiority of females among them.” For Hindu activists pushing a muscular, post-independence identity, this was an invitation to figuratively build fortresses around “their” women. Muslims might be rumored to have “superior physique,” but Hindu males were exhorted to remember their past: “You were kings once/You carrot-eating wenches.”
During the buildup of cultural tension between the two partitions — the 1905 Partition of Bengal and the final, apocalyptic rupture of 1947 — stereotypes played a crucial role. The idea of the omnivorous, having-many-wives-and-still-not-satisfied, hyper-sexed Muslim was a powerful trope. Double perception: the crude, uneducated, and also horny Muslim male — an interweaving with the colonial obsession with the Muslim harem as the bastion of frigidity.
The census in the late 1800s produced a “shock,” as it was discovered that the Muslim population everywhere in India was a quantum leap above what was expected. Since then, there’s been an obsession with the idea of the “dying Hindu.” Binary stereotypes were at play: Muslims ate meat and took four wives — they were designed to breed; Hindus were gentle vegetarians and had a structural edict against remarrying widows — their populations were doomed to die. Especially in rural hinterlands like East Bengal (today’s Bangladesh), always in the shadow of booming Calcutta, the existence of a vast, uncounted Muslim numeric majority came as a total surprise. In 1891, census commissioner O’Donnell looked at the slower growth rates for Hindu populations, and performed mental gymnastics to calculate an actual year when Hindus would “disappear altogether.” This data led HH Risley, then home secretary of India, to ask, “Can the figures of the last census be regarded in any sense the forerunner of an Islamic or Christian revival, which will threaten the citadel of Hinduism?” Extinction of Hindus, in the face of baby-boom Muslims, had gone from statistical possibility to near probability, as codified in alarmist titles like UN Mukherjee’s pamphlet A Dying Race and Indra Prakash’s book They Count Their Gains — We Calculate Our Losses.
Demographic time bomb fears dovetailed with a focus on the Hindu widows who were forbidden by religious tradition to remarry. Moralists were obsessed with the “wild” sexual appetites of widows. In the first instance, the idea was that this would lead to infanticide because they would have children out of wedlock. Later, as the Muslim rapist entered the picture, the issue became even more fearful. Better infanticide than a Muslim-Hindu union!
Campaigns against the abduction of women first started from an anti-colonial position, but were soon rewired into a communal platform. Early protests in the 1880s were directed towards British tea planters who were molesting women workers. Even up to 1923, protests against rapes by policemen were on behalf of both Muslim and Hindu women. But the 1924 formation of the Women’s Protection League shifted the focus towards the idea of Muslim goondas with a singular interest in Hindu women. The best carriers of these stories were the vernacular newspapers and cheap flyers and pamphlets (a gift of the proliferation British of press machines, especially in Bengal –– always ahead of other South Asian regions in colonial apparatus, this time to deadly effect).
A pivotal case was the Suhasini rape case in Rangpur. The key players here were the legal and journalistic professions, both of which were invested in communal separation as a buildup to “Quit India.” The courtroom became the stage for the magnification of fears around the two communities’ mutual antagonism. Atul Sur wrote, with a quiet pride, about scanning the newspapers every day for stories about Hindu girls being kidnapped by Muslim men. This porno-voyeurism was rewarded on most days. Amrita Bazar Patrika was the leader of the pack, printing fanciful and real stories of abduction. Headlines would reinforce the message and point up connections between various cases. When a 1929 case resulted in acquittal, Amrita Bazar still spun the headline in screaming font: WOEFUL STORY OF A GIRL. As court cases continued, rural litigants would pick up fragments and innuendo from the proceedings and relay them back to their villages. The tight networks in each village then took over, and rumor ran wild.
By 1938, statistics showed that the majority of Muslim and Hindu kidnappers preferred women from their own religious communities. The ratios in the 1935-37 report on abduction-rapes of women by men (sweetly called “outrages”) were:
Hindu on Hindu: 1,260 / Hindu on Muslim: 30
Muslim on Hindu: 686 / Muslim on Muslim: 3,299
A proportion of rape cases involved known assailants — neighbors, colleagues, and relatives. Intra-community sexual violence was to be expected, given the segregation that existed in daily life. But rape that didn’t follow communal patterns was not to be allowed. Riot-minded politicians needed cross-pollinated sex panic. Stories of kidnapping and rape were a huge driver behind the Hindu exodus from East Bengal between 1947 and 1950. In the literature of the period, the Hindu refugee always lands in Calcutta, homeless and begging for food with the cry, “Please help us, we have nothing. We left everything behind. What else could we have done? They would have taken our women.” In Ritwik Ghatak’s film Subarna Rekha, as the refugee camp festers and discontent sets in, a character voices reassurance: “Why did we leave everything to rot here? Because they would have done it to our mothers, sisters, daughters if we had stayed.”
In actual migration patterns, women were often sent over first while men stayed and tried to sell off property. Those left behind are considered in Sabiha Sumar’s Khamosh Pani, where the women are rumored to have chosen a watery grave over rape. The protagonist is someone who converts to Islam, another kind of tragic martyr in the eyes of her fellow Hindus. The conventional idea was that in Muslim-Hindu unions, it would be the Hindu side that would “lose religion.” Even peaceful cohabitations could be seen as abductions in this light.
The legacy of sexual fright, along with other mutually reinforcing stereotypes, planted the seeds for continued mutual antagonism across the borders and on internal minorities in post-Partition India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Each side channels the energies of Panchanan Barma’s wishful verse:
Shame, shame, the dead men, shame.
The hooligans are taking away your mothers and sisters, still you remain cool?
Look at our women, they are great.
Let the lumpen neres (Muslims) come, we will teach them a lesson.
It seems we are still teaching each other lessons.
Share Schoolgirls Slowly Falling to the Ground: The Phenomenon of Collective Hypnosis
In one of Geneva’s many cafes, a Swiss cultural coordinator once asked me about the upheavals occurring in our “countries” in relation to the published Danish cartoons of the prophet Mohammed that appeared in various publications in Denmark and other European nations. She couldn’t comprehend, with her European cultural background (she apparently belongs to a country where intellectuals don’t necessarily politicize everything), the immense anger that welled up on the Arab streets — the scenes of flag burning, the attacks on embassies. She couldn’t understand how such actions were instigated by a few published drawings. I myself could hardly understand. I answered after a brief silence. “These are a people who are deeply wounded in their national pride.” She nodded her head slightly in acknowledgement of what I had said and was silent again for a few seconds before we changed the subject.
My answer didn’t satisfy either of us. How could a small incident in a faraway land be seen as a direct insult to over a billion Muslims spread out all over this world? How could it become the trigger for mass hysteria? I turned to other similar incidents, incidents that became exaggerated, allowed to smolder and then suddenly erupt and spread like a fire consuming fields of straw. Many such incidents were connected to religion, usually taking the form of an insult to a sacred sign, followed by a reaction from the faithful.
In the case of the cartoons, the Islamic right managed to hijack the Danish issue and utilize it politically on different levels, producing a sort of religious backlash by orchestrating a massive campaign involving millions of posters and cars roving the city with loudspeakers, calling upon believers to support, in undefined ways, their religion. A lot of money was procured to spread that ambiguous message. The campaign succeeded in increasing the base of support and sympathy for the religious right, as well as further complicating Islam’s relationship with the West and, furthmore, all forms of modernity. In a sense, the campaign was doubly successful in marginalizing all different forms of local secular thought, by utilizing the charged emotional atmosphere and banishing all other voices.
Campaigns like these wouldn’t succeed in mobilizing large segments of the population at such speed if the targeted masses didn’t already possess a latent proclivity for such messages delivered in that form. There are groups of people who seem willing and ready to partake in a state of collective hypnosis (receive the information, absorb it without question, and allow emotions free reign) through a mechanism that functions on the level of the individual and is repeated wholesale. Thus the phenomenon of mass reaction is born, a phenomenon that presupposes the neutralization of rational faculties. Right-wing movements have been successful throughout history in utilizing this hypnosis to achieve concrete political goals.
It is, however, important to note that this incident occurred at a time when the daily killing of Muslims generally, and Arabs in particular, in Iraq, Palestine, and other regions in the Middle East was taking place (it still is). The necessary historical conditions for such outrage were in place, what I earlier referred to as wounded national pride.
Prior to the extreme deterioration of affairs in the region, other similar incidents had taken place, incidents which, because they were more local and more specific, can help us analyze the mechanism of the operation itself. A few years ago, the Muslim Brotherhood orchestrated massive demonstrations against a novel they claimed is offensive to Islam, by Syrian writer Heydar Heydar. Thousands of students from Al Azhar University mobilized, demanding that the novel be banned and that the minister of culture, who had allowed it to be republished in Egypt with public funds, be dismissed. The minister wasn’t dismissed; the state keeps such decisions to itself, so there’s no opportunity for opposition, especially from Islamic fundamentalists. However, the state-owned publishing house was purged of all elements deemed un-Islamic. The Islamists managed to transform hysteria into concrete political results and made gains in the symbolic space of state institutions.
The signal for these mobilizations, the original event, appears as a unit of information that is received and reformulated by an ideological apparatus of meaning — the media and interested political parties — that decontextualizes it and adds the details needed for the proper functioning of collective hypnosis, then retransmits it. The operation is complete when the signal takes its place in the political sphere with new meaning. The original signal itself is almost never neutral and innocent of political signification, which of course opens it up to the possibility of being hijacked by various ideological regimes of meaning.
Is it possible to utilize signals that are more innocent? We can look to the past again for a more enigmatic and abstract example. A few years before the aforementioned incidents, in an all-girls school in a small village in the Nile Delta, a spell of mass fainting occurred. A whole class of teenage schoolgirls fainted together at the same exact moment. At first the incident was interpreted as food poisoning due to a bad school lunch. However, medical inspection proved that there was no actual physical poisoning involved. The girls who had lost consciousness were also quick to regain it after a few minutes, as if nothing had happened. Mysteriously, the condition moved from school to school, and from province to province, with no apparent explanation. During the span of a whole week, girls fainted together in different schools all over the delta. Newspapers began circulating stories of girls who fell like dominoes in their classrooms.
Through the still-unexplained phenomenon of the fainting spells we can observe the same operation of collective hypnosis. The signal, it’s true, is more abstract and enigmatic, as there seemed to be no outside event causing the fainting. The signal appeared outside language, maybe as a cipher decoded within the consciousness of the girls, a consciousness that responded by momentarily losing itself and becoming absent. It is as if this cipher or signal were so unbearably beyond reason that it short-circuited the rational faculties themselves.
With the original signal absent and the apparatus that retransmits this signal completely internalized, everything is more enigmatic and abstract. The body becomes a vessel for a metaphor made manifest; the operation becomes condensed and physical, located in the body of a schoolgirl slowly falling to the ground, among dozens of others doing exactly the same.
Share Soda as Politick: When they think of democracy they think of Coca-Cola
Shortly after taking possession of the Golan Heights in June of 1967, Israeli Defense Forces entered the abandoned headquarters of the Syrian Army and in the flush of victory stripped down a Pepsi-Cola marquee — battered but still aloft — and hoisted a gleaming new Coca-Cola sign in its place. Regarded from today’s perspective, this seems like a gesture of inscrutable black humor or Warholesque non sequitur, a campy inside joke for which the reference has been lost. But to observers at the time, the merging of the cola wars and the Arab-Israeli conflict was a familiar story, and one to which the establishment of Coke’s “sovereignty” brought dramatic resolution.
Like all dramatic resolutions, this one involved a reversal of fortune. Only a little over a year before, after all, Coke was cola non grata in Zionist circles. In April of 1966, the Anti-Defamation League of B'Nai Brith wrapped up a fifteen-month investigation of Coca-Cola by concluding that the company — which then had no Israeli franchise and had in fact refused one to an Israeli bottler — was cooperating with the Arab League’s boycott of companies doing business with Israel. Coke’s management stumbled into damage control. The New York City Human Rights Commission began to look into the matter, and in the meantime, the Coke spigots went dry at Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs on Coney Island and in the cafeteria at Mount Sinai Hospital, as a counter-boycott by American Jews took shape.
Few were convinced by Coke chairman James Farley’s claim-in a lengthy public statement printed in full by the New York Times — that Israel just wasn’t a promising and lucrative market for the beverage in question. Subsequent equivocations fell similarly flat, and within a week Coke had granted an Israeli concession to one Abraham Feinberg, a New York financier who in 1949 had applied and been rejected for the same thing.
The ADL issued a statement declaring that they were “delighted”; the Arab League issued a statement declaring an ultimatum. Coke, for its part, issued statements, in the form of large advertisements in Egyptian newspapers, declaring the importance of its product to the Egyptian economy and stressing the number of Arabs employed by the company. Public relations efforts, however, proved fruitless, and by the close of 1966, the decades-long Arab boycott of Coke had begun. The raw numbers of the new dispensation didn’t look good; the strategy Coke had hitherto pursued made more sense, as neatly summed up by one wry Israeli official: “Somebody looked at a map and saw eighty million thirsty Arabs opposed to a couple million thirsty Israelis, and that was that.” Meanwhile, Pepsi claimed that it couldn’t compete with Coke in Israel and therefore wouldn’t try, and consoled itself for the loss by catering to the aforementioned eighty million. While the flimsy rationale was enough to protect Pepsi from the sort of outrage that had plagued its rival, a can of Pepsi-Cola swiftly lost kosher status everywhere from the Catskills to, as mentioned, the newly occupied Golan Heights. We know who won the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, but who won the cola war of that same year?
You could, if you were so inclined, refract the entire history of Arab-Israeli-American relations through the prism of cola politics. The results would both radically distort and sporadically illuminate. Israel’s victory in June of 1967 was a watershed for the US-Israel alliance, ushering in a recalibrated realpolitik, in which Israel’s strategic value would weigh more heavily against the economic value of the Arab countries. Coca-Cola in the spring of 1966 was ahead of this curve, even if at first unwillingly. The Six-Day War catalyzed what might be described as a rebranding of Israel itself; American support for the state was no longer an expression of ethnic solidarity and religious yearning, nor of sympathetic well-wishing across such lines, but was becoming instead a dutiful extension of American patriotism proper. (Since the 1970s, to give just one example, American companies complying with the Arab League’s boycott find themselves the target not of Jewish counter-boycotts, but of government fines and legal prosecution.)
