I normally don't blog about events i can't attend but some cultural initiatives call for exceptions. Cruel Weather. Arab Middle East Film Festival is a festival of recent film/video from the Arab Middle East that opens in Aberdeen on October 2 and will move to other Scottish cities afterward. In parallel with the movie, Peacock Visual Arts is setting up Identities in Motion, an exhibition of Ayah Bdeir's work, a media artist whose ingenious and sometimes tongue-in-cheek projects invite us to have another look at media's tendency to flatten the Arab identity and reduce it to a set of cliche images and iconographies.
Cruel Weather explores artistic responses to crisis and the role of the moving image in today's Middle East. The festival showcases a series of award-winning documentaries, experimental and mixed genre works, many of which have never before been screened in Scotland.
Why did you call the festival "Cruel Weather"?
I hope it's an imaginative title. There is a sort of maelstrom going on in the Middle East, and it's cruel in that much of this suffering is avoidable. Although many of us may feel disconnected from it, it is directly related to U.S. and U.K. actions, and the acquiescence of the E.U. I have a writer friend in New York who feels when she's going down the street as if she is walking on corpses, but a profound dissociation is far more typical.
How did you get to be involved in films from Arab Middle East?
I've been involved in Palestinian solidarity work of one kind or another from the late '80s on. It was the theme of an issue of the magazine I did at one time, Red Bass, in 1988, and then a book anthology I edited that was published in 1993. At first it was a matter of competing representations, since the Palestinian struggle on film was rare at one point, and Palestinian filmmaking a small handful of people, whereas now there are widening developments, and remarkable talents like Elia Suleiman who take things to another level altogether.
"Cruel Weather" is in another period and concerns itself with another matter: it is not an issue so much of righting or balancing the censorship of points of view (not that this is resolved, far from it, especially in countries like the United States), but of providing a glimpse of a very inventive and wide-ranging creativity that has gained momentum especially just in the past decade.
It's hard not to detect some political undertones in the festival's programme. Do you expect Cruel Weather to stir controversy?
It would be very controversial in much of the U.S. and England, but there is a different political complexion in Scotland (due to its own colonized history perhaps?). There could still be a backlash, but I've only seen very solid support for this idea. It is also meeting a real need, since to our knowledge (and those of our partners in Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Dundee), none of these works have been screened here before.
The films you selected speak of dynamism, hip hop music, culture jamming, future, etc. They explore several regions of Arab Middle East. How did you choose the movies to be presented in the festival?
I remained with the work from the Levant and Egypt, because I'm most familiar with that, also being mindful of the limitations of our resources and time, since there are many films emerging from the Middle East, and video is a tool used across the region. I also think much of the best work has come from those spots, although what the festival often reflects is more of a thoroughly globalized poetics of location from artists on the move rather than specific geography. I feel the selection is somewhat unpredictable and quirky (Roy Samaha's video is inspired as much by William Burroughs' "cut ups" and Carlos Castaneda as contemporary Beirut, Chahine's "Chaos" is not one of his best received films, other films have a raw and improvisatory quality, while "Slingshot Hiphop" is a very assured first feature from Jackie Salloum), even while including some of the usual suspects.
Slingshot Hip Hop trailer:
Could you tell us a few words about the state of cinema making in Palestine? Are there organizations, structures and schools for documentary, animation and feature-film directors in the country?
There have been initiatives like the Cinema Production and Distribution Centre, started by filmmaker Rashid Masharawi in 1996, there is a virtual gallery at Birzeit University, and a number of filmmaking collectives, of which Annemarie Jacir's Palestinian Filmmakers Collective is only the best known; foundations like the A.M. Qattan Foundation, support residencies and awards and training for young artists, including filmmakers. But I think largely the infrastructure is still very embryonic, and most filmmakers study in the metropolises to learn their trade, and bring that knowledge back home to bear on its current realities.
An exhibition of artist Ayah Bdeir accompanies the festival. Can you tell us something about the works selected for the show? How does her exhibition complement the film festival?
Ayah Bdeir was the choice of the outgoing curator at Peacock Visual Arts, Monika Vykoukal, and I think she is a perfect choice in her play with cultural expectations, her diversity, inventiveness and range, which goes from animation and visuals for music concerts (such as Guy Manoukian's August 9 at Beiteddine, Lebanon outside Beirut) to electronic lingerie (Teta Haniya's Secrets).
