Both physical and virtual, the show will include video, performance, and sculpture, all exploring the way our feelings and actions have been profoundly altered and speculations on what the future will bring. Picking apart the layers of hybridity, the 22 artists included examine how this situation “influences our globally networked world.”
Referring to the event as ‘a data cloud that changes shape’, the performative experience brings together multiple layers and interconnections to epplore both tangible and intangible frictions, “generating a queer space-time network where streams of information converge and alchemical transformations take place.”
After the previous marathons Extinction (2014) and Transformation (2015), we turn our attention to something more magical. Developed with artist Sophia Al-Maria, this year’s theme looks at ritual and repetition “to consider ways in which the imaginary can not only predict, but also play a part in affecting long-term futures.” The extensive line-up brings together a number of cross-disciplinary practitioners from the fields of art, science, activism, music, literature and theology among many others.
Day 1 will take place in West London at Serpentine Sackler Gallery and will also be live video streamed here.To begin the program, Gilbert & George present ‘FUCKOSOPHY FOR ALL’followed by Al-Maria’s own ‘The Unblinding’.
Presenting a variety of artists that are from or deal with the region in their work, the exhibition attempts a portrait of place that goes beyond its restrictive outside image of “failure, conflict, and narrow aesthetic formulas.”
The works are drawn from the Barjeel Art Foundationcollection of modern and contemporary Arab art, and the final display of a year-long series at the Whitechapel will focus on the theme of what the press release calls ‘mapping geographies’ which examines “the notion of statehood and exploring how artists engage with the rapidly expanding cities of the Arab region.”
As a person who has spent extended time in Rust-Belt America, I have come to think of malls as a thing of the past. Sprawling, abandoned buildings and endless parking lots that have become quite common outside of metropolitan centers are eerie monuments to a not-so-distant past version of America. An America that thought it would always be on top. Sophia Al-Maria‘s solo exhibition, Black Friday at New York’s Whitney Museum, running June 26 to October 31, is in many ways the nightmare of this past America, one with which the Qatari-American artist is familiar. Al Maria, who is also a writer and filmmaker, is perhaps best known for coining the term ‘Gulf Futurism’. It refers to the idea that the Arabian Gulf’s present state “made up of interior wastelands”, she writes about the concept in collaboration with Fatima Al Qadiri in Dazed Digital, “municipal master plans and environmental collapse [is] a projection of our global future”.
The small, but dense exhibition, takes on the idea of the mall in both the Gulf and the United States as “a weirdly neutral shared zone between cultures that are otherwise engaged in a sort of war of information and image.” Upon entry to the darkened room, one is immediately confronted by a wall of intense sound, coming from several ceiling-hung speakers, frequently emitting an intense, droning blast that almost makes the entire space quiver. Its intensity varies from said drone to a sort of eerie sci-fi music, to personal and fictional narrations, and is associated with the projection, which is the focal point of the installation. An elongated, vertical screen sits on a mound of sand and broken glass, strewn with wires and hundreds of broken phones and monitors, each flickering with a different image, tittering away in a glitchy jabber, that only emerges when the primary soundtrack is subdued.
The imposing situation of the screen recalls a space portal, or a ceremonial altar rather than a more traditional cinematic image in a dark room. By activating the architecture, and creating a new opening for interaction, those who enter the space are denied the luxury of passive consumption of that which it offers. Other aspects of the show preclude passivity. Nothing about this place is comfortable. The museum attendant wears earplugs, a mother who comes in to sit on the viewing bench almost immediately ushers her three boys (who are holding their ears) right out because the sound actually hurts. If you approach the screen, the frenetic flashing and snickering of the glitchy monitors distracts and overwhelms. I was not able to focus on it as a whole, often closing my eyes to listen, covering my ears to watch. The film projection is shot in dizzying angles, blurring, fragmenting, twisting and spiraling its images of vast, fantastical malls almost, but not completely, out of recognition. A digitized fun-house mirror that doesn’t let up.