Since at least as far back as 1950, when chairman Farley addressed the American Trademark Association and described the American flag as “the most glorious of all trademarks,” Coke has been prescient about aligning its corporate policies with American foreign policy. Indeed, one finds Coke not merely in alignment but at times in the vanguard; according to JC Louis and Harvey Yazijian’s The Cola Wars, Coke has “greased the machinery of foreign policy” not only in the Middle East but in Cuba, Central America, and the former Soviet Union. When after the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Egypt was in dire need of foreign investment, Coke sent an Egyptian-born executive, Sam Ayoub, to Cairo to begin laying the groundwork for an eventual end-run around the boycott. Ayoub bided his time, penetrated Sadat’s inner circle, and arranged for meetings between the Egyptian president and Coke’s then-chairman, Paul Austin, and by 1977 — a year before the Camp David Accords — Coke had been granted permission to reintroduce its full line of products into Egypt.
Coke’s strategy with regards to Arab markets evolved out of the success of its “separate peace” with Egypt; the goal thenceforth was to weaken Arab solidarity-and neutralize the Palestinian issue-by pursuing individual deals with “moderate” states, one by one. By the time the first Intifada began in 1987, Coke had reopened markets in Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Oman. Needless to say, the approach meshed seamlessly with President Carter’s Middle East policies, as well as those of subsequent administrations.
Chummy relations between American administrations and transnational corporations, as we know, are the norm, not the exception. What’s intriguing about Coke in the 70s and 80s, however, is how content it was to let rumor and speculation foment about its intimacy with the highest government offices. When the Federal Election Commission began investigating alleged improprieties of the so-called “Carter connection,” chairman Austin told the New York Times that it would be “very injudicious” either to confirm or to deny them, adding coyly that he and Carter “have a friendly, open relationship.” Austin’s equanimity makes more sense, however, when one considers the subtlety, assiduousness, and quiet ingenuity with which Coke has blurred (and let blur) the line between the branding content of its own logo and that of “the most glorious of all trademarks.”
That strategic blurring animated one of the greatest corporate rumors ever deliberately disseminated, that of Coke’s “secret formula.” Coke had since its earliest days claimed to have a secret recipe, but the Cold-War cultural context of national intelligence, counter-intelligence, nuclear secrets, and foreign sabotage extended the rumor’s imaginative lease and gave it new resonance. Major newspapers ran hundreds of articles on Coca-Cola’s “secret formula” in the 70s and 80s. Company spokesmen claimed that the formula was kept in a vault that could be opened only by a vote of the board of directors — adding that at any given time, the formula was known by only two senior chemists active in the company.
Coke ostentatiously adhered to a policy of not sharing the secret with any foreign bottlers it dealt with, instead selling them the concentrated syrup ready-made — even when it meant once losing a contract with India. But there was one remarkable exception; in 1992, Israeli and American papers, including the Wall Street Journal, reported that Coke had revealed the formula to two Israeli rabbis, Rabbi Moshe Landau of B'nei Brak and the chief rabbi of Israel, Avraham Shapira. The ostensible purpose was to guarantee kosher certification, but Coke’s archly ambiguous statements to the press — alluding to the transfer of secrets while refusing to confirm or deny it — seemed a subtle riff on Israel’s “policy of deliberate ambiguity” with regard to nuclear secrets.
If branding is the art of cultivating the growth of connotations and secondary associations, rumor is the force by which they mutate and metastasize. Neither Coke nor Pepsi has had much luck in harnessing the latter in service of the former when it comes to the Middle East. Pepsi-Cola’s online promotional literature takes pains to point out that the name of its flagship drink is not an acronym for “Pay Every Penny to Save Israel,” that its invention in fact predates the creation of that country by a half-century. After the second Intifada began in 2000, Coke had to enlist the help of the grand mufti of Egypt to dispel the rumor that its wavy logo and cursive script contained hidden anti-Islamic messages. Several months ago, it was claimed on Iranian state television that Coke, which has bottling plants in Iran, was “ready to allocate a great deal of money to topple the Islamic Republic.”
While such occasional fits of the collective imagination make for droll anecdotes, they distract from the profound shift that has occurred in boycott politics in the Arab world since the 1960s. By the late 80s, the pragmatic underpinnings of the Arab League’s boycott had grown increasingly spurious, its ideological commitments demoralized. Iconic products — and Coke was the epitome of this — were banned, while companies like McDonnell Douglas, which provided key weaponry to the IDF, were given a pass. After the first Gulf War, the oil states, led by Saudi Arabia, orchestrated a lifting of the League’s ban on Coca-Cola, as a sop to Americans for having “liberated” the region, and then 110 other companies were swiftly banned as a sop to those regional governments that still took a hard line against Israel and the US. The Arab League’s boycott has long since become the debased currency of a crippled realpolitik.
What is replacing this decadent state pageant is a form of grassroots boycott politics. Its spokespeople are drawn from student groups, as well as from civic and religious organizations; its communications infrastructure consists of the internet, text messaging, mosque sermons, and so on. It is more supple, responsive, and ad hoc in its nature and in several instances has forced the corporations it confronts to respond on its own turf; when a spontaneous boycott of McDonald’s began in 2002, the company paid to send 60,000 text messages to Lebanese cell phones, in an effort to dispel the rumor that a portion of the profits of every meal was contributed to Israel.
Some thirty-four years after the Coca-Cola logo was raised over the Golan Heights, the Italian anarchist Antonio Negri described how “transnational corporations have effectively surpassed the jurisdiction and authority of nation-states,” going on to call for a mode of resistance “adequate to the new dimensions of sovereignty.” It seems safe to say we’re not there yet with our resistance, and it isn’t clear what a grassroots collective action is going to do about the likes of McDonnell Douglas. But, though the new forms of activism may be vain and quixotic, at least they aren’t yet decadent.
“When they think of democracy, they think of Coca-Cola,” read a prominent placard at Coke’s first international convention. That was in 1948, and while Coke winked at the Cold War it remained still oblivious to the one warming up in Palestine. Several of the words in that slogan — including “they” and “democracy” — have surely undergone a transvaluation of sorts in subsequent decades; but the formula still holds, perhaps more literally than ever.
Share How the Art World Prospers by Never Explaining Itself: The buck doesn’t even slow down here
Steve LaFreniere: I recently read an essay that describes your work as “tight-lipped in the Warholian manner.” I thought that was pretty funny.
Richard Prince: I’m not sure what it means. Close to the vest? All-knowing? Effortless? I remember seeing Warhol interviewed; he let someone else answer the questions for him. He just sat there smiling, like he was throwing his voice. “Tight-lipped?” I’m thinking it might mean "ventriloquist.”
—from Artforum, March 2003, XLI No.7, page 70
A friend and colleague, Ellen Langan, once pointed out the dubiousness of our referring to the goings-on of the art market as “the art world.” Ms Langan observed that, indeed, there is no doctor world, no law world, and finance is just called finance. Why don’t they exist on their own planets, too? Maybe it’s because the larger meaning behind these influential trades is easier to understand than is that of the art world, so the public cares more about interacting with and monitoring them. Even if one wanted to monitor the art world, its system makes the task unworkable. Contracts are seldom exchanged therein; instead the art world’s various arms (producers of art, marketers of art, distributors of art, consumers of art) function through the exchange of words. These “arms” don’t usually like to pay each other — either monetarily or in terms of verifiable information — so the idea is to keep everything in a nebulous, untraceable zone where the buck stops nowhere.
Concerning dealers: these arbiters of the next big thing are, of course, not elected, and are barely regulated by any federal organization (though talk of Larry Gagosian’s alleged uptown FBI raid in the aftermath of a silently-settled 2003 tax scandal still remains fodder for an art world-insider rumormonger). Even so, whoever they are and wherever they come from, dealers’ industry sway at this point trumps even that of the elite collector who seeks their wares; it is up to dealers to choose their sales in a market brimming with eager, wealthy art buyers mostly vying for the same hyped things.
At some major art fairs, particularly keen collectors occasionally feel it necessary to enlist the illicit help of a dealer (who might expect substantial purchases in return) in order to gain early entry to an event with forged press passes. From beneath the sheltering brims of baseball caps, these collectors have first dibs in the mad dash to invest in the art market. Preview-day at an art fair is not unlike the floor of any stock exchange; the predatory environment prohibits the collector from contemplating a work for any reasonable period before offering to purchase. Outside the crowded walls of a fair, collectors must often lay hasty claim to an artwork based on nothing more than a jpeg.
At best, jpegs tell hazy stories about the artworks they depict; but often these placeholders alone not only sell artworks but also position them in exhibitions and afford them extensive press coverage. Every email disseminating a jpeg of an artwork builds that particular work’s import and force in the art world. There is quite a poetic logic, to the rise of the jpeg in art world business; in Andy Warhol’s wake, the omnipresent appropriated image speaks a language from which the jpeg derives its vernacular. Appropriations are rumors about their sources, their meanings predicated on, yet distanced from, everything once held, still held, and potentially held by the original source material.
Richard Prince, who succeeded Warhol as the “crown prince” of the appropriated image, builds much of his project around the peculiar dominance of appropriation over originality. In 1984 the now-legendary Prince opened the doors to his tiny gallery, called Spiritual America. Of three exhibitions staged, one in particular continues to enthrall the art world. In it the gallery space was left dark, save for one spotlight shining on the gilt-framed image, also called Spiritual America, of a ten-year-old Brooke Shields. She stands naked in a steaming bathtub, her body polished with oil, her arms open and resting on a ledge, glinting metal figurines positioned around Shields in the foreground and background. The original image was taken not by Prince but by the commercial photographer Gary Gross, who famously executed the shoot in 1975 with the blessing of Shields’s mother. In what has become his signature mode, Prince “rephotographed” the commercial image and then inserted it into his version of an art world environment.
Despite the obviously titillating nature of Prince’s exhibition, at the time, the venture went almost completely unvisited and without mention. The appropriated Shields image, the Spiritual America gallery project, and Prince as auteur accrue their value through an exponentially growing mythology. Even in the last few years, Shields’s role as modern poster-mom magnifies anew the prurience and oddity of the Prince image and the manner in which it was displayed.
And of course, Prince’s contemporary fiscal achievements are the stuff of legend: in 2005 he set the then all-time auction record for any photograph, at $1,248,000. This record was set by a rephotograph of an existing commercial image (in an edition of two with one artist’s proof) and was only just broken last February by a unique Edward Steichen piece from 1904. Meanwhile, artist-run spaces become more de rigueur with every passing year, and the number of artists working with appropriated imagery grows steadily with no signs of slowing.
Consider the British artist known as Banksy, who is currently staging a coup on our PR culture to resounding success. Aided by his glib website, www.banksy.co.uk, and regular press coverage of his antics in print media such as The New York Times and The Guardian (these articles are posted in the “Cuttings” section of the artist’s site), Banksy’s self-consciously blasé exploits beget easy celebrity. He sneaks into the world’s most revered museums and hangs spray paintings of his own. He describes beer-fueled evenings illegally stenciling the insides of local tunnels with friends to create a “gallery show.” At Sotheby’s October Contemporary auction in London, Banksy’s 30” x 30”acrylic and spray-paint stencil on canvas, depicting the Mona Lisa (very much a nod to Warhol), earned its position as the cover-image on the auction catalogue, as it set the artist’s hammer record at £57,600. Perhaps more emblematically, his set of six silkscreen prints of Kate Moss’s controversial face, this time explicitly in the style of Andy Warhol’s Marilyn pieces, fetched £50,400. So who is Banksy, to suddenly command this level of capital interest? It’s alleged that he was born in 1975. Other than that, not much is known about the artist, who is somehow attributed with reinventing and popularizing graffiti art, even though it has long remained ubiquitous both inside and outside the gallery environment.
Unlike Warhol, Bansky does not exist in our midst. Curiosity leads one back to Banksy’s website for clues with which to uncloak the masked marauder. What one finds, by and large, are the contradictory musings of a spurned kid. The “Help” section of the site includes a list titled A Guide to Cutting Stencils, offering some of Banksy’s more philosophical musings: “The time of getting fame for your name on its own is over. Artwork that is only about wanting to be famous will never make you famous. Any fame is a byproduct of making something that means something. You don’t go to a restaurant and order a meal because you want to have a shit.” Making something that means something. O days of precious irony, where did you go?
In an age when Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame can be stretched to years, the key seems to be to shroud one’s popularity in order to preserve it. Express opinions through your publicist, put a jacket over your face, and wait for the glory. When Brad and Angelina are snatching up Banksy’s artworks to the purported tune of $400,000 (to say nothing of gossip column coverage), it follows that Banksy is as much a fantasized organ as the Jolie-Pitts. Both public figures magically transform desire into value – then multiply their celebrity stock values by desiring one another. (Hollywood’s version of star power must at least answer to a measure of sexual arousal and also bow to a wider-reaching, sometimes proletariat audience; the art world’s valuations are mainly exclusive and arbitrary.)
In The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again) (1975), Warhol writes, “I think ‘aura’ is something only somebody else can see, and they only see as much of it as they want to…You can only see the aura on someone you don’t know very well or don’t know at all.” Whispers about people and about artworks are not only much hotter than facts, they are far more convenient, because a swirl of energy never has to substantiate itself to be successful. In the art world, hearing is usually believing — sometimes even from the mouth of a dummy.
Share On Tahmineh Milani’s Cease Fire: Mr. Tom and Mrs. Jerry
Tahmineh Milani’s Atash bas (Cease Fire, 2006) recently became the highest grossing film in the history of Iranian cinema. It tells the story of a young couple who, two years after tying the knot, hit a decidedly rocky patch. Eventually, they seek help from a psychiatrist (played by Atila Pesiani), who duly tells them that the key is to “trust the child within.“ (Italian author Lucia Capacchione’s widely read self-help manual Recovery of Your Inner Child is credited onscreen as an inspiration.) Milani cast hot stars Mahnaz Afshar and Mohammad Reza Golzar as Sayeh and Yousef, the warring couple.
