Anthony Downey, editor, Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in the Middle East and North Africa. London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2014.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you put together this collection of essays on new media and critical practices in the Middle East?
Anthony Downey (AD): Ibraaz was launched in 2011 by the Kamel Lazaar Foundation. It became immediately clear to us, as an online research and publishing forum, that one of the key issues affecting cultural production across North Africa and the Middle East was new and social media and, in particular, how they were being utilized in contemporary art practices. This concern resulted in the volume of essays Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East, published with I.B. Tauris.
The volume was two years in the making, and this lead-in time allowed for a variety of responses—some of which were published online as immediate reactions to events as they unfolded—to issues that have become increasingly problematic in the wake of uprisings and social unrest across the region. This was also part of the problem we had with positioning the volume critically, inasmuch as we were mindful that these essays and contributions could easily become fixed or reduced to a singular event. In this respect, we actively sought to produce as much historical context as possible for the idea of new media and critical practices across the region and how they have emerged over the last two decades or so, and not just as a result of so-called revolution. A number of essays included in the volume were published as part of Ibraaz’s online platform in 2012 and 2013, and therefore referred to specific cultural moments and live events as they unfolded across the Middle East. Rather than substantially revise them, we chose to maintain the immediacy of reactions to these events, specifically in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, and the timelines associated with them. We also included a number of artists’ inserts, some of which had been produced specifically for Ibraaz , and others commissioned. These included works from Ganzeer, Sophia Al-Maria, Hans Haacke, Rabih Mroué, and Tarzan and Arab.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
AD: There were basically two issues we felt needed further research. First, one of our concerns was to examine the extent to which the so-called Arab Uprisings quickly became rebranded as Twitter or Facebook “revolutions,” begging, in turn, the question: Who precisely is benefitting from these events and processes? It would be interesting to enquire, for example, into the market share increase in social media companies every time the so-called Facebook or Twitter “revolution” was and is mentioned. It would be likewise interesting to explore, following Edward Snowden’s revelations about the United States National Security Agency, whose interests are being served by so-called social media. Franco “Bifo” Berardi’s essay in Uncommon Ground is a good case in point here, as it offers a similar level of skepticism about whether new media, specifically social media, has actually, as opposed to ideally, contributed to the democratic expression of popular revolt on a global level. A number of authors in the volume address this in the specific context of North Africa and the Middle East, including Dina Matar, Tarek Khoury, Nat Muller and Philip Rizk, Maymanah Farhat, and Timo Kaabi-Linke, who all explore recent issues around the use of social media across the region.
In addition to this, there was a sense that an increasing number of artists, in very diverse ways, were instilling a productive sense of what I would term “hermeneutic suspicion” into how we understand the content and dissemination of images across the region—a sense that we needed to be wary of what we were looking at, but also question why we were looking at it and whose interests were being served in that moment. I am thinking here of the work we included as part of the artist inserts—Roy Samaha and Rabih Mroué in particular—and how they question the mediation of images.
But there was another element that we considered just as important, if not more so, and that was the need to historically contextualize the emergence of so-called new media across the region and begin to make clear distinctions about certain practices and their specificity. This is a very particular endeavor inasmuch as it is about what new media means in different contexts. In an art historical context, for example, it relates to a period emerging from the 1960s onwards and the use of video and film; more recently, this term refers to online media and the use of the internet in artists’ work. A further distinction needs to be made here: new media can also refer to social media, but social media has its own independent network of practices that is not necessarily reducible to the context of recent art history. Artists do use social media, but social media is not dependent on a context in art theory, whilst new media is a very specific art historical term. So these and other issues needed to be addressed, as did the contexts within which artists such as Wafaa Bilal and collectives such as Mosireen were using social media in their practices and developing it as an integral part of their work.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?
AD: I very much see this book as a continuation of my research over the last decade or so, specifically the work I have been doing as editor-in-chief of Ibraaz and within the context of the Kamel Lazaar Foundation. It was clear to me from the launch of Ibraaz that we needed more background, historical and critical, to the debates around art practices within and beyond the regions of the so-called Middle East.