As in a house of mirrors, where you turn the corner and see a warped figure, then realize it is yourself, there are startling moments of recognition in the installation. Dead ringers of our present and past “war of information and image” abound. Whether or not we recognize them as dead ringers becomes part of Black Friday‘s game. Some of these moments are more superficial than others. The exhibition’s title, for instance, references the American mall ‘holiday’; the day after Thanksgiving when people risk getting trampled in discount shopping stampedes in search of desired products — new technology or a hot kids toy. Is the mound of beached technology discards the refuse of such a consumer stampede? Or is this image a dead ringer for the infamous ‘electronic graveyards’, on the beaches of West Africa, here lit up as if by poltergeist to haunt us with ourselves? On one or more of the screens, one sees a flickering GIF of a teenage boy with his back to us, wearing a hoodie — an immediately recognizable, now reverberant signifier of invented white fear and actual black victimhood in America’s present epidemic of racial killings. This domestic information war is presumably situated in an Arab context, and thus takes on more international implications. Race isn’t just America’s problem. Indeed, on another video an image flickers showing a woman’s face, as though in a beauty advertisement, the hot pink words, “SKIN ELIMINATION MATERIALS”, flashing over the top. This is a grotesque radicalization of existing products, popular worldwide, designed to “lighten’ one’s complexion. Why not just eliminate it? Cheerfully jittering in the frame in bright colors, these images assume a pop/viral status, showing that in the end, they will be reduced to another tactic to entice consumers, only to be later discarded when they are no longer popular or ‘of use’.
The most deadpan moment of recognition in the exhibition, however, comes in the large-scale projection in two short scenes in the 16-minute film, which mirror each other — two sides of the same looking glass and the central moment in the loop. The scenes show a moving walkway, running in opposing directions, shot from above, an uncanny reference to the two towers of New York’s World Trade Centre. One, played in reverse, is shot over an artificial white background, the other, playing forward in time, has a black background. I was startled at how hard these images hit me — at this point I am so used to seeing this particular symbol used in critiques of late-capitalism, and to conflate it with Qatari mall culture feels so easy. And yet, I receive its gut-punch, perhaps because of the sound, or the undeniability of the reference, staring at me almost jeeringly as you if to say ‘you can’t un-recognize this’. The footage of the twin towers is an icon of the international war of information that we find ourselves in now. Situated in the ‘neutral territory’ of a mall makes it no less powerful, perhaps as testament to the incredible force and omnipresence of nationalist propaganda in architecture and the mainstream media. That I am relatively powerless against this image is a jarring revelation, and this particular moment in the film hones in on that. The walkways (and the people riding them) simultaneously ascend and descend (to where?), perhaps prodding towards the moralistic undertones that an picture of the skyscrapers now assumes. The scenes, though shot differently and showing different people riding the travelators, also move backwards and then forwards in time, two sides of a broken mirror. History repeating, but differently. An icon of our past-future dream-turned-current-nightmare and the inevitability of its repeating (not only in the looping structure of the film, but also our looping Gulf-futuristic present) is relentless and writ large.
Our ability to recognize signs from our past and our present is a major driving force in this exhibition. Much of this message is delivered through confronting, bombastic, hyperbolic and blunt visual and sonic strategies, isolating sci-fi malls, mainstream media images sent back to haunt us, a sneering narrator with a British accent. However a single, prolonged interlude voices the cruel realities of our ability and inability to recognize ourselves and those around us, and places it in a more personal light. A soft-spoken female narrator with an American accent, talks about visiting a mall in Doha. There they see some American military personnel in civilian clothing, recognizing that they were military by their “buzzed haircuts and combat boots”. Then a deeper moment of recognition: that one of the men was an old classmate of hers “from the ‘States”. She noticed that he did not recognize her at all in his ‘international distance’, admitting that she probably looked like one of the images they saw in ‘target practice’. And she, knowing her place, does not approach him. Had he also recognized her, how would this interaction have changed? As much as its intensity has the power to repel and isolate its viewers, Black Friday uses moments of inevitable recognition to lure us into its reality. The exhibition prods us to recognize our past in this present moment. We can leave it, showing a present-future which might read as an apocalyptic, sci-fi, futuristic fun house, but it will follow us because it is already inside of us (if only we would recognize it). It is buzzing in our back pockets, flickering on billboards and screens, and in the dark recesses of our own identities.**
‘Fresh Hell’, the eighth issue of publication series Happy Hypocrite is launching at Lewisham Art Houseon January 27.
To launch ‘Fresh Hell’, Book Works, who are hosting the event and who publish the series, have organised a schedule for the evening including a live film screening, and a reading by ‘Fresh Hell’ contributor and writer Alex Borkowski.
