Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East 9780755608881, 9781784530358

In this groundbreaking book, a range of internationally renowned and emerging academics, writers, artists, curators, act

217 43 73MB

English Pages [352] Year 2014

Report DMCA / Copyright


Recommend Papers

Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East
 9780755608881, 9781784530358

  • 0 0 0
  • Like this paper and download? You can publish your own PDF file online for free in a few minutes! Sign Up
File loading please wait...
Citation preview


In 2011, the Kamel Lazaar Foundation responded to the urgent need for access to critical and historical texts about visual culture in North Africa and the Middle East by launching a research and publishing initiative, Ibraaz (www.ibraaz.org). The decision to do so grew out of a number of private and professional issues that I have encountered over the last two decades or so. Firstly, in a professional capacity, I have travelled around the region for many years and the one thing I have observed again and again is the fact that, to put it simply, the Arabs do not know the Arabs. Secondly, in a private capacity, I have been privileged to travel to many other countries across the world and to have experience of many different cultures. During this time, I have observed a further related point: the Western world does not know the Arabs. Again, cultural, political and historical indifference, for whatever reason, seems to be order of the day. I am unsure why this is the case, but it represents, for me, a missed opportunity — never more so than now, when mutual understanding and co-operation are so thin on the ground. In setting up the Foundation, and subsequently launching Ibraaz, we sought to somehow bridge this gap in knowledge, albeit in an admittedly modest manner. The choice of visual culture as a way to address cultural indifference came out of my own knowledge of both Western and Arabic art forms. It may seem obvious to some, but visual culture is able — in my experience — to transcend the entrenched positions associated with political, religious, economic, and historical antagonisms. It can, thereafter, open up a generous level of engagement for both self-understanding and for the understanding of others. This is not to suggest we should all agree on the value of cultural forms. On the contrary, we should openly and critically analyse culture at all times. Perhaps this is the ‘gift’ of art: cultural debate is a bonding agent of sorts that promotes open discussions around similarities and, indeed, differences.

This is not, moreover, to promote an instrumentalized version of culture as a form of ‘soft power’ — a move that sees culture deployed for political ends and as a way of opening up markets. On the contrary, the Foundation’s initiatives seek to promote culture as a platform for critical and creative debate about visual culture and its role in open societies. The creation of Ibraaz in its online version, and now in this series of books, answers to these aims; in particular, the aspiration to create a sustainable dialogue around visual culture and develop systematic forms of historical knowledge for future generations. The long-term, perhaps quixotic, goal is to effect informed levels of debate within the region and beyond. We are conscious that there is much to do in relation to this, but at least this is a step in the right direction. Although the focus of this series is and will remain North Africa and the Middle East, this is not simply a regional issue; rather, it is a global one. For the Foundation, the promotion of visual culture in the Arab world can only be fully effected if we consider worldwide issues too. The complexities of the region are seen as a prism through which we continue to examine culture within its broader, global contexts. To this end, we are dedicated to providing a forum through research and publishing initiatives, support for exhibitions, conferences, educational seminars, and the development of a collection, that will provide an international context for the region and, reciprocally, develop regional contexts for a global audience. We began in 2011 with an online publishing project, and we subsequently decided that a print volume — collecting online and newly commissioned essays — was necessary. It seems, despite declarations of their imminent, internet-induced demise, that printed books are still both popular and sought after. We were therefore very pleased, in this respect, when I.B.Tauris also agreed that a volume on these and other topics was not only needed, but an entire series should evolve from these concerns. The broad reach and scope of the essays and artists’ projects included here will hopefully provide ample acknowledgment of our ambition to see the region develop a better understanding of itself and — in time — for the world to better understand culture from the region. I would like, finally, to thank family and friends for their guidance on these matters and the contributors to this volume who have been so generous with their ideas and support. Kamel Lazaar Chairman Kamel Lazaar Foundation www.kamellazaarfoundation.org


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Notes on Texts and Artists’ Inserts

A number of essays included in this volume were published as part of Ibraaz’s online platform in 2012 and 2013, and therefore refer to specific cultural moments and live events as they unfolded across the Middle East. Rather than substantially revise them, we have chosen to maintain the immediacy of reactions to these events, specifically in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, and the timelines associated with them. We are grateful, however, to all our contributors for reviewing anything that has changed radically since original publication. We are also grateful to the artists included here for reviewing their inserts and redesigning them for inclusion in this print volume. The full projects, including videos and interviews with the artists, are all available at http://www.ibraaz.org/projects and http://www.ibraaz.org/interviews

Wafaa Bilal, 3rdi, year-long performance, 2010–2011. Courtesy of the artist.

Introduction 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 December 14, 2010, to December 18, 2011, or 369 days in total, were streamed live to a global audience via a dedicated website.1 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.2 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.3

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 localised, 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. Revealing as it does an international horizon of aesthetic engagement that is far from regional, the undoubted role of historical conflict in Bilal’s work should not be therefore over-estimated. The artists and discussions encountered throughout this volume, likewise, engage with the practices and subject of new media to explore the flux of historical events and their impact upon the global politics of representation. They often utilize, as a result, new media as a way of critically negotiating, if not realigning, the aesthetic, political, social and historical co-ordinates of their time and respective global locations. Moreover,


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Wafaa Bilal, 3rdi, year-long performance, 2010–11. Courtesy of the artist.



Wafaa Bilal, 3rdi, year-long performance, 2010–11. Courtesy of the artist.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

the use of new media in contemporary art practices across North Africa and the Middle East, indeed globally, did not emerge from an ahistorical vacuum; nor should they be considered ‘new’ as such. All developments in contemporary art have international and regional precedents, and it is invariably the interaction between the two that proves most interesting. In 3rdi, for example, we can see formal and conceptual elements that stretch back to Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, 1929, a film in which the aperture of the camera and the eye of the cameraman are often superimposed, suturing the gaze onto an animated, machine-like regime of looking. At a key moment in Vertov’s film the eponymous man with the movie camera appears above a thronging crowd, his face and head subsumed into that of the camera, becoming one — in an image akin to that of the tripod-like figure of Bilal — with the apparatus of recording. 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 throughout Uncommon Grounds are not endemically provincial in their subject matter, nor, indeed, are they localized in their ambitions. 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 this volume. The topographical, cultural and political complexities of North Africa and the Middle East are subsequently a prism through which to elaborate upon the widespread usage of new media. In so doing, as we will see, the practices discussed here reveal the political intransigencies and representational conundrums that mark present-day debates about the Middle East, its history, and how it will come to be understood in the future  —  a future where, hopefully, we no longer have to resort to using the reductive phrase ‘Middle East’ as a conceptual point of definition and cultural discrimination.4 If artists are going to respond to the immediacy of events, and who is to say they should not, we nevertheless need to remain alert to how the rhetoric of conflict and the spectacle of revolution is deployed as a benchmark for discussing, if not determining, the institutional and critical legitimacy of these practices. 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 condemns or defends such events and notions.5 Again, this 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 being 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. Such concerns, voiced in the wake of uprisings across the region, remind us that colonial paradigms are not only far from defunct, but easily Introduction


resuscitated through an evolving neocolonial preoccupation with topics such as an (apparently) irresolvable form of atavistic conflict brought about by an equally irredeemable strain of dogmatic extremism. To the extent that there would appear to be an ineluctable logic to these developments, it is all the more crucial that we observe how the rhetoric of revolution effects a subservience of the aesthetic to the spectacle of conflict, not to mention the claims and counter-claims of politics and the often ideological expectations of historicization. Observing the use of new and social media, Philip Rizk’s essay conveys a monitory note to those who see recent events across the region as being somehow involved in a continuum that stretches back to protests in Europe in 1968.6 Warning against the inherent spectacle of images associated with revolution, Rizk argues that the agency of the image is key here, circulating as it does in a rhetoric of revolution and owned, ultimately, by commercial agencies that profit from this circulation. For Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, there is a similar sense of scepticism when he considers whether new media, specifically social media, has actually, as opposed to ideally, contributed to the democratic expression of popular revolution. For Berardi, social media may not be about enhancing the space of freedom, nor the freedom to organize and protest, but, rather, the optimization of markets and forms of social surveillance that ultimately virtualize social relations and buttress an already overloaded global attention-span. 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’ is mentioned; as it would be to enquire into their respective market shares when news of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) involvement in digital surveillance broke as a result of Edward Snowden’s revelations. If art is being increasingly positioned as ‘political’, ‘activist’, or ‘revolutionary’ — capable, that is, of potentially altering public opinion and reconfiguring forms of social engagement — then another investigation emerges: is it now the case that art, by utilizing elements of activist practice, not only generates social debate but also offers unique ways of engaging with these debates? Perhaps the easiest way to understand these developments, which often involve collaborations between artists and publics, is to acknowledge the manner in which culture — which has always adopted an autonomous yet embedded role in social debates — is increasingly placed on the frontline of discussions about public and private space in, say, Tunisia or Egypt. In my own contribution to this volume, ‘For the Common Good: Artistic Practices and Civil Society in Tunisia’, I examine how recent art practices in Tunisia, including those using installation, participation and new media, have opened up debates around what is meant by the public sphere and civil society in the context of cities that have majority Muslim populations. Implicit within this enquiry is a contiguous questioning of whether art can support a ‘common good’ and, if so, how do communities support such practices in turn. We alight here upon


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

a fundamental concern of our time: if we can all agree that art as a practice has a social value, and few would disagree with that, then what obligation, if indeed any, does society have in supporting such practices and the manner in which they recalibrate the relationships that exist between cultural development and social activism. The sense that visual culture has become a key site of antagonism for the forces of secularism and, for want of a better term, extremism — although both terms elide a multiplicity of subject positions — is all the more notable when we reflect upon how new media and interactive, participative artworks encourage community-based actions and citizen-based forms of self-representation and enquiry. This is made explicit in Mosireen’s ‘Revolution Triptych’, a collective manifesto of sorts included here in all its immediacy and forcefulness. Established during the Egyptian uprising in 2011, Mosireen is a non-profit media collective based in downtown Cairo. Initially dedicated to the documentation of widespread protests, it has since become a platform for cultural activism and exchange, supporting worldwide public screenings, open discussions, and events. The organization also provides training and technical support for citizen-based journalism that further discloses the abuses carried out by Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the way in which information has been controlled for political ends. These concerns are taken up by Jens Maier-Rothe, Dina Kafafi and Azin Feizabadi in their collective essay ‘Citizens Reporting and the Fabrication of Collective Memory’. The rise in the popularity of citizen journalism, they argue, has effected a blurring of the lines between journalism, social media and other professional fields, which could eventually contest censorship and restore a degree of transparency across heavily politicized media channels. For the authors the implications are profound, determining as they do a potential shift in how we understand citizenship, cultural practices, social participation, historiography and collective memory. If we can talk cogently and consistently about collective memories and the call to action brought about by social media, as but one example of new media, there is a simultaneous need to focus on the micro level of such developments: the site of the performative self as a contested means of being in the world. For Nat Muller, social media platforms are the realm of body-free interaction and the performative promotion of the self. Focusing on 33 Rounds and a Few Seconds (2012), a work by Lebanese playwrights and visual artists Rabih Mroué and Lina Saneh, Muller details how the disembodied hyper-presence of social media confronts us with the ultimate form of absence; namely, death.  In a move that explicitly reconstructs an absent subject through the use of new media, 33 Rounds and a Few Seconds  is devoid of human actors; it therefore produces an uncanny mirror of the performative forms of self virtualization implicit in social media.



In the specific environment of Turkey, Derya Yücel further examines the collective element implied in social media and argues that digital practices have, in part, released art from its status as an object and thereafter expanded the scope of its sociopolitical import. For Yücel, who is careful to note how historical events impact upon contemporary practices and the ideal of collectivity, social media represents both an unprecedented platform for social activism and a means for artists to engage in forms of institutional critique that were until recently unavailable to them. In Hamzamolnár’s joint contribution, a series of similar points are addressed in an inquiry into how recent events in Egypt and elsewhere not only pose new levels of pressure for artists and citizens alike, but reveal a perennial consideration: do artists living in a perpetual state of crisis have more responsibility to act — through their practices or otherwise — than those who live under ‘normal’ circumstances? This question is of course moot — artists do what artists do — but it is not so easily dismissed if we consider how pressures from international institutions and global curatorial preoccupations seem to call for artists to be more socially and political active if they are to be considered legitimate in both revolutionary and post-revolutionary contexts. The co-option of revolutionary images, by institutions and curators alike, are also central to Maxa Zoller’s analysis of what the ‘market’ does to images of revolution. This enquiry is directed to artists working in the wake of revolution in Egypt and also the commercial appropriation of revolutionary images. The uncritical market co-option of such images, and the literal use of revolutionary images by curators and art institutions, reveals how imagery can become not just redundant but reactionary; a force for conservatism that disavows any attempt to self-reflexively critique how images are deployed to ‘market’ products and art alike. As Omar Kholeif usefully proposes, the art produced with the so-called Arab world also has its own generative conditions of production and reproduction that extends beyond engaging with the curiosity of international cultural brokers, who are more often than not interested in such practices only insofar as they answer to often limited institutional concerns — a common refrain throughout this volume. There are, needless to say, broader philosophical concerns to be examined here that further interrogate any easy dissociation of the aesthetic from the political and, in turn, any cursory co-option of the former by the latter. Throughout Dina Matar’s concise and insightful reflection on the politics of aesthetics in the digital age, she notes that artistic and political practices have been increasingly shaped with digital platforms in mind. In both instances, these platforms produce and make visible alternative modes of social and political engagement. Matar argues that we can only fully develop critical arguments about new media if we examine the synthetic, cultural, social, political and historical dynamics and materiality of digital transformation. This call for historicization is crucial to any analysis of contemporary art practices


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

across the region, recalling as it does the imperative that such developments are not seen in a conveniently ahistorical light but as embedded events with their own internal, if not localised logic. In a series of key essays presented here, historicization and its contexts forms the basis for discussions of how new and social media have reconfigured artistic practices and how artists have, in turn, defined the ways in which new and social media interact with social spheres. For Sheyma Buali, the digital can often mask the elemental and quotidian elements of revolution in the name of its own internal aesthetic, one that emerges in so-called ‘revolutionary art’ and the popularity of exhibitions across the world that address the ‘Arab Spring’ or, indeed, revolution in general. Viewers, in turn, have become accustomed to the digitized, highly aestheticized, spectacular images of emotive events, so much so that the reality of political processes in flux can be forgotten or occluded, and this despite the latter’s radical interrogation of what it is to represent such events in the first place. For Nermin Saybaşılı, in an essay that foregrounds the more obviously formal elements of new media, the digital world can indeed act as a potential site for forms of freedom (by triggering a collective aspiration for meaning), but it can also, alternatively, alienate individuals from what lies directly in front of them. Digital media can produce, in sum, absence as a predicate to a radical, albeit simulated, virtualized presence. With these points in mind, Saybaşılı focuses on how the digital voice in audiovisual artworks maps the performative and temporal elements involved in artistic production. Interrogating the technological regime of inherent reproducibility that underwrites digital media, these and other essays explore the degree to which it offers a productive ‘democratisation’ of visual culture or merely, as some have argued, capitalises upon the affect of immediacy at the expense of depth and engagement? This line of enquiry is continued in Maymanah Farhat’s ‘New Media and the Spectacle of the War on Terror’. Examining a selection of works from Jacqueline Salloum, Hamdi Attia, Nida Sinnokrot, Wafaa Bilal and Rheim Alkadhi, Farhat explores how they each contest, through the appropriation of imagery, the spectacularization of conflict in the wake of the so-called ‘war on terror’. Through co-option, quoting, appropriation, interactive performances and online platforms, the artists examined in this essay thwart the inner workings of the spectacular and its digitization. For Laura U. Marks, in her perspicacious essay on ‘glitches’ in new media, it is the fallout in representation, rather than the reproduction or appropriation of images per se, that becomes key to these complex discussions. Marks observes that the initial urgency with which videos of unrest and revolution were recorded, uploaded, and downloaded ultimately relied on forms of digital compression that produced conspicuous glitches. These glitches, she argues, were subsequently registered as a problem — a conflict in communication and interpretation — and not necessarily explored for their expressive qualities. For Marks, it is precisely Introduction



Roy Dib, Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear, 2012. Copyright and courtesy of the artist.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East



this expressiveness that needs to be explored. Discussing works from Roy Dib, Gheith Al-Amine, Rania Stephan, Roy Samaha, Ahmed Kamel, Tariq Hashim, Kareem Lotfy and Ahmed Elshaer, Marks writes that, Glitch is a regular occurrence in countries where electricity is undependable, where sudden power outages interfere in the electronic production of screen outputs … Many artists in the Arab world explore the aesthetics of low-resolution video as a metaphor for selective memory and forgetting, an examination of archives and a direct indication of practices of copying, pirating and making do with inferior copies. Again, there is a sense here that artists are exposing the fault-lines in representation that have emerged in new media as a way of critically engaging with the aesthetic, political, social and historical moments out of which these practices emerge. In his examination of events in Syria, Tarek Khoury argues that the digital can also reveal other more easily overlooked aesthetic paradigms. In the proposal that video activists in Syria today are also ‘capturing one of humanity’s most fundamental forms of communication — handwriting’, Khoury argues that these handwritten placards and street graffiti reveal a lineage between traditional forms of communication and the aesthetics of new media. This issue of digital memorialization re-emerges in Amal Khalaf ’s reading of images associated with Manama’s Pearl Square, the locus of short-lived protests in Bahrain in early 2011. For Khalaf, the subject of civic responsibility and responsiveness is located not so much in practice, to begin with, but in an object: Bahrain’s demolished Pearl Roundabout, or Dowar al Lulu, a key site that became famous in the international media as the symbol of the Gulf State’s answer to the ‘Arab Spring’. Today, Khalaf argues, Lulu has become a powerful symbol for thousands of people recasting their ideals in the monument’s image: as a ‘public space’, or midan — Arabic for civic square — it no longer exists as a physical ‘thing’ but, rather, lives on digitally as an image-memory. The image-memory and its performative unpredictability is examined in Annabelle Sreberny’s occasionally amusing, if not astonishing, exploration of a phenomenon that draws on the physical reproduction (and subsequent online dissemination) of a cardboard cut-out of Ayatollah Khomeini. Forming the centre-piece of a ceremony on February 1, 2012, this cardboard cut-out, in its outsized, misguided venture to represent the Ayatollah’s triumphant return to Tehran in 1979, is a bewildering attempt to apparently counter the virtualization/death of a subject through the, admittedly contradictory, formal use of digital, reproductive media. The cut-out is the Ayatollah incarnated for the purposes of these events and, in all its stoicism in the face of such an ignominious resurrection (and the manner in which it went viral), it references,


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Roy Samaha, still from Transparent Evil, 2011. 27 minutes, HD video. Images courtesy of the artist and Gallery Tanit.



Roy Samaha, still from Untitled for Several Reasons, 2003. 12 minutes, SD video. Images courtesy of the artist and Gallery Tanit.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

albeit unintentionally, ‘the immense power of a satirical image to deconstruct a hegemonic discourse …’. Again, we are well served here to remember that representation, be it digital or otherwise, has a tendency to reconfigure the relationship between history and politics in often unexpected ways. In amongst these pertinent issues there is one that underwrites a number of discursive elements in this volume: what effect, if any, do artists have on their social and political environments? In their appeal and broad reach, can artists, to put it bluntly, engage constituencies beyond the art world? This topic is no doubt the subject of another book, but it needs to be raised if we are to fully engage with new media and critical practice as components in social and political orders. These questions find purchase in Timo KaabiLinke’s essay, where he argues that artists, writers, actors, choreographers and filmmakers must find subversive ways to undermine governmental restrictions and extra-governmental repressions if they are to engage in a broader discussion about the role of, for example, religious freedom and cultural expression. These debates are all the more germane in countries that have achieved hardwon freedoms at the expense of subsequently withdrawing similar freedoms from others. In relation to critical practices and new media, the coalition of international artists working under the name Gulf Labor was set up to ensure that the rights of migrant workers are protected during the construction and maintenance of museums in Abu Dhabi.7 In May 2009 Human Rights Watch published a damning report on labour conditions in Abu Dhabi and the widespread abuse of migrant labourers, including forced labour, the confiscation of passports, the withholding of wages, and working conditions deemed unfit, if not fatal, for many. In March 2012, despite noting improvements since the beginning of their involvement, Gulf Labor observed continued failings across a number of areas in relation to the building of Saadiyat Island, the location of what will eventually be the world’s biggest cultural district, featuring the largest Guggenheim Museum to date, an outpost of the Louvre, a Zaha Hadiddesigned arts centre and concert hall, and a New York University campus. The precarious nature of global labour is not only a situation to be investigated by artists, but also, it appears, a structural necessity for elements of the art world to continue to develop and capitalise upon structural investments in culture. Contemporary artists across North Africa and the Middle East today are not only developing the critical field of new media, but also suggesting alternative platforms for social and political engagement. In an attempt to rearticulate the relationship between artistic practices and art as activism (not to mention art and its apparent relationship to politics), whilst also addressing new and social media, this volume nevertheless abides by one relatively clear point: art as a practice — inasmuch as it is about what can be seen, said and heard in a given social order — is always already political. The overall focus of this book is accordingly not so much on the role of artists as activists — a role Introduction


that can be readily co-opted into the often divisive, issue-led world of political activism — as it is on how artistic practices expand the very notion of cultural engagement, political activism, popular protest and social participation. To this end, and whilst the essays collected here are varied in tone, register and content, the concerns are broadly similar: how does new media, in its relatively nascent practices and dispersed networks, produce social formations and evolving ways of reimagining the often prescriptive and reductive rhetoric of political, historical and cultural debates? Finally, can cultural production, in opening up how we understand (or fail to understand) the world in which we live today, not only reflect upon existing events but offer ways for communities to engage in discussions about the meaning and undoubtedly profound impact of those events on their lives and futures?


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

1. See: http://www.3rdi.me. 2. See: http://wafaabilal.com/thirdi/ (accessed 24 November 2013). 3. In other works, such as Domestic Tension, 2007, Bilal subjected himself to a constant barrage of paintballs, cowering in a room for 30 days trying to avoid 60,000 random shots from a computer-controlled paintball gun (which was in turn controlled by online participants who could direct the gun). 4. I have addressed the issue of regional topology and the politics surrounding cultural practices elsewhere. See ‘Beyond the Former Middle East: Aesthetics, Civil Society, and the Politics of Representation’, Ibraaz, June 1, 2011. Downloadable at http://www.ibraaz.org/ essays/8 (accessed February, 2014). 5. A far from comprehensive listing of recent exhibitions that sought to reflect upon artistic practices through the prism of revolution would include Creative Dissent: Arts of the Arab World Uprisings (Arab American National Museum, USA, 2014); Bamako Encounters: Arab Spring (Bamako Biennale of African Photography, Mali, 2012); Culture in Defiance: Street Art from Syria’s Uprising (Rich Mix, UK, 2013); Culture in Defiance: Continuing Traditions of Satire, Art and the Struggle for Freedom in Syria (Prince Claus Fund Gallery, 2012); and View From Inside (Fotofest 2014 Biennial, USA, 2014).


6. There were also many attempts during the Egyptian revolution to compare the occupation of Tahrir Square with other occupations in New York and London. Occupy London were in situ next to St Paul’s Cathedral from 15 October 2011–14 June 2012. Occupy Wall St began its occupation of Zuccotti Park in New York’s financial district on 17 September 2011; it was forcibly ended on 15 November 2011. Both events occurred during uprisings in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. To this end, comparisons seemed opportunistically allusive rather than analogical. More specifically, it may have been to do with a simple degree of simultaneity rather than a confluence of concerns. 7. Amongst the artists involved in Gulf Labor are Haig Aivazian, Shaina Anand, Ayreen Anastas, Doug Ashford, Doris Bittar, Tania Bruguera, Sam Durant, Rene Gabri, Mariam Ghani, Hans Haacke, Brian Holmes, Rana Jaleel, Guy Mannes-Abbott, Naeem Mohaiemen, Walid Raad, Michael Rakowitz, Andrew Ross, Gregory Sholette, Beth Stryker, Ashok Sukumaran and Murtaza Vali.


2011 is not 1968 An Open Letter to an Onlooker Philip Rizk

On 28 January 2011, Egyptians started marching through the streets of their country’s cities in a powerful force of protest. You gazed at the spectacle developing before your eyes, on your TV screens, across various international news channels. A fixation, an intrigue emerged towards the images projected particularly from one site: Midan al-Tahrir — the Square of Liberation. The fascination with the constant stream of images opened your imagination. The imagination ran wild. Egyptians had been inspired, as well as shamed, into movement by their North African neighbours in Tunisia. Our uprising in turn helped trigger movements in your cities around the world, from the ‘Take The Square’ movement in Europe, to a city centre occupation in Madison, Wisconsin, to the ‘Occupy’ movement, not to mention an array of uprisings around the region and still ongoing today in Bahrain, Syria and Sudan, to name only a few. To make sense of the unfurling scenes, media outlets turned to a group of individuals who have come to represent the revolution for many. These news agencies interviewed political commentators or activists — increasingly becoming celebrities in their own right — to decipher the actions behind the images seen. As interpretation and then meaning were layered onto the images, a significant distortion took place to the acts behind the scenes. NonArabic-language media outlets relied primarily on English-speaking activists, many of us middle class, many of us already politicized before 25 January 2011. Arabic-language news stations similarly turned often to middle-class activists to speak on behalf of the revolution, each of whom interpreted every moment according to their respective ideological perspective. Thus, we became the translators of a collective uprising of which we were far from representative. Our faces reflected your own. Our voices were comprehensible. We served to make this revolution seem accessible. The intonation in our words gave meaning to what was, for you, an unfamiliar territory. Our explanations also satisfied the practical requirements and standards of a media industry with a

target audience accustomed to an interlocutor with a particular profile using a specific political discourse. This process drowned out the voices of the majority. No matter how hard we tried to argue otherwise, we fit the part — middle-class, internet-savvy youth, and thus revolutionary. Did you hear the voices of the underclass? Did you see the family members of the martyrs clad in black mourning in their homes? Did you see images of unnamed civilians gunned down by snipers on the roofs of police stations? Did you see police officers opening prison doors in order to undermine this revolutionary moment and wreak havoc on nearby communities? Did you see protesters storming police stations on 28 January, seeking vengeance for years of unaccounted torture, violence and psychological domination? Did you see the Molotov cocktails prepared by women and lowered from their balconies to avenge the maiming of their sons and neighbours? This was not non-violent. Only the fixation through the lens of a camera on Tahrir Square in daylight could appease you with that impression. Other industries soon followed suit: right after journalism, academia, film, art, the world of NGOs relied on ‘us’ as the ideal interpreter of the extraordinary. They all eventually bought into and further fuelled the hyper-glorification of the individual, the actor, the youth subject, the revolutionary artist, the woman, the non-violent protestor, the internet user. All this took place in the undercurrent of an unrelenting need to identify, validate and valorize the role of the familiar. Revolution became unimaginable without the imagery of a model demonstrator who protected you from the potential of being faced with the unknown: a collectivist uprising against a global system of domination within which there is no place for an onlooker. The internet helped create the aura that all this was familiar. By channelling the outrage on the streets through a medium that you recognized, the narrative presented on news channels diluted the mystery within the events and chained your imagination to what is familiar. The layers of interpretation painted over the images diminished your fear of the unknown. ‘This is only an act against dictatorship.’ ‘This is the individual cry for freedom.’ ‘This is a demonstration for democracy.’ ‘This revolution is non-violent.’ The internet replaced the Kalashnikov. These discourses silenced the structural dimensions of injustice and concealed the role of neoliberal policies promoted by the likes of the IMF, the EU and the USA in deepening the stratification between poor and rich. They made you forget that it is out of these structures of injustice that the desire for social justice is born in the first place. These dominating narratives — the narratives of domination — localized the problematic, for instance, to that of a home-grown dictatorship. By isolating the crime and highlighting the corruption of individuals, these accounts helped set the neocolonial stage for the now empty shells of the old regime, replaced by another that maintains the same logic of governance. It is no surprise that the owners of these images are commercial news agencies run by corporations that support, or are supported by, the very 2011 is not 1968


Opening shot of Why Riot?, Mosireen. Courtesy of Peter Nicholas, 2013.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

2011 is not 1968


systems of domination against which we revolted. The images taken by the cameras of the BBC, CNN or Al Jazeera become the private property of these institutions that then use them to tell their narratives, to celebrate what they desire to promote and silence what they want to suppress. The framing and broadcasting of an image is a practice of power. These images circulate in the name of freedom, but by utilizing the captured images for the ends of a profit-driven enterprise, the dominance of the narrative provided has the potential to misinterpret and ultimately undermine the very acts of resistance. Youth activists were by no means representative of the protests, but they were the dominant voice presented. We were but a handful of individuals amongst a cacophony of shouts calling for change, each person with their own concerns, complaints, desires, cause for action and reason for revenge. Throughout the upsurge in protests there was a strong horizontal inclination, a non-centralized decision-making process, a leaderless movement that could not be represented to a centralized, individual-focused media apparatus, through a penned article, given speech, authored art work, or character-driven documentary film. Such a process of representation falsifies reality. In this letter, I too fall into this logic.

2011 is not 1968 The 1960s were pregnant with the political: battles for racial equality, Vietnam, the Cold War, the final throes of overt imperialism. 1968 rose out of this moment, a young generation confronted with distant scenes of occupation and colonization, a student generation, zealous with ideology and radicalized by the social and political reality of the times. Over 40 years later the effects of imperialism through the cloak of post-colonialism provoked people yet again into mass protest. Under these new conditions, as Frantz Fanon recounted so clearly, the former colonizers succeeded in hiding their economic interests behind partnerships with the ruling elites of post-colonial states. Thus, 2011 is not 1968. 2011 was an uprising of discontent against the political reality within the neocolonial condition. 2011 was no intellectual revolution; there was no burgeoning of ideas. In Egypt, no radicalization of the population had taken place, nor was the nation tangled up in a cross-border conflict. There was no ideology but the ideology of desperation, the unbearable weight of hypocrisy and the limits of a people living in denial of it. The rising militancy amongst organized workers, and the growing opposition through small middle-class movements like Kefaya (Enough) and the 6 April movement, as well as through internet-based groups like Kolina Khaled Said (We are all Khaled Said) came about in direct reaction to the political ruling class’s ongoing repression of an entire population.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

By 1968, conflict had spread everywhere, whereas in the lead-up to 2011, the seeds of revolt had only just become ready to sprout. In Egypt, there wasn’t a movement, but there was movement, and there was momentum: an undefined force that was much more powerful than any organization could be. Under Mubarak’s regime, the repression of even the seedlings of opposition groupings had meant that there was hardly a ‘left’ to speak of. The universities were, and still are, a place of theft of public funds, not a place of critical thought. The year 2011 witnessed fast-track political radicalization in the face of years of fast-track neoliberalization. The street was the academy, where we exchanged rocks for fire with the regime’s security forces and military personnel, while exchanging ideas amongst ourselves. This is how radical politicization occurred amongst Egyptians who carried the revolution. The uprising that began in Egypt in the early days of 2011 was pushed by an unprecedented amount of protesters. Similar to an uprising in Argentina in 2001, street protests in Egypt were marked by widespread participation across class, generational and gender lines. Like in 1968, students and workers both participated; but in Egypt, not as workers and students, but rather, and simply, as part of a collective and popular movement. The protests remained significantly leaderless; we confronted a repressive hierarchical and hegemonic state apparatus using horizontal tactics. It was the vastness of numbers of protesters that, even if only temporarily, brought the centralized state structure to its knees. Demonstrators held a wide variance of demands; there is no one reason why people started flooding streets and public squares across Egypt on 28 January; different people rejected different faces of the same system of power that dominated our everyday lives. As observers, it was your obsession to comprehend the uprising that fed the media industry’s raison d’être, which sought to quench those desires. In the dominant ‘Western’ standpoint it was your gaze that incited references to the common, to the familiar, to what you already knew, making 2011 seem as if it was akin to 1968. 2011 is not 1968. 2011 was not the ‘classic’ revolution of the socialists: students and workers taking to the street to replace a regime with their own. No matter how hard people tried, there were no political parties with a revolutionary blueprint prior to 25 January, nor have any emerged since. A call that rang out loud and clear from the start — ‘the people want the fall of the system’ — entailed a cacophony of dissent that translated into a desire to put an end to the status quo. Change was necessary — some kind of change — but what that change looked like was uncertain. This was no weakness of an uprising, but testifies to a global crisis to imagine alternative forms of social organization to the neoliberal state with its self-perpetuating, self-destructive stratification. Furthermore, this leaderless form of protest free of pre-packaged ideology allowed for the emergence of ideas in process: a process of resistance that is only beginning. 2011 is not 1968


Workers and revolution A significant moment that made the 25 January revolution thinkable was the rising wave of worker protests that started in 2004. The 27,000 textile workers who went on strike in the industrial city of Mahalla al-Kobra in Egypt’s Nile Delta in December 2006 enabled countless Egyptians, who caught a glimpse of that mighty act, or of the multitudes of protests that followed, to begin to imagine revolution. Inevitably, strikes and demonstrations started spreading across the country. On 6 April 2008, the independent worker leaders of the same public sector textile mill called for another strike, but this time the government succeeded in deterring the action by settling with a select group of workers ahead of time. The demand for increased wages was tied to rising food prices, and as almost every home in Mahalla has a family member employed at the massive textile factory, the strike was anticipated by more than just the workers. On that day, Mahalla’s citizens anticipated a confrontation. The insults of a police officer towards an elderly woman on the street sparked an uprising. 6 April was significant in that the protest moved beyond the geographical lines of one industrial site and was carried out by an entire community. In 2004, workers had broken the social rules of conduct through their public protest. In 2008, the boundaries of possible resistance were pushed further still, beyond the limits set by the ruling class. The government used all their wit and force and managed to prevent 6 April 2008 from turning into similar events to those of 25 January 2011. In 2008, the government succeeded in preventing the spread of dissent from one industrial town to the rest of the region — let alone the country — by ordering security forces from across six governorates to descend on the city. In April 2008, the conditions were not yet ripe for what would emerge less than three years later. On 28 January 2011, demonstrators who had spread all over the country prevailed over those same security forces in a matter of hours. Again, at this juncture there is a need to emphasize that 2011 is not 1968. 1968 would have been impossible without the waves of worker strikes and factory occupations in parallel with student protests. In the case of the 25 January revolution, while participants spanned all social classes, bringing together the middle class, the unemployed, workers and farmers, it was precarious workers and not Egypt’s traditional working class that acted as the radicalizing factor of the revolution. This may sound like a trivial differentiation, but it is at the crux of the distinction between 2011 and 1968. From 2004 through to 25 January 2011 and ever since, workers of organized workspaces never stopped demonstrating for better wages, against privatization, corruption and injustice. The wave of protests that began on 25 January included a vast number of precarious workers primarily from Egypt’s many eshwa’eyat or informal neighbourhoods. This needs some clarification. Starting in 2006, workers protested the effects of the intense neoliberalization


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

process that Mubarak’s final government was exercising. Workers reacted directly — even if rarely specifically articulated in these terms — to the implementation of the Western economic paradigm of neoliberalism. This meant the government eased the entry of foreign capitalists into Egyptian industry, privatized factories and public sector enterprises and reduced subsidies while strongly encouraging production for export markets. Backed by international financial institutions, this system enabled foreign investors to access Egypt’s natural resources with fewer restrictions and to exploit its working class with more freedom. This process included the intense downsizing of the traditional workforce. It forced workers into what is sometimes termed casualized work, or the ‘informal sector’, which meant working without contracts, without guarantees and without social protection, thus making precarious the working conditions of the traditional working class. Those most suppressed, most exploited and most desperate under the former regime’s political system were the underclass without the luxury to attain an education, with no fixed jobs and thus vulnerable to the reality that police officers and employers existed above the law. Precarious workers often maintain two or three jobs in order to make ends meet. Compared to them, Egypt’s traditional working class lives in more secure conditions. Though for usually pitiful pay, outrageous hours in the private sector, poor working conditions and minimal benefits, the traditional working class has fixed contracts and steady incomes, which gives them a luxury standing within a ‘working-class milieu’, with few guarantees. Consequently, the working class began to mimic the middle class’s cautious life style, unwilling to risk losing their jobs. While the working class will fight for better work conditions and speak out against corruption and abuse at the worksite, their struggles are limited to these because they are not willing — understandably — to take their battles beyond the boundaries of their workplaces. Participating in the street battles of the revolution meant taking to the streets and risking giving their employers the justification to fire them for being ‘troublemakers’. The lines of the unemployed ready to take their jobs were they to be fired limited their participation in the revolution. Losing the luxury of employment was a risk many contracted workers were not usually willing to take. The implementation of new economic paradigms since 1968 has further concentrated capital in the hands of the rich while reducing the livelihoods of everyone else. These policies have brought about the conditions whereby the ‘lumpen precariat’ have become the radical element within revolutionary struggle, having proved themselves to be a force to be reckoned with. The taking root of deep economic stratification in this neoliberal era has provoked new forms of resistance; it is this condition that brought Egyptians to the brink of revolution, and it is this condition that will continue to determine future lines of protest.

2011 is not 1968


––– On Saturday 19 June 2012, a group of Mubarak-supporters gathered outside a military hospital on the shores of the Nile after reports of the former dictator’s death emerged. One of the demonstrators held a sign for drivers-by to see: ‘January 25 Revolution: History will Judge.’ In the end, you decide how 25 January goes down in your annals of history. Is it another 1968, a revolution to your liking? Or is it a movement that goes beyond the meaning you’ve given to the few images you’ve seen and what may soon confront you at your own front door?


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

The Paradox of Media Activism The Net is not a Tool, It’s an Environment Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi

Media in general, and particularly the internet, are often considered as instruments. This is theoretically legitimate, but such a definition can be useful only in a very narrow way. Obviously, media accomplish the task of making communication possible and conveying information — and obviously, the faster and more widespread they are the better, for the purposes of message circulation. Furthermore, we can also obviously say that the internet and digital media in general possess a force of penetration that was unknown to the printed media of the past — and this makes it difficult, although not impossible, for established powers to control and to censor their messages. But this kind of consideration does not go beyond the surface of the change that has been produced by the evolution of the internet, particularly by the recent diffusion of social networks. If we want to go beyond the platitude that (obviously) information makes it possible for us to be informed, we must start from an awareness that the internet is not essentially an instrumental tool, but is essentially a sphere, an environment, and therefore the anthropological mutation produced by digital media and by the acceleration of the infosphere is the most relevant effect from the point of view of social and political effects. Following the recent explosion of revolt in the Arab world, and — more or less simultaneously — in Europe and the Unites States, regardless of the different contexts and goals of movements like the Tunisian–Egyptian revolt of Spring 2011, the Spanish acampada or the New York Occupy Wall Street movement, political commentators and media theorists have argued about the role of new media in the emergence of social movements. The opinions have diverged on a crucial point: some of them have appreciated the role of new media as a force for democratic expression and liberation of intellectual energies of the people, while some have observed that media can be a tool for the infiltration of power’s ideology and control. Some commentators have emphasized the progressive function that social networks — namely Facebook — have played in the organization of

movements against authoritarianism in Egypt and against financial dictatorship in Spain. For instance, in ‘The Political Power of Social Media: Technology, the Public Sphere and Political Change’, an essay published in Foreign Affairs in February 2011, Clay Shirky argues that: As the communications landscape gets denser, more complex, and more participatory, the networked population is gaining greater access to information, more opportunities to engage in public speech, and an enhanced ability to undertake collective action.1 From these (obvious) considerations, Shirky draws the conclusion that the ubiquity and horizontality of new media constitutes an opportunity for the liberation movements. About the events of Tahrir Square, he writes: This is it. The big one. This is the first revolution that has been catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media.2 Shirky’s angle is not exactly the same as that of the movements; his crucial concern is the interest of US foreign policy, as he asks explicitly: How does the ubiquity of social media affect US interests, and how should US policy respond to it?3 In any case, his persuasion that new media plays an unequivocally emancipatory role, and that the diffusion of information is ipso facto promoting democracy, is widely shared. Some of the most influential techno-philosophers, like Pierre Lévy (author of many books that, in the 1990s, played an important role in the creation of a philosophical framework for the understanding of digital media) have fostered the idea that the creation of the internet also creates the condition for the boundless deployment of the collective intelligence. But in the real world, the development of social movements in the last year has revealed a more contradictory situation, as the weight of cultural identities and social interests has often prevailed. Look at the Egyptian evolution 18 months since the so-called ‘Arab Spring’: the Egyptian upheaval defeated and chased out the tyrant Hosni Mubarak, but not the tyranny itself. On the contrary, in the long run what we see is the creation of a double-headed tyranny: the authoritarian army and the Muslim Brotherhood grappling for political power, but finally managing together to subdue the movement of factory workers and libertarian intellectuals. Notwithstanding the leading role of the libertarian movement that occupied Tahrir Square from the beginning and spread the message of revolution thanks to social networks, in the second phase of the process the power of religious belonging has taken the upper hand.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Critical commentators like Evgeny Morozov have argued against this new media optimism, and have underlined that fact that new media also play into the hands of power.4 In Morozov’s view, we should not expect corporations like Google to be favourable to processes of liberation from the power of corporations. Google did business in China for four years before economic conditions and censorship demands — not human rights concerns — forced it out. In my opinion, we should not refer only to the political effects — opinion, ideological persuasion, contents of information flows — nor should we limit ourselves to a critique of the policy of techno-corporations. We should not analyse the media as if they were only the instruments for the implementation of social interests and political agendas. We should not presuppose the existence of an already structured subject behind or inside the info-machine. The subject is not pre-existing — it is rather the outcome of the actual working of the info-machine. The most important effect of the media (and particularly of new media) is the anthropological mutation and disposition of bodies in the social sphere. Already in 1994, the Canadian sociologists Arthur Kroker and Michael A. Weinstein, in the book Data Trash: The Theory of the Virtual Class, criticized the techno-optimism raging in those years and observed that the ‘Information Highway’ was not really enhancing the space of freedom, but only optimizing the markets, thus resulting in ‘more information, less meaning’.5 This is a crucial point that has been increasingly exposed by the developments of the internet, particularly by the emergence of the web 2.0. The passage from the first to the second decade in the history of the internet is all about band broadness, and consequently about speed. The amount of information that users can receive is infinitely larger than the amount of information they can consciously process and critically elaborate. This is provoking an effect of information overload, and of anxiety, and many times of panic. The psychopathology of speed information is not to be considered as a marginal side effect of the process, as it is essential in the shaping of social attention and finally of the social mind. The main effect of this info-acceleration is a form of subjection to the flow that makes the slow individual elaboration of meaning and the creation of moments of singularity more and more difficult. In this vein, Geert Lovink’s approach, in Networks without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media, is more useful to the understanding of the effects of new media, as Lovink considers them not only from the point of view of their political content, but also their anthropological content, questioning their cultural and psychological effects.6 Lovink considers social networks as an environment whose effects are not only in the field of information and ideological persuasion, but mostly in the field of privatization of daily life and isolation of psychological habits. Acceleration of information is, in fact, producing an effect of automation in the processes of interpretation and in the processes of social construction, The Paradox of Media Activism


Errorist Kabaret, Etcetera Archive, 2009. Installation view, 11th Istanbul Biennial. Courtesy of the artists.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

The Paradox of Media Activism


so that we are taken in a frenzy of ‘friending’, ‘liking’ and ‘commenting’, as we are unable to create an autonomous sphere of expression in our info-saturated lives. In the new dimension of the social network, desire is diverted from physical contact and invested in the abstract field of simulated seduction, in the infinite space of the image. Boundless enhancement of disembodied imagination leads to the virtualization of the erotic experience, and the infinite flight from one object to the next. Value, money, financial excitement: these are the perfect forms of this virtualization of desire. The permanent mobilization of psychic energy in the economic sphere is simultaneously the cause and the effect of the virtualization of contact. The very word ‘contact’ comes to denote exactly the opposite of what it is usually expected to mean: not bodily touch, epidermic perception of the sensuous presence of the other, but purely intellectual intentionality, virtual cognizability of the other. It is hard to predict what sort of mutation is underway in the long run of human evolution. As far as we know, this virtual investment of desire is currently provoking a pathogenic effect of fragilization of social solidarity and a stiffening of empathic feeling. Social movements have been able to use new media as a tool for the enhancement of social consciousness, but if we consider new media as a new public sphere, we are obliged to acknowledge that their role is much more controversial. Obviously, this new space is intensifying the possibilities of virtual gathering, but they are also accentuating the un-empathic condition of the precarious generation, and therefore they are making social solidarity more and more difficult to attain and to build. Transmitting information and denouncing the misdeeds of power have been important in the past decades. The role of media-activism, as a practice of denouncement of exploitation and unmasking of commercial advertising and political simulation was seen to be important in the 1990s and in the years of the anti-globalization movement, from the Seattle riots in 1999 to Genoa in 2001. Neoliberal ideology was an unquestionable dogma before Seattle, after which media-activism has helped to destroy the dogma in the minds of a large part of population. But consciousness and critical stance have been shown to be insufficient if people are unable to actually free themselves from the automatisms of power. This is what social activists have understood in recent times, when financial dictatorship has revealed its real face. On this note, let us look at what is happening in Europe. In Greece and in Spain, in Portugal and also in the United Kingdom, an increasing number of workers and students and citizens at large have understood that, under the label of ‘bank rescue’ and of ‘financial stability’, a huge process of predation and privatization of social resources is underway. The majority of the people are aware of the deadly effects of financial capitalism, as these are crystal clear in the worsening of their working conditions and in the tightening of their revenue, and also because media-activism has


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

helped in the understanding of the regressive game that financial capitalism is playing. But rage and protest and riots have been shown to be unable to resist this financial aggression, and have exposed their limitations in front of the automatism of financial power. Only a process of active withdrawal from the sphere of capitalist exploitation, and the creation of spaces of autonomous production and exchange (for instance, the creation of community currencies for the disownment of the financial power of the banks) may open the way to a process of emancipation. But a process like this not only requires information and understanding; most of all, it demands solidarity, physical proximity of social actors, territorial organization of daily life and of armed defence, when necessary, of the spaces of social autonomy. Solidarity is not a moral value or a political ideology. It is the empathic perception of the presence of the other, and this is seriously eroded by the virtualization and mediatization of social relations. We should never forget that just after midnight on 28 January 2011, Egypt, a country in which more than 20 million people were following the events of Tahrir Square online, was essentially cut off from the internet. The next day, the number of people gathering in the streets of every city in the country exploded, and the revolt became an irrepressible revolution; pulling a country of 82 million people, around 17 million internet users, 60 million cell-phone subscribers, 7 million home phones and 5 million Facebook users offline created the largest flashmob ever, with around 8 million protesters in the streets across Egypt. Media-activism is taken in a paradoxical situation. It is crucial for the creation of social consciousness and the denunciation of fake ideologies of power, and the critical dismantlement of power’s discursive machines. But simultaneously — as it necessitates online activity and mediatization of social relations, media-activism is adding noise to the overcrowded infosphere and further virtualizing social relations and attention. As media-activists, we have to be conscious of this contradiction: although the field of the media still plays a crucial role in the fight for autonomy, we should know that the problem of solidarity and empathy is not a problem of information, but of physical, erotic, therapeutic presence. Information is no longer a crucial necessity — we have as much information as we need, and much more. What is crucial is the ability to activate networks of solidarity outside the sphere of the economy and of rep­re­sen­t ative  democracy.

