Karl Marx Allee, Berlin, January 2019 (image-copyright-ATPD)
Performing Rights: Contemporary Art, the Refugee Condition, and the Alibi of Engagement
Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today?
Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot, 1953
If the disavowal or absence of legal and political representation is a feature of being a refugee in an era of political exceptionalism, then what happens when artistic representation is inserted into this already compromised regime of visibility? In an all too amenable substitution that can often reconfirm the apparent absence of legal accountability, is it possible that cultural forms of representation are compensating for — if not replacing — the very systems and procedures of political and legal responsibility that are being denied refugees in the first place?
Lecture Theatre, Chelsea College of Arts, Chelsea College of Arts 16 John Islip Street London, SW1P 4JU
Anthony Downey Akram, firstly, congratulations on The Script. I found the film enchanting, and it is, I think, deceptively simple. It’s in two parts: one is set in the Zaatari residence in Saida, and the other in a theatre in Saida. Saida is about forty-five kilometres south of Beirut, and it’s where you were born, of course. I was wondering if you could talk about the genesis of the film, because it was in fruition, or genesis, for about two years, if I understand correctly. And it’s not just about film. It is a film, but its obvious reference points may not be overtly obvious to first-time viewers. Could you talk a little bit about how the film came into being, and your interest in its specific area?
Akram Zaatari The film is entitled The Script because this is a script that has been developed by people, You Tubers, who film themselves and upload their rushes on YouTube. So this is not a choreography or a script that I wrote, but I was inspired by it taking place and unfolding on YouTube and being twisted and changed by different people. You see a man trying to pray, although he is not just trying to pray as no matter how the kids try to interrupt, he continues with his prayer. What I like about it is that there is obviously a choreography written for this, and there has been a rehearsal. So I asked myself, why would people do that? I still don’t have an answer, but it’s amusing and it shows an interesting relationship between father and son, or between grown-up and child. It also shows an interesting relationship between a religious person and an individual (the kid) before they know religion – because at two or four years old, you don’t know what religion is. So for the child, this ritual is more like play, or choreography, and he doesn’t understand why during this particular ritual the father doesn’t interact. If the child tries to catch the father’s attention, the father does not react…
In Search of Archives — Contemporary Approaches to the Past
Organized by Sarah Dornhof & Nadia Sabri
Keynote: Digital Archives in a “Post Truth” Age (Professor Anthony Downey)
The extent to which the visual arts reflected upon and promoted social and political change during and after the Arab Spring increasingly gives rise to decisive questions regarding the future relationship between digital images and cultural activism. Throughout this time, digital archives — produced through video- and film-making, performances, and numerous media platforms — and their evidentiary contexts became closely associated with activist practices, leading to a number of prevailing assumptions about both cultural production in the region and the effectiveness of digital and social media as tools for enabling political transformation. To what extent, we therefore need to ask, has the material and immaterial economy of the post-revolutionary image been re-configured by advanced digital technologies, the on-going role of social media in forms of surveillance, and the proliferation of targeted disinformation? This talk will examine a number of issues relating to these questions, and specifically explore the degree to which the post-revolutionary digital image has been further defined by, and pre-determined within, the algorithmic biases that underwrite the internet.
The fact that these algorithms are the basis of a Silicon Valley inspired form of venture capitalism should, I will suggest, prompt us to ask who owns and who controls the technology that defines the digital archives through which we have come to understand historical events? What do algorithms do to the archive of history and, perhaps more importantly, what do algorithms want from us? In light of developments in social media, network communication systems, digital technology, artificial intelligence (AI), and the online surveillance systems associated with repressive regimes and governments in the Middle East, not to mention the anxieties accompanying the ascendancy of algorithms and so-called “fake news”, this talk will enquire into whether such forms of popular revolt could happen again in the Middle East, and, if so, how could they be archived for future generations?
Public Talk: Was I sleeping, while the others suffered: Contemporary Art, the Refugee Condition, and the Alibi of Engagement, ifa, Berlin, January 28, 2019 (Professor Anthony Downey)
If the disavowal or absence of legal and political representation is a feature of being a refugee in an era of political exceptionalism, then what happens when artistic representation is inserted into this already compromised regime of visibility? In an all too amenable substitution that can often reconfirm the apparent absence of legal accountability, is it possible that cultural forms of representation are compensating for — if not replacing — the very systems and procedures of political and legal responsibility that are being denied refugees in the first place? What happens when the “culturalisation” of political debates around the status of refugees produce a culturally determined — as opposed to politically defined — idea and ideal of those concepts? Are we, this talk will ask, merely formulating an alibi of engagement through the performance of human rights that has become an institutional mainstay in contemporary art practices and their often inflated claims on political realities?
Habe ich geschlafen, als die Anderen leiden mussten?