My candle in this bar died as soon as I sat down. ‘Fossil candle’, I thought. I would like to think about this in terms of something important but maybe it just died. For a few weeks I have been thinking deeply about Sophia Al-Maria’s new publication, ‘Fresh Hell’, the eighth in the series Happy Hypocrite, which is published by Book Works and curated by Maria Fusco, who introduces each issue. Al-Maria has collected an archive –”shrapnel”, as Fusco refers to it –of old posters, a Tumblr account, essays, unexplained images, stories, biographical accounts by the likes McKenzie Wark, Stephanie Bailey and Abdullah Al-Mutairi. It feels as though Al-Maria has been finding and collecting these things for a long time; archiving them without necessarily thinking about their place and role in ‘Fresh Hell’. They are comparable to a series of browser tabs that at one point were each separately open for a long time. They exist together in one place as though she has remembered them all now; trying at least.
The success of ‘Fresh Hell’ is that it imparts this to the reader. There is something really large between each smaller part and it’s kind of invisible and slightly incomprehensible. Not that whatever it is is being only tentatively and not directly explained enough to the reader to be understood. It’s that this book is mostly about oil, and oil is in everything, inherently. And so many things are (in) oil. To be more precise, so many things that were, are now in oil and we don’t know about them.
Another large part of this publication is about paying attention. Somehow I think Al-Maria is wondering if reading any of these elements or moments or things can hold our attention like they did hers. There is a short selection of images from one tumblr account: http://pussyfriends.tumblr.com by Lena Tutunjian. The link and author’s name are written in large turquoise font before the images start. There is only one tumblr account in ‘Fresh Hell’. The images are memorable now. There is no white border around them and each one takes up an entire page. It reminds me of the subtitle “invisible pages over” of one of Max Richter’s Sleep tracks. A series of short stories by Monira Al Qadiri describe the attention and weight pearls held in the traditional diving industry in Kuwait. The pearl was like an anchor. It was the ‘master’ and the divers and the Nahham maintained beats to the songs they sung all around it. Now the raw material to mine for around the Persian Gulf is oil, and we know less of the individual fossils that go to make it, we know less of the longevity of each single unit mined.
Alex Borkowski’s story ‘Vital Plastics’ presents in minute detail a person acting out her desire to become a totally interior and closed being. She practises, for most of the story, delicately inhaling small points on the surface of a plastic bag, forming inverse blue bubbles that she can caress with her tongue. It’s like she wants to know the structure of her inside more clearly. She makes a dance between her lungs and the blue: in out, one two, back and forth like partners dancing, “except one of the partners remained invisible inside her”, as the story reminds and settles in the reader. It makes me think of being glad but also sad to know about the small 50 million year-old equine Eohippus heart that Fusco tells us –recounting Peter Anderson’s 2008 novella Machine –was used in one 1975 refill of a Ford engine in Texas. It’s like a drop in the fucking ocean, but I’m glad to know about the fossil heart. It will stay inside me forever.
There seems to be a delicate balance between illuminating or highlighting something with trance-like focus, and having too much light that you can not see; too much light that you overview or ‘flounder’. The latter is a word that Al-Maria brings up with William Gibson whom she interviews about trying to catch the present tense of ‘now’. She describes walking down Buchanan Street in Glasgow, going past a repeat pattern of Topshop, Starbucks, Lush. They are like a chorus or maybe the moment in a fruit machine where all the lights come on and you hit the jackpot, which is the title of the Al-Maria and Gibson’s interview.
The most intricate piece is ‘Key Word Searches for Dust’ by Malak Helmy who writes pages of text and image sequences that flow down the page like someone floating diagonally downstream in a river. The images are small either with small –often singular –items floating in them (like airplanes) or misty and blurred like someone is running. Either way they function to punctuate the text somehow. Fragments of a bigger story talk of tracking someone with ‘black light’ because they are so illuminated in fireflies: “they tracked me and saw the holes where things were missing”. Another fragment talks about a ‘light beat’ between two cars on the highway, as though they were “lovers or predators”, until the darkness “falls out” of the sequence completely. If a scene is the same thing as a photograph, then this photograph would be completely awash with white light; image floundering. **
The Ψ (Psi) group project launches in Fokidos this week, running in the Athens space from November 16 to December 21.
The project, conceived in December of 2014 in the Dutch city of Maastricht (and “under the shade of Sol LeWitt’s Wall drawing #801: Spiral”), will finally materialise in the Greek city under the curatorial direction of Pádraic E. Moore and Sofia Stevi.
The project, which is primarily concerned with “the transfer of thoughts from one person’s mind to another”, features the works of seven artists including Sophia Al Maria and Quinn Latimer.
