There's an exhibition featuring sci-fi, history, video games, sexuality, soap operas, censorship and a powerful sense of humour at Cornerhouse in Manchester right now. The show is called Subversion and it questions and knocks around whatever assumption you might have about an homogenous 'Arab world', whatever image politicians and the media might have given you about its culture and identity.
Curator Omar Kholeif explained in an interview with Film International: I worked with artists [...] who wanted to dissent, poke fun, critique and re-define themselves as artists of the imagination, and not of any specific social or political condition. Together they reference a deep culture of subversion that traces back to the 1940s and 50s with the work of the Egyptian trickster, Ismail Yassin, whose slapstick film performances poked fun at the roles that many Arabs had to play under a militarised social condition. With Subversion we bring this narrative up to date for the good of our artists and our audiences.
The show opens on the video of a Palestinian astronaut landing on the moon. Given the fact that the Nakba has been going on for 64 years now, one wouldn't be surprised to hear that one day, the empty celestial body might become yet another place of refuge for the uprooted population. Larissa Sansour's A Space Exodus propels a Palestinian astronaut into an adaptation of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Referencing Neil Armstrong's moon landing, a voice can be heard saying that this was 'a small step for a Palestinian, a giant leap for mankind'.
Meanwhile, small Palestinauts are quietly invading the exhibition floor....
Upstairs, Sansour is showing another project, the preview of The Nation Estate, a work conceived in the wake of the Palestinian bid for nationhood at the UN. The Nation Estate gained fame after Lacoste attempted to censor it by withdrawing its sponsorship for a photo prize to which the young artist had been shortlisted.
In this sci-fi photo series (which will later be accompanied by a video), Palestinians have finally been conceded their own state in the form of a single skyscraper. Erected outside the city of Jerusalem and unsurprisingly surrounded by concrete walls, the building of 'the Nation Estate' houses the entire Palestinian population. Each city has its own floor: Jerusalem is on the third floor; Ramallah, fourth floor; Bethleem, fifth floor; Nablus, sixth floor; Gaza, seventh floor, etc. Intercity trips previously hindered by checkpoints and soldiers are now made by elevator.
Tarzan and Arab live in Gaza (i was going to write 'come from' but that would suppose that they are allowed to get freely in and out of the territory), a region that has not had a functioning cinema since the 1980s. The artists didn't go to a film school either. Everything they learnt about cinema, they learnt through practice and by watching movies on satellite TV and illegal DVD copies. In 2003, they founded a media production company: Gazawood. Since then, their works have won awards, been banned by Hamas and shown in Europe and the U.S.
Cornerhouse is showing Colourful Journey, a short film set in a bombed-out Gaza building, and a series of posters that pastiche the Hollywood war movie genre. The title of each film sounds as action movie as it is possible: Summer Rain, Autumn Clouds, Defensive Shield, Sea Breeze, Cast Lead, etc. The cruel irony is that each of them is also the name of a Israeli military operation against Palestinians.
Wafaa Bilal is showing a video documenting the furore that surrounded the exhibition of Virtual Jihadi. The video is mounted on the wall of a rundown internet café where visitors are also invited to sit down and play the game.
Wafaa is from Iraq and, as is sometimes the case in his work, he plays with the way Western media portrays people from his home country.
Virtual Jihadi can be traced back to a military computer game called The Quest for Saddam that involved players fighting stereotypical Iraqi enemies and trying to kill the ex-Iraqi leader. The game in turn inspired an al-Qaida-produced spin-off called The Night of Bush Capturing with the ex- U.S. president as the target. For his piece, Bilal hacked into the al-Qaida game and inserted himself as a converted suicide bomber, who joins al-Qaida after learning that his brother has been murdered by US forces.
Bilal's version brings the attention to the personal sories and dilemmas experienced by civilians caught in a conflict zone. It also demonstrates that games of this kind, no matter who is writing them, leave little space for moral choices and subtlety. In fact, both were made to teach hate.
