To read Anthony’s introductory essay “Future Imperfect: Critical Propositions and Institutional Realities in the Middle East”, click here
Future Imperfect: Contemporary Art Practices and Cultural Institutions in the Middle East critically examines the role played by cultural institutions in producing present-day and future contexts for the production, dissemination and reception of contemporary art in the Middle East and North Africa. It offers critical contexts for a discussion that has become increasingly urgent in recent years – the role of culture in a time of conflict and globalization – and an in-depth critique of the historical state of cultural institutions in an age of political upheaval, social unrest, exuberant cultural activity, ascendant neoliberal forms of privatization, social activism, and regional uncertainty.
Organised around three key areas, Future Imperfect draws attention to the ongoing demands and antagonisms that have affected cultural production across the region, both in historical and more recent post-revolutionary contexts. In doing so, it offers an in-depth discussion of how cultural producers have developed alternative institutional models to negotiate the constraints placed upon their practices. How cultural institutions operate within the conditions of a global cultural economy, and alongside the often conflicting demands they place on cultural production in the region, is likewise an over-arching point of reference throughout this volume.
While the politics of contemporary cultural production and institutional practices in the Middle East can tell us a great deal about local and regional concerns, one of the cornerstone ambitions of this volume is to enquire into what they can also impart about the politics of global cultural production. This involves exploring the multiple ways in which contemporary art practices are being reduced, willingly or otherwise, to the logic of global capital. What, in sum, is needed in terms of infrastructure for cultural production today, and how, crucially, can we speculatively propose new infrastructures and institutions in the context of present-day realities?
Future Imperfect contains essays, interviews, and projects from contributors including Monira Al Qadiri, Hoor Al-Qasimi, Anahi Alviso-Marino, AMBS Architects, Stephanie Bailey, Eray Çaylı, Rachel Dedman, Elizabeth Derderian, Anthony Downey, Karen Exell, Reema Salha Fadda, Wafa Gabsi, Hadia Gana, Adalet R. Garmiany, Baha Jubeh, Suhair Jubeh, Amal Khalaf, Kamel Lazaar, Jens Maier-Rothe, Guy Mannes-Abbott, Doreen Mende, Lea Morin, Jack Persekian, Rijin Sahakian, Gregory Sholette, Tom Snow, Ania Szremski, Christine Tohme, Toleen Touq, Williams Wells, Ala Younis and Yasmine Zidane.
The publication is accompanied by a collection of special projects on the Ibraaz website from Leila Al-Shami, Wided Rihana Khadraoui, Lois Stonock, Nile Sunset Annex, Alia Rayyan and Husam Al-Sarray.
Future Imperfect: Focus on Visual Culture in the Middle East
ALAN CRUICKSHANK: Ibraaz launched its inaugural Platform 001 in June 2011, in response to regional developments across North Africa and the Middle East, the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ and its effects upon the visual culture of the region. In your Ibraaz 5th year anniversary editorial, ‘Return to the Former Middle East’,1 you stated that this was premised by a “relatively straightforward question: what do we need to know about the MENA region today?” The objective was to understand what was happening to art practices under certain political, social, economic, and cultural conditions and how this relates to global developments. And given that these conditions of unrest, as real economic, social, historical and political facts of life, you further considered what the politics of contemporary cultural production in the Middle East can tell us about the politics of global cultural production…
Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre (as part of the Art Writing Workshop) invites you to a seminar with Anthony Downey in discussion with Tina Sherwell at Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre on Wednesday 16/11/2016 at 17:00. Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center مركز خليل السكاكيني الثقافي Khalil Sakakini Str. Al Masyoon Ramallah Palestine, 0970 Ramallah
The Future of an Anachronism: Contemporary Art Practices and the Precarious Image
Beginning with Oktober 18, 1977 (1988), a work in which Gerhard Richter grappled with the historical legacy of the Baader-Meinhof group, this lecture explores how artists employ anachronism and displacement to negotiate the material and conceptual precariousness associated with civil conflict, political upheaval, and acts of terror. In negotiating, through anachronistic forms, the politics and aesthetics of representing conflict and violence, contemporary art can often produce alternative forms of knowledge that are, in turn, based upon the precarious nature of representation itself: the manner, that is, in which the means of producing images, be they in the form of painting, sculpture, video, film or performance, can productively employ an aesthetic that is intimately associated with self-effacement, elision, destruction, ambivalence, withdrawal, abstraction, obfuscation, equivocation and evasiveness.
To coincide with the UK premiere of John Akomfrah’s acclaimed video installation Vertigo Sea, the artist will be in conversation with academic, editor and writer, Anthony Downey.
A unique opportunity to hear artist John Akomfrah talk about his work and the exhibition at Arnolfini.
John Akomfrah is an artist and filmmaker whose works are characterised by their investigations into personal and collective histories and memory, cultural, ethnic and personal identity, post-colonialism and temporality. Importantly, his focus is most often on giving voice to the experience of the African diaspora in Europe and the USA.John Akomfrah: Vertigo Sea
A founding member of the influential Black Audio Film Collective, his work has been shown in museums and exhibitions around the world including the Liverpool Biennial; Documenta 11, Centre Pompidou, the Serpentine Gallery; Tate; and Southbank Centre, and MoMA, New York. A major retrospective of Akomfrah’s gallery-based work with the Black Audio Film Collective premiered at FACT, Liverpool and Arnolfini, Bristol in 2007. His films have been included in international film festivals such as Cannes, Toronto, Sundance, amongst others. He has recently been shortlisted for the Artes Mundi 7 prize.