The artists are asked to provide in writing an idea or image that possessed some sort of personal significance, and these ideas are then translated into “gouache paintings” by artist Navine G. Khan-Dossos directly on the walls of the space.
Munich’s Museum Villa Stuck is bringing a group exhibition celebrating the diversity of art coming from the Gulf region with Common Grounds, running from February 12 to May 17.
Curated by Verena Hein, the show is intended as a sort of reckoning of the way in which the Western world manipulates and censors coverage of the Gulf region. Twelve artists, some of which are introduced to the German public for the first time, counter this exoticisation of the east through their work.
The exhibition title refers to the concept of “grounding” in communication theory, and the works featured test whether “communication partners” do in fact share common knowledge and whether a “global realignment”, as changes in the Gulf region are thought by some to be, is possible.
“Sounds like a trap. Is it a trap?” says the shifty blue iris of Sophia Al-Maria’s ‘Tsagaglalal (She Who Watches)’ (2014) video. The robotized voice carries through the speakers of a CRT TV set, on rack and rollers, powered by a battery and pulled along by two straight-faced attendants wearing sunglasses. They’re the props for a guided tour of Frieze London 2014, commissioned by the fair, inspired by John Carpenter and starting at the pavilion’s tours and catalogues desk. It’s raining outside, the tent roof is being buffeted by strong winds and everything feels futile. “Will they withstand a real rain?” Al-Maria’s words come less as a question than a warning as she interrogates the “temporary structures” of “weak shelters covered in a carpet chosen to match the drapes” that is the Frieze fair. It’s the premiere four-day event, bringing both the rich and the desperate from around the world to binge on “that great flower of our species’ effort” that some call art but Al-Maria’s omniscient eye calls commodity.
The TV and its two attendants lead their audience through a half-hour assault of the sections marked yellow, green and purple on the map in the Frieze Fair Guide. They’re the ones where each gallery’s share of the space appears to shrink according to their capital importance. Experimenter Kolkata andProject88 are there. The former features Indian art collective CAMP’s collaborative film ‘From Gulf to Gulf’ (2013), while my Nokia won’t wordpredict ‘Mumbai’ when I try to type in the origins of the latter. Around here are the Gs, Hs and Js of the ‘Focus’ of the fair, the smaller spaces with fewer viewers where the more interesting artists are. Morag Keil capitalises the letters spelling “REVENGE” painted in acrylic across cereal boxes on a shelf in the center of an otherwise sparsely furnished Real Fine Arts booth. There are stuffed toys on one side; a conch, a hot dog and a puffed oat on a mixed media mount on the other. A print of an interview with Harry Burke called ‘Can you live in art?’ is chained to a pair of chairs for children in a corner. It was originally conducted for Keil’s exhibition called L.I.B.E.R.T.Y..
“In a way, that’s what locations are today, different markets,” says Michael Connor, moderator of the three-day offsite discussion series centred around its thematic title, Do You Follow? Art in Circulation. The stage is set up in the industrial space of the Old Selfridges Hotel, an extension of the high-end shopping centre. The infrastructure inside is non-existent so there are port-a-potties downstairs and the salon where the complimentary beer and Smartwater flows freely is full of plants framed by the building’s concrete structure. The sense of a space catering to the bottom feeding art marked ‘post-internet’ couldn’t be better realised.
On Day One Martine Syms, Kari Altmann and token abstract expressionism expert Alex Bacon talk the #same-ness of networked art across aesthetics and algorithms. Takeshi Shiomitsu reads out his dense ‘Notes on Standardization’: and cites a subject position – across race, gender, class, sexuality – as shaping an experience of culture, while “our interactions are rendered within the confines of the user interface or platform”. Hence, the notion of dissidence-so-long-as-you-follow-the-rules, which is exemplified IRL when a puppy enters the building to the joy of the ICA staff but the chagrin of Selfridge’s security who force the dog and the human it’s attached to back outside.
It’s this fruitless performance of disruption that is probably best realised on Day Two during Constant Dullaart’s ‘Rave Lecture’, his ‘BRIC mix’ booming across from a concrete corner as an art audience stands around largely unmoving behind obstructive grey pillars. They’re reading the geopolitical messages that dance in lurid neon streams of colour, the laser beams “projecting chemically enhanced pleasure into your children’s future”. The sonic intensity of thumping electronica featuring languages I don’t understand generates that familiar feeling of fear and fascination that’s also at the core of Al-Maria’s “cosmic horror of reality” back at the Frieze pavilion. Tsagaglalal’s shaming gaze glitches, cuts and scrambles across fleeting interjections of images and bold white text: “EARTH LOST 50% OF WILDLIFE IN 40 YRS”. Her human flunkeys run their UV torchlights along the pavilion walls to reveal the residue of human handprints glowing alien-blue.