In March 2008, as he had just released Virtual Jihadi, Bilal gave a talk at the Rensselaer Polytechnical Institute (the video is available online) and an exhibition of Virtual Jihadi opened the same night... to be closed the day after.
Wafaa Bilal's installation re-opened a few days later in another gallery. Unfortunately, one day after the second opening the City of Troy censored the work again and closed the gallery due to "code volition."
In I've heard stories - part 1, Marwa Arsanios attempts to piece together rumors surrounding the now demolished Hotel Carlton. The hotel was a popular meeting place for gay men living in Beirut, Lebanon where homosexual acts are considered illegal. In its time (1973 to 1993), the hotel was also the setting of three murders that might or might not have been related to the sexual encounters. Among the victim of these (probably) passionate crimes was Lebanese politician and businessman Henri Pharaoun. The nature of the murders went unreported and Arsanios' reconstruction of the event blends drawings and videos, gossips and facts, in an effort to give the crime a place in the history of the city.
Subversion is on show in Galleries 1, 2 & 3 until Tue 5 June.
Previously: A few words with Wafaa Bilal.
Five years ago, three artists legally changed their name to Janez Janša and joined the conservative Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS.) So far, so almost normal. Except that Janez Janša is also he name of the leader of the party and Prime Minister of Slovenia. Suddenly there were more Janez Janšas acting together within the same physical and media space.
Their experience is being turned into the documentary My Name Is Janez Janša in which individuals, artists and academics ponder about the meaning and purpose of one's name from both private and public perspectives.
A debate arose in the media and art circles around the three Janez Janša's artistic gesture: What was its intent and significance? Was it a political critique? A work of activism? Pure provocation?
Followers of the politicians didn't leave much space for discussion and subtlety when they launched a defamatory campaign and declared that My Name Is Janez Jansa was little more than a work of pornography. The cover of a recent issue of the conservative magazine Reporter illustrates the manoeuvre (the still images published on the cover are actually from Bruce La Bruce and Rick Castro's movie Hustler White which has been quoted in My Name Is Janez Janša.)
The artists have now opened a crowdfunding call to ensure that they'll be able to finish the post-production of the film and distribute it widely.
I contacted the three Janez Janša, asked them to tell us more about the movie, the name change, the defamatory campaign and immediately realized that they haven't lost any of their sense of humour in the process:
It's been 5 years already since you decided to change your names (Davide Grassi, Emil Hrvatin, and Žiga Kariž) to Janez Janša, the same name as the Prime Minister of Slovenia. I'm sure you were expecting that it would have an impact on your everyday life but what were the effects of the new names on your work as an artist?
Janez Janša: Let me correct you first. My legal name is Janez Janša while the politician's legal name is IVAN Janša. He has been called Janez since his childhood, but he never changed his legal name into Janez Janša.
Janez Janša: Interestingly enough, when he appears in front of the court, as he is involved in many legal cases, he does it with his legal name Ivan Janša while in his political life, when he represents Slovenia, when he signs state documents, he uses a pseudonym, Janez Janša.
Janez Janša: I was expecting him to change his legal name in the same name we have, Janez Janša.
What has the experience brought you?
Janez Janša: My life didn't change because of the name changing. I still live the same kind of life and my artistic work is still my main profession.
Janez Janša: Shakespearean Juliet maintains that the name of the rose does not affect the sweetness of the rose itself. Yet, it is right my new name that makes now other people smell me different.
Janez Janša: The name is what you put forward when you introduce yourself to others. It streams your figure into public life. Other people use your name much more than you do. When you change your name, you don't change yourself. You change your "interface". That is why your name change affects other people more than it does affect you.
Janez Janša: ...as one's death. It affects more relatives and friends than the one who actually died.
How do you feed the discoveries and experiences of the past 5 years into your work as artists?