Milani, arguably Iran’s most successful female director, built her reputation as a diehard feminist through the polemical films — and international festival favorites — Do zan (Two Women, 1999), Vakonesh panjom (The Fifth Reaction, 2003), and Nimeh-ye penhan (The Hidden Half, 2001), which was deemed counterrevolutionary by the Islamic Revolutionary Court. In Atash bas, however, she appears to reduce the methods and reasoning of the women’s liberation movement to cheap trickery and formulaic spats. The matter of who does the housework is a recurrent issue. Yousef’s mother, dissatisfied in her own marriage, sides with her daughter-in-law, causing Yousef to warn Sayeh, "Didn’t I tell you my mom is a feminist?” Rather than portraying the complexity of gender relations in today’s Iran, Atash bas characterizes the couple’s problems as a Tom and Jerry scenario.
A comparison between the posters for Atash bas and the 2005 Hollywood “Brangelina” vehicle Mr & Mrs Smith reveals another influence on Milani’s writing and direction, and also perhaps her ambition for the film to have the impact in Iran that blockbusters do elsewhere. But given our technical and thematic limitations, Iranian cinema cannot do what Hollywood does: while the ideas and themes can travel, the outcome is but a pale imitation. In the Atash bas poster, the couple lean with their backs to each other, but against a pole, so as to avoid offending the censors. She has to wear her hejab, of course, and the viewer is left to imagine a garter and sexy pistol.
After the screening of her film in Cologne, Germany, Milani proffered some remarks about “the youth of today,” stating, for example, that “the new generation of girls have turned brazen, bad, and wild.” Atash bas was particularly popular with girls in Tehran, offering as it does myriad ideas for how best to taunt the opposite sex. For the characters in Atash bas, the adjectives that Milani uses to describe young women today would be relatively respectful but still, it’s difficult to excuse such insults — especially as it’s these same young Iranian women who helped take the film to the number-one spot at the box office.
The director also seems to harbor some ill feelings towards the urban middle class. She has Sayeh say about another character in the film, “I am sorry to say that this friend of yours is so mediocre.” Milani herself was raised in an urban middle-class family. At some point in her life, she joined a political organization that recruited its members from the youth of this social stratum. Nimeh-ye penhan (The Hidden Half) was a tribute to that era of political idealism. Why should she then belittle the middle classes to such a degree today?
Atash bas’s set designer filled the couple’s house with furniture from IKEA, that universally middle-class brand, which in Iran has found a market among the aristocracy. To indicate the excesses of the upper classes, Milani has her protagonists smash things from IKEA with reckless abandon. In Tehran there seems to be a proportional relationship between the number of people who fall below the poverty line and the proliferation of billboards that advertise luxury items. One current billboard reads: You Can Also Join the Big Family of BMW. It is perhaps beside the point that a Beemer is 20 to 30 times more expensive than the average car. Atash bas opens with a huge BMW sign, Yousef’s personal spacecraft of choice. From the very first shot, the film discloses its affinity to the sick capitalism of contemporary Iran.
Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s 1989 film Arusi-ye khuban (Marriage of the Blessed) opened with the camera looking at the world through the star of a Mercedes Benz. At the time, many critics saw this shot as an example of the director’s backward approach, his confusion of poverty with virtue. Twenty years later, Makhmalbaf no longer lives in Iran, the 1970 German car has been replaced with a 2005 version, and if his film said something about the revolutionary spirit of the time, Cease Fire says something about the preoccupations of a newly formed upper class whose hearts are void of anything to fight and live for.
The twisted attitude of state policy towards sexuality in post-revolutionary Iran, which today must answer to the needs of a disproportionately large youth population, has led to many social ills. Atash bas paints an allegorical picture of these ills: it’s the story of people who have nothing to live for except (the pursuit of) money. They are incapable of establishing the simplest forms of human contact; instead of love or attraction, they communicate through base pranks and buffoonery.
How can the “child within” find the strength to “recover” in this fetid air?
Share A Journey Into Beirut’s Dark Side: F**k the Sun
“Fuck the sun!” says Khalil Shams, the main character in Ghassan Salhab’s The Last Man, between gritted teeth. Khalil is sitting at a restaurant table, exchanging idle conversation with a group of friends; he has his back to the restaurant’s large window that looks out over the street. It’s been pouring rain forever — or at least since the beginning of the scene, where we see Khalil (played by Carlos Shahine) parking his car and hurrying to get inside. Suddenly, the clouds clear for a short moment and a ray of sunshine hits him on the back of his head, illuminating him from behind. He’s at the center of the table. The camera zooms in on him; he brings his hand to his face to cover his eyes, turns his head to look at the sky, and says these three words, almost imperceptibly. But the words are heard at the table, and everyone becomes quiet, maybe owing to the brusqueness of the statement, or maybe because this stillness is not of the restaurant, but of Khalil’s new world, the one into which he’s withdrawn.
The Last Man, which premiered at Switzerland’s Locarno Film Festival and in Lebanon at Ayam Beirut Cinema’iya, uses a well-known cinematic paradigm to explore Beirut’s dark side. It’s a film about vampires, true, but it lacks all the big special effects associated with the genre. There’s the customary bite on the neck, which becomes increasingly precise with each scene, signifying the hero’s transformation and descent to another world; there are dead bodies and mouths smeared with blood. But The Last Man is less a film about a man, a doctor, becoming a vampire, than it is about the concealed space that slowly swallows him. In fact, we know little of Khalil Shams’ character and psychology (a literal translation of his name would be “the companion of the sun”), and even less about his love life, his friends, or his profession. But we do know about his new world, which is made of darkness, of quiet, of wet, of stillness, of loneliness, and of blood, lust, and hunger.
Odd and eerie as it might sound, Beirutis are certainly no strangers to this world. We know it well; it is stealthily inscribed in our psyches from the day we are born. We encounter it on every turn of a street, and it’s one of the reasons we look away like we do when we meet people from our long forgotten past, people we don’t especially want to see. We dwell in it and it surrounds us, but we aren’t aware of it until it accumulates around us like dust, like the dust of the remains of those who were and are no longer.
As for those Beirutis who insist on living in the sun, laughing at the sinister mood of the rest of us, they were forced into our world during last summer’s Israeli war on Lebanon. It was a summer not associated with vacations, sunny beaches, and bronzed complexions. July was dark, lonely, empty, and bloody, just like Ghassan Salhab’s film. And although the film was written and shot before the war, the events it portrays can be considered neither coincidental nor a genius-like premonition of what was to come. The July War merely forced people to see what was always there, to meet the underbelly of their city — and what the film did was to compel them into recognizing their faces in that of a vampire.
It did so slowly, steadily. The Last Man starts like Salhab’s previous films, Phantom Beirut (1998) and Terra Incognita (2002), with scattered scenes and visuals, bits and pieces of dialogue, abrupt cuts and odd montages, scenes that can never fit into a linear narrative but that make sense retrospectively, like the beautiful scene of the water slowly running down and dripping off the staircase in a turn-of-the-century apartment building.
This overture is gradually replaced by more contiguous scenes of less light, less events, less people, less dialogues, less things. Strangely, the darker and scarcer the scenes get, the more their space becomes allegorical, in the sense that everything in it can signify anything else. The meaning is always undone and new associations constantly arise, disabusing the audience of its set of known and well-rehearsed references.
In the catastrophic space that Salhab tries to capture on film (a side-question would be, “How improbable is that?”), a car crash involving the doctor acquires an entirely new signification: the lust for blood, the hunger; the doctor turning away; the doctor, or what remains of him, losing the battle to the vampire; the vampire, a metaphor for the extreme isolation of individuals in Beirut, and their perpetual fight to remain individuals, under the city’s hard rain that never washes anything away. The changes that occur throughout the film affect the character as well as his environment: in keeping with the film’s low-tech style, Khalil remains recognizable to the end, but his gaze becomes intolerable (illustrated in a brothel scene); his reflection ceases to appear in the mirror (same scene, and the one where he meets a lab worker and tells her that “he — the vampire — cannot be filmed”); his voice belongs to another world — all signs of his inexorable journey towards Beirut’s concealed space, the final step being his communion with the veteran vampire who turned him.
In The Last Man, Ghassan Salhab attempts a journey into Beirut’s dark side. The question, of course, is not whether he succeeds– after all, a journey is a journey. Rather, the film’s quest takes the form of a paradox: if you can’t see the reflection of a vampire, how can it appear on film? And if a city is so intent on concealing and forgetting its underbelly, how can anyone represent it, present its visual narrative? A quote from Marx comes to mind: “It is by their imperfections, that the means of production in any process bring to our attention their character of being the products of past labour. A knife which fails to cut, a piece of thread which keeps on snapping, forcibly remind us of Mr A, the cutler, of Mr B, the spinner.” Just as a city that fails to appear reminds us of its vampires.
Share Music Pioneer Halim El-Dabh: Step Into the Electric Magnetic
For about ten years, Halim El-Dabh existed only as a mysterious footnote to almost every kind of music that I found myself drifting toward, and the trail that would lead me again and again to his name was always the same: once I’d become fairly familiar with the canon of a particular genre of music, be it modern classical, traditional Arabic, or electronica, I’d grow curious about the fringe artists in that field — the outsiders, the artists who didn’t fit in — the perverts. Without exception, that’s where I’d find him, as the very occasional, odd footnote. He was (as a few biographers have called him) a Zelig-like character, seemingly implicated in almost every modernist project of the 20th century, a maverick or “experimental” artist, who, for reasons rarely elucidated, wasn’t deemed worthy enough to be part of the official narrative of modernism.
In the pre–Google/mp3/Napster world, the question of who El-Dabh was proved difficult to answer. From about 1982, when I first heard of him — in connection to another “brother from outer space,” Sun-Ra — until the mid to late Nineties, I never heard one note of his music; it was impossible to find. Plus, the word on the street (specifically, in those histories of modernism) was that it wasn’t really worth the effort to find out who he was. Even the biographical information on him was confusing and skimpy. The impression I formed was of some sort of freaky recluse who may or may not have been cloistered in a backwater of ivory-tower academia, a composer who couldn’t make it in the real world. It turns out I was right about the freakiness and, to a lesser degree, academia. El-Dabh was born in Cairo, in 1921, into wealth and music. A member of a large Coptic family, he started to display his musical talents very early on but trained as an engineer and wasn’t really encouraged to take up music as a career. All throughout the 1940s, he was an active participant in Cairo’s cultural life — he’d studied piano and darbuka and played everything from jazz to classical to traditional Arabic music in nightclubs. At the same time, he was also experimenting with electronic music (more on this later).
The year 1949 was a turning point for El-Dabh. His performance of one his own piano compositions, It Is Dark and Damp on the Front, marked his arrival and became his ticket for a Fulbright grant to study music in the United States. One of my favorite stories about El-Dabh is how, upon arriving in Colorado in 1950, where Igor Stravinsky and John Cage were there to greet the young sensation, he basically took care of formalities and then headed straight to the Hopi and Navajo Reservations in the Southwest, where he lived and studied Native American music before returning to study with Aaron Copland. After that, El-Dabh found himself in 1950s New York, where he fell in tight and formed friendships and collaborations with most of the artistic innovators of the time — Morton Feldman, John Cage, Edgar Varese, Otto Luening (with whom he composed one of his electronic masterpieces, Leiyla and the Poet), and Martha Graham (with whom he composed the score for her masterpiece, Clytemnestra). After the 1950s, El-Dabh’s activities are too numerous and varied to detail here. He did end up becoming one of the leading ethnomusicologists in the world. He also traveled the globe in search of indigenous music and culture, lived and taught in Ethiopia for some time, and composed the only opera ever written about the Kent State tragedy of May 1970 (Opera Flies).
This all brings me back to a CD called Crossing Into the Electric Magnetic, which was the first music by El-Dabh I actually heard. This was sometime in the late 1990s. Electric Magnet was a compilation of his early electronic music that included a piece of music that is not-so-arguably the first piece of Music-Concrete, recorded at The Middle East Radio Station, in Cairo in 1944,and predating Pierre Schaffer’s Etude Aux Chemin De Fer (which was the first piece of Music-Concrete) by a full four years. That composition, Wire Recorder Piece, completely blew my mind and helped me understand why El-Dabh had remained a footnote for so many years: modernism could never tolerate the figure of the holy fool. The truth is that El-Dabh was never a modernist, though he used the various streams of the movement as ritual and mask. To paraphrase the Sufi trope, El-Dabh was in modernism but was never of it. Take Wire Recorder Piece. It’s electronic music that walks and talks like a duck but isn’t. With the music sounding like some cross between Herschel Gordon Lewis’ splatter classic Blood Feast and Varese, it’s hard to tell if the piece is taking itself way too seriously or is some elaborate, exotic take on a genre that El-Dabh was making up as he recorded it. It’s this uncanny quality of being neither “good” nor “bad” (nowadays bad is called “kitsch”) that marks so much of El-Dabh’s art. And it’s only in the context of the magic circle (which El Dabh continuously redraws) of ritual, mask (the grotesque), and the holy fool that the space and time of his work becomes apparent; they form the thread that ties it all together. El-Dabh was (and is) always after bigger fish to fry and with the slowly encroaching death of modernism and all the post-isms of the last hundred years or so, El-Dabh’s touching and idiosyncratic commitment to sound as the primal source of transcendence may finally get its due.
“In February 2002, a Predator tracked and killed a tall man in flowing robes along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The CIA believed it was firing at Bin Laden, but the victim turned out to be someone else.”
—The Los Angeles Times, January 24, 2006
“American government officials said one of the people in the group was tall and was being treated with deference by those around him. That gave rise to speculation that the attack might have been directed at Osama Bin Laden, who is 6-feet-4.”
—The New York Times, February 17, 2002
Is the United States military trained to interpret images? Have Predator pilots read Sontag, Svetlana Alpers, C S Pierce? As the decision to kill is increasingly based on images relayed from autonomous drones, one can’t help but ponder what kind of training the military receives in interpreting visual media.
War by robot proxy: America is building a world in which its citizens won’t ever actually have to go to battle. Policies and associated technologies are engineered to prevent Americans from experiencing war firsthand. Though journalists once acted as civilian proxies, something changed with the war in Vietnam, as the military began to view domestic opposition to war as a kind of enemy at home, and so through exclusion, intimidation, and fastidious embedding, has successfully kept them far from the realities of the field. And in fact, soldiers themselves are increasingly replaced by prosthetic technologies; remotely operated machines are playing the roles once played by humans. The Department of Defense is projected to spend nearly $3 billion, in 2008 alone, for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles such as the Predator, a spindly, medium-altitude, long-range aircraft developed after the first Persian Gulf War. These relatively inexpensive ($4 million) airplanes, usually piloted remotely from halfway around the world, can stay airborne for an entire day at a time. Originally marketed as surveillance devices, they were first used for targeted assassination purposes in Yemen, in 2002. To add to their formidable entourage, the US military most recently purchased SWORDs, 80 lb robots that can be outfitted with machine guns and grenade and rocket launchers. A human soldier can operate the robot from several thousand feet away, simply by watching a video transmission from the robot and controlling it remotely.
