Technology is messy and complex. Thomas P. Hughes, a historian of technology, has called it, simply, “a means to change the landscape.” We like that definition. It’s appealingly simple. In the following pages, we ponder technology — what it means to us, how it intersects with our lives, sometimes in the most subtle ways, sometimes in loud and messy ways. Our particular take on technology ranges from the very micro (TV, science fiction, simulation games) to the very macro (oil, canals, development).
We’re not in the business of having a position about things-technological — either celebrating its democratic promise (laptop fetishism) or damning its horrors (for we live in post-post-surveillance times). In these pages, we raise some simple questions, and, as ever, keep our heads down. The best stuff is always in the details.
Tala Madani: Smoke and Mirrors
February 23–April 7, 2007
Tala Madani’s preoccupation seems to be the image — reifying it, varying it, and, finally, subverting it. In her New York debut at Lombard-Freid Projects, the young painter, just graduated from Yale’s MFA program, presents a series of paintings that engage the cliché (here in the form of an iconic Middle Eastern man), pack aging that engagement in the most delicious veneer. Ranging from the abstract to the fantastic to the cartoonish, Madani’s men pray together, play together (sometimes in homoerotic fashion), and engage in naughty transgressions. At times, an ambiguity reigns in the artist’s images. In the Cake Series, for example, a birthday cake takes on a new life. Are the cake’s candles a sign of celebration or, rather, a fuse for a bomb? In larger works, Madani’s figures multiply, creating a wallpaper of sorts, a motif that seems to signal that she is engaging with the routines of the world around us, the human family.
Abbas Kiarostami: Image Maker
MoMA and PS 1 Contemporary Art Center
March 1–May 28, 2007
Renowned Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami is the subject of a multisite, multimedia retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Kiarostami is already a darling of the European festival circuit; the MoMA event marks his biggest US outing to date. On the second floor of the museum, the exhibition Abbas Kiarostami: Image Maker consists of an installation of Five (also titled Five Dedicated to Ozu), Kiarostami’s radically minimalist film from 2003, featuring five extended, single-take sequences, shot on handheld DV camera along the shores of the Caspian Sea: A piece of driftwood is tossed and broken by the waves; people stroll along the promenade; a group of dogs gathers by the water’s edge; ducks noisily move across the frame; and a pool of water is shot at night with the sounds of a storm and frogs croaking breaking the stillness.
Installed on five screens throughout the gallery space, Kiarostami’s film is a meditation on ways of seeing. At the same time, a comprehensive film retrospective of thirty-three of the director’s features and shorts is scheduled, including classics ranging from Close-Up (1990, a Bidoun favorite) and Taste of Cherry (1997, one of two of the director’s films to take the Palme d’Or at Cannes) to the more experimental Ten (2002). And finally, at Long Island City’s PS 1 Contemporary Art Center, an installation of Kiarostami’s photographic work includes the premiere of the installation Summer Afternoon, together with selections of photographic works from two series of photographs: Snow White and Roads and Trees (1978–2003). Abbas Kiarostami: Image Maker also features two new series, Rain (2006) and Trees and Crows (2006).
Sotheby’s Prize for Contemporary Middle Eastern Art
Sotheby’s is following Christie’s successful leap into the Gulf, setting up shop in Abu Dhabi. “We’ve agreed to collaborate closely on cultural initiatives over the next few years,” says Roxane Zand, who was appointed director of Sothe by’s Middle East and Gulf region in November 2006. Part of the startup team for the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, Zand left Iran in 1980, and has since worked at Oxford University and with the Khalili Collection and the Iran Heritage Foundation in the UK.
Sotheby’s is also planning an annual visual arts prize, aimed at recognizing emerging artists of Arab or Iranian origin. “We feel that there is great promise in many of the young artists in the Middle East, and we would be honored to provide a framework to encourage recognition of their talent, both in the Arab world and inter nationally,” Edward Gibbs, director of Islamic and Indian art, told Bidoun.
Artists must be nominated by a leading figure involved in contemporary Middle Eastern art; a jury made up of figures from the commercial and museum worlds, an established artist, a contemporary gallerist, and a Sotheby’s specialist will select a shortlist of artists whose work will be exhibited during the DIFC Gulf Art Fair in 2008. The winner will receive a “substantial cash prize.”
Besides touring exhibitions of highlights from upcoming auctions, the auction house is also planning a Sotheby’s Week, “spanning exhibitions, charity auctions, educational programs, music, performance and other significant projects,” in January 2008.
Meanwhile, Gibbs and Dalya Islam of the Is lamic and Indian art department are putting together a sale of modern and contemporary art from the Middle East, to be held in London on October 23.
Platform Garanti Library
March 20–June 9, 2007
This spring, Istanbul-based gallery Platform Garanti’s extensive collection of publications on art, architecture, and theory, as well as the gallery’s artist and DVD archives, will be installed in the gallery space as a public research library. The library recently acquired around 400 new publications during Platform’s presence at Frieze Projects with the project collecting point, a drop-off point for the donation of art publications and periodicals. The library now consists of more than 6000 publications, which can be accessed and studied throughout the duration of the library initiative. While the library is in place, a program of readings, talks, screenings, and discussions will take place.
Platform aims to expand its research audience, to initiate a discussion about the dearth of pub lic libraries in the city, and to reconsider the role of its gallery space, which exists on the most traversed street in Istanbul. The library is being designed as a user-friendly space by the newly initiated architecture practice SuperPool.
This spring in Beirut, Ashkal Alwan presents VidéoAvril, an ambitious program of twenty six new video productions inspired in one way or another by last summer’s war. Supported by Ashkal Alwan, the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts, VidéoAvril was born of the recognition that the arts have been a means, par excellence, for channeling responses to the conflict and its aftermath. From the moment the first bombs fell, artists documented the crisis as it unfolded, often in ad hoc manner with mini DVRs, cameras, and mobile phones. Film maker and video artist Ghassan Salhab coordinated Video Works, whose program includes younger emerging artists such as Malek Anouti, Anthony Bou Khalifeh, Ali Cherri, Ahmad Ghosayn, Rima Kaddissi, Ali Kays, Rania Rafei, Ziad Saad, Rami Sabbagh, Roy Samaha, and Corine Shawi. A second video program, entitled Summertime, showcases a collective project by Shérine Debs, Joanne Issa, Hisham Jaber, Nadine Ghanem, Rania Majed, Rania Rafei, Halim Sabbagh, Corine Shawi, Rana Salem, and Myriam Sassine. And finally, a third program, Timelapse, presents works by Maher Abi Samra, Ziad Antar, Nadim Asfar, Mahmoud Hojeij, Lamia Joreige, Wael Noureddine, Ghassan Salhab, Rania Stephan, and Fadi Toufiq.
Video Works is presented within the frame work of ALMOSTREAL and supported by the European Cultural Foundation, the Prince Claus Fund, and the American Center Foundation.
Sharjah Biennial: Art, Ecology, and the Politics of Change
April 4–June 4, 2007
In 2007, the Sharjah Biennial takes Art, Ecology, and the Politics of Change as its theme. Artistic director Jack Persekian returns for a second time under the direction of Hoor Al Qasimi, and is joined by curators Eva Scharrer, a Swiss critic; Jonathan Watkins, of the UK’s Ikon Gallery; and UAE artist Mohammad Kazem. Together they’ve selected eighty artists for the show, a third of whom are from the Arab world.
The lineup ranges from the very established (Mona Hatoum, Cornelia Parker) to current art world favorites (Tue Greenfort, Lara Almarce gui), regional stalwarts (Akram Zaatari, Lara Baladi) and new names (Bahraini Noor Al Bastaki, Oslobased Anawana Haloba).
With the state-sponsored Cairo Biennial be coming a non-event, and Beirut’s Homeworks focusing on performance and video, the Sharjah Biennial is now arguably one of the most important exhibition events on the Arab art world calendar. This year’s event features fifty new commissioned projects, including Gustav Metzger’s vast installation of 120 cars pump ing fumes into a sealed, transparent structure, which the artist first proposed in 1972 but was never able to realize previously.
Other artists making work in Sharjah include El Anatsui, who will create a nine-by-nine meter squared carpet of bottle tops, and Rirkrit Tiravanija, who is producing solar-powered road signs reading “Less Oil More Courage.” Others have been touring Dubai’s new man-made is lands and other real estate behemoths to explore the “growing social, political, and environ mental challenges the world faces.”
Accompanying events include a symposium on art and ecology organized by the RSA (London) and Latitudes (Barcelona) and a film series overseen by British curator Mark Nash. A jury that includes Charles Esche and Geeta Kapur will hand out three prizes (with a combined to tal of $50,000) at the opening ceremony.
Mindful of the dire lack of funds for art production in the region, biennial director Hoor Al Qasimi is aiming later this year to create a separate, permanent fund for commissioning new work.
Re-orient Occidentalism, or the West in Egyptian Eyes
May 13-27, 2007
Bringing together twenty Egyptian artists spanning several generations, disciplines, and approaches to tackle the legacy of Orientalist discourse by subversively exchanging the object of inquiry is no mean task. This spring, long time Cairo gallerist Karim Francis (of Espace Karim Francis) has set his sights on just that goal. The objective of the exhibition is to “transmit and communicate current Egyptian visions on the theme, and raise questions regarding ambiguous complexities in the sociocultural rapport between East and West.” Francis gathered various artists for a six-month period of weekly discussions around the topic and the exhibition, out of which meetings the title of the show, contents of the catalogue, choice of exhibition space, and various artists’ proposals were generated. The show will take place in the Viennoise Hotel, an old unused downtown hotel that has played host to many art events over the past six years. Re-Orient is expected to travel to various European capitals in 2008, where the theme will undoubtedly generate new resonances and spark dialogue. Artists involved include Adel El Siwi, Amal Kenawy, Hani Rashed, Hazem El Mestikawy, Hazem Taha Hussein, Heba Farid, Hisham El Zeiny, Huda Lutfy, Islam Zahr, Khaled Hafez, Lara Baladi, Ahmed Nosseir, Mohamed Abla, Mo hamed Taman, Nader Sadek, Nermine El Ansary, Sabah Naim, Shady El Noshokaty, Sherif El Azma, and Wael Shawky, among others.
June 10–Novermber 21, 2007
Little is known about the shape this year’s Venice Biennale is to take (for they usually keep us waiting until the last minute), though we have learned that director Robert Storr has made a special effort to engage Africa. With its Checklist project to be held in the Artiglierie space of the Arsenale, Storr has initiated a controversial open call for participation from Africans, loosely defined. A jury consisting of Meskerem As segued, Ekow Eshun, Lyle Ashton Harris, Kellie Jones, and Bisi Silva will preside, while the winning projects will be organized by artist Fernando Alvim and curator Simon Njami. In addition, a selection of works will be drawn from the Sindika Dokolo African Collection of Contemporary Art in Luanda, Angola. Whether this stands to be a truly inclusive, open process or, alternatively, another misconceived attempt to engage the “international” in blanket terms (think the African pavilion Fault Lines in 2003), remains to be seen.
In the meantime, artists in the national pavilions include Guillermo Kuitca (Argentina), Tracey Emin (Britain), David Altmejd (Canada), David Maljkovic (Croatia), Sophie Calle (France), Isa Genzken (Germany), Aernout Mik (Holland), Steingrímur Eyfjör (Iceland), Masao Okabe (Japan), Rafael Lozano-Hemmer (Mexico), Willie Doherty (Northern Ireland), Gerard Byrne (Re public of Ireland), and Felix Gonzalez-Torres (United States). The Cyprus Pavilion, for its part, will feature London-based Mustafa Hulusi (see Bidoun #7). Also look out for curator Vasif Kortun’s handling of the Turkish Pavilion, showing artists Aydan Murtezaoglu and Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin. Murtezaoglu will present his Hip Activities, a series in which the political meets the banal in a photographic ode to displacement. Alpetkin’s recent video series, incidents, engages with the underworlds of globalization in his native Istanbul.
In late January of this year, Abu Dhabi announced its plans for “one of the most ambitious urban and cultural development projects ever conceived.” If all goes well, in 2012, the largest Guggenheim Museum in the world will open its doors on the twenty-seven-square-kilometer Saadiyat Island, followed by a classical museum, a performing arts center, a maritime museum, a Sheikh Zayed museum, and a biennial park featuring nineteen pavilions designed by Khalid Al Najjar, Greg Lynn, David Adjaye, and Pei-Zhu, among others. A starchitects’ rave, the first four institutions are designed by Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid, and Tadao Ando, respectively.
Unveiled at a multi-million-dollar exhibition in Abu Dhabi put together by Guggenheim staff, the announcement has nonetheless been over shadowed internationally by the furor that has erupted in France over the proposed deal to involve French museums in lending roughly 300 objects — and the Louvre brand name — to Abu Dhabi, a package that reportedly could cost up to $908 million. While the long-term loan of Louvre objects to the High Museum in Atlanta, Georgia, barely raised a murmur, the proposed Louvre Abu Dhabi has had some French museum staff and the media condemning a deal “that’s about petrodollars and military relations.”
Abu Dhabi officials have confirmed that they will begin building collections for the museums “very soon,” and that there will be a place for contemporary Arab art within the cultural quarter, although the details are hazy at this stage. There are also many challenges ahead when it comes to audience development, education, staffing, and curatorial policies.
But Abu Dhabi tends to talk in terms of fifteen to twenty-year development plans — compared to Dubai’s yesterdays — and its investment so far is some indication of the government’s sincerity. Meanwhile, the architectural models themselves are worthy of several rhapsodic architecture theses. Hadid’s contribution in particular is a typically fluid structure that connects the Abu Dhabi skyline with the island and the sea beyond in one audacious sweep. Even if Abu Dhabi culturalists find it difficult to fill the five theaters — which have a combined seating capacity of 6,300 — the building itself could be a monument to visionary thinking.
“You think I killed him, don’t you? A travel article. A likely story.”
—owner and manager of the Atlas Hotel (formerly the Atlantic Hotel), Tehran
On central Tehran’s broad, boulevard-like Taleghani Street, only steps away from the defunct and degenerate American Embassy compound, sits an unlikely pilgrimage site. Unspectacular, squat, medium-charming, the Atlas Hotel is situated in a neighborhood that is all but deserted by the time the afternoon traffic of this sprawling concrete city has passed. The once habitually overfull nightclub at the nearby Sahra Hotel has long been closed, its gilded exterior now covered in a pall of gray dust. The celebrated French chef from the rooftop restaurant of the Masshad Hotel around the corner (which once hosted some of the hostage-takers who took the Embassy in 1979, though the staff denies it) left the country for the Dordogne long ago.
Not too far from the Masshad, there’s an Indian restaurant with a singing parrot in a dingy cage in the basement of the Safir Hotel. It should be said that the cuisine there is more chelo kabab than benghan bharta. The former embassy itself is a macabre presence, its brick walls wrapped in murals marked by “Death to America” mantras, skulls, and shooting missiles. Across the street is the Madame Tussaud-like Martyrs’ Museum, with its creepy guided tours by one-legged men and hundreds of crowded glass cases devoted to the memories of those who lost their lives in the Revolution, or later, in a grueling war with Iraq that extended through the 1980s.
But still, there’s good reason to come here. It was on this very street, thirty-nine years ago at the Atlas Hotel, that a wrestling champion and national icon — some would say the greatest Iranian athlete ever — spent his last hours. Gholamreza Takhti — simply “Takhti” to his adoring fans — was a figure who transcended the fractious politics of pre- and post-Revolution, Islamic or not, us and them. A simple man, a chivalrous giant with a neck the size of a water buffalo, Takhti was born in 1930 into a Tehran family of modest means. He quickly rose to athletic eminence; he was one of only two Iranians to have qualified for the Olympics, winning silver medals in 1962 and 1966. His visage adorned postage stamps, commemorative cups, and trays; his star value was unsurpassed. Whether he took his own life with a handful of sleeping pills in his hotel room on the night of January 7, 1968, or was forever silenced by the SAVAK (the Shah’s secret police) for his alleged political activities against the regime, remains a mystery to this day. Naturally, urban myths tend toward the latter version.
One stark, windy, grimy, very Tehran day, we went to the Atlas to inquire about the fate of our fallen hero, for we had long collected his kitsch likeness on posters from the stalls of the Friday market, pondered his muscles, and watched endless documentaries on his life in sport. We were, however, turned away upon entering the hotel lobby. “We have no information for you,” a steely cold receptionist told us. She wore a pale blue pillbox hat over her veil, a hint of Jackie O. The lobby, likewise, was painted pale blue.
On our second visit, we had more luck, reluctantly ushered into the office of the hotel’s owner, a frowny, beady-eyed, balding man. We then did what travel writers do (for that is how we introduced ourselves, representatives of a sort of Conde Nast Traveler for art aficionados with hyphenated identities): we complimented him on the hotel décor (fancy glasswork arranged in a palm tree motif in the lobby, trademark Islamic Republic) and the garden (modest but immaculately kept). We announced that we would like to feature his hotel in the pages of the next issue of Bidoun. The owner, naturally, was suspicious, asking for our cards (which we don’t have), a copy of our magazine (which we didn’t have), and our credentials (none to speak of).
What travel magazine, he asked, would want to document Tehran hotels in this day and age — and those in drab midtown, no less? “Tourism? What tourism? If you don’t come to Tehran because of work [but] just for fun these days, I will take you to a psychiatrist!” he cried.
But we insisted, complimenting him again on the glasswork and insisting that we thought the world needed to know his story and, more importantly, that of his hotel. Eventually he opened up, even telling us more than we cared to know. He told us of a drunken Brit who once put a cigarette out on his neck when asked to leave the bar. (He still has the scar; “Foreigners!”) He explained the byzantine star system of the hotel industry in Tehran in painful detail (the Atlas boasts two). And by the second cup of tea, he finally meandered toward the subject of Takhti.
“Takhti and I were old friends; we come from the same part of Tehran. He used to come here a lot, have a drink at the bar. One night, he tried to check in with a shotgun. I turned him away at the door.”
“So why did he kill himself? Was it really the Shah’s secret police, as everyone says?”
“No, no, no. He was having trouble with his wife. You know, athletes sometimes have trouble… I am a tennis man myself.”
“Performing. It is common.”
A certain twinkle in his eye gave us each a shudder. We’d heard enough. Political intrigue and fantastic machinations on our part had been reduced to a simple (but significant) physiological impediment. We resolved to forget his pat, uncouth analysis.
We thanked our host, sucked on the last of his budget candies (for he was insistent), and even took a tour of the hotel’s rooms, each equipped with a tennis court-size bathroom.
Promising that our cards, credentials, and copies of the magazine would soon be in the mail, we told him that we would recommend the Atlas Hotel to our vast network of readers around the world. As for Takhti, his memory — and the enigma — will live on.
As recently as the turn of this century, the UAE seemed an unlikely new art center: its clutch of galleries tended to feature touristic watercolors, and the Sharjah Biennial was still a conservative, regional affair.
Yet this spring confirmed the Gulf state’s position as the dominant market center in the Middle East. Christie’s second sale of modern and contemporary art in Dubai exceeded expectations, selling ninety-two percent by lot. Abu Dhabi held an exhibition of the concept designs for a vast cultural quarter featuring four major museums, including the world’s largest Guggenheim. The UAE’s capital also confirmed that it will host a version of leading French modern and contemporary fair Art Paris in November 2007. Sotheby’s announced its move into the region. And the Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC) bought a fifty percent stake in the inaugural DIFC Gulf Art Fair, which hosted forty galleries, including London’s White Cube, plus a wealth of international art world luminaries in early March.
Some international critics are sniffing about a new art gold rush, and there’s no denying that these are boom times. The Dubai sale total of $9.4 million is, of course, miniscule in global art market terms right now — after all, Christie’s sold a Francis Bacon in London, the week after the Dubai sale, for more than Dubai’s 190 lots put together. But for the first time, Middle Eastern art appears definitively to be part of a global scene.
The regional market shows signs of maturing a little, too, with fewer outlandish hammer prices than at Christie’s first Dubai sale in May 2006. The hype is beginning to settle, and a core group of Arab modern masters — long popular among Lebanese collectors — is emerging, with Dia Al-Azzawi, Paul Guiragossian, and Chafic Abboud doubling their estimates. Syrian realist painter Louay Kayyali and contemporary calligraphic painter Nja Mahdaoui were particularly sought after this spring.
There was also strong interest in Iranian modern and contemporary art. Contemporary photography by Abbas Kiarostami, Shirin Neshat, and Shadi Ghadirian performed strongly, as did works by modern painters Massoud Arabshahi, Mohammad Ehsai, and Hossein Zenderoudi. A typically pensive work by contemporary photographer Bahman Jalali sold for $10,200 (estimate: $5–7,000). Farhad Moshiri’s work was once again the subject of frenzied bidding: Allah Akbar went to a UAE-based British collector for $102,000, four times its estimate.
Dubai is emerging as a center for all this activity. The UAE’s established Indian business community turned out in force, this time bidding on Arab, Iranian, and Western work as well as modern Indian art (which accounted for $4.1 million of the sale).
Front-row bidders included the minister for culture and other government figures; the success of Christie’s sales is central to Dubai Inc’s desire to become known for its sophisticated tastes as well as its high rollers. Local pride influenced fierce bidding on UAE artist Abdul Kadir Al-Raes’s Yesterday, which sold for $262,400 (estimate: $40–60,000), the top Arab lot in the sale.
The Dubai market is atypical in the art world — though not atypical for Dubai itself — for the speed at which it’s develop ing and for its jumbled growth, led by the auction houses. There are new galleries opening each month in Dubai — including Meem (modern and contemporary Arab art), Bagash, and 1x1 Artspace (modern and contemporary Indian). But for now, the main centers of art production and criticism remain elsewhere.
Partly for this reason, perhaps, curators, critics, and auctioneers struggle to find an historical point of reference for this emerging market — although it has some similarities with the international “discovery” of Chinese contemporary art, Hong Kong’s emergence as a market center, and the birth of the now burgeoning market for Indian modern and contemporary art ten years ago.
But for Dubai to become a center, let alone support a long-term market, it needs an arts infrastructure, and the diverse range of unpredictable and sometimes unruly stuff that makes up an art world — public museums, autonomous art schools, diverse communities of artists, a range of professional galleries, opinionated critics, curators, collectors, and so on.
As ever in its commercial history, Dubai has ended up benefiting at a time when its neighbors are suffering. Beiruti dealer Saleh Barakat is now partly based in Dubai. He says that Lebanese collectors want to consign and sell their work in the UAE, given the prices people will pay and the poor state of the Lebanese economy since last summer’s war.
Also, increasingly, Dubai is becoming a satellite capital for Tehran’s artists and dealers. Tehrani Fereydoun Ave will open a space in a 1950s townhouse in the Bastakiya area in April with a show of new photographs by Abbas Kiarostami, timed to coincide with the Iranian auteur’s retrospective at MoMA, New York.
But what does the UAE’s growth mean for artists? Some have seen prices escalate rapidly, effectively creating a two-tier market, with their Gulf auction price up to ten times higher than their local price (in, for example, Beirut or Tehran). Some find that their erstwhile patrons are being priced out of the market and question whether the “new collectors” are in it for the long term.
Dubai-based gallerists such as Claudia Cellini (of The Third Line) and Ave say that some work may have simply been undervalued before — but that Gulf collectors also need to be savvy, and bid on works at auction that are true one-offs, that justify the premium.
Obviously, there are whole communities of artists — those whose subjects and styles are not so easily digestible in the Gulf, or who work in video and installation, for example — who rarely make an appearance. Contemporary Lebanese artists have been absent from the auctions so far. It remains to be seen whether the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will be the first big museum in the region to buy large scale contemporary work; Frank Gehry’s design certainly begs for it. And the slick auctions and flashy fairs have little impact on the messy stuff of (innovative) art production, which remains chronically underfunded.
Regional dealers and collectors range from doom merchants, convinced that the paddle-happy bidders in the Gulf are somehow being duped into paying puffed-up prices, to those cracking open champagne.
Of course, it’s easy to be seduced as the hammer goes down on a Farhad Moshiri or a Khaled Al Saai, to the gasps and applause of a crowded, five-star hotel ballroom, in an upstart town that’s very much about the money. In a recent essay in The Village Voice, critic Jerry Saltz succinctly concluded, “Art still has a private inside and a public outside. It still exudes an alchemical otherness… The market is art minus the otherness. The rest is gossip.” Dubai certainly knows how to gossip. But can it find its inner otherness?
My uncle, a retired army general, was proficient in conspiracy theory polemics and relished the opportunity to interrogate me during family gatherings about my work in cultural development, particularly with the Ford Foundation. He’d maneuver deftly with questions designed to flaunt his patriarchal wisdom and expose my youthful naiveté. In prophetic fashion, he would eventually declare that donors, as far as he was concerned, were meddling in our internal affairs. Eventually growing tired of this routine, I learned in time to nod, smile, and quietly pass the salad.
Today, a general suspicion of foreign funding is deeply entrenched in both Egyptian law and lore. Libel campaigns waged against externally funded civil society actors routinely employ cultural stigma to suggest that receiving foreign funds can alone be proof of infidelity. Countless local journalists have attacked institutions receiving grants from foreign donors, accusing them of operating as CIA informants. Using innuendo and sensationalist intrigue, they tend to discredit these institutions, surmising that their loyalties must lie with the Western agenda of infiltrating lo cal values and traditions.
The Egyptian state’s NGO law No. 84/2002 places restrictions on freedom of association and assembly, affording the state the right to disband NGOs at will, without due process, and impose punitive damages on those using foreign funds without attaining the state’s a priori approval. Neither the cultural stigma nor the legislation aims to deter foreign funding but rather to defame and undermine those out of favor with the powers that be.
The tensions born of foreign funding are perhaps most visible in Egypt’s arts and culture sector. Established in the 50s as the Ministry of National Guidance, Egypt’s Ministry of Culture (MOC) began operations in 1968 under state nationalist policies to subsidize artistic production and disseminate knowledge and culture to the public. Assuming the role of sole proprietor and guardian of Egyptian culture, MOC has since morphed into a decrepit bureaucratic monolith spewing prêt-a-porter molds of sanitized discourse and production. A political arm of the state in the guise of a cultural institution, MOC operates as a funding mechanism, policymaker, and programmer, commanding massive nationwide resources and purportedly drawing on the state’s second largest budget (runner up to the Ministry of Defense).
Today, MOC continues to expound hackneyed notions of high art and perpetuates a nationalist tradition harnessing artistic and cultural production for developmental, ethical, and, in recent years, touristic aims alone.
Eventually, artists and intellectuals who refused to operate under the ministry’s auspices formed their own networks, now loosely referred to as the independent arts sector. Its materialization has sparked a rift in Egypt’s arts scene, marring relations on either end of the spectrum. Insufficient local funding, weak educational resources, a dearth of production mechanisms, and the lack of exhibition venues have been some of the challenges historically dogging the growth and development of the independent arts sector. Still, over the past fifteen years, due largely to the onslaught of globalization and the creation of the EU, and expedited by a worldwide post-9/11 obsession with Arab culture, Egypt’s floundering independent arts sector, much like its civil society, has become the object of much donor attention and, eventually, support.
Assuming the role of cultural programmers more than donors, foreign cultural institutions such as the Goethe Institute, Pro Helvetia (of Switzerland), the British Council, and the French Cultural Center have increasingly organized festivals, exhibitions, lectures, and competitions, and in so doing have provided local artists with indirect production and exhibition opportunities. Working primarily under the umbrella of their respective foreign ministries, these institutions’ project-based support remains contingent on promoting their own respective cultural values and artistic productions. While some have grown to be more flexible and responsive to the independent sector, most of these institutions remain uninformed and uninterested in engaging with local partners in any critical dialogue, focusing more on achieving short-term goals than on promoting long-term change.
More substantial funding has come in via grants from private non-operating donors. The Ford Foundation’s Media Arts and Culture (MAC) program in the Middle East and North Africa has raised the profile of many independent arts groups by providing them with much-needed programmatic as well as institutional support. But assuming the role of a programmer often playing favorites and supporting specific projects deemed “representative” of the independent arts has earned Ford heavy criticism. The program’s irregular and seemingly inequitable funding patterns has fueled preexisting allegations of questionable foreign donor agendas. To this day, some of their grantees are accused of compromised integrity and are shunned, particularly by the official sector, for their foreign affiliations.
Whether precipitated by the new NGO law or lessons learned, MAC has shifted to a more structural approach focusing on issues of accountability, governance, and institutional development. However good its intentions, though, the program’s new approach has indirectly engendered a new malaise. Shying away from the NGO law and its debilitating implications, independent groups seeking foreign funding, from Ford or otherwise, place themselves in a duplicitous compromise by opting to register as commercial enterprises rather than nonprofit organizations.
As many independent groups rely heavily on donor funding, they tend to conform without much question in order to enlist continued support. This dependency, perhaps the most pressing of all issues facing the independent arts sector, hampers the growth of local sustainable solutions.
In recent years there have been attempts to initiate local funding mechanisms. The Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC), a young but well-supported initiative, embraces an intrinsically Arab mandate specifically to tackle the ignominious association with foreign funding. Its unfortunate emphasis on providing support to the “independent” sector alone, however, may risk perpetuating the same long-standing rift between the official and unofficial arts sectors, which foreign fun ding itself has exacerbated for years. We can only hope that AFAC will be more inclusive.
Tales of the nefarious nature of international funding, the sort woven by my uncle, fail to engage with and influence funding strategies. They tend to perpetuate a victim syndrome that ignores the constituency’s own responsibility in advocating and lobbying for its own concerns. As an active part of civil society, artist groups and structures must organize internally and form coalitions to engage within a wider framework — that is, if they are to escape the commonly held perception of victimhood and, finally, dictate their own priorities.
Desert Hot Springs is a tiny universe of churches, meth labs, and boutique spas. At its hot and sandy center, closeted in a one-room public library, is a neglected cardboard box, stuffed with newspaper clippings that amount to the local history archive. Many of these snippets, now colored khaki by time, are devoted to a certain Cabot Yerxa, a small man who spawned quite a few tall tales. In the popular fable that recounts the creation of Desert Hot Springs, Yerxa grew so tired of walking fourteen miles every other day for a drink that he eventually dug a hole by hand — forty feet deep under the desert sun — until he struck 140-degree, lithium-rich water. From this hole sprang Desert Hot Springs, the self-described City of Health, originally operated “for the sake of suffering humanity.” The sick and elderly came from around the world to this Fountain of Youth, looking to put some new life back into their old bones. In recent years, though, it’s Hollywood types who’ve been soaking up the most water, wine in hand, for their own leisurely convalescence.
Cabot Yerxa is best known for his eponymous pueblo, which he built in the style of the Hopi Indians. Although the building is a sprawling creation that accreted over twenty-three years (there are 150 windows and sixty-five doors), he built the place to fit his diminutive stature, so it feels somehow miniature. Over the course of decades, wood, nails, poles, and windows were gradually transplanted into Yerxa’s imitation Hopi pueblo from the abandoned settlements of homesteaders who had given up or otherwise deserted their domains.
While Yerxa is celebrated in local lore, no one in Desert Hot Springs seems to know anything about his quixotic counterpart, a true miniaturist, Betty Hamilton. Her memory is kept afloat by just one clipping and a few photographs in the library’s cardboard archive. “Kingdom of the Dolls” was Hamilton’s labyrinthine project, a museum of history that packed exhibit upon exhibit into a plain and modest building on Pierson Boulevard. In it, she single-handedly reconstructed the history of civilization, depicting scenes and events as faithfully as she could, all at the scale of eleven-inch dolls.