Janez Janša: They basically feed by themselves into our work as artists because the name change practically merged our art with our life.
I read this afternoon in El Pais that the documentary had faced censorship. Can you explain us what happened exactly?
Janez Janša: This issue around our documentary is far from being over so I wouldn't use the pass tense here. It is rather difficult to summarize the whole story. Maybe the best is if you can point your readers to the on-line document that contains the chronology of facts. Then they can make up their minds about the issue. I'm not even sure I will call this a case of censorship. It's more a case of "preventive media pillorying", an attempt to disqualify the work in front of the public opinion before it even get released...
Janez Janša: ...this way creating conditions for the public opinion to easily accept the censorship that might follow. The rhetoric used for achieving this goal is of a very populist kind. All the media close to the conservative government agree to define the movie as a "merely pornographic" and "highly offensive" product. A kind of "art" that shouldn't be allowed any further to be supported and produced with taxpayers money.
Janez Janša: The funny thing is that all the discrediting arguments are based on "something" that "somebody heard" that "someone else has seen". No one of the journalists attacking us has actually seen the work as the movie is not even finished yet.
But were you not expecting to be challenged and criticized when you decided that the 3 of you would adopt the name of the PM of Slovenia and join his own party? Surely that gesture must have been interpreted as a political position? And probably not as one that pays homage to his person and politics? How did he react to it?
Janez Janša: The first reaction by the Prime Minister was silence, and his silence was a very clear reaction. There was a lot of speculation in the media whether our name change is to be understood as a gesture of support or criticism to the politician.
Janez Janša: It is only in February 2011 that Janša, at the time the leader of the opposition, commented on our gesture. In an interview he gave for the 1st channel of the National Radio he said that he was receiving invitations to appear in front of the court and invoices for fines related to crimes we've done.
Janez Janša: After Janša made his public statement also conservative media and intellectuals started to comment on our name change especially highlighting the way public money were spent and for which kind of "politicized art". Some of the progressive critic instead maintained that by changing our names we helped the politician to himself to the public under a better light. Other accused us of doing a mere marketing operation to gain more visibility and therefore get more money.
Janez Janša: But all of them basically agreed on the fact that this name change would be a short exploit in our careers and that soon we will all change our names back, or further.
Janez Janša: Well, they were right, at least in my case. I've changed back my name to Žiga Kariž in January 2009 and now I'm still using Janez Janša as a pseudonym especially when I do some work with these two guys, Janez Janeša and Janez Janša...
Thank you Janez Janša!
The documentary My Name Is Janez Janša is in its post-production phase, and it needs financial strengthening. Help the artists finish the film and reach worldwide audience.
On Tuesday, i took that decrepit and charming train that goes from Liege to Maastricht to visit one of my favourite architecture centers: NAIM / Bureau Europa.
Part of a research on the relationship between architecture and conflict, their current exhibition ZOO, or the letter Z, just after Zionism explores the constructive and destructive forces of architecture through the work of Israeli architect Malkit Shoshan.
The show is an approachable and moving extension of the book she published a few years ago: Atlas of the Conflict. Israel-Palestine. The book was mapping literally and figuratively the appearance of a nation at the detriment of another one and highlighting the influence that political agendas have on urban planning and architecture. But instead of displaying countless maps at Bureau Europa, the curator and architect found inspiration in a story that toured the world in 2009: the one of the zebra of the Gaza zoo.
Because they couldn't afford to buy and smuggle a real zebra through the tunnels like they did with the other animals, the owners of the Gaza zoo used masking tape and black hair dye to paint a donkey into a zebra. It was an instant hit with children.