Anthony Downey is an academic, editor and writer. Recent and upcoming publications include Dissonant Archives: Contemporary Visual Culture and Contested Narratives in the Middle East (I.B. Tauris, 2015); Art and Politics Now (Thames and Hudson, 2014); Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practice in North Africa and the Middle East (I.B. Tauris, 2014);Slavs and Tatars: Mirrors for Princes (JRP Ringier, 2015); and The Future of a Promise: Contemporary Art from the Arab World (Ibraaz Publishing, 2011).
Larissa Sansour will discuss the works featured in the exhibition ‘In the Future They Ate from the Finest Porcelain‘ with academic, editor and writer Anthony Downey.
In this ambitious show, Jerusalem-born Sansour creates a vision of a futuristic world where the excavation of the past is a battleground. The artist offers a poetic and charged reflection on the politicisation of archaeology where the material past is used as a tool to justify territorial claims and assert historic entitlement. This is in particular reference to Israel/Palestine but is also reflective of other contested spaces and histories.
The discussion will offer compelling insight into Sansour’s practice which often explores the crossover between the fictional and the factual, interrogating personal and political issues.
Join us on 7 June for an intensive one-day discussion of the most critical issue facing the world, and the role and future of learning and culture within it. Though terrorism is associated currently with fundamentalism originating in the Middle East (and, for some, also with the response of western nation-states to it) forms of violent action against states, countries, cultures, groups and individuals has a long history.
Keynote speakers WJT MITCHELL, TARIQ ALI and ANTHONY DOWNEY will contribute incisive accounts of the stakes in this crisis, examining both ‘terror’ as an idea and its complex relations to a range of cultural and artistic practices, both historical and contemporary.
BCU provides a rich learning and research context in which to consider these issues. Papers will be given by BCU academics on a range of arts, cultural forms and modes directly implicated in the terror – in times both past and present. These include painting, cartoons, drama, film and performance. Universities are themselves implicated now in the state response to terrorism by western governments. The conference will enable this matter to be aired fully, as part of its critical review of the place and definition of cultural freedom in this new age of terror. Birmingham, as a global city, has a special significance in this debate and additional speakers with local interests will be added to the conference programme in the next few months.
Qalandiya International & DS22 London Symposium, Moments of Possibilities: Air, Land and Sea
Venue: The Mosaic Rooms
With land distribution and urban morphology in Palestine now being pushed to their extremes through the inclusion of certain communities, and the exclusion of others, the aim of this London event is to explore alternative means of re-reading ‘Air’, ‘Land’ and ‘Sea’ within the region by stripping away the dominating power of lines on the ground.
Stemming from the need for an alternative discourse that can heal and nourish real physical space as well as the space of imagination, it will look at ‘Air, Land and Sea’ in the hope of redefining a new geography beyond the currently enforced borders. Through acts such as ‘cutting’ and ‘breathing’, the event will include works that demonstrate the possibilities of reconstructing and stitching together fragmented spaces and Palestinian diasporic communities.
‘Air, Land and Sea’ will be the medium where boundaries are blurred and surfaces are merged. It aims to engage with nature and allow the cultural landscape to heal itself again in a constant process of wrapping and stitching together.
Alongside the series of installations, film screenings art and architectural projects taking place across the different venues in London, the one day symposium will bring together a diverse group of architects, artists, filmmakers, academics and professionals discussing the theme ‘This Sea is Mine’.
While crossing borders, the symposium will contemplate return and the refugees. The discussions aim to go beyond Palestine to include the displaced in and around the Mediterranean Sea. Unpacked by the different participants, the sea will be a medium to navigate through. A layer that can possibly bring to the surface that absent narratives of the contemporary Diaspora and of the ordinary people.
The symposium will question the role of artists, architects and other professionals within the complex political and economic structure, exploring whether alternatives can be offered to heal, and a new geography emerging from the sea can be created to mend the fractures. Notions of ‘home’, waiting, ‘return’ the absent narratives and other subjects raised by the exhibits and the participants will be explored.
A selection of participants from the exhibition will present their work in form of Pecha Kucha presentation, which will open up the exploration of themes exhibited by a panel round table discussion panel.
Les nouvelles technologies ont offert des opportunités de développement étonnantes aux artistes du monde arabe. Anthony Downey revient sur la plate-forme de réflexion en ligne Ibraaz lancée il y a cinq ans et dont il est le rédacteur en chef.
Qantara : Pouvez-vous nous parler de la création en 2011 du forum Ibraaz, une émanation de la Fondation Kamel Lazaar ?