How diverse. How pointless. These are thoughts that linger as the tour passes through this battlefield of economic warfare – assaulted by art and artists fighting for attention. There’s the queer crosshatch of space, time and cultural signifiers in a lurid installation of Sol Calero’s “ciber café” at Laura Bartlett. PC computers propped on desks, among Hispanic food brands and gaudy gestural prints, are running on Windows XP and screening films of street parties. Men in dark blue overalls are chanting “at the rodeo I was like, this is the one” for Adam Linder’s performance art-for-hire at Silberkuppe. A line of people connected at the head by pink fabric walk past as part of James Lee Byars’ ‘Ten in a Hat’ (1968) at the exact moment that Tsagaglalal asks, “What are these weird wandering ghosts?” No joke.
“…then we went to the ICA for a little bit, then we went to see Big Ben and the London Eye…” yawns a visiting invigilator at one booth describing a week of costly cultural enrichment before I’m confronted by Nina Beier’s ‘Hot Muscle Mortality Power Pattern’ (2014) at Croy Nielsen. Keychains and dog treats, power sockets and perfume bottles are embedded in packing foam and framed behind UV security glass above a carpet scattered with organic vegetables, ordered online for Beier’s ‘Scheme’ (2014). Villa Design Group’s live auditions for a film adaptation of Jean Royère’s 1974 memoirs, ‘Arab Living and Loving as Seen by a French Interior Decorator’ at Mathew Gallery is filmed and re-mediated above the scene via a line of screens on the scaffolding. Carlos/Ishikawa offers free manicures care of Ed Fornieles over an Oscar Murrilo table flanked by Korakrit Arunanondchai’s body-paintings. ‘Affordable’ limited edition reproductions by Parker Ito, Neïl Beloufa, Ed Atkins are available for purchase at Allied Editions, while Richard Sides’ mixed-media contribution warns ‘Gamble Responsibly’.
“There’s even a food court” is another observation of art fair infrastructure by Al-Maria’s Tsagaglalal that runs through my mind while watching a photographer take a picture of the “A to B Coffee” café. The people there are consuming across from the Corvi Mora booth, where Anne Collier’s framed C-print memo ‘Questions (Relevance)’ (2011) queries “What does all this mean?”. An answer comes in the infantilised whisper of Laure Prouvost’s narrator in ‘Paradise On Line’ (2014), played in a pink-carpeted projection room at MOT International and suggesting ‘grandpa’ is “just interested in painting bottoms and not conceptual art”.
“Did I see Beyoncé? Yeah, yeah, yeah…” an attendant groans through her phone, walking past Mike Kelley’s ‘Rewrite’ (1995) enamel on wood panel that reads “our method of exploration: polymorphous perversity” at Andrew Kreps. The thin metallic ‘clack’ of Hito Steyerl cracking a screen in her ‘STRIKE’ (2010) video is playing on loop at its entrance as it occurs to me that Beyoncé’s presence was only felt at Frieze last year through the popular icon as self-image in Jonathan Horowitz’s eponymous mirror. It’s as if now the art and the image is not only reflecting a certain reality but somehow materialising it, in the same way that Amalia Ulman problematises the distinction between the performance and the person in her social media experiment in networked self-objectification, ‘Excellences & Perfections’ (2014). Presented in a slideshow on Day Three of the Art in Circulation series, she reveals that the photos of her fake boobs were fake. The minor plastic surgery and talk with the ‘King of Collagen’ was real but the public breakdown wasn’t. Or was it?
“Bodies are suitcases for a consciousness”, announces Ulman, paraphrasing infamous body-modification pioneer Genesis P-Orridge, “but who is this suitcase by?” In the case of the artist it’s one by the networked patriarchal gaze. Fellow panellist Derica Shields suggests an alternative model of authorship of the body for black women, reanimating themselves as cyborgs in 1990s music videos to create a “sense of control but also invulnerability”. Perhaps, it’s a way of achieving what Hannah Black’s polymorphous narrator can only aspire to while plummeting towards the earth’s core to the warped and slowed tune of Whitney Houston in ‘Fall’ (2014) screened before the panel begins: “At 13,000 feet, I finally discover my own language”.