While these systems currently require human involvement — watching a blinking screen of pulsating pixels, making choices based on split-second interpretations — increasingly, autonomous software will be used to make even the biggest of decisions. Says Colonel Tom Ehrhard of the US Air Force, “Flight automation is riding the wave of Moore’s law, and it gets increasingly sophisticated. Automation will make it so that even adaptations in flight in combat will be made independently of human input.” In the Pentagon’s vision of the future, it will be software engineers who decide who gets to live or die, preserving their ethical choices in code that’s executed later.
Images taken from a Predator’s camera are circulated in a network of soldiers, spies, analysts, and pilots. In the few telemetry videos from Predators that have made their way to the internet (most often onto YouTube, probably leaked by the military itself), a half-dozen voices are overheard in urgent teleconferenced debates on what they are seeing, how to respond, when to fire, and at what. Sequestered air-conditioned workspaces are the new front, where the cubicle meets the cockpit.
In February of 2002, the image of Daraz Khan, 5’11”, walking near Khost, Afghanistan, looking for scrap metal to sell, wended its way up 15,000 feet to a Predator; was sucked into a massive lens on a computer-stabilized gimbal, was projected onto a Forward Looking Infra Red near-field focal plane array, was piped through an analog-to-digital converter, through microcontrollers and computers and then a spread-spectrum modem, up to a satellite, then down to ground station computers, perhaps in Virginia or Germany; and was finally displayed on a flat-panel monitor studied by human eyes.
We have little reference for understanding images of this nature; they are like a documentary, in that they offer a view, with implicit and explicit perspective, of a nonfiction event. They are also like computer games, in that the viewer is meant to interfere in that event, engage with it. But drone-generated video is unlike documentary or video games — or indeed any other visual media — in that the decisions made based upon them are both immediate and, increasingly, fatal.
These newly mediated images of war are like old ones in that they are hermeneutic; freshman art history students are taught the interpretability of images, and by the time they’re seniors, they’ll have learned that photographic evidence is only as credible as the host of experts called in to explain it. By the time they’re seniors, they’ll know that for decades after its invention, photography was leveraged to prove the existence of ghosts. In 1869 a Boston photographer was taken to court for selling ghost photographs; experts were called in on both sides, though the judge dismissed the case altogether for lack of evidence. Dozens of internet sites, to this day, give tips on how to take (digital!) images of ghosts. Why is it, one might ask, that only humanists are trained in this history, never engineers or soldiers?
One particular cockpit video that swept the web in 2004 portrayed the obliteration of a large group of men in Fallujah, based on no apparent information other than that they were men, and walking out of a mosque. Do the millions of dollars of imaging equipment used to make this film present a neutral image? Is the suspicion inherent in the taking of these images not transmitted through the apparatus to the viewer? The novelist Max Frisch once said, “Technology is the knack of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it.” After seeing the real-time video of the Falluja bomb obliterating a score of anonymous pedestrians, the overwhelmed weapons operator simply sighed, “Oh, dude.” He was flying blind.
Share Debating the Future of Martyrs’ Square: Space is the place
On March 14, 2005, just one month after the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, over one million protesters gathered at a space called Martyrs’ Square in downtown Beirut. They assembled for various reasons — mainly to demonstrate their opposition to the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, as well as to protest that country’s alleged involvement in Hariri’s assassination. Though the assemblage did not (and could not) reflect the opinion of every Lebanese in the country, it was a testament to the power of place in serving as a collecting ground for a movement. The assembled gave that space, situated just on the Mediterranean waterfront and straddling the green line that divided the city during its decades-long civil war, a new name, dubbing it (romantically, no less) “freedom square.”
On that March day, architecture, through the space it created around it, coupled with the words of the protestors, arguably played a role in rewriting Lebanese contemporary history. Architecture became palpable through its absence — in other words through the void of the square.
Ironically enough, only months before, the square had been the subject of an international urban design competition organized by Solidere, the private company charged with much of the reconstruction of downtown Beirut. In November, just two months after the Israeli aggression on Lebanon came to an end, New York-based architect Makram elKadi of the international design firm L.E.FT engaged the winners of the Martyrs’ Square competition, the Greek team of Vassiliki Agorastidou, Bouki Babalou-Noukaki, Lito Ioannidou, and Antonis Noukakis, about the meaning of the formidable task that lay ahead of them. Can one even speak of an exalted reconstruction in such uncertain times? What role can and should design play in the future of Lebanon, and what of the possibilities of public space? Whose space is Martys’ Square, anyway, and is inclusion — the creation of a truly national site — a realizable task in the first place?
Bouki Babalou-Noukaki, a member of the winning design team and professor of architecture at the National Technical University of Athens, took on the following questions.
Makram elKadi:Is it legitimate or contested to have “outsiders” — in other words, Greeks — preparing these plans?
Bouki Babalou-Noukaki: The design of such a project from a non-local team of course has the disadvantage of lacking the actual lived experience of the place. On the other hand one might say that a distant and less involved and sentimental position can be an advantage in applying design ideas from a more “global” point of view.
One thing we can say about being Greek is that we are familiar with spaces in which there is a multiplicity of layers. We’re also familiar with recent civil conflicts — which in the case of Lebanon, is a sensitive piece of its history still very much haunting public life.
MeK: As a Greek team, where did your interest in the project come from in the first place, why Beirut?
BBN: We share the same sea — the Mediterranean — so we are accustomed to the environment. The sea, antiquities, places charged with memories of struggle, conflict and reconciliation are elements that are also familiar to us. We felt that it would be a challenge to deal with sensitive issues tied to these complex and multilayered histories.
We considered the city a palimpsest on which historical layers are engraved. So in the case of a spatial intervention, these layers needed to be read and reinterpreted. Our main concept for the competition has been the revealing of historical layers that compose this space. We’ve introduced the idea of a “fissure” on the city surface that tears the earth into two fragments only in order to reunify it. This fissure is constantly transformed while the axis evolves, creating a continuous route towards the sea — organizing urban space in a sequence of “episodes.” Four “topoi” define the axis: The “threshold” symbolizes present time and is about intensity, rhythm, contemporary city life, communication, information. The “memorial void” represents the recent past and is about reflection and pause, but also tension and protest. The “trench” represents history and is about tranquility and a common past. The “gateway to the sea” symbolizes the remote past and is about reverie, recreation, and journey. These distinct places play different roles in the narrative of the entire area.
MeK: The site is charged and polarized with political undertones, from the Ottoman period, passing through the civil war, up to the events of this past summer. How did your proposal respond to these historical conditions? Can and should urban design be neutral in such a loaded political context?
BBN: The concept of the project is rooted in the unfolding of the historic layers of the city. The different historical periods are gradually revealed. For example, we use the foundations of the Ottoman period Petit Serail to attempt a literal descent from everyday city life through the ancient ruins to the Phoenician port. As far as the recent history is concerned, we think that the past could be expressed and memorialized in space as an attempt to gradually push it into the collective memory. At the same time, the space should be open and available for people to reclaim it, reoccupy and redefine it.
MeK: As architects, how did you address the green line, the demarcation line that separated the predominantly Christian east Beirut from the predominantly Muslim west Beirut, a line that passes through Martyrs’ Square to this day?
BBN: The concept of the fissure is a symbolic expression of division, but it also marks the simple promenade towards the sea. At the same time, the fissure acts as a “stitch” between the two bounds of the city.
The two parallel roads (east and west) have isolated the square from its surrounding context, turning it to an “island.” To reinforce the spatial unification we proposed the pedestrianization of the west road and the narrowing of the east road. The two fronts of the city become related through their in-between space. Martyrs’ Square has a meaning as a place along an axis as well as a link between the historical center (west) and the new central area (east).
MeK: What urban knowledge can we gain from the events of March 14, 2005 — when thousands assembled on the one-month anniversary of the assassination of Rafik Hariri? What are the implications of that knowledge on your plans, if any? On that day, the void of the square proved to be its most significant asset. How did you design the new void of the square? Is it one void or several?
BBN: Martyrs’ Square is inscribed in the collective memory as a common space for public concentration. The events of that March confirm that the main square “Memorial Void” should be an actual void — not only as a functional gesture, but more urgently as a symbolic one. It should be able to receive crowds and be a place for action and democratic expression. The “Memorial Void” is a void within the void of the Grand Axis of Beirut.
MeK: How does one deal with memory in a city like Beirut in which memory is constantly being recreated, and when history itself is debated and debatable?
BBN: The design of public space should create opportunities to continually redefine the identity of the city. The revelation of the historical layers of the city reinforces the notion of a common past, and is a part of that process of redefinition. We feel that expressing and memorializing the past in space should be a process that generates public discourse — which is, you could say, one of the first steps in coping with a traumatic past.
MeK: Your plans take into account the future of a museum. What kind of museum will this be, and who will get to decide the contents and curation? Isn’t it incredibly loaded to put such a political institution in a public space? Could it not be divisive/contested?
BBN: Generally the important public spaces of a city usually coincide with cultural and public buildings, which also contribute to the character of the city. The museum proposed for the competition is a site museum articulated next to the antiquities. It functions as a common information center about the history of the place, reinforcing the promenade — floating through the historic layers of the city. The museum space functions as an episode in the pedestrian flow.
MeK: Given the turbulent past and present of the country, is it absurd to think of “reconstruction” after the most recent war? What role can architecture and urban design play in this picture?
BBN: This is a hard question. One thing to be said is that we value and admire the Lebanese people and their Sisyphean efforts to rebuild their country. We want to believe that the completion of an architectural design work with the significance of Martyrs’ Square would bear a symbolic importance — perhaps even more than a tangible one.
The destruction of the reconstruction — the death and the birth — constitute the perpetual circle of life. Violence works as a catalyst creating extreme situations. The role of architecture and of urban design is to accommodate and shape historical events, to formulate places of memory but at the same time generate new frameworks for the future.
“They will try to come, even if the war is still going on,” explained Remi Bonhomme, guest liaison for September’s Ayam Beirut al-cinema’yia (Cinema Days of Beirut), as we sat in one of the city’s newest bars. Not even war can stop Beirutis from going out. During the early days of the Israeli bombardment, Club Social sent out a mass text message, announcing that it was still open and reminding patrons that the underground venue was safer than their own high-rise apartment buildings.
It was with this approach — one part resilience and one part denial — that the people at filmmakers cooperative Beirut DC made the last-minute decision to hold the festival as planned, despite circumstances. The festival was not only a distraction from the daily news and ongoing uncertainty and violence, but also a form of cultural resistance. Basem Fayed, a local documentary director and contributor to one of the festival’s short film programs, described it as “a way to say that we, as filmmakers, are also fighting back.”
Ayam Beirut — this was its fourth year — is gaining a reputation as a well-organized, grassroots festival providing support for independent Lebanese and Arab films. Organized in a month, this year’s event managed to screen 40 films (down from the usual 100), and a special section, Videos Under Siege, was added to give voice to recent events. These 20 short films ranged from 45-second cellphone videos to deconstructed visual poems, many of which spoke directly to foreign audiences — those outside Lebanon looking in. From Beirut, to Those Who Love Us, produced by a group of Beirut DC members and collaborators, opened with the haunting vocals of Reem Khcheich and layered muted portraits with a collective narration: a somber and perfectly tuned antidote to, and criticism of, the short attention span of international news bulletins. Lena Marjeh’s Drawing the War, originally produced in 2003, sketched the narrative of childhood fears amid the memories of war, using a basic but evocative animation technique that succeeds in pulling three-dimensional emotions from the simplest of lines and ink drops.
Even in the films programmed before the events of July 12, the shadow of war was present. The opening night world premiere of Lebanese director Michel Kammoun’s Falafel explored the wounds that remain open 15 years after the end of the country’s brutal civil war and now find a new context in today’s Lebanon. Oday Rasheed’s Underexposure, undoubtedly one of the festival’s best films, was shot in the days immediately following the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. The central question of the film — how to pick yourself up as the post-war dust settles — was magnified by the real-world circumstances in which the film was shot, and in which it was then screened in Beirut.
In the end, it was impossible to separate the festival from the war. A handful of guests, both Arab and international visitors, toured Lebanon’s southern border, the area hardest hit during the war, and later made their way to the suburbs of Beirut to witness Hizbullah’s “victory rally” – all filming and photographing along the way. Some were interested in politics, others wanted to show their support for the ordinary people of Lebanon, but most simply wished to document — and be a part of — what was a surreal and most unlikely film festival.
Beirut International Film Festival
October 4–11, 2006
Film festivals tend to reflect the personalities of the cities that host them. The Cairo International Film Festival evokes the well-meaning chaos of that city as well as its status as the capital of Arabic-language filmmaking. The Dubai International Film Festival mirrors the emirate itself — shiny and new, solvent and star-studded, with foreigners playing a conspicuous role in the staging and the viewing of the films.
And so it is with the Beirut International Film Festival (BIFF). One in a bouquet of little festivals — including Ayam Beirut Cinema’iya, Née à Beyrouth, Docudays, the European Film Festival — of about the same size and with overlapping interests, BIFF could be a metaphor for Lebanon’s fractured polity or, if you prefer, the city’s spirit of individual initiative.
BIFF’s history also reflects the contingency of Beirut’s cultural life. Founded in 1997, the festival ran for two consecutive years before deciding to go biannual. Funding difficulties stymied the 2000 edition, and financial and political instability have conspired against it ever since. BIFF became MEFF (the Mid East Film Festival) a couple of years ago when it became associated with the Beirut Film Foundation, only to revert to its original name just before this year’s festivities began. So BIFF 2006 was the festival’s “seventh edition,” though the festival has only run three times.
Given that this year’s festival fell just a couple of months after Israel abandoned its assault on Lebanon, BIFF director Collette Naufal and her international backers (the Lee & Gund Foundation, MakeFilmsNotWar, and the Venice Film Festival’s Marco Müller) are to be commended for bringing it off at all.