Although the earliest scenes in the kingdom were a cluster from 2000 to 1000 BC — the Minoan palace at Knossos, ancient Egypt’s Temple of Karnak, and the Wailing Wall — Hamilton began her project with the Palace of Versailles, which was populated with twenty-cent dolls modified to become Marie Antoinette, her ladies-in-waiting, Louis XVI, and courtiers. Over the course of more than twenty years, Hamilton assembled dozens of tableaux, all based on her studies of photographs and artwork, including the beheading of Anne Boleyn; an 1880s San Francisco street scene; a depiction of the Colosseum complete with Romans, Christians, and lions; the fraudulent trial of Mary, Queen of Scots; and a Black Sabbath concert with Tony Iommi collapsed onstage. For some time, Hamilton built and stored the exhibits in her home. But when they grew in size and began to congest the hall-ways, closets, and floors, her husband constructed a building in the front yard that was to be devoted entirely to her passion.
Hundreds of dolls from the five-and-dime were sculpted, painted, and outfitted in the painstakingly detailed period costumes that Hamilton made. She crafted the architecture entirely from discarded odds and ends. The wheels on Napoleon’s coach, for instance, were made from ice cream container lids, and its hubcaps were champagne corks. A partial inventory suggests landfill: paper towel tubes, carpet scraps, coffee grounds, lollypop sticks, split ping-pong balls, an air conditioner filter, garter pins, hair curlers, thumbtacks, a pie tray, and Hamilton’s own hair. But the one photograph of Hamilton standing, beaming, beside her handiwork gives the impression that for her it all came together as a satisfying depiction.
If there’s anything unsettling about the photograph, it might be that the scale of the dolls and their kingdom seems a little too big. Hamilton is almost dwarfed by the miniature San Francisco, and its denizens appear quite capable of insurrection. When compared to the photograph of the exterior of the museum, one can’t help but wonder how many scenes could possibly have fit into the building. The article about “Kingdom of the Dolls” closes with Hamilton saying, “There’s still room in the middle of the floor. But when that’s gone, I don’t know. It’s going to be a terribly sad day when I run out of room.”
Desert Hot Springs is booming now. A wave of development has crashed in from Los Angeles, a hundred miles away, and the open space is being built up into generic suburban homes with rounded corners, volume ceilings, and automatic sprinkler systems. In between the houses are wide roads, transplanted palm trees, and rocks in all the right places. The churches, meth labs, and spas are still around, in the older part of town, and Cabot Yerxa’s pueblo is a historic landmark. But here, on a quiet road bridging old Desert Hot Springs with its new developments, there is a real estate office where Hamilton’s kingdom once stood. “Brand new construction,” reads its placard.
Mohammed al-Riffai’s surprisingly unironic artistic practice asks us to take amateur science seriously. Since 1999, Riffai, an Ottawa-based independent architect, has been creating extended “science in the basement”–type experiments, from collaborative audio performances at Alberta’s Banff Centre, to a mountaintop installation on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, to an outdoor audio installation in war-destroyed Aley, Lebanon. All his projects take a poetic approach to concerns that most often fall into the preserve of natural science research; they are often ruminations on the nature of sound and other natural forces.
We’re used to holding science accountable to the most rigorous of procedures and carefully calibrated processes of discovery, so it’s not easy to accept the empirical terms with which Riffai often frames his work; it’s also not necessary. While it may be, in his words, “science with a limp,” his work betrays a tenderness and childlike awe that resonates with the original impulse of scientific exploration.
The mode of observation his work encourages is one of immersion and immediacy. At the same time, most of his site-specific pieces are recorded, of necessity, on video and film, a media intervention that has an important impact on how his work is understood, and that can be misleading if substituted for the real thing.
A putative goal of Frozen Sands Infinite River, Riffai’s current project, is to demonstrate sound’s structural quality. Sine signals (what he calls “sound sand,” or the “basic unit of everything aural”) are beamed at a layer of wet plaster encased in a box-shaped device, which Riffai refers to as a “womb.” As the plaster hardens, it forms a mold of the signals at a molecular level, while slowly becoming less responsive to the influence of the signals that are structuring it. When dropped, the mold, which otherwise looks like any other slab of plaster, breaks along the axes and lines of these imprinted signals.
A series of photographic stills help represent the work; a roughly outlined plaster mold falls and then smashes against the floor, fracturing into a crystalline pattern of shards. The photos of the falling mold document one element of the process but obscure a central preoccupation of the larger work: they suggest a model of change as sudden rupture, or as a series of small changes culminating in a large, manifest transformation; Frozen Sands Infinite River instead explores accumulation as a paradigm of change.
In the future, Riffai plans to make silicone molds of the fractured slabs. These slabs will be used, in turn, to create sculptures out of pewter, a highly malleable alloy. A number of these sculptures will be combined, as if they were elements of what Riffai refers to as a musical composition, or of a conversation.
The sculptures will represent the final pro duct of cumulative artistic mediation. Their recomposition into a whole is intended as a final visual representation of the sound structure, a stable artistic object capable of representing nature. Inevitably, however, the soft pewter structure will itself begin to morph, resulting in yet another form.
“Accumulation” is perhaps the most appropriate term for describing the way in which the “powerful invisible” functions for Riffai. Accumulation, after all, opposes a linear, goal-oriented concept of agency. Riffai’s explorations imply the significance of those forces acting on us from outside the realm of the knowable. Such forces serve in his work as an invisible structure that cannot be directed, but only observed and registered.
Ultimately, this amateur science puts one in mind of mad science. The relationship between sound and structure that Riffai seems intent on exposing is too indirect; one loony solution after another presents itself, in a seemingly infinite progression into outer space. However, in this dramatization of the scientific proof, each step is so carefully executed, watched, and recorded that an eloquence that has nothing to do with “arriving” becomes central — an eloquence that must be at least part of the reason why we are, in these works, willing to forsake empiricism for lived experience.
What could possibly bring together a lineup of talk show aficionados, a barbarian/urban setting, and a group of Third Reich devotees? Sounds like creative twenty-first century portraiture, a sort of contemporary human comedy. But this mordant cast — usually comprising the very individuals the work is meant to represent — inhabits artist Yoshua Okon’s videos, photographs, and installations, raising questions as to the very possibility of any objective representation.
In his practice, Okon engages in a close collaboration with his subject-actors — mostly ordinary people leading ordinary lives — underscoring the fact that we represent ourselves as open constructs on a daily basis. His videos and installations are thus located somewhere between staged reality and everyday fiction, seeking to dislocate existing social types and the cultural archetypes they continuously re-enact.
The cultivated complicity that characterizes Okon’s work — that is, his subjects’ total awareness of being filmed — frequently raises moral and ethical questions, especially when it comes to how class and identity are disclosed within different social milieus. In early works such as Oríllese a la orilla (1999–2000), a series of videos epitomizing the corrupt policeman; Cock Fight (1998), a double-life-size projection typifying misbehaving school girls; or Rinoplastía (2000), a feature-length video illustrating one day in the life of a rich kid, Okon’s work exerts a voyeuristic manipulation of the camera that simultaneously relies on the spontaneous exhibitionism of his improvised actors. In New Décor (2002), Okon invited passersby to perform everyday situations in a middle-class Los Angeles furniture store that was turned into a video set. As he expected, the unscripted scenes ended up being a sort of cathartic enactment of self-made fantasies based on soap opera-like scenarios, actively exposing the mechanisms and conventions that so often shape our behaviors and perceptions.
While in the latter case the actors’ desires and delusions placed the work somewhere between the narrative feature and the documentary, turning its protagonists into socially vulnerable subjects, in other cases it is the viewer’s expectations that seem to be mediated by the artifice of the camera, as in Lago Bolsena (2005). The piece features a community living in an ill-reputed Mexican neighborhood that plays itself as a group of savages caught by the artist’s feigned “ethnographic gaze.” Rather than chronicling the community’s way of life as culturally, racially, or socially divergent from Western norms, the pseudoscientific perspective adopted by Okon aimed at symbolizing the prejudices through which this community is usually perceived.
Okon is currently completing the final edit of Boca Negra, a video installation for which he collaborated with a group of Third Reich enthusiasts who sell all sorts of Nazi memorabilia in one of Mexico City’s main flea markets. The artist asked them to dress up in their uniforms and march in one of the city’s 1930s European neighborhoods. Despite all the ceremoniousness displayed by the actors — being guided in their parade by a real military person holding a black SS flag and counting the measure in German — viewers can detect a series of mismatches, such as Brazilian music that happened to be playing in the streets while the video was being filmed, the racial variety of the occasional passersby, the decidedly un-Germanic presence of palm trees.
With Boca Negra, Okon not only aims to deceive our expectations regarding an empty mise en scène that stands for an ahistorical reenactment, but he also confronts us with the multiple resonances of the actors’ passionate political fetishism. While this first component of the work will be played on five plasma screens in order to create a pentagon shape meant to surround the viewer, the piece’s second component will feature some sort of behind-the-scenes projection, in which the marchers, still dressed up in their costumes, share some drinks and discuss their take on the importance and meaning of National Socialism today. For some of them, it’s a personal ideology whose uprightness affects one’s country’s political and economic well-being; for others, its principles are more about vindicating xenophobic nationalism rather than asserting racial superiority (one wonders how it could be otherwise, Mexico being a racially mixed and fragmented country — although one of the marchers suspiciously maintains that the Aztecs were Aryans, since they never mixed with other races).
As the conversation evolves among cameras, lights, and boom operators — which the actors take as witnesses to the seriousness of their propositions — the heated discussion gets more and more personal until one of the characters says, irritated, that he isn’t acting anymore. As if he ever was. Here again, the escalating tension emanates from the factual documentation of what first started as a staged situation, turning National Socialism into a somewhat historical construction that these dressed-up characters lightly call a metaphore.
By revealing that National Socialism as understood here is not too distant from recently awakened forms of nationalism and patriotism around the world, Boca Negra, like many of Okon’s previous works, will raise questions as to the conditions under which these cultural and ideological migrations occur and tend to develop lives of their own. After seeing the raw footage that will make up the piece, we’re left wondering if we’ve been witness to a tragically absurd historical re-enactment or, rather, to a serious confusion of place and time.
One afternoon, Jill Magid, small, pale, black-haired, walked into the headquarters of the Amsterdam police and offered them a project. She told them she wanted to do an art piece about their surveillance cameras. The Dutch policeman at the front desk was unimpressed. He passed her off to someone on the phone. “We don’t work with artists; we’re a police station,” he said, and that might have been that — for someone other than Magid.
Instead, the rejection hooked her. There’s nothing more enticing than an absolute no for an artist whose work is as much about the process of penetrating closed systems, stitching vulnerability into icons of security, as it is about the product she ends up with.
Back in her flat, she researched the history of the Amsterdam police and found that they were tuned to the power of aesthetics, that they’d even won an award for the design of their cop cars. So instead of approaching them as an artist, she came back as the consummate contemporary businesswoman — Jill Magid, consultant. She curated a portfolio of fancy surveillance cameras, donned a business suit, and presented the police with her new business card: Jill Magid, System Azure Security Ornamentation Professional.
A conversation began. The police weren’t sure they wanted to advertise their surveillance cameras. But weren’t they supposed to be a deterrent? she offered. She flattered them with their own self-image, how they cared about their relationship with the public and cared about aesthetic appeal. Why not ornament their surveillance cameras? After several months of negotiation, they hired her. She began climbing ladders in Amsterdam and adorning those cold surveillance machines with cowboy kitsch, rhinestones color-coded for police ethics — green for justice, red for “full of love,” blue for strictness, and white for integrity.
But is that art, you might ask? Rhinestone-studded surveillance cameras? Not really. For Magid, the art is the process of getting intimate with systems, of subverting technology into sensuality, seduction, a love affair. On the System Azure website, she documents all her encounters with the police; the process of seduction is her art.
Magid first began “intimatizing” power and public space in New York. Recently out of college, she began photographing spaces between buildings, shadow-spaces in old piers, drawing soft architectural models and sewing bubbles into urban parentheses. Later, when she got to MIT’s art and public space program, her teachers suggested that without millions to build the huge structures she was imagining, she ought to distill her ideas into an essence. Her “kiss mask” embodied that sensualizing project. It’s made out of wire from heating ducts and meshed fabric. It forces kissers to gaze as if in a mirror at their partner in the same mask. (It looks like kids in pretty gas masks trying to smooch.)
Magid wanted to film the space inside the masks in order to document the kiss, and it was then that she discovered spy products. For $179 she could order a lipstick spy camera. She knows that most artists working on surveillance started with a political notion. But for her, it was what she refers to simply as “feeling” that brought her to technology. The feeling of wanting to bring the hyperworld down to the fingerworld. To wrap the Empire State building or the Reichstag in flesh, or create a kiss out of industrial debris.
“I seduce systems of power to make them work with me,” she says. It would be easy to engage that system with the snide superiority of the urban artist, making easy political statements, mocking the battlers of terror and crime. But she was looking for something more. She wanted mutual accountability, an exchange of power and vulnerability. Artist as gift-giver and -receiver.
Liverpool city center is monitored by 242 surveillance cameras. But is it really guarded?
The cameras film twenty-four hours of real time, then move to time lapse at three frames per second. The footage remains computerized for thirty-one days; after that it cascades off the system and is swept into oblivion — with one exception: If you, fill out a Subject Access Request Form, which tells who you are, where you were, and what you were doing, and then send it along with a little photo of yourself and ten pounds, by law the police have to take the footage of you and store it in an evidence locker for seven years.
Magid entered the Liverpool system as a researcher. She turned her access forms into love letters describing what she was doing, feeling, and thinking and sent them to the police. She got obsessed with the idea of storing her memory in an evidence locker, offering herself as a guinea pig to their system. She’d wear a red trench coat and red boots, and they could track her through the city for thirty-one days.
She played with the trope. She knew they were following her through the city, and she knew where the cameras were. One time she shut her eyes for a minute in a public square. Later the police told her they were nervous watching her do that because they couldn’t protect her. “What I loved about that is they saw the fault in their own system. It’s one-way. They couldn’t help me.”
Things twisted further and further until the borders were broken down. Who was the artist? Whose gaze was on whom? Who was representing whom? Who was the surveiller and who the surveyed? No longer the artist as voyeur, she was the artist as subject of voyeurism. She loved the feeling not only of being followed, not only of seducing systems of power, but of monopolizing the surveillance grid until it ditched its purpose — whatever that was — for an addiction, an obsession, the lady in the red coat.
She taught the police film theory at night. She urged them to film her à la Godard. Imagining herself as Brigitte Bardot, she told them to trace her as if she were indeed BB. Finally, she suggested that they put a microphone in her ear; she’d close her eyes, and they would keep her safe, their voices guiding her through four cameras and eighteen minutes of tape in the city. The piece is called Trust.
The installation of Evidence Locker was shown at the Liverpool Tate and FACT (and many other places). You can enter the locker here: www.evidencelocker.net/story.php. When you register, you’ll receive thirty-one files, every hour or every day, her diary to the police, and a daily surveillance clip of the lady in the red coat on a wet Liverpool street.
WAYS OF SEEING
In the Amsterdam police library, Magid came across new methods detectives were using to induce better recall in witnesses. “It almost sounded like a love letter or a sexual manual,” says Magid. Which is in some ways how she reads most potential encounters. In a project she calls Composite, she rewrote the rules of interrogation as into a letter and sent it to all her ex-relationships: “I need you to remember my face.” They’d write back, and she would forward the description to a series of forensic artists, writing, “There is a woman who is absent. I can provide you with her description. Will you help me realize her?” She became a mediator between the forensic artist — who needed more details — and the ex-lovers. “My favorite one went eight times back and forth, and the letters got so beautiful. He said, ‘I can’t remember anymore whether she looks like the drawing or my memory.’ And the more he tried to remember the more he forgot what I looked like” — memory as a way of seeing or failing to see. By handing over the drafting to her lovers and to the forensic artists, Magid evoked a tradition of self-portraiture and documentary. The work became a kind of bildungsroman, a portrait of the artist conceived by her but drawn through the eyes of those who saw her most intimately, with the hand of a complete stranger.
From there it was just a short step to a piece she called Head. She went to the Utrecht hospital, got a catscan of her skull, contacted the number one forensic 3-D modeler, who usually works on murder victims or anthropological subjects. The forensic modeler (named Maja, who never met or saw Magid) was fascinated by the prospect of doing a live skull. She called it “Maja’s Ghost.” Ostensibly playing off of Salvador Dali’s “women in ecstasy” series, Magid got the modeler to make a forensic bust of her in ecstasy. Complete with a hair sample, model skull, a cast of teeth, and fake skin, the head sits on a pedestal alongside a forensic report and conjures the horror film F/X, or Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Theresa.
PLEASE BE ADVISED YOU MAY BE SUBJECT TO SEARCH
The words drop in amidst the New York subway rider’s jostling thoughts, slipping into a kind of surveillance white noise. But for Magid, after many years away from New York, this intercom phrase was an entry point, a way to insert herself into the urban landscape among people she’d come to find familiar — the cops. She needed permission, access.
One day she asked a subway cop to search her. He was taken aback and told her he couldn’t because she was a woman. Then train me, she said. It took a phone call and more encounters, but eventually she convinced him, and for the next four or five months, every night at 10:30pm, she would wait for him to get his assignment and then meet him at the station stop and subway line.
She recorded every detail in photographs, video, voice recordings, even producing a book and installation called, Lincoln Ocean Victor Eddie — those are the police call signs for love. “It became this incredibly intimate story of us at night in these tunnels, and all the beautiful things that happen down there,” she said. More than that, an exchange developed between the working-class cop from Staten Island — who has never left home, reads the tabloid Daily News, supports the war in Iraq (a place he mis-imagines) — and the liberal artist whom he saw at the start as partly to blame for a decaying America. Through recounting their late-night intimate moments, Magid complicated our facile reading of the cop, helped us to identify with him, his dreams, his attitudes.
One night at about 4am, the two were down in the noxious Nostrand Station, the kind of place dead bodies would turn up. Suddenly they were engulfed by birdsong. She was mesmerized. He confided that he loved working there because of those birds; he’d close his eyes and imagine he was somewhere else. From then on, whenever she couldn’t meet him at night, he would call her when the birds began singing.
LOVE LIVES ON. OR DOES IT?
Using video, text, email, and performance to engage with the most alienating forces in urban life, Magid manages to eke out narratives at once coy and connected. Those narratives in turn conjure up and subvert a history of iconic film and opera femme fatales and tragic heroines. The red trench coat astray in Liverpool, the insomniac lonely girl wandering the underground, the lover contemplating her history of intimacy — even as she plays these roles, fully engaged and vulnerable, she’s also an observer and filmmaker directing masculine symbols of power.
A strange confluence of events led Magid to perhaps her most morbid project. A rumor had long circulated in her family that her grandmother had found a giant diamond ring on the Chicago streets, when she was in her twenties, and then hid it in a safe deposit box for about thirty-five years. When she died, Magid’s family went to the box, and there it was: a 15.2 carat ring. Her parents were terrified. But to Magid, it was an amazing, somewhat tragic portrait of her grandmother. She’d weathered the Depression, a strong, silent woman, and kept this symbol of power and status and security hidden away her entire life. All Magid wanted was to photograph the ring. But her parents sold it off. She lamented the fact. The moment the stone sold was the moment her grandmother really died for her. By the time she tracked it down in the New York diamond district, it’d been ripped out of its setting. “I photographed the diamond and became fascinated with what a diamond means.” Magid’s gallerist at the time told her about a company that will turn your dead body into a diamond. “I looked at the form from the company and realized I had to make a piece with this and realized it should be me.”
Her parents were annoyed; she was over-romanticizing her grandmother’s savings account. She argued that yes, she was, but that’s what her work is about — romanticizing the system. “Some people call me a surveillance artist, but I’m interested in what makes people feel protected and held. A lot of times that’s mixed with power, and diamonds are also mixed with power. It’s also about protection.” Worried about the prohibition that states Jews shouldn’t be cremated, she met with rabbis from every background. Even the most conservative gave her their blessing, declaring that although it’s against Jewish law, the project had launched her on an unprecedented spiritual journey into the meaning of death, and they wouldn’t stand in the way of that. The Hassidic rabbi told her that in their tradition there’s a blessing that your children may become stars. “And this made him think about the body becoming a star or diamond.”
Magid has now made a contract with the company that when she dies she’ll be a one-carat diamond. The piece, called Auto Portrait Pending, is shown as a gold setting (“because of my grandmother”) with an empty one ca-rat diamond. The diamond sits in a black box that’s almost a grave. A standing vitrine shows three documents. One says, “Dear Lifegem, Make me a diamond when I die.” As Magid says, it’s a postmortem marriage with art. There’s a creepy element to all this — once a collector buys the piece, her body is legally no longer her own. “Isn’t that crazy,” she says. “And there’s a collector who wants to buy it.”
THE SEDUCTION OF SECRETS
Back when she was at MIT, Magid spent a lot of time thinking about recognition and identity. She extracted a lot from a New York psychoanalyst named Jessica Benjamin, who wrote The Bonds of Love, a treatise on domination and submission in relationships. “She talks about getting into that intimate space where you lose your own boundaries… you’re so intimately connected with the spaces around you that you feel no separation between you and the other person, and that’s a beautiful space I am always trying to find, and I try to find that with a system that ignores me.”
What could be more indifferent than an impersonal governmental ministry, her latest, still-secret project — or rather, system to be penetrated. The only clues she’s giving out are these excerpts from one of her deepest influences, Polish author Jerzy Kosinski: “Let’s say I’m a protagonist from someone else’s novel.”
Soon after I became a curator at Holland’s Tropenmuseum, in 2001, I became aware of the emerging crisis of the ethnographic museum. These museums were originally created to present the ways of life of colonized populations — later renamed “non-Western peoples” — using objects, with no apparent historical or artistic interest, as static evidence of exotic lives. The traditional ethnographic museum presented cultures, to quote anthropologist Talal Asad, as narratives about “typical actors.”
These ethnographic museums omitted indigenous discourse in their staged displays; the people “on display” didn’t speak or think, they behaved. Now, thanks to cheap air travel, the real thing — firsthand experience of genuine exotics — is within easy reach of the European public, and ethnographic museums have lost their curiosity-value. Across Europe, they’re being closed down, merged with art museums, sometimes reinvented as centers for multicultural debate.
Though today’s museums desperately try to distance themselves from their essentialist past, they can’t escape their historic burden. Essentialism is woven into the present-day structure of the Tropenmuseum; the museum is divided into distinct regions, each with its own curator, exhibition space, and collection. Needless to say, in this compartmentalized world of cultures, only half the globe — or rather, the “non” half — is represented. Being a curator in an ethnographic museum means you have to position yourself in this particular historical relationship of the museum to its subject, the invented Other.
Today, the Tropenmuseum is trying to avert crisis by transforming itself into a cultural history museum, arguably part of a larger trend in which art museums are becoming more like ethnographic museums and vice versa (the boundaries between “art,” “popular culture,” and “ethnography” are increasingly blurred). The historical approach aims at a cross-cultural perspective that uses interdisciplinary tools. It also makes it possible for curators to take a critical stance toward the museum and the particular discourses in which it is rooted.
In a 2003 show called Urban Islam, for example, I tried to tackle the conventional ethnographic museum and its staging of cultures as necessarily silent (a sad practice that equally characterizes contemporary Dutch discourse on Islam) by presenting a vast array of opinions rather than fixed truths. But though my curatorial approach aimed to problematize notions of Islamic identity as an all-determining social factor, particularly in relation to current Dutch debates, the institution’s insistence on “Islam” as a rubric for the show may still have managed to replicate existing tropes.
The example of Urban Islam shows how decades of debating postmodern anthropology have left their traces; the old ethnographic museum no longer exists. The Tropenmuseum now presents artwork from all times and places and regularly features exhibitions that take a critical stance toward ethnography, colonialism, and the museum’s own history. But is that enough?
In 2006, I curated an overview of the works of visual artist Khosrow Hassanzadeh for the museum. The show focused on the artist’s own reflections on his work; almost all of the text panels consisted of his comments. Although the only text provided by the museum questioned problematic issues like the relationship between “inside” and “outside,” or the insistence on connecting artists’ origins to their work, visitor responses revealed that several people were upset by the gloomy picture painted of Iran. Much of the audience assumed that the museum’s main objective was to produce an image of the country rather than a unique perspective on an artist’s career. I actually don’t think the same show would have had a much different effect in an art museum — it has to do with an audience’s uneasy relationship to any art it considers foreign — but its location in an institution with a history of alienation certainly didn’t help. It also didn’t help that the museum’s PR department named the show Inside Iran.
In the long run, perhaps no curatorial approach — however critical or balanced — can rescue the museum formerly known as ethnographic, since it fails to address its fundamental flaw: the dichotomous mo del on which the institution itself is based. Today ethnographic museums have to acknowledge that the Other doesn’t exist outside the Western realm and that, consequently, ethnographic museums have never really represented other cultures in the first place; they represent Western culture and its outlook on the world. The Tropenmuseum can only redeem itself if it dissolves this distinction between the West and the rest.
I and many of my colleagues are aware of this dynamic and continue to challenge it, but museums as institutions are hard to hit. One reason is the lure of the toxic mix of consumerism and cultural representation. Museums, like other commercial ventures, need entertainment to boost visitor counts. And entertainment tends to be built on a foundation of conventions, stereotypes, and clichés. More fundamentally, dissolving the dichotomy between us and them would immediately bring an end to the independent existence of any museum devoted to it — in effect curating itself out of business.
Given this paradoxical situation, it would seem that curatorial strategies against the dualist worldview on which the institution is built are prone to failure. Real change is more radical than a mere shift in curatorial practice; the system that sustains such institutions itself must change. As long as the ethnographic museum functions as a distinct entity, I cannot counter-curate my way out. It is only possible to limit the damage; at times I believe I am successful. But until or unless systemic change occurs, I can only anxiously wait for the ethnographic museum to, finally, implode.
Donald Rumsfeld was born in 1932, which means that when he turned fourteen and star-ted reading science fiction, Frank Herbert had not yet written his epic 1965 novel, Dune. The same is true of all those touted as the architects of President Bush’s aggressive Middle East policy. Bespectacled to a man, with a penchant for epochal policy shifts, grand sweeps of human history, and forced marches of progress, the neocons have about them the whiff of the middle-school war-gamer, the high-school debater, and the barely pubescent science fiction reader. More’s the pity, then, that Frank Herbert published his intergalactic political potboiler well after the policymaker-as-young-nerd put down Joseph Campbell’s Amazing Magazine and picked up Machiavelli. Had those boys read Dune, they might have thought twice about occupying Iraq. Not least because of the sandworms.
The sandworms are the giant worms that live in the depths of the desert of planet Arrakis, né Dune. They produce a spice that allows humans to predict the future. The galactic economy depends upon spice-borne prescience; the power that controls the desert planet Dune and its spice, therefore, controls the universe. The Fremen, the veiled nomads of the desert, call the sandworms Shai Hulud [eternal thing] — but, really, trying to understand the sandworm, not to mention the plot of the entire Dune series (six books, three millennia, one worm-man god-emperor), from a capsule summary is as frustrating a task as understanding Iraq’s sectarian conflicts by reading around the blogosphere.
Dune’s central importance at our current historical juncture is twofold. First, it postulates, however implicitly, that in the distant future the only remnants of twentieth-century human life will be Arab in origin: a desert planet, an invaluable natural resource, veiled and fanatical nomads, a prophet known as the Mahdi, an intergalactic jihad. Each object of significance in the Dune universe has its obvious parallel in the Arab Word: spice is oil; the nomads, Bedouins; the intergalactic jihad, jihad. Even the language spoken by the Bedouins of Dune is derived from Arabic. The sandworms have no immediate analogue in either Arab or Islamic history; they are, one hopes, completely made up.
But the notion that Islamic Arab culture exists essentially unchanged in the year 10,000 or so is a double-edged sword, a sign of both tenacity and stagnation. As the rest of the universe has developed space travel, lasers, video-conferencing, and ebooks, the people of Dune have remained rooted in their autochthonic patterns of life: roaming the desert, locating oases, gathering spice, riding the sandworm. Their culture lies outside of progress, of technological advancement, of history. Rationales for invasion and occupation have been built on less. This is the stuff that adventure stories, earthbound and intergalactic both, are made of: Technologically superior races conquer the less motivated, the incompetent, and the gullible. A monocle is a sign of divinity; a record, the voice of God; a Bible, the profoundest of technologies; a laser-guided smart bomb, imprecise death from above.
Dune, though, manages to turn the setup for a call to arms — natives make easy pickings — into a cautionary tale. Aided by sandstorms, sandworms, a dose of religious fanaticism, and the almost complete ignorance of their would-be conquerors as to the culture and logistics of the planet Dune, the natives emerge triumphant, overthrowing the emperor and embarking upon a centuries-long jihad through the known universe. A neat, and perhaps frightening, inversion — a botched invasion of an Arab land results in the birth of a prophet, the toppling of an imperial power, and a restructuring of international relations.
Given the ease to which Dune lends itself to allegorical reading as both jihadist wish fulfillment and critique of neocon hubris, it is strange that the book has never been translated into Arabic. There was some speculation after 9/11 that the term al-Qaeda was taken from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series; though no evidence exists that Asimov’s series was ever translated either, rumors hold that an unofficial translation may have been passed, dog-eared, hand to hand across the desert. Aside from the founding classics of the genre — notably those by HG Wells and Jules Verne — few science fictional texts have made the jump. But, given the poor track record of translation into Arabic, the dearth of English-language science fiction in Arabic is no real surprise. The 2002 Arab Human Development Report stated that only 300 books are translated into Arabic a year — about one-fifth the number translated yearly into Greek. The report depicted the state of scientific inquiry and technological development in the Middle East as lagging far behind that of the rest of the world. The image of the region that emerges from its statistics is that of a backwater placed at the center of global attention by a resource curse and constant religious ferment.
Dune’s version of a futuristic Arab culture rising victorious isn’t entirely pessimistic. The jihad yields a new order; corruption is wiped away; and technology comes to transform Dune’s harsh deserts into verdant pastures — with adequate desert kept in reserve for the sandworms, of course. A far darker vision of the future comes in the recent film Children of Men. In the final scenes, set in the very bleak and very near future, a violent protest has begun in one of the many giant refugee camps that dot England. One revolutionary calls it the Uprising — the beginning of a final, apocalyptic battle between the immigrants and the British state — but someone has scrawled Intifada in Arabic on the walls and lightly armed men face down the might of the military while yelling Allahu Akbar. The Arabs, in 2027 as in 2001 or 10,000, are angry, fanatical, and armed. Jihad and violence are the wages of Iraq, the movie insinuates, and will remain so for decades to come.
Science fiction is a poor prognosticator of the future. For every presciently imagined submarine or space shuttle, there are dozens of teleportation devices, nuclear armageddons, and forgotten promises of Soviet domination. But if the form of science fiction sometimes provides an avenue for outré imaginings of the present, it is possible that the writing and reading of speculative fiction in the Middle East may open valuable discussion of what the region, its religions, and its cultures might look like one day. Why not start by translating Dune into Arabic? African writers riffed off of Heart of Darkness for decades, subverting, inverting, and just plain trashing Conrad’s novella in pursuit of new ways of representing African life. It might be wishful thinking to imagine that Dune, in translation, would do the same thing for the next generation of Arab writers. But the possibilities are delightful to imagine: flying taxis in Cairo, Sufi outposts on Saturn, telepathic Bedouins — even peace in the Middle East!
Q: We understand that Bill Gates and some others in this business have criticized this initiative as untenable. What is your response to this?
A: I don’t respond to such criticism. Because criticizing this project is like criticizing the Church, or the Red Cross.
— Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the $100 laptop movement, as quoted by The Daily Vanguard, Nigeria
I was twelve years old, in a small public school in Nakuru.
