From Invisible Enemy to Enemy Kitchen: Michael Rakowitz in conversation with Anthony Downey

29 March 2013

Michael Rakowitz, Detail of The Breakup, 2012. Original Sgt.Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover (1967) magazine color printouts 12 x 12 inches, 30.5 x 30.5 cm. Courtesy the artist and Lombard Freid Gallery

Michael Rakowitz is an Iraqi-American conceptual artist whose work is influenced by his cultural origins, not so much in terms of identity, but as a means through which to engage issues that affect cultural production and the loss of culture. An artist with a concern for the economies of exchange that inform social, political and historical events, it is in the contested realm of human experience that Rakowitz situates his practice. However, rather than offering solutions to forms of social inequality and historical injustice, or attempting to ameliorate social and cultural loss, Rakowitz’s practice is more about agitation and the antagonistic counter-narratives that continue to re-emerge in any accepted version of events. (more…)

For the Common Good: Artistic Practices, Collective Action and Civil Society in Tunisia

28 February 2013

La Marsa. © Hela Ammar.

‘Doing art means displacing art’s borders, just as doing politics means displacing the borders of what is acknowledged as the political …’

Jacques Rancière [1]

‘For each person to earnestly cherish their rights is the essence of civil society’.

Ai Weiwei, 6 April 201o.


A perennial issue has re-emerged in discussions of contemporary art practices in the Middle East and North Africa: what is the relationship of art to politics; or, similarly, what is the relationship of artistic practice to forms of activism and revolutionary conflict? There is a degree of inevitability to these questions: in times of conflict and upheaval, nowhere more so than during and after the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, artists are called upon to represent both the immediacy of conflict and its aftermath. If artists are going to respond to these issues, and who is to say they should not (even if it does involve a degree of opportunism on behalf of artists, curators and institutions alike), we should be all the more alert to how the rhetoric of conflict and the spectacle of revolution is deployed as a benchmark for discussing if not predetermining the legitimacy of these practices. In creating a conceptual concordance between art as a form of activism – or in reducing art to revolutionary commentary – there is the attendant and far from submerged curatorial imperative that artists should react to the current socio-politics of the region if they are to be viewed as critically and institutionally relevant. It is an insidious demand that recalls the imperial assumption that the region can only ever be defined by forms of de-historicized conflict, atavistic strife and ideological extremism, with its culture relatable if not reducible to such events. Revolution, uprisings, the legacy of September 11 2001, internecine warfare, the ‘Arab Spring’, civil conflict, all have seen an intensification of interest in the region and its culture is, it would seem, expected to follow suit. There would again appear to be an ineluctable logic to these developments which means it is all the more crucial that we observe how the discursive and critical substantiation of conflict and the rhetorical ambivalences of revolution effects a subservience of the aesthetic to the spectacle of conflict, the claims and counter-claims of politics, the voracious demands of the market, and an unrelenting globalized media agenda. (more…)

Stereotyping the Stereotypes: Tarek Al-Ghoussein in conversation with Anthony Downey

02 November 2012

Tarek Al-Ghoussein Untitled 11, from C Series, 2007 Digital Print, 21 5/8 x 29 1/2 inches (55 x 75 cm). Edition of 6. Courtesy of The Third Line and Tarek Al-Ghoussein

Tarek Al-Ghoussein is an artist based in the UAE. His work has appeared in international exhibitions throughout Europe, the United States and the Middle East. His work is also featured in several anthologies and a monograph on his work In Absentia was published by Page One and The Third Line in 2009. AlGhoussein’s work is in permanent collections at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Royal Museum of Photography in Copenhagen, Darat AlFunun in Amman and Mathaf Museum in Qatar. In this interview for Ibraaz, the artist explores the development of his work and how, through the form and technique of the self-portrait, it engages with preconceptions of what is meant by ‘Arabness’ in the eyes of both Arabs and non-Arabs alike. Al-Ghoussein also addresses what he considers to be a failure of sorts in his early photojournalist work and how his later body of photographs attempts to unpack what is meant by belonging and identity in a region where such ideals are not only beset by glib media representations but are also underwritten by the popular stereotypes of Arabness that circulate throughout the Middle East and beyond. (more…)

The Video That Exploded: Roy Samaha in conversation with Anthony Downey

02 November 2012

Roy Samaha, Untitled For Several Reasons, 2002-2003, video. Courtesy of the artist.