The exhibition ZOO, or the letter Z, just after Zionism has turned Bureau Europa into a small zoo. The first animals you meet in the gallery --if you visit it during the weekend-- are donkeys. Unpainted and peacefully eating their hay. They symbolize the daily struggle to lead an almost 'normal' life in the Gaza Strip where regular trade continues to be prohibited, where almost no construction materials or raw materials is allowed to enter, where the population is isolated and subject to electricity cuts of 4 to 8 hours per day, where there is no longer access to regular, clean water and where, according to the World Food Programme, "The evidence shows that the population is being sustained at the most basic or minimum humanitarian standard."
Apart from the donkeys, Bureau Europa also hosts rats. Nested in tunnels, running around or playing on a wooden wheel. The lovely rats evoke human beings living in an area, the Gaza Strip, that is running out of space. The Strip has one of the highest densities in the world. Add to that its inhabitants are not allowed to construct nor rebuild what has been destroyed by bombings (or the Israeli practice of moving through walls) since construction material is denied entrance in Gaza. There's no high rise building, no tower, no skyscraper to make room for parks, cultivation and proper public infrastructure.
In 1958, John B. Calhoun conducted over-population experiments on rats. The ethologist provided a group of rats with food and water but the size of their cage was considered sufficient for only 50 rodents. As the population grew there were soon too many rats for each to have its own territory and the animals became increasingly stressed. Males became aggressive. Mothers neglected their infants. Cannibalism began. The rodents had lost the ability to live harmoniously together.
Fortunately, Gazans manage to keep a remarkable sense of humour and many still hope that peace might one day prevail. Hence the third group of animal present in the gallery: doves.
The walls and windows around the installations are covered in posters that illustrate and provide facts and figures about the history of zoos around the world, the human zoos of the 15th to 18th century, how most of the animals of the Gaza zoo had died of starvation or because of bombing during the Israeli war on Gaza, how wild animals are smuggled through the tunnels, the movement for animal rights, the black market, architecture in Gaza, living conditions in the Gaza Strip, etc.
Elsewhere, a strip of sand suggests that the Gaza Strip used to be a place of rest for travelers.
Apart from the installations, Bureau Europa also exhibits books related to the topic of the show as well as a series of short documentaries or tv news reports such as the one below (it broke my heart so i've never watched it till the end):
But why bring zoo and Zionism together? According to Shoshan, the origins of both can be traced back to the Age of the Enlightenment: the classification of nations (Jewish people had none at the time) and the classification of nature. The urban zoo emerged at the same time as the ideology that calls for the establishment of a homeland for Jewish people was gathering strength.
Related: Book review: Atlas of the Conflict. Israel-Palestine.
Since 2009 writer and filmmaker Arnold van Bruggen and photographer Rob Hornstra have been touring around Sochi (Krasnodar Krai, Russia), a small city on the Black Sea that will host the Winter Olympics in 2014. The choice of Sochi is not the most opportune one. Not only does the area boasts exceptionally mild Winters by Russian standards, it is also located in close proximity of some of Russia's most unstable regions. Hornstra and van Bruggen currently have a show at Foto8 gallery in London that focuses precisely on one of those regions: the Republic of Abkhazia.
You might never have heard of Abkhazia and that's probably because only a handful of countries regard it as an independent state.
Abkhazia broke away from Georgia after a short, violent civil war in '92-'93 and only Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and the atoll of Nauru recognised it as independent state in 2008.
The 13 month long war killed between 20,000 to 30,000 ethnic Georgians and between 2,500 and 4,000 Abkhaz. Over 250,000 Georgian refugees were displaced. Abkhaz 20,000 became refugees.
The artists spent four years witnessing and documenting the country's attempts to repopulate with new immigrants a country that is ravaged by the war, almost empty and in great economic distress.
In 2007 we first visited a refugee centre in Tbilisi, where we interviewed Georgians who had fled from Abkhazia during the war in 1992-1993. An estimated 250,000 Georgian refugees have since been living in 'temporary' accommodation, such as former student apartments, old primary schools and abandoned hotels. Every Georgian president has promised the refugees that he would end the frozen conflict and that the refugees would soon be able to return to their homeland Abkhazia. When we visited these refugees in 2007 in a totally rundown former student apartment in Tbilisi, they had already spent 14 years in their 'temporary' accommodation. But we could still detect a faint glimmer of hope among the refugees we spoke to.
