In this interview with STATUS/الوضع host Adel Iskander, artist Heba Y. Amin discusses and reflects on her most jarring works, which include hacking the set of televions series Homeland with subversive graffiti, a videographic documentation of long-lost online audio messages from the Egyptian revolution (Speak2Tweet), and how birds relate to surveillance, the Bible, and the British takeover of Jerusalem.
Heba Y. Amin is an Egyptian visual artist, researcher and currently, visiting assistant professor at the American University in Cairo. She received her MFA at the University of Minnesota and is a DAAD grant recipient, a Rhizome Commissions grant winner and a recent short-listed artist for the Artraker prize. She is currently the curator of Visual Art for Mizna`s journal on Arab and Arab-American art and literature (US), curator for the biennial residency program DEFAULT with Ramdom Association (IT) and co-founder of the Black Athena Collective. Amin`s projects are research-based investigations addressing the convergence of politics, technology, urbanism and media. Amin`s artistic work has been shown worldwide with recent exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, the Kunstverein in Hamburg, Camera Austria, Berlin Berlinale 9th Forum Expanded Exhibition, the IV Moscow International Biennale for Young Art, the WRO 15th Media Art Biennale Poland, the National Gallery of Mongolia, and the Art Museum of Gotland Sweden. She also has an extensive repertoire in public speaking and has published several works. Amin lives between Berlin and Cairo. She is currently represented by Galeri Zilberman in Istanbul.
The interview is divided into four parts which you can click on seperately. Please find a transcript of the interview below the player.
Transcribed by Nisreen Zaqout
Adel Iskandar (AI): Welcome to Status, this is Adel Iskandar. Today we have Heba Amin, an Egyptian artist, who will speak to is about various things including her work. But also revolutionary politics and how that is related to artistic production in Egypt and beyond. So, we are happy to have her on the show today. Heba, welcome to the show.
Hiba Amin (HA): Hello and thank you for having me.
AI: Fantastic. Really good to have you. So, we had an opportunity to meet [in Arabic: are you already laughing?]
HA: [Laughs] Keep going. It is good, if it goes in the background.
AI: So, we had the pleasure of meeting at a conference at the University of California-Santa Barbara called After Tahrir. The attention of the conference was to bring together artists, activists, thinkers, writers, academics to discuss the state of the Egyptian revolution moving forward. And, you know, you brought forward a project—in fact, your interventions were extremely interesting on so many different levels. But one of the projects that was very jarring and interesting for all of us to watch was a short video called Speak to Tweet. Do you mind telling us about that project, how it was conceived, and what it means to you?
HA: Sure. The project is actually called Project Speak to Tweet and I know that sounds quite banal, but it is because it is taken from a platform that is called Speak to Tweet. Speak to Tweet was a platform that emerged during the initial days of the revolution. When the internet was shut down it was this platform that emerged that allowed people to use regular landline to call a phone number and leave voice messages that would then automatically post to Twitter without a third party. So, the idea was the developers of this program were targeting the revolutionaries, who were using social media prior to the internet shutdown. It was a way for them to continue communicating despite being completely wiped off the world’s online maps. I was actually in Germany at the time and of course, when I found out about this platform I was interested in it and I sent multiple messages to my friends and told them to use it. I instinctively just started listening to all the messages in real time. I discovered very quickly that this was something incredibly, incredibly unique. It was something I had never heard before. It was basically people who were making phone calls and pouring their hearts out. It was really used in a way that was incredibly creative and incredibly emotional and that was very different from how social media was being used. And as I was listening I just kind of instinctively started recording these messages and knew this was something that really needed to be preserved. I guess I was still so moved by these messages that I felt like I needed to use them somehow. In my own artistic practice, it made sense to incorporate them into a project that I had already been working on. For over a decade I had been documenting the urban decay, the deteriorating buildings, and the unfinished buildings that were popping up around the city for over ten years. I had all this footage of this post-apocalyptic image of the city, and I had been editing these videos not really knowing what to do with them. And then, somehow, when I heard these messages it just kind of clicked that these were the people that were speaking amidst the ruins of the city. I already had a video edited and I put one of the first messages that really moved me to this video. It was the most incredible thing because it was the exact length of the video and I almost did not even have to edit it. And it somehow made complete sense to put these two things together. So, from that moment on I just started, you know, going through all the messages and putting them to these images. The idea is that I am creating this growing project of voices and imagery of urban decay. I managed to get a hold of the messages today--five years later--but these messages are actually very difficult to access online; they kind of been buried amongst the internet noise. As far as I know, I am the only one who is working with them and talking about them, and perhaps the only one who actually has these messages to hand.