The Paradox of Media Activism


1. Clay Shirky, ‘The Political Power of Social Media: Technology, the Public Sphere and Political Change’, Foreign Affairs 90/1 (2011), p. 103. 2. Ibid., p. 104 3. Ibid. 4. See, for example: Evgeny Morozov, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (New York: Foreign Affairs, 2011). 5. Arthur Kroker and Michael A. Weinstein, Data Trash: The Theory of the Virtual Class (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1994), p. 8. 6. Geert Lovink, Networks without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media (Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, 2012).


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Revolution Triptych Mosireen

I Images distort reality This time  The cameras were pointed at Tahrir Square, not the squares all across the country. The cameras were pointed at the amassing police trucks, not at the torture chambers inside them. The cameras were pointed at the celebrated army vehicles, not the shredded bodies beneath them. The cameras were pointed at flag clad middle class faces, not the unemployed man raped in a military prison. From behind our cameras we too seek to distort reality — this reality. The most powerful aspect of a revolution still ongoing is the way it spreads, grows, like a virus.  This movement is far from perfection, yet wherever it goes it shakes the system.  The relatives of those tortured by the police, stop highways and train tracks.  The disenfranchised burn down headquarters of the new ruling elite inheriting a system that we overthrew yesterday, ruled by a logic inherited by our near colonial ancestors. A constant battle between street vendors — kicked out of the system — and a police force serving the ruling elite. Students fight to keep their campus against their thieving Nobel Prize winning university founder. Everyday people run their own neighborhoods. Workers take over the factories their bosses abandon. Then we too must take over the decrepit world of image creation. 

The images are not ours, the images are the revolution’s.  How dare we trade in images of resistance to a system that we would feed by selling them? How dare we perpetuate the cycle of private property in a battle that calls for the downfall of that very system? How dare we profit from the mangled bodies, the cries of death of mothers who lost their children? The images must lead to provocation, not a filthy self-aggrandizing cycle of an industry of empathy. We do not seek people’s pity, we seek to drag you the viewer from your seat and into the street. We do not seek to inform, we want you to question your apathy in the face of the killing, torture and exploitation that is forced upon us. We do not ask for your charity, we do not ask for your prayers, we do not ask for words, but bodies. No words can relay the extents of exploitation, of brute violence, the effects of sexual torture, of social and economic ruin enforced on those that take to the street. Yet without bodies the possibility of shaking any of these is zero. Our images must join the opposition against the deceit of democracy, a system that only self-perpetuates itself under new faces with claims of freedom and choice of your next exploiter. Only the force of bodies will oppose this violence, a horizontal, self-organized, leaderless collective to bring down the pyramid of power.   The system reeks of blood, the rulers’ bellies bloated on the downtrodden whose demise their comfort ascertains. The segregation in livelihood between the few and the many reached proportions of such magnitude that only the masses on the streets can ascertain their funeral marches.  The glorified state container has created favelas of the wretched, imposing a global regime of coarse stratification between the haves and have-nots, squeezing out every last drop of life.  Every corner of this regime must be exposed, must be occupied, must be crumbled and images must oppose the constant imaging of buying more, the imaging that perpetuates a patriotism that numbs the mind, numbs the


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

realization of your empty stomach, your disease infested neighborhood, your shut down hospital and overcrowded class room.  The images that perpetuate all this must come to an end.  We only hope to play a small part. Join us. I, II Images are a trap. A cerebral complicity between brain and frame causes an acceptance of a distorted fraction as a reality complete.  That time, the cameras were pointed at Tahrir Square, the police trucks, the flags and tanks and victory signs.  They were pointed at the present, erasing the past, disabling the future — nothing before was as relevant, and nothing to come.  They fed off the spectacle they were birthing and the world stopped for a breath. Then they were gone and we stood, alone and in our millions, an oasis of meaning in a desert of noise.  That time, the cameras failed to point at all the other squares, at the cells of the torturers, the business deals or the bodies lying under the trucks and the sand.  That time, and every time.  Images are a trap. And yet we use them. We too seek to distort reality. There is no truth we can show you, only the angle that we, now, think serves our own interests best. Claims of anything else are lies. The only question is: do we have the same interests?  A fire burns across the country. Smoke rises from the regional headquarters of our new rulers. The revolution doesn’t stop. If a revolution is change, is movement, is fighting for a different kind of world, then the revolution is everywhere. It is not as pretty as it was when we were the darlings of the news bulletins. Instead, it has taken root.  Fires lit by parents whose children were tortured by the police sever national highways and train tracks.

Revolution Triptych


Students chain themselves to university gates to keep their campus out of the hands of their Nobel Prize winning Founder.  Democracy brings a president who bullies and threatens and fills public positions with murderers.  Workers unite to manage factories being shut down and sold off by their bosses. Children arrested at protests watch the police rape men in their trucks. Communities build roads instead of waiting another year for the municipality to appear. Jail cells are flooded with water to make the electric torturer’s job easier. Tahrir Square, long stripped of nuance, now dances and sings and flagwaves under floodlights hung by the media. The body politic is riddled with disease, but the people are fighting it at every turn.  So too must we — all of us — attack the vacuum of recycled meaning that is the image creation.  We trade in images of resistance. Masked photographers stand impervious in clouds of poison gas, they know what kind of suffering their editors are susceptible to, they know just how much resistance you’re allowed in a frame. The cycle of private property continues, wealth is accumulated in foreign cities off the back of Arab sweat. The sweat, though, is filtered. A crying woman will always find a magazine to be printed in. But the shattered, skull-flecked brains of a martyr of Maspero? If an image does not provoke you, is it a continuation of the system you are trying to overthrow? An extension of it? The martyr does not want your sympathy. The martyr wants you to overthrow the system.  The image that only seeks your pity only perpetuates the industrial cycle of morbid titillation. People, in this world that has been built, in this cycle, can now suffer from ‘compassion fatigue’. Fuck awareness.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

We do not ask for your charity, we do not ask for your prayers, or your thoughts or your words but your bodies. We do not ask for your martyrdom, we ask for your bodies on the streets of your cities, we ask for your ideas and your energy, we ask for your resistance.  I, II, III The spectacle can happen within a single frame. The reiterations of these frames continue to live by becoming the carriers of the revolt itself that is in constant motion. These visual accounts are not shot merely to report on the ongoing struggle, but to serve as a form of a counter-propaganda against the state-made truths that have been injected into the society’s narratives for so long. Spectacle one: The revolution didn’t stop with Mubarak’s deposal. The thirty-year-long regime did not end with the 18 days. It continues with a substitute face, oppressing people with the use of the same organs that carry out illegitimate actions against the Egyptian people, sharing the country’s wealth with the foreign powers that continuously supersede the same models of economic oppression. The image of the 18 days had been sold cheap to the world, subordinating the audience to conclusive news bites and films that fail to carry on the moment. Spectacle two: The revolution didn’t stop and the images are taken in the street for the street. It is happening now. A video is made here, as rioting protesters take over their spaces. The urgency to resist turns the momentum into a continuous battle, happening inside and outside of the squares, within a crowd, at home (closed), on the street (open). Protesters carry out clashes individually and collectively, in factories, at schools, hospitals, inside a prison cell. The image comes second, but it fuels the resistance. It is in people’s attitudes, in collective minds, in their bodies, their actions, on a paper, a wall, an orange. It is a space, a place. It is a fight, a riot, a provocation, a counteraction that manifests itself in an image. It is in a mobile phone and then on a screen built by protesters on the street provoking you to participate. It is an anti-image. It is imagination. Spectacle three: The revolution continues and the urgency to gather, to share, to spread lingers. It is a multiple experience of the same reality, mirrored in raw footage that is Revolution Triptych


almost immediately archived, on phones, computers, hard drives. The moment becomes history with the ‘save’ button, but does not stop there. It gets a second life through counter propaganda montage. The same footage on the side of the enemy becomes a dangerous weapon that needs to be turned back at them. This footage is not for private collections. It is an oral history that becomes an active agent of resistance.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

For the Common Good? Artistic Practices and Civil Society in Tunisia1 Anthony Downey

Doing art means displacing art’s borders, just as doing politics means displacing the borders of what is acknowledged as the political … Jacques Rancière2 The job of civil society is to launch genuine debate on political, economic, and cultural emancipation, and to avoid superficial and unproductive polarization. Tariq Ramadan3 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.4 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’.5 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.6 Tunisia, under the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled for 34 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.7 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. In the days following the attacks on the exhibition, it was announced that the Palais Abdelliya would be closed down as a cultural venue. On Tunisia 1, a national evening news programme, Noureddine El Khademi, the Minister of Religious Affairs, accused the artists of insulting Islam and called upon Tunisians to defend their religion. Following violence across a number of towns and cities, in the wake of such an incendiary call, dawn to dusk curfews were imposed. If a further sense of what is at stake in the practices and institutional contexts of culture in modern-day Tunisia is needed, we need look no further than the unhelpful interjection by the Imam of the Zitouna mosque in Medina of Tunis, Houcine Laabidi, who explicitly called for the death of all the artists involved in the exhibition. Putting to one side Printemps des Arts’ engagement with what are considered by some to be taboo subjects, the combustive mix of political opportunism and civil rights focused further attention on what still remains to this day a fraught and hard-won freedom from despotism in Tunisia.8 The events surrounding Printemps des Arts highlight a key sociopolitical element in the post-revolutionary landscape of Tunisia, a factor that is crucial to understanding fundamental aspects of what is happening in other countries that underwent revolution across the region: we are effectively witnessing the re-emergence of institutions associated with civil society. If we understand civil society as an attempt to reconcile public and private mores without resort to state control or governmental decree, then these open, often rancorous


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

confrontations are not only inevitable but, in the name of free speech, necessary. Nevertheless, the events outlined above also direct us to a core element in visual culture: it produces mini-publics, debates and audiences that, in turn, form part of larger organizations and informal social networks that are an indelible part of civil society and the public sphere. And this fact, for interim governments unused to the manifestation of civil society, produces both suspicion and occasional kneejerk reactions to cultural events. Across North Africa and the Middle East, forms of civil renewal are emerging that are not necessarily associated with the right to vote, the latter seen in the ‘West’ — if we can still use that term with any degree of critical purchase — as a sign of a democratic order. These ideals of civil renewal involve active citizenship and the strengthening of community bonds through nascent civil and community-based groups and activities, of which cultural practices are but one element, albeit an important one. For writers such as Tariq Ramadan, the emergence of a stable, functioning ‘civil state’ — a phrase being promoted by a number of Islamist movements across the region — and responsible governance, in the wake of uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, is coterminous with the emergence of a robust civil society.9 Without it, Ramadan argues, there can be no emancipatory politics as such. Moreover, without the institution of civil society and forms of civic engagement, the momentum and promise of the various uprisings across the region cannot be sustained. In this context, Ramadan argues that ‘[a] genuine, tangible process of reform, democratization and liberation cannot take place without a broad-based social movement that mobilizes civil society as well as public and private institutions’.10 The democratization and emancipation of the Middle East and North Africa depends on the mobilization of civil society, Ramadan argues further, and the key task for Arab civil society is to promote opposition platforms that allow for pluralism. We turn here to a decisive, two-part question: what role does culture have in the development of civil society and, secondly, can artistic practices negotiate the public sphere, invite participation in cultural issues, and thereafter strengthen the bonds of civil society by inviting voices and agents into the debate about cultural pluralism? Before fully answering this question, we need to address a number of interrelated caveats. For one, civil society may be an arena of contestation within which public concerns are played out, but, as we will see, it is equally a site of exclusion and exclusivity — only certain voices can be heard in the context of any given social sphere, despite claims to the contrary. The contestation between rival groups involved in the uproar surrounding the Printemps des Arts affair attests to this sense of contestation. Secondly, to suggest that art as a practice and the cultural institutions it supports, and is in turn supported by, should somehow add to a common good or the goal of civil society is to entertain that most cherished of neoliberal, state-sponsored ideals: the instrumentalization of culture so that it For the Common Good?


Héla Ammar, Revolution, 2011. Courtesy of the artist.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

For the Common Good?


Héla Ammar, la liberté appartient au peuple: Freedom Belongs to the People, 2011. Courtesy of the artist.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

is answerable to the narrow political priorities of a given moment in time.11 To these, we must add one final caveat: to promote the development of civil society as an ameliorative to the social and political unrest occurring across the region is misguided if we understand the latter only in terms of being a Western import into the region. If we are to fully explore how culture can contribute to a common good that is not simply a function of the state, the outcome of religious edict, or the self-serving logic of the market, we need to explore what exactly is meant by civil society across North Africa and the Middle East and how, importantly, this term is understood in the context of cities that have a majority Muslim population. Whilst advocating art and its institutions as a key factor in the development of civil society across North Africa and the Middle East, moreover, it is crucial that we consider how such practices can both support and equally question the parameters and effectiveness of civil society in countries where it has been largely notable by its absence and, in some cases, widespread proscription. –1– Civil society, in the broadest sense, is composed of voluntary social relationships, civic and social organizations, and other institutions that are relatively distinct from government and profit-led initiatives. Clubs, community organizations, men’s groups, women’s groups, non-governmental organizations, private voluntary organizations, sports groups, environmental activists, cultural groups, religious organizations, social enterprises, academe, activist groups, charities, support groups, trade unions, artists’ groups, art institutions, and community-based art projects — all form the bedrock of civil society. In perhaps simplistic terms, civil society is therefore often contrasted with state control and is seen as a bulwark against the excesses of the state and the short-termism of market forces.12 Understood as a field that exists within social orders but detached from the state (and the market), civil society therefore allows for a community to independently represent itself culturally and politically as a social body — and this is crucial to any discussion of artistic practices in Tunisia today and their impact on social, political and cultural orders. The site of self-identification and public discussion, civil society is a dynamic space: an informal site where social movements develop and call into question the values and ideologies of a given political order. Developed within the context of civil society, these social movements are invariably the expression of common concerns and, moreover, the expression of a collective will towards new forms of self-identification. During times of either state repression — when open, public discussion and disagreement are outlawed — or when markets privatize public space in the name of private interests, civil society invariably struggles to find a foothold, as do the voices and self-determinations of communities.13 As a form of symbolic structuring that generates

For the Common Good?


new identities and collective values, civil society produces sense-making and forms of self-identification; they act, in sum, as autonomous spaces that promote participation in society and its structures.14 In the wake of the events surrounding Printemps des Arts at the Palais Abdelliya in June 2012, Mehdi Mabrouk, the Tunisian Minister for Culture, reportedly said the following: ‘It’s enough for art to be beautiful, it shouldn’t be revolutionary, it should be nice.’15 This statement, from a Minister of Culture no less, betrays a simplistic attitude towards art as a practice that borders on foolishness. Nevertheless, it is worth exploring its content further because it also goes to the heart of the matter concerning the politics of culture and its imbrication within civil society. In suggesting that artists, be they revolutionary or not, should steer away from the political realm, Mabrouk is actually making a case for the opposite: in arguing that art has no place in politics he is explicitly politicizing art and bringing it into the political sphere, albeit in terms of prohibition. What could be more political than placing a sanction on an activity within a given social order?16 If art has no place in the political sphere, as Mabrouk suggests, and should thereafter maintain a quaint indifference to it, art is irrevocably politicized. Doing art, to paraphrase my epigraph, is to displace and extend the boundaries of art. In this instance, art as a practice, considered a private pursuit with a public dimension, extends into debates around civil society and thereafter displaces its borders of engagement to include discussions about public space and access to such spaces. If art is indeed increasingly positioned as ‘political’ by virtue of being denied a role in the political realm, it is obvious that it is considered capable of potentially altering opinion, not to mention reconfiguring engagement with various communities. Inherent within Mabrouk’s offhand and imprudent remark is an often occluded but nonetheless potent counter-proposition that alerts us to art’s potential to effect social debate in a country such as Tunisia. Exhibitions in public institutions, of which there are few, are representative of emerging communities, and reactions to them are testament to the sense that what is at stake here is a common ground upon which to voice debate, entertain disagreement and engage in discussions about public and private space, the rights of the individual, freedom of expression, the (often expansive) meaning of the term ‘sacred’, secular determinism, the role of religion in the workings of state, the need for good, responsible and responsive governance and the principle of rational self-interest in the context of the common good. And central to this is the role of culture in fostering a sense of identity as well as opening up debates about the logic of civic and political imaginations. Art, in this instance, can re-imagine that which often remains unimaginable in political terms.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

–2– In March of 2011, a year or so before the events described above, and three months after Ben Ali had been forced into exile on 14 January 2011, a streetbased artwork was conceived by a number of artists under the title Inside Out: Artocracy in Tunisia. The event featured the portraits of 100 Tunisians — deemed, for want of a better word, ‘ordinary’ — placed in prominent positions around the city of Le Kram, a town situated between the port of Tunis and Carthage. The images were posted in places where portraits would have previously hung of the former (and by then disgraced) president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. One of the photographers involved, Marco Berrebi, was reported as saying that Inside Out was about giving people the freedom to debate the photographs and to come to their own conclusions.17 Implicit in the term ‘artocracy’ we find an interesting combination of aesthetic practice and democratic self-determination that is no doubt a key element in the project overall: the foregrounding of art as means to self-determination or, at least, a form of civil self-organization. In the project, moreover, we can see an aesthetic gambit — the positioning of images in a public space — with a view to provoking debate. Inside Out would also appear to be concerned with occupying cultural territory and allowing access to it through images and symbols, an intention that re-emerged in the essay by Meriem Bouderbala, quoted earlier, which accompanied Printemps des Arts in 2012. However, interestingly, the first incarnation of Inside Out, in the town of La Goulette, a suburb north of Tunis and not far from Le Kram, was met with a less than sympathetic response when local people angrily objected to it and the project was abandoned. Furthermore, posters pasted on the Porte de France in central Tunis were summarily torn down. The former incarnation of this project in La Goulette, despite government authorization (and therefore tacit support for the promotion of cultural production within the context of civil space and public debate), would appear to highlight the sensitivities surrounding the use of public space — who has the right to use it and who is barred from using it — that formed one of the key areas of outright protest in Tunisia in the early part of 2011. Although the precise reasons for the defacement of the original posters remain obscure (and could have had more to do with the legacy of covert surveillance procedures in a former police state), such reactions highlight the fact that visual culture remains a potent topic for the population of Tunisia as a whole, and not just for so-called extremists. Whilst the Palais Abdelliya affair was largely focused on the private space of an art institution (which the public could enter), Inside Out: Artocracy in Tunisia was very much about public, civil space in which a cultural project was staged. Public and private rub up against one another here in forceful and unpredictable ways and this is perhaps part of the problem with developing civil society in general: the opposition between public morals and private beliefs is precisely what civil society sets out to accommodate, but this is For the Common Good?


Héla Ammar, Sidi Bouzid, 2011. Courtesy the artist.

Héla Ammar, La Marsa, 2011. Courtesy the artist.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

only possible if the space produced answers to a common good that benefits all. The common good must remain precisely that: common to all. What both events exposed is the manner in which artistic practices, in their ineluctable relationship to civil society and public space, are firmly on the frontline of key constitutional and political debates, regardless of the subject matter being addressed in actual artworks or practices. What Inside Out: Artocracy in Tunisia highlighted, intentionally or otherwise, was the fact that civil society cannot be controlled by culture — nor the state or the market for that matter — but remains a site of antagonistic and agonistic forces that do not necessarily yield to the liberal ideal of consensus. In the historical absence of civil society, its emergence can provide potential flashpoints even for those who actively support it as a welcome development for countries emerging from decades of despotism. –3– In its proposition of a collective, mutually engaging and shared sense of the social sphere that works in the name of a common societal good (and, thereafter, for the common good of the many and not just the few), the term civil society increasingly indicates public activities that include but are not limited to political self-organization, community-based action, a concern for human rights, quality of life, and the collective expression through cultural events.18 This ambition has become a key component for a number of art institutions across North Africa and the Middle East that actively promote the relationship between artistic practices and civil society. I would note here, in particular, Christine Tohme’s articulation of the goal of Ashkal Alwan, a leading arts organization based in Beirut. As Tohme observes, I am interested in creating civic pockets. We have lost our public spaces today because the control over such spaces is unfortunately decided by the victor — the victor always dominates public space. It is always the winner who controls the space. I am interested in these small pockets that exist outside of the system and outside of the public spaces where national discourses dominate; where you find a seepage between the artistic and the civic.19 Elsewhere, Dar al Ma’mûn, based in Marrakech, foregrounds questions of public space and civil society in their programme and institutional dialogues.20 Returning to Beirut, the arts organization Zico House similarly promotes itself as a civil society organization for culture and development. In Iraq, the Ruya Foundation for Contemporary Art (RUYA), the commissioners of the official Iraq Pavilion for the 55th Venice Biennale, likewise places prominent emphasis on creating ‘a network of intercultural events that can contribute to the development of civil society in Iraq’.21 For the Common Good?


This is admittedly a cursory overview of organizations that foreground the relationship between visual culture and civil society across the Middle East, and we should note that the terms civil society and civil space are not necessarily being used as a counterpart to how they are understood in, say, Britain or France; nor is there a suggestion that civil society can be transposed to the region as a guarantor for the emergence and sustainability of public space for debate and disagreement. To suggest as much is of the same order of delusion that promotes Western-style ‘democracy’ and consensus in the region as the only possible solution to what has been decades of cultural, political, social and economic malaise.22 However, community-based, cooperative-inclined, non-state-funded, and not-for-profit organizations, in whatever form they take (be they cultural or otherwise), are crucial to the development of a common ground upon which a social and political order can fully emerge and actualize real change through forms of disagreement and dialogue.23 When the term civil society is applied to Muslim countries, however, it is often viewed as a form of Westernization that is both secular and anti-religious. For Hanan Hanafi, this generalization merely confuses the issue: whilst the concept of civil society is indeed a Western one (and focused on individual relations within the public sphere), most of its key features are to be found in both Islamic ethical theory and Islamic institutions. The appeal to civil society needs to be thereafter understood alongside the reformist, modernist legacy that was successively quashed by despotism and, increasingly, extremism in the region.24 ‘Islamic theory and practice’, Hanafi proposes, sustain a number of legitimate groupings existing between the state and the individual. These groupings are endowed with their own sphere of autonomy, free from government intrusion, which made Islamic societies historically far less monolithic and undifferentiated than some Western stereotypes of a theocratic society would allow.25 Similarly, for Tariq Ramadan, continuing on from his argument as previously outlined above, civil society allows for an active engagement with Islamic heritage: As Arab societies awaken, as peoples achieve political liberation, to invoke Islam needs to liberate minds through the acquisition of knowledge, autonomous rationality, critical thinking and freedom of thought: the very definition of pluralism, responsible citizenship, and of civil society that functions as an interface between institutions and the state.26


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Amongst the institutions addressed by Hanafi are ones that effectively operationalize the actual concept of civil society. The wielder of power (variously the imam, khalifa or sultan), for example, was always attended by the ‘ulama: those charged with interpreting the intention of the law (shari’a). That this process was open to abuse is undoubted; however, in theory, the ‘ulama were intended to be independent of political authority and thereafter able to maintain the checks and balances needed to curtail power if necessary. Implied here is the informal bulwark needed — the safety net between the power of the state and the individual — if civil society is to emerge as anything more than an abstract ideal.27 To these already potent elements, Hanafi also addresses the diwan al-mazalim, a small claims court of popular appeal, and the mazalim court, to which any Muslim can appeal if an injustice has been done to him by a rule or the ruler’s agent. It is notable how the event that ignited the uprisings across the region in December 2010 was arguably caused by the very absence of courts of civil appeal such as the diwan al-mazalim. The event in question involved the actions of Mohamed Bouazizi, an unemployed Tunisian attempting to make ends meet by selling vegetables from a cart, who was subsequently harassed and slapped in the face by a municipal official, had his wares and scales confiscated and who, when denied a fair hearing to air his grievances, committed himself to an unforgiving act of self-immolation. The conflagration that followed has been well documented and its effects are still unfolding across the region.28 Suggesting that civil society has an objective and verifiable place in Muslim society today is to note, alongside Hanafi, that the threat to civil society is not related to Islamic definitions of the idea per se, but to the historical legacy of despotic governments and an over-zealous determination of who has the right to speak — when, where and to whom — in the context of public space. It is precisely the call for reform and pluralism that started the uprisings across the region after, as noted, decades of cultural, political, social and economic malaise. One further feature of that malaise was the effective subjugation and outlawing of the institutions, cultural or otherwise, associated with civil society. Hanafi observes that the failure of Islamic modernism and secular nationalism, not to mention the ideal of pan-Arabism, has effectively played into the hands of fundamentalism and the forces of conservatism.29 –4– 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 For the Common Good?


what 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 furore 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.30 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’.31 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.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

1. This essay is an extensively revised and extended ver- 8. On 6 February 2013, the Tunisian opposition politician Chokri Belaid, leader of the secularist Democratic sion of two earlier essays: ‘Common Grounds: Artistic Patriots Movement, was shot dead outside his home Practices, Civil Society, and Secular Determination in in Tunis. Later that year, on 25 July, another opposition Tunisia Today’, published in Ibraaz.org and ArteEast. org. Available at http://www.ibraaz.org/essays/45/ (ac- leader, Mohamed Brahmi (leader of the nationalist Movement of the People Party), was assassinated in cessed 21 December 2013); and an essay co-published with ArteEast in ArteZine, guest edited by Ceren Erdem Tunis. Whilst this does not necessarily augur a return to despotism, it does not bode well for the freedom and entitled ‘ANEW: Retelling the Stories of The Past and The Future’. Available at http://arteeast.org/pages/ of speech and political opposition parties in Tunisia. On 26 January 2014, however, the Tunisian National artenews/ANEW/1549/ accessed 21 December 2013). Assembly signed into law a new constitution that is widely seen across the region as the most progressive. 2. Jacques Rancière, ‘The Paradoxes of Political Art’, in Steve Corcoran (ed. and trans.), Dissensus: On Politics 9. Ramadan is explicit in this context, arguing that and Aesthetics (Continuum: London, 2012), pp. 134–51, ‘under no circumstances must the expression of civil p. 149. society be stifled; elected representatives must hear its demands, and the field of politics itself must be 3. Tariq Ramadan, The Arab Awakening: Islam and the open to constant ethical questioning: the essence of New Middle East (London: Allen Lane, 2012), p. 159. good governance (alhukm ar-râshid). See Ramadan, The Arab Awakening, p. 118. 4. The question of how blasphemy and the accusation of apostasy is stifling and delegitimizing critical and 10. Ibid., p. 126. political debate across the Muslim world has been examined by Paul Marshall and Nina Shea in their 11. It is notable that, under the rubric of neoliberalism, comprehensive volume, Silenced: How Apostasy and the accountability of government — its responsibility Blasphemy Codes Are Choking Freedom Worldwide (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 2011 passim. Marshall to provide adequate welfare services and support for culture — is devolved to the rhetoric of citizen and Shea argue that the accusations of ‘blaspheempowerment, inclusion, enfranchisement, choice and my’, ‘apostasy’ or ‘insulting Islam’ are deployed with compulsory voluntarism, all terms that find a comfortincreasing regularity and results, by both authoritarian able degree of cross-over in the rhetoric associated governments and extremist forces in the Muslim world, with so-called ‘relational aesthetics’ and a substantial to stifle debate and consolidate power. Interestingly, amount of collaborative- and participative-based work. they argue, this is not just aimed at internal oppoFor a fuller discussion of these issues, see Anthony sition groups and religious minorities, but external Downey, ‘Towards a Politics of (Relational) Aesthetics’, events, such as the furore in 2005 over the cartoons, Third Text 21/3 (2007), pp. 267–75. drawn by Danish national Kurt Westergaard, satirizing Islamic terrorism. 12. Defined by Antonio Gramsci as ‘society minus the state’, civil society is coterminous with a vigorous social 5. Quoted in Rachida Triki, ‘Freedom to Express: The order, if not democracy, and suggests the absence of Abdelliya Affair’, first published 23 August 2012. Available at www.tunisia-live.net/2012/06/11/artworks- repression, be it in the form of state tyranny or subjugation to the market: ‘between the economic structure and-property-vandalized-during-a-night-of-tension-inand the state with its legislation and coercion, Gramsci tunis/. http://www.ibraaz.org/news/30 (accessed 21 suggests, ‘stands civil society’. See Antonio Gramsci, December 2013). Selections from the Prison Notebooks (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971), p. 209. 6. It is unclear at the time of writing whether or not this was a Salafi-inspired protest or a more generalized 13. For Jürgen Habermas, one of the key theorists of one. What is clear is that Salafites in Tunisia want to see a more prominent role for Islam in both government civil society, the latter is largely defined as a series of ‘associations, organizations, and movements that, atand society, and that in itself brings it into conflict tuned to how societal problems resonate in the private with secular culture. For fuller details of the events life spheres, distill and transmit such reactions in amand aftermath, see Triki, ‘Freedom to Express: The plified form to the public sphere’. Civil society, in this Abdelliya Affair’. context, ‘institutionalizes problem-solving discourses on questions of general interest inside the framework 7. This reading of certain elements in the show, of organized public spheres’. See Jürgen Habermas, specfically Faten Gaddes’ prominently displayed Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to Discourse The Ring, 2011, is supported by Farah Makni Hendaoui, a researcher and exhibitor in Le Printemps des Arts. For Theory of Law and Democracy (Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, 1996), p. 366. full details, see: ‘The Crisis of Art in Tunisia’, Ibraaz, 28 August 2013. Available at http://www.ibraaz.org/ essays/73 (accessed 2 January 2014).

For the Common Good?


14. Habermas is key here to understanding the role of aesthetics in the development of public and civic society. In Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Enquiry into a Category of Bourgeoise Society, he argues that the development of the field of literary criticism and aesthetics, from the late seventeenth century onwards, effected a space for citizens to think and act independently. It was this independence of thought, Habermas argues, that further promoted self-reflection on the nature of political action and what it is to be a political agent. See Jürgen Habermas, Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Enquiry into a Category of Bourgeoise Society (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991), passim. 15. See ‘Tunisia: Artists Under Attack’, http://artsfreedom.org/?p=1439, 22 June 2012. 16. The aftermath of this affair in Tunisia has had further repercussions that are still subject to scrutiny and debate. In a letter dated 13 September 2012, Human Rights Watch addressed members of the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly who had just released a draft constitution made public by the National Constituent Assembly on 8 August 2012. In the letter, the authors noted that although the draft Constitution upheld ‘many key civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights’, including ‘freedom of movement; freedom to assemble and associate’, the articles contained therein also undermined basic human rights, including ‘freedom of expression, women’s rights, the principle of non-discrimination and freedom of thought and conscience’. On the explicit subject of freedom of expression, the letter argued that ‘Article 26 of the draft constitution provides that freedom of opinion, expression, information and creation is guaranteed and can be limited only be laws designed to protect the rights of others, their reputation, security and health. However, draft article 3 threatens freedom of expression by stipulating that “The State guarantees freedom of belief and religious practice and criminalizes all attacks on the sacred.” This provision, which defines neither what is “sacred” nor what constitutes an “attack” on it, opens the door to laws that criminalize speech.’ These concerns have very real and verifiable effects in a country where social and civic space — within which culture thrives — has become an increasingly charged venue for protest and community-based forms of self-organization. 17. For more information on the project see Yasmine Ryan, ‘Art Challenges Tunisian Revolutionaries’, Al Jazeera. Available at http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2011/03/201132223217876176.html.


18. These concerns have been mirrored in political calls for the reinforcement of civil society as a bulwark against the remit of neoliberal ideology and the apparent ascendancy of the market. George Yúdice, for one, sees this as central to the shift in political focus for movements involved in revolutionary reform. Yúdice writes: ‘Civil society has become the concept of choice as many movements for reform and revolution have been chastened by the eviction of socialism as a political alternative, at least for the near future. The current dominance of neoliberalism — the set of policies that include trade liberalization, privatization, the reduction (and, in some cases, near elimination) of state-subsidised social services such as health care and education, the lowering of wages, and evisceration of labour rights – has contributed to the left’s shift in political attention from the takeover of state power (which in many cases has not resolved the question of sovereignty) to issues of civil and human rights quality of life.’ See George Yúdice, The Expediency of Culture: Uses of Culture in the Global Era (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003), p. 5. 19. See ‘Home Workspace: A Conversation between Christine Tohme and Anthony Downey’, 2 May 2012. Available at www.ibraaz.org/interviews/24. 20. Omar Berrada, the director of the library and translation centre at Dar al Ma’mûn, suggests that ‘the questions of public space and of civil society have been with us since the beginning, as we were trying to avoid creating a mere retreat for artists, a luxurious ivory tower for intellectuals in the middle of nowhere — precisely because the countryside is not “nowhere”.’ His response was part of a larger survey of institutional contexts and the role of art in the development of civil society across the region. The survey was carried out by Ibraaz and all responses can be read at: http://www.ibraaz.org/ platforms/3, 2 May 2012 (accessed 4 January 2013). 21. RUYA is officially registered by the Iraq Commission for Civil Society Enterprises, and its mission statement in full reads: ‘The foundation’s [RYUA’s] initial goal is to promote culture in Iraq at a time when priorities are focused elsewhere, and to build a platform that will enable Iraqis in the arts, the young in particular, to benefit from, and participate in international events. In addition to supporting local projects, its aim is to create a network of intercultural events that can contribute to the development of civil society in Iraq. It is also committed to nurturing a multicultural dialogue through the arts.’ See http://ruyafoundation.org/mission/ (accessed 4 January 2013). 22. I borrow this notion of malaise from Samir Kassir’s Being Arab (London: Verso, 2006 [2004]).

Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

23. It is all the more crucial here that I offer, however provisionally, a degree of distinction between so-called non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the institutions of civil society, especially as both can become confused and NGOs offer much by way of support for cultural activities. NGOs also contribute to the stabilization of civil society in post-conflict countries, but civil society itself cannot entirely rely upon NGOs to further expand the realm of the civic. Whilst this is not necessarily the best place to go into these debates, it is notable that the majority of NGOs began as humanitarian vehicles in the area of economic development, but have quickly extended into social and political spheres. This has given rise to a series of criticisms when it comes to examining how such organizations can effect neocolonial cultural and political agendas and become conduits for the international regulatory systems of global capitalism. For a fuller discussion of these issues, see Tina Wallace, ‘NGO Dilemmas: Trojan Horses for Global Neoliberalism’, Socialist Register, 40 (2004), pp. 202–19.

30. The political subject for Rancière challenges the ‘symbolic structuration’ of the community that abolished dissensus in the first place and is thereafter engaged in a process of non-identification with the distribution of the sensible in which he or she finds themselves. Subsequently, non-identification with a given order becomes a moment of instantiating political subjectivity as it introduces dissensus, the latter a disagreement with the established framework of perception/distribution of the sensible that effectively ushers in, as opposed to consensus, politics proper. Rancière writes: ‘Through the process of subjectivization, political subjects [le Sujet politique] bring politics proper into existence and confront the police order with the heterology of emancipation.’ Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics (London: Continuum, , 2004), p. 90. 31. Jacques Rancière, ‘The Aesthetic Revolution and its Outcomes: Emplotments of Autonomy and Heteronomy’, New Left Review (March/April 2002), pp. 133–51, p. 133.

24. Hanan Hanafi, ‘Alternative Conceptions of Civil Society: A Reflective Islamic Approach’, in Simon Chambers and Will Kymlicka (eds), Alternative Conceptions of Civil Society (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), pp. 171–89. 25. Ibid., p. 174. 26. Ramadan, The Arab Awakening, p. 91. 27. Hanafi lists a further series of subsidiary institutions which are intended to bridge the executive power of the imam and the judicial authority of the ‘ulama, including the concept of hisha, which protects the individual against monopolization in market places and usury. Other insitutions, including awqaf, a form of religious endowment to scientific, literary and academic foundations, allows individuals to endow scholarships, schools, publications and universities without government interference. 28. I have written elsewhere on this event, in ‘Beyond the Former Middle East: Aesthetics, Civil Society, and the Politics of Representation’, 1 June 2011. Available at http://www.ibraaz.org/essays/8. 29. When Islamic movements were delegitmized as component elements of civil society, in the wake of secular, nationalist state formation, they turned their attentions to mass media, labour unions, professional associations and NGOs. ‘Elements that are not allowed to compete for popular support within civil society will inevitably become as averse to the values of civil society as those who suppress them. It is hardly surprising therefore that fundamentalist groups employ the traditional accusation of anathema, false innovation, and heresy against artists, thinkers, writers, professors …’ See Hanafi, ‘Alternative Conceptions of Civil Society’, pp. 186–7.

For the Common Good?


Citizens Reporting and the Fabrication of Collective Memory Jens Maier-Rothe, Dina Kafafi and Azin Feizabadi

We use our hands for better or for worse, we strike or stroke, build or break, give or take. We should, in front of each image, ask ourselves the question of how it gazes (at us), how it thinks (us) and how it touches (us) at the same time. Georges Didi-Huberman1 Over the past four years we have witnessed numerous moments of major social and political unrest in different places in the world. Events are relayed to a global audience, at times simultaneously, from the Iranian Green Movement and the various uprisings within the Arab world and at the periphery of the Eurozone, to different Occupy movements spreading around the globe (this being only a cursory list of recent headliners). With events abundantly mediated, a bewildering mass of images has been circulated online at speeds not seen before, and the representational modes at times happened to lump together clouds of visual material with no clear equation between frames of reference or origin. This certainly had to do with the effects of new media technologies on collective generational perceptions and how memory at large is fabricated. Social media and the web 2.0 undeniably played an important role during the unfolding of events in the Arab world, and both served the intentions of self-organization and the growth of movements. This should, however, not be mistaken as grounds to link these various social movements and events under the aspect of one interconnected, collective and ongoing global uprising, as many journalists, writers, curators and scholars have suggested. This collectively written essay instead revolves around the characteristics of mediation that certain moments of crisis, social change and political struggle have in common, namely, the rise of new forms of reporting that emerged in response to them. One key concept that has shifted the circulation of recent events across various media platforms since 2009 is ‘citizen journalism’. The term was coined to label all non-professional, non-governmental media

coverage that manifests ‘on the ground’ from a position of witnessing. With the rising popularity of citizen journalism, the formal lines between journalism and other professional fields have blurred, as people from different backgrounds become the reporters contesting censorship and attempting to restore transparency across media channels. This has also cranked up the impact alternative forms of reporting have had on aesthetic discourse at large, as the dynamic relations between notions of citizenship, social awareness, historiography and collective memory, continue to reshuffle. This essay will give a three-way perspective based on the experiences and observations we shared while organizing ‘Citizens Reporting, A Collective Memory’, a four-day conference that took place in Berlin in August 2012 and brought together a group of speakers from various geographical and professional backgrounds.2 The introductory overview gives an account of the current situation and status of non-governmental journalism in the Middle East, with a particular focus on Egypt and its struggle against state-controlled and corporate media. It is followed by ruminations on the potency of new forms of reporting and the alterations of proximity and distance these create within aesthetic and political discourse at large, while also considering the transitional moment for an aesthetics of protest and the interstices between reality and fiction. The third section expands these reflections onto a wider context and reflects the notion of civic reportage from an aesthetic and historical perspective by looking at the Mosireen collective’s Tahrir Cinema events and Abbas Kiarostami’s film First Case, Second Case from 1980.

Opposing the state controlled National media coverage in Egypt and other Arab states often side-steps polemical content, such as human rights breaches or criticism of the authorities. Alternatively, it presents such subject matter within a framework that rejects its causes or emphasizes its threat to the state’s sovereignty. For example, national media coverage was found to be broadcasting footage of the violent clashes in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and framing protestors as armed thugs. In response, citizen journalists provided their personal accounts, describing the real-time experience of the same events. This also encouraged other formal media outlets to broadcast a split screen showing both perspectives at the same time, bringing forth this notion of censorship and aiding citizens’ direct struggles to question the truth. People now share their stories in opposition to the information distributed through national media sources so as to demonstrate a multitude of readings of a situation and offer a more holistic ‘capture’ of current events. This is the very reason why this moment in time may be referred to as an ‘Awakening’. Throughout the Middle East and North Africa, it can be observed that the roles of the media and internet, but also that of public space, have slowly Citizens Reporting and the Fabrication of Collective Memory


been changing over the past decade. After years of state-controlled distribution of information there has been a major disconnect between the actuality of an incident and public knowledge. This absence of non-biased information has therefore inspired creative routes to freely express thoughts, opinions and facts. A flood of voices, bravely exercising their freedom of speech within these social spheres, strives to prove or negate events emphasized or concealed within daily news. Although uncategorized and chaotic in chronology, they have proved effective in disseminating information amongst a growing number of people. National media still has the greatest reach, as the majority of populations in countries such as Egypt and Syria do not have access to international news channels or the internet. Infiltration of the information disseminated amongst the masses has yielded an increase in blogging, anonymous reporting and the birth of initiatives and international grants aiding the development of free expression, alongside proper documentation of the Middle East’s transformation from oppressed to democratic societies. All these efforts aim to ensure that the writing of this history includes a spectrum of accounts, giving a more comprehensive narrative of this transitional moment. New media technologies have facilitated easier routes to communication and hence more effective means to mobilizing large numbers of people, making it more difficult for the state to control and patrol online conversations addressing the many issues citizens seek to change. In their latest 2012 evaluation, Reporters Without Borders have listed Syria, Bahrain, Iran and Saudi Arabia as ‘internet enemies’, due to their censorship of online content and moves to detain bloggers for participating in anti-government discussions.3 Countless stories of Arab bloggers being tortured, detained and/or put in front of military courts, due to their political opinion and published testimonies of events, stain a decade’s worth of news in these countries in addition to Egypt and Tunisia. But this only confirms online successes in reaching a multitude of engaged, tech-savvy citizens. Various collectives have raised their voices for a specific cause, attracting groups eager to exert their resources and energy to create this specific change. The Ikhwan Kazeboon (Arabic for ‘The Brotherhood are liars’), ‘No to Military Trials for Civilians’ and ‘Op Anti-Sexual Harassment’ campaigns are branded to emphasize Egyptian society’s struggles with issues of gender equality and social justice through a powerful visibility on the ground, both online and in the news. Their physical presence in the public sphere reserves a permanent space in every spectator’s mind in providing information regarding an array of happenings relative to their cause. The consistency of their visual branding holds them accountable for disseminated information and somehow legitimizes and centralizes their activity. These efforts unfold by attracting local and international media attention, making it difficult for the accused to bypass the consequences of unconstitutional acts and pressurizing the judiciary system to


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Hamed Yousefi, The Aesthetics of Protest, 2010, film still. Courtesy of the artist.

Citizens Reporting and the Fabrication of Collective Memory


hold authorities responsible for injustices. In turn, this will ensure the inclusion of voices on the ground when documenting history. The urgency of supporting civic reporting has inspired the beginnings of numerous initiatives. Menassat, a platform based in Lebanon, offers uncensored news from the MENA region whilst supporting and empowering Arab journalists. AltCity and Wamda provide training, financial support and spaces for discussions concerning media development. Meedan, founded in 2005, is another platform that decreases the information gap between citizens in the Arab and Western worlds. The forum uses Machine Translations for all news stories and commentary uploaded onto the site, making citizen journalism accessible to readers in either region. Additionally, tools like CheckDesk, a blogging tool used to report local news immediately (now used by the Al Masry Al Youm newspaper in Egypt, and the Syrian collective Al Ayam), are being designed and introduced by such initiatives. In Syria — a far more tense and violent environment at the time of writing — citizen journalists are taking greater risks for a more urgent cause, which is to occupy a space within the general flow of news and to illustrate the otherwise unimaginable means with which their oppressor grapples with his position of authority. In addition to being the reporter, citizen journalists assume a performative role whilst capturing the moment of their own death on camera.4 This transition, as experienced by Syrian protestors/civil journalists, transforms viewers into witnesses of these events and gives them access to information that is otherwise concealed by Syrian state-controlled media. In a constant battle, activists are bypassing government-designed obstacles to sharing their experiences. No doubt, corruption still exists, and at this moment in time it prevails. But with a strong continuity of citizen journalism, a corrupt system will eventually collapse during the process of forced change. How then do we decipher the voices that suddenly occupy virtual and/or physical space? In this context, we are in a moment where a new form of spectatorship is adopted to better understand and record the reality of this historical moment and carry it through to the future.