Anthony Downey : Ibraaz est né d’une discussion entre Kamel Lazaar, sa fille Lina Lazaar et moi-même, qui remonte à 2009. L’élaboration du projet a pris deux ans avant son lancement en 2011, dans le cadre de la 54e Biennale de Venise. En faisant d’Ibraaz le pôle de recherche et d’édition de la fondation, nous partions d’une idée assez simple : il existait, croyions-nous, un besoin urgent d’offrir une analyse critique impartiale et sérieuse de la culture visuelle provenant du Moyen-Orient ou en rapport avec lui. C’est toujours vrai. Quand on voit la demande institutionnelle, muséale et commerciale en matière d’arts plastiques de la région, on peut estimer que le besoin n’a fait qu’augmenter depuis lors. Il fallait aussi que nous soyons représentatifs de la région. C’est pourquoi la majorité de nos collaborateurs sont basés au Moyen-Orient, de même que la plupart des correspondants de la rédaction. C’est peut-être une gageure logistique, mais avec notre implantation en ligne, nous utilisons pleinement la technologie pour attirer, si possible, un large éventail d’opinions.
Comment fixez-vous les axes de réflexion que vous partagez sur Ibraaz ?
Ce travail s’effectue avec une équipe éditoriale composée de membres de la rédaction et de correspondants basés dans la région. Les premiers établissent tous les six à huit mois une série de questions qui sont soumises aux commentaires et remarques des seconds. Par cette méthode, nous obtenons un choix de sujets qui se resserre peu à peu, pour aboutir, si tout se passe bien, à une seule thématique qui devient un support collectif de contributions et d’échanges. À ce jour, dix thématiques ont été proposées regroupant des sujets allant du général au particulier, dont le plus récent était : «Vers où maintenant ? Mutation des dynamiques régionales et de la production culturelle au Maghreb et au MoyenOrient». Chaque thématique a donné lieu à des productions différentes, souvent sous la forme de rencontres et de livres, notamment Dissonant Archives: Contemporary Art and Contested Narratives in the Middle East (IB Tauris, 2015) et Future Imperfect: Contemporary Art Practices and Cultural Institutions in the Middle East (Sternberg Press, à paraître en 2016).
Qu’est-ce que ces espaces apportent de plus que les institutions traditionnelles ?
Ce sont des échanges très ouverts, destinés à accueillir des participants que l’on n’a pas entendus et à publier des intervenants plus confirmés, de manière à faire avancer le dialogue. Nous veillons à ne pas trop nous institutionnaliser, ni trop nous rapprocher d’une institution en particulier afin de préserver notre pouvoir critique. Mais notre pôle de recherche et d’édition est capable de travailler avec de multiples institutions et des professionnels d’horizons divers, ce qui contribue, je crois, à la vitalité et à la pluralité du dialogue.
Quelles sont les conséquences des révolutions arabes, en particulier en Tunisie ?
C’est difficile de répondre en quelques mots. Il y a eu des avancées indéniables, surtout en Tunisie, et des reculs indéniables, nulle part aussi criants qu’en Égypte, où l’autoritarisme semble s’accentuer, et en Syrie, qui semble en proie à un conflit interne insoluble. Sur le plan culturel, il y a eu malgré tout une véritable explosion, si l’on peut dire. Peut-être qu’elle commencera à avoir des répercussions sur le débat social et politique et sur l’évolution générale, mais nous sommes encore aux tout premiers stades de ce qui sera un bouleversement historique de grande ampleur.
Comment voyez-vous la question des relations de l’art avec la sphère publique et la société civile ?
La production culturelle, comme forme d’engagement et de communication qui s’adresse au public, fait souvent le lien entre diverses activités associées à une société civile vigoureuse. Si l’on admet que l’activité artistique a une valeur sociale, et bien peu le contesteraient, on doit se demander dans quelle mesure la société a une obligation de soutenir ces activités qui reparamètrent les rapports entre développement culturel, espace public et militantisme social. Pour répondre complètement à la question, il faudrait étudier de près ce que la culture peut faire pour renforcer la société civile, au sens d’une ouverture de l’espace public et du dialogue, et ce que la société civile peut faire pour la culture.
Dans votre catalogue «The Future of a Promise » (2011), vous semblez dire qu’il faudrait cesser d’utiliser le terme «Moyen-Orient » pour désigner en raccourci un ensemble complexe de pays divers. Je crois avoir voulu dire que nous devions procéder à une évaluation épistémologique, une contextualisation historique et une remise en cause critique de l’emploi de ce terme pour éviter les analyses péremptoires, réductrices et néocoloniales. J’irais dans le même sens aujourd’hui. Nous incitons toujours nos auteurs à se demander si l’utilisation qu’ils font de ce terme lui donne une définition ouverte ou fermée. Je pense que les commentaires et les critiques sont plus nuancés depuis quelque temps, mais il y a encore beaucoup de travail si nous voulons en finir avec les formes de perception néocoloniales de la région.
Vous lancez régulièrement des débats afin de proposer de nouveaux cadres critiques et épistémologiques à la place des modèles postcoloniaux.