The search for language appears part of a perpetual capital exchange as pamphlets from Deutsche Bank encourage “#artmagyourself”; urging art viewers to “post a selfie with the artwork you love and win a terrific prize!” whether it’s next to one of Cerith Wyn Evans’ chandeliers or Heman Chong’s red vinyl text of ‘The Forer Effect’ (2008) that cold reads, “Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic”. They’re as unrealistically aspirational as Shanzhai Biennial’s ‘Live’ installation at the art fair entrance. There they re-imagine their work as real estate in the Frieze brand-emulating sale of a £32,000,000 “Ultra Prime Residential” property in a room coloured rich-people-red with a contact email on the wall for “qualified buyers” only. Merlin Carpenter’s consciously crude painting of a middle-aged couple grinning in the golden glow of a stock sunset suggests ‘Price on Request’ at dépendance. Cory Arcangel’s Lakes series of flatscreen animations advances from ‘Diddy/Lakes’ (2013) at the team gallery inc. booth in 2013 to the bigger Lisson Gallery. The ripples under ‘Miley Cyrus’ and ‘Dinner’ is powered by modems and hanging above the milieu of rainbow-coloured carpeting and Joyce Pensato’s huge black and familiar Disney head in ‘Mickey for Micky’ (2014).
The fabric of fantasy tears at one point when a cleaner walks past me in the Frieze pavilion’s ‘Main’ section. She’s sweeping the space in front of Fiona Banner’s huge dark image of graphite on paper shouting “THE HORROR! THE HORROR!” in ‘The Greatest Film Never Made (Mistah Kurtz – He Not Dead)’ (2012). It’s an IRL occurrence that has a similar effect as Monira Al-Qadiri’s mediation in her ‘Soap’ (2014) video. Screened at Art in Circulation and featuring popular Gulf soap operas based in worlds of affluence, Al Qadiri reimagines these shows that forever forget the labour behind the wealth by transposing the ‘help’ into existing episodes. A vase is smashed in a fit of passion. The maid bends down and cleans it.
‘But what’s the plan?’ one wonders as Christoper KulendranThomas explains his accelerated drive to bringing Sri Lankan artists into a post-fordist economy, whether they like it or not. The artist argues for an integration into the spread of malignant markets on the back of branded sportswear: “I was thinking that what failure for me would look like in this work, is probably what success would look like for a lot of artists”. Though I’m not so convinced there’s that much of a distinction as I try to list every artist and booth who made it into Frieze worth mentioning: Simon Thompson at Cabinet London, Jack Lavender and Amanda Ross-Ho at The Approach, Lisa Holzer and Philip Timischl at Emanuel Layr,Hannah Weinberger’s ‘Frieze Sounds’ work, Société, Loretta Fahrenholz… There’s more but this whole piece has turned into an exercise in Search Engine Optimisation for ‘good art in a bad world’ while really just drowning in its own impotence as part of the fabric of collective failure.
“Is this an art fair or a mall?” barks Al-Maria’s electronic mouthpiece in my mind as I wander by Carsten Höller’s ‘Gartenkinder’ playground at Gagosian and Salon 94’s acid-yellow curation of Snoopy animation and largescale emoticons causing retinal burn at ‘The Smile Museum’. This is definitely Al-Maria’s “maze of particleboard walls built to bare a heavy product”. More succinctly, it’s Hannah Black’s “shiny surface of a world of shit”, as read from a poem performed during the Art in Circulation #3 talk, before speculating that “hopefully we are the last, or among the last generations of a collapsing empire”. Because when Monira Al-Qadiri says the purpose of the “over-the-top, luxurious, crazy, dystopian image” of the GCC art collective is to mirror the reality that “our governments have somehow become corporations”, it’s easy to assume that it also goes the other way. Along with the sense of being trapped in a violent cycle, circulated by the structures that exacerbate pre-existing socio-economic prejudice while hurtling us towards environmental collapse, one can’t help but agree when Tsagaglalal concludes, “this conversation can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye”. **
When I speak to Sophia Al-Maria, I haven’t read Virgin with a Memory yet. It’s the companion text to the London-based artist’s solo exhibition of the same name –opening at Manchester’s Cornerhouse on September 5 –and one so evocative and unsettling that I suspect the interview might have gone differently if I had. “Something delicious and fresh about the violence”, says the sentence fragment about an unnamed film set in Belfast (“blown up”) in a note dated March 10, 2014. It’s nestled among the collection of emails, diary entries and fictional narrative; headshots, script excerpts and kit lists, making up Virgin with a Memory: The Exhibition Tie-in and could just as easily be applied to its content:
“So let’s spend today thinking of ingenious ways to hide and dispose of bodies and discuss tomorrow
See you tomorrow
“For some reason I keep being dragged back to these subjects”, Al-Maria chuckles, between sighs and over the phone from her hotel room in Manchester. She seems exhausted, and not just because I’ve caught her in the middle of the Virgin with a Memory install but she’s on the line to talk about a feature-length film she’d spent the last two-and-a-half years working on, only for it to essentially come to nothing. “This show is not a eulogy but a way of displaying all the supplementary materials that went into working on the production”, she tells me about the collection of pseudo-documentary footage and video installations built from the remains of Beretta. It’s a film that would have been a rape-revenge thriller set in Egypt and inspired by Abel Ferrara’s cult-classic Ms. 45, where mute and man-hating prey becomes predator on a killing spree after one too many abuses.