Altering proximity and distance When live broadcasts of precision-guided missiles were beamed into home television sets during the first Gulf War in 1990–91, a turning point was reached in how we understand images of conflict. Images shot by cameras inside missile heads filmed bombs that threw themselves into their targets. The technocratic and machine-like character of this imagery evoked an abstract proximity, a closeness that paradoxically distances its viewers from the cruel facts of war. That same distance collapsed, so to speak, on 11 September 2001, when masses of eyewitness reports and documentation, mostly by private individuals, took


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

over global news coverage for weeks, depicting the ongoing events in almost real-time. US media replied with embedded journalism during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, to display the military response to the world and concurrently reestablish that proximity. With the advent of social media sites a few years later, acts of reporting and public accounts continued to produce new qualities, in terms of formal and investigative aspects as well as in terms of mobility, anonymity and connectivity. The web 2.0 propelled this aspect further by liberating bloggers from any censorship and filters applied by traditional mainstream media, making it possible for an alternative reportage to circulate freely. This altogether altered the status of eyewitness reports within mainstream news coverage, a field highly guarded by professional journalism and its protocol. Moreover, it perforated the credentials of the traditional journalistic value system, inserting a new quality of ‘speaking to truth’ from a position of ‘being on the ground’, against the distant position that professional journalism generally takes due to its ethics and conventions. These alterations of proximity and distance indicate how new forms of reporting, such as citizen journalism, also condition new forms of spectatorship. But what do these new forms of reporting demand from their spectators, readers and publics? To what extent do they develop along the same lines as the engendered forms of reporting? And what are the risks and side effects of those lines? If we take a closer look at the sources and the specific material characteristics of civic and amateur reportage, a number of features emerge. Inconsistent framing, handheld cameras and pixelation, to name a just few formal aspects, are typical for amateur journalism and have long since been adopted as common stylistic elements in mainstream cinema, advertising and contemporary art. The same goes for distribution forms. With a growing variety of sources, from private to commercial and corporate, feeding into the network from a growing number of geographic locales, it has become increasingly difficult to trace the specific characteristics of origin, authorship and authenticity in what we get to see and hear. Threatened by repressive regimes and their persecution in a digital age, authors want to stay anonymous and leave sources untraced. This poses a problem insofar as the veracity of even the eyewitness report is not guaranteed, in either a legally effective or a visually affective sense. The accuracy of images with regards to their origin and intent has been blurred, and with this comes an immediate impulse to distrust their superficial appearance. In the whirlwind of images generated, isolated from their sources and local contexts, the collective public easily loses its sense of orientation and its trust in the ability to distinguish between the feigned and unfeigned document. The aesthetics of protest and resistance have undergone transition and are increasingly put at risk of being co-opted into other contexts where they easily become stripped of their criticality. Images taken during real street protests might just as well become the selling point for a pair of jeans. Something Citizens Reporting and the Fabrication of Collective Memory


Mosireen Collective, Cairo, 2011. Courtesy of Cressida Trew.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Citizens Reporting and the Fabrication of Collective Memory


similar but utterly different can be observed in recent contemporary art, where activist strategies are often brought into play but not paired with the necessary time and engagement to actually achieve any of the alleged impact on the ground. Since social and political transitions began to take shape across the Arab world in early 2011, endless requests for artists and cultural practitioners to dissect the politics in their work have been made, even if there was no direct link in the work. To this, there is the added expectation that artists cater to the demands of a global art market and a public who want to have an opinion about ‘post-revolutionary’ societies. Cultural practices blending activism with art have become ubiquitous, for no good reason and with no benefit for either end. As curators and artists working within the context of contemporary art in Egypt and the region, we see a growing need to consider the risks and demand for heed and precision with regard to these circumstances. Legitimized by an underlying sense of social and political urgency and at the same time fragmented by the larger complexities of visual culture, these shifts affect the formation of different collective subjectivities, whether in close proximity to the events depicted, or at a distance. Here again, the notions of distance and proximity are crucial to understanding how they affect the formation of the collective subject on either end. Between the two sides, geographically speaking, we can discern a dividing line drawn between notions of immediacy, of being on the ground, on the one side, and a discursive abstraction, drawing extensively on aesthetic concepts and theoretical analysis, on the other. ‘Do we have something in common or not?’ Syrian filmmaker and producer Orwa Nyrabia asked the Berlin audience during the ‘Citizens Reporting, A Collective Memory’ conference in summer 2012. His question seemingly addressed the apathy within Western political discourse towards the on­going cruelties of the Assad regime against Syrians and the manner in which the Western political apparatus constantly neglects, denies and delays decision-making with regard to the situation in Syria. But Nyrabia actually directed his question quite frankly to the audience in front of him, asking them to assume responsibility and ideally action, in the most literal sense. How can we be engrossed in an intellectual aesthetic discourse here while such real events take place there? Why are we mulling over abstract questions instead of thinking about true and active forms of engagement? Nyrabia’s question is marked by a similar line of division as drawn up by the geographies in place, setting the immediate urgency of current events at odds with their discursive abstraction. While that line seems impossible to overcome, the immediacy shared through citizen journalists’ reports does in fact constitute a connection point that overcomes geographical distances. It simultaneously constitutes and divides the realm wherein social and political engagement with the events can take place. This two-sided effect of citizen journalism on the political realm alludes to the concept of political difference, which demarcates the distinction between the realm of politics — pertaining


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

to the organization of politics, governments and institutions of state — and the realm of the political — pertaining to the nature of politics and the political dimension of the social.5 The realm of the political is in close proximity to politics but operates at a distance from it. Where politics may not offer citizens possibilities to partake directly in an existing conflict at distance, the realm of the political, distant but not detached from a shared social dimension, provides a space to engage with it indirectly without being apolitical. Reflecting the open political process of how such engagement unfolds, Nyrabia’s question encapsulates that precise political difference. It suggests not a way of overcoming this divide to arrive at collective action but how to embrace such a divide and think about how to use its marking points to explore what distinguishes politics from the political and what constitutes political difference on either end. This can be taken as a vantage point from where we can think and rethink strategies for public debate and action beyond antagonisms of immediacy and distance, or urgency and apathy. The distance to another location of conflict makes abstract forms of reflection essential in order to politicize this conflict within the realm of the political. But, to turn it around, is this also the case when in close proximity to that location and speaking from within the reality of such inconceivable events like those taking place in Syria? Many writers, activists, filmmakers, scholars and artists have discussed, on several occasions, the meaning of fiction writing in times of crisis and conflict. Is it appropriate to delve into imagination and literary abstraction while surrounded by an inconceivable and horrible reality? When is it too soon for artists to respond to ongoing political events? In a recent article in The National, Faisal Al Yafai dwells on this question and finds a cogent answer given by the Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif, who often finds herself in a dilemma as an author mostly dedicated to fiction writing. For Soueif it makes no sense to suspend fiction writing and wait for a conflict to end, or wait for a moment when history is complete and then resume. For her, waiting is not an option and it is not her job, since it ‘is through fiction that a greater understanding can be reached, precisely because it is distanced’.6 At times of crisis, the discrepancy between social reality and its political representation can take on horrendous dimensions. Discursive fictionalization creates the necessary space to inhabit this appalling gap, not to fill it or patch it up in an obliterating gesture, but to actually explore its dimensions. After all, reality and fiction are not contrasting but rather corresponding realms, and change needs to be first imagined so it might be achieved.

Enunciating the batin (inner) In a similar vein, activist and artistic practices offer prospective means to produce imaginaries that open up and inhabit a political realm. The following two Citizens Reporting and the Fabrication of Collective Memory


Mosireen Collective, Tahrir Cinema, 2011. Courtesy of Sherief Gaber.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

examples from distinct moments in history are conjured up and analogized so as to arrive at a wider understanding of citizen journalism and how it can operate within aesthetic discourse at large. Tahrir Cinema was a series of public screenings organized by the Egyptian collective Mosireen on Tahrir Square in Cairo during the Egyptian revolution in 2011, and then later imitated by the public near the presidential palace in 2012.7 The short film First Case, Second Case,8 by Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, was shot around the time of the Iranian revolution in 1979 and finalized in 1981. Both represent gestures of projection that inform the subjective position of the spectators towards the social and political reality surrounding them. ‘To project’ literally means to ‘throw forth’. That can be an estimate of a future situation, a mental image or a figure. A film projection throws intervals of images and non-images onto a screen. In ballistic terms, a projectile is an object propelled through the air, with the aim of hitting a target. The narrative architecture of cinema and the ballistic narrative of war are both defined by alterations of proximity and distance, between the weapon and the target, between the screen and the viewer, between the image and the site of war. Projection creates a vantage point, and as such it is employed by Tahrir Cinema and in Kiarostami’s film, in both its cinematic senses: of moving images and emotions; keeping the events on screen at once immediate and out of reach; forecasting the unfolding of future events and political conditions; and thinking ahead of time to formulate an attack or response at the right moment. Shortly after its premiere, Abbas Kiarostami’s film First Case, Second Case was banned by the Iranian authorities and was considered lost for almost 30 years until it reappeared as a digital file on Vimeo and YouTube in June 2009. This reappearance in time occurred when the Iranian Green Movement was on the rise and the move towards attempted sociopolitical transformation in Iran was at its peak. This fictional film brought to light a reality within the Iranian mindset that was otherwise concealed by mainstream media depicting the post-revolutionary period, during which the Islamic Republic filtered out all opposition parties that were involved in the 1979 revolution. The film sketches two cases of a situation and calls for spectators and interviewees to choose a moral position on either side. It starts in a classroom, when a student in the back row disrupts the silence every time the teacher turns his back. After several warnings to the unknown student, the teacher suspends a group of suspected students from class for a week, under the condition that they may return when they reveal the identity of the culprit. The narrative perspective shifts as the frame pulls back, showing the same scene as a projection on a screen and a group of people watching it. An extra-diegetic voice proposes two solutions. In the first case, the students remain silent and accept the collective punishment. In the second case, one of them denounces his fellow student and is allowed to resume class.

Citizens Reporting and the Fabrication of Collective Memory


What follows is a series of interviews and conversations with various people who have contrary opinions about the situation; their responses are mostly evasive and defensive at first. As the film moves on, the responses become more decisive when the question is extended to a variety of public figures including politicians, religious leaders, filmmakers, activists, artists, actors, poets and educators. Interestingly, many of them are well known today, as some grew to build careers within the Islamic Republic while others were arrested just a year later due to their political positions; some were taken to court and jailed, whilst others were put to death. Kiarostami’s film remains unbiased throughout — it does not re-narrate incidents taking place at that time; nor does it use any political grammar in the way propaganda does. Instead, it depicts the mindset of a group of people from various sects of Iran’s political spectrum, challenging the interviewed subjects as well as the spectators to project themselves into a certain place and time and think about the consequences of their position in the future. Almost 30 years later, the film intervened in a similar way in Iran’s sociopolitical processes in 2009. Spread widely amongst politicians, intellectuals, artists and activists as part of the Green Movement, the film helped reclaim the 1979 revolution by understanding how and why the revolution took such a problematic path. When Iranians watched it in 2009 as witnesses to post-revolutionary Iran, they experienced the meaning of their own positions within their present, within the Green Movement and within that collective urgency, while becoming sensitized to the political dimension of the present documented by Kiarostami. Prepared to document a moment in history just before a shift in Iran’s sociopolitical situation, Kiarostami lent his skill as a filmmaker to the collective eye in a similar way to citizen journalism today. Though Kiarostami mediates his message through artistic prose, both can be considered to manifest present realities through the framework of a less conventional form of journalistic practice. Tahrir Cinema, on the other hand, is an ongoing event organized by alternative media collective Mosireen since 2011. They provide open platforms for citizens, including those who first occupied Tahrir Square alongside other public spaces, screening video-documentations shot by citizens participating in events, demonstrations, sit-ins and clashes within Egypt. This citizen journalism cinema, so to speak, is characterized by an aesthetic mode of cinematic architecture with a sociopolitical goal. Tahrir Cinema turns the French cinema militant tradition of 1968 into a cinema civil in the most literal sense: a ‘cinema civil’ that relates to public life and is directed by the collective eye of the civis, the citizen, against the belligerent opponent, surveying and projecting the acts of the police and military against protesters on the streets, ensuring such acts are not unseen. Alexander Kluge considers cinema as immortal and older than filmmaking, grounded in the collective cultural practice of sharing something that moves us inwardly. To unlock collective experience and a collectively


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Screenshot, Iran, 2009. The copyrights to First Case, Second Case are unclear to this day. Watch it online at: vimeo.com/6418143.

Silent Collective, The Silent Majority Speaks, 2010, film still.

Citizens Reporting and the Fabrication of Collective Memory


embodied knowledge, however, cinema depends on its public dimension. As Kluge describes, ‘publicness is an immutable characteristic of an intact republic. People are always and at any time having experiences, but whether they connect experience to self-confidence depends on an intact public dimension.’9 The first iterations of Tahrir Cinema in 2011 offered an exceptional form of collective and public cinematic experience. The screening events transformed the square into a cinematic black box, a Kairos.10 Experiences earlier in the day were projected onto the same site. The nightly spectators, demonstrators during the day, saw their individual experiences reiterated and turned into a public and collective experience shared by everyone. In this moment, both the site and the spectator were shifted into an aesthetic realm that turned the square into a stage of semblance, enabling the identification with the protesting self of the citizen and its subjectivity, denied in public spaces for over 30 years under Mubarak’s regime. An existential moment of identification that acted upon the collective memory and the public dimension of the site, it ‘reawakened’ a constitutive element of both the notion of citizenship and the public sphere. Mosireen Collective’s Tahrir Cinema and Kiarostami’s First Case, Second Case have two things in common — both can be considered alternative forms of reporting in the sense that they intervened in the hegemonic order of history and the fabrication of collective memory in the present moment. Both enunciate the batin (inner) of an event instead of representing its zahir (outer), though each expresses this differently. The Tahrir Cinema events projected the site and its spectators onto the screen. Kiarostami’s film revealed the social and cultural psyche of post-revolution Iran in 1979 by projecting the collective subconscious of Iranian society onto itself — from the past into its own future. Breaking down a historical gap of nearly 30 years, the unremitting relevance of Kiarostami’s film as a document of collective memory underlines the desire of many Iranians to not let history repeat itself. The film, however, did not reappear by itself; citizens who made the film accessible to a wider audience reloaded it into the present, in an act of citizen journalism. As citizens all over the world grasp the means with which they may share perspectives on current events, their original practices as artists, filmmakers, political analysts or cultural producers of any kind, serve as skills with which to enhance the content or frame new forms of reporting and, in turn, affect collective memory and the newly acquired rights to the public sphere. Citizen journalism today has gained accountability and legitimacy that was not traditionally included within the general flow of news media. It is within these widened frames that spectators gain an utterly different reading of current events. It is within these accounts that a collective memory of historical moments gains a comprehensive quality unlike that of the past.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

1. Georges Didi-Huberman, ‘How to Open Your Eyes’, in Antje Ehmann and Kodwo Eshun (eds), Harun Farocki – Against What? Against Whom? (London: Koenig Books, 2009), p. 39. 2. ‘Citizens Reporting, A Collective Memory’ was a fourday-long conference that took place in Berlin in August 2012. It brought together a group of speakers from various geographical and professional backgrounds, including journalists, filmmakers, artists and other cultural producers from Egypt, Iran, Syria, Germany and the US. 3. Reporters Without Borders, ‘Beset by Online Surveillance and Content Filtering, Netizens Fight On’, published 13 March 2012 and updated 29 March 2012. Available at http://en.rsf.org/beset-by-online-surveillance-and-12-03-2012,42061.html (accessed 29 March 2012). 4. Jon Rich, ‘The Blood of the Victim: Revolution in Syria and the Birth of the Image-Event’, E-flux Journal, trans. Bechara Malkoun and Rebecca Lazar, New York, 2011. 5. Oliver Marchart, Die politische Differenz — Zum Denken des Politischen Bei Nancy, Lefort, Badiou, Laclau und Agamben (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2010), p. 37.

6. Faisal Al Yafai, ‘As Regimes Arrest Artists, their Art Explores Arab Uprisings’, The National, 4 September 2012. Available at http://www.thenational. ae/thenationalconversation/comment/as-regimesarrest-artists-their-art-explores-arab-uprisings (accessed 2 October 2012). 7. Mosireen, ‘Our Story’, Webpage of the Cultural Activist Collective – Blog, September 2012. Available at http://mosireen.org/?p=1117. 8. Abbas Kiarostami, Ghazieh Shekle Avval Shekle Dovvom (First Case, Second Case). Posted by Green Mind, September 2009. Available at http://vimeo. com/6418143. 9. Alexander Kluge, interviewed by Jens Hoffmann, Mousse, 37 (February/March 2013). 10. The word kairos is an ancient Greek word describing a time in between. Its meaning contradicts chronos, which refers to linear and chronological time. The actual meaning of kairos is complex and can vary based on the context and cultural specifics in which it is used. In our context, kairos means a time span that cannot be measured: the ‘now’. It refers to the opportune time. At Tahrir Cinema, kairos transcends chronos.

Citizens Reporting and the Fabrication of Collective Memory


Performing the Undead Life and Death in Social Media and Contemporary Art Nat Muller

Performative presence When 28-year-old Egyptian Khaled Said was brutally beaten to death outside an internet café in Alexandria by two policemen on 6 June 2010, it sparked massive outrage across Egypt.1 Many credit his death and the 6 April Youth Movement in support of the 2008 Mahalla bread riots as the precursors to the uprisings initiated on 25 January 2011 in Cairo, which eventually led to the ousting of Hosni Mubarak and the end of his 30-year-long rule.2 Although circumstances of Said’s death remain murky, Khaled Said became to Egypt what Mohammed Bouazizi had become for Tunisia: a martyr the nation could rally behind.3 His image, the portrait of a fresh-faced young man and of his mangled face after death, circulated not only virally through the internet on a dedicated ‘We are all Khaled Said’ Facebook page, blog posts and Twitter feeds, but his countenance was carried, photocopied and on banners, in demonstrations, as well as tagged and painted on the walls of the Egyptian streets.4 He became, as Amro Ali puts it, ‘the human face of Egypt’s tragedy, but also its digital youth’.5 Following Ali’s statement, Khaled Said became a symbolic pars pro toto for a whole generation. His body, murdered and mutilated by the police, became a collective body that was perpetually reproduced on- and offline. There is an interesting dynamic at stake here when examining the tension between virtual (online) and physical (offline) presence in the creation of public spheres. More precisely, the question of embodiment in the public sphere of the street and the public sphere of the internet seem to converge if we take the events surrounding the uprisings on Tahrir as a case study. Before fleshing out this topic, it makes sense to briefly contemplate how online and offline embodiment are respectively played out in a process of, or attempt at, making things public. In the realm of social media, embodiment is defined by the profile and voice of the user, and strengthened by the volume of friends, ‘likes’, shares or retweets. In the case of Twitter, though the amount

of followers definitely endorses and even validates the presence of the user, it is still primarily the singular voice of the user that is at the centre. The social transaction and the transaction of information are both quite vertical. Tweets or posts might receive comments or be relayed, but the embodied presence of the user’s profile and unique voice remains prominent. Social media, in most cases, is not so much about connecting as it is about crafting a platform for the makeability and subsequent promotion of the self. In social media, the self — or the presented image of the self — is continuously performed. Dutch media theorist Geert Lovink phrases it aptly when he notes that with the advent of social media, ‘[a] culture of “self-disclosure” established itself. Social networking sites … unleashed a collective obsession with “identity management”.’6 It may well be that as the boundaries between the virtual and real blur, and as the pressures to match the always active and switched-on virtual self to the experience of the sleep-deprived real self grow, keeping in step with the cultivation of the ‘I’ becomes a full-time job. When the feed of continuous updates stops, audiences either become worried — as the case of Egypt, where many bloggers and activists were detained, tortured and jailed during the 2011 uprisings and after, testifies — or simply lose interest. The online self needs to be perpetually present and needs to be perpetually performed. In the case of Khaled Said, his mediated presence has become posthumously iconic, and his Facebook page is a memorial/monument. His mediated body has been distributed over the thousand of bodies demonstrating in the streets and online. Meanwhile in Turkey, following the deterioration of democratic freedoms in the protests over Gezi Park, performance artist Erdem Gündüz took to Taksim Square in Istanbul on 17 June 2013 at 6 pm, placed his hands in his pockets and stood silently for eight hours staring forwards.7 Known as Standing Man, his gesture went viral, and hundreds copied his silent act of protest, across Turkey and in other cities across the world. Different from the appropriation of Khaled Said, here the act of protest is severed from persona and from identity. Its main purpose is to insert the body in public space with a minimal gesture. It turns physical presence in public space into a deliberate political act. Gündüz’ body simultaneously performs the role of a bystander, looking at the events unfolding in front of him, as well as a silent witness to these events. Standing Man is reminiscent of the early iterations of Palestinian cartoonist Naji Al-Ali’s well-known character Handala, a 10-year-old Palestinian boy dressed in rags, his back turned to the viewer and his hands clasped behind his back.8 Here too, statically observing and insisting on being present becomes a defiant deed. In no way is it my intention to diminish the role of networked technologies during the uprisings of 2011 in terms of mobilization and information dissemination. Especially in contexts where physical public space is scant, highly controlled and surveilled, as continues to be the case for much of the Middle East, online platforms can offer venues for candid exchange. The initial Performing the Undead


celebratory narratives of a Facebook and Twitter revolution, embraced and perpetuated by much of the Western media, have luckily subsided. What I am interested in is probing the relationship between embodied and disembodied presence and their performative manifestations.

Performative absence In 33 Rounds and a Few Seconds (2012), Lebanese playwrights and visual artists Rabih Mroué and Lina Saneh counter the online disembodied hyper-presence of social media with the ultimate form of absence, namely death. The performance is completely devoid of human actors, and human presence is mediated through the tools and devices of modern communication technology. The stage is designed to resemble a domestic workspace or living room: on top of an oriental rug stands a desk littered with books, papers, a mobile phone and an opened laptop. Left from the desk we find a printer/fax, a large TV screen showing live news coverage. On the stage right perhaps the only remnant of an analogue era: a turntable set on an amplifier. Record sleeves lie scattered across the carpet, as if the person who used to inhabit the space left hurriedly. These technological artefacts are not exactly props. Rather, in the absence of human presence they take on a subjectivity that supports, and at times breaks, the unfolding of the play’s narrative that concentrates mainly on a large projection screen placed at the back of the stage. The play focuses on the suicide of a young activist and artist appropriately named Diyaa Yamout, Arabic for ‘light dies’. Rumour has it that the story of Yamout9 is based on the actual suicide of Nour Merheb, a young Lebanese secular activist who, like Diyaa Yamout, took his life and sent a suicide note to friends and family expressing the desire to be cremated.10 Civil law is sectarian in Lebanon and all matters related to personal status (birth, death, marriage, divorce, etc.) are regulated according to religious legislation. As a result, cremation is prohibited in Lebanese law, a topic Lina Saneh has tackled in an earlier performance, Appendix v(2007), in which she devised strategies for signing over her body parts to artists who are to transform them after her death into works of art, or incinerate them. It is also not the first time Mroué and Saneh take the absence of their protagonist as a main subject for their work. In Looking for a Missing Employee (2003) Mroué presents the unsolved case of a disappeared civil servant from Lebanon’s Ministry of Finance through a variety of documents and newspaper clippings. In this, Mroué attempts to reconstruct the story of what happened to this man, the missing employee, by piecing together what he can find in local and national newspapers. As such, the thread Mroué weaves considers the pace and the mechanism of print publishing, but also criticizes the state of the press in Lebanon, where according to Mroué, ‘from one day to another, [newspapers] change their position


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Lina Saneh and Rabih Mroué, 33 Rounds and a Few Seconds, 2012. Photograph by Joe Namy, Beirut, 2013. Courtesy of the artists.

Performing the Undead


completely and they don’t bother to make an apology or issue a retraction it’s as if nothing ever happened, as if no contradiction has been made.’11 In 33 Rounds and a Few Seconds, however, the pace of the play is directed by the speed, immediacy and horizontal, multi-cast quality of social media. As viewers, we are mostly confronted with an enlarged projection of Diyaa Yamout’s Facebook page where comments of Yamout’s friends come up incessantly. A few telling details stand out on Yamout’s page, which Mroué and Saneh have had designed as meticulously as they have the stage. For example, Yamout’s page lacks a profile picture, alluding to a double absence: that of the photographic representation of his physical body, and that of the absence of his physical body from this world, his death. Moreover, Yamout does not exist as an image at all in the whole play; we only get to know him by proxy. This begs the question whether in the performative realm of social media, and by extension the theatre, he actually exists at all as an agent. Paradoxically, Yamout is only defined by his absence and non-presence. No picture of Diyaa Yamout can be spotted on his Facebook page. There are only the discursive threads created after his death by the comments left by his friends on his wall. The sole images Yamout has left on his profile page are those that show up in his photo stream. They show the ‘Arab Spring’, demonstrations across Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Libya and Bahrain, and images of self-immolation. Lebanon is absent. Not only does this serve as a reminder of the geopolitical context in which Yamout found himself: a region in disarray and turmoil. But it also stresses that Lebanon, with its dysfunctional sectarian political system, remains mired in stasis and therefore is unworthy of an image, in that the ‘Arab Spring’, or any political change for that matter, never came to Lebanon. In addition to Yamout sending his suicide note, he allegedly also filmed his own death, but no one can trace the tape. The image of his death remains private and hidden, in contrast to his death, which is played out in public. It seems that Yamout’s Facebook page, and those using it, are undecided about what his profile page should be: a memorial, a shrine, a place for debate, a tomb. In the end, it does very little but reflect a variety of petty opinions in the banal way social media does. For all their ideals, Yamout’s friends do not manage to produce anything of substance, apart from turning his death into an imageless spectacle, and scripting themselves as protagonists in this tragedy. In contrast to Khaled Said, where parts of the population appropriated his image collectively and took to the streets to embody him as an icon for the struggle for freedom, Yamout’s friends remain divided in their bickering, as does the media covering his death. The story has ceased to be about Diyaa Yamout the person, but has taken on a wholly new life as a mediatized phenomenon. More than judging Diyaa Yamout, in the end it seems it is the divided Lebanese state that is on trial.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Lina Saneh and Rabih Mroué, Appendix, 2007. Photograph by Houssam Mchaiemch, Beirut, 2007. Courtesy of the artists.

Performing the Undead


Rabih Mroué, Looking for a Missing Employee, 2003. Photograph by Houssam Mchaiemch, Beirut, 2003. Courtesy of the artist.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

The paucity of images hints at another of Mroué’s preoccupations: his suspicion of mediated representation. In a conversation with Anthony Downey, Mroué points out his struggle with this issue: [I]t’s now very difficult for artists to produce images, especially with the glut of imagery in the media. The question seems simple enough: What images can artists produce and is it possible to confront these images that we receive every day with yet more images that we produce?12 Much art-critical ink has flowed on discussing how Lebanese artists have reverted to ‘the withdrawal of visuality’ as a productive strategy in the aftermath of physical destruction, more specifically Lebanon’s civil war (1975–90).13 In other words, direct visual expression or representation becomes futile when faced with destruction and violence. 33 Rounds and a Few Seconds seems to push the withdrawal of visuality further into the withdrawal of presence. Yamout has not only denied himself a profile picture or any type of visual reference in the virtual sphere, but his desire to be cremated (that is, to deny himself a body after death in the physical world), emphasizes an undoing of any kind of presence. The only persons who can still ‘see’ Yamout and acknowledge his presence are those oblivious to his death: a lover who keeps repeating messages into his answering machine and a friend trying to board a flight from London to Beirut, updating him through SMS of her travel delays. Both women’s messages end up becoming, just like the Facebook communication addressing him, absurd monologues. Social media platforms, and the internet at large, are the realm of bodyfree interaction. Yet the internet has also become the largest shopping mall in the world, whether we are looking for opportunities to play out virtual identities or actually shop for goods and services. The social media technologies we use are part and parcel of a hyper-capitalist and neoliberal construct: a billion-dollar globalized economy, one that Yamout probably would have been very critical of. It is thus ironic that the only trace of his life in this world, in the performance at least, is played out on exactly the very platform — Facebook — that forces its members to present themselves in a standardized way and in a certain amount of words. Promising the semblance of individualism, much social media in its technical format is an exercise in conformism rather than antagonism, no matter what the content turns out to be. Mroué and Saneh pepper the play with subtle humour that hints at social media platforms as easy spaces of consumption. Yamout continues to get all kind of spam ranging from penis extensions to making a quick buck. The advertisements on Facebook offer Easyjet flights from Beirut to Ramallah (an impossibility), direct flights from Beirut to Berlin (a possibility) and Beirut’s most prominent arts organizations promoting their cultural events. Performing the Undead


The play ends with Janis Joplin’s ‘Summertime’, and zooms in on a last comment by Nour, perhaps referencing the activist Nour Merheb, ‘Sleep well, beautiful child’, before the screen goes black and the lights go out. 33 Rounds and a Few Seconds skirts around the limitations — and subsequent failures — of technology to convey complex ideas and more importantly affect. It challenges the premise of disembodied political agency that is cast as a click-on-the-button activism, and a ‘like’ and ‘comments’ civil disobedience, though it never formulates this position literally, nor does it offer a direct critique. Yet, in their practice, Mroué and Saneh always question definitions of theatre and what theatre can be, including a space where questions can be posed, and answers postponed. One answer they do give here, though, unlike in the case of Khaled Said, who was symbolically resurrected and reproduced through the appropriation of his image in the real world, is this: Yamout, a virtual absence is being put to rest. His light literally goes out.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

1. Issandr el Amrani, ‘The Murder of Khaled Said’, 14 June 2010. Available at http://www.arabist.net/ blog/2010/6/14/the-murder-of-khaled-said.html (accessed 15 April 2013). 2. See http://www.6april.org. 3. See for instance Amro Ali, ‘Saeeds of Revolution: De-Mythologizing Khaled Saeed’, June 5 2012, http:// www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/5845/saeeds-of-revolution_de-mythologizing-khaled-saeed (accessed April 15 2013). 4. https://www.facebook.com/elshaheeed.co.uk (accessed 15 April 2013). 5. Amro Ali, ‘Saeeds of Revolution’. 6. Geert Lovink, ‘Facebook, Anonymity and the Crisis of the Multiple Self’, Networks without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media (Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, 2011), p. 38. 7. See for example Elif Batuman, ‘Istanbul’s Troubled Gardens: Gezi Park’s Flowers’, The New Yorker, 16 July 2013. Available at http://www.newyorker.com/online/ blogs/newsdesk/2013/07/istanbuls-troubled-gardens-gezi-parks-flowers.html (accessed 2 August 2013).

Performing the Undead

8. For Naji Al-Ali’s Handala, see for example http:// www.handala.org/handala/index.html. 9. Chad Elias, ‘Postcards from Beirut: Part 2’, Frieze Blog, 20 June 2013. Available at http:// blog.frieze.com/postcards-from-beirut-part-2/ (accessed 2 August 2013). 10. Maya Mikdashi, ‘Nour Merheb, R.I.P. (1985–2011)’, Jadaliyya, 23 September 2011. Available at http:// www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/2729/nour-merhebrip-(1985–2011) (accessed 2 August 2013). 11. Anthony Downey, ‘Lost in Narration: Rabih Mroué in Conversation with Anthony Downey’, Ibraaz, 5 January 2012. Available at http://www.ibraaz.org/interviews/11 (accessed 2 August 2013). 12. Ibid. 13. See for example T. J. Demos referencing Jalal Toufic’s notion of ‘radical closure’ of ‘surpassing dis aster’ in ‘Out of Beirut: Mobile Histories and the Politics of Fiction’, The Migrant Image. The Art and Politics of Documentary during Global Crisis (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013), pp. 185–6.


Wafaa Bilal

3rdi, 2010 For Wafaa Bilal, the past is not so much a foreign country as it is the all too immediate present of current-day Iraq. Having lost his brother, who was killed by American forces, and his father, who succumbed to the ensuing grief of that loss, Bilal uses his practice to, in his words, objectively capture his past from a non-confrontational point of view. Using surgically positioned pins, the artist had a camera attached to the back of his head in 2010 and, after some complications, started streaming live images to a global audience via a dedicated website. These images, transmitted at a rate of one per minute, covered a period dating from December 2010 to December 2011, or 369 days in total. Apparently pushed by history into the future, Bilal resembles Walter Benjamin’s unfortunate angel of history: a figure doomed to be blown backwards into the future whilst witnessing, horror-struck, the past pile up as a catalogue of atrocity and debris. Bilal, unlike the angel, faces his future, but the camera attached to the back of his head records all that lies in his wake. Deeply affected by the conflict in Iraq and his subsequent time spent in refugee camps, the artist goes forwards and backwards at the same time, his present stuck between the comfort zone of his current life and the conflict zones of his past. He is at one and the same time witness to the debris of history and an element in that debris. For an online presentation, interview and project, see: 10 Years On: Art and Everyday Life in Iraq and Iran: www.ibraaz.org/channel/16 Performing Histories: www.ibraaz.org/interviews/9 The Hierarchy of Being: www.ibraaz.org/projects/71





Sarah Abu Abdallah

Saudi Automobile, 2011 ‘Painting a wrecked car is like icing a cake, as if beautifying the exterior would help fix its dysfunctionality.’ Sarah Abu Abdallah In a humorous act of defiance against the monopolization of mobility in her home country of Saudi Arabia, Sarah Abu Abdallah produced a video in which she is seen painting the shell of a wrecked car with light pink paint. She coats the exterior of the car in a colour that is often associated with femininity, lending it a character of sorts and suggesting a degree of future functionality. The law against women driving in Saudi Arabia is increasingly flouted by young women who have acquired driving licences abroad and want to drive upon returning to their home country. In rural areas it is more common for women to drive; however, it was recently reported that an 80-year-old woman was arrested for driving, despite the fact that she had been driving, by her own account, for over five decades. For full video, see: www.ibraaz.org/platforms/7/responses/164



Family Friendly, 2012, produced during a residency in A.I.R Dubai. All images presented here are courtesy of the artist. pp. 108–9 pp. 110–11 pp. 112–13 pp. 114–15

 eaux Arts Magazine, Février 2012, p. 49, 24 X 49 cm. B Beaux Arts Magazine, Février2012, p. 128, 30 x 53 cm. Beaux Arts Magazine, Mars 2012, p. 38, 17 x 30 cm. Connaissance Des Arts, Mars 2012, p. 44, 16 x 27 cm.

Fayçal Baghriche

Family Friendly, 2012 The series Family Friendly is a collection of images taken from art magazines found in Dubai. In the United Arab Emirates, like in many Muslim countries, images of nudity are prohibited in the public sphere for religious and cultural reasons. Images in magazines that do include nudity are not banned as such, but individually censored by hand-made ink marks. Each doctored image thereafter becomes unique and the artist has extracted alternative versions from different copies of the same magazine to show the differences between each act of censorship. Baghriche’s work is not, however, a simple critique of censorship. He shares a Muslim cultural education with the citizens of the UAE, but grew up in Europe where the relationship to the body is completely different. As an artist and a collector, he is interested by the aesthetic value of these new images, as they become, in part, artworks made by people who are not artists. For him, they are hybrid documents that allow us to question how a traditional society finds a way to be open to Western culture in a manner that does not compromise its own moral and cultural values. For an online interview and project, see: Restaging Invisibilities: www.ibraaz.org/interviews/36 Family Friendly: www.ibraaz.org/projects/27









p. 118 p. 119 p. 120 p. 121

Manazer #22, 2012. Manazer #2, 2011. Manazer #1, 2011. Manazer #13, 2011. All images courtesy of the artist.


Manazer, 2011–2012 I treated a young homeless kid to some tea at the local coffee shop one morning and asked him how he usually spent his day. He told me he would hang out on the street and ask people for money so that later in the evening he could go to the cyber cafe to ‘surf Facebook’. This totally changed the way I looked at Facebook. All of a sudden, Facebook became a place where this homeless kid — on the run from a home in which his remarried mother, and an uncle with a knack for boxing, lived — could interact boundlessly with other people. His interaction on Facebook is in no way influenced by his class, age, neighbourhood, or family background. In turn, if I want to make something that will directly address this kid, it has to either be on the street or on Facebook, definitely not in a gallery space. And what I create would not be tailored to him alone, but to many other classes, age groups, and quite possibly cultures even. Ultimately, there are a lot of attributes relating to the structure of the virtual world of Facebook that we must learn from and bring to our more tactile world and immediate surroundings. Ganzeer To view Ganzeer’s work online, see: www.ibraaz.org/platforms/5/responses/96/





pp. 124–25 pp. 126–27 p. 128

Untitled for Several Reasons-3. Untitled for Several Reasons-2. Untitled for Several Reasons-1.

All images courtesy of the artist.

Roy Samaha

Untitled for Several Reasons, 2002–03 Roy Samaha is a Lebanese artist based in Beirut. Working with video and photography since 2002, he has exhibited in numerous film and contemporary art festivals. Between 1998 and 2008, he worked in the television industry as part of his field research on electronic media. Throughout his work, Samaha examines how technology not only affects the way we perceive the world, but how it changes modes of perception over time. In turn, through visually dense videos that draw on multiple sources of imagery, he explores the effect of technology upon his own perceptions of reality. In Untitled For Several Reasons there is a flux of imagery — a form of retinal zapping whereby the eye finds it difficult to accustom itself to the imagery. This was Samaha’s first officially released video and it started with sketches from 2000. Two years earlier, the artist recounts, he was just getting accustomed to the internet and wanted to work with the speed with which information was transmitted on it. It was at this point that he read William Burroughs’ The Ticket That Exploded (1962). In a chapter titled ‘The Invisible Generation’, Burroughs’ describes how to use an audio tape recorder in the most effective way. Along the way, he asks how we could record everything that we receive and play it back on the spot and how this could subsequently generate new events. This instantaneity and visual reciprocity is key to Samaha’s work. For an online interview and project, see: The Video That Exploded: www.ibraaz.org/interviews/51 Following, A week in Cairo — A Project by Roy Samaha: www.ibraaz.org/projects/34






Art’s Networks A New Communal Model Derya Yücel

Every artistic approach in history has formed its own language and reshaped the object of art. As for contemporary art, it has been technology and new media — the computer, intermediary spaces, mass communication tools and the internet — that have determined certain aspects of art’s orientation today. This digital perspective presents new and powerful sources of creative expression, with the internet being an especially suitable environment for the visualization and sharing of critical and artistic discourses. Within this framework, this essay will consider the ways in which Turkish artists have been utilizing new media in the local art scene. I will look at the development of new media art practices in Turkey through the ways in which such practices are progressing in different channels. I will discuss three examples of art produced from within the field of new media. The first is Genco Gülan’s Web Biennial (2003–2012), which reflects on the creative changes new media have engendered in the local art environment in Turkey. My second example, Elif Öner’s Pseudo-Modern Museum (2010–), will illustrate the contribution of ‘new media art’ and ‘net art’ in developing new positions against established art institutions and positions of power in the art world. This will lead to my third and final example, which will focus on how social media can be used for the organization of a wider critical stance within a social and political framework of art practice, through an event that took place in July 2012 against the abortion ban in Turkey.

Genco Gülan’s ‘Alternative Biennial’ Today, technology has created its own linguistic structures, and artists have transformed these structures into new forms and approaches in their creative production. New technologies, globalized mass communication tools and the internet have not only influenced the processes of art but, since at least

Genco Gülan, Tele-rugby, 2003. Single-channel video, 10:00 min. Presented at Museu de Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro. Courtesy of the artist.

Genco Gülan, Web Biennial, 2012, Gallery One. This juried selection was curated by four curators from Istanbul, Athens and Berlin. Courtesy of the artist.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

the 1990s, allowed space for art to declare its independence from the object and become pure information. Digital practices have released art from its status as an object restricted by its commodity value and — although digital information has a value — expanded its scope into a much broader social context. Today, post-internet art practices have provided art with an even wider platform on which to negotiate ideas as far-reaching as interaction, democracy, form and behavior. Though digital art practices have become increasingly influential in artistic production since the 1990s, ‘new media art’ in Turkey did not develop parallel to contemporary art in the Western world. However, artists producing in this field did begin to emerge from the 1970s onwards, following the first generation of contemporary artists such as Nil Yalter and Teoman Madra, who focused on the interaction between contemporary art and other fields. Teoman Madra (born 1931, Istanbul) was one of the first artists who experimented with video and computers so as to create multimedia environments and installations, always using original musical compositions by Turkish and international musicians. His abstract photography works, accompanied by contemporary music, often reflect concepts and concerns relating to the Fluxus movement. Meanwhile, Cairo-born, Istanbul-based Nil Yalter participated in the revolutionary political movements of the late 1960s in Paris, later immersing herself in debates around gender and migrant workers from Turkey. She also experimented in different media including drawing, photography, video and performance art. Her work The Headless Woman or the Belly Dance (1974) is a classic example of early feminist art and video art in Turkey. Both artists are united by the way they focused, through their practices, on the interaction between contemporary art and other fields, after which the use of digital tools in the field of contemporary art production in Turkey became more widespread. Since the beginning of the new millennium, more artists and artist groups have worked on revealing the intersections of art and technology while thinking about the social impact of such intersections. xurban.net, which combines philosophical and political ideas with digital media, is but one example. Functioning as an international collective since 2000, xurban_collective has members located in İzmir, Istanbul, Linz and New York City. Core members of the group are Güven İncirlioğlu and Hakan Topal, whose transatlantic collaborations take the form of media projects and installations. xurban_collective’s mission is to instigate the questioning, examination and discussion of contemporary politics, theory and ideology, and their unique intercontinental perspective is well served to provoke a consideration of these issues. Documentary photography, video and text are often combined in an effort to render visible the multiplicity of informational layers inherent in the subjects or situations explored. Meanwhile, NOMAD, founded in 2002, aims to create new templates in the field of digital art, while BIS, the Body Process Arts Association (founded in 2007) organizes the Amber Platform for art and technology, an international Art’s Networks


network for collaboration that includes an annual festival, bringing together artists, researchers and technicians with a focus on new media and technology. It is of course necessary to underline that this pool of knowledge began to form in the 1990s. Genco Gülan (born 1969), an interdisciplinary artist who lives in Istanbul, began to produce his first works in an online environment during this period and had to develop many techniques and definitions himself. His project Web Biennial (www.webbiennial.org) began in 2003 and was realized in 2005, 2007, 2010 and 2012, with an internet exhibition showing hundreds of artworks by around 400 artists. Web Biennial had an important impact on a global scale. For example, today, if we still see new emerging ‘online biennials’ we owe this to Web Biennial. However, the impact of Web Biennial on the Turkish ‘new media art’ scene was rather indirect. Web Biennial served an important role to create a new ‘net art’, thus strengthening the relations between online artists. The aim of the Web Biennial was to go beyond representation and to arrive at presentation: the initial aim was to reduce the number of intermediaries in order to let the viewer access the artist’s work directly. Access to works/information on mutually independent servers that were connected by electronic networks was made possible via the portal created at the address http://www.webbiennial.org/ with the help of a special search engine. All participant sites voluntarily changed their source code to allow navigation, rendering this structure unique compared to other models of exhibition. The project was not only an alternative approach to exhibition practice created in and for a digital environment, but it was also an initiative that aimed to exhibit this practice in a manner suitable to its own medium. Later, the project also became a record of how the spectrum of tools artists were using to create images within the field of digital technology was expanding.

The net art project that went to court The limits of traditional categories in art have no doubt changed with the use of technology. Alternative approaches have become visible in an art system where, for a long time, galleries and museums had the upper hand. Using the means provided by technology, artists have succeeded in venturing beyond the walls of institutions and have acquired the freedom to produce, present, exhibit and communicate art through different channels. Yet, in view of Turkey’s political and economic past, geographical position and art historical development, it is not surprising that institutional critique became a topic of debate in Turkey only recently. Artists from different generations, such as Altan Gürman, Sarkis, Füsun Onur, Ayşe Erkmen, Serkan Özkaya, Tunç Ali Çam and Burak Delier have produced works that have both unconventionally used the art space and questioned artistic presentation and content via interactive work. However, it is in the influence of artists’ initiatives, which


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

came into prominence in the 2000s, that the critique of the institution is felt more. Hafriyat, Apartment Project, PIST, 5533, BAS and Public Art Labour are among initiatives, often founded by artists, that could be put forth as examples of attempts by artists to remain independent of institutions so as to relieve relations with the market and capital and obtain a more autonomous artistic position. The principles of these initiatives include opening new spaces for young artists, exploring more democratic ways of operating, an emphasis on debate and a questioning of the centre–periphery relationship within the art environment. The most significant space that has provided a new departure point for what used to be called institutional critique, however, is the virtual space: the internet. Today’s artists frequently focus on the political and economic role of virtual spaces. Artists like Istanbul-based Elif Öner are interested in the tools of technology not only because they provide the latest means to produce art, but because they allow strategic practices to be applied to the social and cultural field. Öner’s project, www.museummodern.org, initiated in 2010, is a web-based project that focuses on the concept of the museum as a work of art and departs from the idea of internet reality. Öner opts to criticize the art environment from the context of the museum and proposes the creation of alternative tools by deciphering the complex relationships that exist within the triangle of artist-museum-collection, thus transforming the art viewer into a participant. In Istanbul, private museums and art fairs have rapidly multiplied in recent years. It was this development, along with the collective move by collectors to present their holdings to the public (a tendency not witnessed before the 2000s), and the now organic connection between capital and museums in Turkey, which laid the foundations for Öner’s web museum. This pseudo-museum also focuses on the issue of genuineness and representation in online job applications and CVs, and has realized three different ‘works’ contained within the website. The first was The Artist’s Studio (2011), in which Öner explored the concept of time and the branding process museums apply to artists by allowing her own studio to be visible on a 24-hour webcam viewable online. Öner’s second project, Through the Looking Glass (2012), was inspired by Lewis Carroll’s eponymous book, in which the web museum is presented online as a mirror image or inverted reflection. For her third project (also 2012), Öner created a digital collection, with exhibits (and exhibitions) composed of both real and virtual works, thus continuing to criticize the authority of the museum as the founder and curator of her own virtual museum. But from this criticism of museums within the existing art system, cracks began to appear in 2012, when Öner’s work Hysteria (2012), produced for a group exhibition titled Museum in Museum and curated by Fırat Arapoğlu in April 2012 at the Elgiz Contemporary Art Museum, became the subject of a lawsuit for an apparent breach of commercial reputation. For Hysteria, Öner purchased the ‘.com’ domain name version of the Elgiz Museum’s web Art’s Networks


address — which contains the domain name ‘.org’ — and broadcast from her ‘.com’ address an advertisement for penis enlargement. Öner had already decided, at earlier stages in the process, to produce a work similar to www.museummodern.org, but the content was not clear to the curators until they saw the work for the first time at the exhibition opening. In response, administrators stated that the ‘curator exhibited a different project titled Hysteria by the artist without prior knowledge of the Museum’, a statement that was posted alongside the work at the time. At the end of the exhibition, Öner was sued in May 2012 by the Elgiz Museum for breaching its brand rights and for causing commercial damage. A request was also filed for access to the address ‘elgizmuseum.com’ and to take it out of circulation. In this, Hysteria not only opened up for debate concepts such as the museum, censorship and private capital, but it also created a tragicomic situation that exposed the mechanisms of this existing structure and the problems embedded within it.