One day, the whole school was called out of class. Some very blond and very serious people from Sweden had arrived. We were led to the round patch of grass next to the parade ground in front of the school, where the flag was. Next to the flag were two giant drums of cow shit and metal pipes and other unfamiliar accessories. We stood around, heard some burping sounds, and behold, there was light.
This is biogas, the Swedes told us. A fecal martyr. It looks like shit — it is shit — but it has given up its gas for you. With this new fuel you can light your bulbs and cook your food. You will become balanced dieted; if you are industrious perhaps you can run a small biogas-powered posho mill and engage in income-generating activities.
We went back to class. Very excited. Heretofore our teachers had threatened us with straightforward visions of failure. Boys would end up shining shoes; girls would end up pregnant.
Now there was a worse thing to be: a user of biogas.
I once won a windup radio. I was living in South Africa, and had entered a radio competition coming up with some witty slogan. I received the radio gratefully. I was happy to discover that my radio was perfect. The winding up did not require much muscle-power. The radio lasted for ages. It looked retro — and retro was starting to look rather good to me. This was the early Nineties. I was very broke at the time. My new possession offered me a way to imagine myself: a suffering saint, a frugal writer with his frugal radio. Frugal, not impoverished. Certainly not a failure. My radio lent nobility to being broke.
It also lent nobility to ingenuity. It was invented by Trevor Baylis, a kindly English swimming-pool salesman who had seen a program about AIDS in Africa on the TV. Radio was the best way to educate people about the disease, he learned, but electricity was unreliable and batteries were expensive. “There was a need for an educational tool that did not rely on electricity… [and] Trevor picked up on the word ‘need.’” His windup radio was the perfect invention for its stated purpose, and it received several awards from the BBC, including Best Product Design. It also won Baylis an Order of the British Empire. He was all over South African television and radio.
I don’t know what became of it. I lost track of the thing about the time I moved. I had made a small killing in some dodgy marketing deal, so I bought new clothes, packed up, and moved to Cape Town. You didn’t hear anything about the windup radio after a while, and I didn’t know anyone else who had one.
But Baylis’s Freeplay Radios still exist. You will find them among new-age fisher-folk in Oregon; neo–blue collar sculptors working out of lofts in postindustrial cities; back-to-earthers in Alberta; Social Forum activists and neo–Grizzly Adams types everywhere. Angst-ridden victims, all. But the enthusiasts of the windup radio suffer not from poverty or lack of information but from wealth, vague guilt, and too much information. They are the only people who can find nobility in a product that communicates to its intended owner: you are fucked.
Introducing the children’s laptop from One Laptop per Child, a potent learning tool created expressly for the world’s poorest children living in its most remote environments.—wiki.olpc.org
The $100 laptop is for the whole brown world. It will change everything. Every aspect of the project is upstanding, straight, honest, earnest, and disciplined. Forward-looking, educational, humanitarian.
It will be sold directly to governments. Rwanda has already signed up — a perfect launch pad; in Rwanda every Brother and Sister Citizen sweeps the highways once a month. Libya is already on board, too; they will spend a modicum of oil money, adding this crowning achievement of the humanitarian imagination to the gas ovens and refrigerators and little green books the citizenry already gets for free. The command will go out, and smiling millions will laptop away.
Perhaps. But perhaps not. A guy I know told me about an uncle who left his shop in Kigali just before the genocide. He escaped to North America. After the genocide, he was one of the first Indian traders to return. He stopped in Dar es Salaam and bought several containers of toilet paper and cigarettes. When he got to Kigali, he opened a container by the side of the road and started selling.
The man had told his nephew this story as a lesson. People and their needs are strange things. He had gambled that the first thing people would want is to have their familiar things back. To feel clean. To feel normal. And he won his bet. The man sold out quickly and at the price he demanded.
I was walking in Nairobi not long ago when I saw a crowd gathering. Somebody hidden by the crowd was shouting. Another street church, I thought. I went closer and saw a man who was fevered and preaching and zealous and all, but the object of his devotion was a little gadget that could do many things to raw vegetables of many shapes and sizes.
And lo, old and obscure and nearly forgotten vegetables have reappeared magically in our hearts and minds. Across the city, people are abandoning the customary roast meat and chips, taking their lunch at one of the fruit and salad parlors that have sprouted up everywhere. Restaurants selling meals with forgotten old traditional green vegetables run out of food by midday. Meanwhile, multilevel marketing companies sell vitamins and aloe. Since we feel dirty, that our government is dirty, we imagine AIDS everywhere. So we have a new puritan religion based on food. It speaks in the language of rapture, and on busy streets you are called upon to rise up and drink the aloe tea.
In Eastlands, the “dangerous” part of Nairobi, there is a service where you can order anything from the duty-free port of Dubai by paying Somali middlemen and waiting for your order to be delivered to your door. These Somalis supply many of the businesses in Eastlands’s booming retail sector — little eight-by-ten shops that sell for astonishing sums of money.
There are thousands of these in Nairobi alone. For all of the products that have successfully entered our national imagination, the items themselves were probably less important than the process. Success was less a function of satisfying a need than of creating new needs, new demands; it was the way they made you feel about yourself, for good or ill, that made them work. The ugly face of capitalism, yes; the ability of a product to make its way into your idea about yourself.
And the products that have become successful came through these stalls and these middlemen. People who spoke many languages, and understood how to get the message out, how to move things, across town or across the ocean, and make a profit.
You can buy a mobile phone for thirty dollars in Nairobi. There is a nationwide network. But more importantly, there is a nationwide industry of small suppliers that has sprung up to service that network and those phones. Handymen can fix the most broken of casings; streetside entrepreneurs offer you the use of their phone for a few shillings; tens of thousands of tiny booths sell airtime. A guy called Njoroge has a business in Nairobi’s industrial area called “Lord of the Ringtones.” They digitalize and sell ringtones, 220,000 of them a month. Cellphones are the biggest business in Kenya.
And they are transforming culture, even as they spawn new markets. In Nairobi, a student paper caters to kids from across the city’s high schools; submissions are sent in by text message, with articles written in textese — words broken into their smallest possible lucid components. Every few months or so, rumors circulate, breaking some code or other and giving free airtime or texts. Some people have learned to communicate for free with their regular clients or family by coding their ringing: one ring, I am on my way; two rings, I have picked up the kids; three rings, I love you.
Now there is a pilot project in Kenya, the first in the world, to transfer money, Western Union–style, to anybody with a cellphone. It is exciting, yes, but then people have been sending money to each other in Kenya for years. Send minutes to someone, and they can resell them for cash.
If you walk into any African market, you see chaos. Things tend not to cross over from the formal side of an African city to the informal side. The two speak very different languages. Often, the formal side — out of its good nature or its panicked guilt, out of a feeling that the giant world of the urban poor is too pathetic to tolerate — pins its hopes and dreams on some revolutionary product. Biogas. A windup radio. A magic laptop. These pure products are meant to solve everything.
They almost always fail, but they satisfy the giver. To the recipients, the things have no context, no relationship to their ideas of themselves or their possibilities. A great salesman can spark a dialogue with you; in a matter of minutes, you come to make your own sense of his product, fitting it into your imagination, your life. You lead, the salesman follows. Whereas a pure product presents itself as a complete solution; a product built to serve the needs of the needy assumes the needy have measured themselves exactly as the product has measured them.
When free American maize turned up in Kenyan schools in 1984, thanks to Bob Geldof and USA for Africa, it arrived in gunny bags and presented itself at school dining tables: steaming yellow, not white like the maize-flour we knew as a staple. We had heard that this food was coming. We had heard that people were starving to death — only a few miles away from us, in fact, over the border. But even that was “out there.” We were all hearing on the radio this song by big celebrities about the starving people in Africa. We were singing these songs, as well — thrilled that we, too, could feel mushy about people in Africa. We saw the sacks unloaded. But they were silent. So we started to speculate. I must confess that I hated school food, anyway, and that yellow maize porridge tasted not that much worse than everything else we were forced to eat. But our speculation was powerful. It is American animal feed. And it started tasting a bit too earthy. It has been treated with contraceptive chemicals. And it started to taste metallic. It was sent to us because it has gone bad already. And it started to smell funny.
Soon, in the Njoro High School dining hall, vast amounts of yellow porridge went directly into the bins. Our teachers, normally violent fascists in matters of discipline, looked the other way. We had food fights with the porridge every evening, and the floor would be littered with the clumpy remnants of America’s love.
There is an odd and silly dance that plays itself out around the developing world, where certain good-graced individuals and communities have learned to respond correctly to “development projects.” Such people are well loved by funders, as they allow them to satisfy their reporting requirements. But the dynamic and arrogant — those who are not willing to turn up for an “awareness” meeting, because they feel they have better things to do — end up being ignored. The sly can become “community leaders” if they can persuade people to become dependent on them; it is they who distribute the food parcels. It is a good and caring way to acquire political power without a gun or greedtalk or anything that would undermine the idea of yourself as good and caring.
There are few useful “development models” for genuinely self-starting people. I am sure the One Laptop per Child initiative will bring glory to its architects. The IMF will smile. Mr. Negroponte will win a prize or two or ten. There will be key successes in Rwanda; in a village in Cambodia; in a small, groundbreaking initiative in Palestine, where Israeli children and Palestinian children will come together to play minesweeper. There will be many laptops in small, perfect, NGO-funded schools for AIDS orphans in Nairobi, and many earnest expatriates working in Sudan will swear by them.
And there will be many laptops in the homes of home-schooling, goat-tending parents in North Dakota who wear hemp (another wonder-product for the developing world). They will fall in love with the idea of this frugal, noble laptop, available for a mere $100. Me, I would love to buy one. I would carry it with me on trips to remote Kenyan places, where I seek to find myself and live a simpler, earthier life, for two weeks a year.
“First computers were the size of an elephant, now they buzz around us like flies. They are taught to block away nature’s own flies by peaceful means — if possible.”
Finnish nuclear scientist/artist Erkki Kurenniemi has been collecting data on his life since the early 1960s. Tram tickets, film reels, photographs, letters, cash receipts, tobacco ashes, cardboard medical boxes, used pencils, screwdrivers, transistors — you name it, it’s all there.
Perhaps the most fascinating component of the archive are Kurenniemi’s cassette diaries from the years 1972 and 1973. On these hissing audiotapes, we hear the scientist/artist, usually driving in his Renault alone with a battery-run Philips recorder beside him, holding the microphone with one hand while gripping the steering wheel with the other. He drives endlessly by night, exhausted but excited, ruminating about future technological innovations. You could say that he was a prototype of today’s neurotic man, attached to his portable office. (Cellphones and laptops have brought us closer to Western rationalism’s dream of the compu-philosopher, the blending of man and machine.)
Predating Twin Peaks’ special agent Dale Cooper, Kurenniemi’s relationship with his recording tool was an intimate one — “confidentially just for your ears,” he would coo. In his sessions, he casually tossed in the air the seeds of many soon-to-come revolutionary inventions and new forms of user-inter-faces. To find effective ways to help nurture the budding romance between man and machine, both desperately in love with each other but too shy and too slow to make a move, was his goal.
What makes these restless monologues from the halcyon days of free love so interesting is the ease with which the scientist overlapped hardcore artificial intelligence theory and research with simple office gossip — who’s been sleeping with whom, whom he most desires. With his manic sexual drive, anything is possible — the flow of new ideas, the free enjoyment of sensual pleasures, the pulling free from Earth’s depressing bourgeois routines. In one of the tapes, he conducts a bizarre dialogue with a girlfriend about the darkest of sexual fantasies.
Kurenniemi’s imaginary future postulates the possibility of science “curing death away” and finding the formula for eternal life by the year 2050. At that time, all boxes will be opened, all files retrieved, digitized, carefully studied, categorized, and rearranged. With this raw data, we might be able to recreate the soul of a late-twentieth-century man and put it on museum display, a species under glass.
Earth itself, in fact, in Kurenniemi’s future, would be transformed into a museum, where all life would be put into freeze-frame mode. By 2100 we would print ten billion “Earth licenses” and distribute them to all then-living humans. According to his vision, licenses could be sold. “This way, the people who want long lives can have them. But only by migrating into space. This will be cheap, because there will be people wanting to stay down here, purchasing Earth licenses at a price that will amply cover the price of the lift to orbit for the seller.”
The value of this uncompromising, austere, and highly impractical science, practiced by someone who voluntarily dropped out of the academic world, lies in the images it offers, rather than in any concrete options. The future that Kurenniemi’s work implicitly proposes mirrors the possibilities and obsessions of our present-day civilization. However, his lifelong project can never be more than an attempt, a metaphor, a quixotic effort to conquer death and shift the boundaries of human perception.
Post-script: Erkki Kurenniemi is a pioneer in the history of electronic music. Alongside media art, happenings and short films of his own, Kurenniemi has designed a number of electronic instruments. Perhaps the most ambitious of his projects was a series of digital synthesizers, called DIMI, which he designed in the early 1970s. DIMI-O (1970-1971) converted any movements recorded by the video camera into real-time sounds and music. DIMI-S (also known as the “Sexophone”) was able to generate sound and light through contact with the skin, reacting to the emotional state of the performers. An excerpt of his own composition Dance of the Anthropoids (1968) was heard on the Finnish progressive rock band Wigwam’s 1970 album Tombstone Valentine. In 2002, Finnish film director Mika Taanila made a documentary film on Kurenniemi called The Future is Not What it Used to Be.
In January of 2007, Sweden announced its intention to become the first country to open an embassy in a virtual world, promising to establish “diplomatic representation” inside the five-year-old online community Second Life. Unlike more traditional online communities, where users represent themselves to one another using text, photographs, and profile pages, Second Life (2L for short) is more of a sprawling videogame, its two million-plus registered users (or residents, as they call themselves) pursuing various forms of self-realization via high-resolution avatars. 2L’s residents interact with one another in standard chat formats (2L’s creators, San Francisco based Linden Labs, promise in-world telephony in future iterations); they dress themselves and craft fanciful hairstyles; they engage in animated cybersex and hold poker games, poetry readings, and constitutional conventions. Residents walk, swim, or fly like digital superpeople over a world of oceans, landmasses, and archipelagos, the smaller islands of which are available for rent from Linden and developable using a variety of architectural coding languages, commerce and media engines, and other tools of display, beautification, and interaction.
Second Life is not the most populous virtual world — South Korea’s MapleStory role-playing game boasts more than 110 million members and can host several hundred thousand simultaneous users during peak hours. It is neither the oldest (dozens of virtual worlds have come and gone since the late 1990s) nor the most profitable (as of this writing, that title belongs to Blizzard’s World of Warcraft), but 2L is clearly the reigning champion of fantastical virtual announcements. Over the past year, the sound of journalists, futurists, and businesses clamoring to get in on the new new thing has become deafening. Conceptual artists have released artworks there, wire services have set up 2L bureaus, and film festivals have held screenings, showing films in virtual theaters. You can either watch your avatar watch the film, or you can stream the film directly to your screen. Outside, in the virtual lobby, stars and directors update the old internet gambit of the chatroom meet-and-greet by appearing, live in Second Life via mingling avatar.
Honest-to-god Yankee dollars are directly converted into Linden dollars (2L’s internal currency) at a clip of over $200,000 per day, even as thousands of square kilometers of virtual land reap monthly “land use” fees for Linden Labs, the privilege of metaphorical ownership substituting for traditional subscription schemes. The Gap and Best Buy have opened virtual showrooms, while thriving markets in virtual real estate and high-end avatar construction have escaped the gravity of 2L’s internal economy to land on eBay and PayPal. Some of that money flows downward to the usual plethora of quasi-licit hustles — escort services, for example, where players pay to engage in naughty chat with pneumatic avatars. The thriving sexual economy in turn breeds scandal, as when it was revealed that Anshe Chung, Second Life’s richest avatar, had made her fortune as a 2L escort and sex therapist, providing in-world, highly demonstrative classes on what the press chastely termed “virtual lovemaking.” Gossip columnists quipped that at least Chung had been a classy virtual ho, her fortune having no genesis on any of 2L’s numerous “rape play” islands, where residents can become rapists, victims, or bystanders for $220 Linden dollars.
While it’s clear what Chung gets out of being a resident of 2L, as measured by the stored value of her Linden dollars, it doesn’t take a Luddite to wonder what an entity like Sweden will get for the trouble of establishing a virtual outpost. As wire service reports explained, the proposed embassy “would not provide passports or visas,” instead being designed to “instruct visitors how to obtain such documents in the real world.” So said Olle Wästberg, director of the Swedish Institute. The embassy will “inform people about Sweden and broaden the opportunity for contact with Sweden easily and cheaply.” Practically speaking, then, the new “embassy” will give the Swedes (and prospective Swedophiles) nothing that they can’t already find at www.swedenabroad.com.
The proposed 2L embassy, then, will serve no purpose other than to let Sweden shout “First!” into the historical ether. How sad for Sweden that the first political entity to set up virtual shop in 2L was not a forward looking Scandinavian nation but the Youth Wing of the French National Front. The December 2006 arrival of the French racists associated with Jean-Marie Le Pen, far from calling into question the foundations of consensus reality, followed a trajectory familiar to anyone who has ever participated in that oldest of virtual interactions, the email flame war. The group’s virtual headquarters on Porcupine Island soon became the site of an escalating cycle of protest that, a few weeks later, spilled into an all out and thoroughly surreal cyberwar. Second Life blogger James Wagner Au offered the following testimony:
It’s unclear when the shooting started, or who fired the first shot (several witnesses claim [National Front] security forces assaulted them with “push guns,” weapons capable of flinging a Resident across the island like a ragdoll), but in the final days of last week, at least, the assault raged from both sides… a ponderous and dreamlike conflict of machine guns, sirens, police cars, “rez cages” (which can trap an unsuspecting avatar), explosions, and flickering holograms of marijuana leaves and kids’ TV characters, and more… One enterprising insurrectionist created a pig grenade, fixed it to a flying saucer, and sent several whirling into National Front headquarters, where they’d explode in a starburst of porcine shrapnel.
Reaction to the fracas (whose signature image became the aforementioned exploding pig) ranged from the amused to the eye-rolling, as at the US technology blog Valleywag, which opined that “whatever your politics or personal thoughts about virtual playground Second Life, after reading [Au’s account], it will be hard to avoid thinking of the service as little more than a romper room for retards.” Valleywag exists largely to translate the interests of technology companies and venture capitalists into snark, but there is a sense in which Second Life actually is a kind of romper room for forms of unrestrained, unbridled hype. Consider this description of life in virtual worlds by futurist Howard Rheingold from his book, The Virtual Community:
Similar to the way previous media dissolved social boundaries related to time and space, the latest computer-mediated communications media seem to dissolve boundaries of identity as well… I know a respectable computer scientist who spends hours as an imaginary ensign aboard a virtual starship full of other real people around the world who pretend they are characters in a Star Trek adventure. I have three or four personae myself, in different virtual communities around the Net. I know a person who spends hours of his day as a fantasy character who resembles “a cross between Thorin Oakenshield and the Little Prince” and is an architect and educator and bit of a magician aboard an imaginary space colony. By day, David is an energy economist in Boulder, Colorado, father of three; at night, he’s Spark of Cyberion City — a place where I’m known only as Pollenator.
These words could easily have come from any contemporary 2L enthusiast, but they were actually written by Rheingold ten years ago (hat-tip: Clay Shirky), this in reference to online experiences that were even then paltry in comparison to those readily available on a Nintendo or Playstation, like the early Final Fantasy games.
The virtual excitements of the current moment certainly point us in useful directions when it comes to thinking about the dream of the transformative second life — a parallel universe where increased peace, safety, agency, wealth, well-being, power, beauty, and/or pleasure awaits. But then, so have a host of other indicators and trendlets going back to, say, Mikhail Bakhtin’s medieval carnival, or Peter Lamborn Wilson’s observations (written under the pseudonym Hakim Bey) on “pirate utopias of the sea-rovers and Corsairs of the eighteenth century.” According to Wilson/Bey, these pirate utopias not only constituted an “information network” that spanned the globe hundreds of years before the first packet ever made a 2L avatar dance, they also created “temporary autonomous zones” where the various strictures of the era’s first lives could be shrugged off.
Primitive and devoted primarily to grim business, the net nevertheless functioned admirably. Scattered throughout the net were islands, remote hideouts where ships could be watered and provisioned, booty traded for luxuries and necessities. Some of these islands supported “intentional communities,” whole mini-societies living consciously outside the law and determined to keep it up, even if only for a short but merry life.
It’s hard to imagine anything occurring in 2L being so well remembered in a year, let alone in 200 years.
For the last several years, Joseph DeLappe has regularly logged into America’s Army, a free online first-person-shooter combat simulation owned and operated by the United States Army. Built by American gaming companies and maintained by the Department of Defense as a recruiting tool, America’s Army features team-based combat missions in “real” fields of action such as Iraq and Afghanistan. “Dead in Iraq,” DeLappe’s intervention into America’s Army’s field of play, involves typing in the name, age, service branch, and date of death of each US serviceperson who has died in Iraq.
I enter the game using my login name, “dead-in-iraq,” and proceed to type the names using the game’s text messaging system. As is my usual practice when creating such an intervention, I am a neutral visitor as I do not participate in the proscribed mayhem. Rather, I stand in position and type until I am killed. After death, I hover over my dead avatar’s body and continue to type. Upon being reincarnated in the next round, I continue the cycle.
DeLappe’s virtual actions are astounding. Although his tone and claim to memorial elides the fact, “Dead in Iraq” is a direct assault on America’s Army and its players, which include active military personnel and Iraq veterans as well. As a hack, “Dead in Iraq” is more profound than any attack on a virtual National Front, for the simple reason that attacking the Le Penites is at worst akin to defacing an advertisement. Subverting America’s Army runs the risk of injuring someone psychically, of course, and perhaps for a good cause, but injuring nonetheless.
As Julian Dibbell suggested in My Tiny Life, his 1993 analysis of an online sexual assault, under the right conditions an attack on the “second,” psychic body can be nearly as devastating as attacks on the first, given the virtual identities created by users of online technologies and the time and effort they put into creating and inhabiting them. Demolishing a virtual headquarters is, by contrast, a crime against intellectual property and (maybe) commerce. Instead of leading us deeper into the pixilated hearts of networked men and women, the battle for Porcupine Island leads us back to courtrooms and position papers, into ongoing debates about copyright, graffiti, hacking, and so on, which will follow their own appointed trajectories with or without Second Life.
CHINA, THE ORIGINAL FUTURE
If Second Life is a kind of romper room, where is the future actually being lived? The intuition of the 1980s cyberpunk novel was that the virtual world spoke Japanese. But it is in Korea that videogame players have achieved the fame of professional athletes, and it is in China that more than 250 million active videogame players line up at cybercafes in search of diversion from life in the People’s Republic. Mostly that virtual nation seems largely interested in playing and profiting from games. Over the last few years, no gaming symposium has been complete without mention — half awed, half hysterical — of Chinese World of Warcraft (WoW) sweatshops, where part-enslaved, part-employed “players” sit (chained?) to computers and “farm” monsters for gold and loot, which is then laundered into US dollars thanks to lazy American gamers via the magic of eBay and the like.
Lately, Chinese virtual currencies have begun to affect the value of the nation-state’s real-world economy. Recent fluctuations in the yuan were blamed on increased trade in the QQ, a phantom currency introduced by Tencent, China’s largest instant messaging platform, as a sort of “frequent flyer” incentive allowing the purchase of virtual tchotchkes. As the number of subscribers approached the 200 million mark, users began exchanging QQs to pay off debts or transact person-to-person purchases, while online gambling companies soon started accepting bets and making payouts in QQs. (Needless to say, it has long been possible to purchase cybersex in QQs.)
When compared to Second Life or even World of Warcraft, the virtual worlds of East Asia bring to mind Wilson/Bey’s pirate utopias, being technologically primitive and devoted primarily to banal business; but it is in them that the seeds of future relations and habits are likely growing to fruition. Consider this sequence of virtual, perhaps apocryphal, events found on a Chinese blog:
• A man takes care of his recently unemployed wife.
• The unemployed wife plays WoW in her newly found free time.
• The man discovers his wife’s chat logs, in which she talked to another lover.
• She met her lover through Yanshan University’s [online WoW players club/guild] the Sentinel Union.
• In fact, her lover is the president of the guild.
• The husband confronts his wife; he is brought to tears and loves his wife too much to leave her.
• The husband writes a forum post and tells the other man to stay away.
• The other man replies, “If you have guts, you come for me!!”
• A group of 1000+ people, angered by the lover, gather in WoW.
• The 1000+ rabble wage war against the Sentinel Union, their goal, “the condemnation of the Sentinel Union’s president.”
These are the sorts of scenarios that keep men and women, each for their own reasons, up late into the night wrestling with their own private possibilities and nightmares. Imagine what Chinese government officials must make of such events. Imagine how the world would gasp had Sweden announced that it would be opening an embassy in the World of Warcraft in the form of a 5000-strong Swedish guild — say, “Knights of Malmo” — staffed by consular employees. “Player characters in the new Swedish guild will fan out throughout the Azeroth to personally instruct visitors how to obtain visas and to act as a link to web-based information about our country,” Swedish Institute director Olle Wästberg might declare.
“And, of course,” Wästberg would continue, “should any deserving player require them, our swords are theirs.”
In the eyes of many, Wikipedia lost its innocence in the fall of 2005, when journalist and Kennedy family friend and legal advisor John Siegenthaler clicked on his own biographical entry and found that “for a short time, he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John and his brother, Bobby.” The libel had been inserted into the entry four months earlier, and had remained undisturbed there ever since.
The scandal made great copy. The culprit, as it happened, was no ideologue with an agenda or insider with a vendetta; he was an evening manager at a Tennessee delivery company playing a prank on a coworker. The whole episode seemed to capture everything dubious about an encyclopedia that dispenses with credentialed authority in favor of anonymous, unprofessional, unpaid collaborative work. In an age when cynicism about elite sources of information and opinion — the New York Times comes to mind — is at a high point, elite opinion turned with some relish to a story about the contamination of knowledge by the great unwashed.
Something of this was in the air when, in early December, the elegant Siegenthaler appeared on CNN alongside the embattled-looking founder of Wikipedia, Jimbo Wales, for a joint interview by Kyra Phillips. “We’re going into an election year,” Siegenthaler intoned, balancing personal magnanimity with civic indignation, “and every senator and congressman is going to find himself or herself subjected to the same sort of outrageous commentary that hit me and hit others. I’m afraid we’re going to get regulated media as a result.” Phillips was so radiantly seized by the first point that she blazed past the second, telling Wales she’d like to see “some sort of controls” in place on Wikipedia, having just suffered the shock of discovering her own entry made her look “like a right-wing commie.” Wales blinked, twitched, bobbed, squeezed his elbows, and took refuge in arcana about the procedural changes he’d introduced to the online encyclopedia since the start of the debacle.
Siegenthaler needn’t have worried so much about politicians, who know how to look after themselves. Wikipedia and the midterm elections were indeed on a collision course, but while Siegenthaler wrung his hands over the specter of defamation, members of Congress were rubbing theirs over the opportunities for spin. Wikipedia editors had been sweeping out bits of fluff wafting into the entries of politicians since midsummer (“Meehan developed a reputation as a tough law enforcer,” “Burns has been an [sic] true advocate of the agricultural community,” etc), but it wasn’t until late January that they compared notes, did a bit of detective work, and discovered that the tendentious edits numbered in the thousands — and were all streaming in from the offices of congressmen themselves.
The ensuing scandal received much less media attention than the Siegenthaler episode, but it’s a much more telling one. Hoax edits, after all, are quickly weeded out, while propaganda sinks into the groundwater. When puckish congressional staffers gave Senator Robert Byrd’s age as 180, for example, or added helpful links from the illustrated technical article on “douchebags” to the biographical entry on then–White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan, the edits lasted only six minutes and twenty-four minutes, respectively. One of Wikipedia’s four cardinal rules is “verifiability, not truth”; if it doesn’t clear the bar of the former, it’s out, no matter how much it has the ring of the latter.
The other three cardinal rules are neutral point of view (NPOV), reliable sources only (RS), and “no original research” (NOR, meaning no editor can provide analysis not found in cited sources). It’s possible for interested parties to massage information through finesse of these rules, though, and that poses a more serious problem for Wikipedia’s long-term credibility than do spitballs swept up by the janitorial crew. When someone from the office of Senator Conrad Burns, Republican of Montana, replaced references to his use of the word “ragheads” for Arabs with a new section called “A Voice for the Farmer,” the edit lasted almost twenty-four hours. Every edit is accompanied by an edit summary; this staffer wrote, “The Wikipedia isn’t a tabloid.” No one calls it “the Wikipedia” (at least no one under fifty, which might lead one to wonder whether the anonymous editor was really a mere intern) but the “tabloid” objection was actually pretty savvy. Months after the congressional scandal was old news, regular Wikipedia editors were “reverting” to the expurgated version of Burns’s bio and questioning whether emphasizing a politician’s sensational verbal gaffes wasn’t in fact a violation of NPOV. One newly registered editor participating in the debate was suspected of being a Burns plant, which the editor vociferously denied.
And what if he was? While many were calling for a complete block of US House of Representatives’ Wikipedia-editing privileges, others were pointing out that if Wikipedia is indeed “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit,” then anyone means anyone. After prolonged debate, the proposed ban was implemented, then quickly reversed; Wales himself (who has admitted editing his own entry to remove references to a brief stint in the porn industry) made equivocal public statements, at once frowning on the practice while stressing that in principle there’s nothing wrong with interested parties wanting “to put in their side of things.”
In Wikipedia jargon, an unregistered editor is called an “anon.” The term is highly misleading. Any change made by an unregistered editor leaves a permanent public record of his computer’s IP-address, which is traceable to locations in the real world. The first and fatal mistake of the Congressional staffers was to remain “anonymous.” When a user registers on Wikipedia, paradoxically, she is thereafter known by a screen name, and her IP address is masked from the public and all but a handful of administrators, who can look it up only in exceptional circumstances. It’s the registered, regular users who are anonymous on Wikipedia. As in other situations where anonymity is the norm — masked balls, say, or sex clubs — the real world recedes, and role playing takes on a life of its own.
Wikipedia tries to some extent to regulate the role-playing. You’re not allowed to create multiple aliases who “support” your position in this or that editorial dispute; these are called “sockpuppets,” and anyone discovered to be manning one or more is sent packing from the community (along with said puppets). Since Wikipedia is ruled by consensus, sockpuppets can be useful, but keeping one is as delicate and dangerous as keeping a mistress. You can’t appear everywhere with your sockpuppet. If you’re discreet, others will return the favor; if you’re not, you risk being “indefinitely blocked” or even “banned,” the ultimate disgrace. Imagine a social space jointly devised by Jurgen Habermas and Edith Wharton; that’s the Wikipedia “community.” You’re anonymous when you enter, divested of real-world credentials, a voice of partial if presumptively disinterested reason; but you quickly develop a history there, a reputation, a precarious place within networks of shifting alliances complete with the rewards of authority and influence for those who play it right, ostracism for those who don’t.
Wikipedia also forbids editing by real-world proxies without “independent views and actual or potential contributions.” “Meatpuppetry,” as that practice is known, is defined in passing as a variation of sockpuppetry. In fact, it represents a far knottier problem, as suggested by Wikipedia’s polarized and incoherent response to the congressional scandal. While the sockpuppet represents an ethical problem internal to Wikipedia, the meatpuppet threatens to destabilize one of its core fictions — that there’s some sort of visible and regulable boundary between Wikipedia and the world.