As a fan of Al-Maria’s work and writing, I’d read her memoir The Girl Who Fell To Earth, watched her videos, and seen the work of eight-strong collective the GCC. I followed her blog and more writing on Gulf Futurism across articles in Dazed and Art After the Internet. None of it could prepare me for this:
“I could barely shut the refrigerator door. I had to put his head in the freezer. In the end I used the electric carving knife to get through the tangle of bone at his back. If I had a machete it would have been easier.”
The body above is not just human but ‘tomcat’, or ‘pig’, depending on which simile you choose to describe the men Beretta’s heroine, Sueda, murders as revenge for their part in making her life a living hell. Scattered in fragments across its Virgin with a Memory novelisation, the film-that-would-be is a product of Al-Maria’s own experience as a student in Cairo, set to the backdrop of the 2011 Arab Spring. “Beretta is not only the story of a mute, repressed woman pushed to extremes by her environment,” Al-Maria writes in an excerpt of explanatory notes as part of the book, “but it is the story of a people, raped and degraded by their government, culminating in revolt.”
I remember you writing in The Girl Who Fell To Earth about your experience of Egypt, where you were basically assaulted.
Sophia Al-Maria: Many times. That was one example.
Because the country has become known for being one of the worst countries in the Arab world to be a woman?
SA-M: Well, in the same way that Mumbai is famous for what has been going on there with mob attacks. Certainly, it’s become aggravated by the general chaos of post-2011. In the past I’ve been involved with and continue to support activist groups [in Egypt] trying, from the ground up, to help combat this problem of harassment on the streets. The real issue is that, within living memory, if a man was caught harassing a woman in the street in Cairo, the people who witnessed it would grab him and shave his head so that he would be publicly humiliated.
That just doesn’t happen anymore. Everyone sort of acquiesces to the general anger and aggression of frustrated men. I think that it doesn’t matter with regards to culture, as much as a mixture of over-population and repression. If London was as crowded as Egypt is, I suspect that there would be much more public harassment on the street.
You talk about the film in past-tense, is it not going to go ahead?
SA-M: The film will go ahead but in a different form. We got funding and were waylaid by legal issues at the very last minute, which are hilarious because the financiers wanted something called ‘right of title’. Abel Ferrara, who made the original Ms. 45, was very into the project and was very supportive but then it turned out that the original porn company who produced Ms. 45 had disappeared and Warner Brothers had bought the rights. Then it turned into this kafka-esque farce of trying to get the rights to this movie.
Plus the writer of the film, Nicholas St John has become a monk and moved on top of a mountain somewhere in France, disavowed everything he’s ever done and refuses to sign anything. So in the end we were stuck because somebody somewhere along the line stuck his foot in his mouth and said we should get the rights to this movie so that we can say it’s the ‘Egyptian Ms 45’ which was a huge mistake.
So I’m rewriting it, basically. I’m hopefully going to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab this January and restaging it elsewhere, not in Cairo, and trying to get it back on its legs in a new form. It’s a universal story. I just wanted to set it in Egypt because that is the root of my interest in the subject matter and my experience. But I think there are many other places in the world where this is equally relevant.
In the blurb for Virgin with a Memory, it says a Beretta actress was arrested?
SA-M: Yes. Not the main actress but the second lead who’s the heart of the film. She’s the reason that a lot of the events go down. I wanted there to be a sort of sisterly friendship that causes the revenge, not just what happens to the main character. The main character is raped and is unable to speak to anyone about it because it’s a cop and she internalises all this fear and anxiety –what to do with the body and all these things –until her best friend is compromised and she then goes in and saves her from a sort of bunga bunga party situation, which she has found herself in.