Quand on applique une pensée critique, on doit s’interroger sur les postulats qu’elle suppose. Si l’on parle de la création culturelle au début du xxie siècle, les acteurs de la culture et les artistes ont-ils à leur disposition d’autres modes de production des savoirs ? C’est fondamental pour moi : existe-t-il des modes de pensée différents ? En dehors des questions épistémologiques sur la production de savoirs, j’essaie aussi de regarder qui en produit, comment ils sont utilisés et à quelles fins. En somme, quels intérêts sert la production de savoirs à l’instant où elle intervient ? Je me penche aussi sur un autre domaine plus large, concernant plus précisément la pédagogie : comment élaborer des programmes d’études et d’apprentissage autour de ces questions et favoriser une vraie pensée critique de la part des professionnels et des élèves ? Voilà où j’en suis de mes recherches à présent : comment enseigner utilement ce que nous savons et comment, finalement, apprendre ce que nous ne savons pas? •
Propos recueillis par Ingrid Perbal Traduit de l’anglais par Jeanne Bouniort Anthony Downey est professeur d’art visuel sur le Moyen-Orient et l’Afrique du Nord à la faculté des arts de l’université de Birmingham City. Publication à venir : Future Imperfect: Contemporary Art Practices and Cultural Institutions in the Middle East (2016).
It sometimes appears that radical political positions are a scarce commodity in the landscape of contemporary art, which seems to be dominated by luxury fairs and a virtual sense of narcissism. Nevertheless, the consciousness to address pressing societal issues is of incremental importance for artists such as Santiago Sierra or Wafaa Bilal. Daniel Lippitsch discussed with academic and critic Dr. Anthony Downey the current relationship between art and politics and how this relationship claims its validity in this extraordinarily fast-paced and globally connected world, without losing its significance.
Since the turn of the 21st century, contemporary artists have increasingly engaged with some of the most pressing issues facing our world, from globalization, migration and citizenship to conflict, terrorism and social activism. Why do you think these subjects gain consistently more attention in global artistic practice nowadays?
Globalization has had a huge impact on communities worldwide and, in conjunction with the political logic of neoliberalism, with its emphasis on deregulation, withdrawal of government, and competitiveness, globalization has generated tensions and conflict across those communities. These tensions produced by globalization are manifold and resist cursory analysis, but they can be identified in the unequal distribution of wealth and risk; the suspension of labour laws intended to protect workers; the impact of so-called free-market ideology on local communities; the presence of a globalized underclass of migrant labourers; and the increasingly visible fact of economic and political migrants. Elements of contemporary art, which exist ultimately as a form of social practice, need to be considered within these contexts; specifically how globalization has radically reconfigured social, political, economic and cultural relationships. These are the facts of living in the 21st century and contemporary art practices, or at least those that pertain to political engagement, tend to inevitably reflect these realities. Having carried out research for Art and Politics Now, I use the word ‘reflect’ here cautiously as contemporary art is largely a form of reflection rather than an agent of social and political change in its own right.
Art has its own power in the world, and is as much a force in the power play of global politics today as it once was in the arena of cold war politics.” This claim was famously stated by Boris Groys in Art Power. How do you position current artistic developments in terms of their possibility to take on political as well as social dimensions, becoming themselves a focus of controversy and even a force of political and social change?
I would be reluctant to suggest that contemporary art is or ever has been a force for political and social change. That would suggest that contemporary art has an instrumentalist, utilitarian function of sorts — or that art wants to be an agent of change, an assumption I doubt based on my research. I would need to see more of the context of Groy’s statement here. But as far as I am concerned, the majority of contemporary art practices are often complicit in the very processes they apparently critique. For example, even though a substantial number of artists’ works are considered to be critiques of globalization, the contemporary art world with its emphasis on global mobility (for artists and the art-world in general), is in fact indicative of, if not a precursor to, the processes of globalization. I often see the term “emerging markets” used in the art world without any critique of how it resonates with the political economy of neoliberal markets. Likewise, western curators “discovering” and presenting new work from, say, the Far East or Africa chimes uncomfortably, particularly with the notion of the intrepid colonial explorer in mind. Add to this the manner in which the institutions that support and drive contemporary art, from the biennial to the so-called mega-museum, are often deployed to gentrify otherwise run down areas (from Barcelona to Berlin), or to announce the arrival of cities as tourist destinations (see Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha). We can begin to understand the extent to which contemporary art is an active agent in the process of globalization itself. This is before we start to consider the manner in which contemporary art has become a key element in capital accrual, investment, international transactions, and outright not tax avoidance.
We could also consider this when it comes to more fully answering why a significant number of artists now profess to “represent” migrants, refugees, the dispossessed and so on. These forms of representation are often involved in a continuum of commodification that sees images imbricated within systems of value, be it financial or otherwise, for artists, institutions and, of course, critics such as myself. The “value” of these images is very rarely accrued by the subject of these images, which leads to the question of agency: for example, when you create a work about migration who benefits from the work of art? Is it the migrant being depicted, or the artist, gallery and institution showing the work? This may be more problematic than it initially sounds, if we enquire further into what is at stake in the moment of representation and what exactly is happening when news media or artists go into and record life (and death) in refugee camps for example. We need to consider whether representation of the camp produces a regime of visibility that encourages spectacle as a means of visualisation and offers visual representation as a false means to give voice to those who nevertheless remain voiceless? Needless to say, cultural production exists in a continuum of capital accrual and the latter is often centralized in the financial capitals of the western world, be it London, New York, Paris or Frankfurt. Forms of artistic practice — or at least those that profess to engage with globalization and its inequitable effects — that do not reflect upon this reality or admit complicity within it, cannot effect social or indeed political change.