In a broader sense, however, this interest in the Middle East came out of a number of interrelated things. I studied postcolonial theory at Goldsmiths College in London in the 1990s and my PhD there had a large element of postcolonial theory underlining it (I wrote about the postcolonial politics of mimicry within an Anglo-Irish context). I was also a member of the editorial board of Third Text for over a decade (and recently re-joined as an Editorial Advisor). Third Text is one of the leading international journals (if not the leading journal) dedicated to the critical analysis of contemporary art from the Global South. It has been in production since 1987 and was one of the first journals to seriously focus on non-western cultural production and to consider the critical and historical paradigms that had emerged—and become dominant—in art historical readings of cultural practice in, say, Lebanon, Egypt, or Iraq from the 1980s onwards. My work there and with Ibraaz has become more and more about producing less reductive and more productive epistemologies for interpreting cultural production and reconsidering how we can engage with such practices without reducing them to so-called “western” paradigms, although the term “western” is relative too—perhaps as a direct result of work done by journals such as Third Text. There was also a need to move beyond postcolonial paradigms of self and other and the fetishization of difference that became a mainstay of theoretical approaches to cultural production; we seemed to be moving in circles for a few years, but I think new paradigms are emerging. I took a lot of that thinking to Ibraaz and, when editing Uncommon Grounds, I was conscious that this book had to offer a critical paradigm that questioned, rather than simply celebrated, the way in which new media was being positioned across the region and elsewhere.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
AD: The book already has a wide readership and, judging by the invitations we have received to speak about it, it has already garnered a degree of critical purchase. (I have recently attended roundtable discussions based on Uncommon Grounds in London and Bologna, and will speak about it further in Tunis, New York, and Chicago this spring.) We were also very pleased to have it voted the number one art book of 2014 by Hrag Vartanian at Hyperallergic.
In terms of impact, I would hope that the volume opens up a discussion about the issues outlined above but also, and perhaps more importantly, generates further momentum for critical debate about key issues around cultural production. We had contemplated just publishing occasional volumes, but the Foundation, under the guidance of Kamel Lazaar, suggested that we should publish regular volumes, at least one to two a year, under the series title Visual Culture in the Middle East. This commits us to not only being involved in a sustainable critical debate about visual culture across the region, but also to consider our role in developing epistemological and critical paradigms.
J: How might an emphasis on new media lead to a different understanding of visual culture in the Middle East and North Africa?
AD: I think the key issue here is the extent to which artists using new media have been co-opted into a media environment that expects them to explain events or become answerable to them. This is a very reductive approach to understanding how artists work and how art practices engage with broader contexts. These issues are complex and do not respond well to abbreviation; however, if artists are going to respond to the immediacy of events (whilst utilizing new media to do so), who is to say they should not? This book makes it clear that we need to remain alert to how the media-inspired rhetoric of conflict and the spectacle of revolution are consistently deployed as benchmarks for discussing, if not determining, the institutional and critical legitimacy of these practices.
Whilst it is true that events across the extended region—including the so-called “Arab Spring”—have informed key elements of cultural practice, for better or worse, the artists and artworks explored here are not endemically provincial in their subject matter; nor, indeed, are they localized in their ambitions. This was key to developing different ways of reading their work. In art historical terms, the use of new media has frequently revealed an aesthetic ambition to explore the often inconsistent relationship of the subject to history, and it is precisely these inconsistencies, amongst others, that inform many of the discussions in Uncommon Grounds.
We also need to consider the following: revolution, uprisings, internecine warfare, civil conflict, and human rights—all of these points of reference have been deployed in an intensification of interest in the region and the coextensive demand that culture either condemn or defend such events and notions. Again, this is not only problematic, and it is an international rather than provincial concern, inasmuch as there remains the ever-present interpretive danger that visual culture from the region is legitimized through the media-friendly symbolism of conflict. The latter rubric is redolent of colonial ambitions to prescribe the culture of the Middle East to a set of problems that revolve around atavistic conflict and extremist ideology. This is not a regional crisis in representation, but a global one: events today, no matter how localized, have become instantaneous in their reach through forms of digital dissemination.
