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Misprints: An Interview with Paul Qaysi

[Paul Qaysi, [Paul Qaysi, "Gaza City, Gaza. July 8, 2014 [201008 DEC 14 Misprint]" 2014. Image copyright the artist.]

The beginnings of this conversation took place over a year ago when I met Paul during my Architecture of Memory exhibit at the Middle East Center for the Arts at MANA Contemporary in New Jersey. Paul came out to see the exhibit and we spent a long time talking about our works, shared experiences, and relationship to Iraq, war, displacement, photography, video, and issues of mis/representation. 

I invited Paul to participate in my next performance piece, which brought together a diverse group of exiled/diasporic Iraqis—from various personal and professional backgrounds, including the arts, activism, academia, journalism, and gastronomy—over an intimate dinner. The participants were asked to provide a personally meaningful Iraqi recipe that was prepared and served collectively. Paul collaborated in the performance by cooking his favorite Iraqi dish Bamia. The performative acts of cooking, recipe sharing, and eating proved to be contested markers of cultural memory. 

Paul and I met several times afterwards, including at his studio in Dumbo, Brooklyn where he shared his Misprints project. After our last meeting over dinner, listening to Paul passionately talk about his project, I suggested to take our discussion online via an interview. Misprints is a creative intervention that explores the representation of war in the Middle East by investigating the effects of destruction, trauma, and memory.

                                            [Paul Qaysi, Haditha, Iraq, November 19, 2005. [200818 AUG 14 Misprint] (2014). Image copyright the artist.]

Dena Al-Adeeb: Misprints as an experimental hacking process intervenes through the reconstruction of violent images in an attempt to contest representations of the Middle East. Can the interventionist art project serve as an alternative archive of the wars in the Middle East?

Paul Qaysi: Misprints are the result of an inkjet printing process that uses war images from online news archives to challenge the current system of representation. The repetitive, constant feed of pictures from professional and amateur photographers, available anywhere and anytime, of dismembered bodies in trenches, destroyed cities, bloodied hospital floors, weeping men, and women and children in cemeteries has contributed to a common understanding and perception of the Middle East as a region of perpetual conflict.

Misprints revise trauma, not merely as representation of violent events that are depicted in pictures as we commonly experience them, but also reconstruct the events by addressing the deeper nature of loss and absence via the destruction of representational form and imagery. Misprints withhold meaning of the actual photograph by abstracting what is depicted while at the same time suggesting violence in the medium itself.

                                     [Paul Qaysi, Bedroom, Haditha, Iraq. November 19, 2005 [031050 AUG 14 Misprint] (2014). Image copyright the artist.]

DA: The image reconstructing apparatus that you have created abstracts violent images through a personal process of producing destroyed images. What are the personal and collective narratives that define Misprints?

PQ: The media in Western countries have the power to shape and define the historical account and representation of events in the Middle East. As users, we have become habituated to clicking on the next “big” news item because we increasingly demand fast and exciting stories—we want to know about the events as they unfold in “real time.” In this hyper world of professional and citizen journalism, images play a vital role in repeating and reinforcing our experience of events as if the photographs are authoritative records. The corporate conglomerate of online news agencies and archives manufacture and articulate what sells stories, including representations of death, chaos, and carnage in the Middle East. These events are circulated and consumed within social apparatuses that constitute a barrage of effects that dominate public consciousness of any given event.

What Western media and consumers tend to expect from the Middle East is the perpetual staging and representation of death and destruction realized in these hundreds and thousands of stories and images, which fulfill our unconscious wish for chaos that lies beyond our orderly world.

My own childhood experiences with dictatorship, civil war, and state controlled media left me with a profound mistrust of images and how they represent the actual events. All sorts of secondary revisions obscure many of these experiences; they are incomplete, and filled with many contradictions that are not so simply unified into an ideological representation of the Middle East. I was born in Baghdad, Iraq. My father’s affiliation with the government of Abd al Karim Qasim and the Iraqi Communist Party that was overthrown by the bloody Ba'athist coup of 1963 resulted in his imprisonment, interrogation, and disbarment from practicing law. Our family fled to Beirut in 1974 where we lived as political refugees for two years before being granted citizenship by the U.S. My early experience of political conflict is tainted with violence, displacement, and loss but also with an incredible sense of compassion and the wish to love, care, and live with a sense of pleasure. My early experiences of Iraqis and Lebanese people were fraught with danger and many unknown situations but they exist alongside beautiful memories of play, freedom, and curiosity to discover.

Making Misprints is as unknown a process as the events they refer to. This work is not about going to the actual location and doing investigative research, rather it is about interpreting pictures. I have created a controlled studio environment that relies on defined parameters such as the original downloaded photograph and the hacked mechanical inkjet printer to arrive at something completely unpredictable. Through this reconstructed apparatus, I am able to be the antagonist of this story and make Western representations of the Middle East collide with my own unique experiences, producing images vastly different than those habitually seen, images that resist and withhold meaning. What I give back are destroyed images, not the representation of destruction. I am exploring the death drive that’s often so palpable on all sides of these conflicts.

DA: Misprints incorporates multiple creative practices and technological interventions to render graphic images of war into abstractions, can you tell us about the fluid and playful process of making Misprints?

PQ: Misprints are monoprints that transform online news, war archive photographs with hacked inkjet printers that deliberately “destroy” downloaded images as they are printed on metal or mylar sheets.

The photographs that I research are downloaded and then printed on metal, acetate, mylar, and other substrates that are incompatible with the inkjet printers I select. The resulting ink explosions and pooling obscure the original images, rendering them difficult and, in some cases, impossible to recognize. They become abstractions, displayed as back-lit panels, mounted or plate prints, and are tethered to their original referents only by the titles, which include the name of the city, state, and date of the incident depicted in the original photograph as well as the date the Misprint was made in the studio.