Take the case of University of Michigan academic Juan Cole, whose entry for months now has been an editorial battlefield. The controversy involves an accusation by Middle East historian Efraim Karsh that the anti-Semitic obsessions of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion “resonate powerfully” in Cole’s writings, and Cole’s angry rejection of the charge as “scurrilous propaganda.” Wikipedians hostile to Cole (and to Israel’s critics in general) added this comment to his bio, even creating a special section for it. Other editors objected to its inclusion as defamatory and “ridiculous[ly] Jew-baiting.” Cole’s critics argued that “Cole is a Jew-baiter,” so words to that effect are appropriate, and that if anything was defamatory, it was Cole’s intemperate response.
“Flame” comments like these about “Jew-baiting” are very rare on even the most contentious of “discussion” and “mediation” pages. What one finds there instead is wikilawyering — cryptic, acronym-laden debate invoking protocol and precedent. Cole’s critics eventually prevailed on ingenious grounds: since in the disputed blog post, Cole was more outraged by Wikipedia’s repetition of the allegation than by its original appearance in The New Republic, they argued that he was tacitly prompting readers of his blog to go and edit his Wikipedia entry — in other words, to act as meatpuppets. Cole’s critics even floated suspicions that fellow editors pursuing the issue were doing so at Cole’s behest (a flurry of denials and recriminations followed). If Wikipedia didn’t draw a firm line in the sand, the argument went, it would find itself defense less against manipulation of the worst kind — not that of zealots within the community, but that of outside figures pursuing real-world interests. It was a trump argument, going straight to the core of Wikipedia’s credibility envy, and Cole’s critics won the day. The entry on Cole now includes Karsh’s allegation and no rebuttal.
It wasn’t the first time the parties to the Cole dispute had squared off against one another. Unsurprisingly, any page even tangentially related to Israel/Palestine is the subject of ceaseless dispute, and everyone’s a regular. Also unsurprisingly, perhaps, the pro-Israel side is slightly better organized. Amid the scores of single-issue edit-warriors with screen names like PalestineRemembered, HumusSapiens, and G-Dett, two Wikipedians stand out for their tenacity and influence, and for the resourcefulness of their wikilawyering: Jayjg and SlimVirgin. Both Jay and Slim are administrators with the power to block other users; Jay has also served on the Arbitration Committee (with the power to resolve issues with binding resolutions when mediation fails) and is one of a handful of Wikipedians who can check the IP addresses of registered users.
The editorial contribution of Slim and Jay to Wikipedia’s coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict is massive. On average, they each make around 20,000 edits a year, or roughly fifty-five edits a day. Jay edits exclusively on political issues related to Israel/Palestine, while Slim does a sideline in animal-rights issues. Slim is said to have once made continual edits to Wikipedia for a thirty-six-hour stretch. Together they are a vigilant presence in hundreds of articles ranging from “Mahmoud Ahmadinejad” to “If Americans Knew” to “Islamic Ethics” to “New Anti-Semitism.” Their teamwork has something of a good cop, bad cop quality, with Jay tersely and caustically “reverting” edits on technical grounds, and Slim giving patient, involved explanations to editors discouraged by the
rapid gutting or wholesale removal of their contributions. If you’d like to meet either, it’s easily arranged: go, for example, to the entry on “Political Epithets” and question the inclusion of “Apartheid” (or the omission of “anti-Semite” for that matter); or if you know Persian, suggest that “wiped from the map” is an imperfect translation of the Iranian president’s verbal bluster.
All regular editors develop a personality and a reputation, but Slim and Jay have become legends, both within Wikipedia and outside of it. Slim in particular is an obsession for editors at_ The Wikipedia Review, a website established by political exiles of Wikipedia (many of them LaRouchies), and at _Encyclopedia Dramatica, a website established by those dissatisfied with insufficient crankery and insufficient anti-Semitism at Wikipedia Review. Members of both groups were, in many cases, kicked out of Wikipedia after clashing with Slim. So when Daniel Brandt — the same internet sleuth who tracked down Siegenthaler’s defamer to his Tennessee lair — came forth with Slim’s “real identity,” the news was pure manna to the collective imagination of these sites.
SlimVirgin, Brandt says, is Linda Mack, a gray-eyed American beauty who became an undercover MI5 agent after her Cambridge lover was killed in the Lockerbie bombing, and who, after losing her job at ABC when it was discovered she was a spy, changed her name to Sarah McEwan and moved to Canada. Before she was outed as an agent, the story goes, ABC had Mack on the journalistic trail of Lockerbie, traveling to Syria and Libya and interviewing the likes of Abu Nidal. Solid sleuthwork shades quickly into fantasy in these regions, of course; and for the most fervent imaginations, Mack (aka McEwan, under new cover as SlimVirgin, the world’s most glamorous meatpuppet) is once again an intelligence agent, perhaps this time Mossad’s, working Wikipedia the way she once worked ABC. And what better place to blend in: at Wikipedia, after all, everyone is undercover.
Such imaginings, however, are merely the funhouse-mirror version of a more ordinary cynicism settling around the edges of Wikipedia. If Israel or the Palestinian Authority — or Barack Obama, or Paramount Pictures, or indeed any entity with resources and a vested interest in public perceptions — isn’t sending young talent into Wikipedia, then they ought to be, and almost certainly soon will be. As this article goes to press, reports are emerging that Microsoft has hired a tech blogger to begin editing Wikipedia.
And not to insert ad-copy puffery into the entry on Microsoft, which would be hopelessly old-school, but rather to make subtle changes to arcane entries dealing with the open-source standards used by Microsoft’s competitors.
Also very recently, Wikipedia has decided to make every link within it a “blind” link — that is, invisible to Google searches. Because Wikipedia’s search results are consistently highly ranked, companies have been able to piggy-back on its popularity. In an unverified leaked memo last September, Wikipedia’s in-house lawyer supposedly suggested that when administrators “see new user names and page creations that are blatantly commercial, they should shoot on sight.” Wales has emphasized that Wikipedia is free “not just in a ‘free beer’ kind of way, but also in the free-speech kind of way.” To which Stanley Fish might respond. There’s no such thing as free speech; speech always takes place within a configuration of vested interests. From utopianism to a kind of demystified pragmatism, that is: Wikipedia may have begun as Wales’s brainchild, but it’s beginning to look like Fish’s. Others see something worse in store. Eric Goldman, a legal scholar specializing in the internet and technology, has wagered that Wikipedia — avowedly his favorite website — will “fail” by 2010, that it “inevitably will be overtaken by the gamers and the marketers to the point where it will lose all credibility.”
The media, on the whole, remains oblivious to the structural challenges to Wikipedia’s long-term credibility, preferring to gape and marvel at the results of accuracy contests with Britannica, while continuing to crack wise over the encyclopedia anyone can edit and Joe Sixpack gets to fact-check. Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert, puffing his chest and wagging his pencil in his sublime testosterone-dweeb homage to Bill O’Reilly, praised Wikipedia for “bringing democracy to knowledge” and thereby creating “wikiality.” “Who’s Britannica to tell me George Washington had slaves?” Colbert asked, meanwhile logging on to Wikipedia from his studio desk, live on television. “If I want to say he didn’t, that’s my right, and now, thanks to Wikipedia,” tapping keys, “it’s also a fact.” He went on to suggest that viewers change the entry on endangered elephants to reflect his impression that their numbers had tripled in the last month. Sure enough, a newly registered Wikipedian, “stephencolbert,” logged his first edit that night: “In conclusion, George Washington did not own slaves.” And by midnight, the elephant pages were indeed awash in upbeat “statistics” about a resurgence in numbers.
These were soon enough corrected. And yet all seemed to think Colbert’s joke was about the reflection of consensus reality on Wikipedia, not the manufacturing of it on television.
Wikipedians, for their part, took evident delight in the episode, and promptly created an entry for “wikiality.” There were a few spoilsports, to be sure. One administrator blocked “stephencolbert” from further editing pending an apology. (He later suggested that being invited as a guest on the “Colbert Report” might help heal the matter.) And another administrator, when accused herself of trafficking in “wikiality,” instantly punished her critic by blocking his account. A higher-up just as quickly reversed her decision, an uncharacteristic rebuff. The first administrator was SlimVirgin; her rebuke came from none other than Jimbo Wales. The crowd of cranks over at The Wikipedia Review, who don’t miss such things, went wild.
“Every bit of land in the Netherlands is used for something — for agriculture, for industry,for traffic, for housing, or for recreation.” —Coming to the Netherlands, the film
Dutch multiculturalism isn’t what it used to be. These days, Dutch identity is oddly rooted in ideas about sexual liberty and sexual equality. In the wake of the 2002 murder of anti-immigrant (gay) political figure Pim Fortuyn, and the 2004 assassination of Theo Van Gogh following the uproar caused by his film denouncing Islam’s treatment of women (made with then Dutch member of parliament Ayaan Hirsi Ali, herself an immigrant from Somalia, now at the neo-connish American Enterprise Institute), the tension between sexual democracy and multiculturalist ideals occupies center stage. Of course, in a post-9/11 world, and in a European context saturated with xenophobia, the reaction against multiculturalism is not just about sex — but in the Netherlands (as elsewhere throughout Europe and the West) the question of sexual democracy has emerged as a clutch new instrument to be used in the policing of Arabs, Muslims, and assorted racialized “others.” Increasingly, it defines the divide between “us” and “them.”
The new premium on sexual freedom and equality is perhaps most visible in the “Civic Integration Examination.” Foreigners must take this exam in order to spend more than three months in the Netherlands, in particular to join a partner — that is, unless they come from Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand, or Japan. Integration is no longer perceived simply as a desirable consequence of a prolonged stay in the country; it has now become a preliminary requirement, not just for naturalization, but for immigration itself. It requires not only language skills, but also what might be termed a sort of “cultural competence.”
How are potential immigrants to acquire the basics of Dutchness before moving to the Netherlands? They may purchase an examination package care of the Dutch Immigration and Naturalization Service — the centerpiece of which is a film, available on DVD or videotape in a variety of languages, including English and French and, more crucially, Standard and Moroccan Arabic, Kurdish, Turkish, and the like. The film “shows you how people live in the Netherlands.” According to the Dutch INS website, the DVD provides “a friendly guide” who will inform you as to the ways of Dutch society. “You will be given information about living in the Netherlands and about Dutch politics, work, education, and healthcare. You will also be told a bit about the history of the Netherlands.”
And so the education begins. One is told, for example, that in the Netherlands, “work is important;” it’s an essential ingredient of social identity. Yet it’s “more difficult for migrants to find work than for Dutch people.” It seems that language isn’t everything, either; cultural codes matter as well. “There are often rules at work that are not written down anywhere, and most Dutch people will know them. But migrants often won’t.” Being on time, dressing smartly, looking others in the eye, and not making phone calls during job interviews are all part of a code understood by the Dutch. And foreigners need not just be culturally integrated — “Actually, migrants have to perform better if they want to break through prejudices and win an employer’s trust.”
The discussion of work also touches on sexual equality. “In the Netherlands, the aim is that everyone works, both men and women, so each has his or her income. This applies to women with children, too.” Why insist thus? The assumption is that, contrary to “us” (the Dutch, Europeans, Westerners), immigrants will have a problem with such a proposition. Sexual democracy becomes central — even more than religious freedom — when discussing the Dutch vision of democracy. “Everyone in Holland has equal rights. Women have the same rights as men. Women and men are equal. They each make their own choices, and both are allowed to express their own opinions. Women and men have the right to live with, or marry, the partner of their own choice.” Continuing from that point, “homosexual couples can also get married.”
That generally covers the norms; what of laws? Here the guide is more ominous. For example, “a man beats a woman because, according to him, she has behaved like a whore. She flees, but he finds her and kills her. Honor killing, he says; murder, says the Dutch judge.” And the headline reads “Man Convicted of Wife’s Murder!” Or, in another case, “a girl’s clitoris and labia have been partially removed and then sewn together; female circumcision, say the proud family; deliberate mutilation, says the Dutch penal code. Punishable by law. ‘Mutilated by Circumcision,’” according to the paper. And another example: “A woman reports her husband to the police because he beats her at home. That’s private, he says; that’s abuse, says the police. ‘Jail Term for Domestic Abuse,’” reads the headline.
In the visual format of the DVD, sexual democracy is most prominently expressed as sexual liberation. The Dutch, we are told, “don’t make a fuss about nudity.” The history of the 1960s as a critical turning point is amply illustrated by shots of Woodstock-like full-mouth kissing, bare buttocks, and breasts. “Increasing numbers of young people started living more liberated lives. This was evident in the relaxed interaction between men and women known as the sexual revolution.” In the same vein, to illustrate the idea that “it’s against the law to discriminate against either men or women because they’re homosexual,” the film cuts to a gay couple kissing in a flowery field.
“Some things that are quite ordinary and acceptable in the Netherlands are forbidden in other countries.” This is no reference to marijuana, famously legalized in the country — but rather, to sex and expressions of sexuality. The immigration authorities solicitously provide two versions of the film; in the edited version, licentious images have been deleted (no hint is given as to whether the purchasing of this sexless version might be targeted by immigration services as a telltale sign of fundamentalism). But this begs the question, if applicants, especially from Islamic countries, are expected to get accustomed to bare breasts and gay kisses, how will an edited video prepare them for life in the democratic West?
Today, Western democracy claims sexual liberty and equality between the sexes as one of its primary attributes and distinctions. Sexual democracy has become a litmus test for potential immigrants. Following this logic, why is Vatican nationality expressly mentioned by Dutch authorities in the list of exemptions from the “Civic Integration Examination”? Don’t Vatican theologians have a problem with sexual democracy, as manifest in their qualms about gay marriage and sexual liberation in general? Is the Vatican exempt from (and spared of) the DVD simply by virtue of its European heritage? One wonders whether copies of the (friendly, unedited, educational) Dutch DVD might not help our brethren in Vatican City, should they one day decide to embrace democracy, Western-style.
In late August of 1832, one trial offered Paris a striking spectacle: the defendants, who obliquely referred to themselves as the Saint-Simonians, entered a crowded court room wearing brightly colored costumes and chanting hymns of brotherhood and love. The unlikely group was to stand trial on charges of violating “public morality and good manners.”
Articles published in their organ, the Globe, by Père Enfantin, the spiritual father of the family, had outlined the Saint-Simonians’ scandalous ideas on the relations between men and women. Enfantin had prophesied that the “tyranny of marriage” would soon be replaced by “free love.” He further shocked the court by insisting on having his case defended by two female lawyers. Unimpressed by this, and by their call for a new “religion of humanity,” the magistrate found them guilty. The group was officially disbanded, with its leading members, including Enfantin and Michel Chevalier, the editor of the Globe, sentenced to six months’ imprisonment.
While in prison, Enfantin dreamt of the East. There, he — le Père — would ostensibly find a female messiah — la Mère — and together they would proclaim the new moral order and take their place as heads of the world family. Joining Orient with Occident, man with woman, rich with poor, he laid out his vision of utopia. And for Enfantin the road to that blissful future led directly to the Suez Canal, of all places. “It is we who will make between antique Egypt and ancient Judea,” he wrote, “one of the new routes of Europe toward India and China… We will thus place one foot on the Nile, the other on Jerusalem; our right hand will extend toward Mecca, our left arm will cover Rome and rest against Paris. Suez is the center of our life of labor; there, we will make the act that the world awaits, the confession that we are Men.”
The Saint-Simonians would attract hundreds, if not thousands, of followers and spectators during their escapades. Prior to their trial, they had built a temple in their camp at Ménilmontant, what was then a suburban commune outside of Paris. There they would perform their rituals, complete with costumes, marches, chants, and feasts, before crowds of curious onlookers. They took to wearing collarless shirts, flowing red scarves, and long blue coats that buttoned on the back (to foster a sense of dependency on their brethren, in dressing as in other aspects of life). A beard was de rigeur.
The Saint-Simonians’ eccentricity was matched by their inconsistency: sons of the bourgeoisie, they appealed to workers but never called for a revolution of the proletariat, and while they were outspoken advocates of free love and what they termed the “rehabilitation of the flesh,” they took to making frequent vows of celibacy.
Incongruous though it may seem, this strange mystical sect also pioneered rather modern-sounding ideas of globalization and technological progress. The Saint-Simonians had emerged from post-Revolutionary Paris to proclaim a new philosophy of humanity: a religion of brotherhood ruled by a new technocratic class, the spiritual leaders of a global future that would merge industry, banking, and technology. Disciples of Comte Henri de Saint-Simon, the well-known early socialist and ardent positivist, and the proponent of a “New Christianity,” these visionaries took the philosophy of their master into uncharted territory.
After the trials, Père Enfantin and his followers embarked on a voyage across the Mediterranean, going first to Egypt and then to Algeria, to realize their utopia in the Mediterranean basin. It was there that they executed a number of their first large-scale engineering projects, including several Nile barrages, canals, and polytechnics. Much like the globalization gurus of today, the Saint-Simonians called for greater cross-border transactions, more rapid international capital flow, and the diffusion of technology and technological expertise. They helped finance and build railways and canals, constructed global communications and financial networks, and contributed crucially to the growing nineteenth century fascination with technological progress. And, as we shall see, they offer those who look to history a lesson in the unexpected consequences of technological utopianism.
The Saint-Simonians’ stay in Egypt was short-lived. Disease and the failure to find his female messiah led Enfantin back to Paris in 1836, after just three years. Nevertheless, he and his followers — including Ismaïl Urbain, a convert to Islam, and Suzanne Volquin, a journalist and early French feminist, had been instrumental in realizing a number of significant works in engineering and public instruction. Their example equally inspired Mehmet Ali, the Albanian-born viceroy of Egypt under the Ottomans (often considered the founder of modern Egypt); he eventually constructed large-scale public works and generated a body of newly educated technocrats to man the extraordinary modernization of the state.
The Saint-Simonians had had high hopes for their collaboration with Mehmet Ali, whom they termed the Pacha industriel. Yet they failed to convince him of the viability or virtues of their pet project — a canal at Suez. It was not until a generation later that Ferdinand de Lesseps would manage to convince first Mummad Said Pasha and then Khedive Isma’il to undertake the scheme. Mehmet Ali had been much more concerned with constructing a system of barrages along the Nile, a task several Saint-Simonian engineers began in 1834. Others went on to found various schools and polytechnics, including an infantry school in Damiette, an artillery school in Thoura, and a cavalry school in Giza.
Enfantin returned to Paris in 1836. Some of his followers remained in Egypt; others traveled to Greece, Turkey, East Africa, and Mexico. They conducted scientific and geographical expeditions, aided in the financing of railroads, and oversaw a number of public works, including hospitals and schools. A few years later Enfantin was invited to join the Scientific Commission for the Colonization of Algeria and left for Algiers in December of 1839. Enfantin’s later published study — La colonisation de l’Algérie — was a curious blend of technocratic idealism, racial social science, and economic, industrial, and urban planning proposals. In it, he argued that a rational and centrally managed economic structure — his appeal here was largely to bankers and not to landowners — needed to be put in place in order to serve the goals of a mutually beneficial colonial “association” between France and Algeria — greater industrialization, social reform, and the migration of peoples and goods and skills and services.
Upon his return to France, Enfantin created a Society for the Promotion of the Suez Canal. He continued to hold on to his earlier vision of the bridging of East and West. Indeed, the building of a canal at Suez symbolized the same thing for many generations of French technocrats in Egypt: Napoleon Bonaparte’s own savants had conducted measurements and cadastres for a canal in 1798; the Comte de Saint-Simon had seen the building of canals at Panama and Suez as a means of uniting the world through technology and finance. Enfantin’s lobbying efforts soon bore fruit. Indeed, although de Lesseps never publicly acknowledged his indebtedness to them, his schemes for Suez were much inspired by the Saint-Simonians. (He even used their calculations.)
Yet when the canal itself opened in 1869 with much pomp and circumstance — to the strains of Verdi and underwritten by the nearly bankrupt coffers of the Khedive — it marked not the start of a mutually beneficial association between East and West, as Enfantin had envisioned it, but rather, the beginnings of a new European imperialism in the Middle East and the “scramble for Africa.” As we have since witnessed, the canal has proven to be a key political pawn in the hands of nineteenth and twentieth century superpowers; power struggles over the control of the canal have led to occupation and then to decolonization, to the Suez crisis and the beginning of the Cold War order in the Middle East. Indeed while the Saint-Simonians had been almost entirely optimistic in their vision of the power of good inherent in technological progress, in a post-Cold War and atomic world, this optimism has become more than a little tarnished.
The mid-1980s in Egypt was a time when the hangover of the rapid and sometimes violent changes of the heady 70s started truly settling in. The state had finally managed to completely defang all forms of popular organized politics with, of course, the one notable exception of militant radical Islam, whose influence and power were steadily increasing. Gulf money was pouring back in the form of remittances from Egyptian workers lending their expertise (acquired in the free universities built by the nominally socialist state of the 60s) to cities and societies rising in the middle of the desert, and Saudi influence over media (whether through direct buyouts of both people and institutions or a more pervasive subtle infiltration of how specific values were promoted) was occurring on a large scale. It was also the now almost unthinkable period when Egyptian National Television with three main channels reigned supreme, and the myriad kaleidoscopic transmissions of a thousand and one satellite channels hadn’t yet hit the airwaves.
It was within this context that the amazing rise in popularity of Dr Mustafa Mahmoud’s Al Ilm wal Iman (Knowledge and Faith) unfolded. Dr Mahmoud, who, it was strongly rumored, had been both a Marxist and an atheist in those long-gone days of the 60s, was at the helm of the program. From young stoners, who would discuss the mind-blowing power of Allah in all its psychedelic glory while hanging out on the hoods of their parents’ new Regatas; to the bored housewives of middle-ranking army officers; to Oriental pastry shop managers who had finally found a cause that would affirm the safety of a return to tradition, beneath a modern veneer — the bourgeoisie were entranced. The program also managed to attract large swaths of the uneducated due to the ineffable personality of its central character. Dr Mahmoud was in a sense halfway between the late turbaned populist Sheikh El Shaarawy and the more overtly class-focused religious figures like the Arab world’s current superstar TV preacher-in-a-suit Amr Khaled. It was the good doctor who first allowed countless groups of people to sit and discuss religion through the prism of science and technology in over-decorated living rooms.
REGULATING THE TRANSMISSION
In the opening sequence of Knowledge and Faith, a solitary nay played at length while the credits floated over spectacular natural views. The music was infused with sentimentality and pathos and brought to mind thoughts of retribution and a return to the path of God, more than it did images of cold and clinical scientific research. The film that followed usually consisted of a series of enchanting enigmatic images accompanied by the deep voice of Dr Mahmoud commenting on certain details, warning us of moral dangers we might face, answering questions that we would have liked to ask, calling our attention to a specific issue — taking our hands and gently leading us on through the scenes of the film. At other moments, he would be silent, to allow us, the viewers, to consume the images with full concentration. But even at those moments, we could still hear the faint hiss of his breathing or the sound of him softly swallowing. His presence was pervasive whether silent or speaking, whether on camera or as a disembodied voice commenting on what was happening on the screen.
Watching Knowledge and Faith was an intimate experience wherein the wondrous was made tame, the distant made familiar. Whenever the calm visage of the doctor peered at us from the television screen, and he started speaking in his confident and familiar manner about the topic of the day, a charge of spirituality was immediately imparted to the subject under discussion — from the mating of frogs to Jupiter’s atmosphere — and then transmitted through the ether straight into the presence of his nationwide audience. The structure of a typical episode was simple: after the solemn opening credits, Dr Mahmoud would provide a short synopsis of the scientific theories related to the topic under discussion, omitting any details that might prove tedious. Then a European or American scientific documentary was shown, accompanied by live commentary. Finally, Dr Mahmoud brought the episode to an end by summing up the main themes and providing a concluding statement.
The persona Dr Mahmoud projected through his program was as important as the footage he showed and the commentary he provided. That persona became the mark of a figure the viewer could relate to and build a relationship with. The public seemed equally infatuated with the way the largely eccentric man pronounced certain words and the mild discomfort he seemed to be in most of the time, as much as with the actual content he transmitted. He inhabited a hybrid space, on the one hand functioning as a holder of ciphers, the keys to knowledge, explaining the scientific basis of the world and connecting it to our everyday lives; on the other, introducing what had come to be seen as the alien wisdom of other cultures while providing the “true” meanings of those discoveries through our own religious tradition. The argument went something like this: the West might have discovered it, but we understand what it really means. Thus he seemed to prove it was possible after all to be a good Muslim and a modern “scientific” person both.
In an episode discussing the topical issue of AIDS, Dr Mahmoud made the claim that the morality of the East had proven its superiority against the decadence of the West. He provided us with the pathological background of the disease, and possible preventive provisions, while emphasizing that the only solution was abstinence. The episode screened at a time when the dissemination of strange theories and contradictory ideas about the disease were legion. In Egypt, AIDS was the ground upon which a highly politicized battle was fought between progressive and secular groups and reactionary religious ones, with “science” vs faith and, through imposed association, West vs East. AIDS was used to propagate stereotypical ideas about the opposing sides. Simplistic polar oppositions abounded: “Science is their domain, while faith is ours; the world is for them, while heaven is for us; the East is the guardian of the spiritual path to truth, while the West has taken the path of rationality through which it monopolizes science and technology.” Dr Mahmoud’s discourse managed to reproduce those stereotypical constructions by presenting us with a model that brought both poles together in what amounted to a disingenuous, apparently tolerant spin on the spiritual. It was no surprise for that AIDS episode to end — in reference to a claim made earlier on in the show about Western experts concluding that virtue and abstinence were the only solution — with a smug statement of victory: “These are their words now. It is as if a sheikh who comes from the land of the foreigners is speaking!”
Dr Mahmoud’s return to his faith after a period of wandering and doubt (maybe even atheism) transformed him into living proof of the victory of the religious, a symbol of the struggle between two forms of knowledge — an embodiment of a faith that had made peace with its supposed foe, science, but only after defeating it and proving its limitations in dealing with human nature. This was a faith that didn’t refuse science, but rather accepted its discoveries and used its knowledge within the framework of the Islamic. Dr Mahmoud’s synthesis led to a form of faith that rejected the more esoteric aspects of the religious experience while denying science its provenance to question everything. The controlled demystification of both fields of knowledge allowed for the emergence of an understanding of the self, a self that operated under the banner of a newly activated adjective, the “Islamic,” which was applied to everything from clothing to business, from appliances to cars. A performed identity was being constructed, its roots laid down deep into the ground. Dr Mahmoud provided the emerging Islamic self with the following epistemological model: We don’t need to discover things or ask new questions, so much as find and discover and reappropriate Islam in existing knowledge. The documentaries shown on his program became scientific proof of divine will. This shift, the move from discovery to retrieval, marked the 80s and onwards, where all spaces were Islamicized and made part of a new empire of meaning whose formative period saw such parallel developments as the rise of Islamic banking and an increase in the number of women taking to the veil. If in the 60s the state had gone to great lengths to introduce the accoutrements of developments (from dams to nuclear reactors, from missiles to locally produced cars) as a national right, the 80s saw all fields of knowledge being defined as part of the domain of Allah, functioning under the enigmatic sign of a moral system.
LATENT KNOWLEDGE AND ALIEN EYES
The substitution of Dr Mahmoud’s live commentary for the original soundtracks of the documentary films was the perfect metaphor for how that emergent field of knowledge operated. The 400 episodes of the program proved it was possible to reuse a product within another context and make it fit perfectly. The documentary films shown in each episode had originally targeted an audience with a modicum of basic scientific knowledge; Dr Mahmoud’s audience (a cross section of the viewers of Egyptian National Television) was one that included large segments of the population with high rates of illiteracy. To preserve the original text, whether dubbed into classical Arabic or subtitled, would have alienated many viewers. Dr Mahmoud’s use of the accessible spoken Egyptian dialect helped dissolve complex scientific theories and put them in the framework of a fable, a bedside story told by a kindly uncle, a simplistic tale that in its structure discouraged questioning and independent thought.
By promoting a selfhood constructed within the parameters of faith and belief rather than inquiry and discovery, the program encouraged its audience to receive scientific information passively. Scientific knowledge was seen as something always there, a historic and essential, latent within our consciousness, something we had only to learn how to access. Appropriately enough, religious discourse provided the framework in which this knowledge became comprehensible. And this had the effect of convincing people that the form through which this latent knowledge became accessible (an episode on knowledge and faith) and the language with which it was described (religious hyperbole that linked causality to the essence of faith and divine will) therefore had to be absolutely true.
What’s interesting, though, is that Dr Mahmoud’s calm, confident, and intimate voice was dubbed over an alien visual terrain: the laboratories which were shown in the film were located in the West, the faces that we saw belonged to foreigners, and even the natural landscapes were usually in faraway lands. It was immediately apparent to the audience that the films were not locally produced but rather imports from another place. Moreover, they were products of a culture associated in the minds of the average viewer with a history of miscommunication, conflict, and exploitation. Yet the inimitable voice of Dr Mahmoud reconfigured the alien elements, allowing them to slip smoothly into a new context. An amusing contradiction — it is as if the golden chariot that takes believers on joyrides on the divine highway of faith is one that has been imported from the land of the infidels.
A shiny little green laptop. (It is orange, occasionally.) It has been praised by Kofi Annan as a “breakthrough.” Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo proclaimed that he was “enchanted” when he came face to face with it. Its biggest supporters, evangelical in their enthusiasm, offer that it stands to revolutionize education in the developing world. (From the very beginning, its designers have insisted that it is an education project — “it is not a laptop project.”) Its detractors, on the other hand, call it a utopian pipe dream, a cookie-cutter concept that is, at best, misguided. It is true that in some circles, it has become fashionable to bash this curious toy-like computer.
Either way, few technological innovations of recent years have been the subject of as much hype as the One Laptop per Child project (OLPC for short). Thanks in part to its super-charismatic founder, Nicholas Negroponte (also the founder of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), OLPC is ambitious in scale, hardly modest in ambition. Thus far, its organizers have managed to sign agreements with five countries — Argentina, Brazil, Libya, Nigeria, and Thailand — to put these low-cost computers into the hands of millions of students (rumor has it that Negroponte was summoned by Libyan President Muammar elQaddafi to a meeting in a desert tent one evening in August to close the deal). But it has had its share of setbacks, too. India, for example, has rejected the laptop proposal, arguing that the money involved could be better used in tending to the fundamentals of primary and secondary education.
The $100 laptop, as it is often referred to, is spartan. It uses two watts of energy (most regular laptops use between thirty and forty), will be powered by a foot pedal or hand pulley (an initial proposal for a crank has since been thrown out), and will operate with the open-source Linux operating system (an alternative to Windows). The computer will come with a camera, a stripped-down web browser with email, and a simple word processor. The project’s stated goal and ambition is “to provide children around the world with new opportunities to explore, experiment, and express themselves.”
Bidoun, curious as everyone else about these extraordinary little laptops, engaged four persons from different backgrounds and continents to engage in a moderated conversation about the project-to-be. Over the course of a couple of weeks, we could only begin to get some of the most relevant issues out on the table. Here it is, then: a beginning, for there are many more questions to be posed.
Hello from Ithaca—
I’m Park Doing, visiting assistant professor in the Science and Technology Studies Department at Cornell and in the Bovay Program in History and Ethics of Engineering. I teach courses in engineering design and ethics, and in the history and philosophy of science. My writings focus on theoretical issues of epistemology in science and the agency of technology.
As I understand it, I am to moderate a discussion (or at least a collection of assertions) with regard to the OLPC project. I am happy to do so. Perhaps you could send me your first round of takes on the project.
KAUSHIK SUNDER RAJAN:
I’m Kaushik Sunder Rajan, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. I’ve been studying the political economy of biotechnology and drug development for the past few years. My first project, which looked at genomics and post-genomics drug development marketplaces in the US and India, has been recently published (Biocapital: The Constitution of Postgenomic Life). I am currently researching the outsourcing of clinical trials to India, and capacity and infrastructure building for clinical research there in anticipation of these outsourced trials.