That aside, BIFF 2006 was a qualified success. Its slate of twenty films did briefly enrich the cinema culture of the city, but there were organizational hiccups.
As promised, Pedro Almodovar’s Volver opened the festival. It then disappeared, despite a scheduled second screening. Katia Jarjoura’s short Beyrouth Ma Betmout — which follows rappers Kita3 Bey-route’s post-war tour of Dahyeh — wasn’t ready. Stephen Frears’ The Queen simply didn’t arrive, while others, such as Marwan Hamed’s The Yacoubian Building, were missing subtitles — which tended to tarnish BIFF’s claims that it’s an international festival.
Since the advent of Ayam Beirut Cinema’iya and Née à Beyrouth, BIFF is no longer central to the screening of Arabic-language and Lebanese films. Still, it’s important that work like Jarjoura’s Terminator and Hala Abdallah and Ammar al-Beik’s I Am the One Who Brings Flowers to Her Own Grave, enjoy a local outing.
Terminator, which premiered last summer, intends to be a document of the “Beirut Spring” — the Martyrs’ Square sit-in demonstrations of spring 2005 — and a profile of one of its activists, the mock-heroically nicknamed Terminator of the title. In effect, it’s a study of political naiveté and disenfranchised masculinity. A documentary of a very different kind, I Am the One Who Brings Flowers to Her Own Grave is an encounter with a handful of Syrian women, expatriate and resident, examining their relationship with their country both as it is and as it was. In their case, that relationship isn’t mediated by politics, but by art, poetry in particular.
Other regional festival favorites, such as Jafar Panahi’s Offside and Laila Marrakchi’s Marock, stand little chance of gaining a theatrical release in Lebanon’s commercial cinemas — likewise for lauded international independents 13 (Tzameti), by Georgian director Géla Babluani, and Bent Hamer’s Factotum.
The launch of the Metropolis art house cinema in July has gone some way toward diversifying Beirut’s film scene, although the cinema, which opened the day before the Thirty-Four-Day War started, has been struggling with the same uncertainties as BIFF — a struggle compounded by its being an ongoing concern rather than an annual event. Naufal has already begun planning BIFF 2007. It will remain a compact gathering, she says, with the major addition of a competition for Arabic films.
Iran.com — Iranian Art Today
Museum für Neue Kunst Freiburg im Breisgau
October 22, 2006–January 28, 2007
iran.com — Iranian Art Today — as both a title and an event — hopes to achieve an awful lot. According to one of the catalogue essays, the dot-com rubric exists as a double metaphor: Iranians, Iranian youth in particular, are renowned for their use of the internet as a space for expression (blog culture today is de rigeur). Simultaneously, curators Isabel Herda and Nicoletta Torcelli hoped to create a space for a fresh view of a nation often encumbered by essentialist stereotypes.
Such ambitious desires are manifest in work by Afshan Ketabchi, who presents a series of large-format digital prints on canvas that reinterpret the style of Persian miniatures by presenting sexually explicit scenes. Collectively titled Harem (2005), the series portrays women lounging, à la Ingres, wearing Playboy bunny ears and bondage gear. All the same, the double goals of countering stereotypes and creating a space for open expression can conflict at times; while purportedly liberating the Oriental woman from “the image of the woman as powerless victim,” these images nonetheless perpetuate the mythology of exotic eroticism… and so we come full circle.
Other work, such as Majid Koorang Beheshti’s otherworldly black and white photographs from The Cubic Path series (2006) and Minoo Iranpour’s video The Door (2004), both shot in and around Isfahan, are insistent about showing the precise opposite of a romanticized Oriental paradise — no mysterious golden mosques, and instead, stark, barren landscapes.
The use of video in the show is ubiquitous. Simin Keramati’s Silence (2004), in which a huge, projected male hand working prayer beads makes an endlessly rhythmic clacking, functions as an oversized metaphor for the relentless weight of religious power. Barbad Golshiri’s Alephallus and the History of Image (2004), which shows a young woman repeatedly trying to enunciate the letter Aleph (the first letter of the Hebrew, Persian, and Arabic alphabets), is a performance situated somewhere between a prayer and a song. Its message? We all spring from the same roots. A documentary of Shahab Fotoui and Neda Razavipour’s 2003 Tehran installation Census, in which they filled the windows of an unfinished skyscraper with 70 closeup photographs of people from the area, is both poetic and haunting. Lit from behind, the skyscraper flickered at night like a flame. Custom-prepared for this exhibition, a selection of the faces are displayed on illuminated advertising billboards throughout Freiburg: inconspicuous yet omnipresent, they appear as a subtle, intensely relevant comment on immigration in this new European context.
Khosrow Hassanzadeh, for his part, shows Terrorist (2004) — monumental silkscreen and acrylic portraits of himself and his family that seem to allude to the culture of racial profiling. Rokneddin Haerizadeh participates in the show with his accomplished, brightly colored contemporary reinterpretations, also of Persian miniature paintings, while Ahmad Morshedloo’s creepy large-scale figurative works evoke a personal world that is crowded but somehow isolating. These works are compelling enough but, particularly in the case of the last two, feel misplaced.
Mahmoud Bakhshi-Moakhar presents a three-part installation, Anonymous Martyr, consisting of Air Pollution — eight Iranian flags, one for each year of the Iran-Iraq war, disfigured by air pollution and hung on the walls; the video Military Service, visible only through a peephole, which reveals a man’s mouth eating a watermelon (green, white, and red being the colors of the national flag); and Holy Tombs — three fluorescent mini-cameras, tourist trinkets that usually have cityscapes in the viewfinder but here show the fresh graves of so-called martyrs, their bodies wrapped in the flag.
The artistic duo Farhad Moshiri and Shirin Aliabadi, meanwhile, contribute a selection from the ongoing (since 2003) series Battlegrounds of the Cultural Invasion/Freedom is Boring Censorship is Fun. Here, found magazines display how women were portrayed in the Iranian press in the 1960s and 70s (in mini-dresses, for example, leaning on flashy red cars) as compared with today, when pen marks or paper strips are plastered over armpits, knees, and cleavage and heads are dissolved into colorful pixels or completely removed with the help of Photoshop. Beyond a simplistic “then and now” comparison, the work raises questions about the best way of presenting the female form in such polarized times — not to mention the underlying desires of the censors themselves, who seem to approach the job of defacement with their own personal aesthetic senses.
In the end, the exhibition leaves viewers wanting to know more about contemporary art production in Iran. It’s a shame that in the framework of a national show, one barely has the space — neither physical nor mental — to begin to consider these works as interesting in their own right.
Share 9th Aleppo International Photography Gathering
The 9th Aleppo International Photography Gathering
September 15–26, 2006
The 9th Aleppo International Photography Gathering opened in September, despite the usual setbacks — continued harassment from a variety of Syrian officials and bureaucrats; the detention of art works in customs; unexpectedly high fees at the post office; and the last-minute withdrawal of official permission to use the city’s large empty electricity building, the main exhibition space.
Given the switch, the international artists, hailing from thirteen countries, had their work crammed into the much smaller space of the LePont Gallery in the eastern part of Aleppo. Few of the visitors, around forty artists, curators, and diplomats, seemed perturbed, however. Most had come to support curator Issa Touma’s mission to bring together international practitioners with young photographic artists from Syria and the Middle East and to foster a space for experimentation and idea exchange.
Moroccan-born Lalla Essaydi, whose staged photographic works challenge European-defined notions of Orientalism in Middle Eastern art, has an academic background in the study of cultural and visual arts in the East and West. Informed by painting and calligraphy, her best-known photographic works are large-scale, staged color images of women and female family members against white backgrounds, overlaid with the graphics of writing — rooted more in metaphor than pure documentation.
Essaydi’s work was exhibited alongside minimalist imagery of contemporary urban architecture in the United States and Europe by young German artist Julianne Erlich. Lebanese-American documentary photographer Rania Matar showed an image of a young child donning the hijab with care and dedication. Johannes Hepp’s panoramic images revealed the visual ordinariness of urban streets where major terrorist events have taken place around the world. Among the strongest images were penetrating color portraits of factory workers in Aleppo by a young Syrian Kurdish artist, Nazem Jawesh, who is largely self-trained and self-schooled. Inspired by the social conditions of life, particularly aspects of male life, in Syria, his imagery was almost fiercely documentary in form. The frontal, close-up photographs of workers seemed to force these men to speak for themselves, deliberately removing the artist as intermediary. Faces of Workers is Jawesh’s first complete series of work.
Logistical problems made it impossible to hold the keynote conference on the role of culture in the East and West, scheduled to include European, American, and Middle Eastern artists and curators. But Austrian curator Gerald Matt, curator/director of Kunsthalle Wien in Vienna, gave an important talk, “Cultures on the Move,” about globalization and the need to find alternative definitions of cultural boundaries, referring not just to “first and third worlds” but to the “spaces in between” where transnational expression and media are finding or creating roots — “the emergence of an art of the hybrid.”
British artist Ronnie Close talked about philosophical connections between the 1981 Irish hunger strikers and recent events in Iran. Satellite programs included two nights of classical Egyptian music and presentations of films and videos by Colombian artist Fernando Arias and Danish writer Monica Seidler. The showing of an historic documentary and photographs on the hajj, made in 1929, was a coup; even the festival’s Syrian detractors asked to see those works. (In October, a special screening of the film was held under the auspices of Syria’s leading official (Sunni) cleric, the Grand Mufti Ahmed Hassoun.)
Sixty artists and curators from twenty-eight countries, including Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and Syria, had originally been invited to participate in the festival, with more than 1,000 works of art included. In the end, over forty artists, curators, and diplomats from various countries were able to attend.
In response to the loss of his main exhibition space, Issa Touma has continued showing the photographic works in his small gallery, rotating the exhibit and extending the time of the festival from its original ten days to several months so every photograph can be shown.
Within Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East, artists have been somewhat isolated from contemporary trends in art photography. Touma’s Gathering begins to build that “space in between.” where artists can explore and encounter new forms of creative expression in photographic art — and where those outside the region can experience photographic art originating in the Middle East.
Share Basim Magdy: In the Grave of Intergalactic Utopia
Basim Magdy: In the Grave of Intergalactic Utopia
Newman Popiashvili Gallery
September 9–October 14, 2006
Basim Magdy’s recent solo show at Newman Popiashvili Gallery in New York assembles a constellation of colorful characters and naive forms into a graphics-painting-installation show critiquing the simulated realities of television screens, stories, and fictions.
In the Grave of Intergalactic Utopia is crammed into a small room built by Magdy within the gallery space. Visitors entered through a hole torn out of the wall to find an installation of a downed astronaut condemned to a filthy chicken coop to watch a video loop of an unremarkably bucolic landscape. Surrounding the cage, on the walls of the room, Magdy’s works on paper featured apes, blobs, and spacemen floating through weathered neon colors like unemployed pop icons lost midway between fiction and form. They seemed to have once stood for hope and day-glo levity, and though they may still, they seem to have forgotten why. They recalled images from a youth spent looking at pixelated screens: an astronaut perched on the tip of an airplane’s wing as if considering jumping off, a bored-looking ape amidst parachutists in bubbles, a gorilla-boy who has just caught a fish, a face peering from a kind of giant anthill with soldiers peering over a bright picket fence, a fabric of a sickly-looking moon, a monkey on a vine in front of blood-red sky, a mysterious astronaut who approaches under a skull and crossbones flag wearing a strange pink fur coat.
The sarcastic neon palette (not to mention the surveillance Magdy installed in the space) reminds us that television owns the moment, and that his images are transmissions from either screen, dream, or something in the middle. The threat of war is there, but it’s a banal war, the references deliberately hazy and superficial.
Magdy’s bright, poppy melancholia is less interested in political events than in a kind of suspended inability to sense circumstances surrounding those same events. This has the unfortunate tendency to come across as a kind of detached generational statement, and where this is concerned, Magdy’s supposition that the children of television are defeated, emaciated subjects risks being itself a bit tired.
However, in working with ideas of broken memories and cultural pollution, Magdy’s works do not attempt to reclaim any originary natural order any more than they bother to produce anything out of their estrangement. Magdy stands firmly by the space he has built between fiction and reality because, perhaps, there are no alternatives. It is his deliberate use of this middle space — where fiction tugs at the world and the world tugs back — that makes his work interesting. A grave for utopia, to borrow from the title of Magdy’s show, suggests a gap dividing social consciousness from possibilities lying in alternate narratives — an end for dreaming. Inside this gap, Magdy finds that, as dreams perceive their own uselessness and begin fading away, a change takes place within their chemistry. As they die, dreams begin to generate their own images.
In Magdy’s work, it is as if possible worlds once connected to the real world in a fluid continuum, as a child could once have expected fictional characters on television to gracefully translate seamlessly with age to other meaningful forms. Instead, the characters from films and fictions simply empty out. Astronauts and wise animal narrators continue their narration, but they tell useless stories. If these stories are useless — if traveling into space is about expansionism and not wonder, and superheroes are about masturbation and not personal strength — if Disney, NASA, and Spielberg are about brutal industry and not awe, then Magdy insists upon following the dreams they produce a bit further as they shed their capacity to inspire wonder.
Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst
October 28, 2006–January 21, 2007
Jumana Emil Abboud imagines a scenario in which a person wakes up one day to find that a wall has been built between his house and the lemon tree in his garden. The person innocently attributes his loss to a planning mistake, but is finally overwhelmed by a craving for a glass of fresh lemonade.
In Smuggling Lemons, Abboud, an artist based in Jerusalem, retrieves the lemon tree – or, at least, its fruit. Transporting lemons from Jerusalem to Ramallah, she symbolically relocates the lost tree on the right side of the barrier, exploring and challenging arbitrary borders on the way. After delivering the final load of lemons to Ramallah, Abboud celebrates by making and selling juice, thus eliminating the evidence of her smuggling and denying the existence of the tree altogether. Smuggling Lemons explores a space in which presumed sets of values are constantly shifting. Abboud’s actions seem to reference an almost hysterical consciousness formed under military occupation and ethnic segregation.
Presented on video, Smuggling Lemons is a highlight of Liminal Spaces, a collaborative project organized by Ramallah’s Palestinian Association for Contemporary Arts (PACA), Holon’s Israeli Center for Digital Art, and the Universität der Kunst in Berlin. Launched in March 2006 with a conference near the Qalandiya checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem, the project continued with a series of local residencies for 23 Palestinian, Israeli, and European artists, architects, and academics, charged with exploring the physical and social fabric of the Palestinian Territories. Their work is now presented in an exhibition in Leipzig, Germany.