Visual culture, as we understood it in Uncommon Grounds, positions itself as a key interlocutor in, if not a precursor to, these developments. New media offers, in turn, an increasingly significant if not essential element in understanding the immediacy and contingent impact of events across global sites of reproduction and reception. I think this needs to be more fully understood if we are to engage with the genealogies of current practices across North Africa and the Middle East, and their political, aesthetic, and historical importance.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
AD: I have just finished editing volume 02 in the Foundation’s Contemporary Visual Culture series, Dissonant Archives: Contemporary Visual Culture and Contested Narratives in the Middle East, which will be published in May 2015. This will coincide with a yearly conference that the Foundation hosts in Tunis, and we will be inviting some of the authors and artists involved in the book to speak. This volume took longer than the first, which came as a surprise, since I thought, erroneously in retrospect, that having gone through the process once it would be easier. We were hoping to progress a number of debates in this volume about archives and how their function is being questioned and re-inscribed within contemporary art practices. More specifically, I wanted to highlight a phenomenon that, whilst not necessarily hermeneutically or historically definitive as such, has come to define, to varying degrees, significant elements in the work of artists as diverse as Emily Jacir, Walid Raad, Akram Zaatari, Khalil Rabah, Maryam Ghani, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Zineb Sedira, Ruanne Abou-Rahme and Basel Abbas, Lamia Joreige, Khalil Rabah, Maryam Jafri, Adelita Husni-Bey, Héla Ammar, Roy Samaha, Uriel Orlow, Amina Menia, Vahap Avşar, Lucien Samaha, Eric Baudelaire, and Jananne Al-Ani. All of these artists, whilst not necessarily residing in the Middle East or born there, produce work that specifically engages with regionally-defined, historically localized forms of archived knowledge, be they photographic, art historical, cultural, sociological, anthropological, textual, institutional, oral, or digital.
We wanted therefore to ask a relatively simple question: What do these artists, and others, reveal about the archive across an admittedly broad region and, as a consequence, do their practices disclose or make manifest anything about the condition of art in the region and the politics of cultural production in, for example, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, and Palestine? I was also very pleased that we were able to include so many contributors to this debate, including, amongst others, Mariam Ghani, Nick Denes, Tom Holert, Guy Mannes-Abbott, Ariella Azoulay, Ruanne Abou-Rahme and Basel Abbas, Héla Ammar, Chad Elias, John Akomfrah, Naeem Mohaiemen, Adelita Husni-Bey, Lucien Samaha, and Meriç Algün Ringborg
I am also working on volume 03 in the series, which is provisionally titled Future Imperfect: Building Institutions through Contemporary Practices in the Middle East, which will be published in early 2016. We have also just announced Ibraaz’s Platform 009, which will examine the genealogies of performance art across the region (and will become volume 04 in our visual culture print series).
J: Following the publication of Uncommon Grounds, was there anything you felt you would have liked to include in the volume that is not there?
AD: Yes, there is always something isn’t there, but perhaps that is the point. There were a number of elements I would have liked to pursue further and I am currently writing them up in a post-script of sorts. One involved the way in which organizations such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) have utilized social media for their own purposes. There was also, in the case of the latter, the visual symbolism of dressing hostages in orange jumpsuits, recalling prisoners in Guantanamo for example, and how the politics of visual representation, a key element in artistic practices, reproduces itself across multiple registers and processes in what has become a representational battlefield. Again, the manner in which artists interject into this field of representation is of ongoing interest here, especially this sense of encroaching hermeneutic suspicion and the anxiety over images and their circulation.
There was also a curious incident that occurred after publication: the circulation of a fake video of what was believed to be a Syrian boy saving a young girl from sniper fire in northern Syria. The footage, which looked very real and incorporated the cinéma vérité conceit of the hand-held camera and so forth, had been shot in Malta in May 2014, on a set that had been used for the movie Gladiator, and with grants from the Norwegian Film Institute and Arts Council Norway. This footage went viral and was seen by millions before the Norwegian filmmakers involved admitted their part in it. The footage, by then, had featured in news reports and added to a vast archive of clips documenting the war that is maintained by Syrian activists. The fall-out was immense, with many arguing that it gave further ammunition, so to speak, to those whose interests are being served in denying human rights abuses in the Syria.
Whilst this was of interest, as an argument, the questions that interested me were: Why this footage, and why now? There had to be a broader context to its production and it seemed to answer to a number of demands, including a sense that we needed a narrative that included redemptive images to emerge from what has fast become an intractable situation (the fact that western powers are actively considering working with Bashar al-Assad to counter ISIS is proof of the moral relativism at work here). But there was also another context: for the first eighteen months of the Syrian civil war, there were daily images being broadcast across global media outlets, but they seem to have become few and far between. We know that the situation there is catastrophic and that for large swathes of the population it is fatal, but it seems as if the media’s attention has moved on—the crises in Ukraine and elsewhere, and the admittedly shocking beheading of hostages by ISIS, seem to have overtaken media interest, as the Assad regime continues its genocidal pursuits. The question here is whether the fake footage was answering to the lack of footage—however misguidedly—and how it drew attention to the lack of media attention.