So the actress, who was incredible and blew everyone away in the audition, was unfortunately put in jail. She’s in for a year, which will be up, I think, next spring. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time, accused of smuggling drugs and used as a scapegoat because she was very popular on television at the time. One of the videos that’s in the show [‘Class A’ (2014)] is a sort of love-letter to her. It’s using her audition tapes with footage of an interview she gave where the woman interviewing her is this sort of evil Nicole Kidman type who is being so cruel to her and asking her questions to try to sort of throw her off. There’s these really aggressive bits and then these fractured images of her audition tapes mixed in with it.
I watched the two year-old promotional video for Beretta on vimeo.
SA-M: Yeah. That was done before we got the producers involved; it was just me with a thirty-page version of the script. I’d been in Cairo with a friend and shot some of that stuff with a Nokia, and some random evening cut it together. It had a bit of the vibe of what I wanted and there’s going to be a companion piece shown at Manchester, which was done without my knowledge by the producer.
He took some rushes that we had shot in Cairo and then made this thing to try to convince financiers; he had done a little shoot with the actress on his own and everything, which I found… he really had gone behind my back as the director. So I’m displaying that as well, as a sort of example of the power dynamic between producers and directors these days, which is shifting more and more to the producers, as money gets more and more difficult to raise.
That’s interesting because if you think about that in conjunction with your involvement in the Whose Gaze Is It Anyway? exhibition, when a producer –who I’m assuming is a man –shoots with the woman lead without your knowledge…
SA-M: Yeah, and saying it was a surprise [laughs]. I was working on a new draft of the script. I met up with him after I’d finished and he said, ‘I have a surprise for you!’ and he shows me this ‘taster’ for the financiers. He’d shot this stuff with her and used a Kanye West song underneath. It was a bit of a creative rape moment where, ‘you’ve just taken this thing out of my head, put your own spin on it and then shown it to the people who are supposed to be giving us money. And this is completely not what I want’. It has the actress putting the gun in her garter belt. It was all very, sort of like ‘gaze-y’. I think he worked very hard to get the project where it is, or where it was, and he got a little carried away at that moment. I think in retrospect he understands that [laughs].
Kanye West is an interesting choice.
SA-M: Yeah it’s funny, of all people.
You also mentioned the relationship between directors and producers is shifting as it becomes harder to raise money, that’s pretty much a universal theme when it comes to economic and social stratification.
SA-M: Yeah, things are polarising and its this, sort of, drift. It’s the one per cent and 99 per cent. It’s the corporation and the individual. It’s all of those things. I think these little titles like ‘producer’, or ‘curator’ or whatever will eventually become irrelevant when it becomes ‘studio’ and ‘content’ [laughs]. It’s interesting; things like television, for example, where the director’s role has been massively downsized and now it’s writers who are the show runners. Writers rooms are far more in control and directors shuffle in and out as workmen, or tradespeople on shows. Things are really changing, I think. This is a totally random sidenote…
No, I think it’s all relevant. Like you say, writers are running the show. Even when you think about how history is written, you have a specific set of people who have the privilege of writing it.
SA-M: Yeah absolutely. People link that shift in power to the writer’s strike a few years ago in the US, which then led to things like The Sopranos and these big showpiece series’. And, of course, that’s all about the strike, and about the collective, right? Writer’s finally putting their foot down and taking power but I don’t know what the moral of that story is.
When you think about it, the outcome is Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Sopranos. They’re all pretty macho.
SA-M: Yeah, and actually the one’s that are overtly trying to subvert that are often really unsuccessful, like The United States of Tara or… there’s one recently with Laura Dern…
SA-M: Yeah, yeah. I mean, these ones, you hear about them and stuff but they’re not like Game of Thrones or True Detective –which I am so pissed off about, it’s not H.P. Lovecraft, fuck-off everyone. It’s just macho. It uses women as props in the shows… there is much to be torn back because, again, writers’ rooms, as with most things, are still male-dominated. I guess you have your Lena Dunhams but they’re tokenised.
I read an interesting observation that in art, it’s an industry that’s so low-paid and it seems to be woman-dominated, at least on an administrative level.
SA-M: [laughs] Yeah. Hey, there can only be one explanation and that’s money. If you follow the money, you’ll get your answers. Always. **