Greetings from Boston.
I’m SJ Klein, director of content for One Laptop per Child. I have been building and studying creative online communities since 2000, most recently as an active Wikipedian and as a contributor to community projects at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at
Harvard Law School. I’m currently focusing on local collaboration on educational materials in the developing world, something OLPC aims to facilitate.
I look forward to hearing from you all.
ALAA ABD EL FATTAH:
Sorry for the delay.
I’m Alaa Abd El Fattah. My life revolves around Free/Open Source Software (FOSS). My day job involves using information and communication technologies for development in the slums and rural communities in Egypt and occasionally participating with groups such as the Association for Progressive Communication and Tactical Technology Collective in other places in Africa.
As a side project, I’ve been deeply involved in the tech side of the democracy movement in Egypt, helping activists use the internet to campaign, organize, and mobilize.
I’m one of those people who think if you give people (especially young [people]) technology, they’ll do amazing things with it. I’m not skeptical about that part of OLPC [but in fact] very excited about it.
However, I have strong doubts about anything that involves governments.
So I’m still confused about the OLPC. The idea is exciting, but I’m not sure it’s the best solution to the problem. In a country like Egypt, where infrastructure problems are not that deep, we can build computers for less than $100 using used components purchased locally.
I’ll make a bold proposal and say that in any slum where there is a reasonable amount of literacy, you’ll find local entrepreneurs assembling computers at the cheapest price possible in that country’s particular economy (I’ve seen it everywhere I’ve traveled). Locals provide a better distribution and support model than OLPC. They lack the ability to affect manufacturer policy and have no software/content component to their work, though. Instead of working on radically different hardware with centralized manufacturing, I’d work on improving the work of the local entrepreneurs.
Hello from Mumbai, India.
I’m Atanu Dey, an economist at a technology firm providing mobile value-added services. I’m interested in understanding the factors that underlie economic growth and development. Specifically, I focus on two broad areas: infrastructure, and the use of information and communications technologies in education.
I think the OLPC is a great idea and will benefit a lot of people. Unfortunately, that lot does not include students in poor underdeveloped economies such as India. The OLPC is irrelevant in the context of Indian education. It’s a technological solution, and the problem in India is largely non-technological. It doesn’t make sense to me to recommend an unaffordably expensive technological fix to a non-technical problem. I think that some very clever people have misunderstood the nature of the problem. It is as if someone recommends casting spells to fix a broken car. Psychological methods cannot address mechanical problems.
I hope to explain my position at some length during this conversation.
By way of early moderation, let me say that I welcome Atanu’s comment, as it goes to the heart of the matter, but let me also say that I’ll bet that this is precisely the issue that SJ, as director of content for the OLPC project, is taking on and wrestling with and trying to make work somehow. I look forward to hearing his response from the trenches, as it were, about what kinds of linkages are possible or have been forged.
I hope that Atanu does write at more length about his ideas. OLPC is an education project, not a technology project, though we are providing tools for learning and collaboration. “Technology” is itself a chameleon word. Alan Kay likes to say technology is anything invented after you were born. In the context of learning, these laptops are toolkits for creativity — and for reading, listening, researching, playing, communicating, working with others, calculating, recording, archiving, and publishing.
If one considers the “non-technological” alternatives: books, tape players, libraries, telephones, chalkboards, calculators, measuring devices, cameras, and printers were each new inventions in their own day. So, too, were materials for writing, drawing, and making music.
I would frame the discussion a different way, starting with a discussion of what is relevant in the context of students in underdeveloped regions and what new tools and learning environments can provide — how they can change the interest of students and teachers in education, their capacity to learn from and teach one another, their ability to study and discover new things, their ability to review what they have learned.
On Alaa’s comments about building cheap computers with local components, I’m not sure that this would scale. What kind of design do you imagine being built for under $100 — would it be robust? And how many could be made? Finding a way to work with local entrepreneur networks is a great idea, but I’m not sure this is the way to produce great hardware. Have you had a chance to use one of the prototypes?
Go for it.
What does he mean by “learn” and the “interest” of teachers and students and “discover new things”? It’s so abstract. What does “learn” mean in the institutional context of India, and why would computers for students and teachers have any meaning? Is the ability to work
with computers seen as a marketable ability? Does “marketable ability” make any sense? How is technology (inside or outside of quotes) use gendered? Does that matter in an educational context?
SJ, since you asked, here is a little bit of how I see the problem of education in India. India’s primary education is in trouble, which spells trouble higher up the chain. Around ninety-four percent drop out by grade twelve. Only six percent go to college, and of those who graduate college, only about a quarter are employable.
Why is the Indian education system in the pits? Primarily for the same reasons that the Indian economy is in the pits: government control, indeed governmental stranglehold. It is instructive to see that wherever, for whatever reasons, the government has let go of the stranglehold (or was not involved to start off with), that sector has flourished, and how!
For example, consider telecommunications. In five decades of governmental monopoly the telecommunications sector had a base of twenty million users; now that the monopoly is released, we add twenty million users in three months.
Let me reiterate that: THREE MONTHS as opposed to FIFTY YEARS. Sure, technical progress (cellular technology) is a factor. But it is not the major factor.
I could go on for a long while demonstrating why government intervention in the Indian economy explains why the Indian economy performs miserably. This background information is relevant in understanding whether OLPC makes sense in the Indian context.
Indian education suffers from government intervention and lack of resources. Resource constraints are both financial and relate to human capital. Furthermore, the limited resources are leaked away through bureaucratic and political corruption and ineptitude. The major barriers are not technological and therefore a technological solution is not going to alter the situation. Indeed, the OLPC would make the situation worse in the Indian context.
Electronics is neither necessary nor sufficient for education. Merely providing laptops is not going to solve the problem. I will offer that the so-called digital divide is at best a misguided notion and at worst a device used by self-serving money grubbing powerful vested interests to milk the poor for all they are worth.
In the Indian context, the OLPC could in fact widen the “digital divide” and make the system far worse than it is today. The solution to India’s educational problems will use technology intensively, but it will have little to do with children toting laptops around.
About SJ’s question, yes, I’ve had the chance to play with a prototype. And I think the refurbished Pentium IIIs built by local entrepreneurs are much more robust and capable of running a wider range of software.
As for the scale, I’m only making guesses here, but we already have over ten million computer users in the country. Most of [the computers] are locally assembled white boxes. I’m sure if the availability of cheap components is enhanced, our local market can support more than a million PCs for less than $100.
But then this may be very specific to Egypt; I know for sure, based on experience, that you can’t get the same scale in Uganda or Ghana.
My main worry is about the central role of governments in OLPC, and I know OLPC has answers to some of these concerns (by building a machine that looks like a toy, we reduce its black market value, etc). I’m not convinced, though. Our government’s capacity for corruption and stupidity is simply unlimited.
But let’s say that the Egyptian government signs up. That means that anywhere between ten thousand and a hundred thousand students who don’t have access to computers and the internet will have some access (I’m sure most of the million will go to kids who already have broadband, a PlayStation 3, and a couple of PCs at home). Since I’m not paying, I’m not complaining. Ten thousand is good enough for me.
I have no doubt most of the kids will find very good uses for these laptops and will learn a lot from them. But if we expect the laptops to help in achieving conventional educational goals (the stuff supposedly covered by subjects like math, science, language, geography, history, etc), then [it] will require access to content and tools specifically designed for this.
Now, if I’m targeting teenagers who already know how to read and write, then my main problem would be content in local language. But for younger students, you need to worry about more.
The laptop doesn’t have to play a role in serving these conventional goals at all (or let’s say the OLPC project doesn’t; other projects that build on top of it can), and it doesn’t have to play a role in solving “problems in the education system” either.
I’ve always felt that intelligent discussion about OLPC is hampered by the ambiguity of the project’s goal and the amount of hype (I suppose hype is essential for fundraising; I’m not blaming OLPC for it).
OK, the problem with OLPC in India:
1. India cannot afford two hundred million laptops at an upfront cost of $40 billion. Merely buying a million for $200 million will be a problem, as you would have to figure out which one of every two hundred students will be the lucky one to have a laptop.
2. One million laptops has an opportunity cost. That is, $200 million could be used to provide one million students with one full year of education plus boarding and lodging in rural India. This money could be spent locally and provide jobs and have the usual economic multiplier effect.
3. Even if we had the $40 billion to spend on OLPC, we would not have solved the real problem of why India has half the illiterates in the world. Government involvement is the problem. And OLPC actually would increase government involvement.
1. The countries that can afford to buy laptops in numbers comparable to their student population will not face the problems of equity and distribution. There aren’t many developing countries like that.
2. OLPC is a costly device for poor countries. It’s going to be a huge waste of money that could be more efficiently spent on other technological solutions such as radio, TV monitors, and DVD players.
I do know a little bit about debates around access to technology in India, though, so here are some broad and sweeping responses to Atanu’s comments. They may not be relevant to OLPC at all, but I bring them in from the context of what I know about the biotech space.
1. Generally, all critiques of technology aside, I think having technology is a good thing. In a country such as India, which has pockets of extreme technological development, it is very important to democratize technological use. One way to do that is to expand access to technology, and one way to do that is through initiatives like OLPC. I don’t really agree with the line that third world countries such as India should be concentrating on more “basic” issues like primary education (the parallel argument in the case of biotech is, why spend so much money on genomics, when that money could be spent instead on public health?).
I don’t see the two as mutually exclusive, and the idea that somehow “cutting edge” stuff like laptops and genomics are best left to the first world, while the third world concentrates on “basics” is deeply allochronistic.
2. I also don’t worry too much about the influence of the state in the Indian context. Of course, having the state involved is a double-edged sword; in India, the state does happen to be the institution best equipped to distribute and/or redistribute access to all potential public goods. The market rarely has the incentive to do so (except in the interests of charity or philanthropy, and those are double-edged swords, too), and at the end of the day, in a basically functioning representative democracy such as India, the state is the institution that is most accountable to the public, however imperfect such accountability might be in practice.
3. My worries and concerns, then, are three-fold. Again, I can’t speak specifically to the OLPC context, but say this in the context of high tech more generally:
Expertise — The intentions of OLPC may be good, but whose expertise gets to count as credible expertise? Is this Negroponte’s expertise? Western institutional expertise? How much is “native” expertise seriously valued and taken into consideration? I’m not saying India shouldn’t learn about technological and infrastructural development from the West — but the way that has happened traditionally has been fairly blind in both directions. On the one hand, Indian actors blindly adopting Western mantras for success without understanding the historical context on the ground in India (for instance, as I have written about in my book, Chandrababu Naidu’s government in Andhra Pradesh enthusiastically aping Silicon Valley through its Genome Valley initiative in Hyderabad, neglecting to take account of the basic fact that the majority of India’s population still lives on and depends on land, and leapfrogging over agricultural development in order to bring about a sort of high-tech that is entirely saturated with Western priorities leaves most of that population out of the picture). On the other hand, various Western “expert” institutions over the last fifty to sixty years telling developing countries what to do based on models that are generated either in abstraction or in the context of advanced liberal societies, unthinkingly exported to the third world at great cost to the people whose lives [are affected]. (I’m thinking here of institutions such as the Kennedy School of Government or the World Bank, [or], more recently, consulting firms like McKinsey and Ernst and Young, all of which are institutions with enormous policy-setting influence in a country like India, but which also oftentimes have provided or tended to provide decontextualized expertise.) Where does the expertise in OLPC come from? Is it expertise from afar, or are more local forms of expertise seriously recruited and listened to? I don’t know the answer to this (and others on this forum will), but it’s a question I crucially want to pose.
“Analog infrastructure” — one of the problems that often exists in India (and not just in India) is that technological infrastructure is often the easiest to set up and get running. What tends to be lacking is what Torin Monahan would call the “analog infrastructure” — the more mundane stuff around the technology that’s necessary to get it functioning. Monahan indeed has a wonderful analysis of “analog divides” in the Los Angeles public school system in his recent book. Getting the computers into the public school system is the least of the problems; there are many other infrastructural issues that prevent the computers from actually bridging digital divides, and those are often the things planners don’t look at. I don’t know what analog infrastructural issues
would be pertinent in the context of OLPC, but one I could imagine, which Atanu has hinted at, is local language computing. Unless standardized developments in vernacular computing happen, a basic structural divide that is at the heart of many Indian inequalities — the fact that those who speak English have far greater opportunity to prosper than those who do not — will only get perpetuated. Again, I don’t know how much attention is given to local language computing in OLPC — perhaps lots — but I do know from the work of people like Ken Keniston and Richa Kumar that the absence of good vernacular computing has over the past decade been a serious barrier to overcoming digital divides in India.
Institution building — In India, good things often happen with individual entrepreneurial zeal combined with political will on the part of the state; but almost all of these things tend to get driven by the vision and energy of particular individuals, and traditionally institutional structures that can transcend individual zeal have been much harder to build. OLPC as a singular initiative is all very well — but how is it being located within larger structures that actually contribute to institutional development that can address issues of technology access that go beyond singular initiatives? Again, not something I know answers to in this specific case, but a question I’d like to have on the table.
Regarding the influence of the state: since I’m one of the people who raise the “government is baaaaad” point, I’d like to clarify here.
Even a corrupt government like [Egypt’s] is still the best vehicle to roll out such a project in a short span of time. The problem I see in OLPC is the fact that the project is designed to work exclusively with governments making purchases in the millions. While there are many good arguments for this (all relating to economies of scale), by making government the only possible player, you totally screw things up.
Without involving other players (some market, some nonprofits, some private schools directly) you’ll end up with scenarios like:
1. The laptops are left to rot in a big warehouse.
2. The laptops are sold in the black market.
3. The laptops are distributed slowly through a process of favoritism (to district, school, and even student).
4. The laptops are distributed to schools but not to students, used as classroom equipment that the kids use for thirty minutes per week only.
5. One teacher is assigned the financial responsibility for all the laptops in school, any damage or support costs are deducted from that teacher’s wage, the laptops are on paper priced at $400, so the laptops become a threat to that teacher’s life, and anyone who touches them is trying to put her in jail (this is actually how current school computer labs are managed in Egypt — lovely, eh?).
6. The laptops don’t get any decently Arabized software, so the government assigns a company owned by someone who is married to someone else to develop “educational” software for it, and they develop a broken and/or uninspired product.
7. The government sells the laptops under a scheme that supposedly makes them even cheaper but in practice costs everyone $400 per laptop (they’ve started a “PC for every household” project, whereby people pay by installments; it’s being advertised in all possible channels and the purchase and payment are done through post offices; the PCs cost four times their market value and only a couple of companies are allowed in the project; a large portion of the money goes to Microsoft, and there the PCs come with no support at all; the market is actually able to deliver better but can’t compete with the government’s ability to advertise).
Regarding vernacular computing: localization is key here, I agree, and since the laptop is a queer machine, not like anything else in the market, it requires special software, and someone has to sit down and write this special software. I’d like to hear more about OLPC’s plans for the software. I know they’ve tried to build an international community of software developers to work on the project (that’s why we got a prototype in Egypt), but still I’d like to hear about long-term plans.
Regarding institution building: actually, to me what makes OLPC interesting is the fact that it doesn’t need much institutional support once the laptops are delivered to the children. The philosophy is that the kids will know what to do with their laptops (and when they say learning I think they mean the self-exploration and self-expression type of learning). I’ve a lot of faith in this particular idea, but it does require some well-designed software and a large selection of toys and games and stuff; and it does require local expertise that is able to support the laptop informally (which I’m sure will arise with time).
Strike TV is a channel that broadcasts to the Arab world and Europe through the ArabSat satellite. An independent commercial channel, Strike TV transmits one single image, in real time, all the time. The image is of a young, flirtatious female presenter shot on a bluescreen background.
Watching Strike TV, the viewer decodes a series of audiovisual signs, which I’ll call here, the “Strike TV Interface System.” The uninitiated first-time user will notice the flirty young female presenter along with a variable sum of money flashing on the screen (the maximum reward is US $100,000). The viewer’s perception then gradually shifts to the other practical electronic text information on the interface — through which he infers that this is a call-in game show offering a cash prize for solving a riddle displayed on the screen.
Strike TV presents itself as a place that exists nowhere in particular. The channel consciously avoids any cultural references or visual clues that would reveal which country the transmission is broadcast from. There are also no clues to cultural identity in the displayed electronic text. But although these obvious signs of origin are omitted, Strike ceases to be culturally neutral the moment the language (or accent) of its presenter is noticed by the viewer.
The presenter answers calls from Arabs around the world, while maintaining a certain neutrality. When an Egyptian calls, for example, the presenter doesn’t identify herself as Egyptian, although her accent is contemporary Cairo slang.
The use of the bluescreen backdrop visually separates the virtual background from the flesh-andblood presenter. The extreme aesthetic neutrality and electronic artificiality of the background accentuates the subject’s cultural specificity. The subject is placed in a virtual time and space that is disconnected from everyday reality.
From the accent and physical gestures of the presenter, the viewer recognizes a familiar urban situation, namely that of the city of Cairo. More specifically, certain urban commercial hubs, like the high streets of Gamaeat el Dowal in the Mohandeseen district or Abass el Akkad in Nasr City.
The cacophony of traffic from a Thursday night on the town, the sounds of human yelling over the shuffling of celebrative trebly pop, the flashing phosphoric neon advertising, the cheap and colorful street-wear all come to mind, even if only subconsciously, as the presenter flirts, taunts, hustles, repels, seduces, condescends to, flirts with and challenges us the viewer.
Strike TV’s interface is a kind of micro-urban situation that operates within the unlimited scope of human desire. Like the street, the promise of rewards and the anticipation of the moment can be felt, accentuated through billboard-style one-liners such as, “Are you man enough for this?” Streetwise word trickery and double meanings can be observed in the nuances of the presenter’s speech and in the riddles themselves.
On Strike TV, the participant is exposed to the pressures of an urban encounter. It’s the city versus the male ego, where the need to hold on to a macho identity in public life is encouraged, where the only codes for communication or negotiation are embedded in a series of innuendos designed to make the male persona invincible to shame, weakness, and fear. Strike TV therefore invites its users to engage in a challenge that can only be won through its callers’ sharp wit, hustle, and ability with urban navigation.
The extensive portrayals and behavioral stereotyping of female seduction in popular culture have ossified into a set of nearly fixed theatrical gestures. Perpetual heavy panting, fluttering eyelashes, pronounced pouting, lewd laughter, and other such clichés are pervasive in Egyptian commercial cinema as well as TV drama. The unreality, or out-of-this-world quality, of these performative patterns also exists within Strike and invite the viewer into an interactive role-play.
The caller from the rural city of Mansoura in Egypt, for example, has the eerie shyness of a firsttime prostitute punter, with the upper hand in the interaction ceded to the experienced professional. The motivation of the caller is subtly shifted from the desire to attain fast wealth to the most basic of human instincts. When the callers (mostly middle-aged men) call in, they’re rewarded by the act of interacting with the presenter, even if their answers to the riddle are wrong.
This shift from one desire to another validates the latter with exactly the same urgency and importance as the former. If it is okay to want fast money, then it is equally fine to desire a sexual encounter. What is advertised as wealth is actually nothing but an excuse for communicating sexual desire. The masking of such desire helps the viewer mentally reconstruct, or even fantasize, the next level of an imaginary sexual experience.
Unlike on other entertainment TV channels, Strike TV’s presenters are void of what might be called a “TV personality,” and therefore an emotional association with a recognized character is absent. The presenter is a tool in the interface and at times, becomes the interface itself. This isolates and abstracts the callers’ desire towards the presenter, making it easier to experience than if it were burdened by other emotions. The interface is less real than, less like, our everyday selves: a suspended domain in space and time accessible only through our will and choice.
As with the clichés and myths of Cairo nightlife and its real-life prostitution scene, Strike provides a touristy thrill, an attraction that is staged, a no-strings-attached service that is supposed to remain both culturally exotic and removed from the rest of life because of its association with immorality. The interface confines itself to what’s permitted in Arab society, in terms of morality — the voice that seduces instead of the word, and similarly, the eyes that flirt. Such indirect association with sexuality and pornography makes Strike a producer of signs and gestures directing the viewer into a private urban situation that might or might not include sex — as opposed to more obvious sexual simulation interfaces like cyberor phone-sex. These signs and gestures are designed to awaken an egotistical invincibility and a light sexual gratification in the form of promise, not delivery.
Is an anonymous woman flirting in public with a complete stranger always read as unreal, the stuff of dreams? If so, then Strike will always succeed in being a simulation or expression of a cerebral realm that can contain such unrealistic desire. When desire is limited to the intangibility of imagination, its separation from reality becomes more distinct, locked in a place that is internal and hidden from others.
The only way to be certain that hydrocarbons can be found at a given location is to find them. Easy oil, oil that sprang to the Earth’s surface in pools, ran out a long time ago. The easy source depleted, man searched for clues in topographical features, indicating where more oil could be found if one would only dig. As the depths where oil could be found increased, man drilled holes with toothed drill bits on the ends of pipes. When it became harder and harder to read the rises and dips in the land, man stomped on the ground with massive hydraulic pistons and listened with sensitive electronic ears for echoes of the oil buried below.
When oil is located, a rig is brought in. A nozzled drill bit is stabbed into the ground and a high volume and pressure of water is pumped through a pipe, jetting out of the nozzles, breaking the ground around the bit, and causing great turbulence. Weight is then borne down on top of the bit, pushing it in and forcing it deeper into the ground.
Extracting oil involves distending nature from its common state. Things are compressed, wound, stretched, heated, stacked, bolted, cooled, and raised. Nature is manipulated and defied. Engineering leverages attributes of certain natural laws to defeat others. The result is nature put into tension, through the workings of machinery in tension, controlled by tense men. Once the process begins, these tensions feed back into one another, as nature, machine, and man each acts, reacts, and acts again. The effort of man is focused on control of the tension. Accidental release of that control can spell disaster.
SINGING ON THE RIG
LOCATION: RED SEA/OFFSHORE NORTH OF THE EGYPTIAN AND SUDANESE BORDER/ SEMI-SUBMERSIBLE RIG (DEEPWATER FLOATER)/ BELOW DECKS AND LIFEBOAT DECK
Being on the rig is hard; the pace can be relentless, the tasks required of you vital. This can fray the nerves and push most rig hands to stress levels that are hard to sustain. Added to this are the isolation and the distance from home that can leave you melancholic and even self-loathing.
But being on the rig is a choice, one that is made freely; and the rig hand knows not to complain or vocalize despair. Every rig hand knows (except the green hand, but he soon learns) that expressing these emotions only exacerbates them for everyone. The expression of feeling is useless, since the days are what they are and what they must be.
To each his own method of private release. I escaped in song, in the privacy of ambient noise, at the top of my lungs; I would defy awe and be awed no more, since I was man — thoughtful, insightful, composing, singing.
Not all songs lent themselves to this practice; the lunatic “I Feel Good,” that classic of James Brown, worked well; I was nowhere in the noise, lost in it, mad as the complex steel innards and industrial machinations around. The song’s only drawback was that one had to feel good truly to throw it around, to make it what it was meant to be. Pink Floyd’s “I Need a Dirty Woman” never failed to be relevant, its scales of want echoed in the steel organs humming, pounding, groaning, and screaming in the rig’s belly. Rock anthems of power and sustainability; soulful ballads of pining and death; fringe chants of absurd jazz and ethnic rumblings; all these were suitable to my purpose, while romantic sops of popular culture never worked. Romantic pop songs were too sweet to counter the hardness and edginess of the location. Only by singing it with sarcasm, bitterness, or vulgarity could one transform “Last Christmas” into a good five-minute companion to a walk down from the deck to the pits.
Everything that happens on the rig, must. With high-running costs and the precariousness of man’s hold on nature and the machine, timing is integral to exploration activity. Things must happen in a certain way exactly, in order for other things to happen; all is interconnected in a complex web of activity to facilitate advancement down the critical path. The first thing that can go wrong is loss of time. Time is money. A rig day-rental can cost half a million dollars; thus an hour spent is roughly twenty thousand dollars and a minute three hundred and fifty, whether used productively or not. Piss-poor planning can cause damage to equipment and even loss of the well. Loss of containment can damage the environment through spillage, while human loss, whether of limb or of life, is the ultimate price paid on a rig site.
These risks invigorate the crew, though; eagerness and enthusiasm can help to diffuse tension. When things go badly, the weight of the world is on the crew, and death descends on the rig. But even then, there is fortitude. Potential losses — whether emotional, financial, ecological, or human — can easily reach horrific scales. The simplest tasks are tasks that are as vitally required as the most complex. Since everything done on the rig is a “must do,” rig workers develop a “can do” attitude quickly.
BOBBY, SON OF THE RIG
LOCATION: RED SEA/GULF OF SUEZ/OFFSHORE RAS FANAR/JACK-UP RIG/RIGFLOOR
Bobby was a true son of the rig. At over ninety years old — decrepit, with see-through skin and rheumy eyes, a shuffle of a walk and scarcely any wind left in him, a Texan wheeze for a voice — Bobby was the oldest hand I had ever met on a rig. Bobby spent inordinately long hitches on the rig, rarely leaving “the accommodation,” and sometimes not even his room/office. As company rep, Bobby was boss of the rig. Bobby was so experienced, he needed only to be on the rig for things to go well.
Sometimes I’d go to Bobby for one thing or another, and he’d look at me, stare for a moment, then slowly wipe his hands together and walk away. “I wash my hands of this, it’s your problem, deal with it, come back with good news,” this gesture seemed to say. It was a famous gesture of his.
The drill bit at the end of 2000 meters of pipe had gotten stuck down a 3000-meter hole. We couldn’t get it out and we couldn’t push it further in. We had tried everything — pumping up, pumping down, pulling the maximum over-pull, setting down all the weight, when word suddenly came over the clear call that Bobby was coming up to the rig floor. Ten minutes later, Bobby emerged from the accommodations on the main deck — a smudge, lost in his coveralls, hardhat, and rig gear, slowly shuffling across the main deck. Twenty-five minutes after he decided he would come up to the floor, Bobby made it to us, a journey that would take any of the rest of us no more than a few minutes. In his last climb up the steep stairs that connect the pipe deck to the drill floor, Bobby appeared in increments. Finally Bobby was on the floor, son of the rig, ready for action.
With Bobby at the break, we crowded behind him, peering over his shoulder at the gauges as best we could and then glancing over to the middle of the rig floor where the pipe itself was alternatively being pulled, compressed, and twisted.
As Bobby worked the pipe, he started cursing, or maybe praying under his breath. We apprehensively watched Bobby get rough with the pipe. As the over-pull needle climbed to the red, the pipe stretched, pressuring up the whole world a notch. The sun flattened out in the rarefied atmosphere punctured by pops and clicks from the taut cables. Something gave.
As I turned to run, I found that the others were already on the move to the pseudo-safety of the doghouse. I tripped over something on the floor and fell on my hands, as the driller crashed past me — I expected the worst at any moment. Such is panic.
Bobby was standing with one hand on the break gently moving up and down, the pipe freed, the other hand waving about him as he looked back at us, then at the pipe, then back at us again. “What? What y’all start runnin’ like that there for? It’s just a little angry pipe — well, dang it boys! Runnin’ like that? C’mon over here, Ismail, and get hold o’ this darn break. I need to get me out the weather, son, get over here; don’t be ’fraid, c’mon.”
That was Bobby, son of the rig. RIP.
Drilling works a lot with the language of coupling. In fact, much of engineering works in male/female analogies; with respect to drilling, the whole operation centers around the hole. The hole is considered female; it’s deep and prone to instability. The drill bit is masculine; it’s about rates of penetration, ROP for short. The drilling string (the bit and drill pipe) is run into the hole and pulled out again. If the hole is good, it’s said to be “slick” and “gauge.” (One company’s unofficial motto was “we sink ’em deeper and pump ’em longer.”)
A good hole is firm and easy to pull through or run into. Ledges are bad; so are cavings, swellings, and wash-outs in the hole. Any such hole instability can lead to tight hole, when running in and pulling out becomes troublesome. With sticky hole or ratty hole, the pipe is washed in or washed out, and in very tight hole, the pipe may need reaming in or reaming out. In the worst case, when the pipe gets stuck in the hole, lubricant is spotted around the stuck point and the pipe is worked through the restriction.
Being out there in remote locations, being nowhere or someplace in the middle of it, heightens the ego’s perception of its own heroism. The close presence, scale, and heaviness of the machinery and equipment augments the machismo related to the function of the drilling process. The ever-present risks accentuate the aura of militarism, associated with the strategic thinking required to safely bore holes into the Earth’s crust. The future may march on elsewhere, updating the common terms for things, but the essence of the rig’s language is sexual and historically frames man as conquering a “feminine” nature.
The irony is just how feminine men on an oil rig, in the absence of women, can be. Prima donnas are detrimental to teamwork, and so vanity is individually suppressed as much as possible within the group. Being on an oil rig crewed with men is like being stuck in the midst of a bunch of housewives. This is probably because in the limited space of a rig, the loss of privacy leaves men unable to uphold macho values and appearances over prolonged periods, especially when the most effective foil for a man — a woman — is absent.
HOT CHICKS ON RED SEA BOAT RADIOS
LOCATION: RED SEA/GULF OF SUEZ/MIDDLE OF ZEIT BAY/JACK UP RIG/RADIO ROOM
We were sitting in the “space of space,” which was variously called the jack house, the pilot-house and the radio room on our rig. I call it the space of space because in that room of glass walls, we had a panoramic view of the sea. It was so complete that an optical illusion was created if you stood in the center of the room and turned about; it seemed an equidistant ring of mountains encircled a sea whose center we were in.
We weren’t talking much, me leaning back on the edge of the captain’s chart table, sun on the back of my neck, the jack tech sitting in the pilot seat and the radio op in his swivel chair, all of us sipping our coffee, taking in the light. All was good. Nothing needed to happen. Suddenly the VHF radio clicked loudly, and a faint voice came on, a girl’s voice with all its girl-voice textures, a young girl over the radio faintly calling in Arabic, “Labadoss, Labadoss, Labadoss — who is with me?”
It was full of promise, faint, distant, and calling. “Who is with me?”
“Turn that up, turn that up!” the young jack tech swirled in his chair, nearly spilling coffee from his mug, exclaiming to the radio op. The radio op smiled, turning up the volume and filling the space with the girl’s voice. “Lab-a-doss, Lab-a-doss, Laba-doss — who’s with me?” The jack tech got off the pilot chair and walked to the radio operator’s bench, where he put down his mug then paced to the far window. “Yes, Labadoss, this is Villa Fawzy, Am Ahmed is with you,” a gruff old voice came over the air.
“Am Ahmed, this is Gijo with you, Am Ahmed.” Her voice dripped honey. “Go ahead, miss, I’m with you.” “Am Ahmed, can you please tell Daddy a message from me, Am Ahmed?” “Yes, miss, go ahead.” “But Am Ahmed—” “Yes, miss, go ahead.” “Tell him nice, please, Am Ahmed.” The jack tech twirled in his chair, stretched his arms with his hands clasped over each other as if to administer first aid resuscitation. His hands pushed down into his groin.
I had to admit, the sound of her was invigorating, especially for not using radio slang or correct procedure, her voice of the city, not of the sea. “We’ve decided to stay out and spend the night in the sea, Am Ahmed, tell him it’s only the crew and me and Foufou and Layla and Lolla, okay, Am Ahmed?” “Yes, miss, go ahead.” “Foufou and Layla and Lolla—” (The jack tech’s lower lip curled in, sucking air and breathing out, “Aah.”) “And, Am Ahmed, tell him not to worry and to tell Foufou and Layla’s mom and dad that they are with me on the boat tonight.” (“Aah,” groaned the jack tech.) “Yes, miss, I will tell him.” “I love you, Am Ahmed.” “Villa Fawzy out.”
