From photographers and filmmakers to the creators of immersive installations, today’s artists are engaging with some of the most pressing issues of our time – opening up new areas of discussion and debate and expanding our understanding of contemporary art as well as the role of those who create it.
Art and Politics Now is a richly illustrated and compelling survey of more than 200 contemporary artists whose works address the political. Themed chapters explore how, since the turn of the twenty-first century, artists have addressed real-world issues such as globalization, terrorism, conflict, the environment and knowledge, often using radical approaches and techniques to communicate their ideas.
Anthony Downey’s clear and insightful discussion of the major issues and themes is closely interwoven with detailed analysis of the artworks, which include projects by Ai Weiwei, Chantal Akerman, Harun Farocki, Omer Fast, Thomas Hirschhorn, Carsten Höller, Steve McQueen, Teresa Margolles, Adrian Paci, Walid Raad, Doris Salcedo and Santiago Sierra.
In 2010, the Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal had a camera surgically inserted into the back of his head. The process involved implanting a titanium plate onto which a camera was mounted and, from the outset, his body rebelled against this foreign object by cutting of blood supply to the area. Through his own unwavering commitment, Bilal persisted with the project and for one year used the embedded camera to record one image per minute of his daily life. The results, covering a period dating from December 14, 2010, to December 18, 2011, or 369 days in total, were streamed live to a global audience via a dedicated website.¹ Presenting acute angles and unexpectedly vertiginous views, the images look arbitrary, distant, lopsided and yet disconcertingly intimate.
For centuries artists have both responded to and reflected on political actions and events that shape society. Now they have risen to the challenge of questioning the moral ambiguity and culpability of governments waging the war on terror, whose methods may, according to this writer, have done more to weaken democracy than any terrorist.
Where to Now?: Shifting Regional Dynamics and Cultural Production in North Africa and the Middle East
Ibraaz Platform 010, which marks our fifth year of research and publishing, will consider the following question: what can the regional politics of cultural production across North Africa and the Middle East tell us about the politics of global cultural production today? Underwriting this research platform, we will ask an all too pertinent question: what are the most urgent issues affecting cultural production and where do we go from here? To explore these questions and outline potential horizons for further investigation, we have invited internationally renowned and emerging writers, artists, curators, activists and filmmakers to respond to the issues raised.
Nida Sinnokrot, As in Those Brief Moments, 2014, 16mm film loop, 3 modified projectors, motor, sensors, Steenbeck parts, amplifier, carpet, midi-controller, screens, dimensions variable.
These themes are considered throughout Shuruq Harb’s essay on Amal Kenawy’s now seminal work Silence of the Lambs/Sheep, 2009, and its legacy within discussions of participatory art and its relationship to shifting social and political landscapes. The historical significance of art and its social practices is further underscored in Elizabeth Derderian’s ‘Critique as Infrastructure’ where she considers the problematic of how ‘scholars have established the pivotal role of arts and culture in forging the modern, cosmopolitan nation-state’. Within this framework, David Birkin explores a world forged within the context of an on-going ‘war on terror’ and considers whether we need to rethink or abandon the distinction between art and activism. In Barrak Alzaid’s essay performance, as a set of conditions in which the potential for transformation is possible, is explored in relation to a number of key events in Kuwait’s recent history. These and other themes will be further considered, in the coming months, in essays by contributors including Pamela Karimi, Goksu Kunak, Tirdad Zolghadr, Patricia Triki and Christine Bruckheimer, Heba Amin, Nancy Demerdash, Ryan Inouye, Samah Hijawi, Shiva Balaghi, Reema Salha Fadda, and Hamid Dabashi.
In interviews, we consider Platform 010′s question in conversations with Christine Tohme – Director of Ashkal Alwan and the newly appointed curator for the 13th Sharjah Biennial, opening March 2017 – and her views on the challenges that institutions face in the current climate of under-development and political uncertainty. In a conversation between Natasha Hoare and Nida Sinnokrot, the question of what it means to be making art in the midst of occupation and precarious state security is examined through practice. Reem Fadda, curator of the recent Marrakech Biennale, talks about the work of decolonization that has gone into putting such an exhibition together; whilst in Amira Gad’s conversation with Nathan Witt, there is a broader discussion about the relationship between research-based practices and performative installations. Elsewhere, Louis Hendersontalks about the ‘allegory of revolution’ in Logical Revolts (2012), a 42-minute film in search of the traces of Egyptian civilian resistance, from 1952–2012, against colonial and military oppression.