Your research features a wide variety of artists and their personal way of engaging with political issues in a more moderate or radical way. By looking at the work of Santiago Sierra, who, especially after his famous installation 160 cm line tattooed on four people (2000), reinforced the element of voluntary deformation in exchange for low remuneration by letting people being tattooed for a few pounds or letting them masturbate or colour their hair for less. The public controversy was obvious, but how would you evaluate the importance and position of the physical human body as an instrument in political artistic creation and why does it often become the most sought after tool to express fundamental ideas of activism and engagement in this context?
If we look at the history of contemporary art from the 1960s onwards, the body is perhaps the most sought after tool to express fundamental ideas precisely because it is the most accessible, relatable and yet provocative medium. And it remains pivotal to any understanding of art practices today. The body as a site of political violence, if we follow the work of Giorgio Agamben and his conception of ‘bare life’ (a term used to examine the idea that the subject of modernity is one whose ontological relationship to the law is not only precarious but potentially fatal), has also become an all too real element of modern life. In the context of modern life, where the impact of globalization, regional conflicts, and mass migration dictate the redistribution of populations on both micro- and macro-levels the bodies of the migrant and the refugee, to take two examples, have become exemplary facts of modernity rather than exceptions to its logic. They have become emblems of a coming community of endemic dispossession. This momentous development is not only about the so-called “other” of modernity, the refugee or migrant or dispossessed but also about what it is to be a modern subject. For example, in more prosperous countries the fact of abject poverty has merely been replaced by ingrained forms of inequality. In both instances, sovereign power reserves and exercises the right over life and death. In regards to these crucial questions, we must enquire into an emergent aesthetic paradigm in contemporary art that takes as its object of representation the nebulous, crepuscular, suspended, precarious, and often fatal predicament of ‘bare life’ as the conceptual bedrock of its output without concomitantly questioning the broader ‘value’ — in terms of media discourses and the process of representation — attached to such images and their circulation within the political logic of late-modernity . Arguably, Sierra’s work, is doing precisely that: questioning the value system in which these practices and bodies are made to circulate under the conditions affecting the “bare life” of modern subjects today.
As I see it, the further issue is with the quasi form of ethical criticism — or “public controversy” as you put it — that are applied to such acts and the extent to which these forms of criticism are merely engaging in a bout of moral throat-clearing or, just as insidiously, ethical piety. Examples of this abound in art criticism and follow a rationale along these lines:
the participants are understood to be humiliated and the resulting assumption is that the subjects in these works cannot make a volitional decision themselves. They are beyond conscious decision-making processes because of who they are and what they are subjected to in both this work and, by extension, their everyday lives. There is, likewise, a curious sense of abjection underwriting a lot of public and professional criticism of these works, whereby the participant is consistently figured as an unknowing and indeed unwitting performer who has been victimized by various forms of extractive capitalism and the global injustice that ensues from it. In merely demonstrating inequality, the artists in question would appear to be playing to the gratifications of art audiences who would rather have these issues displayed in an institutional context than actually deal with them or attempt to ameliorate them through political means. This smacks of hypocrisy to me — and is far more reactionary in its ramifications than Sierra’s work could ever be.
Adorno famously wrote that all art is an uncommitted crime. Many practicing artists have sought ways of balancing their commitment to art as a representation of their political commitments in constantly re-inventing the role of the activist-artist. Wafaa Bilal’s work “and counting…” (2010), in which the artist tattoos the names of Iraqis who died during the Iraq war and are mainly forgotten in the Western perception of the war, such as Bilal’s brother who was killed in 2004, can be put in this context as well as it delivers another example of using the body as a political platform. How was the perception of these works in the US and how does a moral double standard limit the creation of political art in the West? Can you maybe give examples?
Wafaa Bilal’s past has been indelibly marked by historical events in Iraq and elsewhere over the last two decades, including the invasion of Kuwait (and the ensuing wars in his homeland); the death of his brother Haji in 2004 (killed by American forces); the subsequent death of his father (from the resulting grief); the time he spent in refugee camps (in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, respectively); and, presently, his life in the United States (where he now teaches at Tisch School of the Arts). I have spoken at length with Wafaa and formally interviewed him, and two things become immediately clear about his practice: firstly, his work today, produced within the relative comfort zone of the United States, often reflects upon the conflict zones he has left behind; with the difference between the two generating a poignant creative friction. Secondly, when he looks back on his tumultuous travels there is a keen sense of regret that he lacked the means to record those journeys in all their chaos and uncertainty. This ambition to record no doubt appeals to a broader human desire for things — be they the apparently random events of everyday life or the singularity of a tragedy — to make sense. Making sense of a past riven by conflict and uncertainty, moreover, acts as a palliative of sorts — a consolation of sorts for the subject to negotiate the precariousness of life. However, there is a double standard at play when it comes to how his work is understood inasmuch as revolution, uprisings, internecine warfare, civil conflict, and human rights. All of these have become points of reference in an overt intensification of interest in artists working within or from the Middle East. This comes with a coextensive demand that visual culture either condemns or defends such events and notions. I have always been impressed by the extent to which Wafaa’s work questions these parameters and actively engages in the ambiguity and aesthetic problematic of representation rather than merely revelling in it or taking it for granted.
Another crucial aspect of the perception of political art is the unwillingness of institutions to adopt their authority to controversial context. How do institutions such as museums influence the distribution of political or controversial art?