Again, these are live issues that go to the core of Uncommon Grounds: the sense that images, no where more so than when they are used in new media practices and disseminated through social media, are a battlefield and need to be interrogated and treated with a degree of suspicion as to how they function and in whose interests.
Excerpts from Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in the Middle East and North Africa
From the Introduction, by Anthony Downey
In 2010, the Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal had a camera surgically inserted into the back of his head. The process involved implanting a titanium plate onto which a camera was mounted and, from the outset, his body rebelled against this foreign object by cutting off blood supply to the area. Through his own unwavering commitment, Bilal persisted with the project and for one year used the embedded camera to record one image per minute of his daily life. The results, covering a period dating from 14 December 2010 to 18 December 2011, or 369 days in total, were streamed live to a global audience via a dedicated website. Presenting acute angles and unexpectedly vertiginous views, the images look arbitrary, distant, lopsided and yet disconcertingly intimate. The first was taken from a car in Doha, Qatar, whereas the last shows a hotel room in Jakarta, Indonesia, complete with a curtain rope framed by a window. The curtain rope, in one of the many visual allusions in this series, resembles a wrecking ball—a perhaps fitting end to a project that was brought to a close when the computer finally crashed.
Technology and new media brought 3rdi (2010) into being and also, somewhat appropriately, announced its end. However, the concept for the work alludes to more enduring concerns that, according to the artist, arose from a need to objectively capture his past from a non-confrontational point of view. Bilal’s own past has been indelibly marked by historical events in Iraq and elsewhere over the last two decades, including the invasion of Kuwait (and the ensuing wars in his homeland); the death of his brother Haji in 2004 (killed by American forces); the subsequent death of his father (from the resulting grief); his time in refugee camps (in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, respectively); and, presently, his life in the United States (where he now teaches at Tisch School of the Arts). In conversation with Bilal, two things become immediately clear about his practice: firstly, his work, produced within the relative comfort zone of the United States, often reflects upon the conflict zones he has left behind; with the difference between the two generating a poignant creative friction. Secondly, when he looks back on his tumultuous travels there is a keen sense of regret that he lacked the means to record those journeys in all their chaos and uncertainty. This ambition to record no doubt appeals to a broader human desire for things—be they the apparently random events of everyday life or the singularity of a tragedy—to make sense. Making sense of a past riven by conflict and uncertainty, moreover, acts as an ameliorative of sorts—a point of reference for the subject to negotiate the precariousness of life.
In its use of new media and digital platforms, 3rdi offers a significant point of departure for any discussion of contemporary art practices in the Middle East and beyond. It also alludes to a fracturing of historical reality that, for many, has impacted upon how we understand the relative relationship of the subject to both time and space. The invasion of Kuwait in 1990, two wars in Iraq, 11 September 2001, and an ongoing war in Afghanistan; protests across the region from 2010 onwards, subsequent upheaval in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere; and the catastrophic destruction wrought by civil war in Syria—all of these events have arguably created a quandary in both formal representation and interpretation for artists, institutions, and critics alike. How, that is to enquire, do you represent such events in a digitized visual continuum where images circulate in an apparently context free, groundless, circle of self-reference and media-based hysteria? This is not, I should observe, an attempt to rehearse the all too weary defeatism of a Baudrillardian-inspired belief in the referential bankruptcy of images and the devolved authority of reality (conflict) in the face of a simulated reality (the representation of conflict); rather, it is to argue that the last two decades—broadly commensurate with the rise of digital technology and ready access to it—has seen a dilemma in representational strategies that has subsequently found considerable purchase in the context of artistic practices, with artists being called upon (and often putting themselves forward) to make sense of events as they unfold. Furthermore, this is not a regional crisis in representation, but a global one: events today, no matter how localized, have become instantaneous in their reach through forms of digital dissemination. Visual culture, in these contexts, positions itself as a key interlocutor in, if not a precursor to, these developments and new media offers, in turn, an increasingly significant if not essential element in understanding the immediacy and contingent impact of events across global sites of reproduction and reception.