AI: I remember watching and thinking that it is quite surreal to be listening to this at this point in the development of the contemporary political situation in Egypt. Largely because these voices seem sort of lost in the wilderness—as you said—kind of just existing in a space. But also they exist in a timeframe but they are largely timeless. Can you tell us a little bit about what it means to be going back and listening to some of these voice messages today? Who are these people? Do we know anything about them? Are they traceable? Where would they be today in relation to their perspective back then? And is there a way to bring these two together or is that just going to be preserved as is—almost as a curated sort of slice of time?
HA: I mean, it is really interesting to hear them five years after. The thing that is so interesting about voice messages is that you hear the sound of the voice. So this is a very different thing altogether than messages on social media because you have all this added level of information: you can hear the tone of the voice, you can hear emotion in it, and you can hear the volume. All those things add these layers of information to that--you know—text does not give you. It is quite eerie to hear these voices five years later. It is almost like the dead are speaking to you somehow. And you know these are anonymous people. In many cases with Speak to Tweet you did not have to have an account with any platforms—you could call in anonymously. But interestingly, a lot of people felt the need to name themselves and I am not sure what that is. This is just my own opinion, but I think it has something to do with the fact that many people were calling from kind of isolated or disconnected places, so a lot of people would call and leave their names and locations. A lot of the locations were either cities that were far away from where the protests were happening or people were calling from abroad to express their solidarity with what was happening in Tahrir Square, so this was something that was really interesting. Also, for me, as the years have gone on and on and where we find ourselves today, somehow these messages have become a lot more powerful. You know, I was kind of instinctively working with them when they first came out because I was so moved by them. But of course, today I read them very differently because we are in a very different place politically. A lot of these messages were people expressing their hopes, their fears, and their excitement. There was this sense of uncertainty of where we were going, but there was also a sense of something is possible. But now, of course, we find ourselves in a very different place politically and these messages have a very different emotional impact on the viewer. In fact, I find them a lot harder to work with today than I did when they first came out in 2011.
AI: So, by calling it Project Speak to Tweet is there a project specifically, in terms of your work and your priorities? Where you expect this might go? Is this your sort of struggle to grapple with the memory of the revolution and revisiting in five years on? What does it mean?
HA: It is not five years on, because I imagine it being a very long-term project, which is why I kind of gave it this very boring name. But also it is a sense that it is something that is emerging from this preexisting platform and I do not want to take ownership of it. So part of what I am doing is also trying to make these messages accessible publicly again, to everyone. So that is also a process I am working on. But simultaneously, I am doing my own project and I am juxtaposing these messages—as many as I can, the idea is using all of them—with these images, the human-less images of the city. The idea is that as I present this work, each time I am presenting it, it is growing and growing because presumably I have done more and more films. Each little film has its own title that is quite poetic because each message is quite poetic. And the idea is that as it grows it becomes this sort of hallucination of the city. I am trying to address also the ephemerality of the medium so that these voices are preserved forever—I mean, of course when we are talking about digital memory, these things are preserved forever. They are sitting somewhere in a server—but that also it is a very ambiguous space, also an inaccessible space and in the same way that these buildings were inaccessible spaces. In fact, a lot of the footage that I have taken I was trespassing in these kind of falling-apart structures that are very much disconnected and dislocated from the city, even though they populate a big part of the city. And so there was some similarity there. Addressing these kinds of ambiguous spaces that I wanted to work with becomes this overwhelming project that addresses very different emotional aspects. This is why I gave it this name, because it is something that really has no end for me.
AI: You said a lot of really important and jarring words: ephemerality, trespassing, ambiguity, and hallucination. Listening to those terms I was actually immediately struck by the extent to which they are congruous with another project that you worked on which is Homeland: Hackjob—and you have to credit me for not starting with that.
HA: [Laughs] Right, I am now constantly being introduced as the Homeland hacker.