Bdeir was born in Montreal but grew up in Beirut, and is currently a senior fellow at Eyebeam in New York; the issue of 'tradition' and identities and their relations with the metropolis are all foregrounded and problematized in her work, as they have to be. Bdeir participates in this very radical questioning of identity (for example in Jayce Salloum's "there is no Arab art") or probing the "withdrawal" of tradition (as in Jalal Toufic's writings) that is also central to the film and video artists presented here. As Toufic has written, "We do not go to the West to be indoctrinated by their culture, for the imperialism, hegemony of their culture is nowhere clearer than here in developing countries." I think Bdeir's work often traffics in this counter-intuitive and shifting relation of centre/periphery, in the electronically-hacked items in her The Arab Store, for instance.
See also Jay Murphy's essay about Cruel Weather (PDF).
Previous entries about Ayah Bdeir's work: littleBits, pre-engineered circuit boards connected by tiny magnets, SP4M. D0 Y OU SWA1LOW? and Underwear for airport searches. Also this interview with the artist at How to Win.
If you happen to be in Amsterdam over the next couple of weeks you might want to walk or bike and see the exhibition of Muzi Quawson's work at the Annet Gelink Gallery.
Set in the most boondocks boundaries of Glasgow, Northeastern Montana (USA), Quawson's new film The Old Home examines "the nature of existence from society's outsiders." Her camera silently follows Ivar "Duke" T Pederson: an aging cowboy who incarnates an Old American West that mirrors almost too well our most used and abused clichés. On several occasions over the last two years Quawson stayed with Duke either in his Mid-Western bungalow or out there in the vast open fields with his cows and his dog, exploring the American West and its detachment from modern day civilisation.
My grandmother was smart and witty but she was madly in love with John Wayne. She would catch every single opportunity to watch western movies. It put me off cowboys forever. Yet, I sat in the gallery and watched The Old Home twice, it's breathtakingly beautiful.
In another room of the gallery, a slide show entitled The Hissing of the Summer Lawns (2008) accompanies a run-of-the-mill family from Georgia, USA.
See The Old Home at Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam, through October 17, 2009.
This is Mechelen:
These are my shoes.
Not that anyone should be interested, i just happen to like these shoes a lot. Almost as much as i liked Contour, the Biennial for Moving Image (apparently saying "video art" is so '80s) that takes place until October 18 in Mechelen. Mechelen is located right between Antwerp and Brussels. It's rather small (80 000 inhabitants) but back in the 16th century it was the capital of the Low Countries (very roughly the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg). There are splendid buildings almost everywhere you look in the center, people cultivate the witloof and celebrate the region's glorious past with a parade called the Ommegang (picture below).
The Contour biennial showcases artists' films, videos and installations in special locations all over the historical center of Mechelen. This year's edition, curated by Katerina Gregos, bears the rather pompous title 'Hidden In Remembrance Is The Silent Memory Of Our Future'. 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Contour advocates the importance of history and gives a voice to 18 artists who explore the way residues of history affect our perception of the present as well as our visions of the future.
First of all i must say that never have i been to such a festival of the senses. Some of the screening rooms were stuffy and uncomfortably hot, others were airy and lonely. I don't know if there's an employee in charge of spraying flowers with extra-potent perfume but the city center smells really nice, meanwhile the entrance of one of the exhibition venues reeked of urine. Everything is within walking distance, you get into hidden courtyards and a puppet theater, step up an Art Nouveau staircase or discover Art Deco furniture, enter 16th century buildings or even a brewery turned into design shop, etc.
Artists' view and interpretation of history seems to be a theme at the heart of curators' research these days. A couple of years ago, HMKV in Dortmund proposed the admirable History Will Repeat Itself (see review part 1 and 2) and LABoral in Gijon is currently running The past in the present and the near in the far. History is an engrossing topic. History is made of stories that are close to us no matter how long ago they have taken place. Besides, history is given such little space in our life today (Katerina Gregos calls it our "culture of present-ism") that it comes with an aura of exoticism.
A few highlights of what the biennial has to offer:
9/11 is the event that marked the beginning of the new century in media and thus in popular consciousness. With the film Black Box, Herman Asselberghs suggests to substitute the tragic date for a more redemptive and emancipatory moment: 2/15, the day millions of people around the world protested against the US government's decision to invade Iraq. 2/15 is infinitely less spectacular but that doesn't mean that its political potential could be dismissed easily. What alternative forms exist that are not subject to what Baudrillard called the violence of the image or the violence done to the image?