The organization of artists against the proposed abortion ban Today, the internet and social media networks form not only a field where artistic production takes place and is viewed, but also an autonomous zone where democratic demands are voiced and organization and activism are carried out. In this sense, the collective/artistic activity that took place in Turkey between 7 and 8 July 2012 became an interesting instance of artists questioning the authority of the state. The action was one of many realized against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s speech in May 2012 that proposed a ban on abortion, and the draft law that was drawn up in its aftermath. The action began on a Facebook page titled ‘7–8 July Art Action: The Abortion Ban is Legal Rape’, created by Saadet Sorgunlu and Kardelen Fincancı, two artists from Istanbul. It soon became an event that included many cities in Turkey. Artists came together over two days at artist studios to defend their human rights and freedoms against the instrumentalization of the female body by political power, and carried out various artistic productions, from painting to performance. Realized completely on the initiative of two independent artists, it presented an example of participation, voluntarism and solidarity via the art environment using social media. Over a short period of two months, this participation included around 250 artists from various cities in Turkey including Istanbul, Ankara, Diyarbakır, İzmir, Antalya and Bartın and tens of studios and alternative art spaces that provided their spaces and technical equipment. Here, social media and its networks provided an alternative to mainstream media. New technologies not only impacted tremendously on the practices and productions of artists during this time, but also on their intellectual and political approaches. It was an example of social media presenting an unprecedented platform for activism.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

As a result, the role of art and its existence entered an important period of transition and evolution in Turkey during this time. The art experience was to be had not only in museums and other cultural institutions, but at home, at work or anywhere with internet access and at all times. Art, from this perspective, was transformed from the object — presented as fully developed aesthetic representations — into acts that propagate knowledge and create an arena for communication. Artists could focus not only on the final outcome, but also on the experience itself: the experimental process in the creation of a work of art, itself a term that was becoming less and less defined. By releasing art from having to be produced for a specific social group and as a confined object with a meta-value, the circumstances of 2012 established a movement that pointed to the production of art from within a wider social context. Today, social media and its networks are taking this process further, functioning as a medium to provide a field for artistic activism as a behavioural practice. However, art history teaches us that every alternative practice is eventually institutionalized and becomes part of the mainstream. New artistic approaches emerge as alternative, critical or oppositional, yet as part of the institutionalization process of the opposition, all kinds of artistic practices create their own spaces, own economy and own dealers, forming links with the system. In view of this possibility of digital art evolving in the same direction, there is a need for vigilance. Nevertheless, the internet and digital art hint at potential new strategies to intervene in the world, life and reality.

Art’s Networks


When the Going Gets Tough … Hamzamolnár

On a chilly evening in January 2011, a small crowd gathered in the Berlin artist initiative ‘General Public’. The occasion was the launch of our publication, Indicated by Signs: Contested Public Space, Gendered Bodies, and Hidden Sites of Trauma in Contemporary Visual Art Practices. A patient audience was surprised by an unannounced absence of one of the book’s co-editors. I (Aleya Hamza) had been blocked from travelling on account of intense demonstrations occupying the congested streets of Cairo, while I (Edit Molnár), managed to conduct the presentation solo, with Hamza live on Skype. The choreography of the book launch changed radically as the audience and presenters alike surfed on Facebook and Twitter hoping to get more images documenting the news in Egypt. No one had any idea that a day or two later, all internet and mobile phone access would be cut off by Egyptian authorities. Revolt had turned into a real revolution, which by the end of that turbulent February overthrew an authoritarian regime that had been in power for almost three decades. For the following 18 days, Tahrir Square was the image through which this historic moment was mediated. Indicated by Signs brought together a collection of newly commissioned artist pages, essays and conversations that converge around the three axes described in the lengthy subtitle. A text, Credits Included: A Video in Red and Green, was the one exception: a 46-minute video produced by Jalal Toufic in 1996. Credits Included defines a term that Toufic calls a ‘surpassing disaster’ — a calamity of extenuating proportion, such as the protracted Lebanese civil war, which in its aftermath left its inhabitants practically depleted of their humanity. But more importantly, it triggers a condition in which tradition is withdrawn: that is, a community’s artistic and cultural heritage becomes inaccessible to subsequent generations until works of a resurrecting nature are produced. To make his point, Toufic relies on an impressive number of examples of remakes from filmic, literary and artistic traditions and enquires into the responsibility of Arab intellectuals working in such a situation.

How can Toufic’s formulation of surpassing disaster be understood in the context of the Egyptian revolution and its aftermath? In an audio interview entitled ‘Khaled Fahmy: a baseline biography of the revolution in Egypt’, historian Khaled Fahmy places the revolution in a continuum within the modern history of Egypt.1 Fahmy explains it as part of an ongoing struggle between people and state, between a community and a non-representative authority. Modern Egypt was ruled with the iron fist of tyrannical father figures, from Mohamed Ali up until Mubarak. In the last 200 years or so, Egyptians produced a series of (failed) attempts to limit this control (the nationalist uprising of 1882, the 23 July revolution in 1952 and the bread riots of 1977, to name a few). And so, the 2011 revolution was but one more radical stand against the patriarchal logic of the Egyptian state that treats its citizens as children — a revolution of the young against the old, but also a leaderless revolution. Fahmy recounts a strange and iconic episode in the history of Egypt to illustrate his hypothesis. On 9 June, shortly after the catastrophic 1967 Arab defeat in the Six-Day War, President Gamal Abdel Nasser went on live national radio and television to announce his resignation. Nasser stated: I have taken a decision with which I need your help. I have decided to withdraw totally and for good from any official post or political role, and to return to the ranks of the masses, performing my duty in their midst, like any other citizen.2 The Israeli forces had already destroyed more than 90 per cent of the Egyptian military, but it was only at this point that the nation understood the scale of the calamity. Yet, the bizarre aspect of this story has to do with how the masses reacted: instead of accepting Nasser’s statement, millions of people took to the streets in his support. A nation had become so infantilized that it had become collectively incapable of imagining its existence in the absence of such a father figure. In this sense, the ousting of Mubarak in 2011 was the decisive symbolic and necessary death of the (grand)‘father’. After this short period of political awakening in 2011 and the promise of a people forming its future that emerged from it, an inevitable power vacuum in post-Mubarak Egypt was swiftly occupied by an opportunistic theocracy as Egypt experienced an implosion of the country’s economy, infrastructure and institutions. Of course, we could argue that in the last 200 years or so Egypt has been in a state of a constant disaster unfolding in slow motion, up until the moment the revolution erupted. One where the patriarchal state maintained control of institutions — educational, cultural, political and civic — and (apart from some pockets of resistance) effectively controlled, blocked, manipulated, instrumentalized and slowly withdrew ‘tradition’ from the people. Even on the level of Tahrir Square — as a unit and as an image for a movement that brought down one of the most stable regimes in the region — we can perceive When the Going Gets Tough …


this withdrawal. As a massive, unplanned and vacant location at the epicentre of the city, Tahrir symbolized the oppressive urban logic of Cairo, a city with a lack of public space, which inhibits dialogue and exchange — both things that comprise the basis for the creation of culture. And paradoxically, 25 January flipped the logic of Tahrir Square (as a space that was designed to thwart community) on its head. Notably, Khaled Fahmy followed the contemporary art scene of Cairo like a sensitive seismograph before 25 January 2011. A charged climate of awareness in the cultural scene had been present from which several subversive critical projects were born. Fahmy was amazed by the new voice of a young creative generation who were active in downtown Cairo in the arts and media-related fields. Their voices sounded radical and, as Fahmy put it, lacked the anger that had been dominant in Islamists or Nasserist traditions. Nevertheless, the challenging reality of this ongoing struggle and the severe and often violent clashes for power continue to pose new levels of pressure for artists and citizens alike. Do artists living in a perpetual state of crisis have more responsibility than those who live in ‘normal’ circumstances? Are there certain pressures from the market and from the international art scene for artists to be socially/politically active and to react to the conditions of the revolution? Doa Aly’s hilarious image of Egyptian artists running around like headless chickens is particularly poignant in this context. In a deeply personal confessional online post — ‘No Time for Art?’ — Aly, a Cairo-based visual artist, engages with a key question regarding the role of the artist and art practice in this moment of rupture.3 In the text, Aly puts her finger on a raw nerve. Three days into the revolution, Ahmed Bassiony, an artist in his 20s, disappeared, last seen by his friends armed with a video camera and a gas mask. A few days later amidst the chaos, Bassiony’s body was found, shot by a sniper in Tahrir Square. A year later at the 54th Venice Biennale, Bassiony represented Egypt posthumously in its national pavilion. Aly delves into the implications of the co-optation of Bassiony’s untimely death — the value of his revolutionary participation and his martyrdom — by the art ‘establishment’. Suddenly, this previously marginalized artist became the face of an anachronistic state-run art apparatus, representing Egypt in its most prestigious and sought-after commission. Aly argues that merging the label of artist and martyr undermines both terms: Bassiony would have taken to the streets and would have met his death, had he been an artist or not. Just as his art is valuable regardless of his martyrdom. Standing in the face of teargas and eventually getting shot, was he thinking about the legacy of


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

his art? Did any of the artists camping on Tahrir square for 18 days think about their art? I know I didn’t.4 In another blog post, ‘Art Can’, Aly resumes her insightful discourse on the responsibility of artists practising in the tempestuous sea of revolution: I never believed in art as a tool for social change. When I hear someone speak about art’s role in society, my mind conjures up images of Mahmoud Yassin gesticulating and screaming, ‘Elfann Resala!’ No, art is not a message. The only message in art is the artist.5 Aly’s vivid recollection of a TV interview with Egyptian actor Mahmoud Yassin hovers on parody. Yassin’s zealous and self-righteous position on the role that an artist should play in society captures a mainstream cliché: Artists have a moral and civic responsibility to produce art that has a positive impact on society. In popular Egyptian cinema, Yassin is an actor known for his deep resonant voice, his command of classical Arabic and his serious roles in theatre and historical drama. In short, he is regarded as a respectable actor and a figure of authority. But more significantly, his position rests within a larger discourse sanctioned by state-run institutions about the responsibility of artists, and the outcome is that art becomes subservient to cultural policy that in turn serves an ideological agenda. This approach also exists in neoliberal societies, which have a history of instrumentalizing politically engaged and useful art to solve social and political issues. One could argue that this in fact carves out a very rigid and limited space for art in terms of what it can and should do. Many thinkers, from Jacques Rancière to Claire Bishop, have covered the relationship between art and politics. But Alexandria-based curator Bassam El Baroni narrows down this discourse to refocus it on the context of revolution. In a lecture entitled ‘Narratives of Edification: Art through the Prism of Unconcluded Uprisings’ delivered at the Former West Conference in September 2012, El Baroni examines the role of the artist practising in an extremely turbulent historical situation.6 He warns us of the dangers of putting too much weight on art by confusing the role of the artists with that of the martyr. His argument is that, as heroism has lost its relevance, martyrs have become the last species that, through sacrificial death, can become bigger than any living persona. According to El Baroni, it seems that ‘art in the state of revolution suffers and is downgraded even more than it usually is and even sometimes attacked by those who practice it … And if we can all agree that art does not have to compete with martyrdom then art would be fine.’ El Baroni’s humble conclusion is no less radical than Aly’s angry cry against the burden of prescribed missions imposed on artists.

When the Going Gets Tough …


Mahmoud Khaled, A Memorial to Failure, 2013. Engraved crystal plaque and HD video, 19:55 min. Courtesy of the artist and Gypsum Gallery.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Maha Maamoun, Night Visitor: The Night of Counting the Years, 2011. Single channel video. Courtesy of the artist.

When the Going Gets Tough …


––– What made Tahrir such a powerful image and symbol of the revolution was the extent to which it was reproduced and circulated through mainstream and social media. Fahmy argues that people study political science to make sense of the revolution. In his opinion, it is the art and the poetics that really matter. To give further purchase to these ideas, we want to propose a set of hypothetical modes of operation born out of an emotional state that we see as symptomatic of the conditions of a mediated revolution. These modes are not mutually exclusive. They are fluid and overlapping: a state of vulnerability and its relationship to activity and productivity, excessive documentation and distribution of text and images, the blurring of the boundary between public and private and the monumentalizing of personal accounts. Mahmoud Khaled’s quite prolific art practice has consistently questioned the formation of personal and professional identities, relationships and the tenuous boundary separating what is public from private. In many of his works since 2007, he has interrogated various locations and platforms in which real and virtual identities are enacted. While the work is not strictly autobiographical, a large chunk of his recent practice has emerged from a genuine preoccupation with what it means to live and work as a young, peripatetic, marginal professional in a media-driven society, and the formal representation of this state. But the poignancy of the work lies in his delicate articulation of a condition of vulnerability that lies at the core of our humanity, whether we subscribe to a mainstream value system or not. In one of his most recent projects, A Memorial to Failure (2013) Khaled departs from a simple but crucial question that has haunted a number of artists practising in the context of the revolution: how does one remain productive in our current circumstances? A Memorial to Failure is a rumination on professional vulnerability, on the role of the artist in a society that has undergone a loaded and transformative collective experience and, on the value associated with the notion of productivity. The work is comprised of a sculptural component and a video. The sculpture is a crystal plaque as a commemorator of beginnings and endings. The video shows montages of footage that the artist shot from a slow cable-car ride going back and forth between mountain peaks in Beirut and Rio de Janeiro respectively, while the voiceover delivers a tightly edited audio version of a studio visit between Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi and Khaled, conducted while Khaled was completing a one-year residency at the Home Workspace in Beirut. Berardi’s philosophical thoughts on art, activism and failure redefine our understanding of these terms. Halfway through the video, Berardi talks about the fine line between art and activism, which inevitably leads to the case of Ahmed Bassiony. Berardi explains: We say for instance media activism, and we refer to an activity which can be the activity of a video, or a person who was carrying


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

a video recorder and went to the street to record pictures of what happens in a certain moment in a certain place, it is nothing but it is a way to capture reality in a certain way, and to reproduce … to change reality with the image and to propose to people to see that spot, that point, that street in another way and to perceive something that before they could not perceive, if it happens on a small scale it is art, if it becomes a process of proliferation of artistic gestures it become media activism. The space of social mediation is informed and changed by this kind of multiplication. Memorial to Failure is about living in a state of liminality. The work monumentalizes professional vulnerability: the writer’s block. It is a celebration of the creative dilemma as a productive force. Applying this idea to the case of Bassiony’s impulse to go on the streets and record this unknown moment, it was because he was armed with a video camera that he became transgressive: a palpable threat that needed to be destroyed. And because his case went viral, it crossed the line into the realm of media activism, whether he intended it to or not. During and after the 18 days of resistance of 2011, an exuberant amount of images, documentation and text started to circulate on social networking sites. People were frantically documenting the events with their portable equipment, and not just for their personal archive. The need to create a community by sharing overwhelming experiences on virtual platforms was intense. The aim was not so much about asking for support from the outside but rather a way to regain control, record and recount. Some of the early projects were inspired directly by the appearance of these images, produced by artists whose primary interest has always been an analytical approach towards the power of images in the realm of the political. Maha Maamoun’s artistic practice has often been concerned with deconstructing and reimagining iconic and populist visual representations taken from mainstream Egyptian culture (national advertising, popular film, postcards, contemporary literature). In her 2011 work Night Visitor — The Night of Counting the Years she edited together live footage posted on YouTube by different people. The images were produced from low-resolution mobile phone cameras and documented the breaking in of the State Security building in the months following the first wave of the 2011 revolution. The subtitle of Maamoun’s work refers back to the eponymous film directed by Shadi Abd al-Salam (The Night of Counting the Years — also known as The Mummy, 1969), in which the experimental camera angles, the colours and slow editing gave the film a dreamlike quality that has similar features with Maamoun’s nightmarish found footage. The sensitive editing organizes the raw material into a story that has chapters while guiding the audience into the belly of the beast. The dark and loaded footage captures the symbolic When the Going Gets Tough …


gestures of revolutionaries when faced with the hidden nightmares of an oppressive regime. The shaky camera scans the car park of the building in which the brand new Mercedes are parked, as a proof of the corrupt wealth of the ruling class; in a dark cellar a torch light reveals wall scratches documenting the suffering of the people in the underground prison. In opposition to the plight of the imprisoned, the offices contain brightly lit cabinets that host gilded artefacts of dubious origins, framed images of those in power and phones with direct lines to the presidential office. The revolutionary-as-cameraman here plays several roles, from the treasure hunter to the citizen journalist searching for evidence to share with the public. An example of a large-scale documentary project that was born out of private initiatives during the 2011 revolution is the collective Mosireen. Their online activity demonstrates that by providing a platform or a frame for audiovisual materials, Mosireen, as a collective, could function as an alternative news channel in a heavily distorted media environment. In their online statement, they emphasize the street level perspective of material produced by those out on the streets had the capability to politically empower by escaping censorship. In terms of methodically collating information sourced from online platforms such as YouTube, Lara Baladi’s ‘Alone, Together… In Media Res’ (2012), is another example of an artistic practice that seriously related to the alternative information produced in and around the 2011 revolution. The 42-minute long, three-channel video installation gathered all its material from the internet, collecting a vast amount of videos loosely or more closely related to the uprising. In producing this work, Baladi also produced a monumental visual environment built from fragments surrounding the 2011 events, linking them to more historic media images concerned with issues like violence, freedom and self determination. In doing so, Baladi wrote a certain kind of diary, completely constructed out of recycled images that followed her own analytical and parallel gaze. The charged images broadcasted from Tahrir Square and the stories, footages and texts about ‘Tahrir Nation’ became an intense inspiration for artists and intellectuals outside Egypt, politically engaged and focused on critiquing the current neoliberal condition. Through several cultural manifestations, attempts have been made not just to understand the dimensions of what actually happened in Egypt but to understand the political importance of Egypt’s uprisings on a worldwide level, identifying the movement in the country as a potential model for change. This highly emphatic dedication to Egypt’s cause on the part of those watching from the outside often manifested in a recurrent desire to travel to Egypt. These are the starting lines of the book Diary of an Imaginary Egyptian by the Berlin based artist Brandon LaBelle:


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Today I thought: I have to go to Egypt. To be closer. To something … to the movements of an event that seems to unsettle what appears unbreakable. And which must be broken. Shaken. This impulse is also what leads me to this text, into this writing: to say something or to move.7 LaBelle has been collecting his thoughts since the beginning of the revolution and compiled them into a diary-form essay that is driven by an emotional yet troubled voice. His poetic ruminations address direct political and moral issues that are at stake in relation to the current insurgencies trying to relocate the artist persona in the context. The possibility to follow the events enlarges the desperate need to relate to them. He starts to reread historical and even personal events in the light of the Egyptian revolution, blowing up the need of analysing the dimensions of the turmoil nearly to an obsessive level. A recurrent topic in the essay is the search for a new language, for a voice that can relate, communicate — a voice that could act as the starting point for understanding: To search for a politics, that is the work of the voice, which is precisely the speech aiming for common recognition, between here and there — a speech already at odds with understanding, with the lines defining this particular order. A speech searching for vocabulary.8 LaBelle’s impulse to visit Egypt and to articulate the voice of protest resounds with Jalal Toufic’s position on the relationship between reality and how it is parcelled and exported into acceptable cultural products once tradition is withdrawn. Toufic states: One of the counterproductive consequences of the decade-long Arab boycott of Egypt following its Camp David accords with Israel in 1979 was that the other Arabs received the bad from Egypt — its soap operas, and its melodramatic, moralizing films, etc … — while being prohibited from going there and discovering in Egypt what resists the Egypt that was being exported to the rest of the Arab World (for example, Shadi Abd al-Salam’s The Night of Counting the Years, 1969). Thus, the reason I qualify my dislike of contemporary Egyptian culture is that it is mostly the bad, and sometimes only the bad in a culture that gets imported by other countries.9 This reminds us of the resurrection of tradition in Maamoun’s video. Abd al-Salam’s film is based on the true story of the rediscovery of valuable archeological artefacts that had been withheld for centuries for the benefit of When the Going Gets Tough …


one powerful group. A similar gesture of repeated resurrection is looping in Night Visitor — in the act of breaking into the state security building, in posting the material online, and in reusing this material in the form of the artwork, Night Visitor speaks of a reversal of fortune. Not only because the hunted are now hunting the hunters, but also because this most forbidden of places has suddenly become public domain.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

1. Khaled Fahmy and Christopher Loydon, ‘Khaled Fahmy: A Baseline “Biography of the Revolution” in Egypt’, Arab Artists in Revolution, 18 November 2012. Available at http://www.kickstarter.com/ projects/270523508/arab-artists-in-a-revolution/ posts/351427 (accessed 20 November 2012).

6. Bassam El Baroni, ‘Narratives of Edification: Art through the Prism of Unconcluded Uprisings’, Academia.edu, 29 September 2012. Available at http:// www.academia.edu/2030971/Narratives_of_Edification_ Art_through_the_Prism_of_Unconcluded_Uprisings (accessed February 2013).

2. ‘Nasser’s 9 June Speech’, Al Ahram Weekly Online, 7–13 June 2007. Available at http://weekly.ahram.org. eg/2007/848/sc5.htm (accessed 10 February 2013).

7. Brandon LaBelle, Diary of an Imaginary Egyptian, Doormats #2 (Berlin: Errant Bodies Press, 2013), p. 5.

3. Doa Aly, ‘No Time for Art?’, Garden City: Another blog about last night, 15 June 2011. Available at http://moabdallah.wordpress.com/2011/06/15/no-time-for-art/ (accessed 17 June 2011). 4. Ibid.

8. Ibid., p. 11. Italics as in original. 9. Jalal Toufic, ‘Credits Included’, Thyssen Bornemisza Art Contemporary, 19 May 2011. Available at http:// www.tb-cms.org/data/assets/artwork/662/Raad_ Toufic_EN_CLEAR_v6_20110519.pdf (accessed July 2013).

5. Doa Aly, ‘Art Can’, Garden City: Another blog about last night, 19 June 2012. Available at http://moabdallah.wordpress.com/2012/06/19/art-can-by-doa-aly/ (accessed 17 June 2011).

When the Going Gets Tough …


Potential Media The Appropriation of Images, Commercial Media and Activist Practices in Egypt Today Maxa Zoller

Introduction This essay seeks to mediate an impression of the daily encounters with images of the revolution in Egypt today. What kinds of images are captured by the retina of the flâneuring eyes of a non-Arabic-speaking foreigner living in Cairo? I am thinking of a foreigner like myself who, with a lack of necessary linguistic tools, relies entirely on the visual codes both the city and its image producers offer. Unable to provide a comprehensive overview of revolutionary image production in current Egypt, the following text will focus on two examples. The first is an examination of a video clip on the popular, private television channel ONtv, which will serve as an example of the appropriation of images of the Egyptian revolution in commercial mass media. The second case presents the recent video Why Riot? by the activist media collective Mosireen. In both cases, the relation between the images of the revolution and the institutional context of the art world will be examined so as to tentatively draw up a future imaginary of a media/activist/art image production.

The commercialization of the Egyptian revolution I: Coca-Cola Driving across Sphinx Square, Mohandeseen, Cairo, my eyes meet a large poster on the 15th May Bridge showing a young man holding up a sign that says ‘Drive on your lane’. The right-hand side of the poster reads: ‘Tamer Mahroky encourages people to drive correctly’. ‘Tamer’, possibly in his mid-20s, faces the camera frontally, firmly holding the banner high above his head forming a V-shape with his arms. His firm, determined stance in the middle of a busy road full of cars (obviously Photoshopped) increases his seemingly audacious ‘speech act’ for the sake of Egypt’s road safety. His clean look — blue jeans, belt and grey hoodie zipped all the way up to his neck on which sits a

healthy-looking and kind face — suggests possibly a middle-class background; his religious background, if there is any, is not immediately decodable; yet one thing in this image is certain: Tamer is a supporter of the Egyptian revolution. In my optical unconscious this image triggers photographs of banners and signs held up by the Egyptian people, particularly by the shebab (youth) during and since the Egyptian revolution of 25 January 2011. Just as I try to make sense of this odd image, my eyes meet a familiar-looking bold red blob on the upper-right corner of the poster and I realise that what I am looking at is a Coca-Cola ad. I encountered Tamer a second time — again from inside a car — but this time I was watching Cairokee’s new music clip Etganen (featuring Aida El Ayouby and Zap Tharwat). In the clip, we see the band squeezed into an old taxi cruising through Cairo. I am intrigued by the connection between the band that produced one of my favourite songs of the Egyptian revolution, Soot Horeya, and this Coke advertisement I describe above — until I realize that their entire Etganen music clip is in fact an extended Coca-Cola advertisement. Disappointed to learn that Cairokee sold their music to the soft drink of all soft drinks, I succumbed to the fact that the road-safety-poster-boy is part of Coca-Cola’s new advertising strategy: one that focuses on aid (for example, providing furniture for a school, as I learn from another clip) instead of head-on product presentation. This is Coca-Cola as the new community NGO. But is the company’s latest attempt at infiltrating a different level of social strata using the rhetoric of the revolution?

ONtv’s ‘reverse revolution’ clip The first time I saw Cairokee’s music clips was on ONtv. ONtv has become my standard TV channel since I started visiting Egypt regularly from 2011, until my final move to Cairo five months ago. Founded in 2008 by Coptic business tycoon Naguib Sawiris, ONtv has hosted some of the most important private TV programmes since the 25 January revolution. While instrumentalizing media for the sake of business interests, Sawiris’ channel has established itself as a liberal talk show channel with prominent hosts such as Yousri Fouda and Reem Maged, whose extensive interviews with eye witnesses and other bottom-up forms of journalism often stand in contrast to the twisted realities of state media.1 Because ONtv is one of Egypt’s most visually sophisticated channels, it has become an interesting platform for my analysis of the aestheticization of the revolution in popular commercial culture. The extensive trailers about the revolution and ONtv’s own news programmes with their various support campaigns for shohada (martyrs’) families, religious diversity and other social issues, music clips and ads, has provided examples of how the revolution has rapidly turned from an event into an image, Potential Media


Coca-Cola ad on Sphinx Square, Cairo, 2013. Photograph by Maxa Zoller.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Potential Media


Screengrab of boy on television, courtesy of the author.

Screengrab of Morsi on television, courtesy of the author.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

from a process into a product. ONtv’s aestheticization of images and icons of the revolution has distinct formal qualities such as hand-held cameras, soft focus, slow motion and catchy galvanizing soundtracks, which often turn these clips into veritable tearjerkers. One of the most interesting of ONtv’s recent clips shows key events of the revolution — in reverse.2 Entirely composed of newsreel footage and citizen journalism clips, this video, which lasts about three minutes and 20 seconds, starts with the scene of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s current president, offering the former chairman of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), Mohamed Tantawi, the Kaladet El Neel Medal. The next section shows iconic images of Hosni Mubarak and sons behind bars at their first (televised) court hearing. As Morsi is taking the oath the images suddenly speed up, stutter and shake. Soon after the flow of images is restored, we continue travelling back in time at an advanced speed through all three oaths (Morsi was sworn in three times, once on Tahrir Square, then officially in the Constitutional Court and finally at Cairo University). As if by magic, everything moves backwards: Morsi opens his arms up in reverse, walks backwards into a meeting, pro-Morsi supporters carry his campaign poster, marching backwards through the busy streets of Cairo, hundreds of cars whizz clockwise around Tahrir Square. The haunting soundtrack Forgotten World by Brand X Music, whose eerie vocals and drumbeats suggest uncertain times, if not looming danger, contributes to the feeling of suspense. The simple yet magical effect of movement reversal produces fascinating images: ballot papers fly upwards into the ballot box that is being filled (or emptied), a woman retrieves her paper through the air back into her hand. As the music intensifies, the images become increasingly more violent: a young, bare-chested boy receives a stone back into his hand, the movement of his arms acrobatically reversed, spiralling his shoulder in an impossible way as if ball and socket joint had dissolved with the reversal of time. Wounded citizens and soldiers are carried backwards through the masses. The synchronized movements of worshippers during Friday prayers in the open Tahrir Square is followed by a veritable ‘counter-shot’ of the new parliament sitting down (or standing up). Key battles of December 2011 are hinted at, like when plain-clothed soldiers and police threw stones from the roof of the Congress onto unprotected demonstrators below. In this clip, though, the debris catapults back into the attackers’ hands as if sucked up by a magnetic force. Scenes of the Mohammed Mahmoud battles of November 2011 are followed by night shots of imploding clouds of tear gas bombs; bullets retreat back into their metal hole. The wings of time carry us further back and we find ourselves in the famous ‘18 days’, the period from the beginning of the revolution on 25 January to Mubarak’s resignation on 11 February 2012. And here comes the tearjerker: bodies are resurrected, the dead brought back to life; martyrs stand up and start to walk again; tear gas and water jets are sucked back into their Potential Media


respective containers; people and police part and are pulled back to where they initially came from; Tahrir Square is emptied as people, like tiny ants, desert it. The last image of Cairo by night is accompanied by the words ‘ish, Huriya, ‘adala igtima’iya’, which translates as ‘Bread, Freedom, Social Justice!’ — the chant of the Egyptian revolution. The message is clear: this revolution needs to be reversed. Egypt — back to square one. From the very beginning the new government has been sustaining the power structures it was expected to reform. In its focus on the mistakes of the current regime, this video is overtly anti-Morsi. But which political agenda does ONtv support? To answer this question it is necessary to analyse the video ex negativo, and find meaning through the kinds of images that are missing from the clip. For instance, the clip omits iconic images of the public beating of the so-called ‘blue bra woman’ (17 December 2011) and the Maspero disaster (October 2011). The careful exclusion of videos recording the crimes committed by the army during their interim ruling could be interpreted as a ‘protective gesture’ by Sawaris towards the army, which many consider to be the best and only alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood. To call this clip a trailer would be incorrect given the lack of a programme jingle or other forms of announcements (there appears, however, the yellow ONtv logo on the top right corner of the screen). True, this sophisticated example of the sampling of images of the revolution does not come across as overtly commercial, as the Coke ad does. Yet (even worse) the ‘reverse revolution’ clip is an indirect, subtle example of the way in which ONtv is instrumentalizing the revolution by politicizing its images for private, neoliberal aims.

The commercialization of the Egyptian revolution II: the art world It was also Sawiris’ company Mobinil, together with Vodafone and Etisalat, Egypt’s three biggest network providers, that launched an advertising campaign in 2011 (ab)using images of the revolution. In these advertisements, photographs of protesters on Tahrir Square were placed next to iconic comments by various presidents. There was Obama’s ‘We must educate our children to become like young Egyptian people …’ for example, and Berlusconi’s more flippant ‘There is nothing new in Egypt, Egyptians are making history as usual …’ This campaign has proved to be doubly controversial, as Mobinil was one of the networks that followed Mubarak’s order to close down all communication channels on Friday 28 February 2011.3 The metaphorical use of communication technology as a cause for social change further supports the (Western) argument of the ‘Facebook revolution’, a misinterpretation that not only pushes aside Egyptian grassroots movements of the past, but also, and more importantly, entirely ignores the horizontal structure of the revolution.4 Shortly after being greeted by these audacious


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Mobinil banner advertisement, installation view of KW Institute for Contemporary Art at the 7th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art. Photograph by Marta Gornicka. Courtesy of the Berlin Biennale.

Potential Media


Mobinil ads at the arrivals hall at Cairo airport, I bumped into one of them again, this time in a courtyard in Berlin. As part of the 7th Berlin Biennale 2012, one of these huge banners flanked the entrance to Kunstwerke, the main exhibition space. In this ad, a bird’s-eye view of hundreds of people holding up Egyptian flags provides the background for the following comment by Austrian President Heinz Fisher: ‘The people of Egypt are the greatest people on earth and they deserve the Nobel Prize for Peace.’ This readymade critique of the commercial exploitation of the Egyptian revolution is obviously a tongue-in-cheek gesture by the chief curator, Polish enfant terrible Artur Żmijewski. However, it turns out to be an all-too-easy cop-out as his use of irony (an outmoded method in our post-postmodernist era) only sustains the systemic fatalism of capitalism that seeks to control all forms of social change. Egypt is undergoing a revolution and all you are able to do is appropriate an advertising campaign.5 The inability of the art world to recognize the deep changes in the definition of art and the role of the artist in times of revolution is surprising, given the cul-de-sac crisis contemporary art finds itself in. The recent Former West congress entitled ‘Beyond What Was Contemporary Art?’ gave an appropriate description of this problem: If we imagine Contemporary Art to be a historical period that emerged from 1989 in parallel to other hegemonic formations such as global neoliberalism, could it be argued that, in sync with the current seismic shifts in society, politics, and economy, it has now reached a dead end?6 Any failure to implement these ‘seismic shifts’ in (dis)course on the level of education, production and curation is a missed opportunity. Last year’s dOCUMENTA (13) seemed to be completely ignorant of the creative revolution inside the Egyptian revolution. The curatorial team headed by artistic director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev resorted to the rather lame curatorial decision to present a small video of Ahmed Bassiony’s footage from the events in the street of Cairo during January 2011 at the exhibition’s main space, the Fridericianum. Since his death by gunshot on 28 January 2011, Bassiony has been ‘resurrected’ as an internationally celebrated artist. Thanks to his posthumous solo exhibition at the Egyptian Pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale, he has become the Egyptian go-to martyr/artist for contemporary art curators. While one has to appreciate the Venice pavilion as an emotional response by Egyptian curator Shady El Noshokaty to events unfolding at the time, the exclusive focus on and literal interpretations of Bassiony’s art by international curators and writers revealed a lack of understanding of the deep changes in artistic production in revolutionary Egypt.7 Given the above-mentioned instances, the question arises as to whether revolutionary artistic production can (and should) affect


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

the well-oiled machine called mainstream contemporary art industry and if so, how. Much can be learned from Egyptian artists whose inability to churn out (post-)revolutionary art works à la post-civil war Beirut is frustrating, stifling and unsatisfactory — at least for those who expect Cairo to be a new hub for ‘contemporary art of the post-Arab Spring Middle East’.8 Egypt’s institutional and artistic stutter, the inability to sum up the revolution in a clear, well-crafted sentence is symptomatic of the depth of the crisis in this country. A snapshot of 2013 should suffice to give the reader an impression of the complexity of the situation. During the writing of this text, Grand Imam Ahmed El-Tayeb of Al Azhar University installed security guards in the campus canteen kitchen. Why? To avoid further food poisoning of university students: the first ‘salmonella attacks’ hospitalized 500 students on 1 April and a second poisoned 180 just three weeks later. These crimes were allegedly committed by the Muslim Brotherhood as way to ‘send a message’ to El-Tayeb, an outspoken critic of the Brotherhood. On the anniversary of the liberation of Sinai on 25 April, Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, the new Minister of Defence (and also the Commander of the Armed Forces) staged a festive event at Future University, which was followed by a special military presentation on 11 May in Sinai, to neither of which was Morsi invited: a clear gesture to the Egyptian and international public, to Israel and to the president. The violence of the regime produces an affective ‘weather’ (as Egyptians call it) that oscillates between regression and progression. In the first case, public space such as downtown Cairo is being transformed into a nucleus of unprecedented sexual harassment, aggression and crime; in the second case, people bravely resist Morsi’s regime with protest marches, riots and sit-ins. In only a couple of weeks the new vote-of-noconfidence campaign called Rebel! has gathered a staggering three million signatures — and counting.9

Why Riot? Mosireen, March 2013 What is the effect of ‘seismic shifts’ on artistic production? The big questions that politically aware, revolutionary artists and cultural workers in Egypt are asking themselves go something like this: what is to be done for whom and where? How does the creative output of the revolution (stretching from selfmade banners to the famous graffiti wall on Mohammed Mahmoud Street) change the very definition of art?10 How can we support this development of a new kind of art production? Situated somewhere between media activism, knowledge production and image appropriation, the Cairo-based collective Mosireen provides an interesting model of revolutionary image production. The media activists’ videos are institutionally precarious and, in a sense, un-homely: their clips Potential Media


of sampled footage, eye-witness reports and citizen journalism have been shown at their so-called Tahrir Cinema, ad-hoc open-air screenings on Tahrir Square and on their own YouTube channel (there are currently 13,341 YouTube subscribers and a total of 4,877,515 views). Including around a dozen people, activists, filmmakers, actors and artists, the collective came together on Tahrir Square in the first months of the revolution. Their shared desire to create a counter-narrative to the lies of the official state media is reflected in the name: a fusion of the word ‘Egyptian’ (masrreen) and ‘the people who insist’ (mosireen). Since the tearing down of their media tent on Tahrir Square by the army in May 2011, Mosireen operates from a flat in downtown Cairo where they produce videos, present film screenings, run workshops, rent out filmmaking equipment and, most importantly, host their massive archive which is accessible to the public. Mosireen see themselves as a counter-narrative to the regime media and a galvanizer for the revolution. Their recent video Why Riot? was published on their YouTube channel on 18 March 2013 and is five minutes and 34 seconds long. It starts with an image of two young ‘shebab’ carrying a crate of Molotov cocktails.11 The following scene brings us to Alexandria, where on 20 January 2013, people gathered in the streets anxiously awaiting the public announcement of the verdict for those police officers accused of murdering demonstrators during the 2011 protests. The case was postponed, which led to a stand-off between people and the police, who are shown aiming their shotguns at the fleeing crowd. The voiceover, a calm, controlled voice of a young man, tells us in Arabic: ‘The regime does not want retribution or justice carried out — but we will make it happen, retribution and justice.’12 Throughout the video a regular drum beat suggestive of ancient forms of calling for war creates a strong affective dimension. Like the ticking of a clock, it beats away, regularly yet unstoppably towards the final big bang. This ‘opening scene’, which frames the video within a discourse of injustice, is followed by different moments and modes of protest: a small group of people chants for Gaber Salah, known as Jika, a 16-year-old boy who was shot by the police in November 2012 in Cairo during the first anniversary of the Mohammed Mahmoud clashes: ‘Jika, high school student — murdered by the police — shot with bullets — in his eye and head.’ A woman in a pot-clanging protest calls for food. Portraits of martyrs are suspended from windows and balconies. The voiceover insistently keeps asking questions: ‘Why are prices skyrocketing day after day while our wages stay the same?’ is accompanied by the image of an old woman squatting by a graffiti wall asking for ‘ish (bread). ‘Why has no official been held accountable for the railway accidents?’ refers to the train accident in Mandara, Upper Egypt on 17 November 2012, which took the lives of around 50 children. The voice continues probing: ‘Why is the army stealing people’s land and killing them in Qursaya and elsewhere?’ referring to an atrocious attack by the army on


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

the inhabitants of Qursaya island, Cairo, on 16 November 2012, during which 20-year-old fisherman Mohamed Abdel Mawgoud was shot.13 The video shows his distraught brother demanding an answer to his question: ‘I want to know right now how can the president of this country order them to attack the people?’ The questions continue: ‘Why are Safwat al-Sherif and Ismail al-Shaer scot-free?’ and ‘Why do the security forces target children, lock them up and torture them?’14 The filmmakers’ visual answer to these specific questions, all of which refer to very precise moments of utmost oppression in the previous few months, are a series of images of violent protests such as burning cars and stone-throwing demonstrators. Violence breeds violence. It is important to place this video into context: after the hopeful new beginnings of the presidential elections in 2012, the political stalemate at the time of writing leads to a general state of resignation and frustration. Tahrir Square, a symbol for the revolution, has been gradually contaminated by organized crime. Protests have spread into other neighbourhoods, the workplace and so on; even to the Presidential Palace in Heliopolis, north of downtown, and to the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in the Moquattam Hills, south of Cairo. Demonstrations attract thousands, but not millions. The emergence of the Black Block in Egypt at the beginning of 2013 has diversified and expanded the tactics and methods of rioters. In this light, the video (re)defines the riot as a necessary means for social change, ‘revolutionary counter-violence’: Since the Friday of Rage [28 January 2011] we had to respond to the long years of state violence and repression with revolutionary counter-violence. If we had not set fire on the police stations and humiliated the Interior Ministry there would not have been a revolution in the first place. In the next sequence new protest chants show how strongly people associate the current system with the Mubarak regime: ‘The people demand the downfall of the Brothers!’ and ‘Shave your beard, show your real colours, your face is the same as Mubarak’s!’ The video ends with a clear statement by an older women protester who is determined that: ‘We elected him [Morsi], we’ll get rid of him!’ The final shot of burning car wheels blocking the street returns to the metaphor of fire at the beginning of this video. With its focus on specific, recent cases of undeniable injustice the video seems to take a Fanonesque position in justifying the use of violence, making it the condition for social justice. The attention given to the role of the provinces, which are often overshadowed by the international rhetoric of Tahrir Square, seeks to address a wider demographic. Furthermore, the filmmakers’ clear

Potential Media


and simple combination of image and text is an effective means of (mass) communication. Why Riot? is only one example of the many media practices of the Mosireen collective; it should suffice, however, to give the reader an impression of their most recent video work. Trying to place the films of Mosireen in a clear media and historical, formal category would undermine the specificity of the work and foreclose the possibility of developing a new kind of media practice — because the potential of this kind of image production lies precisely in its medium-specific and contextual fragility. Historically, Mosireen videos sit between the tradition of Third Cinema, militant cinema, citizen journalism, essayist forms of experimental filmmaking, reportage and documentary. The speed of the production and the short length of their videos, however, position Mosireen closer to citizen journalism, newsreel and YouTube practices that allow for an immediate, almost chain-reaction-like response to unfolding events. The mass distribution through YouTube also places their work in a different context from traditional forms of alternative, political filmmaking. Interestingly, the art world has shown interest in Mosireen and has presented their clips in the form of video projections inside the institutional walls of the white cube.15 Since Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta 11 in 2002, the documentary image has been reinscribed into the value system of contemporary art, and the inclusion of Mosireen’s activist clips in art exhibitions is less of a novelty than one might think. The lack of a categorical art or film historical tradition behind these videos, however, distinguishes them from the grand narratives of filmmaking (for example, the essay film). Nevertheless, it remains to be seen what kind of impact these raw activist practices will have on contemporary art.

Conclusion Life in Egypt changes daily and at a breathless pace. It is therefore futile to impose a conclusive summary at the end of this essay. The above case studies are not the fruit of an insider’s expert analysis, but the result of an outsider’s attempt to make sense of the visual siftings of Cairo’s (social) media nets. It is not the intention of this essay to place the different media images in a competitive, exclusive and excluding relationship to each other. Rather, I would like to end on a positive note and imagine how the cross-contamination of these different media contexts could be used constructively. If we were to imagine the three areas of inquiry, the commercial (ONtv), the activist (Mosireen) and art institutional as distinct fields of practice, it is in their overlapping space, in the field of the ‘common nominator’, from which new kinds of image politics could emerge. It is therefore necessary to allow for the falling apart of existing structures, rationales, value systems and other forms of certainties. In concrete terms this means that institutional (and architectural) dispositives will have to


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

melt and form new spaces of distribution and reception; academic discourse will have to shift from post-Enlightenment dialectics to a different topology of thought, for example a philosophy of ‘and and and’. This means also that the curricula in higher education must become more varied and more courageous, grassroots networks must receive support, grow and impact, and a cross-pollination of media needs to challenge and redefine current concepts of what ‘art’ ought to be, and what not.

Acknowledgement I would like to thank Mohamed Zaki Mourad for helping me in the analysis of the videos.

Potential Media


1. As I write, the first public conference of Sawaris’ political party Free Egyptians is being shown live on ONtv. 2. The ‘reverse revolution’ clip was released at the end of 2012.

9. As I am reviewing this text a week later (29 May 2013), the number of signatures has reached seven million. 10. Please refer to Mona Abaza’s excellent article on the graffiti art on the corner of Tahrir Square and Mohammed Mahmoud Street, ‘The Dramaturgy of a Street Corner’, Jadaliyya, 25 January 2013. Available at http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/9724/ the-dramaturgy-of-a-street-corner.

3. The only company that refused Mubarak’s orders was Egypt’s landline Egyptian Telecommunication Service. For a short yet precise account of (the lack of) regime opposition in the Egyptian business elite, including Sawiris, see Amy Austin Holmes: ‘There are three weeks when decades happen: Structure and strategy in the Egyptian Revolution’, in Mobilization 17/4 (December 2012), p. 395.

11. Why Riot? can be found on the Mosireen Collective YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b_ ywo_XZh1s. See mosireen.org for more information.

4. See Philip Rizk’s essay in this publication.

12. All Mosireen videos offer English subtitles.

5. Vodafone’s Our Power ad also abused images of the revolution. Videos of protest rallies in Tahrir Square were accompanied by the text ‘We didn’t send people to the streets, we didn’t start the revolution … We only reminded Egyptians how powerful they are.’

13. The plight of Qursaya has been written up in Sherif Abdel Kouddous, ‘Qursaya: A Story of Betrayal and Struggle’, Egypt Independent, 24 January 2013. Available at http://www.egyptindependent.com/ opinion/qursaya-story-betrayal-and-struggle.

6. The congresses took place in Vienna in 2012 and in Berlin in 2013. The name ‘Former West’ is a reversal of the term ‘former East’. Wouldn’t it be interesting to apply this idea of reversal in spatial terms and think about the West as ‘Middle West’ (‘Far West’ respectively)? For more, see: http://www.formerwest.org/.

14. Safwat al-Sherif was the Secretary-General of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. Ismail al-Shaer led the Cairo Security Directorate.

7. For example Bassiony’s performance Thirty Days of Running on Place (February 2010) was often seen as a kind of ‘prediction’ of the Arab Spring. On the West’s appropriation of the Egyptian Revolution see also Mona Abaza’s Academic tourists sight-seeing the Arab Spring. Available at http://english.ahram.org.eg/ News/22373.aspx.

15. Mosireen’s videos have been shown in amongst other placess, Cairo, Open City, Photography Museum Braunschweig, September–December 2012, Recording Against Regimes: Video Art and Films Generated by Political Changes in Poland in the 1980s, Germany in the 1990s, and Egypt Now! Darb1718, Cairo, March 2013, No one Lives Here, Royal College, London, March 2013.