AI: I think most of our listeners would probably be familiar with that particular intervention. But it accrued to me that there is a fair amount of parallel between these two interventions. I mean, voices that were expressed in The Homeland Hackjob are basically, again, faceless voices that you guys had to trespass to produce that kind of work. You were invited, [HA: Under a different premise]. So, can you tell us about the parallels between these two works and how they relate to each other in as a contemplative experience?
HA: Yeah, sure. I mean, it is really interesting actually to look back at these projects and see that somehow this Homeland incident really does fit within the broader themes of my work, because I really was not so conscious of it. There was something very instinctive—again you know in the same way that Project Speak to Tweet came about. There is something very instinctive about what I did and I guess it has now become a natural reaction to these kinds of things. When theHomeland opportunity came about, of course my initial reaction was we clearly need to use this opportunity and see how far we can go with this. And you are absolutely right; there are a lot of parallels because we are also dealing with these ambiguous public, urban spaces. One thing that was really interesting about the Homeland set that we put this subversive graffiti in this hyper-realistic Syrian refugee camp. That in and of itself was really a fascinating thing because Homelandwas attempting to create a very detailed set of a Syrian refugee camp while really addressing the Syrian narrative. So, it was again about putting narrative into space and so, even though we put graffiti that was not related to the Syrian narrative, we later were invited to make a film about this Homeland Hack. This became so public and it became so viral in the media that we were contacted by Laura Poitras. It turns out that season 5 of Homeland had based a character that is based on her. She is a dissident journalist who is using hacker information to expose government secrets and they even named the character Laura, so they did not even bother to change her name. She sent us an email when the Homeland Hack was exposed and she thought it was great. She told us that the media was after her to make a statement on how she felt about being used for a character in the new season. But she had not yet made a statement and in fact she wanted to make a statement through us by producing a short film. She asked us if we had filmed anything on set while we were writing our subversive graffiti--in fact we kind of secretly documented what we are doing—you know, very crappy iPhone footage. But we had decided at that point that the Syrian narrative was never addressed and we wanted to include that. Of course, the immigration narrative is so huge in Europe these days. There is this kind of shallow, one-sided media narrative that is addressing Syrian refugees and immigration especially. So, we decided we would commission a friend of ours, who is a Syrian refugee to actually react to the set, to react to the visuals of what Homeland’s set of a supposed Syrian refugee camp looks like. And he wrote this really incredible text reacting to it and drawing from his own experiences. But because we felt like we could not relay that narrative, because that is not out experience, we used that opportunity to bring in the voice also. So, the film in many ways works very similarly to Project Speak to Tweet because again, it is this other voice, it is the faceless voice that is speaking over an urban space and telling that narrative.
AI: That is quite amazing in light of various institutions who try really hard to appropriate dissent. My first thought when you mentioned Laura Poitras reaching out is, you know, the whole jamming job that you guys did, going to somehow become assimilated into the programmatic part of the show. Which of course, the show does quite frequently in various sorts of subversive text, kind of streaming in and out, but eventually being themselves subversively [unclear 16:26] bigotry on the region. At the same time, internalizing these soft kinds of discursive bases allows people to develop a little bit of empathy with the victims, and with certain communities. So, yeah. I am always curious as to when the project becomes vulnerable to appropriation and commodification, and contributes to the larger problem.
HA: That is definitely a criticism that we did receive. First of all, a lot of people suspected that we were hired by Homeland to do this because it gave them so much attention. And in many ways it did, in many ways we brought Homeland to the forefront. And I am sure that many people out of curiosity maybe started watching it after Homeland Hack that were not watching it before. I am not sure. But they did get a lot of attention, and in many ways they did benefit from it, but I have to say the one thing that I am happy about is that this thing went viral. Of course, initially, most of the media was writing about how funny it was that we got away with this. A lot of people were just amused by the fact that we managed to pull this off. But slowly what started happening was people really started writing meaningful articles and they were quite prominent and really addressing the issue of stereotyping. This is kind of connected to how foreign policy and current events. A more important conversation started happening and I think if anything, what Homeland Hack did do successfully is opened up this conversation. It was a conversation that needed to happen worldwide because a lot of people can relate to it and a lot of people felt the need to express themselves about being victimized by the entertainment industry or something. And this provided the platform for people to express themselves. So, I do not know if that has a lingering effect. There is a lot of discussion, especially today about the ways in which artists use tactical media as a strategy. In the long term, is it really something that promotes and helps change or is this this kind of blip that brings attention and fades away? I am not sure, because to be honest, I do not know if anything we did is going to change the way that Homeland writes their narratives—I highly doubt it. But it might encourage them to be more careful about hiring someone who speaks the language to double check their text. I really do not know how deep it goes, but I think through our own work, a lot of artists are beginning to use these strategies to at least open up a discussion, if anything.