“Aah!” — the jack tech shot up off the pilot chair, sending it spinning, and reached across the radio room to the VHF mike. “What are you doing you madman?!” blurted the radio op as he stood up out of the way. Realizing the jack tech was going to call out to the sex-pot radio voice, I quickly leaned forward and pulled the mic-jack out of the radio. “Relax! What do you think you’re doing?”
The jack tech, suddenly subdued, his shoulders dropping and his whole body seeming to have loosened, with his head hanging down, whispered, “Yeah, I don’t know what I was doing.” The radio operator laughed, and then so did I, and eventually the jack tech did, too.
ANIMAL FARM PORN
LOCATION: WESTERN DESERT/ABU EL GHARADEEG (HALF WAY BETWEEN THE NILE AND LIBYA)/ LAND RIG/MAIN CAMP/RECREATION ROOM
I was asked one day by an assistant driller why I never spent time at the main camp watching movies or playing pool. He wouldn’t hear my protests that I had no time to waste at the main camp except for meals. Fearing that he thought me elitist or arrogant, I finally succumbed to the asininely congenial assistant driller and dropped by the “cinema.” The boys were all there, clean and changed, no longer uniformly clothed. The assistant driller was loud in welcoming me and asked me to sit next to him. Finally, the driller came in, and made some gruff joking remarks to some of his crew. He was king of everyone in the TV room except the mud logger and me. It was interesting to see the crew organically intact, not on the rig floor working like one, but kicking back and hanging out with the team structure holding up and the same relationships playing out.
A floor man was putting in the tape as I sat down, and the AD kept saying how that night’s movie was mature, that I would really like it. When everyone had settled down, it started, and it went something like this: first there were two women fornicating with a big black dog; then the film cut to a stable, where a horse was receiving sexual favors from a naked masked woman. I looked over to the AD to find him smiling at me and gently nodding his head.
I sat for another five minutes, wondering how to leave; I got up and walked to the back, telling the AD, “You’ll have to excuse me; I’m out of my league with this sort of stuff.” Intent on the film, he didn’t even turn to me, saying, “It’s okay, it’s okay — goodnight, mud engineer.”
I visited the on-duty radio operator who used to be a floor hand till he broke his face on the rig floor. The company helped pay for reconstruction and gave him a desk job so he wouldn’t sue for claims. I steered our conversation toward pornography, and he imparted to me this nugget of wisdom: “There are three things that put the vizier and the porter on equal footing: drugs, pornography, and gambling.” I departed, thinking about pornography, that great dissolver of class distinctions.
PACTS: BETWEEN MEN AND AGAINST NATURE
We were getting deeper and hotter and more pressured, looking for the sweet spot, the prize. We were all very excited, but also among the crew there was the taste of the apprehension of going deeper than anybody had gone.
The tension that arises from human manipulation of material is stored as energy brought under control. If control is let slip when no manipulation is underway, and the machine/well/vehicle is in neutral or off/idle, then probably no harm done and a lesson learned there for you; but if the rig-up, large or small, is in operation, then loss of control can lead to harsh incidents and harsh lessons.
There is no way to make a pact with nature in this game. It scares us and is never scared by us. No, we can’t make a pact with nature, so we make a pact with each other; that we will watch out for each other and for ourselves — that we will be diligent and aware, open and communicative, there when needed with whatever is needed at the time. This responsibility ranges from not blowing up the rig by mistake to not showing up at an abandon-ship drill in flip flops, since these get caught in the small space high over the sea between the rig and the hanging life boat, right at the door to the lifeboat, slowing the abandon time and leaving people behind on a rig about to, potentially, explode.
CODA: WATER TRUCK RIDE LOCATION: WESTERN DESERT/ DRIVER’S CAB OF A WATER TRUCK
A driver was taking us out to exploration country west of nowhere, where rigs were sparse. Since there were two of us going to different rigs, and riding with my companion and the driver beyond the forward operating base would have added at least ten hours to my already very long journey, I decided to get off at the base and hitch a direct ride to my rig with the next water truck.
From the base onward, the ground, as flat as it seemed and as boring and gray as it was, was unforgivably hard. Since I had never ridden with the water, I hadn’t realized how much more uncomfortable it could be than a passenger truck.
After two hours of daylight driving, and after a ghostly interlude of long shadows trailing in the half-light before dark, the sun quickly set. In the pitch-black night, we literally groped the land ahead with wheels and headlamps, and the driver’s stops to light up his cigarettes became fewer and more silent. When we caught sight of the rig’s light, we didn’t stop again, nor smoke. It appeared at first as a halo in the night sky, at a distance that seemed either some kilometers or a few hundred meters; it was impossible to tell. It didn’t always seem like we were making headway to the rig, and I suffered. Sometimes the halo was in the sky to our right or left as we rattled, crept, bumped, and sloshed in the dark, seeming to pass it by. Finally, the rig itself appeared, a stack of points of white light with a red and blinking light beckoning from the top of the derrick.
As close as we kept getting to the rig, it felt we would never attain it. But eventually we could discern movement, then see our way by the light of the rig, until, finally, we could hear the steel and noise.
The rig was alive when we got there, with men working in bright lighting, the machines humming and the forklift incessantly moving, as if it were any time of day.
Sushil K Dade, better known as Future Pilot AKA, is not an obvious candidate to helm a celebration of Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns. But the 2007 Burns Mela (the word is Hindi for “fair” or “gathering”), held in Glasgow’s Old Fruitmarket, is an exercise in genre-mashing and stylistic frottage as adventurous as the musician’s own records. Raga rubs up against dub, Celtic folk, and bhangra. The great septuagenarian novelist Alasdair Gray reads aloud anti-war verse. Reggae versions of Scottish ballads are sung. Indian vocalist Sheila Chandra delivers a version of Auld Lang Syne. Together with a buffet supper that includes haggis pakoras and neep‘n’tattie samosas, it’s an evening to make any cultural purist weep.
It’s also an evening that would surprise those who think of Scotland in monochromatic terms — especially those neo-Confederates who like to celebrate at Hibernian melas across the American South. But the country has hosted migrants since the turn of the twentieth century, including garment peddlers from India. “My dad came to Glasgow in the 1950s,” says Dade. “He was a draper and a salesman. When I was a kid in the 70s, I used to help out at his Sunday Market stall, selling body-warmers, flares, pin-striped jeans. It was a more sociable way of selling things. The environment was full of banter and of talking to people. I’ve carried that over into my music. I’ve always wanted to use a wide palate both of sounds and of people — to create infinite shades. Future Pilot AKA is a celebration of that infinity.”
Scotland is changing. Despite devolution, its population is shrinking. In recent years, UK immigrants from Africa and Kurdish Iraq have been resettled in Scottish cities major and minor. And there is a bevy of secondand third-generation brown Scots, including Dade, novelist Jackie Kay, and actor Atta Yaqub (star of Ken Loach’s Ae Fond Kiss). Among the most prominent of these is Luke Sutherland, the Afro-Scottish writer. His latest novel, Venus As a Boy (2004), is set in Orkney, the remote, ruin-filled islands north of Scotland where he grew up with his adoptive white parents. Sutherland is a musician, as well; recent releases as Music AM have married his weakly gendered, hyperliterate musings to pleasing German beats, though he first came to indie fame as the leader of Long Fin Killie, an art-rock band who welded folk to dub and jazz in the mid-90s.
Like Sutherland, Sushil Dade has followed his own singular vision, spurning the strutting, R&B-lite posturings of the “desi beats” brigade, whose post-bhangra stylings have become the authentic expression of British Asian youth, at least if you listen to the BBC. Instead of seeking mainstream success, Dade has stayed loyal to the independent music sector. (He got his start as the bassist for the indie-pop quartet The Soup Dragons.) He often collaborates with other left-field Asian outfits, including Cornershop, White Town, Black Star Liner — ferociously maverick talents who have at least as much in common with Morrissey as with Jay-Z or Talvin Singh.
His four albums, from A Galaxy of Sounds (1999) to the recently released Secrets From the Clockhouse, are best seen as one sprawling devotional space: safe havens where the artistic and spiritual resonances between Glasgow and Gujarat, Loch Lomond and the Lower East Side, can be discerned and elaborated. They’re testimonials to cross-cultural collaboration. Past albums have featured Alan Vega, vocalist for pioneering electropunks Suicide; Damo Suzuki, Japanese singer of the legendary krautrock band Can; and minimalist composer Philip Glass, reminiscing about meeting Ravi Shankar in the 1960s.
The Scottish music scene has been a nurturing ground for Dade’s talent. A seemingly infinite number of groups with jangly or skittish guitars have made Scotland a kind of Mecca for obsessive New Wave and post-punk fans. Glasgow, where Dade lives, was the birthplace of Postcard Records in the late 1970s — a legendary independent label and home to Orange Juice, Josef K, and Aztec Camera. The city is still renowned for the fervor with which it upholds indie ideals.
It’s no surprise that Dade, who sees himself in part as a curator and bringer-together of disparate traditions, has managed to persuade Stuart Murdoch of Belle and Sebastian to sing a ten-minute version of “Om Namah ” as well as luring The Go-Betweens, a revered Australian band who recorded for Postcard back in 1980, to collaborate with him on his latest album. Dade’s eulogy for Grant McLennan, the Go-Between who passed away last year but who is featured on the new record, also speaks to what is distinctive and winning about Future Pilot AKA’s music. “Grant McLennan had a cubist approach to melody,” Dade says. “His lyrics were so un-macho. Very sensitive and heartfelt. There’s too much ugly music in the world. There’s so much ugliness in life as well. I don’t understand why anyone would want to add to that. Darkness can be a great color, but I wouldn’t want to suffocate in it.”
“Capitalize on random snippets of sound.”—The Homosexuals “The Family of Noise is here and it’s come to save everybody.” —Adam Ant “We’re in tune with disoriental philosophy.” —Charles Gocher, Sun City Girls
Alan Bishop doesn’t care if you like him. When a major British music magazine complained that Bishop’s band, the Sun City Girls, “presents mocking images of the Other,” Bishop went off on the “academic clowns” and “anal-retentive warlords of the keyboard” who take exception to the group’s promiscuous approach to sound-making. On scores of limited-edition or out-of-print recordings, over the course of their twenty-five-year career, the Sun City Girls have fused rock and jazz and a world’s worth of differently tonal music to produce one of the great American avant-garde legacies.
Or maybe two, as Bishop is also the founder of Sublime Frequencies, a loose-limbed collective of Seattle-based ethnographers-without-portfolio. SF has been releasing CDs and DVDs of recordings from some of the world’s less-traveled pop and folkways music since 2003. Choubi Choubi: Folk and Pop Sounds From Iraq and Radio Pyongyang: Commie Funk and Agit Pop from the Hermit Kingdom, for example, document the curious destiny of popular music along the axis of evil. They’re emblematic, as well, in that the sublime radios seem to seek out stations in the Middle and Far East, with occasional dips into North Africa. To the untrained ear — my own, for example — the end result is a sometimes boring but often intoxicating carnival of sounds, splashed and shadowed with ungraspable meanings.
Not surprisingly, many of these sounds have long been part of the Sun City Girls’ psychedelic assemblage. Many of the SF releases were actually recorded a decade or more earlier, during travels in Africa and Asia (including Burma, where Bishop met his wife); listening to them provides an intriguingly skewed perspective on pivotal 1990s SCG recordings such as Torch of the Mystics or 330,003 Cross Dressers From Beyond the Rig Veda. SCG records feature all manner of wordless chants, filtered tones, fake accents, and melodies in borrowed and made-up languages. Sometimes the song titles provide coordinates: “Apna Desh,” “Space Prophet Dogon,” “Esoterica Abyssiania.” Sometimes they don’t: “Archaeopteryx in the Slammer,” “I Knew a Jew Named Frankenstein.” Sometimes the material blends together, as with “Cruel and Thin,” an atmospheric and moving serenade that turns out to be a cover of a song taped off of Moroccan radio.
Not that we know anything about the original — the singer, the name of the song, the year of its recording, etc. This is one of the most controversial things about most SF releases: songs go unnamed, bands go uncredited (and, by the transitive property, unpaid); liner notes are brief or non-existent. “It doesn’t have to be funded,” Bishop says. “You don’t have to go to school to learn how to record or to learn how to interpret a foreign culture or bring it back and spin it for someone. You don’t need to have 500 microphones; you don’t need to gather up these people for recording sessions and pay them 1000 dollars apiece. As far as I’m concerned, it’s open season, and you record what you want to record. It’s disappearing, too. It’s good to get it while you can.”
That last sentiment, of course, is the self-justification for nearly every act of ethnographic appropriation. As Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart notes in his compelling book Songcatchers, a diverse crew of documentarians, ranging from Alan Lomax to Bela Bartok to Mickey Hart himself, spent much of the twentieth century going out to capture the rawest, most authentic songs they could find, whether in Mississippi or Papua New Guinea or the Hungarian countryside. The SF crew, by contrast, go out to capture the rawest, most fucked up songs they can find, including the kinds of hybridized turbo-folk that Bartok dismissed as “gypsy slop.”
And whereas most “songcatchers” today go to great lengths to demonstrate that they, in Hart’s words, “understand that music belongs to the people who make it,” the SF crew are equally interested in the idea that music belongs to the people who hear it. Bishop called Radio India “an encyclopedia without an index.” Hisham Mayet calls his documentaries “interpretations of situations put together in a subjective order.” Many of the SF releases are experimental artworks themselves: mosaics of “field recordings” of radio broadcasts, in which songs or bits of songs are spotted with white noise and advertisements and shock-jock DJ patter. On Radio Thailand or Radio Java, you’re listening to someone listening, spinning the dial, recording at will. Bishop refers to the collages he’s done with the Sun City Girls as “personal talismans,” and one comes away from much of the Sublime Frequencies catalogue with the same feeling.
Listeners may find it difficult to be angry with SF; for musicians, it’s not such a stretch. Jayce Clayton, a writer and DJ who has worked extensively with Moroccan musicians, was shocked to find well-known songs by well-known bands presented as mysterious tokens of Arab genius on Radio Morocco. (One person’s sublimity is another person’s livelihood.) One of those bands, Nass El Ghiwane, was a pioneering, genre-bending, psychedelic jam-rock band (not unlike the Sun City Girls themselves). There is a sense in which Nass El Ghiwane seem like secret sharers in the whole SF enterprise: in Hisham Mayet’s forthcoming film, Trans-Saharan Musical Brotherhoods, one of the most mind-blowing performances features the audience singing, dancing, and swaying along as a cover band pounds its way through an old Nass El Ghiwane song. Viewers of the film, however, or at least of the cut I saw, learn nothing about the song, its performers, or its authors (save for the not unimportant fact that they are fucking awesome).
Critics of the SF modus operandi have a way of getting under Bishop’s skin. Complain about a lack of context or compensation, and he’ll attempt to smother you with a surrealistic pillow, denouncing “hipster progressives… squirming on the rump of an epileptic unicorn, attempting to decipher which buttons to push to claim their fifteen minutes of fame.” What Bishop and company desperately want to preserve about this music is the experience of mystery. The sound-images they produce are the opposite of mocking; what they reveal is a kind of longing.
It’s hard not to find a clue to the defensiveness in the biographies of the SF crew. Alan Bishop and his brother Richard, half-Lebanese, grew up in Flint, Michigan, down the street from their grandfather, an oud player whose house served as a kind of meeting place for musicians, businessmen, and Freemasons (often the same people). Mark Gergis, whose releases include the amazing two-disc set I Remember Syria and a collection of Cambodian pop culled from moldering cassettes at the Oakland Public Library, Asian Branch, is a half-Iraqi American from Detroit. All three have talked about the formative experience of feeling embedded in something they couldn’t quite comprehend; of not quite understanding their mothers’ native tongues; of growing up in the shadow of something magical and foreign. It’s an old and storied predicament, being torn between two worlds, and it has many possible outcomes. For the SF crew, one answer is to safeguard that essentially mysterious experience of intimate connection — in the case of the Sun City Girls, to recreate that experience by singing in languages not only foreign but nonexistent, to insist on the privacy of experiences — like hearing music at shows — that are also public. Many of the best songs and collages made by the group acquire an extra poignancy precisely by dint of their obscurity. Like a lullaby for the lost.
That deliberate obscurity is lovely in its way, but it is not necessary. The Libyan-born filmmaker Hisham Mayet’s work here is instructive. My favorite of his SF projects, Niger: Magic and Ecstasy in the Sahel, set out to capture a spirit possession ritual and other instances of “pure folklore.” It’s easy to quibble with the liner notes, but it’s impossible not to marvel at the hot Pentecostal funk Mayet managed to capture on film, the captivating drone of Group Inerane (the Toureg Velvet Underground?), and the awesome spectacle of remote people acting totally normal in front of a camera-shy and awkward and graceful and weird.
In any case, if SF’s latest releases are any indication, forced mysticism may be on its way out. Omar Souleyman: Highway to Hassake and Group Doueh: Guitar Music From the Western Sahara are direct collaborations with musicians. There’s still plenty of room here for epiphany, but there’s less in-your-face otherworldliness. (There are still no translations of lyrics provided, however, so for those of us who don’t speak Arabic or Tamasheq, the voices we hear will be mere instruments.) A few more moves like this could defang even the “squirmiest” of hipster progressives. Perhaps a compendium of Nass El Ghiwane covers?
Recently, Taylor Kitsch, the improbably named hunk who plays brooding, unkitschy Tim Riggins, running back for the Dillon Panthers — Go Panthers! — on NBC’s high school football drama Friday Night Lights, graced the cover of Men’s Health. The goal was to help promote the TV show and the magazine’s “five laws of staying lean”: 1) Always start with protein; 2) Front-load your carbs; 3) Avoid fast-digesting foods; 4) Strike a balance; and 5) Monitor more than your abs. It was the lead piece of the “malegrams” section of the mag, and the editor kindly front-loaded three shirtless pics of Kitsch exuding the benefits of toeing the line.
Unlike Kitsch, who beams pride in his physique, his character, Riggins, glowers in the hallways of Dillon High, and, between explosive runs and tackles on the playing field, he’s a mute heartthrob. Expanded from executive producer, director, and writer Peter Berg’s feature film, which in turn was based on HG “Buzz” Bassinger’s best-selling book of the same name — a moving portrait of the citizens of Odessa, Texas, whose emotional investment in the local football team has, season after season, focused their attention away from the strife of their tough lives — Friday Night Lights grapples, more tenderly and yet harrowingly than anything else on mainstream television, with the diminishing returns of earning a so-called living wage and with the body, overweight or lean-and-mean, as a primary survival technology.
For those not yet part of the Panther’s pep squad, let me back up a bit. Currently on mainstream American noncable television — which, in addition to PBS (public television), means CBS, ABC, NBC, FOX, and, in major metropolitan areas, UPN and CW (the latter broadcasts the better-than-you’d-think Superman drama, Smallville) — there’s very little to watch that isn’t either crimeand/or police-related (Law & Order, CSI, their spin-offs and ilk) or “reality TV.” (The proliferation of the latter is due in no small part to the rabid success of American Idol, about which, Kids, enuf sed.) My theory is that most people want to see enacted a world, where despite murderers, child molesters, embezzlers, and even terrorists, possibly living next door to them, where in an hour or, at most, over the course of a network season, the crime is solved, the perp cuffed, and the terrorist attack averted just in the nick (or Jack Bauer) of time. They want to see justice, the legal system and the nation state secure. (Considering that we live under an administration that’s run roughshod over everything from the Constitution to the Geneva Convention, encroaching on personal freedoms and eliminating safeguards, tick by quiet tick, this taste for justice is deeply ironic.) Those who don’t want to watch fantasies of personal and national security opt for American Idol, where, for many people, voting for the winning contestant proves, I guess, more effective than voting in actual political elections.
No matter how “ripped from the headlines” or seemingly moment-by-moment either of today’s genre staples seem, each bears only the vaguest relation to the reality hardly anyone wants to watch yet inhabited by all. Of course, the first and last time someone dared to track some semblance of such a homegrown reality, in An American Family (1973), everything, from blood relations to sexual norms, was revealed, loudly, to be more fragile and up-for-grabs than anyone wanted to see.
The actors and creative team behind Friday Night Lights know that for many, maybe most, times are hard, local economics harder. FNL demonstrates that the body, that woundable engine, is the best and only bet some people have for getting out of town or bettering their situation.
At the start of the first episode, dreams of college scholarships and glamorous pro careers distract most of the key players; by its end, the star starting quarterback, Jason Street (Scott Porter), has been paralyzed during a botched tackle. Over the course of the season thus far, Street has worked through physical therapy, bonded with wheelchair-bound peers, shone on the Murderball-like paraand quadriplegic rugby team, and returned home to face the rest of his unexpectedly altered life. In a remarkable moment, his cheerleader girlfriend pushed beyond Street’s still-fresh reluctance to deal with their changed relationship, by playing an instructional video on the positions and maneuvers can make quadriplegic sex enjoyable and vital. Without making explicit the allegorical and analogical potential of this quietly matter-of-fact scene, the
show deftly reminded any thinking viewer that there are wounded young vets returning home whose girlfriends are having to teach them things the military never got around to covering when it encouraged its recruits to be all they could be.
FNL observes contemporary masculinity in all its glory and imponderability. The difficulties of communication between team mates and brothers are highlighted by how many fathers are missing — due to divorce, service in Iraq, or some other, indiscernible reason — and reflected in the coach’s stern paternal concern for his players. Tim Riggins’s formerly wayward older brother, a one-time Panther, tries to hold together a home life for him; their parents have gone off somewhere, unable to deal. Riggins’ teammate and main rival, “Smash” Williams (Gaius Charles), lives with his mom and sisters and sees himself as the man of the house since his father’s death (the consequence of drunk driving), with football his only hope to help his family achieve the life he wants them to have. Small for a running back, Smash opts, after a bad game witnessed by a college talent scout, to bulk up. He tries to convince his mom to give him money for an SAT study course for which he’s supposedly signed up. The money isn’t there, but just when he thinks his only option is crime, the congregation of his mother’s church — invested in helping one of their own, already a local star — donate the money, unaware that they’re paying not for education but for steroid cocktails.
Unlike the steroid quality of so much American television, FNL offers the frisson of the hard-won life. Early episodes find the shy backup quarterback, Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), practicing his passes at home alone, cooking for his grandmother, and sometimes videochatting with his father, who’s stationed in Iraq. Matt hopes his dad will get leave soon, not least so that he can help him care for his grandmother; but when his dad does come home, what celebration there is, ends quickly, everyone at a loss as to what to do with the new circumstances.
That a television program can not only portray a sweet QB helping his dad, a vet, secure a sales position at the local football promoter’s successful car dealership, but also show the dad failing to acclimate to the job and civilian life, gives me hope, however faint, that someone sees how desperate things have become and might be monitoring, more than abs, absurdity — not with the salubrious acidity of South Park or The Colbert Report, but in a different mode of care.
Ernst Gombrich’s The Story of Art, perhaps the ultimate blockbuster of canonical art history, traces the aesthetic evolution of humankind from the caves of Lascaux to postmodern architecture in Manhattan. In the chapter “A Break in Tradition,” Gombrich explains that, before the Enlightenment, even artists who took to secular topics were confined to a few select, best-selling themes: Greek mythology, accounts of Roman bravery, and allegorical tales demonstrating established truths through traditional personifications. It is “curious,” he muses, how rarely pre–eighteenth century artists strayed from the narrow limits of those blockbuster leitmotifs. As many after him have pointed out, however, it’s not so certain the eighteenth century’s break from said 10,000-year tradition was as dramatic as Gombrich suggested — or that it happened at all.
To this day, nearly every popular story, high or low, can be summarized as the story of some man on a quest for his personal sense of ethics. It seems we can never get enough of watching these dudes as they ponder, question, get into trouble, and go back home — or die, or both. From Ulysses to Hamlet to Inspector Gadget — not to mention the crucifixion itself: the simple story of a seditious Nazarene getting the Guantanamo treatment has been repeated trillion-fold over the last two thousand years. It’s not only the popularity of the plot but also the enduring intensity of its reception that is remarkable.
When studying the peculiar pleasures of repetition, mysterious and deep, psychoanalysts, critics, advertising executives, and spouses have invented names that are disappointingly flat, always pointing vaguely in the direction of “identification.” (Whenever I argue with my girlfriend, for example, she claims I sound like Tony Soprano. I try to explain that any male over thirty who swears with his mouth full — something that any self respecting male over thirty should do every now and then — will sound exactly like Tony Soprano (try it at home, with a chunk of white bread, saying twice, in rapid succession, “Fuck you want from me?”), but she insists that it’s more than a matter of acoustics alone, that it began when she bought me the DVD gift set on our vacation.)
Last night, I was watching the latest James Bond very intently. It has been widely announced that this is a radically new Bond. New in style, new in tenor, new even in narrative framework. (The film, as Wikipedia will tell you, marked the third adaptation of what was Fleming’s first Bond novel, previously produced as a 1954 TV episode, then as a 1967 spoof, starring Woody Allen.) In other words, the latest Bond marks a reboot of the series. Gone are Q and Moneypenny, and Daniel Craig’s Bond has only just been promoted to the status of double-oh. Tabula rasa. His boss, M, has yet to learn to trust him, though she already looks upon Bond in that aunt-like, my-my, temper-temper sort of way.
The gamble, the producers are now trumpeting, has paid off. Casino Royale immediately became the highest-grossing Bond ever. But, as you might guess, the film was no more a break from tradition than the Enlightenment itself. Bond is still chasing black Africans of ambiguous political background up and down building cranes, then moving on to the real scalawags, their First World bankers, with their marvelously tailored business suits and continental accents. You tought I was bloffing, Mistair Bont? (There’s even a curly haired slimeball — Greek — with necklaces and no dress sense and a scandalously unmerited babe of a girlfriend.) Only the graphics of the opening credits are stunning, but they’re ruined by what must be the worst Bond theme in history (performed by onetime Soundgarden grunge god Chris Cornell, sounding frightfully clunky). Arm yourseeelf because no one else here will saaaave you!
Even the changes in this Bond are very Back to the Future. The film unmistakably smacks of the 1950s, despite all the blip-blip-galactic-GPS-tracking-device-ooh-la-la’s, and quite agreeably so. To take the first encounter between Bond and Bond girl Vesper Lynd, it would be hard to imagine a woman today remarking on the way I wear my dinner jacket — “with disdain” — to speculate on the modalities of my Oxford tuition fees, but it makes for the finest dialogue in the film. Equally 1950s is James Bond’s critical observation that “the bitch is dead,” indeed a quote from the original novel. (I would have had him say this through a mouthful of ciabatta. Twice, in rapid succession.) In moments of tense concentration — moments when Connery, Moore, and Brosnan would all look pensively preoccupied (that pensively preoccupied Englishman thing), as they listened, reconsidered, or tottered about on building cranes — Craig always looks like he’s about to bet ten pounds on Chelsea FC. Accordingly, when the bartender asks whether the martini is to be shaken or stirred, Bond replies, “Do I look like I care?” — reaping sophisticated chuckles from the audience, every one of us feeling like doggone film history cognoscenti. Come to think of it, even the quaint fascination of the blip-blip tracking devices serves not to weaken but to vastly enhance the 50s feel.
In sum, the one new thing about Casino Royale is its claim to novelty, which has precious little to do with the strength, intelligence, or magnetism of the movie. In other words, if I wish to criticize, say, Scorsese’s The Departed for its medieval vision of womanhood, or Inarritu’s Babel for its picture-postcard aesthetics and heroically victimized fathers (or the upcoming Indiana Jones IV or Rocky LXXXIX for anything similar), accusations of stereotypical repetition would come across as superfluous at best, dishonest at worst. But perhaps these archaic satisfactions, so colossal in depth, so Gombrich in scope, could be transfigured and recombined in other ways. A Nazarene Darth Vader who talks like Tony Soprano, using his Inspector Gadget utensils to avenge kin and kinship. I know it’s already been done by the Israeli cabinet, but perhaps if it was set in a Montenegro casino? With an all-woman cast?
I Had No Money and Now I’m Loaded. Misery to Get Rid of the Booze. Tarzan of the Arabs. Moncef Kahloucha’s films are blockbusters in his hometown of Kazmet, in Sousse, Tunisia. With a passion for 70s genre movies, Kahloucha — a house painter by day — shoots his features on an old-school VHS Panasonic 3500, casting otherwise bored, unemployed locals in the key roles.
Middle Eastern documentary filmmaking and humor generally make uneasy — if not absent — bedfellows, but director Nejib Belkadhi’s portrait of Kahloucha, and the action on the set of his latest film, is very funny. Belkadhi opens his film in Italy, among a group of nostalgic Tunisian immigrants who’ve borrowed a VCR for a night of watching Kahloucha movies. From there, he returns to Kazmet, alternating interviews with the director with action-packed footage from the set.
Belkadhi’s zeal for film and for his subject is infectious, and he demonstrates a deft hand in leading his audience with him along that thin line between laughing at and laughing with. Bidoun had a conversation with Belkadhi while he was trudging the snowy pavements of the Sundance Film Festival this past January.
Antonia Carver: How did you first come across Moncef Kahloucha, and come up with the idea for the film?
Nejib Belkadhi: My producer, Imed Marzouk, told me about Kahloucha back in 1997 — he knew him through Kahloucha’s cameraman. Since then I’ve had one thing in mind: to film this colorful character and tell other people about his crazy passion for films. In 2000, I used to host and direct a show for the TV channel Canal+ Horizons, in Tunis, and decided to shoot with Kahloucha. Once in his district, I was struck by the inhabitants of the neighborhood and their stories and thought that one day we should make a feature about Kahloucha and his district. In 2003, after founding our company, Propaganda Production, we decided to start the shoot in the most independent way — the film was completely self-financed.
AC: Was it ever difficult to explain to Moncef and his cast and crew what you were attempting to do?
NB: Kahloucha is more passionate about acting than directing. He creates and directs films just to star in them. By the time we decided to shoot with him, he was flattered that a whole crew was going to follow him daily and expose his passion and life to the public. He was aware of being the center of the whole thing. To be honest, we felt like he and the neighbors were being slightly fake in the first two days of shooting, as they were trying to show off, they weren’t at all themselves. We had a long discussion with Kahloucha and explained to him the aim of our work and the fact that we needed people to be natural. Two days later, we felt quite invisible as a crew — we were already part of the district, people got used to the camera and didn’t notice us. That’s when the real film began.
AC: The film is warm in its humor: we laugh knowingly with Moncef, but never at him. Did you ever feel the film ran the danger of mocking him? Was this something you were conscious of during the shoot?
NB: This was maybe the most dangerous thing in the film. Kahloucha is a colorful character who mixes comedy with action in his movie — he’s not afraid of ridicule, and his approach is quite hilarious. So people laugh at his acting because he definitely wants them to laugh. We had to keep at a distance and expose the world of Kahloucha without mocking him. It’s obvious that the [Tunisian] audience would be laughing during our film, laughing with him and not at him. I think it’s because we love the character. Our film is not about showing a freak — Kahloucha is above all a passionate human being.
AC: You’re at Sundance to show your own film. Have you seen any other films there that you’d recommend?
NB: Petr Lom’s On a Tight Rope, and the winner of the world cinema competition, The Legacy by Gela Babluani and Temur Babluani.