Roy Samaha is a Lebanese artist based in Beirut. Practicing with video and photography since 2002, he has exhibited in numerous film and contemporary art festivals. Between 1998 and 2008, he worked in the television industry as part of his field research on electronic media. He got his Master’s degree in film studies at USEK, Lebanon. Currently, he is giving seminars on alternative video practices in different universities in Beirut. In this conversation with Anthony Downey, he talks about the various influences on his work, including William Burroughs, and how technology affects not only how we perceive the world but changes modes of perception over time. In visually dense videos, which draw on multiple sources of imagery, Samaha explores the effect of technology upon his own perceptions of reality and what an excess of communication can do to how we understand events such as those in Tahrir Square during the revolution in Egypt, not to mention the long-term effects of video technology in determining how we perceive the world.


Common Grounds: Artistic Practices, Civil Society, and Secular Determination in Tunisia Today

02 November 2012

Faten Gaddes, Punching-ball, 2011, installation view. Photograph by Adam Le Nevez.

‘Doing art means displacing art’s borders, just as doing politics means displacing the borders of what is acknowledged as the political …’ [1]

In the last year or so, a perennial issue has re-emerged in discussions of contemporary art practices in the Middle East and North Africa: what is the relationship of art to politics; or, similarly, what is the relationship of the aesthetic to revolutionary forms of activism? The confusion, intentional or otherwise, between art as a practice and art as a form of civil activism has given rise to a number of considerations, not least the role of art, if indeed it has one, in engaging civic and public space. This confusion has produced mixed results and a degree of scepticism towards opportunistic curatorial remits that co-opt art practices into the political aesthetic of revolution and, thereafter, into the service of a revolutionary politics. These curatorial gestures expose two relatively opposed positions in current debates: for some, art as activism negates the aesthetic dimension of art; whereas for others, art without activism of some sort – or at least a political inclination if not motivation – abrogates the authority of art as a form of social commentary. Neither position, I want to argue in what follows, is tenable – if indeed they ever were – and both need to reconsider the potential of a common ground between them, nowhere more so than in light of ongoing events in the region and elsewhere. (more…)

An Accidental Orientalist: Tom Bogaert in conversation with Anthony Downey

27 September 2012

Tom Bogaert, Emerson Lake and Palmer, screenshots from DVD Pictures at an exhibition, 1971. © ELP.

Having worked as a lawyer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Tom Bogaert has managed to garner a degree of access to communities throughout the Middle East that is often difficult to acquire. In his work with refugees he has witnessed first-hand the geo-politics of the region and since 2004, has channelled that knowledge into his practice as an artist. Speaking here to Anthony Downey, he explores the research processes that lead up to producing work and the sound project he has developed exclusively for Ibraaz. The latter involves sounds from cities in countries as diverse as Jordan, Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria, and Ibraaz is pleased to showcase it here. Elsewhere in this conversation, Bogaert explores the backdrop to his multi-media project Syria, which was produced this year; his ongoing  ideas for a mausoleum for Bashar Al Assad; the overt aestheticisation of warfare and combat in the region; and the issue of whose interests are served by seemingly innocuous terms such as ‘Facebook Revolution’ and ‘walking through walls’, the latter phrase having been deployed by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) in their strategising of combat situations in cities such as Nablus. (more…)

Where to Now: Chkoun Ahna at the National Museum of Carthage, Tunis

30 May 2012

View from Carthage National Museum. Photograph © ATP/Ibraaz Publishing, 2012.