AI: The conversation itself is extremely important, but it also sort of takes us back to how intractable that relationship is between dissident art and the structures of power that precipitate this art. But there is a very, very odd kind of symbiotic, if not parasitic, relationship between the two. You have to constantly think about whether or not you ended up improving the ratings of Homeland or putting them at the top of the news all of a sudden and they were just an entertainment show for the last couple of years. Then, conversely that you may have in some ways—your work and your art and whatever it is you produce—has in of itself benefited from being connected to such a high profile entertainment program. And there is really no answer to that, but it is a function of culture jamming. I am curious as to whether or not you think culture jamming is something that is worth pursuing as a mechanism in of itself for artists, or is it just a tool? Is it an instrument that occasionally becomes a utility, or should entire careers be built around culture jamming? What does it mean in the long term and is there a possibility for cynicism after a while in this kind of work? Is it a utility to use later on when it feels like everybody is doing the same thing?
HA: I mean, I think yes and no. I can think of instances where it is working successfully and other instances where it has backfired. Having been involved in something that is big, I have to say this was quite a coincidence in the way it emerged; it was not so preconceived and it was not preplanned, I think that is why it worked. We took advantage of this opportunity that was thrown in our laps. But then, I can think of artists like the Yes Men, who used this strategy quite frequently. They basically use the media and turn it upon itself--by pretending to be criticized corporations and CEOs and bringing massive attention to corporate corruption. I think also of artists like Pussy Riot in Russia who are using their music to bring attention to corruption in Russia. So, these things all use the media as a platform in a way that I think is quite effective in bringing it forward in the public’s consciousness. This is a start that is incredibly important. If it is not at the forefront of the public’s consciousness, it is going to be much more difficult to change the issues that they are addressing. It is quite a positive thing, but I do agree with you about this strange paradox of a relationship between the artist and these political issues. One thing that I often talk about is this responsibility of the artist as the activist. In fact, I find this quite funny, often times I am invited to speak at events and I am introduced as an activist, even though I have never called myself an activist. And it is merely because the work that I do is of a political nature. And I make it a point to say that actually I do not think it should be on the shoulders of an artist to help promote change--the artist is only really reacting to the world around them. The artist is trained to be observant in a way that maybe other people are not and we are trained to construct narratives in a way that helps people contemplate issues. That is really what the function of an artist should be. For me, I prefer to see it as putting forward these questions; I create more questions rather than trying to find the solutions. Having said that, there is definitely a trend in the art world where artists are putting forward solutions. Another group for example is The Center for Political Beauty, an artist group based in Germany that is addressing the narrative of migration. They have done several projects that were quite proactive, for example, they created platforms in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea for migrant boats that might need help because governments are not providing the necessary tools to help migrants who might be drowning at sea. So, the artists themselves have taken it upon themselves to provide these structures that otherwise should have been provided by governments. So, I do not know where that goes. I do not know if that opens up a door for a bigger possibility for art to provide more than just tools, but possibilities for change. I am not so sure, but possibly.
AI: No, you are absolutely right. It is an unanswerable question, but at the very least in both circumstances it appears as though both tensions are not of the self-indulgent, both are committed…
HA: There is of course the self-indulgent. I am being accused of that today. But what is interesting is that we are living in a world where we are being constricted more and more and under oppressive regimes, and where speaking out critically is becoming increasingly difficult, but somehow the art world is a space in which people can still do that. I do not know if that is because it is its own contained bubble or because there is some notion that yes, the artist can go off the deep end and say whatever they want. But there is this sense that critical discussions, especially in the case of Egypt, are now becoming impossible to say anything critical, somehow, these discussions are still happening in art communities. And I can say that on a worldwide scale, I mean if you look ‘whistleblowers’ like Laura Poitres or Edward Snowden, somehow, that conversation is present in the art world--Laura Poitres just had this big exhibition at the Whitney. Somehow, that is the space where it is okay to address these things.