Throughout Platform 010, we find ourselves at various points in history and, Janus-faced, we can look forward and backwards from the shifting grounds of the present. This involves not just a radical reappraisal of the past and the present, but also a questioning of potential futures. As Tarek Abou El Fetouh notes in the conversation with Stephanie Bailey, the framing of his exhibition project The Time is Out of Joint concerns three singular events, namely, the 1974 First Biennale of Arab Art in Cairo; the 1989 China Avant/Garde Exhibition in Beijing; and the 2022 Equator Conference in Jogjakarta. The reasons for such a temporal stretching, as Abou El Fetouh elaborates, is to challenge and reject the narrative of Arab nationalism. This gesture alerts us to two more questions that will remain key to Platform 010: What have we learned about the politics of global cultural production through the regional circumstances of the Middle East and North Africa in the past five years and, contiguously, what is the efficacy and function of cultural institutions. We may also want to consider the future for cultural activism in a region beset by rapidly shifting politics and, through these concerns, rethink what an alliance of cultural producers might look like. It is with these points in mind that we will publish conversations with, amongst others, Ahmet Ogut, Hajra Waheed, Younes Bouadi, Farah Al-Nakib, Todd Reisz,Kim Beamish, Morehshin Allahyari, Ahmed El Attar, Rania Stephan, Nora Razian, Mario Rizzi, and Hussam Alsaray.
Khalil Rabah, Art Exhibition, 2011. Wallpaper, mixed media, 699 x 298.5 cm. Courtesy of the artist. Image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation
The future, as we know, lasts a long time, and in Projects we have invited a number of artists to respond to the question of where we might go from here. Larissa Sansour and Soren Lind offer an online iteration of a recently completed project, In the Future they Ate from the Finest Porcelain, where a ‘narrative terrorist’ is questioned by an anonymous interlocutor in a sci-fi landscape that exists in a process described as ‘manufactured history’. TandemWorks offers ‘a rumination on a proposed project that may or may not exist, for a river that may or may not be a river’. Written by Mayssa Fattouh, this project highlights a larger focus forPlatform 010: how do we consider the state of knowledge production in visual culture today and how we might review its function. This approach takes on a historical leaning in Tom Bogaert‘s online presentation of pepsi, cola, water?, 2016, which forms part of a research project the artist has been working on around Sun Ra’s legendary visit to Egypt in 1971.
Going forward, we will be also publishing platform responses by Talinn Grigor, Alex Dika Seggerman, Octavian Esanu, Iftikhar Dadi, Burcu Pelvanoğlu, and Sabrina DeTurk; projects by Basma Alsharif, Nile Sunset Annexe, Lara Baladi, Samah Hijawi, Anahita Razmi, Rayya Badran and Bisan Abu Eisheh. In ourChannel section we will be launching a number of collaborations, including one with the Temporary Art Platform Residency programme, as well as with Vikram Divecha’s Warehouse Project Talks, which were staged at Alserkal Avenue’s Warehouse 82 in March and April 2016.
The broader concerns underwriting Platform 010 over the coming year will include an extensive investigation into what has happened to visual culture – its reception, dissemination and management – in the aftermath of global financial upheaval, regional conflict, civil war, and revolution. Much of the content that informs both this platform, and a conference around the same title (to be held at the Middle East Centre, Oxford University, in 2017), has been developed in collaboration with both Reema Salha Fadda and Ibraaz’s editorial team, alongside its editorial correspondents and broader networks. This platform will, we hope, represent a collective and collaborative account of the urgencies affecting cultural production across the region today. We will continue to publish our findings in the coming months.
Has culture, finally, become increasingly sidelined or, conversely, all the more instrumentalized by political and economic forces within the region? Moreover, 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? A central tenet to this enquiry is a reflexive consideration of Ibraaz‘s role in these processes: Is there, we will ask, a neutral position for critique and how do we rethink the institutionalisation, instrumentalisation, and commercialisation of cultural production whilst also critiquing our own complicity, as cultural producers, in this process?
Tapes from a partial digitization project initiated by INA in the 1990s. Photograph by Mariam Ghani.
‘Sometimes, in a daze, they completely dismantled the cadaver, then found themselves hard put to fit the pieces together again.’
Gustave Flaubert, Bouvard and Pécuchet, 1881
An archive is often viewed as a record of sorts: a collation of historical documents that orders and records information about people, places and events. This view has nevertheless tended to obscure a crucial aspect of the archive and the archival process: it is not only unstable and subject to the vagaries of time and history, but the physical archive and the process of archiving is as much about determining the future as it is about defining the past. (more…)
‘Doing art means displacing art’s borders, just as doing politics means displacing the borders of what is acknowledged as the political …’
Jacques Rancière 
‘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…)
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 …’ 
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…)
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…)
Long considered a bastion of creativity in the region, Iran is currently experiencing a remarkable artistic revival in the middle of the most challenging of circumstances. Different Sames catalogues this new movement, capturing its brilliance and creative energy. Packed with wonderful images, it is an important and lively compendium of thought provoking essays, historical context and profiles of the country’s leading contemporary artists. Art changes the way we look at the world, and Different Sames is an attempt to explain todays Iranian art movement in this spirit.