Eija-Liisa Ahtila's haunting Where is Where? explores colonialism and the tension between two different cultures. Its starting point is a real event that took place in Algeria in the framework of the War of Independence from France. In reaction to the atrocities of French colonial repression, two young Arab boys killed a French friend, a boy of their own age. Many years later, a European woman' obsession with the story brings it into the present day. The very personal perspective of the film and the violence it evokes raise the ghosts of colonialism and oppression that keep on infiltrating today's conflicts between western and Arab cultures.
Vincent Meessen's Vita Nova takes as its point of departure a cover of the French magazine Paris-Match, from 1955. On this cover, a child soldier is depicted in the act of making a military salute. The artist doesn't know much about the child, except that he's called Diouf and comes from Ouagadougou. He nevertheless sets on a journey to try and trace him. Taking this cover as his cue, the artist weaves together phantoms from the colonial past, historical facts, re-writing of history and the writings of Roland Barthes. In his in Mythologies collection published in 1957, Barthes analyzed the myth of the French imperiality (i.e. that France's empire treats all its subjects equally). With this film, Meessen not only brings to the fore repressed or marginalised narratives but also reflects on the artifice that forms part of historiographical discourse, using the fiction of 'realism' and the experience of the archive to elaborate his own personal, 'factual fiction.'
A frail young man wearing glasses enters Warsaw's dilapidated Olympic Stadium. The left wing intellectual delivers a piece of oratory, in which he calls for the return of the lost Jewish community to Poland. Bartana utilizes the language of propaganda to make a plea for tolerance. The allusion to Europe's dark past is reinforced by the reference to the aesthetic strategies of Leni Riefenstahl, a filmmaker famous for being a pioneer in film and photographic techniques and a friend of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels.
Contour 2009, Hidden In Remembrance Is The Silent Memory Of Our Future is open until 18 October, 2009 in Mechelen, Belgium.
My images. Image on the homepage: Yael Bartana, Mary Koszmary, 2007. Single channel Super 16mm ﬁ lm transferred to video: colour, sound 10' 50" - Courtesy Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam and Foksal Gallery, Warsaw.
I discovered the Art Safari tv series last year. One of the episode was shown in a retrospective of Wim Delvoye's Cloaca Machines at the Casino de Luxembourg. I saw the Murakami episode in a Madrid gallery a few month after. The episodes are fast and witty. Filmmaker Ben Lewis sets to meet some of the most discussed contemporary artists and challenge their work with the kind of provoking questions you can expect from someone who recently penned an article titled Who Put the Con on Contemporary Art? He confronts them with his harmless pair of glasses, soft elocution and the air of a well-meaning student. Lewis has uploaded snippets of the BBC Four series on You Tube but i just discovered that dearest UbuWeb has the full version of a couple of episodes. That doesn't seem to make Lewis weep with happiness but it made me want to buy his DVDs.
Art Safari goes for flashy, controversial names: Maurizio Cattelan, Takashi Murakami, Matthew Barney, Santiago Sierra, Sophie Calle, Gregor Schneider and Wim Delvoye.
My favourite in the series is Art Safari - Relational Art: Is It An Ism? (2004). Lewis takes a copy of Nicolas Bourriaud's Relational Aesthetics on the road, meet some of the artists of the Relational Art 'movement' (Philippe Parreno, Carsten Hoeller, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset) and asks them how they feel about Relational Art and whether this is the new 'ism'.
In the episode dedicated to Takashi Murakami - Toying with Art (Part 1, 2 and 3), Lewis keeps asking critics, curators and collectors what are their theories about Murakami. Is it as superficial as it looks? He doesn't seem much convinced by their savant answers.
There's also a programme on photographer Andreas Gursky and what it means to live in (or create) a Gursky World.
Image on the homepage: Matthew Barney, The Cremaster Cycle, 1994-2002.
A couple of months ago, i was invited to Laboral in Gijon to visit the exhibition AUTO. SUEÑO Y MATERIA (See my reports: Cars and landscapes, Artists' automobiles, Manufacturing cars, and Artificial traffic jam in the mountains.) As much as i enjoyed the car show, the artworks i found most meaningful and engaging were in other rooms, the ones that hosted another exhibition called El pasado en el presente y lo propio en lo ajeno (The past in the present and the near in the far).
The exhibition reveals how "the ghosts of memory", as sociologist Avery F. Gordon calls them, reach out from the past and haunt the present, influencing how we understand and construct it. More precisely, the show investigates the mutual influence between this phantom of memory and the territory.
El pasado en el presente y lo propio en lo ajeno is not a pop nor ready-to-eat exhibition. You have to take it slowly, read carefully some historical background on almost every single piece on show and sit through many videos. Everyone knows i'm not video art's best friend. Yet, i caught myself enjoying most of the films i saw there.