8. I am at pains to define the term ‘Egyptian artists’. Egypt’s painters, filmmakers, video artists, musicians, writers etc. form a very heterogeneous, fragmented and complex web that is constantly changing and reconfiguring.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

A Critical Reflection on Aesthetics and Politics in the Digital Age Dina Matar

A persistent question that keeps emerging in discussions on the changing political and cultural landscape in the Middle East and North Africa is what role new media have played, and continue to play, in artistic practices, activism and social change in the region. Like some other students of culture, politics and communication called upon to comment on the transformative events in various parts of the Arab world at the beginning of 2011, I cautioned against attributing a central role to new media in social change, artistic practices and politics without addressing the specific sociopolitical (read historical) contexts within which people may visibly, vocally and physically confront systems of power.1 I also suggested that any discussion of the role of media needs to complicate, rather than accept at face value, facile binaries between the old and the new, the formal and the informal, the political and the personal; binaries that have tended to dismiss the unconscious and yet dynamic, interdependent relationship between these binaries. While my position remains unchanged, the explosion in creative, digitalized, Middle Eastern artistic practices in which alternative modes of politics, telling, remembering and witnessing are remediated, framed and entered into circulation, makes it difficult to critically interrogate artistic practices, activism and politics outside of the media frame (old and new), or without addressing what Gillian Youngs calls, ‘new articulations of macro and micro level patterns and framings of social processes and interconnections across them’ that are, in her view, at the core of digital transformations and disruptions.2 To begin with, any such interrogation must not lose sight of the fact that the transformative events that began in Tunisia at the end of 2010 and spread to other parts of the Arab world, have themselves shaken artistic and political practices (as well as social movements and their tactics of activism) to their very core, blurring traditional boundaries between artists, journalists, activists and historians — the official recorders of sociopolitical histories — and between the individual and the collective. At the same time, there is abundant evidence

that artistic and political practices have been shaped by their makers with digital platforms in mind, as it is in these platforms that cultural producers believe they are able to create and make visible alternative modes of being citizens and different modes of resistance to power, particularly given the traditionally restricted formal and officially sanctioned spaces within which creative and oppositional art can be produced. One excellent example of the proliferating digital platforms is the Syrian Creative Memory website,3 which dissident cartoonists, artists, writers, filmmakers, songwriters and illustrators intent on becoming what Ariella Azoulay calls ‘citizens in practice’4 are using to produce material geared for the digital age. As MacLagan and McKee suggest, Cumulatively, there is a continual feedback loop whereby political actions, cultural forms and technologies of mediation interact with each other, each with their own dynamics of innovation, but in mutual interdependence.5 Artistic practices have also evolved and adapted themselves with the evolving situation while cultural producers, including artists, have responded in creative and imaginative ways to changing histories and fractured geographies, generating new modes of communication, different modes of telling and new aesthetic acts that seek new technologies and platforms to make their work visible to a local, regional and global audience. As John B. Thompson has argued, ‘the development of communication media … brought into being a new form of visibility — or, to be more precise, new forms of visibility whose specific properties varied from one medium to another — which differed in fundamental ways from the situated visibility of co-presence.’6 Since the start of the uprisings, artists turned activists and activists turned artists have harnessed new and old media as well as the public space to make visible the contours of a more meaningful politics and aesthetics and to produce a nationally, regionally and even globally recognizable language of an art of resistance that is increasingly geared to the digital age.7 In different ways, these emerging and creative practices demonstrate that art and politics are not separate entities whose worlds collide occasionally, but are extensions of each other. Art (read culture) embodies and encodes political values, subjectivities and experiences and can, particularly in moments of crisis and change, organize responses as political thought and action. As such, art does not just provide a vehicle, or medium, for political expression — it is that expression. While not all art is, or must be seen, as political, art, understood as a social practice, is implicated in the political in diverse ways, most importantly in the ways it can provide a common language and image that resonates with people’s sense of themselves, as communities, as citizens, or as members of a particular class or gender, among other categories.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

In his essay ‘The Paradoxes of Political Art’, French philosopher and critical scholar Jacques Rancière writes, Art … displays the marks of domination, or parodies mainstream icons, or even because it leaves the spaces reserved for it and becomes a social practice … underlying these forms is the assumption that art compels us to revolt when it shows us revolting things, that it mobilizes when it itself is taken outside of the workshop or museum and that it incites us to oppose the system of domination by denouncing its own participation in that system. This assumption implies a specific form of relationship between cause and effect, intention and consequence …8 While it is difficult to measure the relationship between cause and effect and between the intentionality of art as a social practice and its political consequence in any positivist sense, it is in artistic practices, as Charles Tripp has elegantly noted, that ‘the idea of a different reality, of an alternative ordering of things, can take root … more importantly, it lays the groundwork for different ways of looking at power, preparing through narrative and the imagination of resistance that may in the future materialize to shake a complacent order.’9 In fact, what is constituted in these artistic practices is a politics that, as Rancière has argued, ‘revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of space and the possibilities of time’.10 Such an articulation of politics draws attention to those practices through which the political field is expanded, appropriated and negotiated and, though this is not explicit in Rancière’s conceptualization, to the fact that the political is always encoded in media forms and platforms through which an individual work of art becomes manifest, visible and meaningful to its intended audiences in particular historical contexts. The encoding of the political in media forms is not new. Communication has always been constitutive of politics. We might even say that politics is communication since it is not possible to think about politics that is not, at root, about issues of communication variously conceived. Many key metaphors of communications are the very stuff of political life: persuasion, mediation, diffusion, effect, rhetoric, discourse, public relations and so on. Media forms, including old and new media, have always been used for political expression, activism and for maintaining communities and constructing diverse subjectivities. This is particularly true of post-colonial contexts, and in Middle Eastern societies, where populations have always used a mix of old and new media to subvert dominant ideologies and resist structures of power. At the same time, media forms, including visual media, have also been used by systems of power and authoritarian regimes to impose hegemony and authoritarian rule. In his A Critical Reflection on Aesthetics and Politics in the Digital Ag


1936 essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Walter Benjamin expressed alarm at the successful mobilization of media forms by corporations and governments in constructing reactionary patterns of simultaneous collective reception, and called for progressive movements to make the economies, infrastructures and competencies of mass-media systems a matter of urgent political concern in its own right.11 As we have seen, popular protests and people’s movements in different parts of the MENA region in the early 21st century, but particularly since the Arab uprisings began at the end of 2010, have responded to this call. To return to one of the questions within the context of this volume, what is different and what is new about new media? Arguably, what might be new, or different, is the possibility that some media forms, such as new media, may enforce different aesthetic codes and meanings, promote certain affective dimensions of performances, produce images and artefacts that combined make up what George Marcus has called ‘the activist imagery’.12 In the contemporary world, these media forms, such as YouTube and to a certain extent Facebook, may also privilege the image (the visual) as the central signifier in contests over power and representation and the benchmark for discussing if not predetermining the political in particular socio-historical contexts.13 As Jaeho Kang writes, … if politics depends on the exposure and control of the body (or its image), a function which communication media render possible, then it should be asked whether it is possible to consider the politics of the image or the politics of the visibility of power as exemplary of all politics in the age of mass media.14 The role of the visual in the contemporary politics of the MENA region is discussed amply elsewhere, and there is no need to reiterate these arguments here.15 However, in order to unpack and unsettle the notion that all politics lies within an image or that the politics of the visibility of power can be exemplary of all politics in the age of mass media, we need to think how the image is received and negotiated, how it is disseminated, reproduced, circulated and embedded in personal and collective memories and histories. In doing so, we need to pay attention to the historical formations and geographically — and nationally — situated epistemologies (ways of knowing) that allow for particular readings and reception of the image. Place and the nation continue to impose their own readings and epistemologies despite the globality of communication technologies and their reach. Media networks exist in-place, and are territorially etched (even if they afford their users what seems like an ungrounded experience) and are themselves actively involved in the production of space.16


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Likewise, particularly in the age of an expanding and omnipresent new media, we need to address the processual and material aspects of artistic practices and political imageries — the networks of financial, institutional, discursive and technological infrastructures and practices involved in the production, circulation and reception of artistic productions. Digital networks and spaces are not neutral spaces, and as such, they can be and can produce privileged places, particularly at their junction and access points. As my colleague Helga Tawil-Souri has argued, investments in building and maintaining media networks and forms are tied to economic and spatial efficiencies in the decisions made about how certain locales are served, how easily, quickly or cheaply we can build, distribute, purchase or discharge technological products and the services that make these products of use.17 In addressing these concerns, we must take into account that modes of global and local circulation, transmission, recycling and storage (archiving) themselves need study, particularly because these modes may construct different representational forms and may demand new epistemological norms. For as Lee and LiPuma suggest, ‘circulation is a cultural process with its own forms of abstraction, evaluation and constraint which are created by the interaction between specific types of circulating forms and the interpretive communities built around them.’18 In other words, it is through these modes of circulation, distribution and reproduction that the politics of the image, or the politics of the visibility of power, and indeed the image itself, is allowed to exist as a material (not symbolic) force and to make claims in the world, irrespective of whether these are claims underlined by a civil imagination or by opportunistic and atavistic tendencies. Only through synthetic cultural, social, political and historical analysis of the dynamics and materiality of digital transformations can we provide critical arguments about whether, or how, new media are changing artistic practices and politics and challenging personal and public lives.

A Critical Reflection on Aesthetics and Politics in the Digital Ag


1. Dina Matar, ‘Contextualising the Media and the Uprisings: A Return to History’, The Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 5/1 (2012), pp. 75–9.

10. Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, Gabriel Rockhill (trans.), London, Continuum, 2004, pp. 12–13.

2. Gillian Youngs, ‘Digital World: Connectivity, Creativity and Rights’, in Gillian Youngs (ed.), Digital World: Connectivity, Creativity and Rights (London: Routledge, 2013), p. 1.

11. Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility: Third Version’, in Howland Elland and Michael Jennings (eds), Selected Writings, Volume 4, 1938–1940 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), pp. 262–65.

3. See www.creativememory.org. 4. Ariella Azoulay, Civil Imagination: A Political Ontology of Photography (London: Verso, 2013), p. 3. 5. Meg McLagan and Yates McKee, ‘Introduction’, in Meg McLagan and Yates McKee (eds), Sensible Politics: The Visual Culture of Nongovernmenatal Activism (New York: Zone Books, 2012), p. 23. 6. John B. Thompson, ‘The New Visibility,’ Theory, Culture and Society 22/6 (2005), pp. 31–51. 7. Charles Tripp, The Power and the People: Paths of Resistance in the Middle East (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 314–15. 8. Jacques Rancière, ‘The Paradoxes of Political Art’, in Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2010), pp. 134–52. 9. Tripp, The Power and the People, pp. 314–15.


12. George Marcus, Connected: Engagements with Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), p. 6. 13. See Lina Khatib, Image Politics in the Middle East: The Role of the Visual in Political Struggle (London: I.B.Tauris, 2012). 14. Jaeho Kang, ‘The Media and the Crisis of Democracy: Rethinking Aesthetic Politics’, Theoria 57/124 (2010), p. 11. 15. See Khatib, Image Politics in the Middle East. 16. Helga Tawil-Souri, ‘It’s Still About the Power of Place’, The Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 5/1 (2012), pp. 86–95. 17. Ibid. 18. Benjamin Lee and Edward LiPuma, ‘Cultures of Circulation: The Imaginations of Modernity’, Public Culture 14/1 (2002), p. 192.

Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Digital, Aesthetic, Ephemeral A Brief Look at Image and Narrative Sheyma Buali

With every new development of communication and information technology, the world changes slightly; and with every political movement, a new aesthetic is re-formed. It is an oft-repeated adage that the internet has altered the way we share information, communicate and see the world; the same was said about the popularization of television and the invention of the printing press. These tools largely familiarized the world with the political aesthetics that became part of our everyday, visual landscape: think of revolutionary Cubism in 1920s Russia, Kalashnikov-romance photography of 1960s Palestine, and even ‘flower power’ and the anti-Vietnam War movement. In the uprisings that have taken place across the Arab world since 2011, we have seen a certain narrative emerge through images and texts, though it is still too premature to examine these fully. In this short time, we have also noticed a cycle in the use and reuse of this content, with their resonance changing alongside shifting narratives. Amidst that, we have seen a recycling of this raw material into fine art pieces that make their way into commercial galleries in the UK, in effect glamorizing and dislocating these images of protest from the mode in which they were created. By July 2011, in London alone, the three-week Shubbak festival was immediately problematized for this exact reason by attendees uttering their annoyance at the quick cliché of an ongoing political crossover. The organizers’ ‘hasty reprogramming’ to include the ‘tumult of the Arab Spring’1 was noted by critics.2 Still, the analysis of the images produced in and around the ‘Arab revolutions’ remains varied. The raw material and the ‘produced’ works of art (using that raw material) stand at separate ends of the conversation. This friction is mostly in the disengagement between actual, momentary images of real-time action that are reused for means ranging from protest to the press. On the other side of the conversation are fine artworks that reframe this raw material into works that reflect on the moment they convey with romanticized hindsight. This will manifest in various forms (film, theatre, visual art) as either fiction

or non-fiction, with audiences reacting subjectively to it as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ art. These images feed a certain sort of ‘simulation’ of the reality that is masked by displacement, either in the interpretation of the event or in the setting in which the works are presented. This friction between the two is comparable to Roland Barthes’ negotiation between the punctum, the viewer’s emotional or personal involvement with an image, and the studium, images that carry an interpreted meaning.  In this era of image-heavy uprisings in the Middle East, one can look at the shifting use of imagery as much as image content. Tracing the purpose of the now emblematic on-the-run, hazy imagery produced by mobile phone cameras and the like, to the appropriation of such imagery into fine art commodities, shows a shift in narrative of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’. Some may argue that this has delegitimized or watered down the purpose of political imagery and the creation of political art, feeding into notions outlined in Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (1967).3 In Debord’s conception, society turns experience into representation, diminishing spatial realities and the distance between the past and the present. In Debord’s society, people are automated by the image, fooled by it: image rules familiarity. Others may go even further and argue that this preoccupation with the image and the uprisings came at the price of imagining a real revolution. Building on Stuart Hall’s idea of the ‘burden of representation’,4 whereby too much weight is put on images that depict the marginal, a valid question would be in reference to a ‘double burden’: the need for artists to remain politically active while maintaining their role of producing meaningful artwork. The question this poses is whether this constitutes a crisis in art or a crisis in politics. As we will see in the works examined, the power of looking has separated the image from the actual will to act, despite the active resonance of these images.

The ‘Arab Spring’ narrative The cyclical nature of politics has shown that intellectual and cultural status quos seem more affected by political revolutions than government systems. Mainstream news articulated the narrative of unity, broken fears and fallen governments to various ends. News sources, like The New York Times for example, one of the champions of the term ‘Arab Spring’, referred to this as an ‘awakening’ of the Arab youth, giving endless credit to the internet (namely social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter) and satellite television for exposing the Arab world to liberal societies, thus ‘fueling the anger at repressive governments’.5 This frames the user of the internet as passive. The aesthetic of handheld, grainy, on-the-run footage, with shirtless men on the ground usually accompanied by the sounds of people shouting slogans calling for the fall of the regime, gunshots and takbeers,6 all relay the fleetingness,


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Akram Zaatari, Dance to the End of Love, from Composition for Two Wings, 2011. Installation view, MUSAC, León. Spain, 2011. Courtesy the artist and Thomas Dane Gallery, London.

Rabih Mroué, I, the Undersigned, 2006. Two-channel video installation, colour, sound, walltext. Tape 1: Face, 3:51 min. / Tape 2: Titles 5:07 min. Photograph courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Beirut/Hamburg. © Olaf Pascheit

Digital, Aesthetic, Ephemeral


bravery, self-determination and euphoria of that time. This became a mainstay, in turn pushing ideas by the likes of The New York Times that social, mobile new media unlocked the Arab slumber. Simultaneously, though, this narrative of euphoria overshadowed the reality of the betrayal, brutality and deaths that also occurred. At times, the euphoria that came about through one man’s stepping down, and the need to preserve that moment through image or otherwise, clouded what was to come. This preoccupation is reflected on by American video artist Dara Birnbaum, who points out the difference between that ‘Utopian moment and the reality of the here and now’, turning these images into reveries rather than memories.7 Aesthetically, a movement’s visual codes and the arts will merge at some point. The inherently inspirational tone of an uprising by definition calls for a catharsis of voices and expression.

Active archives, media unbound In a variation of Gil Scott-Heron’s echoing phrase, rather than the passive, televised revolution of his time, the 2011 uprisings were digitized. They were hash-tagged, uploaded and remained free of copyright, so anyone with access could spread, join and add to the ‘billions of billions of characters’ that will remain in our virtual memory forever.8 We are in a state of active sharing of information and memory building. In his 1974 essay, ’The Technology and the Society’, the late Raymond Williams came up with a list of assumptions pertaining to television as an invention resulting from ‘scientific and technical research’.9 It altered the movement of information and entertainment, social relationships and basic perceptions of reality. He goes on to say that it was an effect of greater global mobility, another result of technological advancements and the way in which we associate with the size of the world, now seen as ‘shrinking’. In terms of lasting effects, these exact conditions developed the way new media — the internet, social networks and the fast-changing use of digital information in the form of text, image, video and so on — and entertainment operate, leading to new ways of forming opinion. Williams considered that technology may be an accidental advancement, but one that answered to human nature and a human need. Digital media has ignited the latent need to be actively involved, to be authors, for people to tell their own stories. In terms of communal involvement, digital media has introduced concepts of crowd sharing and collective development of information in creating and sharing information alike. The archive of ephemeral, lo-fi, endless information created since 2011 is a scattered one that was created instantly and urgently with handheld devices, proscribing the possibility of an archivist to maintain this information. They were uploaded on the spot into our current information systems, networked


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Nermine Hammam, upekkha, 2011. Photograph printed on fine art pearl archival paper, 50 x 50 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

Digital, Aesthetic, Ephemeral


throughout the globe: this propensity was elastic, dialogic and eventually became emblematic. But the danger lies in thinking that credit must go to the tools (internet) for allowing the movement; it is a patronizing misrepresentation of an active, willed movement that used media to narrate a people’s agency. The youth used these tools to disseminate information and images in ways that reflected their need and fed into a cycle of empowerment of the independent voice, redistributed as a consistent reminder and self-reflection of an ongoing movement.

Retroactive reflection through the arts As a reflection of the political movement it was trailing, this inadvertent practice of image creation, for better or worse, parallelled the movement: fast, fleeting and uncentralized. It challenged ideas of power, control, knowledge and memory. With the current trend for focusing on personal, social and political memory and the archive by artists such as Rabih Mroué, Akram Zaatari, Ala Younis and many others, it is no surprise that when the unprecedented historical event rose into chaos, artists reacted by working these current political documents into their work. Artists in the Middle East have been retroactively reacting to historical events, by way of whatever media they can amass, from memories people have of the events to using their imagination as an attempt to complete, and at times dislocate themselves from, the story. The group of Lebanese artists who are still grappling with the Lebanese Civil War, for example, years after its end, deal with its psychological, social and political remnants. The work of Walid Raad and the Atlas Group seeks out, preserves and categorizes any bit of media that can allow for a tracing of individual and communal (hi)stories of the time. In their press release for Rabih Mroué’s exhibition I, the Undersigned in the Netherlands in 2010, BAK, Basis voor Actuele kunst, questioned Mroué’s position in bringing up the age-old friction between an artist’s aesthetical framework and his responsibility to react to political currencies.10 Meanwhile, Akram Zaatari’s exhaustive work on the image and selfimage through photography in the Middle East is a case in itself. While developing the Arab Image Foundation (AIF), he also produces his own artworks that at times ask similar questions to those presented through the AIF, while engaging with questions of new media and marginalized and (thus) imagined (self-)identities. His recent 25-minute work Dance to the End of Love looks at lo-fi, most likely mobile-phone-produced, YouTubed self-portrait videos by young men around the Middle East. His four-channel film mines videos of musicians, body builders and notoriously daredevil Saudi truck drivers. These videos showcase an opportunity to perform and self-illustrate; they are imaginative, aspirational and daring, even if only in play, pointing at the youth’s


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

psyche and the need to carry out a certain sense of self-realization. Here we see young men taking hold of their own dreams and making them public, even if from within the private realm. Similar aspirations can be seen in the way North African and Middle Eastern youths have been expressing themselves on the streets, and subsequently YouTube, since 2011. Now, rather than being trapped by the retro-pensive burden of memories, youth movements seized the current, in tools and zeitgeist, nullifying the dominant voices of corporate and government media and the propaganda of the day. An archive that is in use while it is being produced becomes both historical documentation and resistance material. The images and stories within this greater archive make it active and dynamic. It is not unique: past networks of resistance filmmakers and documentarians have had even stronger practices working with the same idea. Today, while there is perhaps no iconic image for the movement, it was the act of taking pictures with mobile phones that became itself iconic. The character of Farah in Ibrahim El Batout’s 2011 film Winter of Discontent directly embodies this. As soon as she quits the state-run television programme working to quell the voice of the ongoing protests in Tahrir Square, she joins activists on a rooftop with her own handy-cam in hand. The work of the Cairene citizen media activist collective Mosireen took this to another level. They not only make sure that there is documentation of ongoing brutality, but also footage to be used by third parties and training in order for more people to create more video documents. The merging of this handheld, on-the-run aesthetic with cinema, theatre and fine art experiments with the uses of new media, expresses multiple dimensions of reality and emotions, while also addressing the unknown. The attempt to negotiate the ongoing frenzy came in the reframing of the same images of these grainy realities, showing people on the ground, images that carried the heightened senses, the rough sounds, the empowerment (yet still) and the violence of the moment.

On (self-)reflection: a narrative in pictures, shifting The friction between the raw image and its use in produced, creative work, is part of an ongoing saga of its own. While empowerment remains in these now recognizable lo-fi images, they are also moving towards an escapism of their own. One short film, available on Vimeo, is Conte de Printemps (2011), by Syrian collective La Chaise Renversée.11 This five-minute film, made to honour the protestors of the Syrian uprising, uses YouTube-style videos and sounds of the most emotively recognized type: gunshots and takbeers, shirtless men with their arms in the air and bloodied hands vowing victory. Interlaid with an Digital, Aesthetic, Ephemeral


Nermine Hammam, Codes of My Kin, 2012. Digital Photography, printed on Hahnemuhle Fine Art Rice Paper, 25 x 53 cm. Courtesy of the artist.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Digital, Aesthetic, Ephemeral


animation of paper figures being stepped on, it plays what look like mobile phone videos of youths running on the ground. But as these rough images play on, we slowly see the paper figures rise again. Like the youths on the streets, with their hope and courage, the paper people rise back up. The empowerment of reviewing and reassessing one’s self-image was illustrated well by Malu Halasa during the presentation of her essay, ‘Alternative Histories: Middle Eastern Portraiture, Photography, Art, Documentary, Illustration and Fashion Today, an Illustrated Lecture on Contemporary Visual Culture of the Middle East’ at the National Portrait Gallery in December 2011.12 The essay reflects on imagery in North Africa and the Middle East since the uprisings earlier that year. Most profoundly, she discusses a conversation she had with Egyptian photographer Yasser Alwan, who has been taking street portraits since the 1990s. Halasa writes that Alwan noted that his portraits made people ‘recoil and react unpleasantly’, caused by their shame at ‘being Egyptian’. But after 25 January 2011, this sentiment and self-image changed; now there was a feeling and image of perseverance among the working class of Cairo, a post-revolutionary pride. In her presentation, Halasa shared a video clip that shows these portraits, overlaid by iconic speeches about pan-Arab empowerment by Gamal Abdel Nasser and a song from the 1960s called Sura, meaning ‘image’, that epitomized the feeling of unity and inclusivity at the time.13 This song, the narrator of the clip says, became the anthem of the 2011 Egyptian revolution. While these thoughts came in retrospect regarding previous works, they embodied the euphoria and pride that can today be looked back at as lost and disillusioned. The narrator of the YouTube clip then goes on to tell the immaterialized fate of the great intention of the pan-Arab ambition. As if in a cycle, similar to the cracked self-image of Egyptian society referred to by Alwan, the narrative of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ eventually started to shift. Contradictions arose between fear and courage; hope and despair; victory and self-reflection; self-criticality. We see this illustrated in the impressionist-meets-realist exploratory photography of Nermine Hammam. Having created two series of images in reaction to the 18-day Egyptian uprising, we see that narrative shift in the consecutive images depicting mixed emotions. Her first series, Uppekha (2011) puts together photographs she took of the army in Tahrir Square; she manipulates these photos by tweaking the innocence in the features of the young, male soldiers by digitally colouring them and replacing their backgrounds with images of Swiss mountain landscapes and Japanese cherry-blossom vistas. Her scepticism comes full-blown through her second series Unfolding (2011), for which she uses images of aggressive protest scenes sourced from the press, some of them now infamous. Among them are images of the ‘Battle of the Camels’ and the attack on the ‘girl with the blue bra’ — images taken by civilians and then used by mainstream press. These are more detailed scenes, again placed against a backdrop of Chinese silk-screens and other beautiful patterns.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Photograph of the show Macbeth: Leïla and Ben— a Bloody History by Lotfi Achour. Photograph courtesy of La Chambre Noir and Lotfi Achour.

Photograph of the show Macbeth: Leïla and Ben— a Bloody History by Lotfi Achour. Photograph courtesy of OBA.

Digital, Aesthetic, Ephemeral


Yet, Hammam insists she was not documenting the experience but, rather, negotiating a fleeting moment. This artistic rendition of what she describes as maternal protectiveness towards the army — ‘I wanted to just get these boys out of there,’14 — is also a document that represents the moment in which she created her work. Unfolding not only reflects a specific moment of production, but utilizes the raw material that was meant to spread information about the movement in the first place. The work finally found its way to the displaced setting of a west London art space (in this case, The Mosaic Rooms). In her artist’s statement for this series, Hammam notes the disconnection between reality, image and art. ‘When [they] die on camera, their death is distorted in an endless loop of info-tainment … Images on repeat build up our emotional immunity, a shell that threatens to cut us off from our humanity, our capacity for empathy,’ she once said. She also expressed the distance that the screen presents and the irony it entails and asserts that these works serve to ‘mock the artistic industry forming around the revolution’, referring to the relationship between the viewer and artwork as a ‘sado-masochistic’ one.15 In 2012, the Victoria and Albert Museum’s National Collection of the Art of Photography acquired the works. A piece that looked at the post-euphoric stage of the uprisings by experimental means is the Tunisian rendition of Macbeth by the production group Artistes Producteurs Associés (APA), resubtitled Leila and Ben: A Bloody History. While this play uses digital means to convey their exploration of the cycle of tyranny in Tunisia, the producers of APA made a conscious decision to stay away from the YouTube-style imagery and sound to create their own. They found the handheld aesthetic to be too ‘obvious’ and decided to keep it abstract. Deciding to dramatize a Shakespeare play in a way that had clear and bold resonance with recent history, they stood apart from other works reflecting on this historical chapter, clumsily referred to as the ‘Arab Spring’. They chose to create their own aesthetic of political malice with dramatic caricatures of Leila and Ben Ali as characters in the play. There was also music of various kinds to instill the mood of power, submission and fear, and images of rabid dogs to communicate tyranny, with snippets from documentaries and interviews to reflect on the social and political trajectory of the country. Having been received by some reviewers as ‘hard work’16 and too far from the original Macbeth, it is a wonder if the lack of understood, coded and aesthetic symbols of the ongoing uprisings made it difficult for people to understand the full scope of the play. By way of these decisions, the play set itself apart from works that could be considered among the canon of ‘Arab Spring’ art. It presented a more thoughtful, socially reflective and culturally critical look at the Tunisian (and the greater region’s) complacency and passivity in the area of politics. Ironically, this aestheticized musical performance stood outside the spectacle of the ‘Arab Spring’.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Over-aestheticizing The familiarity of the mood and style of images that inadvertently came to signify this chapter of the ongoing struggle have led to a certain seductiveness. They are familiar; suggestive of an insider’s eye; a sort of hyper-reality that draws people in; representative of what is seen from a distance and happening in real time. As was seen in the banal reaction to APA’s retooled Macbeth, stepping away from certain codes of recognition loses track of the moment being reflected on. Images constituting the narrative of political upheaval have gone through a process of moving from the Barthesian punctum, and bypassed his studium towards a Baudrillardian simulacrum — a state in which people have a stronger relationship with the image and symbol than the reality, once again, a spectacle that society has come to gaze at. Images that started out as raw documents, showing brutalities and self-determination, held their emotional connection with the viewer. They informed, current and urgent. From there, they moved on to becoming parts of stories created by artists replicating and negotiating realities with the help of such ‘real’ images, creating works that led to realities being superseded by their own image. Eventually, some part of the equation — whether it was the politics in question or the images meant to represent politics — started to lose track. Like stock footage, the same grainy video of the young man with bloodied hands seen in the Syrian short film Conte de Printemps reappears in El Batout’s Winter of Discontent.  In this act of looking, people have become accustomed to the mediated and now aestheticized images of highly emotive events, overtaking the reality of a political process in flux. Rabih Mroué once noted that what propelled him to produce his lecture performance/video piece Pixelated Revolution (2012), was a comment by a friend of his who said, ‘Syrians are shooting themselves.’17 The irony here is in the spectacle of what has been arguably the bloodiest and most complex of the uprisings that started in 2011. The images romanticized the proletariat’s voice in Tunisia and the 18 days in Egypt: days that seemed to slip through the fingers of the youths who propelled the movement. At times, being vocal and documenting the situation became more prominent than the end goal, all the while feeding that spectacle. Those days of hope and euphoria quickly became overrun by the fear, tension and brutality that hovered throughout.  In his Future of the Image (2007), Jacques Rancière points out the disconnection between the simulation created by the apparent ‘truth’ in imagery and political arts. While I consider that negotiating this frenzy in an artistic way is necessary, the eventual romanticization signifies its own passive development. The spectacle has developed, while the political movement, ongoing and incomplete, has taken a sharp turn from the euphoria that was documented so precisely in the heady days of revolution. Digital, Aesthetic, Ephemeral


Photographs of the show Macbeth: Leïla and Ben— a Bloody History by Lotfi Achour. Photograph courtesy of T. Mitchell.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

1. Maev Kennedy, ‘Arab Arts Festival to Debut in London’, the Guardian, 26 May 2011. Available at http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/may/26/arab-arts-festival-debut-london (accessed 3 March 2013).

10. Rabih Mroué, I, the Undersigned, e-flux website. Available at http://www.e-flux.com/announcements/rabih-mroue-i-the-undersigned/ (accessed 1 March 2013).

2. This creates another issue: the grave difference between the art seen locally in the cities where these uprisings took place, and that which travels to Western galleries and institutions. This essay will develop with that blind spot in mind.

11. Conte de Printemps, La Chaise Renversée (dir.), online video. Available at https://vimeo.com/30585735 (accessed 5 March 2013).

3. Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, trans. Ken Knabb (London: Rebel Press, 2004). 4. K. Chen and D. Morley, Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies (London: Routledge, 1996). 5. Michael Slackman, ‘Bullets Stall Youthful Push for Arab Spring’, The New York Times, 17 March 2011. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/18/ world/middleeast/18youth.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 (accessed 6 March 2011). 6. Shouts of ‘Allah Akbar’ or ‘God is greatest’ in Arabic. 7. Dara Birnbaum, ‘Reverie: as an illusion of memory’, Memory Marathon Conference, 14 October 2012, Serpentine Gallery, London. 8. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, Delete: the Virtue of Forgetting in a Digital Age (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), p. 197. 9. Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form (London: Fontana, 1974), p. 3.

Digital, Aesthetic, Ephemeral

12. Malu Halasa, Alternative Histories: Reflections on Middle Eastern and North African Portraiture, Photography, Art, Documentary, Illustration and Fashion Today, Exhibition, National Portrait Gallery, London, 2011. 13. ‘Sura Yasser Alwan, English subtitles’, YouTube video, posted by seadeadsea, 15 April 2011. Available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K_4uyRZu4TQ&feature=g-like (accessed 1 March 2013). 14. Interview (unpublished) with Sheyma Buali, July 2012. 15. Cairo Year One catalogue, London, AM Qattan Foundation, 2012, p. 26. 16. Miriam Gillinson, ‘“Macbeth: Leila and Ben — A Bloody History” review or “Are you sure we’re too far steeped in blood to go back?”’, Sketches on Theatre blog, 9 July 2012. Available at http://sketchesontheatre.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/ macbeth-leila-and-ben-bloody-history.html (accessed 10 September 2013). 17. ‘Rabih Mroué in conversation with Philip Bither’, YouTube video, posted by walkerartcenter, 1 February 2012. Available at http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=ZYXxPIh7zPo (accessed 3 March 2013).


New Media and the Spectacle of the War on Terror Maymanah Farhat

US-based artists of the Arab diaspora who have explored the interventionist potential of new media have often done so within the context of the American spectacle: a reality in which life is reduced to mere representation and social interactions and civic engagement are mediated through mass media and mass consumption. This reduction of life into a flow of imagery that renews itself as it permeates the public realm has been scrutinized in art since the 1960s, when the celebratory veneer of the post-war art scene began to crack as the Civil Rights movement and anti-Vietnam War activism overturned national discussions. Today, as the War on Terror is at the centre of the spectacular order, artists such as Jackie Salloum, Hamdi Attia, Nida Sinnokrot, Wafaa Bilal and Rheim Alkadhi have engaged evolving technologies to probe the effects of a militarized culture that is sustained at all institutional and socioeconomic levels. Through the use of new media, they strategically demystify and complicate the American culture industry’s dominant image. In the early stages of the United States’ nationhood, art played a pivotal role in the formation of its official persona. Dominating the first two centuries of American art history are depictions of the military leadership that led to the establishment of the independent union of states, alongside portraits of settlers and their descendants who benefited from the development of the colonies and their transition into self-governance. Frequently within historical scenes, outdoor settings are shown as feral landscapes (or in some cases seascapes) that are tamed by Euro-American stalwarts. This initial projection of rugged heroism has remained a hallmark of state-sanctioned culture. With the strengthening of the republic’s political and business classes, such portraits moved from patriotic valour to representations of cultivated wealth without shedding concepts of power. While in some cases of paintings from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries signs of individual success, pedigree and so-called high culture do not directly reference the nation’s steady

militarization, they none the less allude to ideals that have been nurtured by an imperialist history. Throughout the twentieth century and into the present, federal agencies (and the industries that drive them) have continued to advocate military chic, the normalization of violence and the fiscal, cultural and political support of the nation’s armed forces, effectively sustaining ‘the war effort’ through a mass culture that transcends gender, race, age, sexuality and religion, as it benefits from savvy, demographic-based marketing and corporate sponsorship. Within this spectacle society, popular culture and the mainstream art world are mutually informed — the former is the most visible platform of the spectacular while the latter’s investment in it is simply understated. While art and empire have always gone hand in hand — patronage of the arts at the behest of ruling classes and their military exploits is as old as civilization itself — the United States has held an advantage in the modern era. By the end of World War II it had become a global superpower. In addition to breakthroughs in mass communication, manufacturing and transportation technology, a booming war economy established the nation as a political centre. Artists and intellectuals fleeing Europe’s war-torn cities flocked to New York and Los Angeles, bringing the impetus of modern art scenes with them. Recognizing this position, the American government exported a consumerist-oriented way of life that was marketed as an expression of twentieth-century democracy and innovation. Must-have products were designed by corporations with the aesthetic of advanced weaponry, embellishing a newfound sense of confidence while relating it to American military might; economy, power and visual culture were thus linked like never before. Buildings, cars, household appliances and electronic devices, for example, were outfitted in chrome-trim shells, mimicking combat machinery. Fitting of the spectacular, mass media continued to recycle and tweak its basic mock-ups to address the emerging demands of modern social life. The transformation of the idealized woman from Rosie the Riveter, the icon that represented a generation of women working in factories during World War II, to the hyper-sexualized post-war ‘bombshell’ is but one illustration, as social constructs (in this case gender norms) continued to be politicized and geared towards consumption. In order to carry out the influence of this public campaign in the arts, agencies such as the Central Intelligence Agency launched a clandestine ‘cultural diplomacy’ programme that sought to further the United States’ image and undercut political competitors. This strategic use of the visual had an immediate precedent in the Federal Arts Project of the Great Depression, which Franklin D. Roosevelt implemented to relieve the cultural sector, jumpstart the economy and boost public morale. Later, as the country entered World War II, the same artists who had been supported by the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration were enlisted to take part in pro-war exhibitions and design campaigns for military goods packaging, army fatigues and national New Media and the Spectacle of the War on Terror


Wafaa Bilal, stills from Virtual Jihadi, 2008. Video game. Courtesy of the artist.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

defence advertisements. The anti-communism ‘Cultural Cold War’ that was launched just a few years later employed government-sponsored organizations, institutions, publications, and an extensive network of writers, artists, curators and filmmakers to promote mainstream American culture, specifically at home and in western Europe (its target audience) as an attractive alternative to what Harry Truman referred to as the ‘tyranny against freedom’.1 The classification of a Cold War bogeyman (or enemy) as part of a mythical world stage was merely adopted from an age-old tactic. A good-and-evil binary has prevailed throughout American history in innumerable media and discourses, constituting a sophisticated form of psychological warfare that exploits the desires and fears of a disaffected population. Since the dawn of American imperialism, when vast swathes of foreign-controlled territories were seized by force and annexed to the republic amidst the era of Manifest Destiny, notions of superiority against the supposed threat of external adversaries have shaped nationalist rhetoric. In the mid 1800s, the arrival of photography occurred just in time for the documentation of a series of wars that secured the United States’ economic and geopolitical interests in North America, Central America, the Caribbean and the Pacific. Every military strike or conflict thereafter has been visually recorded and sold to the public through mass media, thus underwriting the national spectacle. What distinguishes the US War on Terror from previous phases of militarization is the studied history with which American power now reinforces its hegemonic culture. With the evolution of the photographic image defining over a century of visual culture, advocates and agents of the War on Terror, and the Military Industrial Complex in general, have a clear understanding of how the binary of desire and fear can be worked into virtually every aspect of domestic life through the reclamation of tropes that are fastened in history but repackaged as contemporaneous representations of today’s world. While the culture industry’s major facets continue to operate under the sway of official political discourse, the increasingly interactive capabilities of new media have made for an ideal vehicle, ensuring public passivity with an emphasis on escapism and socialized phobias. As its many proponents continue to indulge in exceptionalism versus ‘tyranny against freedom’ narratives, with Islam and the Arab world as the subjects of a post-9/11 ‘cultural Cold War’, artists have taken to turning the spectacle on itself by altering its myths through the various media that transmit them.2 In Jackie Salloum’s experimental short Planet of the Arabs (2004) an inundation of violence visually assaults the viewer as clips from primetime television dramas, Hollywood movies and Looney Tunes cartoons are stitched together to form a fictional action film trailer. Allowing enough time in each scene for a specific stereotype to be revealed — Arabs as terrorists, as desert-haunting villains or as backward, nearly unintelligible buffoons — the artist spares no detail of the US entertainment industry’s long history of New Media and the Spectacle of the War on Terror


engaging a certain brand of pejorative imagery. Wars, hijackings, car explosions and courtroom questionings provide the mandatory context; the presence of blonde damsels in distress and the boorish young American men (or mature machos) who will save them creates a counterpoint. Placed between these scenes are sobering excerpts from the satirical film Network (1976) in which actor Peter Finch plays a former broadcaster turned preacher who is on a crusade against television and its subduing of the masses. The disturbing nature of Planet of the Arabs is derived from the sheer volume of such insidious (albeit absurd) portrayals in light of the perils of a plugged-in society described in Finch’s now clichéd tirade. In their original form — as details of individual scenes in widely distributed movies and television programmes — such racist images would presumably go unnoticed by most, yet the number of clips that are shown spanning decades and the speed with which they are delivered leaves the viewer with the impression of a daunting repository. Salloum’s nine-minute trailer was inspired by Jack Shaheen’s Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (2001), an exhaustive study of 950 pre9/11 films in which Arabs are demonized. In contrast to the image bank that is recreated in Planet of the Arabs, the artist’s Arabs A-go-go (2003), a two-minute music video comprised of excerpts from mid-20th-century films, provides a glimpse into some of the ways that Arabs have portrayed themselves through their own film industry. In an accompanying statement, Salloum described this earlier short as featuring ‘footage of Arabs as you’ve never seen them before — unless you’re an Arab’. Clips from dramas, musicals and romantic comedies, which show protagonists in lighthearted beach-blanket dance sequences, swinging-sixties espionage car chases and disco-era parties — all with the relative flavour of belly-dancing solos and dabke lines — also indicate the impact of globalization and the construction of modern identities through a popular culture that embraced an American aesthetic. Together, these two shorts reveal the set of representational politics that have been peddled in direct correlation to the United States’ double-dealing policies towards the Arab world, dating back to World War II when the nascent superpower was attempting to strengthen its influence (and that of its allies) in the Middle East and North Africa. Other examples of Salloum’s artwork, such as children’s war toys that have been modified and repackaged with facts about the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and gumball machines filled with trinkets commemorating revolutionary figures or Palestinian refugees, similarly subvert the subliminal messaging of political and social norms in the seemingly innocent material of popular culture. Salloum’s use of ‘naturalized’ images of Arabs and Muslims in Planet of the Arabs exemplifies a type of artistic intervention that has cyclically resurfaced in American art over the past five decades, most intensely during periods of war. The Vietnam War era marked the first notable juncture in American


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

history to witness a wide range of artists who questioned the mass media apparatus by emphasizing the dystopian links between art world institutions and the market, mass consumption and the spectacle of violence dictating American culture. Andy Warhol’s Disasters (1962–63) and Race Riot (1963–64) series, Martha Rosler’s Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful series (1967– 72), and the strikes and protests of the Art Workers’ Coalition are among a number of seminal works that radicalized American art and tapped into the sentiments of a simmering, sceptical society, as they questioned race, gender and class divisions amidst the crumbling façade of dominant culture. The 1960s and 1970s have also been identified with the rise of post-modernism and a notable shift in artistic practices in relation to the market, patronage and the increased sway of gallerists.3 The founding of the National Endowment of the Arts in 1966, which lobbied for the overt involvement of corporations and encouraged artists to develop careers as ‘professionals’, furthered the mistrust of cultural institutions and the mainstream art world, that was gaining momentum in a move against the Abstract Expressionists and formalist warriors — such as critic Clement Greenberg — who were recruited as representatives of nationalist platforms at the beginning of the Cold War. Artists seeking to work outside institutional frameworks forged a renewed interest in the legacy of Marcel Duchamp and were commonly influenced by Fluxus, turning to performance, found objects, installation and video art when traditional art practices were deemed less effective in articulating the sense of alienation that, to paraphrase Guy Debord, is manufactured as one of the main goals of capitalist spectacle.4 Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle has since been critical of the development of media art, specifically its call for acts of détournement, which aim to destablize mass-media images by repurposing their essential components into new significations. Informed by Roland Barthes’ semiotic theory of the metalanguage of myths, Debord and the Situationists International (1957–72), a group of likeminded artists, intellectuals and activists, argued that a ‘parodic-serious stage’ of ‘détourned’ images could function as a collective sign of protest by negating the ‘previous organization of expression’, that is, the existing mythology that reflects and reinforces the spectacular order.5 Post9/11 examples of détournement such as Salloum’s often take the significations of the War on Terror’s mythical language as their bases, overemphasizing their forms and concepts to the point of absurdity with scathing seriousness. Similarly, Hamdi Attia uses the internet to appropriate sound bites, television footage, website screenshots and news quotes in a series of video works underscoring the interchangeable lexicon of today’s neoliberal and neoconservative punditry. Search engines function as media feeds as the artist sifts through results for a familiar line-up of personalities, including former assistant US Secretary of Defense Richard Perle, pseudo Middle East expert Daniel Pipes and well-known New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. New Media and the Spectacle of the War on Terror


Attia is particularly interested in how such figures shape American political discourse as gatekeepers or producers of information by ‘translating’ contemporary perceptions of the Middle East to the public. In The Prince (2005), the artist takes the unravelling of Perle’s political career as his starting point, collecting online material to compose a portrait of the disgraced defence lobbyist. A scroll of the innumerable internet images that are returned when searching Perle’s name is used as an opening sequence to the 11-minute video. A military-like soundtrack — which happens to be an instrumental version of the 1960s Mickey Mouse Club theme song — plays in the background, bringing to mind the embellishments of official pageantry. Various scenes of Perle arguing for a pre-emptive military strike against Iraq, citing the growing threat of future attacks and expressing his support of then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld are stacked as a pyramid in one particular sequence, creating a mound of public appearances that were taped prior to the 2003 American invasion. Perle is calm, seemingly rational and tends to have a command of his audience — characteristics that make for a certain appeal and the pronouncement of an authoritative voice. Yet Attia gradually takes apart the aura surrounding his persona as he incorporates a variety of clips with allegorical interludes, which are comprised of inconsequential images and reveal the general hubris of the pundit’s delivery of his ‘truths’ du jour. Laughing tracks, race car scenes and a tacky patriotic soundtrack also connect the American political landscape with examples of the lowbrow, readymade trappings that — although originally staples of ‘mindless’ popular culture — have been procured as viewer stimulants in national news media. In the foreground of this rolling collage is a related news ticker of Perle’s talking-head arguments. A key facet of Attia’s détourned media relies on what he identifies as ‘the instability of the authority of the text, the image, and sound, and the relationships between them’.6 In the process of altering online news footage, television recordings and filmed lectures, the artist searches for ‘openings’ or slippages that expose the performative dimensions of the ‘translation’ in question. In Two Performances.ram (2006/7), Attia juxtaposes Thomas Friedman’s persona with that of the Egyptian Muslim televangelist Amr Khaled. In addition to a striking resemblance — both are middle-aged men with moustaches, who wear suits — the two figures display parallel approaches to engaging their followers. The sequence on Friedman is titled Rehearsal Tape, alluding to the numerous times that the American columnist has given the same lecture on globalization at different venues using repeated inflections, catch phrases, gestures and jokes. Throughout the rehearsed lecture, Friedman appeals to his audience (and viewers) by incorporating personal anecdotes and dramatics as he attempts to theorize the political economy of 21st-century interactions and the technology that has now forged an unprecedented dependency between today’s superpowers and so-called developing nations. With a degree of hysteria, he warns Americans of the growing threat of foreign work forces and


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Hamdi Attia, The Prince, 2005–6. Dual still image. Courtesy of the artist.

Hamdi Attia, Two Performances.ram, 2006–7. Dual still images. Courtesy of the artist.