Institutions often co-opt the radicality of political art and, through embedding it within institutional concerns, effectively mollify its potential as a transformative act or event. If artists are going to respond to the immediacy of events, and who is to say they should not, we nevertheless need to remain alert to how the rhetoric of conflict and the spectacle of revolution is deployed as a benchmark for discussing, if not determining, the institutional and critical legitimacy of these practices. Before Santiago Sierra’s piece proposal, workers who cannot be paid, remunerated to remain inside cardboard boxes (2000), was accepted at Kunstwerke in Berlin, they rejected a proposal to have the staff of the institution photographed, ordered in a line according to their salaries and rates of pay. In this respect, institutions can, if we consider politics in dissensual terms, influence the distribution of the political and, indeed, stymie debate. Institutions also carry a powerful collaborative and progressive legacy. Goshka Macuga’s The Nature of the Beast (2009–10) displayed a tapestry depicting Picasso’s anti-war painting Guernica (1937) in an effort to recall the events leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. To do this, The Nature of the Beast addressed two historical moments: one belonging to the history of the Whitechapel Gallery in London; the other a key event in the United Nations Security Council’s deliberations over whether or not to sanction an invasion of Iraq. The Whitechapel Gallery had exhibited Guernica in 1939 in support of an anti-fascist rally that was taking place in London’s East End. Decades later, on the 5th of February, 2003, the tapestry copy of the painting that had been on display at the United Nations since 1985 was hidden from view during the then US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. It was this tapestry that Macuga used in her show, recalling how instrumental an institution — be it sovereign, political, social or cultural — can be in producing meaning, radical or otherwise.
You intensively focus your research on the cultural production in North Africa and the Middle East via the platform Ibraaz. How would you evaluate the claim that political work from African or Middle Eastern countries can hardly be compared to Western approaches due to the political environment and consequences for artists in certain countries of these areas? Meaning that political confrontation in the arts in Western countries will not bear the same consequences and impact compared to Africa or the Middle East.
Ibraaz was set up as a research platform to rethink the usual prescriptive and reductive frames of reference that have long stultified discussions about cultural production from within and beyond the region. How do you place an artist born in, say, Iraq, who has trained in Germany, lives in New York, and has galleries in London and Berlin? The question is key to understanding that all artists work in the realm of the speculative rather than the quantitative, and all artists pursue a social practice that is incontrovertibly intertwined with the political. It goes without saying that artists working under repressive regimes will be subject to more aggressive forms of censorship, control, threats and, indeed, violence in order to keep them in line. But perhaps there is a scale of repression here as well: what if we were to consider how so-called western artists are kept in line through markets, institutions, honours, wealth, critical acclaim and so on; even those artists who are apparently radical, calling governments into question, are merely utilized by institutions as fodder enabling the latter to present themselves as radical. It is important that we make these distinctions and, moreover, recognize that today the biggest single issue in the Middle East on a cultural level is not censorship as such, but an all out war on culture: an on-going, prolonged, obdurate and, in large part, fully intentional, and yet incoherent assault on the very fabric of cultural institutions and those who support and work in them. The effect of this assault has produced a veritable and verifiable crisis in cultural production across the region, which has had both negative and, dare I say, relatively positive ramifications (inasmuch as it provokes cultural practitioners to respond and seek international support for their freedoms). However, the immediate effect of it, specifically on contemporary visual culture and its institutions — be they private galleries, public museums, foundations, magazines (and publishing in general), educational initiatives, workshops, seminars, artistic practice, freedom of speech, civil and public spaces — is a gradual undermining of the edifices of cultural institutions and their ability to produce and disseminate visual culture. I have just delivered a book to my publishers that looks at this issue in depth; it is titled Future Imperfect: Contemporary Art Practices and Cultural Institutions in the Middle East (Sternberg, 2016) and represents over 20 different voices working on these issues and the challenges faced by cultural practitioners in the Middle East today.
You published your book Arts and Politics Now in 2014, what has since then been for you the most intriguing political confrontation in the arts and where do you suggest to find the next major developments?
Arts and Politics Now had a very specific goal: to provide an overview of the changing relationship between art and politics, and, in so doing, clarify what is at stake in the debates discussed. It was intended to provide the reader with an accesible frame of reference for both understanding and exploring these issues further. In my next book, Zones of Indistinction: Contemporary Art Practices and the Neoliberal Logic of Late-Modernity (Sternberg, 2017), I wanted to take this one step further insofar as I observed that many of the practices discussed in Arts and Politics Now are easily co-opted into the rhetoric of neoliberalism — indeed, some of them unwittingly already utilise that rhetoric. There is so much weight placed on contemporary art today as a form of ethical conscientiousness — it must do the right thing politically if it is engaging with politics — and the way in which it needs to not only do something but also do the right thing, according to the particular political and ethical terms of reference. Those political and ethical terms of reference are largely gleaned, consciously or not, from neoliberal rhetoric. Contemporary art is not only expected to do certain things but to be politically and ethically conscientious if it is to be considered successful (or, indeed, unsuccessful). In the place of politically and ethically conscientious, we can read here liberally inclined, secular, democratic and socially engaged forms of critique based, loosely, on ideals such as human rights, justice and inclusion. This paradigm is, on the whole, the general backdrop that informs the heuristic framework of the metropolitan art-world. The inherent expectation that politically effective (successful) art be ethically responsible is a new, almost original critical paradigm. There is therefore a concomitant need to reflect upon that fact rather than just apply it — that is key to where my research is going presently.