From “For the Common Good? Artistic Practices and Civil Society in Tunisia,” by Anthony Downey
On 10 June 2012, in La Marsa, a city adjacent to Tunis, the art exhibition Printemps des Arts (Springtime of the Arts) came to an end amidst ugly protests from artists involved in the show and protestors—largely identified as Salafis (a collective term used for the most conservative Islamists)—who were offended by the content of some of the works on display. The two groups became locked in increasingly acrimonious exchanges that extended to physical abuse, a running battle with local police, death threats, destruction of artworks, the vandalization of the Palais Abdelliya, where the exhibition was held, and a call for Mehdi Mabrouk, the Tunisian Minister for Culture, to resign. In the days that followed, protestors alleged blasphemy and used Facebook to publicize what were later determined to be doctored images of works in the original show. The clashes with police represented the single largest show of public unrest since the revolution in Tunisia, and the Palais Abdelliya, which had held Printemps des Arts for over a decade without much by way of previous controversy, effectively became central to the debate around what could be displayed in a public space and who could have access to it. It also foregrounded a question that has become central to every discussion around political freedom and self-determination: who controls civil, secular, cultural, public, religious, and political space in modern-day Tunisia?
The intention to provoke debate about cultural and political space had been clearly outlined in the curator Meriem Bouderbala’s accompanying text for the show’s catalogue, in which she proposed that “[i]n the current context, it is all about occupying cultural territory, of allowing everyone access to it and contributing to a strong democratic cultural constitution that demonstrates the strength of Tunisia’s creative potential.” These lofty sentiments display a degree of naivety: the use of terms such as “occupying” and “constitution” and, later in the same text, “resistance” and “civil society,” placed Printemps des Arts firmly in the realm of Tunisia’s political turmoil. The subsequent reaction from protestors was therefore inevitable—and, indeed, seemed to be part of the avowed intention behind the show. Tunisia, under the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled for thirty-four years until his ignominious departure in 2011, had not seen much by way of contemporary art events and certainly none that had addressed issues around secularism, human rights, freedom of expression, gender, repression, and the female form. Controversy was bound to ensue insofar as Printemps des Arts was placed in an antagonistic realm where debates about public space and secular self-determination were key to any political narrative of post-revolutionary Tunisia. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this situation, and it is evident that both sides of the argument have since been strained to mean different things to different people, culture is a political battleground in post-revolutionary Tunisia.
If we can argue that politics is reflected in the sum of power relationships that exists in a given sociopolitical order, then any reflection upon that order or any broadening of those relations effects a change in how we view and engage with the political. And that, in and of itself, is a political act: to change how people engage, what they see, how they interact and what they hear (and indeed fear), can only ever be political in its effect. Thereafter we must observe that the innate power of the political, for many, is the ability to determine what is and is not political as such, just as Mehdi Mabrouk attempted to do in his proscription of art from the political realm in the wake of the furor surrounding Printemps des Arts. Any expansion or retraction of the political order, and who has access to it, is an interjection into the syntax and logic of producing meaning and sense. In the moment of redefining the realm and scope of the political, and the core debate about what constitutes public, private, and civil space within that order of the political, new forms of subjecthood, in sum, can be articulated, as can new forms of protest.
So, what role will culture play in the formulation of civil society, not to mention forms of civil protest, in countries where dissent can still result in imprisonment or worse? What place do cultural organizations have in the Middle East when it comes to the broader social, political, and historical structure of those environments? I want to return to where we more or less began and end with a quote from Rancière, who proposes that “[t]here exists a specific sensory experience—the aesthetic—that holds the promise of both a new world of Art and a new life for individuals and the community.” Artistic practice opens up a horizon of future possibility within which civic imagination can flourish. Indeed, art as a practice contributes to the forms that civic space assumes whilst also engaging with public space through various modalities of engagement and resistance. To this end, support for the potentiality inherent within cultural practices and the way in which they are already involved in the context of (and support for) civil society is not only needed, but remains essential to the success of the political sphere. The need for supporters of the arts to develop new strategies for supporting the common good, common ground, and communal-based practices of art as an institution has never been greater than it is now in the context of, for example, Tunisia, where civil society is precisely that which is most under threat after what for many must have appeared an interminable hibernation. This is not, finally, about art as a form of political protest (an all too easily co-opted cultural paradigm), nor is this to confuse the artist as protestor (or vice versa). Rather, this is about the potential of art as a practice to open up horizons of possibility for civic imaginations to emerge, and be thereafter supported within a community-based network of social relations that remain independent of the diktats of politics, the edicts of religion and the deterministic, often divisive, rationale of the market.
[Excerpted from Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in the Middle East and North Africa, edited by Anthony Downey, by permission of the editor. © 2014 by Anthony Downey. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here; for more information about Ibraaz, click here.]