The first video came with the magic words: "a work by Jeremy Deller". Jeremy, i love your work. I didn't see The Steam Powered Internet Machine but it looked too poetical to ignore. I did get to visit From One Revolution to Another, an exhibition Deller curated for the Palais de Tokyo in Paris and found it ballsy-awesome (if any of you reads swedish, here's my take on it.)
For El pasado en el presente y lo propio en lo ajeno, Laboral was screening Battle of Orgreave. With the help of film-maker Mike Figgis, Deller reenacted what is often regarded as the most brutal and controversial confrontation between police and picketing miners that took place under Thatcher's reign.
All i knew about the event was this photography of a striker wearing a toy police hat and facing of police lines:
The Battle of Orgreave took place on 18 June 1984 in Orgreave, South Yorkshire. After weeks of picketing, some 5,000 miners and supporters were protesting outside the coking plant. A few bricks were thrown. The police commander responded by sending in the mounted police. It was a serious overreaction and events quickly escalated, with force out of control and delivering baton beatings to unarmed miners, the cavalry entering Orgreave village, etc.
The event symbolizes the end of the coal industry, the resistance to Thatcherism's attempt to crush miners' community and reactionary police apparatus. Its reenactment is extremely moving. Actors are members of amateur historical re-enactment groups but also ex-miners who returned to the former battleground to relive a moment in the destruction of their livelihoods and community. A few ex-policemen were there too. Personal testimonies are intertwined with perspectives on a wider social history of the '80s. The hypocrisy of the time and media's role in covering up the truth are also highlighted.
You can check out Jeremy Deller's video over here.
The Spanish Revolution, 2003
Another work i found particularly striking is Fernando Bryce's series of ink drawings on paper that revisit historical events by meticulously reproducing the printed materials that they generated. The artist scours through political pamphlets, posters, calendars, newspapers, magazines, portraits, tourist publications and official correspondence to investigate his subject, favouring often relatively obscure or 'minor' records.
The first series, The Spanish Revolution, reproduces the covers of the English version of the newspaper POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista, or Workers' Party of Marxist Unification), published between 1936 and 1937. In the second, The Spanish War, Bryce compiles and draws an extensive archive of the Civil War.
Over the last two years Avelino Sala has been researching and cataloging the different locations of representation of imperial power through one of its most popular symbols: the eagle. One of them is in fact located in the central courtyard at Universidad Laboral, a few steps away from the Laboral exhibition center, and acting thus as a souvenir of Spanish dictator Franco's role in the conception and construction of the colossal building. In Laboral, the eagle is probably familiar to those who experienced this recent past and is, thus, a persistence of memory as an imposition.
It's easy to go from Sala's eagles to Unsettling the Fragments (Erschütterung der Fragmente), the artwork that Martha Rosler created for the 2007 Münster Sculpture Projects.
The American artist decided to conjure up the ghosts of the city's most uncomfortable hours and, therefore, of the history of Germany. She relocated historical remains to their previous places, drawing attention to past traumas which citizens would rather not to think about. For example, she returned to its original site (right in the middle of the shopping district) the reproduction of a Wehrmacht's eagle on a pole preserved in the city's history museum. She also placed in front of the municipal library the metal cages that were used to display the corpses of heretics after their torture and execution in the 16th-century.
Images of the exhibition on Laboral's flickr set.
El pasado en el presente y lo propio en lo ajeno (The past in the present and the near in the far) is open until September 28, 2009 at Laboral, Gijon, Spain.
p.s. Jeremy Deller's Procession is up at Cornerhouse, Manchester International festival until 23 August.
I'm not going to write down Agnes Meyer-Brandis's presentation at Biorama 2 as her talks are performances that i would only dumb down by trying to blog them. Instead, i'll just post this witty short video that documents the Moon Goose Experiment.
The artist set up a space expedition on a sand island in the Siberian river Ob and observed the effect of the total eclipse of the Sun (1st August, 2008) on the behaviour of the moon geese. Watch the space carriage take off!
The Moon Goose Experiment (MGE) is based on an excerpt from a book which is often regarded as the first science fiction short story in English. In The Man in the Moone, Francis Godwin described weightlessness for the first time ever (1603) - long before Newton's theory of gravity. The protagonist in the book flies to the moon in a chariot towed by geese. These special moon geese migrate every year from the earth to the Moon.
Previously: Interview with Ulla Taipale from Capsula.