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
The degree to which artists and cultural institutions utilised digital media to promote social and political change following the Arab Spring raises significant and timely questions about the relationship between global networked systems of communication and cultural activism. Since 2011, digital images have become closely associated with activist practices, which has in turn produced a number of prevailing assumptions about how effective digital and social media are as tools for embracing and enabling political transformation. Taking into consideration recent revelations concerning the role of social media in surveillance technologies, political repression, and the proliferation of targeted disinformation, and attendant anxieties about the opaque power of algorithms, this panel will explore critical frameworks for understanding the relationship between digitized media and cultural activism. The broader issue here concerns a perennial, indeed worldwide, issue: how do cultural practices — through digital means — realign how we engage with historical events and images of revolutionary conflict?
Speakers: Nanna Bonde Thylstrup (Copenhagen Business School, Denmark) Donatella Della Ratta (John Cabot University, Rome, Italy) Anthony Downey (Birmingham City University, UK) Chair: Nat Muller (Birmingham City University, UK)
This event is co-organised by Professor Anthony Downey (Birmingham City University) and Modern Art Oxford.
Collaborative Research: Current Landscapes and New Directions, March 27, 2019
Collaborative Research panel explores the current landscape of collaboration between Higher Education and the Cultural sector and examines opportunities to promote experimental and creative research methods in both fields. Our speakers will articulate how these collaborative practices contribute to new modes of knowledge production and research methodologies in non-academic and academic contexts. This panel aims to engage with current debates around collaborative research across the HE and cultural sectors; advocating for a more collaborative dialogue where cultural partners also contribute to the development of research questions and advance methods to further new modes of research.
The panel comprises Maria Hlavajova, founding General and Artistic Director of BAK, basis voor actuele kunst, Utrecht and Anthony Downey, Professor of Visual Culture in North Africa and the Middle East, Birmingham City University. The panel will be introduced and moderated by Carolina Rito, Head of Public Programmes and Research at Nottingham Contemporary and Bill Balaskas, Associate Professor in Visual Communication & Research Coordinator at Nottingham Trent University.
The Politics of Shame: Ai Weiwei in conversation with Anthony Downey
From October 2017 to February 2018, the Fotomuseum Antwerp (FOMU) presented the first photo exhibition of Chinese visual artist and political activist Ai Weiwei. Entitled ‘Ai Weiwei – Mirror’, the exhibition included seminal political statements such as Study of Perspective (1995–2011) and the artist’s daily stream of selfies and snapshots on social media. The show also addressed the years that the artist spent under constant surveillance by the Chinese government and his ongoing commitment to presenting work that engages with social and political issues, including the worldwide refugee condition.
In the following transcription of a conversation that was recorded as part of a public event in Antwerp on 25 October, 2017, the artist talked to Anthony Downey about his photographic work from the 1990s until today and how those earlier photographs, taken in New York City during the 1980s and early 1990s (but not developed until he returned to Beijing in 1993), in part signal later concerns with activism, image production and human rights. A central element in Ai Weiwei’s concerns is his use of the internet, specifically in his efforts to hold the Chinese authorities accountable for events surrounding the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. The interview also covered the artist’s more recent works regarding his subsequent imprisonment and constant harassment. The artist talks frankly about the extent to which shame played a part in his motivations, both his efforts to shame the government but also their attempts to shame him and, during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, his father before him.
This interview is published in partnership with The Large Glass: Journal of Contemporary Art, Culture and Theory, Museum of Contemporary Art, Skopje (Macedonia), no 25/26, 2018, pp 28–42. ISSN: 1409 – 5823, and Third Text Online.
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: Applied Futures: 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.
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.