AI: Let me ask you this question: I am thinking about what it means for art to be a refuge as you said in given circumstances where regimes and livelihoods become more curtailed. You live between Egypt and Berlin, but the time you spend in Cairo, you are watching the country sort of transform into a kind of Orwellian nightmare. Regular people have a lot to say but no longer have the platforms, the means, the access or even the vernacular and the ability to utter this outrage. And many are turning to art for anything, for catharsis.
HA: There are so many different worlds within art. And so presumably if you are interested in art you can find a space for yourself to fit. And I think in many ways yes, there are many people who are using art as catharsis, but more than that, especially in these paranoid and oppressive situations, people are using it as an alternative to expression. So not just catharsis, but it is another way to address the issues they are frustrated about. And there are many venues in which you can do that. So, even when we say art it depends on which art you are a part of; is it film, is it contemporary art, is it commercial art? There are so many different avenues within art and they each function quite differently. So, I guess it depends.
AI: Absolutely, absolutely. So, let us talk about your last or most recent project. It may not be the most recent, you may be working on something else since but the most recent I heard of is: As the Birds Fly and this particular project is very interesting, it, of course was screened at [Unclear 29:19]. I know it is about birds and surveillance and things of that kind. Can you talk to us a little bit about this particular project?
HA: Sure. I mean, in many ways like the other two projects that you mentioned, this is also a project that was spurred by a media narrative. In the same way we were just talking about artists using art as a platform to express frustrations and situations in a different way, this was my way of addressing the extreme paranoia and the extreme fear we were living in today. And it was spurred by a viral media story that occurred in 2013 when the Muslim Brotherhood was still in power. There was a stork that was caught in southern Egypt and it was detained and accused of espionage because it had an electronic device attached to its leg. So, of course, this was a hilarious story to many people and there is something much deeper there that I was really fascinated by; this idea that this is not really just paranoia and an absurd story, but it really is rooted in something. And in fact, as I started doing more research I discovered that spy birds really do exist and this is something that has been used for decades since World War I. But also in the region—it is not something unusual—when we live in this time and place and we are talking about drones and revolutions and conflict territories—it is not unusual for there to be a paranoia about something like that. So, I thought it would be interesting to not just explore the story but to kind of tell it through this absurdity. As Birds Flying is a short, experimental film which uses found footage of storks. It turns out that one of the reasons that storks are so suspect is because they migrate through Israel and of course, this electronic migration device that was on its leg was not a spying device, but it had Hebrew written on it because it is a migrant bird passing through Israel. So, I found footage of storks and it so happens that most of what I found was footage filmed in Israel. So, this added another level of addressing aerospace in a conflict territory, but also the landscape through which the bird migrates. I also discovered a guy who was filming storks with drones, so another level of narrative was added which is this kind of a military industrial complex. So, that was the footage I ended up using. But then, on top of that, my research came across a bizarre image, a very striking image of Lord Allenby, the High Commissioner General in Egypt, in the early twentieth century with his pet stork. It was a picture of him in the garden of his villa in Cairo with this very strange looking bird and I was very curious about this. And as I looked further into it, I discovered this incredible story that I have never heard before and I am astounded it is not well-known. Lord Allenby was convinced that he would take Jerusalem from the Ottomans because of a biblical passage which states, “As birds flying, the lord will deliver Jerusalem.” And basically biblical scholars convinced Allenby to be God’s messenger by sending planes, as birds flying, to threaten the Ottomans and in fact it ended up working. He sent flyers down threatening them, and they surrendered and it was a so-called peaceful takeover of Jerusalem by the British. It was so fascinating for me how these narratives were so beautifully woven together in a way that I did not even have to try. And I am using the combination of these narratives to address the sociopolitical state that we are in today.
AI: It is quite incredible, I have to say, that a project can bring together birds with the imperial, the prophetic and the military all at once. It is quite an astounding story and really triggered by what started off as a very absurd story.
HA: But that is the power of art, because you have this freedom to put these things together in a way that, in any other kind of context you would not be able to put it together. And my hope that is with my work I can put forward these things that allow people to make connections and contemplate these issues in ways that make them think about more complex narratives, not these shallow one-dimensional narratives that are often presented in the media. If anything that is what I attempt to do with my work.
AI: And have done with remarkable outcome. So, thank you Heba for the time you have shared with us today. For talking to us about you informative and incredibly incisive work. And I hope our conversations continue.
HA: Thanks for the interest.