Art, it seems, must not only do something within the context of ethico-political forms of critical analyses, but also must be ethically, if not transcendentally, ‘right’. This is not just a critical demand, but a curatorial and institutional one too. Nevertheless, the question that remains for now is simple enough: where do we place art that does not conform to these transcendental, secular, liberal and politically ‘correct’ forms of ethical engagement? Do we label them unethical and thereafter determine them to be politically ineffective (unsuccessful) or do we take the opportunity presented to us to re-evaluate the ontological conditions and teleological expectations of the ethical frameworks that are in use here? This is the direction my research is going in, not so much to critique practice as such but to pose a question: if cultural production has become complicit in the accumulation of capital – be it cultural, private, economic, or social — as a result of neoliberalism, global forms of gentrification, and the relative absence of state and private funding, how might we explore the potential for productive cultural alliances that can effectively address these concerns? I want to enquire: is there a neutral position for critique and how do we rethink the institutionalization, instrumentalization, and commercialization of cultural production, whilst also critiquing our own complicity as cultural producers in this process?
In 2005, the Palestinian author, activist and academic Ghada Karmi returned to Ramallah to work as a consultant for the Palestinian Authority’s ministry of media and communications. In her recently published memoir covering her extended time there, Return (2015), she recounts the travails of that role alongside her all too potent memories of places and towns she had not seen since her childhood. Exiled from Palestine in 1948, and thereafter settling in Britain, Karmi describes herself as a ‘full-time Palestinian’ – an activist dedicated to the one cause that has given her life meaning: redressing the historical dispossession endured by the Palestinian nation. Despite the sense of occasion and expectation engendered by her return, Karmi’s journey was a less than triumphant event. Finding herself bogged down by the internal politics involved in her new role, and by what she views to be counter-productive defeatism in some quarters and narrow opportunism in others, she resorts to a view that the overarching narrative of historical dispossession has been reduced, by the pervasive influence of the Israeli state, to a day-to-day struggle for survival. This struggle, for her, has effectively usurped any unified sense of a national struggle, or indeed any prospect of a resolution to the abject reality of living under occupation. At one particularly low point, Karmi goes as far as to question her own motives as a returnee, so to speak, and states the following: ‘Flotsam and jetsam, that’s what we have become, scattered and divided. There’s no room for us or our memories here. And it won’t ever be reversed.
Karmi’s Return raises countless questions, and does not make for comfortable reading for all concerned. There is no sense of the catharsis associated with insight; nor is there any sense that the traumatic acknowledgment of historical loss holds out a remedial degree of reconciliation. On the contrary, Karmi find herself doubting the very possibility of representing the reality of modern-day Palestine in all its logistical complexity and all too resonant state of exceptionalism. The conundrum of representation – under the historical conditions of occupancy and the looming exigencies of the present – is a significant and far from resolved feature of Karmi’s book: how do you represent a reality that has been not only sundered by historical forces but remains subject to the fluid and all too fractious, if not arbitrary, demands of an occupying force? What is it, moreover, to engage with the legacies of occupancy and dispossession in the present moment through the rhetoric of individual involvement? This question, of course, is central to any consideration of how contemporary culture engages with and attempts to define the realities of modern-day Palestine. In a milieu defined for many by ascendant forms of political exceptionalism (where the reality of the camp, the refugee and the dispossessed have all become the exemplary, rather than exceptional, symbols of late modernity), how do you, furthermore, represent a state of being that is often denied legal, political and historical representation?
These questions remain central to any over-arching consideration of how contemporary visual culture engages with and represents the exceptional state of being that is day-to-day life in Palestine. There are no easy answers here and, given the fact that Palestine is both a heavily militarized zone and yet remains for many a relatively indistinct one (positioned as it is outside of international law and the sovereign forms of self-governance associated with a state), the politics of representation needs to be consistently articulated here within a series of self-reflexive questions. How do you represent, for example, that which remains suspended within legal and political forms of representation? How do you avoid over-aestheticizing the reality of living within, say, the West Bank or Gaza, so that it becomes symbolic of suffering in general? If Palestine, moreover, is indeed indicative of a prevalent form of strategic spatialization and the quartering of social, political, ethnic and economic relations, then to what extent do strategies of representation need to fully explicate the specificity of this condition and conditioning rather than merely reify it as a form of spectacle?
Sophie Shannir, from the exhibition The People of the Sea, Haifa. Copyright the artist.
These are, amongst others, the challenges faced by artists in relation to Palestine today and we could further observe here the need to consider the means of production and the form the work takes (what does context do to an image); the context of spectatorship (who is looking and why); the institutional infrastructures involved in the dissemination of images associated with Palestine (who benefits from these images); the means of display (where is it shown and how); and the role of the artist as a quasi-ethnographer-cum-witness in an economy of images that looks at the politics of ‘return’ and the modalities of being that underwrite (and sometimes undermine) the diasporic condition. All of these elements need to be taken into account if representation is to offer a productive and interrogative means for representing such an exceptional reality.