In 2010 we visited many of the refugees we had met in 2007. All hope was gone. It was distressing to see that the situation had not improved for any of them.
Small selection of images with text found on Time Machine (as well as on a leaflets inside Foto8 exhibition space):
Pitsunda is a resort town on the shore of the Black Sea. In October 1964 Nikita Khrushchev was vacationing in Pitsunda when he was deposed from power. There are many hotels for Russian tourists, who frequent the area in summertime.
A blue painted wooden kindergarten has been used as a shelter for refugees. In the early 1990s for the ethnic Georgians forced to flee Abkhazia were housed in student flats, hotels and schools across Georgia, with the promise that they would soon be able to return to their homeland.
A kommunalka is an apartment building in which dwellers share facilities like toilet and kitchen. Until the early nineties this building was used as student housing. Since the Georgian - Abkhazian war, the building has been occupied by Georgian refugees from Abkhazia.
The image that Abkhazia wants to present to the world is one of a real country, with all the institutions and infrastructure that it involves: schools, healthcare institutions, administration, police stations and a prison. That's right, the whole country has only one prison but then there are only some 240,000 inhabitants in Abkhazia.
In the shadow of the war between Georgia and Russia in August 2008, a small war is still playing out. With Russian support Abkhazia captured the officially demilitarised Kodori Valley, a remote mountainous region on the border of Abkhazia and Georgia. Since then, Georgia has attracted another 2,000 refugees. As a notable exception, Abkhazia allows journalists to visit the region.
Previously: The Sochi Project.
A belated review of the exhibition Jeremy Deller - Joy in People...
It's always daunting to write about an exhibition that so many articles have commented on already. We've all read that Jeremy Deller won the Turner Prize in 2004. That he has never been a good drawer nor a talented painter. In fact, his teacher strongly advised against art school (a suggestion i fully understand if Deller is to blame for the mural painted behind the screen that shows the documentary So Many Ways to Hurt You, the Life and Times of Adrian Street, see photo below.)
Jeremy Deller does art outside galleries. It thrives in 'low culture' and it is usually ambitious, socially-engaged and unexpected. Indeed, most of his career is built on looking for art in the most unpredictable places, working with the public or with people who have particular knowledge or skill but who wouldn't otherwise be associated with the contemporary art world. They include unemployed miners, brass bands, a campaign banner maker, fans of Depeche Mode, a glam rock wrestler, experts in battle re-enactments, etc. He even collaborated on an art project with nightclub owner and trendsetter Peter Stringfellow.
In late February, a retrospective of Jeremy Deller's work opened at the Hayward gallery. It is called Joy in People and joy is precisely what it brings.
It should be tricky to exhibit the work of Jeremy Deller, an artist who doesn't produce artefacts but experiences, happenings and interventions. Out there. In the streets. Neither you nor i were there. Consequently, the show includes many videos and video documentation of some of his works. But there's also a reconstruction of Valerie's snack bar in Bury market, Lancashire. You can sit down and get a free cup of tea. There are people hired to read texts to make you melancholic, people on hand to discuss their experience of war in Iraq, t-shirts, photos of his 'failed' artworks, an introduction the world of re-enactment aficionados, music videos, magazines, a replica of Deller's teenage bedroom where he organized a solo show while his parents were on holiday, etc. Many art critics wrote that it was all a bit 'second hand'. But if it was, it was good enough for me. I spent a whole afternoon visiting Joy in People. I'll probably go back before the show closes.
Most of the works on show are very well documented already but i'm going to highlight two that i found most irresistible.
The show had a whole section, titled My Failures, that documents the projects Deller never realized.