German artists Sabine Horlitz and Oliver Clemens adhere to the mandate, exhibiting How much did you pay for this plot of land?, a large graph analyzing fluctuations in land value in Ramallah and East Jerusalem. The artists trace the impact of territorial and demographic policies — such as the building of the Separation Barrier, the partitioning of the West Bank, and various restrictive residency policies — on land value, documenting examples of strikingly expensive land adjacent to entirely devalued, and even uninhabitable, plots.
Yochai Avrahami focuses on the physical geography of the landscape surrounding the Qalandiya checkpoint in a five-channel video installation, Rocks Ahead. Traversing a deserted landscape flecked with abandoned objects, organic remains and construction material, he depicts a no man’s land at once idyllic and horrifying. Avrahami’s aerial footage allows him to bypass existing infrastructure and in doing so, rewrite the territorial configuration of the area, offering the viewer a momentary opportunity to move freely across borders. His camerawork evokes uncertainty, intrigue, and espionage; Rocks Ahead raises pertinent issues around notions of persecution, destruction, exploration, and abandon.
Simon Wachsmuth also attempts to unsettle the “urban order” imposed by the Occupation. The German-Austrian artist printed 2000 posters and distributed them throughout Ramallah. His campaign began in Al-Manarah Square in the city center and spread to the Qalandiya checkpoint on the road to Jerusalem. The deliberately ambiguous posters depicted transitional spaces such as construction sites, rubbish dumps, and stone quarries, counterbalancing the one-dimensional nature of the propaganda banners prevalent in the West Bank. Wachsmuth’s Construction Status attempts to explore the nature of public space and form some kind of resistance to the monopolies of local political agendas.
Wachsmuth seems to aspire to reclaim public space as a site for political and social intervention. Like several other artists included in the show, his work succeeds in problematizing the occupation’s ongoing restrictions and violations. However, the exhibited works, though often dynamic, pale in comparison with the compelling accompanying documentation describing the artists’ investigations during their stay in Ramallah. The curators and artists assert that this exhibition was in no way designed to be conclusive. Rather, it is one stage in a continuing project aimed at testing the possibilities of art as a form of political and social engagement.
October 12–November 17, 2006
Not long after the bombs began to fall on Lebanon this past July, a flood of creative output from inside the country and abroad began to spread across the internet. In other places around the world, the kind of heavy battery that Beirut was seeing would probably send people running for bomb shelters; in Lebanon, it seems to have sent people running for their cameras and keyboards.
The result was a flood of blogs, video clips, sound recordings, posts of drawings and photographs, poetry offerings, and more — a body of material asking, as local art mavens Sandra Dagher and Zena al-Khalil saw it, to be put on public, three-dimensional display. Thus arose Nafas: Beirut, a multimedia exhibition at Dagher’s gallery, Espace SD.
While occasional pieces in the hurriedly assembled show came off as flat-footed or slightly overwhelming, an encouraging number delivered sharp, surprising takes on the state of affairs.
Fadia Kisrwani Abboud and Maissa Alameddine, in their installation Return to Sender, invited gallery visitors to scrawl notes on leaflets simulating those dropped by Israeli aircraft to warn Lebanese to abandon their homes. On the gallery floor, the paper scraps lay in a scattered pile, as if dropped from above. The artists plan to mail the messages in bundles to the Israeli Defense Ministry.
In Self-Portrait With Remote Control, Randa Mirza approached the problem of experiencing the atrocities of war through the filter of cable television, by inserting herself in a video still of Red Cross workers carrying a dead infant on a stretcher. Though not in uniform, Mirza appeared, at a glance, to be a member of the rescue team. The remote control she pointed at visitors was a challenge to the effrontery of viewing such scenes in comfort.
Khalil’s puckish Super Star also took up the media’s role in the war, in this case addressing the frenzy of attention centering on Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. Super Star was sheikh-meets-swinger chic: the smiling potentate’s enormous head was rendered in pink acrylic paint against a kaleidoscopic background of purple and gold, with glittery hexagons bobbing by. The promiscuity of the aesthetic effectively prodded a reconsideration of a sober, and in ways unapproachable, subject.
In execution and in force of vision, Nafas: Beirut demonstrated a great disparity from piece to piece. Sometimes the breadth of the general theme — this summer’s war and what’s next — brought irresolvable pieces into uncomfortable proximity. (What to make, for example, of a video evoking snorted glitter, in this context?) And the earth is yet to be graced by a blogger whose words don’t wither in the harsh light of the gallery wall.
But variety was the point of the show. “We knew from the beginning that we wanted to make [the exhibition] a platform, we wanted to make it as flexible as possible,” Dagher noted. In addition to exhibiting the artwork, Nafas: Beirut served a documentary task, acting as a sort of time capsule of one moment in Lebanon’s political and cultural life, and also what might be called a paramedic task, to resuscitate the body artistic. In keeping with this last priority, Dagher and Khalil organized a monthlong slate of events — concerts, lectures, and video screenings — to go along with the show and to serve as loci for what they hoped would be a reemergent scene.
Several of the 45 artists in the show were caught outside of the country at the war’s outset; others live permanently abroad. In Broken Hill, Mireille Astore, based in Broken Hill, Australia, photographed every house in town and chained the pictures together to create footage for her video 3494 Houses + 1 Fence. Into hectic strings of suburban calm she spliced a peaceful scene of urban destruction, in the form of fence mangled by explosives in Lebanon.
Bespeaking considerably less exertion, but managing, nonetheless, an unadorned symbolic potency, was Shawki Yousef’s video Tag & Possibilite(s) d’un arbre, a compressed video biography of a gigantic cedar tree growing in a Parisian park. Likely older than Lebanon itself, the tree — not so picturesque a specimen as the one that appears on the Lebanese flag — accommodates in its lower boughs young men playing acoustic guitars and, somewhere up top, a nest of unseen rooks. At dusk the birds of appetite replace the carefree music of the day with an ominous concert of their own.
Amid this material from outside the war zone appeared the exhibition’s most eloquent image, Sintia Karam’s photograph of a man sleeping with his mouth open in an otherwise empty Berlin U-Bahn car whose video monitors are relaying footage of a preposterous fireball over the Lebanese capital. War in the Middle East? What a snooze.
The Young Artist of the Year 2006: The Hassan Hourani Award
A.M. Qattan Foundation
September 19–October 3, 2006
Set up by the Qattan Foundation in 2000, the biannual Hassan Hourani Award is aimed at Palestinian artists below the age of thirty, and awards prizes with a combined value of $12,000. For this year’s award, twelve artists were short-listed in January, from forty-seven entries, and given eight months to develop their projects for exhibition.
In 2006 there was a marked increase in interest in the award, on the part of competing artists and the viewing public both — perhaps due in part to the involvement of a wealth of new exhibition spaces, from cultural centers to shopping malls. Yet the jury, including Catherine David, Adila Laidi-Hanieh, Samir Salameh, Salwa Mikdadi, and Taisir Masrieh, declined to award a first prize, stating that no single work stood out above the others: their decision was influenced by the necessity of “maintaining the highest possible standards” and “preserving a level of consistency in the quality of work.”
They did, however, highly commend Wafaa Yasin’s video work, Worm Way, a portrait of a worm that attempts to regrow and rejoin itself, which, shown alongside another video piece Ice and Salt, was one of the most substantial and developed works in the exhibition.
And the jury awarded two second prizes — to Shadi Habib Allah and Mohammed Fadel. Shadi Habib Allah deals with local subjects in his simple, animated videos. An Ongoing Tale was projected on to the ground, encouraging the viewers to look down — as though into a well — and, ultimately, at themselves. Mohammed Fadel, who unfashionably describes himself as a “decorator” and was one of few painters included in the show, presented a series of mediumand large-sized canvases in oil in the biggest and most modern shopping center in Ramallah. Their naïve style belied Fadel’s myriad influences. Wafa Hourani, who received third prize, presented a multimedia installation, taking the Qalandia checkpoint as his point of reference and mapping the area around it with video, referencing the style traditionally used in historical three-dimensional models of castles. Hourani’s video, projected onto a curtain, featured the checkpoint area in minute detail, encompassing the stacked houses, narrow alleys, satellite towers hovering above the roofs of the refugee camp, the sidewalks, the gardens, and the Wall. Viewers were encouraged to walk through the curtain, to take in a performance based on the lions of Ramallah’s Manara Square. A huge endeavor, and highly popular with local audiences, the work attempted to say too much and was ultimately marred by its clutter.
This year’s exhibition went some distance toward illustrating the ambiguous role of contemporary art in a country under occupation and siege. Of course, in Palestine, it’s impossible to divorce cultural matters from politics: while the jury was announcing the winners in Ramallah, now the Palestinian political and cultural capital, the Gaza Strip and some areas of the West Bank were in crisis, experiencing once again the destruction of human lives and public property. While it’s rare to find artists here capable of — or willing to — transcend their surroundings and the all-pervasive nature of the conflict, some at least succeed in reading the situation anew.
Mohanad Yaqoubi and Yazan Khalili’s minimalist video, State of Waiting, portrayed intimate and ordinary scenes of the artists and their friends — a generation living at a crossroads, or as if at a bus stop. Ayman Azraq, painter Shadi Zaqzouq, and Fouad Aghbaria, who draws with coal on formica, produced commendably spontaneous and innovative work.
These artists represent something of a new wave in Palestine’s contemporary art scene. In cultural terms, Palestine can no longer be defined as self-contained, unaffected by external influences. While Palestinian artists still engage with the specificity of their own time and place, their practice is now influenced by festivals, biennials, and cultural events elsewhere, and, four years into this award, the much-touted global diversification of artistic centers and curricula is having an impact on artists’ work. In the future, this diversification in practice will surely be accompanied by work that vies for first prize.
As if by Magic
Bethlehem Peace Center
September 6–October 6, 2006
As if by Magic couldn’t have been a more apt title for a recent exhibition in Bethlehem. After all, it was a bit like magic that exhibition curators Charles Asprey and Kay Pallister were able to summon up an A-list of 26 international contemporary artists, including Martin Creed, Daniel Buren, Lawrence Weiner, Douglas Gordon, and Damien Hirst. It was a bit like magic that they exhibited their work in Palestine, at Bethlehem’s posh Peace Center — a museum-like space that nevertheless has never previously shown contemporary art of this scale and caliber. This kind of show ordinarily takes place in Tate Modern, not in Bethlehem.
Asprey and Pallister commissioned European and North American artists to produce new work or adapt existing work in order to allow it to be produced in Palestine. As most artists were unlikely to be able to travel there to install their work personally, they each had to produce an affordable “recipe” for their work. Nothing ingenious, really — “recipe art” has been done and done since the days of Do It, the book/exhibition project initiated by e-flux/Revolver and edited by Hans-Ulrich Obrist. However, Do It had never been done in or for Palestine, and there had never been an exhibition specifically aimed at combating the local population’s jail-like circumstances by giving them a glimpse of an art world beyond their shrinking borders.
I was one of a group of about 40 people who took the highly anticipated, not-so-jolly bus ride from Ramallah to Bethlehem, organized by the exhibition’s master planner, Samar Martha, to attend the opening and supplement the virtually non-existent audience for contemporary art in Bethlehem. The handful of Bethlehemites who did attend mainly came out of curiosity and were mostly oblivious to the flashy names on the white labels alongside the works. Ramallah, with its arts centers and cinemas, tends to attract the cultural crowd, so we had to take a field trip to save the day. The bus ride itself almost overshadowed the event: as one traveling viewer said, bypass roads, settlements, and checkpoints “are more real and ‘engaging’ than some stripes on a wall or string hanging in midair.”
Despite this cynicism, As if by Magic had undeniable flair when it came to political witticism and commentary. While the international community once turned a blind eye to the Middle Eastern art scene, Palestinian practitioners are now getting a look-in, from the Oscars to the biennials; but it’s still rare to see work accompanied by or reviewed with any sense of criticality. While Sally O’Reilly and Sacha Craddock, British critics who attended As if by Magic, insisted on describing the work according to its import in art historical terms, from a local perspective, it was fascinating simply to let the context of the place eat it up.
Isa Genzken’s Untitled, a wall motif of two PACE (the internationally familiar Italian peace design) flags, painted side by side but in reverse, with the rainbow colors adjoining but not meeting, was overtly political, if a tad too simplistic. Jakob Kolding’s architectural exploration of urban utopia was critically reminiscent of the modernist Zionist urban planning ideologies that formed the backbone of the state’s early expansionist strategy. In his poster-like interventions, Kolding constructed a series of cut-and-paste photomontages, structured collages with visual and textual elements, which questioned the contours of this “utopian dream.” The references provided a further critical reading of how spatial politics and design can become tools for social control and — in the specific case of Palestine, and the ever-expanding suburbia of orderly Israeli houses and settlements — of political control. Daniel Buren’s Untitled green striped wall; Martin Creed’s Work No: 594, a mathematical construction of fading black columns stretched to the height of the wall and decreasing; and Pawel Althawer’s Wall, a designated space for children to draw on, all alluded to the one and only Wall.
The strongest political statement in the exhibition was Mauricio Guillen’s site-specific installation. (Guillen was the only artist to attend the exhibition, ignoring the curatorial precept of “keep your distance.”) Despite usually working with photography, he instead chose to tie together two strings, one originating from the city’s Catholic church and the second from a lawyer’s office on the other side of the square — a good 200 meters or so apart — and knotted inside the gallery on two blades of an open pair of scissors. Needless to say, this process involved a mass of negotiations and permissions, not unlike our many peace processes.
Interestingly, many of the artists used language and text in their works. Douglas Gordon, in his insightful piece A Few Words on the Nature of Relationships, reversed a statement and mounted it on the wall: “Open your mouth, close your eyes/ Close your eyes, open your mouth,” brought to mind the inescapable duality, binary existence and endless yo-yoing that characterizes life in Palestine.
And finally, other works alluded to the language of miracles. Nathan Coley drilled a statement on the wall of the Peace Center — cheeky if seen from a religious perspective and spot-on given the politics of the place. Despite the small magic of the show’s taking place, Coley somehow summed it all up: “THERE WILL BE NO MIRACLES HERE.”