We turn here to a broader concern and a vital element in any consideration of cultural production today: the vectors of association to be had between recent conflict and upheaval within the region and the demands placed upon artists and cultural institutions to ‘report’ these events for global consumption. This is an essential consideration when it comes to understanding why a significant number of international institutions now profess to ‘represent’ conflict, and how the artistic, critical and curatorial legitimacy conferred on these works is often part of a broader continuum of global commodification. Moreover, the ‘value’ associated with images of conflict and dispossession is rarely accrued by the subjects depicted therein, which leads us to the all too pertinent question of agency: who gains from a work of art that purports to represent conflict? Is it the subject of conflict – the migrant, the refugee, the dispossessed, the disappeared – or the artist, gallery, sponsor, non-governmental agency, investor or institution producing and showing the work? This concern may be more institutionally problematic than it initially sounds if we enquire further into the nature of how institutions benefit not only in terms of capital when they invest in artworks, but also politically and socially from their association with images of conflict. The question, simply put, is straightforward enough: who benefits, institutionally, financially, socially, politically and historically, from the work of art when it purports to engage with the realities of Palestine today?
Nida Sinnokrot, Flight – Jalazone, 2016. Part of the exhibition Sites of Return, Ramallah. Copyright the artist
Needless to say, these issues are all the more attenuated when we consider the broader representational conundrums associated with Palestine and the extended region of the Middle East. We could note, for one, how the region is currently undergoing a significant degree of political upheaval and social turmoil. Revolution, uprisings, internecine warfare, civil conflict, and human rights, all of these points of reference have been deployed in an intensification of interest in the region and the coextensive demand that culture either condemns or defends such events and notions. Again, this is an international rather than provincial concern, inasmuch as there remains the ever-present interpretive danger that visual culture from the region is legitimized through the media-friendly symbolism of conflict – the latter rubric being redolent of colonial ambitions to prescribe the culture of the Middle East to a set of problems that revolve around atavistic conflict and extremist ideology. Such concerns, voiced in the wake of uprisings across the region, remind us that colonial paradigms are not only far from defunct, but easily resuscitated through an evolving neo-colonial preoccupation with topics such as an (apparently) irresolvable form of atavistic conflict brought about by an equally irredeemable strain of dogmatic extremism.
Apart from the imminent need to consider the historical contexts out of which this current state of affairs has emerged, and how cultural production has engaged with these frames of reference, the unrelenting instrumentalization of cultural production so that it answers to a global cultural economy must be likewise investigated. Increasingly, and nowhere more so than in an age of deregulation and the dominance of the global culture industry, contemporary art institutions have become more and more involved in forms of promotion, marketing, merchandising, entrepreneurship, sponsorship, community-based programmes, educational courses, expansionism, and the development of transnational networks. This would seem to be a structural necessity in a period defined by hyper-capitalism and the demands of a neoliberal, global economy. Globalization, in this context, and in conjunction with the neoliberal policies that enable its dominance, not only produces rampant forms of ‘uneven development’ but also co-opts cultural economies into the realm of a privatized, overtly politicized ethic of production, exchange, and consumption.
Santiago Rizo Zambrano, Democratisation of the Land. Copyright and courtesy the artist.
Given these conundrums and ambiguities and, frankly, the far from resolved issues around representation, it is all the more gratifying to see the 3rd iteration of Qalandiya International (Qi) in place and how it confronts, rather than avoids or abnegates, precisely the terms of these debates as points of departure. This is a brave undertaking and it is, if I may say, an honour for Ibraaz to act as the international media partner for such an important and self-reflexive event that refuses to shy away from, nor disavow, the complexity of representational strategies when it comes to the reality of Palestine and the broader Middle East. It is, moreover, precisely the role that Ibraaz was set up to perform by our parent organization, the Kamel Lazaar Foundation, in 2011 when we endeavoured to initiate a platform that would be solely dedicated to producing critical knowledge, free for all who visited our website, about the politics of knowledge production and the challenges faced by cultural institutions across the region. We are, and remain, fully aware of the logistical problems associated with bringing institutions, cities and people to together in Palestine and it is a substantial achievement to not only bring together 16 art and cultural organizations from within and beyond Palestine but to have them communicate with one another. I hope, on an albeit modest level, that Ibraaz‘s publication of the online catalogue for Qalandiya International will reveal some of that ambition and communicate it, across our digital platform, to an international audience and cohort of supporters.
There is a sense, as noted by the organizers in their introductory text, that we must acknowledge the extent to which the so-called ‘return’ project has been diminished to the symbolic realm of visual culture and, thereafter, reassert the degree to which art as a practice is always a social act – a practice that is indelibly imbricated within and often evolving alongside social and political concerns. This is not only evident in the curatorial remits presented here in this online catalogue, but also in the sense that culture has a part to play in defining the terms of the debate about political self-determination and history rather than occupying, so to speak, a position outside or alongside them. This is not, finally, about art practice as a form of political protest (an all too easily co-opted cultural paradigm), nor is this to confuse the artist as protestor (or vice versa). Rather, as we can see throughout the 2016 iteration of Qalandiya International, this is about the potential of art to open up horizons of possible engagement with the politics of return and the complexities associated with the diasporic condition. It is to the credit of Qi that, rather than elide or fetishize such concerns, it embraces the very problems in hand and offers creative forms of exchange and contact to more fully understand and engage with issues that can often appear intransigent, if not interminable.