The city of Carthage is a tale of multiculturalism and globalisation before these terms had currency in post-colonial studies and the free market rhetoric of neo-liberal expansionism. The name of the city has roots in Latin, Aramaic, Hebrew, Phoenician, Etruscan, Arabic, and Ancient Greek terminology. It has also been populated by Phoenicians, Romans and Arabs over a history that reaches back to the 1st millennium BC and was a significant locus of international trade until recently. Amongst its present-day ruins, tourists flock to see not only the extant remains of the Roman Forum that once stood there but the view from the hill of Byrsa, a purview of influence over a crucial Mediterranean route that once made Carthage one of the most important pre-industrial cities in the world (perhaps second only to Alexandria during the Hellenistic period). Today, however, Carthage is a suburb of Tunis with a population of no more than 25,000 people. As with all great cities, Carthage has indeed seen better days. (more…)

Word Stress: Lawrence Abu Hamdan in conversation with Anthony Downey

02 May 2012

In a recent project with the Showroom in London, Lawrence Abu Hamdan presented The Freedom of Speech Itself (2012), an audio documentary that examined the history and application of forensic speech analysis and voice-prints in the United Kingdom’s controversial use of ‘voice analysis’. Accent, always a key signifier in determining an individual’s identity, has now become a means to proscribe and outlaw certain accents when determining the origins and authenticity of asylum seekers’ accents and their places of origin. Drawing on testimony from lawyers, phonetic experts, asylum seekers and Home Office officials, The Freedom of Speech Itself reveals the geo-politics of accents, and how such processes create newer and ill-defined states of exceptionalism when it comes to the rights of refugees. The show also included excerpts from Abu Hamdan’s audio archive and a workshop led by the artist on Harold Pinter’s play Mountain Language, written in 1988. In this conversation, Anthony Downey explores the motivation behind this work with the artist and how it has developed as an investigation into both the legal status of the voice and, perhaps more importantly, the legal implications of silence in the face of immigration laws today. (more…)

Home Workspace: Christine Tohme in conversation with Anthony Downey

02 May 2012

View of Home Workspace, 2011. Photograph by Houssam Mchaiemch. Courtesy of Home Workspace, Beirut.

Since its inception in 1994, Ashkal Alwan has become an international platform for the creation and exchange of ideas around artistic practices and educational processes. Having initially committed its resources to introducing the work of artists who were working within, and following on from the events of post-war Lebanon, the organization has since developed residencies, a research hub, public and civic projects, and an extensive education programme. One of these projects, Home Works Forum (HWF), launched in 2002, has since evolved into a pre-eminent platform for research on cultural practices within the region and beyond. Another project, launched last year under the name Home Workspace (HW), is a multipurpose facility dedicated to research, production and education in the context of contemporary artistic practices and debate. Housing production and editing studios, performance spaces, auditoriums, and Lebanon’s first multimedia library for contemporary arts, Home Workspace is dedicated to developing an interdisciplinary approach to arts education in the Arab world. (more…)

An Aesthetics of Expiration: Ziad Antar in Conversation with Anthony Downey

02 May 2012

Ziad Antar, Cote d’Azure Hotel, Jnah Beirut, Built in 1973, 2007. Courtesy of Selma Feriani Gallery, London.

Born in Saida, Lebanon, in 1978, Ziad Antar studied at the American University in Beirut and the École Supérieure d’études Cinématographiques (ESEC) in Paris. His work in photography and video examines approaches to photography and what processes lie behind the production of images, not to mention their subsequent role as symbols of time passing, and the apparent realities of cities. Although not interested in the final quality of the image, Antar is singularly preoccupied with the exigencies and formal demands of image production and the everyday contexts out of which photographs emerge. What makes an image symbolic, he seems to ask; or, more simply, what makes an image? (more…)