New Media and the Spectacle of the War on Terror


an impending joblessness among the middle class as labour is outsourced to places like India and China. From London, the companion piece to Rehearsal Tape, shows Khaled as he speaks to a large studio audience. Using a split screen, Attia presents excerpts from the preacher’s widely popular television programme alongside Arabic-language commercials for products and services such as Mecca Cola (the ‘Muslim’ knockoff of Coca-Cola) and personal banking. The inclusion of Mecca Cola is an ironical nod to Khaled’s generic public image, which mirrors that of his American counterpart. As he alternates between speaking directly to the camera and addressing audience members, he employs physical cues that are reminiscent of Friedman’s mannerisms. He is at once personable and informed, citing scriptures and stories of the Prophet Mohammed while also speaking in the present tense about the greater Muslim community. Although his citations are vastly different from Friedman’s, the underlying themes of their talks emphasize the same standard of measuring one’s global citizenry according to the amount of effort that is put into participating in a competitive marketplace. Whereas Friedman urges for new American outlooks in the age of globalization, Khaled stresses the importance of involvement in the international economy as a promising path to fulfilment that not only correlates to the spiritual building blocks of Islamic theology but also has a precedent in the admirable international policies and actions of the United States. Both men speak with emphatic deliverance as their custom-made advertisement screens provide complementary visuals. Without Attia’s immediate reference to Friedman, it would be difficult to unpack Khaled’s methodology as an advocate of neoliberalist views. The ‘opening’ that is exposed in From London also works against Friedman, who appears to have competition in his Egyptian stand-in — an outsourced ideologue in a post-9/11 political arena where Muslims comprise a key demographic. Additionally, Attia’s adjustments to these prominent figures include his own Arabic and English subtitles of their lectures, which are shown at the bottom of each video and take liberty in interpreting the terms and meanings of their respective performances. While in The Prince Attia’s subversion techniques evoke a Situationist stratagem to disrupting mass media images, his comparison of Friedman and Khaled can be understood through Barthes’ proposal for dislodging mythical speech through visual equations that are capable of producing divergent significations. With Friedman’s lecture positioned as the form of neoliberalism informing Khaled’s concept of globalization, Two Performances.ram yields a new signification, one intentionally riddled with farcical indicators of propaganda. When discussing this series of video works, Attia has observed that in attempts to critique such ‘structures’, merely countering them with ‘alternative representation’ will fail to upset their basic makeup.7 Nida Sinnokrot’s CNN/Al Jaz (2002) underscores this fact with a video installation of two international


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

news sources that have taken deliberate roles in ‘translating’ the events of the War on Terror. Using 24-hour satellite feeds of CNN and Al Jazeera, Sinnokrot zeroes in on the similarities between the purportedly opposite brands of media. When launched in the late 1990s, the latter was championed as offering inaccessible coverage of political developments in the Arab world. With the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Qatari station obtained international repute when it frequently provided coveted footage from inside war zones. In Sinnokrot’s installation, live streams initially present the channels as competing outlets; after a mere minute of viewing, however, it becomes clear that their methods for mediating information through calculated text, sound and imagery are the same. Despite a supposed effort to offset American representations of the Arab world, Al Jazeera adopted a spectacular model from the outset. With the periodic release of exclusive tapes from Al Qaeda and other associated operatives during its initial phase, the news network brought the spectacle of the War on Terror to dramatic heights, becoming one of its main conduits. Al Jazeera’s debut occurred at a time when a comprehensive overhaul of American national news media had already been completed. Less than a decade before, coverage of the first Gulf War was issued, with government dictates that outlined careful instructions on how to present the conflict to the public. The political fallout over the Vietnam War and the debacle of the Iranian hostage crisis were international embarrassments that US officials could not afford to repeat. The graphic elements of eyewitness accounts, photographs and televised dispatches of the military’s disastrous intervention in southeast Asia is cited as having spurred the anti-Vietnam War movement as young men were drafted in large numbers. The Iranian hostage crisis only further tarnished the United States’ image. With a bloated defence budget under the Reagan administration, American forces ultimately focused on covert operations in Latin America and the Middle East, out of the public eye. In 1991 with the launch of Operation Desert Storm, the military unveiled its updated media wing with digital technology that served to provide long-distance aerial shots and recordings to American news outlets. As United Kingdom-based artist Jananne Al-Ani has noted, advanced weaponry such as reconnaissance aircrafts has allowed US forces to create an Orientalist rendering of Iraq as a desert wasteland outside civilization, from which Americans can maintain a distance.8 Wafaa Bilal examines this distance in interactive performances and installations that foreground the psychological dimensions of modern warfare. In Domestic Tension (2007) he lived in a Chicago gallery space for 31 days, where his every move was recorded with a live webcam. Viewers were able to communicate with the artist through a chat room on the project’s website and were simultaneously given the option to shoot at him with a robotic paintball machine that was installed in the gallery and could be virtually activated. Although relying on his audience to bring him food and to provide much New Media and the Spectacle of the War on Terror


Wafaa Bilal, detail from Domestic Tension, 2007. Performance. Courtesy of the artist.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Wafaa Bilal, detail from Domestic Tension, 2007. Performance. Courtesy of the artist.

New Media and the Spectacle of the War on Terror


needed contact, he also lived under their surveillance with the danger of being attacked with yellow paint pellets at any time. Responses from viewers were mixed, ranging from empathetic acts of kindness to violent, racist outbursts. Domestic Tension was inspired by a 2007 news segment on an American soldier who operated Predator drones from a command centre in Colorado. Bilal had lost his younger brother just three years prior to the same type of unmanned weaponry in an aerial attack that was directed towards a location in central Iraq. The performance’s interactive aspects spotlighted the extent to which viewers were uninhibited in their actions in the absence of a social context that includes checks and balances. Many were openly xenophobic when communicating with the artist online and seemed to enjoy the sadistic exercise of operating the pellet gun without facing repercussions. At the centre of much of Bilal’s work on post-9/11 militarization has been the sense of disconnection that arises from certain new media despite the simulation of real-life scenarios with grave consequences. Extending the line between fantasy and reality to its extreme ends, the artist places himself in the crossfire of such simulations to highlight the politicization of the body as it undergoes a process of ‘othering’. By recreating the experience of war from a civilian perspective, the artist collapses the zone of anonymity that is regulated through the tools of the spectacular, which have grown to include a range of high-tech military-themed media and are utilized to prepare generations of Americans for 21st century warfare. The application of ‘domestic’ as a term with double meaning in the title of Bilal’s performance recalls Rosler’s Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful. Forty years prior, Rosler sought to puncture the perceived remoteness of military conflicts as filtered through the relative comfort of American consumerist culture and its concept of domesticity by carefully placing images of the horrors of the Vietnam War in advertisements from an interior design magazine. In the 1960s and ‘70s, images of massacred women and children amidst the setting of middle-class homes did not stray far from what was already shown in the pages of Life magazine, which often ran photo-stories from the frontlines of southeast Asia in issues that also featured profiles of Hollywood actors, popular musicians and sports figures. Bringing the War Home captured this normalization of violence at a significant point in the development of mass media and culture. Although war photography was countered in such publications with polished reproductions of the ideal American home and all its necessary items, it eventually proved too much for the average viewer. Rosler revisited the series from 2004 to 2008 with additional photomontages that utilize the same cut and paste technique as earlier works, to create analogous panoramas of the second US invasion of Iraq. This instalment was produced shortly after the infamous Abu Ghraib photographs were leaked to news media. By incorporating images that were captured from the vantage points of American military personnel engaged in acts of torture, Rosler


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

underscores the indisputable role that technology now plays in the lives of those who are forging the landscapes of war. As Susan Sontag first noted in ‘Regarding the Torture of Others’, the digital trophy snapshots that publically exposed American war crimes in Iraq are commonly distributed and traded online among soldiers, who emulate scenes from action films and pornography as they create virtual deposits of realized fantasies.9 Beginning in 2003, Rheim Alkadhi catalogued dozens of military images of the US occupation of Iraq, some of which appear to have been taken by amateur photographers, while others are credited to various news wire agencies. Alkadhi left nearly 150 of these pictures intact, uploading them to a user account on Archnet, an online architectural platform that focuses on ‘the built environment in Muslim societies’. Organizing these found images according to such categories as ‘conflicted interiors’, ‘sites of expired markets’ and ‘destabilized structures’, she created a visual database of ‘the architecture of war from a psychological standpoint’ with scenes of American soldiers searching Iraqi homes, close-ups of decimated public spaces and anonymous portraits of maimed civilians. In a larger interventionist project that was produced from 2007 to 2010, Alkadhi created a separate archive of corresponding imagery that can be accessed online under the domain name picturesclerk.com. Digitally altering these photographs, she created new narratives from the visual vestiges of ruin. Soldiers were regularly eliminated from settings, some scenes were combined and pixelated details were generated to extend added captions or brief descriptions. Each entry occupies its own page, the titles of which are arranged in an ‘inventory’ sidebar. Charles Merewether has argued that while archives are neither forms of remembrance or history, they do, however, contain ‘the potential to fragment and destabilize either remembrance as recorded, or history as written, as sufficient means of providing the last word in the account of what has come to pass’.10 In Alkadhi’s picturesclerk.com inventory, both text and image reflect (and persuade) a degree of intimacy with the artist’s anonymous subjects that is pronounced yet still somehow far from reach. The removed nature of the artist’s vignettes is in part due to the poor reproduction quality of her ‘pirated’ images, an aspect of the project’s process that she welcomed as a confirmation of their pre-existing origins: I worked with the sensibility of embracing pixels and comparable resolution; the crunchiness was a product of the specific approach, low resolution functioned to freely admit that I was reworking what was stolen or appropriated, in the same moment I believed that any copyright issues would prove moot, the pictures, the presentation of Iraq was illegal alongside the war itself, and so I felt this entitlement, especially as an Iraqi who has wanted to New Media and the Spectacle of the War on Terror


Rheim Alkadhi, Military State/Military Conscience, 2008, digital intervention. Courtesy of the artist.

Rheim Alkadhi, Society of Estranged Lovers (detail), 2009. Digital intervention. Courtesy of the artist.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

see the place with my own eyes after so long. The images then were from what seemed to me at the time, a military image ‘feed’; I was consuming then spitting back out masticated imagery.11 It is perhaps best to conclude an overview of new media and the spectacle of the War on Terror with Alkadhi’s notion of masticating visual culture, an apt description for the individual artworks discussed in this essay. The deployment of détournement strategies, the rearrangement of semiotic formulas of myths, and the facilitating of interactive performances or online platforms are but a few of the many techniques that artists in the United States have registered in attempts to thwart the updated inner workings of the spectacular. If in such work the present expanse of digital technology was initially acknowledged as an obstacle, ultimately it has shown to provide much needed leverage.

New Media and the Spectacle of the War on Terror


1. Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), p. 4. 2. The term ‘cultural Cold War’ is used with reference to Frances Stonor Saunders’ The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (New York: New Press, 2001), p. 4. 3. Julia Bryan-Wilson, Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), p. 38. 4. Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Detroit: Black & Red, 1983), p. 32. 5. Ken Knabb (trans.) (1959), ‘Detournment as Negation and Prelude’, Interationale Situationniste #3, Situationist International Online. Available at http:// www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/detournement.html. (accessed 15 March 2013).


6. Kirsten Scheid, ‘Intervening in Translation’, ArteEast Virtual Gallery, 2007. 7. Ibid. 8. Jananne Al-Ani, ‘Acting Out’, in (eds), Veil: Veiling, Representation and Contemporary Art (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), p. 90. 9. Susan Sontag, ‘Regarding the Torture of Others’, New York Times, 23 May 2004. 10. Charles Merewether, ‘Art and the Archive’ in Charles Merewether (ed.), The Archive (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), p. 10. 11. Interview with the artist via email, 7 March 2013.

Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

The Magnetic Remanences Voice and Sound in Digital Art and Media Nermin Saybaşılı

Gilles Deleuze once remarked: ‘The machine is always social before it is technical’ since there is always a social machine selecting or assigning the technical elements used.1 Following this thought, digital technology is a product of digital culture, not the other way around. Thus, a crucial question arises: what is this digitized cultural system and how can we act and counter-act within it? Thinking about such a question, this essay seeks to explore the possibility of relation in digitized culture by focusing on the digital voice in audiovisual artworks, thinking about how such works can behave like magnets, in that they involve the mapping of the invisible, the temporal, the detachable, the connectible, the reversible and the modifiable. I will propose the term ‘magnetic’ as a way through which to rethink about the magnetic push and pull of the digital world while thinking about the relationality — the encounters, participations, perceptions and experiences — of digital culture.

The magnetic voice With an audiovisual artwork, the appearance of the ‘magnetic voice’ requires a body to assume or to support it. In this regard, ‘the magnetic voice’ both submits to and magnetizes bodies, actions and events. To transpose magnetism to the experience of a digitally produced audiovisual artwork is to offer new social forms and participatory modalities. In this regard, magnetic remanence (magnetism remaining after the magnetizing field has been removed) is proposed as one of the most appropriate ways to investigate the materiality of voice and sound. Magnetic remanences give rise to the emergence of events: ‘the distribution of notable points’, to put it in Foucault’s words, where ‘there is no centre, but always decenterings, series that register the halting passage from presence to absence, from excess to deficiency’.2 The voice will now be investigated as excess: an ‘object’ released into the gallery space for instance

as a digital record, searching for its body/bodies. Distanced, the ‘magnetic voice’ thus opens up a resonant topography generated by a search for relations and their effects. Through the act of listening and looking, an audiovisual artwork can take shape or function not just towards perceived meaning, content, logos or truth. It can offer an aesthetic experience that facilitates a form of consciousness, an intensity of feeling or the energy for action. The digital voice can produce an aesthetic effect that stands apart from the referential or informational function of language. Voice is there for expression, as voice theorist Mladen Dolar points out: Expression versus meaning, expression beyond meaning, expression which is more than meaning, yet expression which functions only in tension with meaning — it needs a signifier as the limit to transcend and to reveal its beyond. The voice appears as the surplus-meaning.3 Dolar is not concerned with the voice as the vehicle of meaning or the source of aesthetic admiration. Based upon Lacan’s objet petit a, he interrogates voice as an object: An object voice which does not go up in smoke in the conveyance of meaning, does not solidify in an object of fetish reverence, but as an object which functions as a blind spot in the call and a disturbance of aesthetic appreciation.4 Dolar’s conceptualizing of the voice is important for this investigation, concerned with a certain materiality of the voice, and the voice as an excess or reverberation. Speaking in visual terms, the recognition of forms is precise. However, sound and voice complicates the vision. Not being subordinated to the vision, voice becomes another object in the installation; another element in the video. Dolar points out a major difference between the visible and the audible: The visible world presents relative stability, permanence, distinctiveness, and a location at a distance; the audible presents fluidity, passing, a certain inchoate, amorphous character, and a lack of distance. Voice is elusive, always changing, becoming, elapsing, with unclear contours, as opposed to the permanence, solidity, durability of the seen.5


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

According to Dolar, the object voice always displays something of an effect emancipated from its cause. There is a gap between its source and its auditory result that can never be totally bridged.6 Thus the voice is magnetic. By its nature, voice knows neither interior nor exterior. It is difficult to keep the voice at a distance. One is constantly exposed to the voice precisely because no distance can be maintained from it. Voice is on the site of event, not of fixity of things or the visibility of beings. Hearing a voice and listening to it can mark the moment in which it starts to operate as magnetic, and therefore is able to appeal to the senses, facilitate events and situations, introduce dis/connections and mobilize bodies. The voice can hold together bodies and languages. However, the ‘magnetic voice’ does not belong to the homologizing language or the unified body. On the contrary, the ‘magnetic voice’ exceeds signification that can be retained or preserve; it acts beyond the production of subjectivities. ‘In the new technologies,’ Dolar writes, the voice quite literally leaves a trace; technology is an extended memory, it can memorialize everything with seeming accuracy, not just the process of signification as the language did, but the ‘timbres’, the cadences, the materiality of the voice, its inherent quirks, the meaningless. It turns the voice, for the first time, quite literally into an object, repeatable at will, easily manipulated. The unrepeatable presence, was supplanted by a new object-voice which kept it alive as its own double.7 With the potential to link a wider, more complex network, the voice captured in digitized form is destined to, in the age of digital culture, continuously resound even at the end of its display in the gallery context. In fact, without any permission from the artists or any notice, the audio piece might be uploaded onto YouTube, or replicated in other digital networks. ‘The magnetic’ emerges between the private and the public, which is what arguably makes the digital world a potential site for new forms of freedom by triggering a collective aspiration for meaning. In other words, the magnetic voice exceeds language.

The sound object According to Dolar, voice is always a sound object, not merely the bearer of signification. This is where the effort of poetry lies. He writes: The signifier has a double nature: apart from its differential, signifying, sense-making properties it also produces erratic sound echoes, reverberations, sound contagions, similarities, the stuff The Magnetic Remanences


that can be put to use in repetitions, rhythms and rhymes, the stuff that can unexpectedly produce another meaning, inside of what makes sense, signification beyond signification, although both are inextricably tied together.8 I am interested in this aspect of the voice — its seemingly ineffable nature, individuality, intimate relation to interiority and presence, collectivity and commonality. Dolar stresses how the technology of voice recording and reproduction does not introduce an unprecedented experience of the voice, rather they magnify and extend something that was already in the voice, although in a concealed way, covered by the aura of authenticity, individuality, expression, uniqueness. He argues: one can’t pit the authentic voice, stemming from a ‘live source’ against the voice artificially contrived and replicated by technology. It is not the technology which disrupted the unalloyed presence of the voice and its aura, its untarnished sway and unrepeatable individuality, there is rather something in the nature of the voice itself, which always pointed to this disruption, something by which the voice was never just a pledge of presence, but rather an indicator of an impossible presence. Where it seemed the most pervasive, it referred at the same time the presence to a void. Where it seemed the most authentic, it was at the same time a foreign body, a prosthesis, a quasi-artificial bodily extension. Technology magnified this part and brought it to a universal function, commonly available. But it magnified both sides at the same time: it made the prosthetic nature of the voice palpable, but thereby not dissipating the structural illusion, it rather kept covering the gap that it opened with ever more formidable and imposing technical possibilities. So the astounding thing is perhaps not so much the unprecedented experience of the voice, but how easily it could be recuperated.9 Is it possible to subjectify the digital voice? Is it possible to establish a link between digitalism and subjectivity? In his book Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, Michel Chion uses the term ‘magnetization’ to discuss how the filmic image ‘magnetizes’ sound in space. By ‘magnetization’, Chion means mental spatialization. That is, the psychological process (in monaural film viewing) of locating a sound’s source in the space of the image, no matter what the real point of origin of the sound in the viewing space is.10 He explains his point by giving some examples:


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

if under particular screening conditions the loudspeaker is not located behind the screen, but placed somewhere else in the auditorium or in an outdoor setting (e.g., at the drive-in), or if the soundtrack resonates in our head by means of earphones (watching a movie on an airplane), these sounds will be perceived no less as coming from the screen, in spite of the evidence our own senses.11 Chion further argues that sound coming from another point than the screen is ‘magnetizable’ only if the sound itself maintains a basic spatial stability. If it constantly moves back and forth among loudspeakers, the image will have a harder time absorbing it, and the sound takes on a centrifugal force of its own that resists visual ‘attraction’.12 As formulated by Chion, a sound installation can produce spatial magnetization on its own, free from the image or vision. The magnetic field is also a topography that is invisible, but responsible for the most notable property of a magnet. Ayşe Erkmen’s nine-channel sound installation Ghost (2010), exhibited in Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary in Vienna, is a journey into magnetizing situations and their electrified effects in a very particular way. The exhibition building was formerly known as the Palais Erdödy Fürstenberg and located in Vienna’s first district, where Ludwig van Beethoven spent a few months in 1806. Beethoven dedicated a number of works to Countess Anna Maria Erdödy — including the musical New Year’s greeting Glück, Glück zum neuen Jahr (1819) — whose ancestor owned the palace in 1714 and who had it expanded in the following years. Aside from a web of speculations on the relationship between Beethoven and the countess, Erkmen dealt with the rumour that the ghost of a young girl lives at this palace. In response, Erkmen recomposed the Glück, Glück zum neuen Jahr for a single voice, a soprano. In the sound installation, the singing voice of the soprano could be heard from nine speakers installed on the illuminated ceiling of the palace room. The singing voice had a magnetic presence and a magnetizing affect: there was nothing to look at in the bright gallery room except the speakers and light bulbs, but certainly there was something to listen to. This was a bodiless voice: an ‘acousmatic’ voice to put it in Michel Chion’s words. Being neither inside nor outside, the voice of the soprano distributed by all nine speakers behaved like separate magnets wandering around the room seeking a place to settle. Ghost stretches the relationship of voice. Far beyond being an aesthetic digital sound, the voice of the soprano in the gallery space emancipates itself from its digital origin and starts functioning as a surplus: an addition. Enveloping the empty gallery room, the singing voices urge the audiences to move across the space to engage with immaterial histories, intangible realities, hidden places, speculative facts, lost stories and repressed presences.

The Magnetic Remanences


Ayşe Erkmen, Ghost, 2010. Sound and light installation. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

Cevdet Erek, installation view from Rooms of Rhythms at dOCUMENTA 13, 2012. Photograph by Niels Klinger. Courtesy of the artist and Niels Klinger.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Cevdet Erek, installation view from Rooms of Rhythms at dOCUMENTA 13, 2012. Photograph by Niels Klinger. Courtesy of the artist and Niels Klinger.

Cevdet Erek, installation view from Rooms of Rhythms at dOCUMENTA 13, 2012. Photograph by R.M. Ruehling. Courtesy of the artist and R.M. Ruehling.

The Magnetic Remanences


By diffusing the musical fragment (the voice of a single soprano) in the nine-channel speaker system, Erkmen introduced an original dispersion to the gallery space. The sound environment magnetized its visitors, their bodies, their senses and their minds. The eye of the audience moved through the space, generated by magnetic remanences and where the distinction between the material and the immaterial became blurred, invalid. As a performative installation, Erkmen’s sound piece interrogated the realignment of sound, voice, body and space. It investigated the ways structures of space, time, action and movement could be newly and fluently distributed in a gallery context through digital media. The work led its audiences to move through stark yet dense soundscapes, recalling Sean Cubitt’s words: ‘sound … must be approached, walked into, penetrated, and, in walking into it, as your body subtly moulds the acoustic around it, the sound will penetrate you … an open soundscape is a world in which others exist as well as yourself.’13 In Ghost, as audiovisual artworks required the performative act of listening as well as looking in order to be activated, the voice operated as an excess, thus creating its own audiences. Here, ‘the magnetic’ refers to a particular sort of potentiality that an audiovisual artwork can carry in itself. It suggests that one of the basic qualities of the ‘magnetic voice’ is that it produces effects beyond itself and always ‘displays’ something beyond its cause. It is a certain voice through which language can be used differently, meaning of the words can be converted; it can be modified or varied creatively, shaping not just precepts and affects, but also subjects and objects, bringing a world to life.

The resonant subject Today, art is being produced and distributed digitally: a magnetic form of exchange inherent to digital culture. Artists not only use digital technologies as a tool for the creation of traditional art objects, but they employ these technologies as a medium in and of itself, with artwork produced, stored and presented exclusively in the digital format and making use of its interactive features. In this developing digital aesthetic, a certain shift is opening up new channels of sensation. Sensation for Jacques Rancière lies at the centre of artistic field. He argues that the artist weaves together a new sensory fabric by wresting precepts and affects from the perceptions and affections comprising the fabric of ordinary experience. This task is political. Rancière speaks of a ‘community of sensation’, which equates the ‘individual’ production of art within the sensory fabric of collective life. Sense here refers to both the five senses and the sensual. He writes: What is common is ‘sensation’. Human beings are tied together by a certain sensory fabric, a certain distribution of the sensible,


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

which defines their way of being together; and politics is about the transformation of the sensory fabric of ‘being together’.14 Rancière defines this ‘being togetherness’ as an ‘aesthetic community’ — a ‘community of sense’ that contains a certain combination of sense data: forms, words, spaces, rhythms and so on.15 In a sound environment, we cannot perceive sound as we would in the visual field of perception. In Ghost, the audience inevitably oscillates between one visualized situation and another sensed one: between what we can see and what we can hear and feel. An ‘aesthetic community’ emerged as the installation created its own auditory digital space. Here, sense was perceived beyond signification. In fact, listening made sense beyond significance. As Jean-Luc Nancy has pointed out in his small yet dense book Listening: ‘listening is listening to something other than sense in its signifying sense.’16 For Nancy, … listening is always to be on the edge of meaning, or in an edgy meaning of extremity, and as if the sound were precisely nothing else than this edge, this fringe, this margin — at least the sound that is musically listened to, that is gathered and scrutinized for itself, not, however, as an acoustic phenomenon (or not merely as one) but as a resonant meaning, a meaning whose sense is supposed to be found in resonance, and only in resonance.17 The audible is magnetic because of the resonance it depends on: sound vibrates from the come-and-go between the source and the ear, leaving its traces. In his latest installation Room of Rhythms (2012), exhibited at (d)OCUMENTA 13, the artist Cevdet Erek took the measurements of manufactured time in space through sound with some architectural and graphic additions. Installed in the emptied warehouse of the C&A clothing store in Kassel, Room of Rhythms, as a large, audio-visual installation, was in search of rhythms of the fragmented yet striated structure of social life as generated by calendars, clocks, time charts, anniversaries, worksheets, and so on. In the huge, emptied space of the department store — stripped bare of its furniture, decoration and floor covering — one had to enter into a sonic landscape of sounds fused with sites, that were produced by the artist himself, as well as objects and signs that were found or specifically made by the artist. In the intense interactive installation, site-specificity (space) and concepts of time (sound) are translated into percepts and affects through the physical experience of bodies (audience). In the huge space, the audience finds its way deeper into the space: the tall monolithic towers of black speakers beat time with other rhythms placed in multiple locations, visible or barely visible, such as walls and secluded spots.

The Magnetic Remanences


Erek was making a proposal for the use of space and the navigation and orientation of bodies in that space through the immaterial and temporal form of sound as well as visible objects and signs: the found architectural elements from the store, such as a changing cabinet; objects such as a trunk of a Christmas tree whose rings measure the chronology of Documenta (1945, D1, D2, D3 … D13); drawings such as the time charts of Turkish soldier and of the Documenta worker; signs resembling a warning or commercial signs such as, ‘60 bpm’, ‘Arrhythmia’, ‘Culture of Anniversary’, Für Immer Reduziert and ‘International Style’, linking the architecture and the acoustics as well as art and culture. For the audio, Erek used varying types of sound systems amplifying what he describes as ‘sonic time lines’, using the vocabulary of minimal dance music (basically bass drum and hi-hat (pedalled cymbal) to sonify common intervals (for example, the 100 days of Documenta, which take places every five years) scaled to simple patterns, as well as collections of historically important dates represented by audio icons.18 Together with the objects and signs, this sound grid was carving space with molecular sounds that implicate the organized and regulated rhythms of our social world. Erek challenged the visual and aural by adding the movement of the body into the space as a means of physically experiencing abstract ideas. Rich pulsating beats and sound particles together with objects and signs in the space were drawn towards the bodies like iron filings to a magnet. In an interview, Erek explains how he works in a given space with visual and aural elements: This is a spatial work or a proposal. Therefore everything in it is a part of the space. Let me make a crude analogy: just as a tea glass is an object in a teagarden, wooden ruler, sounds, warning signs are such objects in my garden. This space has sections, even if they are not clearly discernable; it has its tunnels that communicate with the outside yet filter it at the same time; it has its windows from where it can see outside or show itself; it has its precautionary measurements that cannot be seen but are taken to avoid disturbing the neighbours.19 Whereas the visual presence is already there, even before we see it, the aural presence arrives after the process of being listened to. The aural has to be sensed; it has to be experienced in order to become ‘material’. Erek’s performative work shows us that listening is a spatial practice. ‘The magnetic’, in this regard, is an instantiation irreducible to form and which produces a singular yet plural subject: of a community of individuals and of singular experience. Focusing on the act of listening, Nancy proposes a new formulation of a ‘resonant subject’. He writes:


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

I propose to paraphrase by saying that it is a question of going back to, or opening oneself up to, the resonance of being, or to being as resonance … It is a question, then, of going back from the phenomenological subject, an intentional line of sight, to a resonant subject, an intensive spacing of a rebound that does not end in any return to self without immediately relaunching, as an echo, a call to that same self. While the subject of the target is always already given, posed in itself to its point of view, the subject of listening is always still yet to come, spaced, traversed, and called by itself, sounded by itself …20 Nancy is concerned with listening through which a perceptible singularity comes into being. When it comes to sound, the space is not simply a space nor is the present time not simply the present time. As sound moves across spaces, it forms its own space by spreading out its resonance through expansion and reverberation into the space. The aural does not only enlarge locations, re-form or de-form objects but also enables singularities to temporarily come into being, giving their surroundings an amplitude, a density and a vibration. In Room of Rhythms (2012) Erek was after the subjectivities produced in resonances. He makes a proposal for experience: the space restoring his/her understanding of social life.

Conclusion Giorgio Agamben argues that in the modern world societies have lost their gestures under the action of invisible powers. According to Agamben, art should belong to the realm of ethics and politics and not simply to that of aesthetics.21 The philosopher inscribes gesture into the sphere of action, clearly setting it apart from acting and making. ‘What characterizes gesture,’ writes Agamben, ‘is that in it nothing is being produced or acted, but rather something is being endured and supported.’22 Agamben therefore distinguishes gesture from representation that contains a sphere of meaning, as addressing a goal, and from a separate and superior sphere of gesture as a movement that has its end in itself. He points out that, ‘[t]he gesture is the exhibition of a mediality: it is the process of making a means visible as such. It allows the emergence of the being-in-a-medium of human beings and thus it opens the ethical dimension for them.’ 23 Elements in an audiovisual artwork can arrange themselves in a gesture. Voice is not simply ephemeral: it can act and produce effects in the world and for the world. It is about giving force to feelings, perceptions and sensations as well as actions, movements, and restoring our relationship with

The Magnetic Remanences


the existing world. The magnetic, in this context, is about creating alternative ways of doing things: of operating and functioning. In Negotiations, Deleuze writes : Indeed, I think subjectification has little to do with any subject. It’s to do, rather, with an electric or magnetic field, an individuation taking place through intensities (weak as well as strong ones), it’s to do with individuated fields, not persons or identities. It’s what Foucault, elsewhere, calls ‘passion’.24 Following Deleuze, the term ‘magnetic’ exists as an exception to what there is as an addition to what is available. That is, bodies and languages that have been endlessly produced and reproduced by the dominant forces of globalization. From this perspective, new media art practices can help us interrogate the ways new subjectivities can emerge in the social domain, triggered by digital settings or structures. This potentiality refers to the coexistence of ‘mobile elements’ (objects, bodies, sounds, voices) that operate like magnets so as to produce a plural form. In the digital art and media, ‘the magnetic’ is a new grammar for speaking of an ontological caesura and building from there. It supports the argument that other forms of production are possible for a difference of desires, subjective claims and common experiences. ‘The magnetic’ is about the potentiality of intelligence, the senses and the sensible. It is about the capacity of digital media to renew the mechanism of knowledge and action. In the article, voice and sound are interrogated as excess, producing in us an enormous sensual and emotional charge, as well as thoughts and responses that push us simultaneously into events while drawing us towards movements and acts. In this regard, the ‘magnetic voice’ corresponds to an expression of excess, an object of a different kind that cannot be re/absorbed into the mechanism of power, language and meaning.

Acknowledgement This article is the revised and the extended version of the paper I presented at the conference ISEA 2011, The 17th International Symposium on Electronic Art, which was held between 14 and 21 September 2011 at Sabancı University. http:// isea2011.sabanciuniv.edu/paper/magnetic-field-audiovisual-art-practices.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

1. Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, Dialogues, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (London: The Athlone Press, 1977), pp. 126–7.

13. Sean Cubitt, Digital Aesthetics (London, Thousand Oaks and New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1998), pp. 120–1.

2. Michel Foucault, ‘Theatrum Philosophicum’, in Donald F. Bouchard (ed.), Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1977), p. 165.

14. Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, trans. Gregory Elliott (London and New York: Verso, 2009), p. 56.

3. Mladen Dolar, A Voice and Nothing More (Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 2006), p. 30. 4. Ibid., p. 4. 5. Mladen Dolar, ‘His Master’s Voice’, Amber ’07: Art and Technology Festival, Voice and Survival (catalogue), BIS, Body-Process Art Association, Istanbul, 2010, p. 117. 6. Dolar, A Voice and Nothing More, p. 67. 7. Dolar, ‘What’s in a Voice’, Amber ’07: Art and Technology Festival, Voice and Survival, p. 103. 8. Ibid., p. 95. 9. Ibid., p. 101. 10. Mic hel Chion, Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, trans. Claudia Gorbman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), p. 223. 11. Ibid., p. 70. 12. Ibid., pp. 70–1.

The Magnetic Remanences

15. Ibid., p. 57. 16. Jean-Luc Nancy, Listening, trans. Charlotte Mandell (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007), p. 32. 17. Ibid., p. 7. 18. Eva Scharrer, ‘Cevdet Erek’, in dOCUMENTA (13): The Guidebook 3/3, Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2012, p. 56. 19. Necmi Sönmez–Cevdet Erek, ‘Documenta 13: Söyleşiler’, Sanat Dünyamız, S. 130, September– October 2012, pp. 30–1. 20. Nancy, Listening, p. 21. 21. Giorgio Agamben, Means Without End: Notes on Politics (Minneapolis/London: University of Minneapolis Press, 2000), p. 56. 22. Ibid., p. 57. 23. Ibid., p. 58. 24. Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations, trans. Martin Joughin (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), p. 97.


Re-examining the Social Impulse Politics, Media and Art after the Arab Uprisings Omar Kholeif

The relationship between politics, media and the visual arts for cultural practitioners living in the ‘Arab world’ has never been as urgent a topic for debate as it has been since the advent of the political turmoil that begun the Arab uprisings in December 2010. At the time of writing there is still a rampant desire by cultural brokers to create unsophisticated forums for discussion of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, a term which so many have come to completely disavow. Arguably, the rudimentary ‘debate’, which seeks to bludgeon art with the brunt of realist day-to-day politics, is forming a one-dimensional history that is being written by groups who, it has been argued, are either completely naive or attempting to capitalize on market and cultural interest in the cultural practitioners of the Arab world. Writers, curators and editors have attempted to capture, for better or for worse, the genesis of ‘post-revolutionary art’ within the region. Critics and curators have achieved this by dubbing any art produced after the Arab uprisings as ‘post-revolutionary’. Examples of this include private institutions such as Mona Said’s gallery in Cairo, the entire curatorial framework around the first Shubbak festival in London 2011 and, of course, the numerous international film festivals from Cannes to Berlin whose curatorial programming included large film seasons around the theme of the ‘Arab Spring’, such as International Film Festival Rotterdam’s Power Cut Middle East, to name just one example.1 If these thematic frameworks suggest anything, it is that artists and curators who hold an ‘Arab’ identity are expected to engage directly with the sociopolitical events that inform their ‘local’ context, whether that context is directly influencing their artwork or not. Naturally this scenario is not unique to the present moment. The Egyptian-born artist Basim Magdy once informed me, for example, that he was rejected from the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, because the selection panel were disappointed that his work ‘did not directly reflect his social reality’.2

The relationship between the politics of everyday life and a culturally ‘located’ canon of art is, of course, complex. This polemic seeks to explore the social impulse generated by the interplay of politics, media and the visual arts in the contemporary Arab world, with a particular focus on Egypt from 2011 to 2013. In particular, my aim is to discuss how technology’s socializing qualities might be able to shift generalizing cultural forms of categorization, such as those noted above, as it continues to advance, and to map inter-disciplinary fields of art education into motion. In the autumn 2011 issue of Index journal, published by MACBA Barcelona, Hassan Khan preceded his own short story, ‘The First Lesson I Remember Learning Is That Humiliation Exists’ with some weighted words: A question lies behind the choice of title used here … The question is ironically the one that may be most expected at this moment — the one that, at this point in time, critics, curators and editors will ask artists who come from Egypt. The question has, of course, to do with how an artist, operating at a historical moment, deals with an event whose proportions and form defy all expectations. The question is usually followed by enquiries about whether your practice has changed following such events, if you feel that you have a new responsibility as an artist, if your understanding of art has changed.3 Khan insists that nothing has changed directly in terms of his conceptual, aesthetic and theoretical preoccupations, or indeed in his choice of subjects. This is significant coming from an artist whose work has often revolved around issues of social communication, rearticulation and transformation through media, as evidenced in sound works such as DOM-TAK-TAK-DOM-TAK (2005), a work that saw the artist appropriating Egyptian shaabi music through the subjective lenses of a number of street musicians. Khan’s processes of appropriation and reinscription echo here some of the common qualities of media appropriation that began in Egypt in January 2011. As the curator Rasha Salti stated at a conversation held during the 4th Marrakech Biennale, media has been the primary tool within the Arab world’s political revolts.4 Spectators of public dissidence, who may have begun their journey through the upheaval by watching mediated images, subsequently became involved with the movement through their own processes of media capturing — documenting photographs and fashioning them into posters that they would re-present and distribute on both online and physical social networks. The issue of media technology is therefore crucial; as Gilles Deleuze asserted, technology is a socializing force before it is a technical one.5 In terms of the visual arts and the Egyptian uprising, this created a grey area because one of the most famous early casualties of the struggle was the new media Re-examining the Social Impulse


Hassan Khan, Dom Tak Tak Dom Tak, 2005. Light & sound installation (mixer, amplifier, speakers, light program, show controller, vinyl text on the wall), 340 x 1470 x 570 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Chantal Crousel, Paris.

Hamza Serafi, The People Want, 2011, 1 min 35. Courtesy of the artist.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

artist, Ahmed Bassiony, who was shot by snipers on Tahrir Square. While political activism and the impetus behind new media art may operate exclusively of each other, they are both bound by the idea of ‘open’ flows of democratization via digital communication technologies. Media-based art is derived from an art historical trajectory that has developed since the 1970s, potently evolving from the mid-1990s through to the millennium, which saw the artist’s role transformed into that of a tinkerer or hacker, capable of cracking open the confines of insular capitalist hegemony and educational hierarchies. Media and .net artists from the likes of Electronic Disturbance Theater and Critical Art Ensemble, to Heath Bunting, Queer Technologies and JODI, have all in some way or other practised civil disobedience either in real life or online. From a political perspective, it is deeply poignant and significant that Bassiony — the artist who subsequently represented Egypt at the 54th Venice Biennale — was known in Egypt for having utilized open source software not only in his own artwork, but also in his teaching, in public workshops, and through postgraduate study. This leads to a pertinent question: could the relationship between the open source ideology in recent new media history and the proliferating ‘share’ culture of revolutionary dissidence have created this grey area, whereby artists who work with new media as a resource from Egypt and the whole region are asked to comment or subscribe to an artistic interpretation of the Arab world’s uprisings? This is not to say that artists in Egypt and the Arab world are not interested in engaging explicitly with the subject matter. In 2011, for example, Hamza Serafi created a video art project entitled, The People Want … an allegory of civil unrest in Egypt represented by popcorn kernels. Here, Serafi asserts that a certain ‘combination proved explosive, as people (kernel) who had to endure injustice (heat) committed over time, and their plight further expressed by the media (oil) … reached a point of no return (popcorn)’. The work was inspired by one of the artist’s friends, a protester who dubbed the pro-Mubarak regime ‘Hooligans … [being] fed Kentucky Fried Chicken meals laced with 100-dollar bills’. Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) operates on a number of different metaphorical levels here — an imperial one (American power and investment in the Mubarak regime), a geographic one (in that protestors used to meet at the KFC in Tahrir Square) and a literal one (in that KFC serves popcorn-style chicken). In the opening article in the October 2011 issue of the often indulgent UAE-based journal Contemporary Practices, the French-Tunisian scholar Khadija Hamdi starts by suggesting that post-revolutionary art in Tunisia is an ‘engaged’ form of creative practice.6 Before long, she suggests that the term ‘engaged art’ is an essential and responsive movement to the oppressive former political regime. For me, this language of ‘the new dawn’ or ‘the new day’ is a dangerous one. It suggests that as artists, writers, curators and ultimately citizens, all of our thinking and all of our belief systems, should function in Re-examining the Social Impulse


opposition to or in response to a fallen regime. What does this language or framing ask of artists? That revolution should be a unifying thematic device, akin to the Palestinian conflict or the Lebanese Civil War? Without hesitation, one can argue that this would be counter-intuitive if, indeed, the uprising was meant to unshackle artists from the bounds of conforming to government regulation or censorship. If we are to learn anything from the mobilizing rationale of the uprising, it is that technology is a force that can break down hierarchical boundaries. Socializing media works against forms of categorization to which we have so often become accustomed in the frequent usage of collective ethnic terminology such as Arab Art, Chinese Art or Indonesian Art in the international art world. In his essay Geo-coding Contemporary Art?, Timo Kaabi-Linke criticizes these common labels as ideologically reductive catch-alls that deprive art of its universally modern qualities.7 He then goes on to draw a correlation between this and our current sociopolitical condition, arguing that protestors from the Arab uprisings to the Occupy Wall Street movement (many of whom have come together initially through social media) are bound by no particular agenda or manifesto beyond the fact that that they no longer wish to tolerate exploitation. He goes on to argue that none of the protestors represents a particular sector (for instance, workers or students). This picture of differences that Kaabi-Linke attempts to draw is one that could be appropriated to our benefit if we are to break down geopolitical systems that attempt to set out a prescriptive schema for artists. This is easier said than done, of course. The contemporary visual arts operate within a hierarchical structure of artists, art schools, academicians, curators, writers and, ultimately, collectors and philanthropists. Historical processes of selection, even from a post-colonial position, continue to require that artists be framed within a curatorial context that is easily digestible and one that often accentuates difference. And while the act of fetishizing Orientalist stereotypes is no longer as unsophisticated as it used to be, a common set of rigid principles continues to be put forward. Namely, one can argue that both cinema and the visual arts in the Arab world continue to emphasize work that bears an Oriental aesthetic quality, coupled with both a critical and documentary sense of introspection from the artist to illustrate that they are aware of their sociopolitical condition. Examples of this trend could once be found in some of the large-scale paintings of Khaled Hafez and in the early work of Ghada Amer. The subsequent reality is that many of the artists who live in Egypt and the Arab world in general end up as part of exhibitions with titles such as Light from the Middle East (Victoria and Albert Museum, 2012) or Taswir — Pictorial Mapping of Islam and Modernity (2009), a show that pioneering artist and educator Shady El Noshokaty exhibited at in Berlin at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, or


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East (2009) at the Saatchi Gallery in London, which many writers (myself included) have criticized at great length for its generic categorization. The polemic of the latter can easily be derived from its title, and its use of imagery from Kader Attia’s Ghost (2007), which comprised aluminium sculptures of veiled women kneeling. This was complicated by its unclearly defined geographic expanse, and its lack of interpretation or material for further engagement. This form of curatorial framing is a persistent problem and can even be seen within the so-called Global South itself. For example, a new show at the Mori Art Museum in Japan, Arab Express (2012), professes to bring new art and identity from the Arab world to Japan. A question arises: who bears the burden? The artist can choose to refrain from participating in such exhibitions, but they subsequently risk fading into obscurity if they do so. With these issues still at the core of our intellectual processes of ‘curating’ art in/from the Arab world, I believe that now is a critical moment for us to consider how the social impulses that have provoked such international interest in these artists are theorized, curated, exhibited and reappropriated for the world. The most positive counter-activities are the grassroots, artist-led movements, educational and visual arts institutions, which exist locally and extend beyond such didacticism. Historically, this may not have been possible, because contemporary art institutions in Egypt in particular have been shielded from public view and have been lacking the visibility that music, cinema or literature have held. Moreover, as Shady El Noshokaty noted when he co-founded The Media Art Workshop programme at Helwan University more than a decade ago, higher art education often lacked an infrastructure, both in terms of technical apparatus and, perhaps most importantly, because curricula were never fluid.8 Students were forced to study in what he dubbed ‘totalitarian’ systems, whereby they were unable to specialize in a particular media and were only awarded places at art colleges based on their grades, as opposed to artistic potential. Greater awareness, however, is growing with the rise of social networks (virtual and physical) throughout the entire region. Artists have now become agents in the ecology in which they operate, allowing a new generation free tools of access, as evidenced by the launch of Shady El Noshokaty’s ASCII Foundation, Wael Shawky’s MASS Alexandria, the Home Workspace programme led by Ashkal Alwan’s Christine Tohme in Beirut, Lebanon. Karaj: Beirut’s Media Lab in Experimental Arts, Architecture and Technology, Batroun Art Space in Lebanon, Medrar for Contemporary Art in Cairo, formerly the Alexandria Contemporary Art Forum, and The Nile Sunset Annex (an artist-run space in Cairo), are all also worth significant mentions here. With education comes knowledge and the vernacular of artistic independence, which will hopefully allow younger artists the artistic mobility to delineate their career trajectory more clearly. The so-called ‘Arab Spring’ has come to play a dual role in this grand scheme. It has shed a light on art spaces, Re-examining the Social Impulse


such as Artellewa and Nile Sunset Annex and Beirut in Cairo, which have become a meeting space for individuals from many different walks of life to congregate, study and debate through their residencies, open talks, rehearsals and independent study programmes; yet at the same time, it has given international cultural brokers a knee-jerk position from which they can respond, theorize and canonize art produced by artists who bear a connection to the Arab world. When asked how she would advise artists to navigate the temptation of succumbing to this schema propagated by revolutionary dissidence, Sarah Rifky, former curator at Townhouse and co-director of Beirut in Cairo, noted that: I think engaging other people’s curiosity is fine, so long as it’s not co-opting the current state of fluidity and attempts at conjugating a new political reality into a fixed form of spectacle. I can’t prescribe how anyone should ‘deal’ with this; perhaps the most important thing is a matter of questioning the impetus of questions, asking why people might want to engage [with artists], and how. Being critical, scrutinising, but also open and sincere.9 The art scene in the Arab world itself, however, continues to remain generative in different ways and extends beyond engaging with the curiosity of international cultural brokers, who are often interested in being part of ‘a conversation’ about endless hope and change. If anything positive has come out of this, it is the socializing quality of the media utilized both by artists and practitioners who collectively ‘share’ the multiplicity of voices, narratives and histories present in the region. Still, the goal of cultural brokers should be to ensure that the narrative of revolution does not encroach on the numerous narratives that exist on the fringes. Local art scenes often rely on international exposure and funding to flourish, and as such we must continue to ensure that the narratives that we cling to or decide to develop are not ones that reduce artists to a further categorical specificity, but which allow a more meaningful sedimentary dialogue to come to fruition.