One of them is a proposal for Trafalgar Square's Fourth Plinth. Deller wanted to place on top of the plinth a life-size model of Dr David Kelly, the biological warfare expert who committed suicide in 2003 following the media frenzy provoked by his comments on the British government's dossier on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
'I had two ideas for the Fourth Plinth that I suggested to the committee, the first was for a destroyed car from Baghdad - a victim of the Iraq occupation - called "Spoils of War (Memorial for an Unknown Civilian)". The other was going to be a mannequin of Dr David Kelly [who committed suicide in 2003 following the controversy his comments on the British government's dossier on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq] just sitting on the edge of the plinth, facing Whitehall, because some people may have forgotten who he was. They were both ways of deflating the meaning or effect of public sculpture, basically to act as an antidote to the sculpted men who had done things in battle.'
I wish So Many Ways to Hurt You, the Life and Times of Adrian Street was available online somewhere (there's only a short extract of the film.) So Many Ways to Hurt You documents the life of glam rock wrestler Adrian Street Street was born into a coal mining family in Wales in 1940. He was sent down the mine at a very young age, fled to London at 16 to pursue a career as a model for bodybuilding magazines and professional wrestler. One day he realized that the way to stardom was through a glam rock persona that would tap into the homophobia of the macho wrestling world. And so he started designing and cutting his own costumes, wearing garish make-up and extravagant platinum hair-dos. He'd blow kisses to his opponents or make silly dances to further provoke them.
Street now lives in Florida, he's still wrestling but I haven't got a clue about what happened to his singing career:
Also in the exhibition:
His 2001 film The Battle of Orgreave reconstructed the famous and violent clash between police and striking miners in 1984 with the help of historical re-enactment societies and former miners.
For 1997's Acid Brass, Deller invited a brass band to play acid house tunes. The video at the Hayward shows the actual performance but just the soundtrack makes my day.
The History of the World demonstrates the intertwined histories of traditional brass band music and the acid house scene of the late 1980s.
Don't miss The Posters Came from the Walls, a brilliant, witty and charming film about fans of Depeche Mode around the world. It's in the gallery upstairs, by the entrance. And it's free.
Jeremy Deller - Joy in People remains open until 13 May 2012 at the Hayward Gallery in London.
Suzanne Treister's art exhibition weaves together the threads that link the rise of mass intelligence, the history of the internet, the occult and the counterculture into dense maps and diagrams, a hand-coloured deck of 78 Tarot cards and the eerie b&w video of a cybernetic séance.
The body of works is based on an impressive congregation of actual events, historical figures and fields of knowledge but its main anchor is the Macy Conferences, a set of meetings held in New York right after the Second World War to investigate and set the foundations for a general science of the human mind.
The conferences gathered researchers from various fields and spawn breakthroughs in systems theory, cybernetics, and what would later be called cognitive science. Some of the participants of the conferences later went on to do government funded research on the psychological effects of LSD, and its potential as a tool for interrogation and psychological manipulation.
HEXEN 2.0 is set to unleash a storm in your head. The Tarot part is particularly compelling. It's not every day that you get H.P. Lovecraft, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Unabomber, Ada Lovelace, William Blake, Alan Turing, William Gibson together in the same room (or Tarot deck) as internet communities, Google, menacing drones and the Summer of Love.
Whether you follow Treister's web of connections or weave your own, sometimes uncomfortable, narratives, you're bound to doubt, speculate and feel challenged.
Suzanne Treister - Hexen 2.0 continues until April 29, 2012 at the Science Museum in London. Another chapter of this body of works, HEXEN2.0/Literature will be shown in an exhibition that opens at the end of the week at WORK.
If you can't make it to London to see the exhibitions, you can see all the works in the HEXEN 2.0 book and HEXEN2.0 Tarot cards of which i'm now a big fan. Both are published by Black Dog Publishing and i'll review them next week (or the one after, you know i'm not exactly the fastest blogger under the sun.)