The original photojournalistic images “representing” casualties of war are reconstructed to instead “present” actual physical destruction; a dismembered image and the carnage wrought by the printing process. The fragility and happenstance of the Misprints refer to the media's inability to fully represent those lives and losses. In a time of digital reproductions and viral photographs, when images are immediately and easily consumed, the viewer is asked to reconsider many facets of widely distributed images of aggression, suffering, and death.

Misprints are unconventional, unique images that incorporate the practice of digital photography, computer engineering, painting, printmaking, and sculpture. The misprinting process is a regression in relation to these disciplines because the downloaded digital images are forced through technology that haphazardly transforms the original photograph into a byproduct analog, physical monoprint painting. The results encourage viewers to interrogate advances offered by new technology (control, speed, accuracy, etc.) and the types of knowledge we gain and support using it.

DA: Misprints has the potential for collaboration and wider audience participation. How do you envision the development of the project and the next phase of Misprints?

PQ: To talk with artist, designers, filmmakers, technologists, and innovators in an immersive lab environment will help me identify the unique needs of my Misprints project: a conversation about key inkjet printing technologies and simplified methods to transform the printer. Also, to discuss and develop the implementation of making my original photography research, which is organized in what I call “Study Sheets” available online, leading to interactive-driven design for users to contribute and expand the “Study Sheets” archive.

A work-in-progress with Misprints has been about documenting and creating a demo manual of how I hacked the inkjet printer. This is an interesting direction alongside the Misprints because I can develop the video-text into an online interactive feature, which would open up this innovation to wider audience participation. This would encourage users to work with existing photographs and discover alternative image-making processes. At the Lab, I would like to discuss and develop a strategic roadmap with the advisors for grant opportunities and venues to exhibit and showcase the Misprints project.

                                                  [Paul Qaysi, Gaza City, Gaza, July 16, 2014 [290130 DEC 14 Misprint]. Image copyright the artist.]

DA: I find the printer hacking processes exhilaratingly amusing; there is something appealingly anarchic about the process. Why did you choose such an interventionist method?

PQ: I did not set out to hack an inkjet printer; that was not my intention at the beginning. I wanted to work through various digital methods to examine, undermine, and disrupt the flow of pictured material about the Middle East and Arabs in the hands of Western media.

When I began hacking printers, around 2012, I had accumulated a collection of photographs, and articles from various online news outlets about the Iraq War. Most of these images were about urban destruction, death, civilian, and military casualties of war. I wanted to DO something with these pictures, to give them some sort of physical presence, to have them live outside the screen, so I organized them into “Study Sheets” and started printing them using the inkjet printer.

I discovered the misprints process by accident. I had simply loaded the inkjet paper incorrectly and the image printed on the wrong side, the side that was not coated. At first, the image was recognizable but the edges and shapes were less defined and with time it slowly morphed. This was very interesting to me because there was something destructive and accidental about the process. Also, a very strange thing happened, the ink remained wet. I left the print on my desk for a couple of weeks expecting it to dry. It never did. From that point on, I experimented with different methods to fix the image, which also further distorted the continuity of the image. The Misprints project was driven by its own internal logic, changes, and trajectories. It was driven by a physical and unpredictable process, which did not conform to any particular discipline but rather borrowed from technology, photography, printmaking, and painting.

For my recent 2015 Misprints, after I had completely dismantled, reassembled, and reprogrammed the inkjet printer with the help of a Chinese engineer that I found through online forums, I am able to print directly on metal and glass plates. This process opens up the possibility to make repeated prints on the same surface, which is where I had left off with my last show at Dorsky Gallery. This process symbolically adds another disruptive layer to our understanding of reading/viewing images of violence and trauma.

DA: Misprints is an ongoing project that is an example of your creative process, what are other manifestations that you have worked on?

PQ: My recent as well as early work contains concerns that are directly connected with Misprints. An early piece, Handshake (1993), consisted of a long-term collection of newspapers that faded and disintegrated over time. We all remember the Rabin-Clinton-Arafat Oslo Accord handshake photograph. A photo taken by The White House press photographer was published in nearly every newspaper. The next day I went to different newsstands in New York City and bought every newspaper I could find that published this photo. This was pre-Internet for the masses, so there was a direct physical process of collecting the newspaper in one day. Not to mention the accumulated weight of the papers. When I returned to Brooklyn, I organized them on the studio floor into a grid, a single column or row, like interchangeable tiles that could be configured and arranged in many different ways. It was interesting to see the symbolic power of one image spread out in different languages. It was a hopeful high point, an intention for peace that has remained inactive and repressed.

Another duration piece is 200 Days (2003) that was launched as a web project and later exhibited as a video. During the lead up to the Iraq War, I collected, stacked, and photographed the front pages of The New York Times for two hundred days, starting on March 16, 2003. The work addressed the fundamental problem of depicting events, specifically events of war, and as we look back, much of what we learned in the US media was not entirely true. In some ways, the closer we seem to an event, the less we know.

Recent projects Strike Anywhere/Drawdown (2011-2012), Actual Dots (2011-ongoing), and Operation Odyssey Dawn (2011), concern the Iraq War, the Arab Spring, and US Military photographs. In these projects I digitally processed and reconstructed the photographs to generate a new sequence of abstracted images. In Actual Dots, the short videos of various “hard men” of the Middle East like Mubarak disintegrate into giant halftone dots. These images can be downloaded as screensavers.  

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