Postscript: notes on image and appropriation I was recently asked to give a lecture at the Royal College of Art, London, to coincide with an exhibition curated by the graduating students on the Curating Contemporary Art MA programme. I was invited to take part especially because the students had organized a group show entitled, No One Lives Here (2013), which utilized the archive of Mosireen — the independent media collective based in Egypt who have documented violence and injustice in post-uprising Egypt, as a constituent work of ‘art’ within the exhibition. I


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

was informed by one of the exhibition’s curators that Mosireen were chosen for the exhibition because they adopted techniques such as ‘appropriation’ of footage, which was also an approach used in the work of other artists in the exhibition such as Shana Moulton, whose work could be found nearby. This rationalization opened up a whole range of moral and ethical questions. How could material produced to raise awareness of social injustice, as in the case of the archive of Mosireen, be validated using the same principles as those of a work of contemporary art? The latter, produced in a free and open Western context, is liberated from the context of conflict and is able to function autonomously, whether it reaches a wide audience or remains embedded strictly within the confines of the art world. On the other hand, the work of Mosireen, in my opinion, exists out of necessity — an essential will to fill in the information bubble, which popular media either refuses, or is unable to relay from within a perpetually shifting Egypt. If we consider the aesthetics of Mosireen — a collective composed largely of skilled filmmaking professionals, we could naively misinterpret their imagery into the post-internet vernacular of appropriation. Indeed, Mosireen actively collect material from different sources, and through incisive editing they juxtapose original and found footage against the subdued reportage of the hegemonic Egyptian media. This approach, it can be argued, is driven by an unflappable desire by insiders and outsiders alike to untangle the spurious nature of representational politics — and this is a method that can be attributed to both the art world and the political arena. The copy and paste mentality is indeed a trope used by both independent and mainstream news media to elucidate particular emotional reactions to social and political conflict. The nature of image and narrative production in post-uprising Egypt nevertheless is tied to one everlasting act of processing. Processing as a cultural trope can be considered as the transient and fluid journey that bestows meaning onto a subject. Processing is also the technological method by which the invisible becomes visible (in photography, for example), and also in bespoke religious sects, such as Scientology; ‘processing’, in the latter context, is the transcendental period and means by which one ascends into the religious group. Specifically, in the case of Egypt, we have three kinds of ‘meaning’ that are constantly being negotiated through processing: the processing of trauma, of data and of images. The three are, of course, interchangeable. Trauma is often visualized in digital images, which are composed of data in the form of thousands of pixels. These images — of conflict, of uprising, of simultaneous discontent and euphoria — all feed into a continuous stream of images, which are proliferated across countless social networks and media platforms. To paraphrase Jens Maier-Rothe et al. in an essay included within this book, the sheer volume of images that occupy the endless internet flow has the potential to be misleading if considered out of context. Certainly, digital images flatten Re-examining the Social Impulse


time to a point where proximity and distance of particular events are no longer discernible. As such, if one looks at an image of Tahrir Square (filled with protestors) in 2011, it is no different than what it looks like filled with protestors in 2012. And although time has the potential to shift political tensions, to the navel-gazing viewer in the digital sphere, the images (and what they represent) sit side by side, without any obvious means with which to differentiate them. Digital images, as such, often lack the temporal complexity to be ‘located’. What, then, does the politics surrounding contemporary image making tell us about art and cinema, both our niche and mass cultural forms? In March 2013, I had a long conversation with the noted film historian Viola Shafik about the manner in which cultural producers were adopting the utopic values of revolutionary dissidence into their work.10 Shafik responded unflinchingly that revolution itself manifested in two ways. The first was purely representational, and it was this form that Shafik believed was most liable for naive exploitation. On the other hand, she emphasized a revolutionary by-culture, a tradition which, she argued, helped form creative communities and collectives that could have otherwise never existed. One example Shafik discussed was Hasala Productions, an informal collective of largely female filmmakers, whom she believed were producing works that were ‘revolutionary’ in both form and content. This notion of ‘revolutionary’ form and content, I believe, links back to the potential of technology to function as a socializing force — a conduit through which collectives can form organically, and, by coincidence, have the potency to articulate our collective unconscious. Only then will we be able to excise ourselves from the oppressive ‘one-dimensional history’ that encapsulates the contemporary narrative of conflict.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

1. Moreover, regularly, artists and filmmakers contact me to ask me whether they should accept their invitation to be a part of a ‘post-Arab Spring’-themed programme — from Hamburg to Nottingham, the examples are numerous. Likewise, the ills of ‘revolutionary’ framing can be attributed to projects independent of such a narrative. For instance, in 2012, I curated an exhibition entitled Subversion at Cornerhouse, in Manchester, which sought to reconsider Arab modernisms. Yet despite the fact that all of the artworks were produced pre-‘Arab Spring’, the British press continued to associate the content of the exhibition with the dayto-day reality of the Arab uprisings. 2. Interview with Basim Magdy at Tate Modern, 5 July 2013. 3. The First Lesson I Remember Learning Is that Humiliation Exists, Hassan Khan, Index (MACBA, Barcelona). Volume 2, 2011. 4. From a panel conversation with Rasha Salti entitled ‘A Spring of Images’ on 29 February 2012 at the Marrakech Biennale. See http://www.artandeducation. net/paper/the-social-impulse-politics-media-and-artafter-the-arab-uprisings/#_edn2.

6. ‘On the Path of Contemporary Tunisian Art’, Khadija Hamdi, Contemporary Practices Journal, Vol. IX, 2011. See http://www.artandeducation.net/paper/the-socialimpulse-politics-media-and-art-after-the-arab-uprisings/#_edn4. 7. Timo Kaabi-Linke, ‘Geo Coding Contemporary Art?’ Available at http://www.contemporarypractices.net/ essays/VolumeIXgeocodingcontemporaryart.pdf (accessed 10 February 2012). See http://www.artandeducation.net/paper/the-social-impulse-politics-mediaand-art-after-the-arab-uprisings/#_edn5. 8. From a personal interview with Shady El Noshokaty in Liverpool on 27 September 2011. See http://www. artandeducation.net/paper/the-social-impulse-politicsmedia-and-art-after-the-arab-uprisings/#_edn6. 9. From a personal interview with Sarah Rifky conducted on 10 February 2012. See http://www.artandeducation.net/paper/the-social-impulse-politics-media-andart-after-the-arab-uprisings/#_edn7. 10. From a personal interview with Viola Shafik conducted 28 March 2013.

5. Caspar Bruun Jensen and Kjetil Rodje, Deleuzian Intersections in Science, Technology and Anthropology (Oxford and New York: Berghahn Books, 2009). See http://www.artandeducation.net/paper/the-socialimpulse-politics-media-and-art-after-the-arab-uprisings/#_edn3.

Re-examining the Social Impulse


Tarzan and Arab

Gazawood, 2010 Tarzan and Arab (real names Ahmad and Mohammad Abu Nasser) were born in Gaza in 1988, a year after the last cinemas in that city were closed. Long-time cinephiles, the identical twin brothers, who still live in Gaza, developed their passion for cinema with the help of Palestinian filmmaker Khalil al Mozian. These posters, alongside a short film Colourful Journey, 2010, promote fictional feature films that take their titles from Israeli Defence Force (IDF) military campaigns in Palestine. For an online interview, see: Colourful Shadows and Reel Journeys: www.ibraaz.org/interviews/32









Sophia Al-Maria

Chewing the Data Fat, 2007 So here we find ourselves in the fluorescent-lit marble floored and cushioned living room of a Gulf household. The tacky luxury of the nouveau riche is glinting on every glass coffee table and jewel-encrusted tissue box holder. Two young boys lay sprawled on the floor, a Filipina maid clearing up the nest of foil crisp packets and phosphorescent bottles of ‘Dew’. They pay no attention to her — they are feeding from and consumed by their screens. Grand Theft Auto rumbles on the older boy’s plus-sized Plasma while the younger plays Snake III on a chrome-Nokia 8800 Sirocco. Time shifts around them while they masticate information. Maghreb prayer comes and goes, night falls, morning dawns; they still remain in their spots in the majlis, unmoving as the maid periodically checks up on them. The boys expand, their flesh fattening before our eyes as the intricate networks between gadgetry and each other multiply invisibly. Colonized by their technology, these are chubby, sexless, frontal lobeheavy beings — like Tetsuo iron boys. The tableau you just read is a global one and a tired one. Today our great exodus from and mass migration into the virtual realm is fully absorbing and destroying our physical world. This is true particularly in the Gulf. National narratives and master plans play out cleanly in 3D animated intros, divorced from the real sweat and consequences of their construction. Novelty and fantasy bear more clout than practicality and possibility. It is a desert of alienation and absence obsessively mapped out on GPS grids. The architects, consultants and engineers are gamers without any feeling for the environment they are living in and building on. And with that I leave you with a video elegy composed to little boys of the Gulf.

For full video and interview, see: Chewing the Data Fat: www.ibraaz.org/projects/49 On Automobiles: www.ibraaz.org/channel/18





p. 242 Saadiyat Island Frank Gehry Model of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, 2011, © Hans Haacke. p. 242 Saadiyat Island Louvre Abu Dhabi-Road Sign, 2011, © Hans Haacke. p. 243 Saadiyat Island Louvre Abu Dhabi, 2011, © Hans Haacke. p. 243 Saadiyat Island Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, 2011, © Hans Haacke. p. 243 Saadiyat Island TDIC-Workers Camp, 2011, © Hans Haacke. p. 243 Saadiyat Island Change of Shift 2011 © Hans Haacke p. 243 Saadiyat Island Museum Construction Site, 2011, © Hans Haacke. p. 243 Saadiyat Island Museum Construction Site, 2011, © Hans Haacke. p. 244 Saadiyat Island Road Sign, 2011, © Hans Haacke. p. 245 Saadiyat Island TDIC-Workers Camp 2011 © Hans Haacke

All images courtesy of the artist.

Hans Haacke for Gulf Labor

Saadiyat Island, 2011 In May 2009, the human rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a damning report on labour conditions in Abu Dhabi, which presented evidence of widespread abuse of migrant labourers including, but not limited to, forced labour, surrender of passports, withholding of wages, and working conditions deemed unfit and, for many, fatal. In March 2012, a follow-up HRW report found improvements in the treatment of migrant workers, but protection gaps remain. Whilst Gulf Labor have noted improvements, they also observe continued failings across a number of areas when it comes to equitable labour rights in the building of Saadiyat Island. Hans Haacke’s photographs, produced for Gulf Labor (a coalition of international artists working to ensure that migrant worker rights are protected during the construction and maintenance of museums on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi), explore the symbolic disjunction between the dreamscapes of the future and the often brutal, squalid realities that underwrite their construction. In the images under consideration here there is a question implied: what is it to live under the conditions of globalization and deregulated labour? Or, more specifically, what is it to experience globalization as an economic, social, historical and political fact of life (and a destructive influence on the security of those lives), rather than an abstract ideal or theoretical framework? For online material, see: Saadiyat Island, Hans Haacke: www.ibraaz.org/projects/50 Saadiyat and the Gulf Labor Boycott: www.ibraaz.org/essays/62 Dubai’s Mystified Promise of Globalization: www.ibraaz.org/essays/61 Rendezvous – Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen: www.ibraaz.org/projects/8





Rabih Mroué

The Pixelated Revolution, 2012 In The Pixelated Revolution, Rabih Mroué interrogatively engages with images pulled from the internet alongside videos posted by civilians documenting acts of violence in the ongoing Syrian Revolution. The witnesses have documented and shared their footage to tell of their experience, and Mroué plays out the role of selector, interpreter and commentator as he appropriates material into a narrative of his own devising. The collection of stills, videos and texts projected behind Mroué as he performs this narrative on a stage appear in succession on the large screen. He analyses the cinematic methods of the ‘amateur’ videos of violence captured on mobile phones and finds similarities between them and the Danish Dogme 95 film collective and its drastic aesthetic remit. Mroué identifies these rules in the videos shown, thus generating a new manifesto regarding a singular question: how do you document violence during a time of revolution and indiscriminate death? Whilst theorizing on the war of ‘bipod versus tripod’, ‘double-shooting’, and recalling the methods of optography —the idea put forward in the eighteenth century that the last image on the deceased person’s retina could be extracted —Mroué screens a short video shot from the rooftop of a building. The spectator’s eye becomes one with the camera-phone lens, as it gazes down on a narrow street at a sniper anticipating his next target. A moment later, the sniper looks up, observing the civilian spectator and his camera phone. We know what will happen next, but our eyes remain fixed on the screen as we see the sniper aiming and shooting at the spectator and the film’s audience in turn.  

For further online material, see: Rabih Mroué and the Pixelated Revolution: www.ibraaz.org/news/21 Lost in Narration: www.ibraaz.org/interviews/11










Arab Glitch Laura U. Marks

Glitch, compression and low-resolution video reveal the materiality of the support underlying the digital image — a materiality that constitutes an everyday problem in countries with poor infrastructure, including most of the Arab (Arabic-speaking) world. They also indicate the power relations that undergird the Arab world. Low resolution diminishes individuality — compression forces data to conform to filters and glitch interrupts the intended message with a more urgent one. In what follows, I will examine some works by media artists in the Arab world who experiment with glitch and draw out its aesthetic and political implications. We’ll see that textiles offer interesting precedents for compression, loss of resolution and glitch in a matrix-based medium. The subject of glitch media may make readers think about the mobile phone videos produced by activists in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria. Certainly, the urgency with which these works were recorded, uploaded and downloaded relied on compression and produced glitches. But glitch is just a problem in these works; a problem for communication and interpretation and not something that the activist makers are exploring for its expressive qualities. For this reason I won’t be discussing activist works here. Whether analogue or digital, moving images lose resolution when they are reproduced, despite rhetoric to the contrary regarding digital media. Resolution diminishes when video is transferred from one system to another — for example, from PAL to NTSC. Low resolution shows up when movies shot with consumer equipment or mobile phones are screened on platforms for high-definition video. It also occurs because digital media use compression algorithms to allow images to be transmitted and reproduced more efficiently. Compression algorithms try to get the best resolution for a given bit-rate: if the bit-rate is low, the image will be more approximate. Compression is an economical way to store and reproduce data by omitting superfluous detail. It is the norm in poor countries where bootlegging is common and bandwidth

is slow. A compressed image loses the depth and quality of the original. Often, it exaggerates features that were negligible in the original. Meanwhile, we experience glitch as a disruption of picture or sound normally delivered via quantified packets of information: a flash of blossoming colours on the screen, often contained in a tidy square. Glitch is the surge of the disorderly world into the orderly transmission of electronic signals, resulting from a sudden voltage change in an electrical circuit.1 Ideally, transmission is perfect, but in fact it almost never is. In this disorderly behaviour of electrons, glitch reminds us of digital information’s analogue roots.

Glitch’s material base Olga Goriunova and Alexei Shulgin write that glitch doesn’t reveal the true functionality of the computer, but ‘shows the ghostly conventionality of the forms by which digital spaces are organized’.2 Glitches remind us of the ideology of convention, which includes assumptions that users have up-to-date platforms, legally acquired software and access to customer support, and that users’ computers are able to stream data at optimal speeds on reliable electric systems. Thus conventions of optimal performance assume an ideal system, which is the case almost nowhere. Glitch is a regular occurrence in countries where electricity is unreliable, where sudden power outages interfere in the electronic production of screen outputs. Thus, glitch also indicates incompetence or corruption by governments that are supposed to deliver basic services. In Lebanon in 2012, people burned tyres in the streets to protest at the poor service of Electricité du Liban since the Hezbollah-dominated government came to power. In Cairo, electricity used to be more dependable than in Beirut, but there too serious problems have arisen in the past couple of years, a function of the disorganization of civic services since the first Tahrir Revolution in 2011. People in poorer countries need to take shortcuts and to make do with the materials at hand. This entails using old or obsolete hardware–software platforms, making do with slow connections and often using pirated software. Hardware and software companies design their products to become obsolescent, forcing dependent users of their platforms to keep upgrading. The costs of keeping up to date are significant for many users in wealthy countries, and are out of the question for most users in poorer countries. Most of us feel a simmering rage as a result, directed at the proprietary companies or more generally at the international economics of dependency.3 Glitch releases that rage, as Goriunova and Shulgin write: ‘When the computer does the unexpected … it releases the tension and hatred of the user toward an ever-functional but uncomfortable machine.’4


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Stills from The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni, 2011, by Rania Stephan. Courtesy of the artist.

Arab Glitch


Low resolution, compression and glitch index images are recycled over several generations or imperfectly transferred. Often what looks like glitch is just low bandwidth or low transfer speed: the heartbreak of Skype and similar media that turn our beloveds into grotesque metallic masses. This happens everywhere, but again is more common the worse the infrastructure is. Pirated media relies on compression. Most Arab countries are signatories to the 1886 Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, as well as to the Arab Convention for Copyright Protection of 1981. But only Jordan, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the UAE have signed the much more recent World Intellectual Property Treaty of 1996, which includes protection of computer programs and databases.5 Even though the Berne and Arab Conventions de facto cover media works, copyright is blithely ignored in most Arab countries. ‘More than half of the DVDs, CDs and software sold in Lebanon are copies, according to the International Intellectual Property Alliance.’6 In Rabat, Cairo, Ramallah, Damascus or Baghdad, there are shops and street stalls doing a brisk business in pirated media. When people buy pirated movies and music, they’re accustomed to a little randomness; some error; some gaps. We might look for beauty in these dropouts, like the openness to the world that André Bazin wished for in the cinema, which spectators would fill with their own imagination or memory. But I doubt we’ll find it, for it is easy to fill in the gaps with expectations and clichés: compression, in its spiritual aspect. There’s not much to romanticize about everyday Arab glitch. Many artists in the Arab world explore the aesthetics of low-resolution video as a metaphor for selective memory and forgetting, an examination of archives and a direct indication of practices of copying, pirating and making do with inferior copies — far more than I can do justice to in this brief essay.7 Glitches, distortion and artefacts arise in digital copies of analogue video, themselves often copies of films. For example, Roy Dib’s Under a Rainbow (2011), which begins with glitch colour bars, works through Civil War trauma through low-resolution VHS tapes of the famous Lebanese child singer Amani. In Gheith Al-Amine’s Once Upon a Sidewalk (2009), differing resolutions of video versions of an encounter he recorded suggest the distortions of memory and the evanescence of the event itself. Rania Stephan’s The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni (2011) imagines the life of the famous Egyptian movie star Hosni, who committed suicide in 2001, in a brilliantly complex weaving of clips from her many films. Glitches scrape into the video image like the voracious desires of Hosni’s fans, eating into the image as memory appropriates the past. Roy Samaha deploys electronic distortion in many of his works, often in an aniconic gesture. In some works, the artist inflicts pain to his own body, and here glitch and analogue feedback appear as the medium’s sympathetic expression of suffering: this is the case in Untitled for Several Reasons (2002–3)


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Gheith Al-Amine, Once Upon a Sidewalk, 2009. Courtesy of the artist.

Arab Glitch


and Pink White Green Black: Noise/Silence Insinuated (2004–5). Samaha seeks numerous ways to scrape away the image surface, sometimes to parallel his own plunges into delirium and recovery, sometimes to diminish the significance of the visible. In Pink White Green Black: Noise/Silence Insinuated, Samaha binds his head with tape, blocking all his senses in a way that is painful to watch. The camera zooms into the video screen, and the image gives way to illegible pixels. This, together with images of the guts of electronic equipment, gives a feeling of being plunged inside the video: our senses are muffled. High-pitched electronic rasps and scratches scrape the listener’s ears, demanding that we partake in the insensate suffering of both the artist and the medium. Again, in Video for the End of Time (2006), the camera stares deep into the pixel screen, as though trying to excavate an image more enduring than the one on the image’s surface, and we see hands assembling electronic circuits, accompanied by a high-pitched squeal. Samaha shot the images for this video while working as a news videographer during the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon. As with other Lebanese artists’ responses to that war, there is a feeling that the image world is polluted and incapacitated. Shooting into the screen, through and past images that might be people and buildings, the camera discovers fundamental moiré patterns, a distortion that underlies all image playback. Similar aniconic strategies characterize the complex Transparent Evil (2011), made with Gheith al-Amine, in which the Lebanese artists, finding themselves in Cairo in January 2011, despair of achieving a meaningful image of the revolution taking place.

Glitch, the sign of longing The compression and glitch caused by poor internet connections are expressed creatively and with great power in Tariq Hashim’s film www.gilgamesh.21 (2007). It documents a long-distance collaboration between Hashim, in Copenhagen, and his collaborator Basim, in Baghdad, as they rehearse a play of the eighteenth-century bc epic Gilgamesh via webcam, YouTube and text messaging. In Baghdad the connection is poor and electricity cuts out often, interrupting their communication and introducing metallic echoes into their speech. Each bemoans his condition: tariq@Copenhagen writes, ‘I live in the chilly hell of exile, up in the north of this planet.’ basim@Baghdad replies, ‘Me, I am in a burning hell, in the city of death.’ The deprivation of post-war Iraq and the pain of exile are compounded when together (that is, by uploading movies of themselves watching the screen) the actors watch YouTube videos uploaded by American soldiers in Iraq. These movies reveal sickening bigotry and ignorance; and they usually boast much higher resolution than the actors are able to achieve in their own communications. In silence, the actors


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

watch these puerile, racist movies that reach much larger audiences than their erudite Babylonian adaptation probably will.8 But Basim and Hashim’s low-quality, long-distance montage, achieved by great effort, yields images of much greater intensity. Coming together over poor internet connections is also a theme of Mahmoud Khaled’s Camaraderie (2009), a meditation on the culture of male body builders, composed of videos posted to YouTube: men posing, competing, oiling and massaging each others’ bodies, cheering. As the athletes’ gleaming bodies break into pastel pixels, we occupy the position of a viewer accessing this material at home online, a position of unofficial or unauthorized spectatorship. The voyeuristic feeling is even more pronounced in a shot of a young man recording himself in the mirror as he raises his shirt to reveal his buff torso. At one point a group shot of athletes and their shouting supporters breaks up into a spectacular single moving mass of flesh- and fuchsia-coloured pixels. Over it the following text, in Arabic and English, is placed: comments off, no explanations needed. no discussion or questions will be answered on this piece either. it’s going to take me time to even process the fact that I posted this, hard as it was. I have taken courage to challenge myself and you have taken the time to allow this to effect you. the pay off is well worth it. In this address, the glitchy, low-resolution images indicate the longing of the lonely internet viewer, in countries where homosociality is the norm but homosexuality is illegal — while also revealing their ways of building connections. The energy of effort, display, mutual support and desire unites these men as a collective — both those who perform onscreen and those present as online spectators. The Egyptian national anthem accompanies one of these exhibitions; Khaled points out that it refers to the years when official Egyptian television played the anthem at the end of the broadcast day. Yet to me, the sound of the anthem gives the feeling that this unofficial culture of body building may have more staying power — more ‘legs’ — than the moribund Egyptian national culture circa 2009.

Compression aesthetics: the textile matrix of compression media Textiles, the oldest of matrix-based media, offer a genealogy for compression in digital and other quantified media. Designers and weavers of textiles such Arab Glitch


as carpets have long cultivated ways to convert continuous signals into discrete packets of information. Compression is ‘lossy’ in carpet weaving; that is, it omits information in order to minimize the size of the file. In carpets, high resolution and lack of interference are signs of an expensive platform. Looking at pre-industrial carpet production in Iran, Turkey and Egypt, we find that expensive carpets, made for courtly and important religious clients, have a fine weave in knots per inch. Cheaper trickle-down imitations — such as carpets made for the merchant class, which adapt designs of royal carpets to a lower-resolution matrix — as well as carpets made for export, show the materiality of the medium. Maintaining resolution is especially challenging when translating from one medium to another. For example, many Persian carpets made during the Safavid Empire (1502–1736) were translations of painting. They thus had to deal with the difficulty of rendering curved lines in a knot-based matrix. The asymmetrical Persian knot can approximate a curve decently at a high knots-per-inch ratio, but the pictures get wonky at lower resolutions. Curved lines are especially challenging to adapt to carpet when the carpet is made of Turkish-style square knots, resulting in blocky renditions of curves that look like low-resolution digital video. The lower the resolution, the more these carpets reveal the materiality of the medium and its means of production. They show how compression produces glitch, often creating new forms that subsequent designers and weavers take up. This is one explanation for the geometric reductions of biomorphic forms in many carpets. They also show the shortcuts designers and weavers devised: the ‘affordances’ of the medium. In these ways, carpet weaving offers a sturdy precedent for the aesthetics and politics of glitch in computer-based media. Compression generates abstraction, an abstraction not always desirable in art because it indexes not the wishes of the maker, but the exigencies of the machine. A compressed image loses the depth and quality of the original, creating an approximation of it. A curving line, compressed, translates into a choppy series of rectilinear lozenges. Over the centuries, carpet designers and weavers have found ways to make compression a desirable aesthetic quality rather than to reproduce a realistic image. Often, compression exaggerates features that were negligible in the original. Artefacts, reproduced in generations of media, become features. Again, carpets offer an interesting precedent, specifically what I think of as the smeared-rose rugs from Iran. The gul farang or foreign rose, a European cabbage-rose motif, was adapted in Kirman and Senneh, probably in the eighteenth century. These might have been made for export to the European market, or they might have been innovations that appealed to local customers. Certainly at some point European clients did not welcome this kind of innovation. A German trader, Emil Alpiger, wrote in his diary between 1872 and


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Still from Transparent Evil, 2011, by Roy Samaha. Courtesy of the artist.

Arab Glitch


Still from Recycle (the Code), 2010, video art, 2:47 min, by Ahmed El Shaer. Courtesy of the artist.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Arab Glitch


1878, ‘The oldest and most traditional designs and patterns are the best; i.e. the rose design is to be completely avoided.’9 Sometimes the rose motifs are fairly naturalistic; other times they are increasingly approximated with each generation. Gradually the edges of the figure smear into the lines of the weft and look increasingly ‘digital’. From European cabbage roses to high-resolution adaptations, which cease to index roses and transform into a new form: this is intercultural glitch. Egyptian artist and musician Kareem Lotfy makes digital works that exploit the exaggeration of errors and extraneous details. One of these is moiré patterns, which index an incompatibility between overlaid matrices. Lotfy uses a remarkable variety of means, but the output medium is the computer screen.10 Some of his works begin by making and scanning a simple ink-and-brush painting. He processes the image until the brushstroke breaks down, generating interference patterns (moiré) and producing new artefacts. Recently he has been working with explicitly carpet-like forms (Untitled 753, Untitled 754 (2010–11). One of Lotfy’s online works, left–right (2010–11), can be played with a slider, and when you do this, the matrix of the image interacts with the matrix of your computer screen to make a kind of moiré animation. In other works you can attain a similar effect by zooming in and out (for example, DGCF, 2010–11). The effect is a kind of giddy nausea, as the final mix produces sensory artefacts in the perceiver (rather like Marcel Duchamp’s Roto-Reliefs, made to be played on a turntable). Compression (and its sisters glitch and moiré pattern) seems to function as an allegory in Lotfy’s digital media art. Some of his works suggest that the tendency for copied media to exaggerate artefacts metonymizes Arab vulnerability in the face of economic and political powers beyond individual control. As with most work that uses machine error as one of its components, the human-scale intention of the artist competes with, and is often overwhelmed by, the horde activity of much smaller, less conscious entities: pixels, in this case. Artefacts take over when top-down control gets stymied by pixel-level activity. This might sound like a model for a revolution. But the pixels do not self-organize; instead, they give rise to nonorganic life that is, of course, beyond the individual pixel’s control as well.11 Lotfy’s art does not try to repress the nonorganic life of computer-generated artefacts but encourages it experimentally. Moiré patterns result when two matrices that don’t match up are superimposed, as when an image made in one resolution is imported into another resolution. Where their lines cross, distracting interference between the matrices emerges, creating a shimmering pattern that is often more interesting than the original image. We can see moiré patterns occurring in social situations. For example, if one matrix consists of places where (internet-using) women go about their business on the streets of Cairo, and another matrix consists of places where sexist idiots hang out, the resulting moiré pattern shows where women are regularly harassed in Cairo: you can see it on harassmap.org.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Recently, Tahrir Bodyguard have been organizing both online and on the streets to protect women from the mob attacks in Tahrir Square that have taken place since 2011. Interestingly, interference makes curves emerge from a linear image, as in Lotfy’s digital image DGCF, and rectilinear forms emerge from curves, as in his Paste 504 (2010–11): as though the organic is lurking within the inorganic, and vice versa. This reminds us that people get organized in matrices too, such as the army, or even the obedient mass of civilians, like the citizens in Sherif Arafa’s Terrorism and Kebab (1992), who line up for days inside Cairo’s Mugamma building in hopes of bureaucratic resolution to their problems. Ahmed Kamel’s video Monologue (2010) documents the breakdown of the human matrix that supported Egyptian national ideology in the Mubarak era. It begins with a low-resolution montage of nationalistic song-and-dance numbers from 1950s and 1960s movies. Men’s voices sing ‘Ana al shab’ (I am the people). But the people in the movie are reduced to a blurry, indistinguishable mass, and the marching dancers look like robots or drones; machinic sounds and electronic glitch interrupt the music. Then, over a seemingly endless descent in an elevator, more recent songs like ‘Where are you from, my countryman?’ (‘Min wayn, ya baladi?’) sound sweeter, less jingoistic. Finally the sound falls almost silent but for electronic whooshes over an intimate, hand-held but sharp shot of people getting off a bus that shows each person clearly. It is as though these are the real individuals who comprise the nation: not a mass, not automata. In Monologue repetition gives way to glitch and breakdown; what’s left at the end is no ideology; only people, each one fragile and unique. Ahmed Elshaer (‘The Poet’) creates both machinima and live-action videos that document how machinic repetition and distortion have infiltrated human actors. In Elshaer’s Recycle (the Code) (2010), a close-up of the artist’s mouth on one half of the screen repeats HTML codes that correspond to the colour on the other half: codes for patented Pantone colours. It suggests that when people must conform to internationally imposed conventions they are colonized at the infra-human level of the code. Like many Egyptian artists, Elshaer expresses disgust with the way Western art-world conventions and desires have been imposed on Arab artists. He notes that after 9/11, many art organizations in the Middle East have demanded that artists in the region work through stereotypical concepts that appear to interest more the machinations of art marketing in the Western world.12 Many artists have responded similarly to the compression-like phenomenon whereby Western curators and clients approach the Arab world with preconceived notions, and Arab artists engage in self-orientalism in order to appeal to that audience. Elshaer and Kamel are members of the cheekily titled Cairo Documenta, a group of artists who exhibit without curation in order to avoid this kind of art-world compression.13

Arab Glitch


Glitch and its interfering siblings arise in imperfect conditions; that is, almost all the time. The artists I’ve mentioned here are among those who abandon the search for a sharp, faithful, ‘lossless’ image and instead look with curiosity at the conditions that cause loss, ‘artefacts’ and poor resolution. What they find often proves to be a keen metaphor for historical consciousness; what they create constitutes an act of historical consciousness.14


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

1. Olga Goriunova and Alexei Shulgin, ‘Glitch’, in Matthew Fuller (ed.), Software Studies: A Lexicon (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), p. 110. 2. Ibid., p. 114. 3. Though I think it’s good to pay designers and programmers for good products, usually those are not the people who get rich on the cycle of platform dependency. 4. Goriunova and Shulgin, ‘Glitch’, pp. 115–6. 5. Nayiri Boghossian, ‘Copyright Protection in the Arab World’, Newsletter of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, 29 September 2010, pp. 12–13. 6. Paige Kollock, ‘Piracy Greeted with Collective Yawn in Lebanon’, NOW Lebanon, 6 June 2010. 7. My book Experiments in Arab Cinema will include a chapter on archives as well as a chapter on algorithm and glitch.

Arab Glitch

8. In fact the film screened and won awards at the Gulf Film Festival, Ayyam Cinema Beirut, Rotterdam Arab Film Festival, and Dubai International Film Festival and was shown on Emirates TV. 9. Annette Ittig, ‘Ziegler’s Sultanabad Carpet Enterprise’, Iranian Studies 25/1 (1992), p. 127. 10. Helen Stuhr-Rommerein, ‘Living in a Digital World’, Egypt Independent, 7 October 2012. 11. For more on nonorganic life in textile and digital media, see chapter 10 of Laura U. Marks, Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010). 12. See: www.ahmedelshaer.com. 13. See: www.cairodocumenta.com. 14. This essay is inspired by conversations with Kareem Lotfy in Cairo in May 2012.


The Many Afterlives of Lulu Amal Khalaf

The pearl teeters; it rolls lazily to one side as the monument’s six concrete legs start to fall apart. [JUMP CUT— IMAGE MISSING] Between broken bones, the pieces of the pearl’s cracked skull lie in sand and rubble. Squaring the circle is a problem handed down from the Ancient Greeks. It involves taking the curved line of a circle and drawing a perfect square from it; a task that has come to signify an attempt at the impossible. But in 2011, within days of the most sustained and widely broadcasted protests in Bahrain’s recent history, a circle was named a square. The once unassuming Pearl Roundabout or Dowar al Lulu, the site of the Gulf’s answer to the ‘Arab Spring’, became Bahrain’s ‘Pearl Square’ or Midan al Lulu. A month of mass protests later and the roundabout was razed to the ground. In its death, it took on a life of its own, becoming the symbol of a protest movement; the star of tribute videos and video games, the logo for internet TV channels and the subject of contested claims, rebuttals and comments wars. These manifestations of the roundabout — multifaceted, changing and often contradictory— produced a haunting rhetorical effect, instigating debates fuelled by images of past and ongoing violence in Bahrain’s history. In its afterlife, Lulu continues to act stubbornly in resistance to the state, despite the government’s attempts to shape the monument’s memory to serve its own interests, going so far as to tear the monument down and rename the ground on where it once stood. Today, Lulu is a powerful symbol for thousands of people recasting their ideals in the monument’s image: a ‘public space’, or midan— Arabic for civic square— one that no longer exists as a physical ‘thing’ but rather lives on as an image-memory.

The birth of Lulu The Pearl Roundabout was a central roundabout in Bahrain’s capital Manama. At its centre stood a 300-foot-tall, milky-white monument built in 1982 to commemorate the third Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit, a meeting of Gulf States. The monument’s six white, curved ‘sails’ represented each GCC member state: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. A large cement pearl sat atop these sails in homage to the region’s former pearl-diving economy, which attracted the likes of Jacques Cartier to Bahrain’s soil. But with the pearling industry in decline and tanker traffic drilling and dredging the region’s seabeds and destroying them in the process, the GCC looked forward to a new era of economic development. The 1982 summit also launched the Gulf Investment Corporation, a $2.1 billion fund, and a military partnership between the GCC states, the creation of the Peninsula Shield Force or Dr’a Al Jazeera.1 This treaty codified what is now the pillar of the GCC’s military doctrine: that the security of all the members of the council relied on the notion of the GCC operating as an ‘indivisible whole’. To celebrate the end of the momentous summit, a cavalcade of cars took officials to the unveiling of a plaque commemorating the construction of the 25 km causeway linking Bahrain to the mainland Arabian Peninsula. King Fahd bin ‘Abd Al ‘Aziz of Saudi Arabia and Shaikh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, Emir of Bahrain, stepped forward to release the black drapes. Bahrain, at least in theory, was no longer an island. After its construction, Lulu became the chosen pearl in Bahrain’s crown: the star of souvenir shops. It was, for a while at least, a symbol of Bahrain, an image sanctioned by the government, photographed by tourists and presented on neon shop signs. Drive around Bahrain in January 2013 and there are symbols everywhere. As the 21st Gulf Cup (a biannual football tournament) was held at Bahrain’s newly revamped Shaikh Isa Sports City, the highways and streets are lined with flags and symbols of the GCC, marking a summit meeting held in Bahrain in December 2012. Yet all over the island, behind trees covered in red and white fairy lights, royal crests, billboards of smiling leaders and flags of GCC countries, we see walls. And on these walls are many images and symbols that counter the state-sponsored GCC branding campaigns, especially in villages and smaller side streets in Manama. You will see graffiti scrawled in Arabic and in English, some of which you can read if you happen to pass by before they have been painted over. Through layers of paint, these walls bear the traces of a conversation, an argument. Images and names of political prisoners, cries for help, or calls to fight. The most popular word you see written on the walls is ‘Sumood’— perseverance— stencilled or scrawled alongside hastily drawn pictures of the former Pearl Roundabout. 

The Many Afterlives of Lulu


Roundabouts and amnesia  Monuments are often inscribed with a desire to inculcate a sense of shared experience and identity in society. As markers of a nation’s history, the state imprints its self-image on the citizens through the erection of such memorials to key historical events and figures. These ideas and messages can often become overlooked, their original meanings forgotten over time. ‘There is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument,’ historian Robert Musil wrote. ‘There is no doubt that they are erected to be seen … But at the same time they are impregnated with something that repels attention.’2   Like many GCC countries, Bahrain is inundated with roundabouts featuring monuments of pearls, fish, falcons, sails and desert animals. Rather than featuring direct references to historical events or figures, these monuments make up part of the visual language and urban inscription of national and regional identity in the Gulf. Key to this state-controlled image economy is the foregrounding of ‘traditional Arab culture’. Emphasis is placed on the ruling family as representatives of the nation, which therefore privileges Sunni Muslim, male and tribal identities. Concurrently, Bahrain’s historical influences from the wider Arab world, the Indian subcontinent and Persia are downplayed or ignored and any histories of struggle are silenced. Instead, whitewashed concrete pearls, fish, falcons, Arabian horses and the oryx are mediating national historiographies, as seen in the proliferation of official portraits of monarchs in public spaces and framed on the walls of most institutions in the region. Like the Pearl Roundabout, such symbols are used to construct an image of the state. As anthropologist Sulayman Khalaf describes: Ruling families and their allies have invented and made use of cultural traditions, nationalism, authenticity and ‘traditional’ values to identify themselves as the guardians of authentic Arab values and traditions, and bolster ‘dynastic political structure’.3 Yet by the early 2000s, with its various paint jobs and facelifts, the Khaleejimodern Pearl Roundabout became dwarfed by the growing number of highrises constructed around it— the Bahrain Financial Harbour and the World Trade Centre, for example: glittering monuments of progress and national prestige. Bahrain seemingly got bored of its overused tagline, ‘Pearl of the Gulf’ and moved onto ‘Business Friendly Bahrain’. These new, sparkling towers replaced the monument in an image-conscious branding campaign, ‘staging’ Bahrain as a leading financial centre in the region,4 a campaign that extended to the entry stamp at immigration and black cabs in London.5 Alongside the branding campaigns, the history of Bahrain’s pearling industry became an integral part of the Ministry of Culture’s remit. Cultural heritage became framed as a strategic positioning of Bahrain in the global


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Lulu appears on the walls of Bahrain. Photographs by the author.

The Many Afterlives of Lulu


14 February: Coalition banners call people to a march to mark the two-year anniversary of the 14 February 2011 ‘Day of Rage’. Here you can see their logo featuring the Pearl monument and a clenched fist. Photograph by the author.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

imaginary. The rhetoric of Bahrain National Museum’s ‘Investing in Culture’ campaign, for example, describes how cultural investment bolsters a ‘process of forging cultural links and global communication’.6 The government’s investment in branding campaigns and strategies of self-representation internationally reflects the importance of controlling and maintaining an image of the country, bolstering the government’s construction of a national identity that is itself intimately linked with Bahrain’s position in the global sphere of international foreign investment. This experience of advanced neoliberalism in Bahrain has caused the widening of the gap between poorer citizens and those who have benefited from the island’s position as the ‘freest economy in the Middle East’.7 But Bahrain’s totalizing mythos has been maintained by the suppression of dissent and a privatised urban infrastructure designed to sustain a façade of stability: of Bahrain as a business-friendly tourist hub. Indeed, as opposition movements in Bahrain have been active for decades, so has the state’s security apparatus, which often targets marginalized low-income areas and subjects dissenters to torture and detention.8 These violent histories of struggle are ignored and often denied mention in state narratives. Bahrain’s contested history is strictly controlled, requiring approval from the Ministry of Information9— many historical studies and publications have been banned and any counter-narratives silenced.10 At the same time, increased privatization has brought with it the shrinking of public and common land, including the disappearance of public beaches. Large gatherings can only legally happen within neighbourhoods and private spaces,11 and Bahrainis have found it difficult to access public space in which to gather, let alone voice dissent.12 As writer and architect Todd Reisz describes: roundabouts offered Bahrain an advantage: open space without extending those spaces for human use. An expanse of green parkland is isolated by an undying stream of traffic … roundabout circles are not places; they are voids. In other words, Bahrain might have green spaces, but there are few public spaces needing to be monitored.13 An example of this is in Manama’s old souq, located in an area now referred to as being near the ‘Fish Roundabout’. This rundown neighbourhood of the souq, near hardware shops and the three-star Caravan and Adhari Hotels, features a small fenced garden with a roundabout at one end with two intertwined fish. It was once home to the first municipality building in the region, built in 1923, which hosted an elected, municipal council. Surrounding this building was a busy open boulevard flanked by markets, the souq alaham or meat market, cafés and small guesthouses. The market was, in all senses, a civic space with a thriving political life. It was here that, in the days of British rule, a series of The Many Afterlives of Lulu


Traffic monument in Bahrain. Photograph by the author.

Near the ‘Bull’s head’ roundabout in Sehla, Bahrain, a ‘beautification’ team paint walls with images of pearl divers, dhows and oysters. Photograph by the author.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

‘Business Friendly Bahrain’ slogan as seen on entry stamp. Photograph by the author.

Fish Roundabout, Manama. Photograph by the author.

The Many Afterlives of Lulu


labour protests and gatherings were held: a movement, which grew stronger in the 1970s during the rise and fall of the first National Assembly. Today, the ‘Fish Roundabout’— with a bench that is often empty and cars and scooters parked around it— makes for a quiet corner of Manama. No physical markers of its history remain; there are no traces of this place ever being a politicized, public space.   Thinking back to the events that took place around the Pearl Roundabout, spurred on by uprisings in other cities in the region,14 this was a social alliance that had been— in part— summoned up via Facebook. On 14 February 2011,15 tens of thousands of people joined in a demonstration resulting in the Pearl Roundabout’s occupation. As traffic stood still, the international media came to witness the Gulf’s answer to the ‘Arab Spring’, and overnight, the government had lost control of its carefully constructed image of a ‘Business Friendly’ Bahrain, as news networks broadcast images of the Pearl Roundabout surrounded by protestors demanding reforms. A circle was named a square. The naming of the roundabout as Pearl Square or Midan al Lulu in the international media, though initially seen by many Bahrainis as a laughable and ignorant mistake, soon became appropriated by some protestors, who saw it as an underlining of the roundabout’s new figuration as a ‘civic square’ or midan. The unprecedented occupation of the ‘square’ became front-page news internationally as Manama was brought to a halt. Within days, there were attempts by the state to quell the growing protests with tear gas and other threats of force, culminating in a violent crackdown on the roundabout at 3 am on 17 February 2011. Over four days, there were hundreds of injuries and seven civilian deaths. This harsh response surprised and radicalized many who had witnessed the events whether firsthand, in the international media, or through hundreds of shaky, panicked mobile phone videos posted on YouTube.16 Yet despite this heavy-handed repression, many defiantly returned to the roundabout, now a site of trauma and renamed Martyrs’ Square or Midan al Shuhada by some. As the battle over contested spaces continued, another battle was raging in the media, especially over the retelling of the events of the 17 February crackdown on the roundabout. Overwhelmed by the unprecedented interest and reporting from the international media, international journalists were deported, and none was let back in. The Ministry of Information and state TV began a campaign to discredit journalists and protestors using a tactical sectarian slant. While the international media spoke of pro-democracy protestors, the language of the state was of traitors and foreign agents. The roundabout was referred to by its official name— the GCC Roundabout or Dowar Majlis Al Ta’awon. Days later, at the Al Fateh mosque,17 one kilometre away from the Pearl Roundabout, a counter-rally was organized by an umbrella group named ‘The Gathering of National Unity’. Tens of thousands of citizens waved Bahraini flags, with posters of the King held high, and a cable of thanks was sent from


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

the King to the organizers of the rally.18 Meanwhile, hundreds were arrested, including doctors, nurses, bloggers and journalists, and hundreds more lost jobs for being absent during the days of the protests.19  After a month of protests, martial law was declared. The Bahrain–Saudi causeway rumbled with the sounds of hundreds of tanks of the Dr’a Al Jazeera. For the last time, the roundabout was cleared by force, main roads leading up to the roundabout were sealed off and villages were kettled by armoured vehicles. Days later, in a spectacularly reactionary move, Bahrain’s state TV replayed scenes that would, within minutes, circulate the digital mediasphere. As the country watched from their phones, homes and computer screens, the Pearl Monument exploded into a pile of bones over the ruins of an occupied ‘square’. Attempting to reset the political clock, the image of the Pearl Roundabout began to be officially erased from public view: the 500 fils coin, engraved with the image of the Pearl monument, was taken out of circulation and postcards featuring its image were removed from tourist shops in the souq. It was also removed from official government websites. In an edited report by ‘Feb14TV’— one of the hundreds of YouTube channels that have emerged out of Bahrain since 2011— footage by Bahrain Television is combined with another clip of a press conference.20 The video is one of the hundreds of the demolition of the Pearl Roundabout: an edit of the original footage of the demolition, aired by Bahrain state TV and followed by ‘unseen clips’, cut out of the state TV broadcast, of a tragic accident in which a migrant labourer was killed during the hasty demolition. An abrupt wipe brings us to a press conference with Foreign Minister and prolific tweeter, Shaikh Khalid Bin Ahmad Al Khalifa, as the Foreign Minister explains how the monument was brought down because ‘it was a bad memory’.21 Such acts could be labelled as acts of damnatio memoriae, literally meaning ‘condemnation of memory’, a practice that included the destruction of images of a person deemed by government decree an enemy of the state in the Roman world. Such a decree meant that the name of the damned was conspicuously scratched out from inscriptions, his face chiselled from statues and the statues themselves often abused as if they were a real person, while frescoes would be painted over, coins bearing any image of the blacklisted were defaced and any documents or writings destroyed. In demolishing the roundabout, it became clear to all who watched that this speechless stone monument, which had once borne witness to the Bahraini uprising and once symbolized state-sanctioned progress, had since become an enemy of the state. Its punishment was erasure.

The Many Afterlives of Lulu


Pearl Roundabout in February 2011. Photograph by Ahlam Oun. Courtesy of Ahlam Oun.