Zeitgenössische Kunst, der Status von Geflüchteten und das Alibi des Engagements
Vortrag von Anthony Downey
Wenn es in Zeiten des politischen Ausnahmezustands zum Dasein als Geflüchtete*r gehört, dass einem rechtliche Teilhabe abgesprochen wird und die Möglichkeit zur politischen Repräsentation fehlt, was geschieht dann, wenn in diese bereits eingeschränkte Ordnung der Sichtbarkeit eine künstlerische Repräsentation eingefügt wird? Ist es möglicherweise so, dass ein allzu einfacher Akt des Ersetzens diese Problematik wiederholt? Kompensieren kulturelle Formen der Repräsentation das Fehlen genau jener Systeme und Verfahren politischer und rechtlicher Verantwortung, die den Geflüchteten in der EU verweigert werden, oder treten sie sogar an ihre Stelle? Was passiert, wenn die „Kulturalisierung“ politischer Debatten über den Status von Geflüchteten kulturell aufgeladene – anstatt politisch definierte – Vorstellungen und Ideale zur Folge hat? Verschaffen wir uns, so die zentrale Frage dieses Vortrags, durch die performative Inszenierung von Menschenrechten, die für zeitgenössische Kunstpraktiken mit ihren oft überzogenen Vorstellungen der eigenen politischen Wirksamkeit so wichtig geworden ist, nur das Alibi eines Engagements?
The (Networked) Image in Conflict: Digital Archives, Cultural Activism, and the Dilemma of Evidence
Anthony Downey (Professor of Visual Culture in the Middle East and North Africa, Birmingham City University)
Have artists and cultural institutions realigned how we look at and engage with political activism, historical events, and revolutionary conflict? The extent to which the visual arts reflected upon and promoted social and political change during and after the Arab Spring gives rise to this and other questions about digital archives, cultural activism, and the dilemma of evidence in an age of networked communication systems. Throughout this time, digital archives — produced through video- and film-making, performances, and numerous media platforms — and their evidentiary contexts became closely associated with activist practices, leading to a number of prevailing assumptions about both cultural production in the region and the effectiveness of digital and social media as tools for enabling political transformation. In light of these conjectures, and revelations concerning the on-going role of social media in surveillance and the proliferation of disinformation, this keynote will propose a critical framework for artists, cultural institutions, and policy-makers alike to engage with both the potential and, crucially, the shortcomings of cultural activism during this period.
The 2018 International Conference of Photography and Theory (ICPT 2018) interweaves the ideas of the conflictual and the archival in relation to the photographic image.
Artist Akram Zaatari will be in conversation at the New Art Exchange, on the 14 July, 2018, with academic, editor, and writer Anthony Downey. Drawing from his research into vernacular photography, Zaatari explores the ways in which individuals experiment with performative narratives that start with studio photography and extend to YouTubing, with a strong focus on how Muslim communities are presenting online counter-narratives to negative depictions in the media.
For further information and to book tickets, see here.
Future Imperfect: Contemporary Art Practices and Cultural Institutions in the Middle East (2017) edited by Anthony Downey
Rawan Sharaf Khatib
This volume is an extensive anthology that investigates the history and current politics of cultural institutions and production in the Middle East. It is the latest addition to the series ‘Visual Culture in the Middle East’ published by Ibraaz, and was preceded by Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East (2014) and Dissonant Archives: Contemporary Visual Culture and Contested Narratives in the Middle East (2015). The series, which is based on questions raised in Ibraaz’s ‘Platforms for discussion’, attempts to interpret and comprehend how the accelerated regional upheaval, with the social and economic breakdown caused by revolutions, counter-revolutions and civil wars, has echoed in visual and cultural practices in terms of responses to the specific antagonisms, and the developing of alternative structures and models of production while operating in precarious political conditions. And how, simultaneously, cultural production in the region is influenced by the global cultural economy, and perhaps even co-opted, or at least driven by, the politics and parameters of a globalised art market.
For the full review see Third Text online review here.
On the occasion of their show “Unconformities” at the Acropolis Museum in Athens, artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige will be in conversation with Anthony Downey to discuss the work relevance to Athens, Beirut and Paris, and their broader practice as researchers and film-makers. The event is an Onassis Culture international co-production as part of the Onassis Fast Forward Festival 5.
The following edited transcript of a conversation between John Akomfrah and Anthony Downey took place at the Barbican Centre’s Curve Gallery on 12 October 2017. The event coincided with Akomfrah’s installation of his six-channel film Purple in the gallery (6 October 2017 – 7 January 2018) and begins with a discussion of the film’s main ideas and how the artist’s interest in ‘clearing the stage’ enabled him to invite new elements into both the film and into his working practice. Although Purple has a starting point in aspects of Akomfrah’s biography, its subject matter is much broader and far-reaching taking in, as it does, the so-called Anthropocene epoch. The latter term is being widely used to designate a period in which human activity has shifted from being a ‘biological agent’ ‒ impacting on a specific and largely localised environment ‒ to becoming a ‘geological agent’; capable, that is, of radically altering the world’s relatively stable climate patterns.
If the disavowal or absence of legal and political representation before the law is a feature of being a refugee in an era of political exceptionalism, then what happens when artistic representation is inserted into this already compromised regime of visibility? In an all too amenable substitution that can often reconfirm the apparent absence of legal accountability, this lecture will suggest that cultural forms of representation are increasingly compensating for — if not replacing — the very systems and procedures of political and legal responsibility that are being denied refugees in the first place? This culturalisation of political debate has, in turn, effected one of the key aims of neoliberalism: the de facto co-option of culture so that it ultimately answers to and performs, rather than opposes, political debate.