Tunis’s biannual Carthage Film Festival, in its fortieth year, turned the spotlight on directors from the Maghreb and Arab world. Three Tunisian films competed in the festival’s Tanit Awards for directors from Africa and the Middle East: Nacer Khemir’s stunningly shot, elegiac fable Bab’ Aziz (2005); Jilani Saadi’s violent melodrama Tender Is the Wolf (2006), about a gang-raped prostitute who finds love; and Nouri Bouzid’s Making Of (2006).
A leading director in the 1980s and early 1990s, Bouzid won the Golden Tanit for a second time, twenty years after his previous success with The Man of Ashes (1986). In Making Of, Bahta, a young break dancer who lives in a Tunis suburb and is constantly hassled by the police, gradually turns toward religious fundamentalism, eventually deciding to become a suicide bomber. In between chapters in the story, Bouzid turns the camera on himself, discussing the themes of the film — religion, violence, and his doubts and fears concerning his work — with lead actor Lotfi Abdelli and arguing that he’s against violence, not Islam. It was an original format but overly didactic at times; it would appear that Making Of won its Golden Tanit mainly for its political sentiments.
Aside from the Tunisian films, Carthage’s competition, though of high quality, was prone to déjà vu, featuring films that had already done the rounds at international festivals. Jocelyn Saab’s Dunia caused quite a scandal in Egypt in 2005, in part due to its stance against female circumcision. Rashid Masharawi’s bittersweet Waiting, in which a director explores the lives of refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria while casting actors for a future Palestinian National Theatre, also dates from 2005. More recent films by Algerian directors Djamila Sahraoui and Rabah Ameur-Zaimeche analyzed the Algerian civil war (Barakat!) and its aftermath (Bled Number One).
In contrast, the program of films shot on video offered a few discoveries, including Fitouri Belhiba’s Sacred Bottles, Hala Alabdalla and Ammar Al Beik’s I Am the One Who Brings Flowers to Her Grave, the diary of Alabdalla’s return to Syria after years in exile, and Hichem Ben Ammar’s And I Saw Stars, an intense map of the history of boxing in Tunisia.
The rather tired selection of films in competition, as well as Carthage’s habitual organizational and administrative problems, is symptomatic of the difficulties the state-run festival has encountered over the past few years. The first in a packed winter schedule of Arab festivals, and with some African directors holding back their films for Ougadougou’s Pan-African festival in February, Carthage needs to fight to live up to its status as the oldest festival in the region. At the awards ceremony, the jury president, eminent Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury, spoke his mind, boldly demanding political freedom, democracy, and the end of censorship — and also that the festival be organized independently.
Marrakech International Film Festival
December 1–9, 2006
The sixth edition of the Marrakech International Film Festival left no one wanting in terms of choice. One hundred and twenty films were shown on seven screens scattered in cinemas and squares throughout the old and new quarters of the city. Besides the international competition and panoramas, there were tributes to Italian cinema (fifty films in all, overseen by Martin Scorsese); Bollywood; American actress Susan Sarandon; Chinese director Jia Zhang-Ke; Indian acting duo Ajay and Kajol Devgan; Moroccan actor Mohamed Majd; and Egyptian cineaste Tawfiq Saleh. The jury, presided over by Roman Polanski, awarded the Etoile d’Or to Dominik Graf’s German drama The Red Cockatoo, a love story set in 1961 Dresden.
Attempting to carve a niche for itself between Carthage and Dubai, and clashing with
Cairo, Marrakech is resolutely international in its outlook. The fact that two films from Morocco — Faouzi Bensaidi’s WWW: What a Wonderful World and Narjiss Nejjar’s Wake Up Morocco — were selected for the competition this year was considered something of a coup.
Not that the two directors have much in common. What a Wonderful World is a stylish thriller set in contemporary Casablanca, expertly choreographed and gorgeous to behold. A contract killer falls in love with a disembodied voice he hears on his mobile phone. He tries to find her, only to realize — too late, of course — that she’s been there all along. There are a few too many nagging similarities between Bensaidi’s aesthetic and that of Palestinian auteur Elia Suleiman; but at least Bensaidi is building a language of images and sounds that cohere into a palatable film.
Nejjar, on the other hand, peddles in sheer propaganda. Her film deals with the dreams and disappointments of residents living on an island off Casablanca, an all-too-obvious microcosm for the nation. While beautifully shot, Wake Up Morocco requires viewers to suspend their disbelief to the extent that they must buy into the likelihood of the Moroccan national football team winning the World Cup, beating mighty Brazil and Germany in the process. This rather unsteady sports narrative twines around a reductive folktale, in which the forces of modernity come up against the big, bad undercurrent of militant fundamentalism. So grossly oversimplified, so pat, and so canned, it is a painful 110 minutes to endure.
Outside the competition, Marrakech’s real treasures were to be found buried among the vintage films selected for various tributes. Film buffs will always salivate at the opportunity to watch Vittorio de Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, Federico Fellini’s La Strada, and Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura on the big screen. But the chance to see such a sizable chunk of Egyptian master Tawfiq Saleh’s output was nearly unprecedented.
Besides Saleh’s 1955 debut Fool’s Alley, based on a story by Naguib Mahfouz, the retrospective included Diary of a Country Prosecutor (made in 1968 and based on a novel by Tawfiq Hakim), The Rebels (1966), and his 1972 masterpiece, The Dupes.
Based on Ghassan Kanafani’s first novella, Men in the Sun, The Dupes is the only one of Saleh’s films to be picked up regularly by international festivals. Seeing it in the context of his oeuvre, however, it emerges less as a one-off than as the crowning achievement of a remarkable career.
Cairo International Film Festival
November 28–December 8, 2006
The Cairo International Film Festival had a new confidence in its thirtieth year. New president, chisel-faced actor Ezzat Abu Auf, and honorary president, local legend Omar Sharif, played a part in bringing on board new sponsors; the local industry was buoyant after a healthy year at the box office; and, for the first time, CIFF’s international competition included three Egyptian films — Hala Khalil’s Cut and Paste, Emad el Bahat’s Hide and Seek, and Khaled El Hagar’s musical None But That!.
The festival began amid controversy, with Belgian first-time director Marc Ellegard’s feature Burning Light, which addresses the concept of terrorism through the eyes of two disillusioned young European men, “uninvited” a month before the festival. After having been formally invited in October, Ellegard received a note from the festival president in November, following the film’s screening for censors. “The sentence ‘God is dead’ is repeated four times in your film Burning Light,” it said. “Of course, the idea that God is dead is refused and forbidden in all religions.” Ellegard explained that the film promoted dialogue — “The lines explain the character’s feelings, but don’t reflect the philosophy of the film” — but to no avail.
The new section aimed at promoting emerging talent awarded the $10,000 first prize to Italian director Carlo Luglio’s Sotto la Stessa Luna (Beneath the Same Moon). As expected, the international competition’s Golden Pyramid went to Zhang Jiarui’s The Road, an epic covering fifty years of Chinese political history.
Over time, say local cinephiles, the CIFF has become more sedate — or maybe just more punctual. This year saw the launch of the Cairo Independent Film Festival, a popular street event that could provide a healthy alternative in the future.
With the exception of Hala Khalil’s Cut and Paste, which shared the Best Arab Film prize with Djamila Sahraoui’s Barakat!, the new local films were disappointing romantic melodramas. The Egyptian dream factory is flourishing, with most films featuring introspective young media-types living the good life, and only Khalil’s film raised the specter of unemployment and emigration.
Khalil wisely cast the magnetic Hanan Turk — in her last role before she adopted hijab and converted to TV — as a feisty city girl, saving up to move to New Zealand. She ends up scheming with new friend Youssef (Sherif Mounir) to get the necessary points for the emigration visa. Cut and Paste certainly has its clichés, and could do with a more severe edit, but there are moments that render it an important film. While mostly oblique, the film occasionally slips into a more succinct political critique — with particular success when Youssef and friend Samy (Fathi Abdel Wahab) debate their futures alone on the metro late at night, returning from visiting a friend in one of Cairo’s bleak new suburbs.
CIFF faces tough competition from chic Marrakech, patronized by French and US stars, and big-budget Dubai, which, as the region’s distribution base, is increasingly able to lure key foreign films to its festival. CIFF sets itself the impossible task of programming world and international premieres in competition, without the reputation, budget, and ingenuity to find real hidden gems. Still, the festival boasts the only commercially viable local industry in the Arab world, complete with homegrown stars and a keen press pack set on debating the films with a ferocity never before seen in Dubai.
Dubai International Film Festival
December 10–17, 2006
Why do people love to hate the Dubai Film Festival? After flying in its guests in business class and putting them up in luxury hotels, the three-year-old festival then had the audacity to screen more than one hundred films in plush theaters and award Arab filmmakers $325,000 in prize money! And still, film industry members and local enthusiasts grumbled as they flitted from the festival center in a luxury resort to cinemas in the world’s fourth biggest mall.
The Muhr Awards judges appropriately eschewed the likes of Rachid Bouchareb’s brilliant French-made and financed Indigenes for smaller films: Djamila Sahraoui’s Barakat! unexpectedly won the $50,000 Golden Muhr, delivered by Oliver Stone, no less. Audience favorite Falafel, the understated, one-night-in-Beirut drama by Michel Kammoun, came in second, followed by Hakim Belabbes’s Why O’Sea, a drama that cast Moroccan fishermen as themselves.
In a strong year for documentaries, there were several standout films, including Tunisian director Nejib Belkadhi’s VHS—Kahloucha, which won the Golden Muhr, followed by Khadija AlSalami’s brave but flawed portrait of Amina, a prisoner on death row in Yemen. Hala Alabdalla and Ammar Al Beik’s I Am the One Who Brings Flowers to Her Grave was awarded third prize, Alabdalla thanking the jury for recognizing her highly personal odyssey, which traces the lives of her family and Syrian women of her generation, both in the country and exiled abroad.
Waleed Al Shehhi deservedly took the prize for “most promising UAE filmmaker” — his meditative series of shorts focusing on desert life in Ras Al Khaimah go some way toward developing a distinctive language in UAE filmmaking. A group of shorts from Palestine and Tunisia, led by Cherien Debis’s award-winner Make a Wish, also offers high hopes for the future.
Audience events ranged from a moving screening (and discussion) of honoree Syrian auteur Nabil Maleh’s seminal 1993 film The Extras, to a platitudinous discussion on the festival’s mantra (“building bridges, meeting minds”), with a panel that included Stone, Richard Gere, and director Mohammed Khan, among others. In irony-free Dubai, Stone even got away with attempting to assert that Arabs were no more stereotyped as villains in Hollywood films than any other ethnic group and citing cartoon images of Ali Baba as “a positive portrayal of Arabs.”
This year saw the launch of an industry office that took care of 350 international players, many invited to take part in pitching forums for Emirati and Lebanese filmmakers. The smattering of industry events exposed the dire need for “a pool of creative producers in the region,” say the organizers, who are aiming to launch a small project market at next year’s festival. If DIFF can draw in Arab financiers, absent this year, then Dubai has a chance at really making an impact on the regional industry.
Local audiences embraced the comprehensive program of international films, and the festival now dominates the region in terms of Arab programming, screening more than fifty features, shorts, and documentaries from the region, in and out of competition.
Of course, as with any festival, the DIFF had its glitches. The complex ticketing system meant that some “sold out” films were half empty. A combination of exclusive sponsor-dominated invite lists, zealous security, and enforced dress codes contributed to many directors and press being unwilling or unable to attend gala screenings and parties.
More seriously, a short docudrama on the plight of South Asian laborers in the UAE was withdrawn from the Arab shorts competition at the last moment, for “technical reasons.”
Much of the sniping can be put down to the nature of Dubai itself, and the way the PR-driven town raises wild expectations. According to one film-world insider, the DIFF spends more on advertising than any other festival worldwide. Proficient festival chairman Abdulhamid Juma has done much to smooth relations in the region and play down the hyperbole of previous years. (All that talk of $10 million budgets and comparisons with Cannes and Toronto did no one any favors.)
It was significant and emotional to see young Arab filmmakers acknowledged properly for the first time, albeit at a closing ceremony that was jaw-droppingly resplendent in Arabian kitsch —complete with galloping horses, a dance troupe affecting a mix of ballet and belly dancing, and flying carpets carrying turbaned Ali Babas, suspended above the stage, which floated on a manmade lake in the desert.
DIFF is now the world’s most comprehensive platform for new Arab films, even if the theatrical distribution of art house and Arab films locally remains nonexistent. Meanwhile, the first phase of Dubai Studio City, aimed at attracting foreign film crews to the emirate, is set to launch in March. In three years, DIFF has become fundamental to the regional industry and known on the world stage. It just needs to find its soul.
Reena Spaulings Fine Art
January 6–February 11, 2007
Claire Fontaine, like her notorious hostess Reena Spaulings, is a fictional artistic persona, the nom de guerre of a Paris-based duo, borrowed from a popular French stationery company. The women’s creation of their anonymous collectivity under an appropriated name both acknowledges the impossibility of artistic sincerity and attempts to resist the capitalist machinations of an art world that has successfully co-opted and exhausted the radical potentialities of past political and artistic avant-gardes. Their second New York show, Footnotes on the state of exception, presents a set of clever readymades that, while resisting didacticism, meditate on the continuing possibilities for effective political art, thought, and action in our contemporary moment.
These days, Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s notion of the “state of exception” is anything but exceptional in the art world. It serves as theoretical ammunition for artists, curators, and critics (myself included) of a particular political slant, when mounting attacks on the unchecked expansion of executive and state power that has accompanied the recent war on terror. Few, however, question the stifling effects this climate of fear, militarism, and compromised civil liberties — coupled with the pervasive control that capital and spectacle exert over our lives — has had on the efficacy of their artistic and political practice.
Acknowledging this political impotence as our inescapable common fate, Claire Fontaine creates self-reflexive works that draw from, yet also critique, the parallel histories of political and aesthetic avant-gardes and the tools, practices, and cultures of protest and resistance. A pair of objects cheekily applies Guy Debord’s radical strategy of détournement [diversion] to his own works. La Société du Spectacle brickbat (from 2006, as are all subsequent works referenced here), a brick encased in the cover of Debord’s revolutionary bible, counters the paralyzing disconnect between theory and praxis — often cited as the cause of the radical left’s eventual demise — by literally transforming theory into a practical tool for insurrection. Apple iPod playing Guy Debord’s Hurlements en faveur de Sade (1952) is just that, his 1952 film adapted for the revolutionary on the go. But is the resulting object an optimistic assertion that the radical message of past avant-gardes can be revitalized through new media, or a critique of the capitalist transformation of revolutionary zeal into mere entertainment, another example of Che t-shirt syndrome? In a similar vein, the romantic myth of heroic avant-gardism is subverted by Passe-partout (Chinatown, Year of the Pig), a set of custom-crafted lock picks whose potential as tools that challenge conventions of personal property and propriety is trivialized by the inclusion of kitschy key chains acquired in the gallery’s surrounding neighborhood. A fire is a fire is not a fire, a video loop that cycles through the combustion and reconstitution of a press photo of a burning car, questions the value of armed struggle; the tautology of both title and image speaks to the cyclical and self-extinguishing nature of revolutionary fervor and violent protest.
Suspicious of the integral role media and images play in the propagation of capitalism, much of Claire Fontaine’s practice centers on text. Ibis redibis non morieris in bello, a Bruce Naumaninspired flickering neon text wheel, spells out alternative translations of the titular Latin phrase: either “You will go to war, you will come back, you will not die” or “You will go to war, you will not come back, you will die,” both possible depending on where a comma is placed in the original. Disguised in the pulsating neon of spectacle, it strips away the discourses of patriotism, morality, and freedom used to justify imperialist wars and exposes war for what it simply and actually is, a life-or-death situation. The light box, another advertising tool, is employed in Visions of the World (France) and Visions of the World (New York, New York), encyclopedia-style entries in Arabic — with map, climate, flora and fauna, natural resources, landmarks, industry — of France and the Northeastern US respectively. These works recreate for French and English speakers the powerful sense of otherness and alienation that immigrants often experience as they navigate a new homeland, and the central role that language plays in this.
Created during a particularly incendiary period in French politics, marked by widespread rioting by Arab and North African immigrants in October 2005 and the anti-CPE labor protests in March 2006, many of these works tentatively hover between evincing a continuing commitment to protest and resistance and a growing cynicism toward the possibility of effecting change. This stifling hesitation is sketched out in the text of Dear R, a multi-paged, double-sided letter dated immediately post-2005 riots, presented as a neat stack à la Félix González-Torres, sitting atop a plastic carrier bag. A section of the letter recounts the story of a philosopher who sequesters himself, disheartened by the inability of his words to reach a broad public and make a difference. The parable serves as a critique of intellectualism and could certainly be leveled against Claire Fontaine’s own meta-political practice. But such a charge would misunderstand their works’ true political, if pessimistic, message, which is to reflect just how dire our political present is.
List Visual Art Center Massachusetts Institute of Technology
February 8–April 8, 2007
Sensorium: Embodied Experience, Technology, and Contemporary Art, Part 2 is the second of a two-part exhibition examining artists’ responses to the impact of technology on the human senses. A perhaps unintentional antidote to Super Vision, currently on view across the Charles River at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, Sensorium counters, with an explicit and programmatic attempt to dislodge vision from its privileged position atop the sensorial hierarchy, Super Vision’s paean to technological augmentation and the extension of the eye.
Sensorium ’s ambitious agenda of ocular interrogation and critique is laid out by Caroline A Jones in her lead essay for the exhibition’s catalogue. Revisiting and updating the final chapter of her recent book on Clement Greenberg, Jones situates the work in the exhibition (from a total of nine artists, including one duo and one trio) in relation to her claim that modernism, and the Enlightenment thought in which it is rooted, depend on and enforce a “segmentation” of the senses. Recognizing technology’s central role in this perceptual economy, she argues that rather than offering an “escape from technological mediation,” the body itself, the very means by which we acquire knowledge of the world, must be understood as a mediating apparatus, and that the mediation and control of this human sensory apparatus is fundamental to the constitution and maintenance of subjecthood.
The works in Sensorium, Part 2 probe this nexus of technology, sense, and subjectivity in a variety of ways. Significantly, all reject the impulse toward synesthesia or sensory overload, instead adopting strategies of dislocation and displacement. Christian Jankowski’s Let’s Get Physical/Digital (1997) is the earliest work on view and also one of the strongest. In the mid-90s, in the dark days before internet telephony and instant messaging, Jankowski and his girlfriend of the time found themselves in different countries for an extended period. Short on funds for physical travel or traditional phone conversations, they agreed to meet in internet chat rooms. Jankowski’s thirty-seven-minute video consists of the transcripts from seven such meetings, one for each day of the week, all performed in bland, anonymous stage sets by amateur actors Jankowski located online. The live actors’ re-staging of these self-conscious virtual encounters highlights the inability of the technology to convey such information as tone of voice, facial expression, and body language. The vocalization of typos and frequent discussion of technical difficulties (“Are you still there? I can’t see you” is a constant refrain) further emphasize the limitations of the fledgling medium. At the same time, however, one sees the couple adapting, developing the ability, for example, to remotely “sense” the other’s distraction or disinterest.
Anri Sala’s two-minute video Naturalmystic: Tomahawk #2 (2002) is a distilled meditation on the disparity between sight and sound. In the video, a lone, stationary figure, seated at a microphone in a recording studio, simulates the sound of a tomahawk missile. The sound grows increasingly loud as the phantom missile approaches, suddenly going silent for a moment before exploding. The work testifies to the power of auditory perception on subjectivity and traumatic memory, while the discrepancy between dynamic, affective sound and static, uninflected image undermines a faith in the primacy of visual communication.
Not every work in the show is so convincing. François Roche and R&Sie(n)’s proposal for MI(pi) Bar (2006), a tearoom where visitors would drink tea prepared with their own urine, is a case in point. The exhibition catalogue describes a project to utilize rainwater and the collective waste water of the entire MIT campus for a similar tearoom (provisionally titled MITea). But the shift in register from collectivity to individual (and from the bureaucratic to the scatological) moves the work from a plea for sustainability (somewhat threatening given the potential contents of MIT’s waste water) toward provocation for its own sake.
Natascha Sadr Haghighian’s Singing Microscope (2006) replaces the eyepiece of a vintage MIT microscope with a small speaker, frustrating one sense while unexpectedly opening up another. What the viewer hears (evidently a recent development, as the soundtrack was “still to-be-determined” as the catalogue went to press) are the lyrics to The Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” recounted by a computerized voice akin to the original MacSpeak program. Ostensibly inspired by Evelyn Fox-Keller’s groundbreaking essay “The Biological Gaze,” Haghighian’s witty piece ultimately says more about the song’s somewhat sinister undertones of surveillance and sexual control than it does about the gendered gaze of science or the “complex relationship between invisibility and visualization and the complex realities of the object under observation” invoked in her proposal, published in the catalogue.
Mathieu Briand’s UBIQ, A Mental Odyssey remakes the entrance to the exhibition as a spaceship entryway based on Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi epic 2001: A Space Odyssey, outfitted with retro-modern seating, nonfunctional controls, and a computer-simulated Earth (complete with clouds corresponding to real-time meteorological conditions) visible through a “window.” Inside this elaborate set, visitors are invited to don helmets equipped with cameras and viewscreens. By pressing a button on a handheld device, the viewer is able to change the image on the viewscreen, randomly toggling back and forth between that generated by her own helmet-cam and those of other viewers. UBIQ is touted as a “new approach to deconstructing the concept of the subject” through the interchange of another subject’s perception, “and by extension their thoughts and emotions.” But rather than creating a stream of schizo-subjects à la Deleuze and Guattari, UBIQ never exceeds the status of a novelty, an overdetermined parlor game for the late twentieth century.
In the end, Sensorium is a medium-scale, relatively focused contemporary group show accompanied by a publication with the ambition of a major historical document. This ambition is underscored by the fact that less than a third of the 260-page catalogue is given over to discussion of the work in the exhibition. The lion’s share is given over to the “Abecedarius,” where a host of eminent scholars provide short meditations on topics both obvious (Martin Jay on “Ocularity,” Thomas Y Levin on “Surveillant”) and surprising (Caroline Basset on the “Yuck Factor”). These entries, and the catalogue as a whole, offer a particular, and circumscribed, view of both artistic and theoretical production. Foucault, of course, looms large over the entire project (as well he should), but Merleau-Ponty is nowhere to be found. Similarly, in the entry on “Control,” we get Norbert Weiner, but there is no mention of William S Burroughs — a disappointing lack of imagination for a project of such obvious interdisciplinary ambition (given the theme, a complementary entry on “Addiction” would also be a fruitful addition).
Sensorium is a collaboration between four curators (Bill Arning, Jane Farver, Yuko Hasegawa, and Marjory Jacobson) and Jones, who edited the catalogue, and part of its unevenness may stem from having too many cooks in the kitchen. But it also derives from the disparity in scale between aspiration and execution. Sensorium asks a small number of very recent works to cover a great deal of historical and theoretical ground, and it is almost inevitable that some will be unable to shoulder the burden. In this context, even otherwise strong works can end up feeling dry and over-interpreted, or simply out of place. Perhaps this is why, for all its rhetoric of embodied experience, Sensorium, Part 2 is not, in the end, a particularly sensuous exhibition.
Six months ago, Greek curator Sylvia Kouvali convinced the owners of the posh Marmara Hotel chain to host a series of art videos on the Lumacom screen atop their venue in Pera, Istanbul. The space was named Yama [Patch] and the project launched as an experiment to show new media and video art in the public arena. Kouvali took to the task of curating the first year of monthly screenings with her program …as long as it’s dark…, a selection of works that plays with the idea of commingling spectacle and local social issues. Starting subtly with a screensaver-like series of visuals, by Swedish artist Tova Mozard, that represent interviews with members of a Los Angeles-based science fiction fan club, Kouvali’s selection then shifted to include works that take on some of the region’s more pressing political issues.
In August 2006, the local police division censored Ahmet Ögüt’s video light armoured (2006) after twenty days of screening. His short animation of a camouflaged Land Rover being hit by insignificant stones that comically bounce straight off, was deemed to be provocative and critical of the Turkish military. A few months later, to coincide with the Greek foreign minister’s visit to Istanbul following the midair collision of jousting Greek and Turkish fighter planes over the Aegean Sea, Christodoulos Panayiotou’s video Arkadaslar (2006), which shows British fighter planes from a base in Cyprus drawing the shape of a heart in the sky, was presented on the even more prominent screen of the Marmara Hotel in Taksim Square.
Continuing in this vein, the sixth work to be shown at Yama was Wael Shawky’s Al Aqsa Park, commissioned by the KODRA military camp in Thessoloniki, Cyprus, and first presented on a large-scale cinema screen at the base. The imagery of the video was simple — a digital rendering of the Mosque of Al Aqsa spinning on a central axis like a ballerina ride at a fair. Shawky’s version of the mosque was bleached of all color, and with its golden dome and famous blue Iznic tiles washed of grandeur, the mosque assumed a solitary, timeless, and endearing modesty.
Shawky is of course more than familiar with Al Aqsa’s importance to Muslim culture. For more than fourteen hundred years, it has been venerated throughout the Islamic world as one of the holiest sites after Mecca and Medina. It was to Al Aqsa (“the farthest mosque”) that the prophet Muhammad made his night journey from Mecca and from which he ascended to heaven to receive the commandments, including the five daily prayers, before returning to Earth to communicate them to the faithful. And the site’s importance in history doesn’t end there; Shawky used it in his work as a symbol of what he refers to as “the situation of Islam now.”
As the video progressed, the rendered mosque gained speed, spinning faster and faster like a carousel. It gradually tilted enough to reveal blinking lights beneath its foundations, an image that inspired more of a carnival sensation than religious wonder per se. Gradually, Shawky’s initially solid and calm homage to contemplation began to appear out of control; atop the hotel, hovering above the city against the night sky, Al Aqsa could easily be mistaken for a futuristic spacecraft about to lift off.
Shawky prefers to maintain his original comparison to a waltzer, a fairground ride that similarly tilts as it spins, of which he was always afraid due to the participants’ surrender to its attendant and ultimately to the ride itself. That willingness to let go, suggested Shawky, in a way mirrors religious belief — particularly given the lack of individual control that can be asserted in either case. The artificial novelty of the mosque in Al Aqsa Park worked to hybridize different systems, one of strict religion and the other of amusement and leisure. Although no literal or historical relationships connect the two realms, they both rely on another system — one of faith.
A similar chain of contradictions occurred in the transportation of a work about an Islamic site that started life in a Christian context, to a predominately Muslim city. Perhaps Turkey was the perfect place to stage such a shift — a Muslim country that is both looking to the West and boasting revered religious sites similar to the Al Aqsa Mosque in its own cities. The installation of Al Aqsa Park on one of the highest podiums in the city, a contemporary, commercial hotel in the entertainment hub of Istanbul, further excited the confusion among all those paradigms. Staged in that way, as a spectacle, Shawky’s statement was little different from the weekly light and music show that rhythmically illuminates the Sultanhamet Mosque in shades of pink, green, and blue. Yet for the public, the division between tradition and modernity, strict Islam and the new freedom of expression that the government of Turkey is attempting to promote, still exists. Although it will assume a different meaning in every place it is shown, here in Istanbul, Shawky’s Al Aqsa Park had increased resonance given the fissure generated by Turkey’s delicate balancing act of old versus new.
Under the Indigo Dome
The Third Line
January 18–February 12, 2007
I wasn’t expecting to like Under the Indigo Dome. The pre-exhibition promotion in the local press had been about Tehrangeles and B-boy aesthetics; it sounded blokey and literal, a kind of MTV Irania. Amir H Fallah’s previous show at The Third Line, in 2005, had featured paintings that, for me, were mannered and self-conscious. I’d loved Ala Ebtekar’s drawings from 2002 and 2003, where he overlaid and framed antique Persian manuscripts with line drawings of ancient warriors, missiles, and cowboy boots, an exquisitely rendered mash-up of references; then again, his new series, The Absent Arrival, was supposed to be entirely different.
As it turns out, the two Californian artists have just aged a little, and their work has a new maturity: Under the Indigo Dome was reflective, personal, even melancholic. An exploration of masculinity rather than a rehash of the whole Iranian-American thing, Fallah and Ebtekar’s works were stylistically very different from each other, but they conversed sympathetically across the gallery.
In the show’s catalogue, Fallah describes his previous paintings — richly colored, semi-abstract landscapes of poppy blobs and shapes — as “restrained and formal.” His newer work explores his male friends’ memories of the treehouses, camps, and forts they built during childhood and adolescence. At The Third Line, the theme was worked out through photos of friends’ recreated camps (accompanied in the catalogue by interviews with the nostalgists in question), collage studies, and an installation of a fort, knocked together from wood and rope, with a few magazine pictures of sexy girls pasted inside. His theme then exploded in a series of canvases featuring warmly and precisely painted camps set against apocalyptic skies that, in contrast, dominated and threatened to overwhelm the subject.
Or maybe the dramatic skies were the subject; maybe Fallah’s project is much darker than it initially appears. Either way, the rich, vivid horizons accentuated the safe haven of the fort, and evoked early teenage (male) fantasies of facing down Armageddon from a shack in the woods. The oblique influence of sci-fi and comics on Fallah’s style was especially appropriate here.
Ala Ebtekar’s new work was also a surprise. He’s still fascinated by Iranian coffeehouse culture and the large-scale paintings that hang in those traditional institutions. In the show he riffed again on the iconic figures — wrestlers, Zurkhaneh [historical sports club] trainers — that have appeared in his work previously, but at The Third Line they were layered in graphite on white paper, blurred with other figures that adopted B-boy stances and poses, as found in 1980s books and magazines and in Brooklyn-based photographer Jamel Shabazz’s images of the early hip-hop scene. Ebtekar’s subject was pared down; the drawings melded the delicate figures together so that it was hard to see where one ended and another began. A white acrylic dome-like line that referenced Ebtekar’s training in Persian miniature painting framed the figures. A couple of brilliantly executed, larger-than-life wall drawings in the same style were a highlight of the show.
The Absent Arrival could be obvious, a literal interpretation of that hackneyed theme of the split personality of the émigré (or in Ebtekar’s case, the first-generation American). But the series is meditative without being nostalgic or trite. This was Ebtekar’s first show in Dubai. It’s a shame that he was represented only by this series, which, with thirty-one related drawings, was a little repetitive, and belied the diversity within his body of work.
The Exotic Journey Never Ends
Foksal Gallery Foundation
October 21–November 17, 2006
Though the initial proposal for the title of the exhibition was Exhausted [Tired] Modernism, the artists involved in The Exotic Journey Ends appeared tired neither of modernism nor of the post-avant-garde tradition (it was perhaps fitting that the site of Foksal Gallery Foundation is a trademark modernist building from the 60s).
It was in the 1960s that the masters of the Polish avant-garde (from constructivists to conceptualists) cofounded the legendary Foksal Gallery, and to this very day their concepts remain a reference point for projects realized in the newer Foksal Gallery Foundation, founded by Adam Szymczyk, Joanna Mytkowska, and Andrzej Przywara. In 2002, the Foundation encountered Kurimanzutto, a Mexico City-based project founded by José Kuri and Monika Manzutto (and supported by artist Gabriel Orozco) that has no space per se but organizes original, often wacky, site-specific interventions in a variety of contexts (imagine a party in a carpet shop or an art sale in a Mexico City flea market). From there a partnership was born, as both Foksal and Kurimanzutto realized that they had each been touted as purveyors of a new sort of exotica in the art world, involuntary ambassadors expected to reveal the next big thing from Poland and Mexico respectively. A series of conversations and events culminated in The Exotic Journey Ends, a group exhibition in Warsaw that aimed to examine the state of local modernisms and complexify a tendency to look at movements such as theirs in a historical vacuum.