Adel Abdessemed: Practice Zero Tolerance
September 14–November 19, 2006
One year after the riots of October 2006 shook the French suburbs, Adel Abdessemed’s installation at Paris’s Le Plateau was particularly worth visiting. Practice Zero Tolerance consisted of a car cast in clay, then charred and blackened. It sits in monumental fashion, almost eerie in its very physical incarnation. For many, the installation was a reminder of the burning cars that have been embedded in the public memory since last year’s unrest.
Abdessemed’s exhibition at Le Plateau opened with Dazibao, a large black canvas on which generic references to current events (“Sphere”; “Separation”; “Guantanamo”) were inscribed in chalk — immediately positioning the exhibition within the political. (Dazibaos were large-character newspapers that flourished in the People’s Republic of China as a form of propaganda.) Drawn in chalk on a blackboard, intended to be erased, covered up, and rewritten, the dazibao functions a bit like the antique manuscripts on which Barthes ascribed the whole of the literary enterprise (to write, rewrite, write in echo to). Abdessemed’s dazibaos comment on the whimsical nature of propaganda, and sloganeering in general. At the same time, his painting appears black and silent. Abdessemed doesn’t claim a specific locale or a precise message — or, alternatively, he claims all of them, with little coherence.
Pluie Noire — a sculptural forest composed of drills made from black marble — seemed an allusion at once to minimalist sculpture, to primitive totems, and to the draping of classical sculpture, with obvious phallic and industrial references thrown in. His Black House was a model for a utopian construction the artist will recreate in Jerusalem. This ecumenical mosque functioned as a monument-homage to the democratic project, mixing a myriad of architectural references (orthodox church, Wailing Wall, Forbidden City). Its black walls offered a blank page to the public, who were able to cover them with personal or political messages written in chalk.
In mixing architectural styles, eras, and purpose en masse to create a building dedicated to public use, Abdessemed managed to throw in all the elements of an artist’s good conscience — political engagement, reference to origins, public participation — leaving the work, paradoxically, feeling a bit trivial. Such blanket appropriations of symbols and meanings fell flat, yielding work without a distinct link to time and space, in which indetermination reigns supreme.
Importantly, in this, his first major solo exhibition in Paris, the young artist was short-listed for the prestigious Marcel Duchamp prize, recognizing the work of a French artist or one simply residing in France. Though the jury seems tempted to select an Arab artist — short-listing Kader Attia as well, in 2005 — they have yet to award an Arab artist the distinction. Could this perhaps be for fear of recognizing the work of an artist based solely on his origin? It’s long been recognized that France is fundamentally uncomfortable with the issue of national origins. The question bears asking.
The artist remarked, when asked about the presence of the car, from which the title of the exhibition was taken, “I know that it’s best to avoid reducing my work to a single meaning; I will thus explain that it is an ambiguous object, since we can find within it different interpretations, even contradictory ones.” Finally he relented, and admitted that the burnt car was an artistic comment on consumerist modernity.
Perhaps it’s better not to have artists comment about their work in the first place. Could Abdessemed be trying to escape the label of the ”young Arab artist” by not drawing too close to the subject of suburbia? Abdessemed was born in Algeria in 1971 and settled in France in 1994. Whether his work is directly on indirectly related to that reality is not really the point — but could there be a form of self-censorship at play here?
We should expect a vision of the world that is his own, that is born of his particular point of view. Instead of burdening his work with layers of symbolism and commentary, some subtlety would go a long way toward communicating his purpose. Such subtlety could also help us get beyond the slippery and contentious politics of labeling the “Arab artist.” Here is a plea for nuance.
Taht khat al-faqr: riwayah
(Below the Poverty Line: A Novel)
By Idris Ali
Dar merit, 2005
A group of ragged villagers in southern Egypt go to their local government official to complain about the flooding of their land, inundated as a result of the building of the monstrous Aswan Dams. The official, a smug Cairo bureaucrat, handily dismisses their objections, telling them that the land is not theirs, but Egypt’s. The villagers retort, “This is Nubian land.” “And what are you?” demands the official. “We’re Nubians,” they answer. The official disagrees. “No, you’re Egyptians, like I am,” he says. They counter, “If we were Egyptians, you wouldn’t have treated us this way.”
This fraught exchange between villagers and government official strikes at the heart of Idriss Ali’s latest novel, Taht khat al-faqr. Though an Egyptian citizen, Ali is foremost a Nubian writer, fiercely proud of his heritage. (Nubians primarily inhabit southern Egypt and northern Sudan; they are descendants of the ancient Nubians.) But if Ali is proud of his heritage, he’s also angry. His new novel is seething with rage, as it documents the travails of a young Nubian Egyptian whose family and village fall prey to poverty after the construction of the Aswan Dams.
The dams (the first, the Low Dam, was finished in 1902 and heightened twice over the next three decades; the second, the High Dam, was built during the 1960s) not only flooded the lands Nubians had been farming for thousands of years, but also led to the forced displacement of many Egyptian Nubians, a large number of whom ended up in Cairo as servants or menial workers. There they would often meet racism and discrimination because of their dark skin and unique cultural identity. As if that weren’t enough, the High Dam also deluged many monuments, artifacts, and archeological sites of ancient Nubia, thereby wiping out, in one fell swoop, a legacy of thousands of years of history, culture, and civilization.
It is against this background of disenfranchisement and displacement that Taht khat al-faqr takes place. The novel opens one afternoon in August 1994, with our protagonist wandering the streets of Cairo, driven by poverty and failure to plan the end of his life that very day. The story then skips back a few decades, to his childhood in a village in southern Egypt after the construction of the dams, chronicling his community’s descent into poverty. From there, it traces his trajectory as he attempts to escape the destitution of his village by fleeing to Cairo. Life in Cairo, however, is no easier. Unable to attend a proper school, forced to take whatever backbreaking work comes his way, at odds with his violent father, and prey to sexual predators, he finds himself trapped in an increasingly vicious cycle of deprivation.
As a testament to the racism that Nubians have suffered at the hands of Egyptians, and as an account of displacement, dispossession, and poverty, Ali’s novel succeeds. As a work of art, however, Taht khat al-faqr falls short of the beauty and form of some of his earlier fiction, particularly his marvelous novel Dongola: A Novel of Nubia. Its very title — Below the Poverty Line — evokes the heading of a standard UN or Oxfam report, and the book in fact often reads like a case study in urban poverty rather than a novel. There is little character development in the work; the first section of the book, a kind of stream of consciousness, runs a bit like a political tirade, so that the protagonist appears as a flimsy, one-dimensional mouthpiece for the author himself. Clearly Ali was venting his own feelings. But even if the novel is a disappointment in certain respects, it still bears traces of the author’s gifts as a writer. Moving seamlessly between standard Arabic and colloquial Egyptian, Ali’s language is at once stark and lyrical, simple and evocative.
In 2006, the New York–based public arts collective Creative Time launched Who Cares, a series of discussions and projects taking on the state of social activism in the arts. 37 artists, curators and scholars came together to discuss the viability of counter-cultural practice within the visual arts today. In the end, the conversations born of Who Cares were recorded in a book by the same name, while four artists — Coco Fusco, Jens Haaning, Michael Rakowitz, and Mel Chin — produced works in relation to the issues discussed in the forum.
Rakowitz, who is of Iraqi origin, re-opened Davisons & Co, based on the import-export business his family once operated in Baghdad. Located in a standard storefront on Brooklyn’s sprawling Atlantic Avenue, the project provided free shipping for the Iraqi Diaspora community, as well as for families who may have military personnel stationed in Iraq.
Davisons & Co was originally opened in New York by Rakowitz’s grandfather when the family was exiled from Iraq in 1946, leaving behind a legacy that spanned centuries. In this incarnation of the business, Rakowitz has attempted to import Iraqi dates and other products, despite prohibitive import charges and restrictions that remain years after the Gulf War embargo was lifted in 2003. Such restrictions have kept Iraqi products from legally entering the United States, with catastrophic repercussions for the once thriving date industry in Iraq.
Rakowitz’s Sovereign Rumors series featured here was born of discussions with Bidoun staff in his Brooklyn store-front space. Here, Rakowitz engages in a mapping of the curious and often circuitous route that Iraqi dates may take in the packaging realm — wrapped, renamed, transformed and reborn en route to the markets of the west. By most accounts, the importation of an Iraqi product actually labeled as “Product of Iraq” has not occurred in the United States in over twenty-five years. The absence continues, for “Made in Iraq” exists as a cultural impossibility.
An extension of his ruminations on cultural impossibility and, by extension, concretizing the invisible, Rakowitz has also initiated a project he calls Enemy Kitchen. Collaborating with his mother, Rakowitz compiles Baghdadi recipes and teaches them to various public audiences, including youth at the Hudson Guild Community Center in Chelsea, New York City. The project also plans to incorporate a series of lessons for chefs in New York City’s public school cafeterias, so that they may serve Iraqi food as part of their everyday menus.
The recipes presented here represent three of the eight different dishes that Rakowitz and the teens at Hudson Guild prepared during May–July 2006. For further information as to Creative Times’s Who Cares program, see www.creativetime.org
2 pounds phyllo dough
1 pound butter
3 ½ cups sugar
6 cups almonds or pistachios (unsalted)
2 teaspoons ground cardamom
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 pound butter, melted
1 cup honey
2 tablespoons rosewater
1. To make the syrup, in a medium-sized pot pour 3 cups of sugar, lemon juice, 2 ½ cups water, and honey. Bring to a boil and stir, making sure that all the sugar crystals have melted. Add the 2 tablespoons of rosewater and mix thoroughly. Refrigerate to cool.
2. Next, chop the pistachios and/or almonds in a food processor set to pulse. Transfer to a bowl and then complete the nut mixture by mixing in the three teaspoons of cardamom with the remaining half-cup of sugar.
3. Melt the 2 pounds of butter and apply with a brush to the bottom and sides of a pan measuring at least 2 inches deep and approximately 14–16 inches long. Open the box of phyllo dough and carefully lay out on a cutting board and keep covered with a moist towel. Lay 7 sheets of phyllo in the pan, and alternate so that the excess hangs evenly over both of the pan’s two narrow edges. Brush the phyllo with butter and sprinkle about ¼ cup of the nut mixture. Fold over the excess dough at the edges so that the ends will meet or overlap and cover the filling. Brush the top with butter and sprinkle with nut mixture, and repeat the same process with 7 more sheets. Continue until 7 sheets remain, and butter each of these sheets as you lay them on top (this will give you a crisp and golden top to the pastry.)
4. Preheat the oven to 300°F. Score the top of the sheets in order to divide the baklawa in the shape of your preference (squares, triangles, etc). Bake for 1 hour or until top is golden brown.
5. Let sit for 10 minutes, then cut through the pastry using your score marks as a guide. Pour the refrigerated syrup over the entirety and tilt the pan so it distributes evenly. This should yield between 40 and 50 servings. Can be served warm or cold and can be stored at room temperature.
Iraqi Kataifi (another variety of pastry)
1 pound kataifi dough (shredded phyllo dough)
½ cup sugar
1 pound chopped pistachios or almonds
2 teaspoons cardamom
1 pound butter
2 ½ cups sugar
½ cup honey
1 ½ cups water
2 tablespoons rosewater
For the syrup and the nut mixture, follow the same steps as with the baklawa recipe.
Brush the bottom of a lasagna pan with the melted butter. Open the kataifi dough, and divide into 5 parts, approximately 6 inches long each. Take one part, loosen the dough and fluff. Spread on the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle the nut mixture on top of the kataifi dough. Then, carefully roll the dough so that the kataifi represents a “log” with the nuts inside. Repeat this step for the other five sections. Pour butter with a spoon evenly over the pastries. Cut into pieces (like maki) if desired. Preheat oven at 375˚F and bake for 35 minutes until the dough is golden brown. Let the pastry cool for 10 minutes. Slowly pour syrup over the kataifi, letting it soak in before pouring more.
Iraqi Fried Chicken
After eight weekly sessions learning how to cook Iraqi food, the students at the Hudson Guild Community Center proposed they teach me something about their families’ recipes since they now knew so much about mine. One of the students, Hyasheem, asked, “Do Iraqis make Southern fried chicken?” I answered that no, to my knowledge there was nothing like it in Iraqi cuisine. So why not, we wondered, invent it?
2 pounds chicken wings (or parts of your choice)
2 pounds chicken legs (or parts of your choice)
3 cups flour
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons cumin
2 tablespoons sumac
1 tablespoon allspice
1 tablespoon Syrian zaatar
1 bottle olive oil
Break eggs into a bowl and beat the eggs to even consistency. In a plastic bag, mix the flour, salt, spices and breadcrumbs. Dip a piece of chicken in the egg batter and place in the plastic bag. Repeat until about six pieces of chicken are in the bag. Close bag tightly and shake vigorously, so that the mixture of flour and spices covers each piece.
In a deep pan, pour enough olive oil so that it is about ¼" deep. Place on oven burner and let heat for 2 minutes. Place the six pieces of chicken in the pan and fry, turning often, until each side is medium-brown.
Repeat these steps until all the chicken is cooked.
Serve with a side of yellow rice and Amba (pickled, curried mango.)
Kubba or kibbeh is a dish found throughout the Middle East and North Africa, most commonly cooked as spiced meat mixed with pine nuts and onions stuffed inside a bulghur wheat shell. It is usually fried and served with sesame paste.
Kubba Bamia is a traditional Iraqi dish in which the kubba is also made of spiced meat, but stuffed inside a rice flour-based dough, giving it a soft, chewy texture like a dumpling. It is cooked in a stew of tomato stock with plenty of fresh okra, called bamia in Arabic.
1 ½ pound lean lamb or beef, ground
2 cups natural rice flour
1 box (10 ounces) frozen whole baby okra, or 1 pound fresh okra
two 8 ounce cans crushed tomatoes
1 small onion, chopped fine
1 tablespoon oil
¾ cup lemon juice
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
½ cup minced parsley leaves
1/8 teaspoon pepper
4 tablespoons sugar
3 ½ cups hot water
First, prepare the meat mixture, the filling inside the shell. Mix 1 pound of the meat with ground parsley, a teaspoon of pepper and ¼ teaspoon of turmeric (go easy on the tumeric as it can leave the meat tasting too bitter). Add 1 ½ tablespoons lemon juice and some salt. Mix all ingredients together.