The curators created a space in which works by contemporary Polish and Mexican artists were afforded the chance to rub up against one another, providing novel juxtapositions, novel dialogues. A number of older artists were invited to mix with younger artists — notably Edward Krasinski and André Cadere, both seminal artists in the 1970s, who each in his own way questioned the logic of the gallery space, experimenting with the modest minimal gesture, including quasi-mathematical systems (module, length, height, mistake). Krasinski’s scotch blue lines — interventions in gallery spaces, bars, or paintings, functioned as “reality traps,” visual interventions that made one consider a reformulation of space and also hinted at the possibility of connecting things — whether tangible artistic elements or concepts — in infinite fashion. Cadere, for his part, was perhaps best known for his barre de bois rond, colorful segmented sticks that “interrupted” exhibitions — subtly performative, slightly imperfect, they poked holes in the logic of exhibitionism.
Next to these canonical/historical pieces Orozco’s Samurai Tree 10k engaged the notion of the “masterpiece” painting, employing a method of abstraction based on the mathematical rules of chess. Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Films for Palm Pavilion consisted of a real palm tree juxtaposed with two videos marked by palm tree motifs and an atomic explosion (as seen through palm trees) on a beautiful atoll. Its message about the art world may have been heavy-handed, but it did the job.
Polish artists invited to the show largely focused on the architecture of the space, many preparing site-specific works. Monika Sosnowska’s sculptural intervention in the concrete-oppressive stairwell of the building managed to create the illusion of an organic black iron ribbon-trap that subverted the function of the guardrail, disturbing the audience climbing the stairs to see the show. The same staircase hosted Wilhelm Sasnal’s painting, also gobbling up the modernist architecture of the space, monumentalizing an abstract detail taken from the front of a deli built in the 60s in his hometown of Tarnów.
Outside the building, Cezary Bodzianowski pulled off a performance where he sat for twenty minutes on the edge of the roof, treating the building as a pedestal, a living sculpture that temporarily altered the function and scale of the cube building (art critic Andrzej Przywara remarked that Bodzianowski looked as if he had stepped out of the apocalyptic photographs of Enrique Metinides). His performance resonated with Ortega’s and Krasinski’s dialogue with the size and scale of the space. Pawel Althamer, for his part, prepared a vaguely Indian-looking white drawing on the flat roof, seen only by those who climbed a ladder. And on the grass near the entrance to the building, Miroslaw Balka constructed a wooden Ramp to Nowhere, which besides pointing to the edge of “emptiness” and “exhaustion,” was immediately used by children from the neighborhood — a sort of leap into the unknown, an exotic takeoff.
Melik Ohanian: Seven Minutes Before
South London Gallery
November 16, 2006–January 14, 2007
Melik Ohanian’s film installation Seven Minutes Before (2004) contains a number of seductive images. There’s a raptor buffeted by the wind, struggling to keep aloft as it’s held by its handler and filmed on the back of a moving truck; there’s a caged wolf that springs back and then leaps at the camera again and again, snarling and scratching at the floor. A constellation of fairy lights glisten in the grass on the side of a hill, and on the roadside a weather-beaten man raises his hands and gently shuffles his feet in the brief outline of a dance. Ohanian also presents some great pyrotechnics: two underwater booms that thump impressively, thanks to the installation’s hefty surround sound; a fountain firework, which fizzes away in a field a few meters from where the raptor has been tethered; and an explosion inside a caravan that subsequently bursts into flames.
These scenes and events — and others not quite so impressive, including a plethora of shots of pastoral surroundings — are accompanied by an Armenian and a Japanese musician playing traditional instruments — two mournful and ethereal performances — and some vaguely philosophical rants by a Senegalese slammer. The action was filmed in one valley in France, by seven cameras, during the course of a continuous twenty-one-minute shoot, following a sequence meticulously choreographed by Ohanian (the plotted topography is displayed as a map in a side room at the South London Gallery). The end result is projected on seven large screens arranged in a line that fills the gallery’s space; the soundtrack booms on twenty-eight speakers and seven bass modules. This somewhat overwhelming installation represents Ohanian’s attempt at constructing what he calls a “cosmography,” a means of presenting film through space rather than time. Physically, the work can’t be viewed in its entirety from any one point — the viewer has to move in order to see each screen — and filmically, events, dense and allusive as they are, occur seemingly at random, rather than being structured into any sort of linear narrative.
This grandiose schema ultimately disappoints. Despite being fortified with sexy space/time theory (a book, Cosmograms, produced with theorist Jean-Christophe Royoux, accompanies the installation), starting with a heraldic roll of thunder, and ending with an explosion, as a viewing experience Seven Minutes Before falls strangely flat. As in much of Ohanian’s work, there’s no cause or effect relating any of the events that dot the seven screens, and nothing gets explained. While it’s probably safe to presume that this elusiveness is intentional, for the most part it remains unconvincing.
Perhaps there is one significant connection to be made: a voice over at the work’s beginning tells the story of forty-three horses who panicked during a storm in France in 1993 and fell to their deaths in the valley below. The horses were descended from Arabians that had been crossbred with a local French mountain herd to produce a type specially suited to the region. Thus Seven Minutes Before might be about the difficulties of cultural adaptation and the loss of tradition. Like the horses, which ultimately couldn’t acclimate, the Armenian kamantcha and the Japanese koto have become rare and could be said to be dying out. The bird of prey trapped in the wind tunnel and the caged wolf are also out of place. But even such a tentative tracing feels forced. To be spoonfed associations would be frustrating — but it would be nice to be left with some lingering unease, not just a sense of the futility of any attempt to connect the dots.
Unfortunately, like Isaac Julien, whose split-screen projections are intended to represent a fractured, postcolonial identity, Ohanian appears to have succumbed to technical and theoretical whimsy. Ohanian, like Julien, loves the grandeur of film, as distinct from video art, but seems unwilling to go wholehog and actually make films, to forsake some of the admittedly sexy wizardry of video work for a more rigorous interrogation of meaning. Instead, Seven Minutes Before comes across as bits from a film, characterized by high-definition slickness and flagged with convenient ethnic markers — traces of Ohanian’s Armenian roots — to no cohesive purpose. (You’ve probably already noticed that we live in a fractured world.)
Toward the end of the film, a white truck drives around a corner; an off-road motorbike suddenly appears in its path. There’s a half-assed collision, the biker is thrown, and the truck overturns. Nothing else. No one so much as struggles to get out of the truck. The biker lies still on the road, the camera steadily moves on. So much for showmanship.
Akram Zaatari: Objects of Study
January 26–March 17, 2007
There’s something peculiar about the faces of people posing for pictures in a photographer’s studio. Whether smiling or thoughtful, serious or sad, in their expressions the public and the private collide. Standing still before the camera, studio clients are afforded the luxury of pursuing their greatest fantasies (film star; sheikh) — all within the confines of the studio, complete with its own particular codes, customs, and theatrics. You could say that what emerges on the photographic print is a curious amalgam of all of these factors.
It is the complexity of the studio image that Akram Zaatari seeks to investigate in his ongoing Madani Project. For some years already, Zaatari has been working on compiling, structuring, and (re)contextualizing photographic material gathered from the former Studio Shehrazade in Saida, Lebanon, where he was born in 1966. Recently, the prolific Beirut based video artist, photographer, curator, and cofounder of the Arab Image Foundation introduced parts of the project under the title Objects of Study, in the Hamburg gallery spaces of Andrée Sfeir-Semler.
Established in the early 1950s by photographer Hashem el Madani, Studio Shehrazade accumulated a rich store of photographic images over the decades, documenting everyday life in Lebanon — banal and momentous — against the backdrop of the country’s tumultuous war marked history. The complete archive of Studio Shehrazade has been incorporated into the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut — itself an archive devoted to preserving the photographic legacy of the Middle East and its diaspora.
From the photographs taken at Studio Shehrazade, Zaatari grouped images according to various topics or motifs and supplemented them with commentary by the photographer. In Hamburg, viewers encountered five series of black and white prints produced between the 1950s and early 1970s. In one series, based on negatives from 1966, young boys in Madani’s studio enthusiastically embrace a cardboard cutout of a sexy blonde, a Gevaert film advertisement. In another series, eight young men are portrayed frontally and in profile: images used in applications for military training in the early 70s.
These pictures, in which the individual was transformed into a type, resonated with another series depicting fourteen young men in camouflage under the caption “After they joined the Military Struggle.” Capturing the young men in the stance of heroes proudly brandishing guns, the images conveyed an interesting ambiguity. Posing on the studio pedestal, behind which a toy plane partially revealed itself, the ostentatiously armed subjects of the photographs oscillated between freedom fighter romanticism and the harsh, even ugly, reality of militarism. That ambiguity was further emphasized by their oddly clichéd poses, reminiscent of cinematic renditions of military heroics and revealing a playfulness undermined by the fact that the guns held with such visible fervor were, in fact, the real thing.
One of the other two series presented in the central space of the gallery showed people walking or cycling in varying constellations towards the photographic eye — and thus toward the viewer — on a bridge in Saida. In the other, hung a contact print sequence, the studio photographer’s futile attempts to achieve pictorial results with a defective flash, while on the wall opposite, a triptych drew viewers’ attention to mysterious images isolated from the same series, in which the camera had been directed towards the floor. All of the images were installed in the gallery in the precisely elegant mode of a scientific research series.
Indeed, it was Zaatari’s declared objective to focus exclusively on documentary material. “I am not interested in fiction,” he claimed. “I am attached to field work.” Still, through the placement of the documentary images within the gallery, a new set of associations was triggered, filtered by the viewer as well as by Zaatari. Upstairs, the various visual threads introduced in the first section of the exhibition were pulled together in a panoramic view of the intriguing reception space of Studio Shehrazade, represented in color, as well as pictures of the items located on the desk of the studio photographer. Zaatari displayed the different time-worn instruments Madani used in his photographic work in generically ordered arrangements, much like specimens found at an archaeological site.
Finally, in Video in Five Movements (2006), a collage based on Super 8 home movie footage filmed by Madani in the 1960s and 70s, Zaatari explored how “a still photographer conceived movement and spontaneously directed his friends and family members, including himself.” The video gradually flowed from singular representations of the studio photographer to the depiction of a larger group of people. Stillness and motion: between those poles, Zaatari’s subtly exciting “excavations” of Studio Shehrazade crystallized moments of contemporary Lebanese history, revealing not only the specific studio practices of Hashem el Madani, but also throwing light on how studio photography can animate an epoch.
By employing quasi-scientific methods and giving the photographic material he works with a new shape through the specific choice and juxtaposition of images, as well as by means of their placement in the sphere of art, Zaatari points to the tension between the “objective” and the “subjective.” Viewers, encouraged to read the images and thus to participate actively in investing them with meaning, become entwined in the dialectical interrelationship that obscures the boundary between the observer and the subject of observation.
In this sense, Zaatari is not only an excavator but also a creator of images, revealing the manifold hidden layers inherent in studio photography as a tool of recording, but also as a way of staging, mirroring, and distorting reality. In the Hamburg show, Zaatari’s carefully chosen images, adopted from the studio archive, had significance far beyond the mere documentation of lives in a certain time and place: the personal stories and histories underlying the photographs comprised, in a way, the story of ourselves.
The Maghreb Connection
Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art
December 11, 2006–January 13, 2007
Although camera crews were on hand, none of the protagonists bothered to show up. At the opening of The Maghreb Connection at the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo, only the usual suspects appeared: the curator, who was interviewed by Orbit TV; the artists, who received congratulations on all sides; and the expats, French-speaking Egyptians and art students who always turn out for Townhouse’s events, happy for an evening’s entertainment. But of the artworks’ subjects — immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa, the Maghreb, China, and elsewhere — not one was present.
That the show purported to address such weighty and topical issues as migration and xenophobia — and, in the words of the curators, address the question, “What do the migrants themselves have to say about their own mobility, and how can their voices become part of a solution to what so many others have constructed as a problem?” — made the absence of such voices in the evening’s cacophony all the more audible.
The Maghreb Connection, like most art shows that claim to be political, had grand and noble aspirations. Conceiving of itself as a collaborative, borderless, and ongoing examination of networks of mobility and migration, it brought together researchers, artists, students, and activists over the course of eighteen months, culminating in the eight-work exhibit, which will travel to the Center for Contemporary Art in Geneva; the accompanying catalogue; and a symposium, which took place December 11, 2006.
In its Townhouse manifestation, the show looked promising. Gritty videos filmed in places few news cameras make it to were being shown in Townhouse’s exhibition hall; large-scale posters using images taken by the Moroccan coast guard filled a wall; and the Annex and the main space housed screening rooms and giant photographs by Yto Barrada and Armin Linke. Ostensibly this offered eight a radically different approaches to this highly charged subject.
Closer examination revealed technical difficulties: small TV monitors attempting to communicate Ursula Biemann’s short videos on big ideas with low-quality headphones just couldn’t hack it. And there were other difficulties as well. While the show claimed repeatedly, both in the catalogue and throughout the symposium, to bring a polyphonic and conceptually wider point of view — that of the artist, the researcher, the activist — to the discussion of migration, Biemann’s videos, and those of her assistant, Charles Heller, had the unpolished, realist look and feel of long-format TV news segments. Was this recreation of the medium against which the show so earnestly posited itself intentional? If so, its recontextualization in a gallery, propped up by theoretical sound bites about inscribing power on bodies, failed to distinguish them.
Both Biemann and Heller did the voiceover for their videos, positioning themselves as omniscient narrators who provide crucial background information, be it historical or personal, as when Heller describes his disappointment at not reaching the Bel Younech refugee camp. They also offer, didactically and without subtlety, their own theories on migration, power, and autonomy, substituting their voices for those of their subjects. To show gritty migrant life while whispering foregone conclusions does little to widen context or provoke debate.
Hala Elkoussy aimed higher in her animated video From Rome to Rome. The title refers to the Sharkia governorate of Egypt, where so many of the towns have lost their young men to Italy that many now go by the name of the destination. Pooling stories collected from the newspapers, internet research, and interviews with both educated Cairenes and less privileged men from the “Italian” countryside, Elkoussy’s video tells the tale of Younis, who, with a band of fellow fortune-seekers, crosses Libya and the Mediterranean, arriving at the Italian island of Lampedusa, where they are promptly tossed into jail. By hiring a children’s book author and illustrator, the abundantly talented Walid Taher, Elkoussy channeled the power of cartoons, inviting us to enter a dreamy, otherworldly place. In this state, heightened by the narrator’s gently theatrical tone and the naiveté of his statements, the viewer is carried along almost unthinkingly through the story, frame by tragic frame.
Chinese Sweet, Chinese Pretty, a video by the Cairo-based artist Doa Aly, focused on the small but growing Chinese community in Cairo. (It’s currently 3000 strong.) Aly started the project after two women calling themselves Susu and Mama knocked on her door one day, offered her some “highly flammable nightgowns,” as she calls them, and then disappeared when she didn’t want to buy any. Determined to learn more, she hired a translator and was trailing some other vendors when, a year after the first encounter, she bumped into Susu and Mama again. Featuring them in their various roles — as mothers, daughters, wives, vendors, and lingerie models — the video is slick and well-edited, with catchy Chinese pop tunes piped in at all the right moments and a fine balance of long shots, depicting Cairo’s mean streets, and intimate at-home moments with the women.
At-home moments aside, the video has trouble establishing a relationship between subjects and viewers, due in part to linguistic barriers (since the subjects speak only Chinese, all of their statements were relayed through an Arabic-speaking translator and later subtitled in English and Arabic), but largely because the artist herself felt, also for linguistic reasons, that she never succeeded, over seven intense months of filming, in establishing a relationship with her subjects. One senses this when watching, and it emerges as an observational and informational work —despite its linguistic issues, it’s an engaging and fast-moving anthropological study wrought in video.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that the two best-received pieces in the show, From Rome to Rome and Chinese Sweet, Chinese Pretty, were homespun (and had their own projection rooms with decent sound). Given Townhouse’s location and its relationship with the local community (it runs outreach programs with Sudanese refugees and weekly free art workshops), the show had a particular resonance with its audience. In its Geneva incarnation, with the works ever further from their subjects and their sites of creation, it remains to be seen whether the voices of these unheard people will manage to echo.
December 8-14, 2006
The artist Rokni Haerizadeh takes ancient Iranian narratives and poems, as found in the likes of miniature paintings, and revisits them, often injecting them with new life. In Haerizadeh’s unique vision, miniatures contain plastic bath ducks, urban icons and imaginary characters (for example, a superhero wrestler made of cotton called pahlevan e pambeh). His mixing of figures from the past and the pre sent is often more sophisticated than any standard, easy use of contrast one sees among many contemporary artists working today; they’re drawn from an internal map of references that is both of and about contemporary Iran’s paradoxes. Funny colloquial titles are drawn from the Iranian oral tradition. The works are playful, confusing time and space. Finally, they challenge traces of elitism in the tradition of Iranian arts; they actually make you laugh.
In his most recent exhibition at Tehran’s Golestan Gallery, Haerizadeh continued this vein of work and took on the still life. Peaches, carrots, eggplants, nectarines, Iran Air airplanes, images of former ruler Naser-el-din Shah and Iranian poet/prophet Sadegh Hedayat, and antique trays and plates all featured, in plain shades of purple, red, and yellow. These were paintings made in the fashion of quick script — spontaneously executed. In his still lifes, Haerizadeh played with the idea of the framed subject; the same lines that outlined peaches and nectarines developed and created a second frame for the subject. Or were the still lifes actually, simply, the subject themselves? One can never tell. Perhaps, Haerizadeh seemed to be offering, Magritte’s pipe was in fact a pipe after all.
Haerizadeh’s control of his medium is subtle. His colorful, joyful compositions seduce us — for they are very beautiful. But underneath, you could say a bit like a shifting frame, is a hint of irony, even subversion — not unlike the layers and layers of tone and meaning that constitute life in Tehran these days.
Art In General
December 13, 2006–March 31, 2007
“Because it was working so silently, the machine simply escaped one’s attention.” So quotes the script by RL and VL, fictional artist protagonists of Project for an Inhibition in New York or How Do You Arrest a Hurricane?. RL and VL are quiet types. They read Kafka and Deleuze. They worry about aesthetic effectiveness; they hope against hope for an art of critical resistance. The art world’s political endgame is a familiar spectacle to them. Nevertheless, they are committed to keeping the lines of communication open. Their studio and works in progress were recently staged as an exhibition platform for Camp Campaign, a project commissioned by New York’s Art in General.
New York-based artists Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri constructed the “campaign” and its fictional studio/exhibition space as part of a larger inquiry into the concept of the camp, which they perceive (along with, among others, Giorgio Agamben) as a governing paradigm in the world today. How is it, they ask, that a place like Guantanamo Bay can exist in our time? What has become of human rights? What does it mean to live in a “state of exception,” where legal rights may be suspended indefinitely?
Camp Campaign shifts the contexts of these questions in order to understand their connections to everyday lives and concerns. Traveling across the US in the summer of 2006, Anastas and Gabri took their campaign to the likes of children’s camps in Maryland, former military barracks in Ohio, and Native American reservations in New Mexico, as well as artist collectives, coffeehouses, and radio stations. “Ours is a campaign of both refusal and generating questions,” they explain in their project description. As such, its exhibited form refuses to present their findings as neat answers.
Their trip is charted on a map titled Fear Is Somehow Ours for Whom? For What? + Proximity to Everything Far Away. The US map is framed by text and marked with people and places that figured literally or metaphorically along their trajectory (Walter Benjamin shows up at Camp Perry, Ohio; Judith Butler near San Francisco).
The map’s legend reads as a travelogue of events, quotes, and commentary: in New Orleans, where they met with local relief organization Common Ground, the map notes, “If there ever was a recent event in which our critical terminology was put into play (ie, state of exception, the camp, biopolitics) one would have to confront New Orleans. Moreover, if there ever was a project for a revolution or the potential for a dignified and relentless revolt… how was this potential quelled, snuffed, muffled?”
By its very nature and form, an exhibition can only represent such questions, but Anastas and Gabri know better than to neglect its more useful mechanisms. Through displacement, time delay, and the crafting of a fictional work in progress, they turn the exhibition format inside out. The public is invited into a minimal workspace: there is a slideshow of photographs, a film projection, what could be an editing station with two monitors, and a stack of maps for visitors to take. Pins and stickers with instructional line drawings (camp-related words taken from a visual dictionary) are in one corner, stacks of classical records (Xenakis, Schoenberg, Debussy) and a gramophone in another.
The visitor is guided, in place of labels or brochures, by a “script” — what appear to be working production notes for the silent film projection on the wall, complete with a proposed narrator’s monologue. Doubling the experience, the script also sets out the unfolding of the exhibition itself (the opening lines read: INT. Exhibition opening — Dec. 13, 6pm…We are in a storefront on Walker Street, in Chinatown, New York City. RL and VL have an exhibition opening. There is a small crowd…). Only the first few scenes are provided; the next moves will be scripted over the course of the show’s run, while the space changes accordingly. The exhibition is moving backwards in time, from its opening to its conception.
If Agamben guides the artists’ questions, Robbe-Grillet and Kafka haunt their forms. The impersonal descriptions and cinematic structures of Robbe-Grillet’s novels are echoed in the work’s visual and textual material, in its restrained tone and perceptual shifts and breaks. References to Paul Celan and Iannis Xenakis heighten a sense of troubled modernist poetics.
These are familiar aesthetic tropes: appropriation, self-referentiality, mise en abîme. But intertextuality isn’t just a postmodern ploy. It differs in the way in which meaning is fragmented — with a filmmaker’s sense of dramatic juxtaposition and estrangement, anticipating the distracted realities of the ultra-politicized moment.
As artists, Anastas and Gabri take things apart and put them together again, to try and expose the historic, aesthetic, and political lines that lead to Camp Campaign. Of course, a spectator will only accompany them so far; research as style is probably not for everyone. But anticipating the audience’s commitments just might be part of their strategy. And spectacle or no spectacle, RL and VL aren’t backing down. A few weeks into the exhibition, the windows of the Chinatown project space were sealed off with two large hand-painted posters, which read in English and Cantonese: “Let Americans know that the world is against torture.”
Nazgol Ansarinia: Untitled (Do Not Give Your Opinion)
13 Vanak Gallery
December 29, 2006–January 11, 2007
The walls of Iran command us, they preach. Since the revolution of 1979, public and governmental walls in cities throughout Iran have been covered with slogans. Such slogans tell us how to live our lives; they give us moral advice — ordering, banning, commenting on the righteous path (for there is one).
Unlike, say, graffiti movements of the 1980s in New York (the Clean Train Movement, Basquiat, and Keith Haring), these writings are not a form of social or cultural revolt. Instead, they function as a sort of state-sanctioned propaganda; the walls surrounding our cities belong to the same organizations that control the coma-inducing media. They issue from the same aesthetic blueprint, too. We cross the streets, admonished to do this and avoid that, but how often do we actually see these writings? Though they’re part of our visual repertoire, they remain invisible, even unrealized.
In Untitled (do not give your opinion), Nazgol Ansarinia removed the verbs from these sentences (“go” “beware” “seek”) and reproduced them on the walls of Fereydoun Ave’s small white cube gallery space. Ansarinia, who often takes everyday life as her inspiration, in effect infused the words with new life — raising subtle questions about the lines separating art from propaganda, the banal from the exalted.
On the right-hand wall just inside the gallery space, the phrase “Do not Approach” was reproduced in a 1:1 scale — as if on a real city wall — asking the docile spectator to contemplate an everyday experience, to track the traces of this specter in his or her image-repertoire. Hung on the remaining three walls were a collection of verbal imperatives, each executed on cardboard. Detached from their original context, these words were recontextualized in the galley space, possessing the indexical quality of photography. Meanwhile, a video played in the window of the space, a street scene of a wall phrase caught in real time, eerily mirroring the outside world before it. Most people passed by the video ignorant of it, leaving it, like the wall writings, completely unnoticed. And there lay the strength of the work, and of the exhibition in general — it didn’t hit you over the head with its politics, nor did it present a fetishized view of third-world propaganda. It was both of and about the subject it purported to speak for. However, if you looked too quickly, you could have missed its essence entirely.
By Alaa Al Aswany
Dar El Shorouk, 2007
Patriotism is narcissistic; so are soap operas. Both hang on the sad assumption of a collective viewpoint. Both work by means of stasis, language reduced to slogans or platitudes, meaning to a wafer-thin morality or norm.
Which is why when Alaa Al Aswani introduced soap opera into the Arabic novel — a largely pedagogic genre, in the minds of his writerly generation (of the 1970s) — it was sold and resold and made into a big-budget film. So far, so delightful. At least he’s still writing books; his compatriot and contemporary, Osama Anwar Okasha has abandoned publication altogether to write musalsalat [serialized dramas], wangling all that he and his comrades coveted during the student movement: money, fame, intellectual kudos, and, perhaps most important, access to the minds of the masses.
Aswani’s The Yacoubian Building was less about the triumph of mediocrity than that of the lowest common denominator. What’s distressing is the incredible inanity of that. ”Medium-brow,” is how Aswani’s English translator describes the book. Striving for popularity, Yacoubian resolves into a tile game of colors: yellow for the tabloid, the scandal-mongering, the off-color (read, X-rated); blue for mood; green for (secularized) religious affiliation; red and black for a pumped up sense of national identity.
In Chicago, his follow-up novel, Aswani transports his cast of (stereo)types from downtown Cairo to the Histology Department of Illinois State University — where, earning PhDs, they play out the same sort-of-protestant parable about what it means to be Egyptian today, how one should, as opposed to how one shouldn’t, be Egyptian. It’s a slightly less “colorful” cast, the story’s power deriving not so much from unmitigated urban vice as from displacement, its secrets less revealing of the limitations and prejudices of the omniscient narrator.
More catholically, there’s a conversation about vibrators, a range of risqué masturbation-prayer configurations, a conflict between renegade and true-to-themselves Egyptian doctors, and sundry additions to the annals of “Egyptians (read, self-hating uncivilized country bumpkins) in America.” It’s realistic, but only insofar as it remains simplistic and reductive; in life, the reality of any one individual — and I can vouch for there being many Egyptian individuals who define themselves differently than Aswani does — lies outside the scope of the aforementioned omniscience. This is a literary issue already raised, and variously resolved, many decades before Aswani was born.
Judging by the standards of the popular novel, Chicago is better written than The Yacoubian Building. This is thanks in large part to Aswani having brushed up his technique, which can be read as a stab at something somewhat more high-brow (in line with its superior setting?).
The book opens with a monograph on the history of Chicago, explaining that the etymology of the word, in the local Native American tongue, derives from its being the site of extensive onion farming: a pungent smell. Aswani, a dentist by trade, also provides complex glosses on histology, on the way medical departments in universities work, and on various locales back in Egypt. As the novel progresses, the all-too-Egyptian melodrama acquires clash-of-civilizations dimensions, and any individual traits the characters might have shown, however fleetingly, dissolve into the fray. By the last page I was left with a sense of having been duly distracted, but having learned nothing and experienced little in the way of human engagement. It felt as if I had just completed an episode of the Ramadan soap opera my middle-class family has been praising.
The worldwide rumpus over Aswani is thrilling in that it’s been unparalleled in Arabic literature since Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize in 1988. Yet the proof is demonstrably not in the pudding; that the reading is easy is the most that can be said of it. Neither the intellectual engagement of Sonallah Ibrahim nor the stylistic exquisiteness of Ibrahim Aslan can be found here. And that is what is distressing. Like patriotism, like soap opera, Aswani is annoyingly mundane.
Reading Legitimation Crisis in Tehran
By Danny Postel
Prickly Paradigm Press, 2007
Most of us ordinary Americans, with our limited time, energy, and resources, take shortcuts to our political positions; it’s inevitable. One of the most common (and useful) of these is “out now.” Out of Vietnam, out of Central America, out of Iraq, out of the West Bank, out of NAFTA. “Get out” if our government or one of its clients has already intervened; “stay out” if they haven’t yet. It’s a reasonable default position.
It does, however, like all mental shortcuts, have its drawbacks. It doesn’t, for example, suggest ways we might help people whose political problems are not solely America’s fault. Contemporary Iran is one example. The US Government menaces Iran but probably can’t carry out its threats. Meanwhile, the Iranian regime makes life difficult for its own political opponents. How can Americans support Iranian democracy activists without furthering our own government’s purposes, which have little to do with democracy in Iran or anywhere else?
Even to raise this question is, for an American leftist, to think outside the box; if Danny Postel’s eloquent and provocative Reading ‘Legitimation Crisis’ in Tehran did nothing more, it would still be an important contribution to the political conversation. But it does more.
One chapter is a sensitive review of Foucault and the Iranian Revolution by Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson, which documents Foucault’s puzzling and slightly scandalous enthusiasm for the Islamic regime. Another is a wide-ranging interview with Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo, mainly about which Western political thinkers currently interest Iranians most and why. Apparently liberals and pluralists like Habermas, Arendt, Berlin, and Popper are far more popular than radicals and anti-imperialists like Chomsky and Said, while Marxism is simply a dead letter. Revolution and class struggle are conversation stoppers; instead, Iranians want to discuss individual rights (also known as “bourgeois liberties”): democracy, pluralism, civil society, tradition and modernity, religious tolerance.
The central argument of Reading ‘Legitimation Crisis’ in Tehran is that Western progressives, preoccupied with the sins of their own governments, are not doing Iranian democracy activists as much good as they might. “Anti-imperialism” sometimes even provides a rationale for ignoring or excusing the crimes of the Iranian regime, since any such criticism may be seized by right-wingers seeking pretexts for intervention. This is all wrong, Postel protests (as do Iranian activists, many of whom he cites). Iran, he points out, is “a state at war with itself,” and “progressives everywhere should take sides in that war and actively support the forces of democracy, feminism, pluralism, human rights, and freedom of expression.”
True, but what can Americans do for Iranian democrats? Postel’s answer seems to be, provide moral support. Encourage them, send them speakers, bring them over here to speak. Yes, of course. But what about material support? They don’t want it, and individual citizens couldn’t offer much even if they did. As for US government money, “Thanks, but no thanks,” they say — probably wisely, though I don’t see any objection in principle, only that it would be a tactical mistake. We can demand that the Iranian government release this person, stop that policy. But to whom do we make this demand? The Iranian government has no incentive to pay the slightest attention to American progressives. Nor, for that matter, does the American government. The proper audience for those of us whom Postel is addressing is his and our fellow citizens, whom the US government cannot ignore — not, at any rate, indefinitely. Only an informed majority of American citizens can force a decent foreign (or domestic) policy on the American government.
So what, Postel asks, would be a decent and effective US foreign policy toward Iran, apart from nonintervention? It’s so much clearer in the Israeli-Palestinian case or the Cuban case or the globalization case, or any on the list of cases he rattles off at one point as examples of what progressives usually concern themselves with: “poverty, development, trade policy, capital flows, financial markets, sweat shops, structural adjustment, landless workers, transnational corporations, ecological destruction, genetically engineered crops, and the like.” In all those cases the US government is already doing things that make a great deal of difference, usually for the worse. What about Iran? Why is it urgent that well-intentioned Americans persuade their fellow citizens to force our government to do, or stop doing, in respect to Iran?
The scope of that question can be broadened: what would the world’s richest and most powerful state do if it were serious about promoting democracy and equitable development? The material infrastructure of democracy and human rights is economic security, literacy, public health, and the absence of external threats (which typically furnish governments with “national security” pretexts for repression). American citizens, via taxes, annually fund hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of not entirely benign international activity by their government. A fraction of this money would go a long way toward helping to build that infrastructure in non-rich societies, which are usually (and not coincidentally) non-free societies. As Postel rightly insists, international solidarity isn’t all about changing American policy. But perhaps most of it is.