Next, mix 2 cups of natural rice flour with ½ pound of the meat to create the dough that forms the outer shell of the dumpling. Water should be added gradually to keep the dough smooth. Keep a saucer of water nearby to keep your palms wet. Break off small pieces of the dough and roll them into spheres smaller than a golf ball.
To make the dumplings, pinch each piece of dough with your fingers (remember to keep them wet), to make a hollow. Fill the resulting “crater” with ½ teaspoon of the meat filling. Then close the ends together, pinching firmly to ensure a good seal. With your wet palms roll the kubba and shape into a round ball. Place in refrigerator when done.
In a large, deep pot, sauté the onion in the olive oil, adding ½ teaspoon of pepper and ¼ teaspoon of tumeric. Next, add the crushed tomatoes. Fill the two empty cans of crushed tomato with water and add (this gets all of the remaining tomato out of the can in the process). Bring to a boil and let cook for 15 minutes. Reduce heat, simmer for about 7 minutes, and then add the okra (fresh or frozen) along with a teaspoon of salt and the remaining lemon juice. Introduce the kubba into the simmering mixture by dropping them in carefully, two at a time. Distribute evenly around the pot. Allow it to cook for 15 minutes, then add the sugar and let simmer for 10 more minutes. Serve with plain rice.
Makes 3 servings.
Based on my mother and grandmother’s Kubba Bamia recipe, with additional information from The Best of Baghdad Cooking by Daisy Iny.
In a performance videotaped for the White House Press Corps dinner, George W Bush makes a jolly show of ransacking the Oval Office — looking under chairs, behind curtains, beneath his desk — searching for the WMDs still not located in Iraq. The assembled press dutifully laugh along at this arrogant joke.
The earliest senses of the word “rumor” — a tumultuous uproar or clamor, as well as a favorable report, or one related to a notable person or thing — are now obsolete. In the meaning that has survived into current usage, rumors denote information distinguished by their dissemination and lack of source or supporting evidence. Today’s rumors are characterized not by their valence (favorable or hostile), but rather by their putative relationship to truth. Lacking an identifiable author(ity), rumors are the informational equivalent of the passive tense, skirting agency without sacrificing the spread of information.
Often, eluding responsibility for talk is a response to censorship, in which case rumor constitutes a species of resistance — the mouthpiece of irrepressible public opinion, a critique of officialdom. The sting of such rumors derives precisely from their being un-authorized: the grapevine forms a screen that protects and permits broadcast. Those familiar with the insinuating jokes of Cairo’s cabbies catch the resonance of deftly timed, lightly delivered hearsay. The recent dearth in political jokes is disturbing not only because we crave immediate wit, but also because, as rumor, this patter suggests officially impossible critique — and we desperately long for that rare trace of political engagement.
In this manner, the political resonance of rumors has been appreciated throughout history by states and subjects alike. In Mamluk-era Cairo, for example, amidst anxieties about political insurrection in 1468 AD, the sultan issued a curfew, an edict banning both carriage of arms and all rumors relating to the uprising. For the sultan, political rumor threatened subversion, much like a brandished sword; both expressions had to be controlled.
Rumors have played a crucial role in modern history. In the 1930s, Vladimir Jabotinsky — one of the intellectual founders of Zionism and a revered figure in the pre- and early history of the state of Israel — proposed a false leak:
It would be wise to have the Zionist Organization openly oppose Arab emigration from Palestine, and then the Arabs would be sure the scheme was not Jewish and that the Jews wanted them to stay in Palestine only to exploit them, and they would want very much to go away to Iraq.
Jabotinsky proposed to spread a particularly perverse sort of rumor, des informations provacateurs. For him the identities “Jew” and “Arab” were so foundational and stable, so predictable and predictive, that the actual positions each would take on a particular issue were foregone conclusions. Identity strictly determined intent. One could, according to this logic, navigate conversation solely on the basis of a speaker’s identity, regardless of (in this case, despite) actual statements. This was politics strictly according to identity over substance, position over message.
Jabotinsky’s proposal is an alarming echo of a joke immortalized by Freud: at a railway station, one Jew addresses another, “If you say you’re going to Krakow, you want me to believe you’re going to Lemberg. But I know in fact you’re going to Krakow! So why are you lying to me?” While its humor lies in layers of supposition and racial expectation, the joke acquires another layer of significance by its indexing in Freud’s works under the heading “Truth a lie.” Of course, the inverse — that lies or appearances hold the (often unique) key to truth — is a cornerstone of psychoanalysis.
But in the case of political rumors and open secrets, there is another logic. Here the truth that rumor conveys isn’t in its actual content. Rather, such rumors hold the key to truths about the speaker or listener, and the context in which they are spoken.
We have noted a tactical iteration of rumor, one based on the exigencies of social control whereby rumor becomes a weapon of the weak. But in some cases, there are also strategic reasons to favor the anonymity of rumor. This brings us full circle, from the politics of rumor to rumors in politics, which immediately summon the “open secret.”
The expression’s earliest recorded usage dates from the early 19th century, but the concept clearly predates this. An open secret was also commonly known as a “secret of Polichinelle,” named for the puppet theatre character (later known as Punch). Such dramas depend on a consensual — indeed, contractual — reframing of reality, or suspension of disbelief. To sustain the curiosity that keeps circus-goers coming, we invest in appearances. The reality of the whole enterprise hinges on the necessity of falsehood.
The communal audience created by a shared open secret, however, is quite different in nature from the community created by rumor. While the former is silent, docile, and focused on a central stage, the latter is more active, garrulous and unpredictable (most rumors carry a critical valence — one rushes to claim the merit or reward of eulogistic utterances). With the open secret the operative part — the sense in which the secret is unspoken, even while it is known to all — tends to serve the preservation of an image, usually of the self (individual, corporate, or, especially national), which would otherwise be tainted by that secret’s public acknowledgement.
The open secret is girded by a tacit rule of silence. This silence is socially constitutive in a different fashion than is the talk of rumor, or the telling humor of jokes. In the case of rumors, community emerges on at least two levels: first, in their content, rumors often articulate the norms of a group; second, in their performance, rumors forge links between the interlocutors, revealing shared positions. Open secrets work similarly — to a point; in keeping the secret, individuals share a knowledge they cannot speak and thus a complicity. But since what is common is silence (inaction), the individual members of the open-secret community forsake interaction with one another. In fact, it is precisely this absence of horizontal ties that shores up the open secret. Those who break the pledge of silence, who talk loudly at the theater, calling attention to the artifice of the production, are kicked out.
Open secrets have pragmatic applications. Consider the management of knowledge regarding Israel’s nuclear program. The entire purported value of these unacknowledged weapons as a deterrent threat is predicated on the circulation of secret news. Were this international open secret to be admitted, Israel would have to confront the consequences of its breach of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty — and, more seriously, expose preferential treatment, implicating its patron, the United States, in a scandal of global favoritism. Nevertheless, Israel has repeatedly assured the world that it would not be the first, or even the second, “country in the region to use nuclear weapons.” In any case, the effective power of nuclear weapons hinges on the spread of news about their existence among potential adversaries. Here the open secret is at its most essential; the Israeli nuclear arsenal is effective not despite its half-secrecy, but precisely because of it. This configuration communicates without leaving a binding trail, produces an echo without a voice, much less a speaker.
Of the many incarnations of open secrets, perhaps the most remarkable is its increasingly central position in American politics and public discourse. We live in a world not only effectively ruled by open secrets, but also one in which the preferred method of news delivery is the leak. In a culture of frequently Photoshopped realities, something about an apparent breach, an “unintentional” disclosure of facts, seems to assuage general skepticism, and to intimate that the leaked content is closer to truth. Like rumor, both the open secret and the leak have no attributable author. Yet they bear the cachet of privileged information, the frisson of proximity to authority — this is the source of their presumed reliability, their truth effect.
Contemporary politics, especially the US variety, are characterized by their tango with rumor; their disembodied reports are the leitmotif of American electioneering. The media and the public both lust for — indeed, survive on — timely leaks of information regarding everything from congressional underage paramours to torture by paramilitary contractors. This epidemic information flow is anything but frivolous chatter. Leaks and open secrets may reveal important truths — but again, as with the rumor, it is less their content that carries truth, but rather their very existence and currency that betray the opaque workings of contemporary politics.
Rumors ring of diffuse origin and accidental or whimsical propagation; they are expedient for the powerless, threatening to power. By contrast, there is intention behind open secrets; and the “secret” component, precisely because it indicates control over information, intimates that this information is true, since only true information is worth protecting, or so the innocent logic runs.
Now consider the leak: a metaphor of mess, of forces bursting forth, resisting constraint. “Leak” is also increasingly a transitive verb deliberately performed on, and with, information. Ostensibly sabotage, such leaks, like the open secret, are intentional, purposeful. Think of the recent outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame to punish her spouse for criticizing state policy.
While every leak is the explicit instrument of its leaker, a leak can just as well be used to criticize power as to buttress it. One of the most famous US media leaks was Daniel Ellsberg’s 1971 publication of The Pentagon Papers, which exposed the systematic misinformation that five American presidents had fed the public in order to garner support for the war in Vietnam. Or earlier this year, the leak that exposed the (real) secret of the Bush administration’s warrantless domestic surveillance program. Such leaks have been used to resist state power, but they are increasingly rare; the majority of leaks are subtle instruments of concealing state control while extending it through the careful disembodied planting of information.
“We are an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”
—A senior Bush advisor, on what he termed the “reality-based community” (in 2004)
There is yet another thread in this complex political knot, the larger development in which open secrets are centrally plotted. While neither open secrets nor media leaks are anything new to American politics, their increasing centrality to the political order allows hitherto unthinkable practices to be gradually made normal, even normative. This colonization of normalcy is often in the service of unrestricted power — political and economic.
The power of the open secret also reaches straight to the throat of the individual, under the pretext of the war on terror. Examples include secret CIA prisons strewn across the globe and the practice of extraordinary rendition, in which the CIA summarily delivers suspects, uncharged and without recourse to legal council, to states where torture is legal. In the same vein, the Bush administration has engaged in domestic surveillance of both domestic and international telecommunications and monitored bank records — without securing judicial warrants.
In these cases, specific information has bled through the seams of official control. What were once tightly controlled reports were converted into open secrets, at which point they graduated into the public sphere — with or without scandal. The valence of this last step depends upon both the information at hand and the conditions of its outing. Lately we’ve witnessed a series of particularly sinister practices rising to public knowledge under state tutelage; indeed, in the case of the torture of so-called enemy combatants, the state has brashly sought to have the secret inscribed in (obfiscatory) law.
“Change the channel. Change the channel to a legitimate, authoritative, honest news station.”
—Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, then senior military spokesman in Iraq, upon being asked what he would tell Iraqis who watching televised images of “American and coalition soldiers killing innocent civilians.”
Such transformation — this constantly self-defined reality — revolves, unsurprisingly, around language. Over the past five years, we have witnessed the remarkable genius of the Bush administration as it has redefined practically every term and concept falling under its purview. Thus, global warming was neutralized by the term “climate change,” and a progressive estate tax on the very rich was made a faux-populist threat with the term “death tax.” Similarly, torture in violation of human rights charters has been systematically dismissed in smug phrases that smack of a nuisance at most (“if we have to [we’ll] shout in someone’s face… to prevent another attack” proposed John Ashcroft, while Rush Limbaugh dismissed the Abu Ghraib travesties by comparing them to mere “undergraduate hazing rituals”). As any junior-high reader of Orwell knows, the first step in colonizing normalcy is appropriation of language — and yet the administration’s transparent rhetoric gains popular currency and remains remarkably effective. Why? In this manner, popular language participates in the logic of the open secret.
The public collusion in the inviolability of the open secret is why Bush undertook such an emblematic and arrogant performance for the White House Press Corps. The skit plays with the notion of secrecy, of hiddenness itself, using humor to neutralize a double scandal of deceit (lying about the WMDs) and incompetence (the alleged intelligence failure). It rubbed the press’s nose in the fact that they would still not dare to breach the magic of the “secret” — a silencing quite antithetical to rumor.
Such ingenious manipulation of political language has redefined the terms of debate to ones over which the administration enjoys an advantage, or even exercises a functional monopoly. And while they’ve marshaled everything from foreign wars to sexual scandals to distract from their unprecedented sacking of civil rights (telecommunications privacy, immunity from torture), perhaps their most important accomplishment is having created an atmosphere in which any dissent is considered unpatriotic, if not treasonous. Now not only the average citizen but also the media obey — or worse, internalize — the cheapest and most effective form of social control: self-censorship.
Surely the greatest instance of the shameless shimmy of power around the law (which increasingly stands for an inconvenient Limit on Authoritarian Will) remains the treatment and status of Guantanamo Bay detainees. The Bush administration created a black hole of legal rights when it “unbaptized” detainees as enemy combatants, stripping them of all rights (including any specified by the Geneva Conventions) and effectively of personhood. Without the right to seek legal counsel, to examine the evidence marshaled against them, or even to be charged with a specific offense — much less the right to a trial or appeal of any kind — these captives lack any semblance of a legal subjectivity; they are marooned beyond the law. Such bold incursions of state terror continue, most recently in the historic suspension of habeas corpus (a feature of western law since the early 13th century) for any noncitizens it deems “unlawful combatants.” The public discussion and criticism this provoked, however, was totally eclipsed by a familiar deus ex machina: Congressman Foley’s timely sexual scandal and no less sensational public confessions.
Unspeakable terrors, in other words, have been grotesquely domesticated — in both senses of the word. Not only they have been rendered normal, inserted into the vocabulary of the everyday, but they’re also being brought home to the US, transplanted from enemy combatants — first to noncitizens, but ultimately to Americans.
START TALKING. NOW.
All in all, the open secret, contrary to the common-sense ring of its name and its currency in public discourse is not a simple, honest release of truth from the grips of secrecy. Instead, the pure spectacle of openness is part of a new, carefully choreographed truth regime — one in the service not of transparency but of increasing social control. It establishes a new frontier in the colonization of sociability, the enclosure of the public’s moral imagination. John Keats lived through similarly trying times, when habeas corpus was suspended in 1817, and despaired
Habeas corpus’d as we are out
of all wonder, curiosity, and fear
Keats’s was a brave, political cry of desperation over the loss of the last legal appeal for the disenfranchised subject. We would do well to cry out, too, rather than become transfixed by the silence of the open secret.