Friday protest marches in Bahrain January 2012. Photograph by Ahlam Oun. Courtesy of Ahlam Oun.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Lulu rising With no monuments, roundabouts or coins to bear its traces, the Pearl Roundabout was removed from state narrative by a government hoping to create a clean slate with which to rewrite sanctioned memories post-uprising. The traces of the Pearl Roundabout were reinscribed for the last time when the area was provocatively renamed the ‘Al Farooq Junction’,22 a barricaded traffic intersection. Two years after its destruction, the site where Lulu once sat remains inaccessible: all the roads leading to the newly built junction are blocked with riot police vans and soldiers. There are also signs strictly prohibiting photography. But though it no longer exists in physical form, the Pearl Roundabout rises from the rubble not only through graffiti or as the logo for the ‘February 14 Coalition’,23 but also through the thousands of YouTube videos, channels, online images and digital parodies circulating the internet. As with many historical examples of iconoclasm, such as the well-documented removal of Saddam Hussein’s statues in Iraq in 2003, it can be argued that the official destruction of images, monuments and symbols guarantees the production of images. As Paul Virilio notes, the mechanical reproduction of images is like ghostly ‘clones’ and a production of ‘the living dead’.24 In the case of Lulu, we see the Pearl Roundabout as an object resurrected and once again destroyed, time and time again in the footage of its demolition. In these digital images, we come into contact with the Pearl Roundabout’s life and death: its image-resurrection and redispersal. Its inert material as an image can then be considered living, or at least ‘undead’— an immortal activist, a martyr or an enemy of the state, instilling itself in the memories of the Bahraini people and mingling daily with collective consciousness. Given the potency of the monument as a contemporary symbol, it is near impossible to destroy its image once it has been posted online, no matter how hard one might try. These pearl-clones have the potential to wreak social and political havoc when caught in a circuit of meaning exchanges in online networks, thus producing new narratives and counter-memories. Like the ‘mirror scene’ in Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness, where evil clones burst from the shattered pieces of mirror, the Pearl Roundabout might be positioned as the shattered mirror from which a multiplicity of spatially dispersed images emerge. Each image of the monument is presented on screens that are owned and viewed by individuals with their personal subjective relationship to the monument’s image. In this, the Pearl Roundabout cannot be contained by a single point of view, precisely because it means different things to different people. As with objects, the image can act and function in multiple ways that shift continually across time and space, fluidly negotiating ever-changing subjectivities and realities. Today, a YouTube search for ‘Pearl Roundabout’ in Arabic yields 4,170 results and in English 1,720; a Google image search has The Many Afterlives of Lulu


71,900 results in Arabic and 299,000 in English.25 Bahrain, although the least populated country in the region, was the subject of the greatest number of Twitter hash tags, with 2.8 million mentions at the end of 2011, while in Arabic it clocked up 1.48 million hash tags.26 Considering that Bahrain has been connected to the internet since 1995 and rates of use were estimated at 77 per cent in 2011, the popularity of the #Bahrain hash tag and the proliferation of hundreds of websites, blogs and social media pages have created online digital archives, which can only confirm that the virtual world has become a site of counter-memory and discourse.27 Alongside the unprecedented wave of media about Bahrain reported by oppositional forces, government supporters and journalists, the Bahraini government was spending millions on international PR companies to counter a negative image.28 The government was an early adopter of Twitter and YouTube at the start of the protests in 2011, populating news feeds and Twitter streams with one line of argument. The social-media landscape of Bahrain is graphic, violent and controversial, making the scramble for answers and information about the ongoing protests increasingly difficult. In his essay, ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’, Foucault describes how counter-memory splinters the monolithic, and ruptures the homogenous narratives imposed by the powerful.29 Counter-memory allows ‘scratched-over’, eroded and repressed archives, documents and images to ‘shine brightly’ alongside those that correlate with the state-endorsed images that support homogenous narratives of power. Unlike its status as a monument— silent and invisible— the post-demolition image of the Pearl Roundabout is mutable, ever-changing in circuits of meaning exchange. It does not fix or ossify, but rather, as Roland Barthes has written on the photographic image, ‘blocks memory, quickly becom[ing] a counter-memory’,30 precisely because it now exists as an image. 

The splintered image I remember the Lulu Roundabout as the tallest structure on the island. As a child, it seemed colossal and unapproachable; the car seemed to lean slightly as we circled its unusually large circumference. At its base were fountains and at night and on National Day and Eid, the monument would be lit up with colourful light shows. Seeing people on the manicured grass of the roundabout was rare, and those moments would often involve migrant labourers, on a Friday afternoon break, dangerously navigating traffic to get on the roundabout for that keepsake photo. I would peek out of my window dizzily, trying to look at the pearl, which seemed to vanish into the sky, fading from the field of vision, as we got closer.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Site of former Pearl Roundabout, taken in September 2011. Photograph by Sheyma Buali. Courtesy of Sheyma Buali.

Pearl Roundabout, taken in January 2010. Photograph by Sheyma Buali. Courtesy of Sheyma Buali.

The Many Afterlives of Lulu


As the Bahraini uprising continues, two years after the Pearl Roundabout was violently erased, Lulu has taken on a mythical status. And as we circle the roundabout like lost satellites, we bear witness to the multiple manifestations of this politically charged monument both as a physical, exploding object, and as an explosion of digital files. A Google image search for the Pearl Roundabout only gives a glimpse of the vast production of discourses, truthclaims and narratives that the Pearl Roundabout generates. Photoshopped edits of the same recycled images of Lulu fill blog posts, articles and online forums focused on the topic of the Bahraini uprising. These images and videos of the Pearl Roundabout are often memorials of their own to the roundabout and of its occupation. The monument is often viewed nostalgically, as is the case in one 3D rendering of the monument with birds circling in a halo around its crown.31 The use of 3D recreations of the monument is common, reanimating the roundabout as a martyr, featured in video games and hero videos, such as ‘Bahrain Revolution’, which ends with the monument emerging from the sea and a lone protester saluting it.32 Another YouTube video, ‘Children of Bahrain and their memories’, recreates a model of the roundabout and the area surrounding it, built by children using rubber bullets and other weapons used by Bahraini security forces.33 Emotive, militaristic music is overlaid with images of this model and text blaming state violence for the violent memories of Bahrain’s children. The production, dissemination and consumption of images of the Pearl Roundabout and the discourses generated around these images are inherently tied to the narration of events that surrounded it during the uprising, not to mention its role in the raging political and ideological battles that have since emerged. The monument, once used as part of the state’s image-economy, has been turned into a memorial for an uprising against the very state that created it. This is clear from the many physical reappearances of Lulu in the streets of Bahrain. Through a practice of commemoration and reproduction, ‘Lulu-clones’ appear at various events and happenings, from sit-ins, protests and even religious festivals such as the annual ‘Ashura marches.34 In a video from April 2011, filmed during the period when a State of Emergency was declared in Bahrain and rallies and protests were banned, activists leave a reproduction of the monument on a street as riot police prod it gingerly.35 In another action in June 2011, several policemen re-enacted the demolition of the monument in an unwitting public performance at the A’ali village roundabout as they try to remove it.36 Aside from becoming both an act of defiance, these commemorations share a common function: they aim to reactivate something that was once alive.37  In its reimaging and reinscribing as a digital object, we see the distinctions between virtual and real blur as the image of the Pearl Roundabout is infused with multiple writings, rewritings, claims and memories by the state and citizens. A ubiquitous image, Lulu is the point of focus for the battles that


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

have raged in the streets between citizens and state since 2011, but these discourses and narratives stretch far beyond the 2011 uprisings. They can be traced to descriptions of clashes between protestors and state security forces that have been going on in Bahrain since even before the March Intifada of 1965. Clashes and protests have long been described by the Bahraini government as a’amal shaghab, acts of hooliganism, or a’amal irhabiya, acts of terrorism, while opposition groups describe the conflict as an intifada sha’biyya, or popular uprising. Online, these discourses manifest in blog-posts and on social media in an argument between the state, government supporters, commentators and those that oppose the government. The 50-second clip of the demolition of the Pearl Roundabout, originally aired by Bahrain state television following the destruction of the monument, has been used and reused in various and sometimes oppositional narrations of the Bahraini uprising. One video layers the demolition footage with the faces of opposition figures and the words ‘we made fools out of them’ stamped on their faces, ending with a request to follow the creator on Twitter at his user name @khalifa4ever.38 Another video, called ‘The scandal of Dowar al Shisha (Shisha Roundabout)’, depicts the occupation as a carnival. The video— with a soundtrack of a child laughing— contains images of the roundabout with shisha, haircuts, food and even the appearance of Barney the Dinosaur, discrediting the protestors’ political motivations for the demonstrations. It ends with a text saying ‘these people don’t know the meaning of revolution or peace.’ In other videos, such as ‘Dowar Al Mut’a’,39 the mixed-gender occupation of the roundabout becomes the key point of contention, depicting the roundabout as a place of ‘filth’ and for ’mut’a’, a temporary marriage custom permitted in Shi’a Islam.40 The film presents a montage of images taken after the 17 February crackdown and clearing of the roundabout. Sexually discrediting protestors is quite common among anti-opposition online comments and is used as a strategy to discredit female activists, who have had a key role in the Bahraini uprising, often making up more than half the participants in marches and street protests. On the other hand, those who supported the protests have also used this footage. In ‘We will return to Midan Al Shuhadaa (Martyr’s Square)’,41 dramatic music and heavy treatment of the original footage is edited alongside images of protests, riot police and state violence, ending dramatically with a fire-explosion wipe and the Pearl Roundabout as featured in the logo for the February 14 Media Network, one of the many networks of citizen journalists disseminating media on the internet. In this pattern of image reproduction, the Pearl Roundabout’s surfaces, textures and dimensions are immersed in a pervasive cycle of images mimicking the thick layers of paint on the graffitied walls of Bahrain. These digital images, like the videos discussed above, play out a ‘war of ideas’ where surges of support are set in motion both on national and global networks through the viral-spreading of images, leaving it difficult for the government to defend its The Many Afterlives of Lulu


own strategic narrative. Yet the distinctions between reality and fiction become as difficult to identify as the boundary between original image and copy, with the endless, tampered images of the Pearl Roundabout consistently presented as evidence or validation, rather than a marker of fictitious, alterable entities. These constant reappropriations invite us to rethink our relationship with the image, and its existence in the digital universe, where images cannot be destroyed because they exist in code. Digital images act like a membrane; the shiny surface of media-skin. And the challenge when viewing such pictures is not unlike the experience of Alice stepping through the mirror in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. To cross over and back is to try to get through the media surface, saturated with violent, affective images depicting a complicated and dark reality. Such actions might serve to connect such things as memory and architecture, or the sense of place and the experience of struggle in a transaction between both sides of the screen. Jean Baudrillard once described the image as the site of the disappearance of meaning. After the attack on the World Trade Center in New York on 11 September 2011, he wondered to what extent certain photographs had become parodies of violence. The question was no longer about the truth or falsity of images, but of their impact. This suggests that images themselves have become an integral part of conflict, protest, revolution and warfare. Today, Lulu has persisted in its presence as a symbol through the violence recalled in its image, from the martyrdom of protestors who died in the square and in the years that followed, to the violence upon the collective memories of Bahrain and the denials of its representation embedded in the roundabout’s image. In this, Bahrain has a new monument with which to view its past and present violence: a monument that reclaims space for multiple histories and narratives to come together, from a censored homogenous state narrative to a symbol for an active, politicised and heterogeneous society. Thinking back to the Pearl Roundabout as I gazed at it from the car window as a child, to the images of it today, it seems the roundabout— this digital monument— has become a vanishing point of reality. The image itself has become violent.42


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

1. ‘Our History’, Gulf Investment Corporation website. Available at http://www.gic.com.kw/en/about-us/history/ (accessed 22 September 2013). 2. Robert Musil, ‘Monuments’, Posthumous Papers of a Living Author, trans. P. Worsman (Hygiene, CO: Eridanos Press, 1987), p. 61. 3. Sulayman Khalaf, ‘Poetics and Politics of Newly Invented Traditions in the Gulf: Camel Racing in the United Arab Emirates’, Ethnology 39/3 (2000), p. 243. 4. See Bahrain’s aptly named website: http://staging. bahrain.com/home.aspx. 5. For more information see: Sheyma Buali, ‘Gulf Ads on Black Cabs’, Humanette Blog, 10 June 2010. Available at http://humanette.blogspot.co.uk/2010/06/gulf-adson-black-cabs.html (accessed 22 September 2013). 6. See: http://www.investinginculture.bh/. 7. For more examples of this see: ‘Bahrain’, USA Today, 2 July 2008. Available at http://www.unitedworld-usa. com/pdf/bahrain.pdf (accessed 22 September 2013). 8. For a brief history of political struggle in Bahrain see: Omar El Shehabi, ‘Political Movements in Bahrain: Past, Present and Future’, Jadaliyya website, 2012. Available at http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/4363/ political-movements-in-bahrain_past-present-and-fu; and Abdul Hadi Khalaf, ‘Contentious Politics in Bahrain: From Ethnic to National and Vice Versa’, paper presented at the Fourth Nordic Conference on Middle Eastern Studies, ‘The Middle East in a Globalizing World’, Oslo, 13–16 August 1998. Available at http://www.smi.uib.no/ pao/khalaf.html. 9. For a list of banned books in Bahrain see: Nina Mohan, ‘Banned Books from Bahrain’, Sampsonia Way, 6 June 2012. Available at http://www.sampsoniaway. org/blog/2012/06/06/banned-books-from-bahrain/ (accessed 22 September 2013). 10. For information on significant banned books, such as the diaries of Charles Belgrave, British advisor to the Bahraini ruling family (1926–57), see: ‘Banning one of the Most Significant Historic Books in the History of Bahrain’, Bahrain Centre for Human Rights website, 2010. Available at www.bahrainrights.org/ en/node/3105 (accessed 22 September 2013); and Fuad Ishaq Khuri, Tribe and State in Bahrain: The Transformation of Social and Political Authority in an Arab State (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980). 11. In 2012, Bahrain’s government placed a blanket ban on all protests and gatherings. See: Ian Black, ‘Bahrain bans all opposition rallies’, Guardian, 30 October 2012. Available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/ oct/30/bahrain-opposition-protests-ban (accessed 18 October 2012).

12. For more on privatization and prestige projects, see: Alaa Shehabi, ‘Bahrain’s Flashy Crony Capitalism Cannot Last’, Guardian, 20 May 2012. Available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/ may/20/bahrain-flashy-crony-capitalism; and Marc Owen Jones, ‘Sexing up a City: Neoliberalism, Public Space and Protest in Bahrain’, blog by Marc Owen Jones, 4 March 2011. Available at http://www. marcowenjones.hostbyet2.com/?p=107 (accessed 18 October 2012). 13. Todd Reisz, ‘Bahrain: A Roundabout Way to Signify Nothing’, Huffington Post, 4 May 2011. Available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/todd-reisz/ bahrain-roundabout_b_844276.html (accessed 18 October 2012). 14. Tahrir Square or Midan Tahrir is also a roundabout, but one with a long history of protest and seen as a symbol of liberation and in a part of the city with a pedestrian culture. See: Nezar Al Sayyad, ‘Cairo’s Roundabout Revolution’, New York Times, 13 April 2011. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/14/ opinion/14alsayyad.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 (accessed 18 October 2012). 15. The demonstration was held to mark the tenth anniversary of the National Action Charter. 16. See: ‘Bahrain Crackdown of Pearl Roundabout at Dawn’, YouTube video, posted by Bahrainicitizen, 18 February 2011. Available at http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=4fDS4mLJKvU&feature=related (accessed 18 October 2012). 17. Jane Kinninmont, Bahrain: Beyond the Impasse (London: Chatham House, 2012), p. 8: ‘People of various religious and political persuasions attended the first rally, held in the largest mosque in Bahrain. The mosque is Sunni and the term “Al Fateh”— the Conqueror— is a reference to the first Al Khalifa ruler of Bahrain. TGONU reportedly includes Shia, Christian and Jewish members, though probably very few.’ 18. ‘Pro-Gov Rally to Support Bahrain & Al-Khalifa’, YouTube video, posted by WeLoveKingHamad, 18 February 2011. Available at http://www.youtube. com/watch?v=M8dEX-qUm48&list=UUHt0mPP_ u515VasZoUMLINQ&index=9&feature=plcp (accessed 18 October 2012). 19. See: ‘“Mass Sackings” in Bahrain Crackdown’, Al Jazeera, 14 May 2011, accessed 18 October 2012, http:// english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2011/05/20115 14104251715508.html and; ‘Bahrain Oil Company Fires almost 300 over Anti-government Protests’, Guardian, 11 May 2011. Available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/ world/2011/may/11/bahrain-oil-company-fires-300protests (accessed 18 October 2012). 20. ‘Scenes Never Seen’, YouTube video, posted by 14FebTV, 16 July 2011. Available at http://www.youtube. com/watch?v=jpzrH-Tcxaw&feature=youtu.be (accessed 18 October 2012). 21. This particular video has since been removed from YouTube.

The Many Afterlives of Lulu


22. A reference to Umar ibn al-Khattab, historical figure and one of the most powerful caliphs in Islamic history; a figure remembered differently among various Islamic sects. Viewed negatively in Shi’a literature, the naming of the junction as ‘Al Farooq’ is seen as a sectarian dig to the largely Shi’a population.  23. For more information about the February 14th Coalition see: Toby C. Jones, ‘Bahrain’s Revolutionaries Speak: An Exclusive Interview with Bahrain’s Coalition of February 14th Youth’, Jadaliyya website, 22 May 2012. Available at http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/ index/4777/bahrains-revolutionaries-speak_an-exclusive-interview (accessed 18 October 2012). 24. Paul Virilio, Open Sky (New York: Verso, 1997), p. 40: ‘… we will see industrial production of a personality split, an instantaneous cloning of living man, the technological recreation of our most ancient myths: the myth of the double, of an electroergonomic double whose presence is spectral— another way of saying a ghost or the living dead.’

34. For examples of this see: ‘1/6 karzkan sabaah [Karzakan morning]’, YouTube video, posted by abo22yousif, 31 May 2011. Available at http://www. youtube.com/watch?v=6YB17ps9J9g&list=PLTOgz3bT-TwV7tg-KYDDJFYFR1DkDmIer; and ‘mudjassim dawaar allu’lu’a mahrajaan— mutaalibna wataneeya [A Recreation of the Pearl Roundabout at a Festival— Our National Demands]’, YouTube video, posted by EmeBHR, 2 July 2011. Available at http:// www.youtube.com/watch?v=VvGG3PiH05o&list=PLTOgz3bT-TwV7tg-KYDDJFYFR1DkDmIer (accessed 18 October 2012). 35. This video has since been removed from YouTube. 36. ‘1-6-2011 qawat almaratazaqa taqawwam bitakseer madjsam dawaar allu’lu’a alee [Mercenary Forces Break Down the Recreated Pearl Roundabout)’, YouTube video, posted by Aalinw, 1 June 2011. Available at http://www. youtube.com/watch?v=Fjsf6HuH91Q&list=PLTOgz3bT-TwV7tg-KYDDJFYFR1DkDmIer&index=45&feature=plpp_video [accessed 18 October 2012).

37. For more information on this kind of resistance see: Marc Owen Jones, ‘Creative Resistance in Bahrain’, blog by Marc Owen Jones, 19 January 2012. Available at http://www.marcowenjones. 26. ‘Rise of Arab social media’, Zawya, 24 July 2012. Available at http://www.zawya.com/story/Rise_of_Arab_ hostbyet2.com/?p=512#comment-2356 (accessed 18 October 2012). social_media-ZAWYA20120724051637/ (accessed 18 October 2012). 38. ‘dawaar allulu.3pg [The Pearl Roundabout)’, YouTube video, posted by Mohammed Albuainain, 10 27. Sarah Cook et al. (eds), Freedom on the Net 2012: A March 2012. Available at http://www.youtube.com/ Global Assessment of Internet and Digital Media (New watch?v=ias5gqKDhMY&list=PLTOgz3bT-TwV7tg-KYYork: Freedom House, 2012), p.66. DDJFYFR1DkDmIer&index=19&feature=plpp_video (accessed 18 October 2012). 28. The Bahraini government was reported as having spent more than $32 million in PR fees since February 39. ‘dir’a albahrayn: soor fada’ih dowar almut’a tanshir 2011. For more information see: ‘Bahrain Government li owel murra [Bahrain Shield: Images of Scandal Hires 18 Western Companies to Improve Image after from the Roundabout of Pleasure Published for the Unrest’, Bahrain Watch, 23 August 2012, accessed 18 First Time]’, YouTube video, posted by bahrainshield, October 2012. Available at https://bahrainwatch.org/ 7 June 2011. Available at http://www.youtube.com/ press/press-release-8.php. watch?v=A1h5LZzcd9I&list=PLTOgz3bT-TwV7tg-KYDDJFYFR1DkDmIer&index=14&feature=plpp_video 29. Michel Foucault, ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’ in D. Bouchard (ed.), Language, Counter Memory, Practice: (accessed 18 October 2012). Selected Essays and Interviews (Ithaca, NY: Cornell 40. For more on mut’a marriage see: Vincent J. Cornell University Press, 1977). and Virginia Gray Henry-Blakemore (eds), Voices of Islam Volume III, Voices of Life: Family, Home, and 30. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Society (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2007), photography (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982), p. 91. pp. 66–8. 31. ‘Bahrain We Will Back To Pearl 41. ‘Feb 14 2012 thowra albahrayn: ay’idoon ila Roundabout— Imaginary 3D Scene’, YouTube video, midan al shuhadaa [Bahrain Revolution: Returning posted by feb14bhr, 4 September 2011. Available to Martyrs’ Square]’, YouTube video, posted by at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2xXc0pHlAlBahrainRevolution, 23 January 2012. Available at RnM&list=PL12772150445D19C2 (accessed 18 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BFqaMDoovJE October 2012). (accessed 18 October 2012). 32. ‘Bahrain Revolution (3D) film yudjassid thow42. Jean Baudrillard, The Conspiracy of Art (New York, ra albahrayn [A Film that Embodies the Bahrain Semiotext(e)/MIT Press, 2005), p. 207. Revolution]’, YouTube video, posted by RealSunnah, 23 November 2011. Available at http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=imWJdJUQbII&list=PLTOgz3bT-TwV7tg-KYDDJFYFR1DkDmIer (accessed 18 October 2012). 25. Information found on Google (accessed 18 October 2012).

33. ‘Children of Bahrain and there [sic] memories’, YouTube video, posted by kareem12ab, 19 September 2011. Available at http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=qy0Onzvxu7U (accessed 18 October 2012).


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Cardboard Khomeini An Interrogation Annabelle Sreberny

National polities work hard at maintaining historical narratives, even as their citizens might write alternative stories. The Islamic Republic of Iran funds an extensive state propaganda structure centred in IRIB, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting. It also operates an extensive surveillance apparatus across old and new media and monitors the everyday lives of its population, looking out for what it considers un-Islamic and inappropriate political content. Every year the Islamic Republic of Iran celebrates the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution on 11 February 1979. In the ten-day build up to the 33rd anniversary in 2012, the army of the Islamic Republic produced a cardboard cut-out of Ayatollah Khomeini that formed the core of a ceremony on 1 February that sought to recreate Khomeini’s triumphant return to Tehran in 1979 after 14 years of exile. As part of the ceremony, which took place 33 years after his return, the cardboard cut-out bearing the likeness of the leader of the revolution disembarked from an aircraft in Tehran and was photographed in staged re-enactments of moments from the 1979 revolution. The images were distributed by the semi-official Mehr news agency. Then, on 2 February 2012 Atlantic magazine featured an article on ‘the amazing adventures of Iran’s cardboard cut-out Ayatollah’, billing the incident as a boys’-own adventure with the tag line: ‘Iran’s oversized Khomeini reproduction weaponizes Photoshop.’1 The article reported that the day before the 2012 anniversary of the revolution, the Iranian military had in fact created three individual cardboard cut-outs of Ayatollah Khomeini for the ceremony.2 One giant cardboard cut-out was carried from a sitting plane at Tehran airport to mark the ‘return’ of the Ayatollah to Iran after 14 years in exile and was met by an armed guard from mixed Forces as the cardboard Khomeini disembarked from an Iran Air jumbo jet. Two uniformed military men then carried the cardboard stand down the tarmac, allowing it to ‘inspect’ a group of Iranian soldiers. The cardboard figure was greeted by lines of saluting honour guards and a marching band. After the imaginary inspection, a second cardboard cut-out

Cardboard Khomeini, images taken from the internet. Screenshot courtesy of the author.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Cardboard Khomeini, image taken from the internet. Screenshot courtesy of the author.

Kim Jong II Khomeini. Image courtesy of cardboardkhomeini.blogspot.com

Cardboard Khomeini An Interrogation


was placed inside a car and driven away. All of this transpired while a third cardboard cut-out of Khomeini observed the proceedings, propped against another photograph of himself climbing down the airport stairway with his son, Ahmad, just visible behind his first cardboard self. In this reported story, there is a bizarre sense of Khomeini as a replicant — endlessly reproducible and watching his mutant selves. Then, yet another cardboard figure — this one seated — popped up at a ceremony attended by the Education Minister, Hamid Reza Haj Babayi, and other officials to mark the Ayatollah’s ‘return’ to the Refah School, where he had set up his headquarters 33 years before. This cardboard Khomeini sat there while the others drank tea and chatted.3 How do we begin to think about these events? One resonance is with the beliefs of the Twelver ‘Ithna-’ashariyyah’ branch of Shi’ism and the occulted imam. Imams are taken to be infallible sources of divine wisdom and guidance for their followers of a particular historic period, Imam-e zaman Ali, the nephew of Mohammed, was the first, while the 12th, Muhammad ibn Hassan, is said to be in occultation since the year 872, hidden until the moment that God deems it appropriate for him to return. Khomeini, who both established and became the first velayat-e faghih (supreme jurisprudent) of the Islamic Republic in November 1979, is the only Iranian cleric to have been addressed as ‘Imam’.4 The language of the time further associated him with the Mahdi in a number of ways. One of his titles was Na’eb-e Imam (deputy to the Twelfth Imam). Those who opposed the Islamic Republic were often attacked as taghut (corrupted) and mofsed-e filarz (corrupters of the earth) — religious terms used for enemies of the Twelfth Imam. The Revolutionary Courts convicted officials of the Pahlavi government of ‘fighting against the Twelfth Imam’. The new international airport in south Tehran is formally known as Imam Khomeini airport. Perhaps the belief that a figure can remain hidden for so long also lends itself to a belief that they will never die or that their impact endures well beyond death. The effigy is a materialization of such a belief. And indeed, the photographs of the saluting military men and those sitting with ‘him’ in the school certainly project a sense of collective acceptance of this. Of course, it is all staged. Those involved have little choice in the matter. But on the other hand, they do not appear especially discomfited by the process either. In the early days after the popular revolution of 1979, as men struggled to get close and be touched by Khomeini, those who did reach him would then touch others in a kind of human relay system of his aura. Indeed, Brumberg suggests that Khomeini ‘variously inspired admiration, awe, and fear from those around him’.5 The production of this effigy can be therefore seen as an interesting reversal of Walter Benjamin’s argument, in which he discusses the loss of aura of the original work of art in the ‘age of mechanical reproduction’.6 Here, it is useful to consider how Ariella Azoulay usefully disentangles


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

what she sees as two distinct arguments by Benjamin: one about the nature of an original made by hand (versus mechanically produced copies, or reproductions) but a second being about the movement of the object away from a specific location, a loss of place.7 Azoulay also develops, via Benjamin and Agamben, a powerful argument about the melancholic purpose of photography as a prior mourning of the lost object, a capturing of the image designed to hold the memory after the object has gone. She argues that Benjamin’s essay, ‘is a preparation for mourning that precedes the loss because the object of the loss, the work of art possessing an aura, is produced during the course of that mourning itself’.8 Thus, photography is inscribed in the process of mourning, even before the object has been lost. Cardboard Khomeini, with its Shi’ite overtones, inverts that process. It continues the mourning for his death (in June 1989) and for the ‘Hidden Imam’ as constituent elements of the political process of the Islamic Republic. The life-sized photographic image reminds Iranians that he is not gone, that he remains vibrant and amongst them, like the revolutionary legacy he established; a reminder for others that such a belief is not easily altered or overturned. This leads to my third point: that the righteous are highly narcissistic. From the beginning, the Islamic Republic has acted with the surety and conviction of a totalitarian government. It produced an ideology to which it demanded loyalty, maintained by a centralized media system and a highly mobilized population following a charismatic leader. (For such echoes, it has been called a form of Islamo-fascism. This is a problematic term for two reasons. First, this term has been over-used to label a wide range of differing Islamic political movements; and secondly, because the system in Iran has been somewhat less coherent, less centralized and more leaky than historical forms of fascism — both reasons to be wary of using the term.) But any putative internal political coherence has been eroded since the death of Khomeini. With the emergence of more progressive elected leaders (President Khatami, for example) and of a civil society wedded to human rights, a real internal politics involving labour, student and women’s movements developed. This reached a crescendo in the aftermath of the 2009 election into the Green Movement.9 Yet under Ahmadinejad’s second term — a president who claimed to possess a direct line of communication with God — it seems surety has returned. Ahmadinejad’s regime was more brutal and more interventionist than any other against criticism. This inevitably led to such convictions of ‘rightness’ — so wedded to their mystique of Khomeini — that Iran’s politicians imagined their Cardboard Khomeini to be a powerful symbol of Iranian collective consciousness. They could not countenance, nor could they imagine, that their symbol could be mocked. But it was, mercilessly.

Cardboard Khomeini An Interrogation


Politics as memes: Cardboard Khomeini and beyond Cardboard Khomeini became an iconic global meme. The echo chamber that is the internet thrummed with laughter. International media picked it up and stories were found on the BBC and in many journals. Twitter was full of verbal jokes that played with the idea of a cardboard imam and a cardboard republic. Photoshopped versions circulated in cyberspace that depicted Cardboard Khomeini making funny comments and being present at a variety of significant world events. Facebook pages were created with many visual puns on cardboard. The best collection could be found at cardboardkhomeini.blogspot.com. The owner of the site claims to be ‘… nothing but a humble admirer who is fascinated by this cardboard cut-out’s omnipresence. That’s all.’ On the blog, the faux Khomeini is shown to be present at more than 20 well-known historical events as well as in popular contemporary media constructions, such as appearing in the cast of Mad Men. Somehow, in building on the anti-Benjamin theme of ubiquity in time and place, an alternative historical narrative went so far as to elaborate Khomeini’s historic role by inserting it into history, and as far back as to a late-nineteenth-century meeting with Nasereddin Shah, as well as forward to the 2011 funeral of Kim il-Sung. Khomeini even went cosmic, moving beyond earth’s atmosphere as an attendant of the Apollo moon landing. Khomeini was somehow represented as immortal, transcendental — escaping the boundaries of both space and time. It almost seemed as if this blogger was doing the ideological work of the Islamic Republic better than the republic itself. Then, the meme was noticed and picked up by Brad, the editor of Know your Meme.10 What followed were other similar plays on the figure. Golshifteh Farhani, the actress, posed naked with her hands strategically placed over her breasts for a photograph published in Madame Le Figaro. For this, she was banished from returning to Iran.11 Her image was Photoshopped arriving from the plane instead of Khomeini, an interesting feminist retort to the patriarchal system. Inspired by cardboardkhomeini.blogspot.com, an American woman developed a Flickr stream that included Khomeini partying in Los Angeles,12 while the Nordic Dervish also enjoyed the images.13 Personally, I wrote somewhat breathlessly about the Cardboard Khomeini phenomenon for Ibraaz Platform 001 in 2012: I read this process as a fascinating instance of a number of contemporary digital political issues. These include competing memory claims and the state’s staging of historical events that are challenged or overturned by other popular historical narratives; the ability of dissident voices to immediately mock and playfully


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

engage with hegemonic articulations; and the confusion over place and origin, in that the some of the cardboard mockeries came from outside Iran and possibly from non-Iranians, so that contemporary politics not only takes on diasporic dimensions but quite transnational dimensions in which non-national populations also engage. In that sense, the Cardboard Khomeini belongs to global dissidents and exemplifies the emergence of new networks of transnational interactivity and forms of real-time communication. It also indexes the immense power of a satirical image to deconstruct a hegemonic discourse in a location where more physical forms of political resistance are blocked — for the moment. So imagine my chagrin then, when poking about further, I finally discovered that all the images on the cardboardkhomeini.blogspot.com page were the product of one person, who seems to be a male American Islamophobe and who also posted comedic pictures of and about Afghanistan. Shocked, I gave up the project for a while. Now, to compound my stupidity, I seem to have kept no notes on the matter and cannot find his name — the blogsite that sits in cyberspace has had all identifying elements removed. I cannot even prove my case with forensic evidence. In this case, my own political fantasy of radical Iranians around the world adding their images to a growing critique of the Islamic Republic totally got the better of me. There are, needless to say, many lessons to be observed here. One enduring question for me is, now that I know the origin, do the images have less ‘value’ because they originate from a differing political position to mine and are probably making a rather obnoxious statement? Who is allowed to make fun of Khomeini? Clearly, images of Khomeini do not simply ‘belong’ to Iranians inside the Islamic Republic or to the diaspora. His image is part of international image sets: to be used by Islamophobes, pro-Israeli websites14 and anyone else. Another issue is the rush to judgement that digital communication across the internet allows. The acceleration of history is partly occasioned by the internet and its hype, pushing us all to act and react immediately (and that increasingly includes academic work also, as we clamour to be read in the competitive attention economy). A worrying case is that of the Boston bombings on 15 April 2013, when social media pushed quite inaccurate information rapidly into the realm of ‘fact’ and with some horrible consequences. Iranians have for quite a time been rather advanced digital adepts. A repressive religio-political regime that limited public entertainment, disallowed music and dance, and generally kept young people physically confined, has produced a generation of bloggers, hackers, filter-breakers, TOR-users and Photoshoppers using and exploring forms of digital h/acktivism. All of this was most evident in the post-election mass politics of the Green Movement Cardboard Khomeini An Interrogation


in July 2009, when international media was filled with Iranian user-generated digital content.15 Now, the ‘Cardboard Imam’ also had a Facebook page that hosted a collection of images and jokes.16 And after having raised a number of ‘outsider’ responses, it is interesting to note that Iranian responses to the cut-out were more focused on the cardboard imagery and symbolism; a cheap material, flammable, degradable, not long-lasting — unlike Khomeini’s memory and symbolism. One image gave him an apartment with a satellite dish, a nod towards a technological item that is formally illegal in Iran, though in widespread use. Another user provided him with an entire cardboard town, presumably an entirely different art project into which Khomeini and his red carpet had been crudely Photoshopped. Other images invoked more direct resonances of contemporary politics. A triptych of images played with the tea-drinking moment. The first one (from the left) says simply, ‘I’m the leader. Where’s my tea?’ The one in the middle plays with what Khomeini declared while still in exile: ‘I smack the government. I appoint a new government. I make water and electricity free. I want to do a lot.’ The reply from the man sitting next to him is: ‘Go to sleep, cardboard.’ In the final image Khomeini says: ‘Pleased to make your acquaintance. But have you seen Akbar? Hashemi?’ (meaning Rafsanjani). The reply reads: ‘Akbar? Roof? Slope? We have no Akbar … We don’t have Seyyed Ahmad [Khomeini’s son] either. We also don’t have Mir Hossein and Sheikh Mehdi [Mousavi and Karoubi, the still-imprisoned leaders of the Green Movement]. Don’t worry about them … How are you?’ Interventions into current politics were also made. In one, Ayatollah Khamenei is shown holding up Cardboard Khomeini, even as a photo of Khomeini stares down at him from the wall behind. The text reads: ‘My views and Cardboard’s views are very close,’ perhaps trying to distance himself from Ahmadinejad and reclaim the significance of the original revolutionary vision. Some cartoonists also enjoyed the moment. Kaveh Adel called his cartoon ‘A cold reception for Cardboard Imam’,17 while that by Kianoush Ramezani is more ambiguous.18 Within Iran, many critical voices were raised about the entire project. The cut-out was said to be ‘fueling a firestorm of criticism’.19 Former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani warned during a meeting of the Expediency Council on 4 February 2012 that the cardboard cut-outs of Khomeini could be abused by the enemies of the Islamic Republic Khomeini had founded. Within Iran, he said state bodies should refrain from organizing ‘injudicious and weak’ programmes featuring the cardboard Khomeini since these exhibited a lack of taste. Other Iranian politicians and lawmakers criticized such events as ‘distasteful’, ‘damaging’ and ‘regretful’. Among them was lawmaker Mohammad Reza Tabesh, who said that the display of Khomeini’s cardboard cut-out was offensive to supporters of the Islamic Revolution and Khomeini. Khomeini’s


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

grandson, Hojatoleslam Morteza Eshraghi, went so far as to demand an apology from those who organized events featuring cardboard images of his grandfather. The newspaper Mardomsalari wrote that such events, suggesting how all that remains of Khomeini and his aides is a mock-up, should be taken as a warning to the revolution. Iran’s state television said in a report that those who were behind the idea should be stopped, ‘or else the problem is going to get serious’.20 Yet, as with so many incidents in the Islamic Republic, after a lot of huffing and puffing, the story was forgotten. Much is often made by would-be cyber-utopians about the significance of digital media in its nurturing of user feedback, creative participation and community formation. But what is meant by these terms precisely? In the ‘West’, they seem to be merely stock terms used to veil the ascendancy of privately owned media companies and the neoliberal formation of consensus. In other parts of the world, it is more useful to see digital media in terms of process, especially the way in which it opens up new networks of interactivity and forms of real-time communication. Here, we have seen a display of the internal, aestheticized politics of the Islamic Republic, with the cardboard celebration of a venerated leader and its varied satirical responses. We note that some of these images came from the extensive Iranian diaspora. The internet bound both those inside the Islamic Republic and those in the diaspora/exile together in a new synchronous but deterritorialized political space. But we have also noted the non-Iranian responses to an Iranian event: a sign of the smallness of the world and the multiple plays that are possible with a single set of images. Returning to the Atlantic article that ran the story of the cardboard Khomeini, the author Max Fisher could not resist some of his own humorous images, the best of which shows Khomeini together with Obama and Hillary Clinton in the Situation Room, watching the capture of Bin Laden.21 In the end, this particular story of a cardboard cut-out encapsulates a fascinating number of contemporary digital and political issues. These include competing memory claims and the state’s staging of historical events that are challenged or overturned by other popular historical narratives; the ability of dissident voices to immediately mock and playfully engage with hegemonic articulations; and the confusion over place and origin, in that some of the cardboard mockeries came from outside Iran and from non-Iranians. In this, contemporary politics not only takes on diasporic dimensions, but trans­national dimensions in which non-national populations also engage. The internet is a big echo chamber. But, as Derrida said, every iteration changes the original, so every iteration is also a reiteration.22 And imitation and mash-up at least indicate that something has had an impact. In that sense, the cardboard Khomeini belongs to global dissidents and exemplifies the emergence of new networks of transnational interactivity and forms of real-time communication. It also indexes the immense power of a satirical Cardboard Khomeini An Interrogation


image to deconstruct a hegemonic discourse in a location where more physical forms of political resistance are blocked, for the moment. As we witness the growing aestheticization of politics, we know that images — and cardboard figures — matter. There is wishful thinking on all sides. Iran is not the cardboard republic that many have joked about; it has proven more resilient than many had expected under sanctions and the US ‘soft war’. Indeed, cardboard might be a cheap, flammable and degradable material, but the Islamic Republic is far more durable. Even as the digital world mocks its narcissism.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

1. Max Fisher, ‘The Amazing Adventures of Iran’s Cardboard Cutout Ayatollah’, Atlantic, 2 February 2012. The online article hosts a selection of the photos from the semi-official Mehr news agency: Available at http:// www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/02/ the-amazing-adventures-of-irans-cardboard-cutout-ayatollah/252437/ (accessed 3 February 2012). 2. Ibid. 3. For a video, see: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/ world-middle-east-16876981. 4. Baqer Moin, Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah (London: I.B.Tauris, 2000), p. 201 5. Daniel Brumberg, Reinventing Khomeini (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), p. 53. 6. Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in Illuminations (London: Pimlico, 1999). 7. Ariella Azoulay, Death’s Showcase (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001).

12. See: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ marypmadigan/6808079173/in/photostream/. 13. See: http://nordicdervish.wordpress. com/2012/02/02/papp-imamen/. 14. See: http://attorneysdefendingisrael.blogspot. co.uk/2012/02/funniest-thing-out-of-iran-cardboard. html and http://www.aijac.org.au/news/article/ iran-s-blundering-revolution-celebrations-and-wa. 15. Sreberny and Khiabany, Blogistan. 16. See: https://www.facebook.com/Emam.Moghavaei. 17. See: http://bit.ly/yqxU9g. 18. See: http://www.cartoonmovement.com/ cartoon/5084. 19. Golnaz Esfandiari, ‘Iran’s “Cardboard Khomeini” Faces Criticism, Condemnation’, RFE, 7 February 2012. Available at http://www.rferl.org/content/ irans_cardboard_khomeini_faces_criticism_condemnation/24476398.html.

9. Annabelle Sreberny and Gholam Khiabany, Blogistan (London: I.B.Tauris, 2010).

20. For a short video on the Iranian responses, see: http://www.lenziran.com/2012/02/ iranian-television-criticize-card-board-madeayatollah-khomeini/.

10. See: http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/events/ cardboard-khomeini.

21. See: http://cdn.theatlantic.com/static/easel/images/galleries/122950_khomeini_sitroom.jpg.

11. See: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2088775/Golshifteh-Farahani-Iranian-actressbanned-posing-nude-French-magazine.html#ixzz2ZJJykgp8, (accessed 31 January 2012).

22. Jacques Derrida, ‘Limited Inc a b c …’, in Limited Inc (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1988), p. 44.

8. Ibid., p. 18

Cardboard Khomeini An Interrogation


The Art of the Written Word and New Media Dissemination Across the Borders between Syria and Lebanon Tarek Khoury

This essay takes an interest in how technologies have aided political protest, with a focus on how today’s new media has the capacity ‘to jump over traditional boundaries of time and space’.1 Since 2011, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen have come to witness an overthrow of powers, with both writing and new media playing a role, since letters have always been carriers of certain messages — today those messages call for revolt, freedom and humanity. Nevertheless, the turmoil in Syria continues without end, in an ever-evolving and critical situation. One result is a prolific and ongoing outpouring of handwritten messages recorded by Syrian activists and transmitted through videos and digital images online. Within this, unique interconnections are taking place or are becoming more visible between handwriting and new technologies. As more and more Syrians gain access to the internet and utilize new media, new potentials for dissemination arise. Syrian activists are constantly doing at least one of the following: expressing, recording and/or disseminating. They are doing this as a means of survival, a much-needed outlet and a method to ensure a global community is informed of the non-stop atrocities taking place in Syria. The videos and images discussed in this essay are combinations of written word and image. Throughout history, the use of traditional media as a form of expression that protests and communicates is common. Such traditional media is examined in this essay, including a piece of graffiti, a handwritten note and a sign. These media forms gain new meanings as they are disseminated online. Additionally, as these media forms come to exist within virtual spaces, a new war arises. The Syrian regime uses the internet as a platform for its own disseminations and to apply internet censorship within Syria. Counter to this, the internet enables Syrian activists to experience the democratizing capacities of online networks as they become active producers and users within a virtual war zone.

There are five examples (as shown later) chosen for discussion in this essay, selected with certain criteria in mind. Each example utilizes new media by way of dissemination on the internet and relates to political activism regarding Syria’s current revolution. Each one has at least two known online contexts. Due to the nature of the internet, with its potential for infinite paths and interconnected contexts, the possibilities to view, download, send and receive these examples are vast. In searching for examples of either digital photographs or videos on Syria, the search was seemingly infinite: one example led to another. Put simply, the wealth of online imagery related to ongoing revolution is overwhelming. In some cases, the examples were discovered as media within media. For example, a video on YouTube that is also used in an online news story, or an image that is part of a scholarly article related to visual aspects of the Syrian revolution posted on Facebook. The key component in this particular investigation is handwriting, which is a faculty of graphic design: a form of design in which letters are integral. Those letters may be handwritten or typographic. They may be a form of design alone or combined with imagery. Handwriting is the basis for calligraphic or script style writing, which may be designed as typography, though in translation, script can lose some of its unique irregularities. Essentially, typography is a set of designed characters. Originally, type was comprised of small metal pieces, each one a different character. Characters were placed next to each other to form words, sentences and paragraphs. These pieces were inked and then pressed on paper. However, today’s screen-based type is digital: an arrangement of type using computers. Within contemporary graphic design, which strongly relies on the computer, graphic designers often turn towards illustration and hand-illustrated lettering to give their designs a personal feel. Graphic designers today integrate such lettering techniques in their digital works in order to break out of conventional digital aesthetics. In looking at online imagery related to the current Syrian revolution, I kept seeing handwriting. To my eyes, the imagery was something that visually communicated, through a combination of word and image, much in the same way graphic design does. The imagery was doing this in a way that felt very personal to me. Some instances, I found, were intentional. For example, Freedom Wo Bas (also referred to as Horriyeh Wo Bas) animates their handwritten title. In other instances, graffiti by an unknown writer were randomly captured in the background of a video activist’s documentation. All the examples, although I viewed them within digital contexts, had a feeling of being very real and human, a feeling that seemed to have been evoked due to several factors. One reason is that handwriting was used rather than typography. At times, the handwriting alludes to a human presence, and at other times there are real people within the imagery. Additionally, the content of all the imagery is based upon inhumane acts happening all the time in Syria. The imagery itself is a humanitarian call for action. The Art of the Written Word and New Media Dissemination


Screenshots from the Freedom Wo Bas YouTube channel, 2011–12. Courtesy of Freedom Wo Bas.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Syrian activist handwriting disseminated online Humanism in art typically refers to works created with a secular, non-religious focus on people. Here, however, I use the term humanism as a way to describe a kind of human presence within the imagery, which does not exist in a great deal of digital visuals. But the presence of handwriting in these visuals seems to give the image a human quality precisely because handwriting is, by its very nature, measured and styled by its imperfections. Unlike a typeface, handwritten letters are never exactly the same. For example, each ‘a’ is a bit different to another as one writes. Or, in the case of Arabic, no two ‘alephs’ are ever exactly the same. Type, however, is the opposite: sterile, uniform and machinic. The spontaneity of handwriting is immediately evident as one watches a Syrian activist write an urgent note. In a video used to illustrate an article posted on Telegraph.co.uk titled ‘Syria: Homs activists resort to pigeons to communicate’, a handwritten message in blue pen on a small scrap of white paper reads: ‘God willing, we will deliver them to you.’ It is rolled and tied to a pigeon’s leg with string in a video depicting Syrian activists in Old Homs (district) using carrier pigeons to communicate with persons in Bab Amr. They are trying to send supplies, medicine and food. The video ends as one watches the pigeon take flight; it appears as a grey silhouette against a blue and white sky. The most common context in which one views this video is a browser screen with a series of circulation options. The video link can be shared with others as a tweet on Twitter. In this instance, the Twitter bird, a white bird silhouette against a blue backdrop, alludes to a real-time version of the Syrian activists’ carrier pigeon. Though carrier pigeons are a means of communication dating back to the time of Noah and were used in wars throughout history, this context is unique with its multiple layers of carriers and messages. Viewers watch a video of an actual bird, a human hand and handwriting on the streets of Syria, juxtaposed against a screen-based interface, a vector Twitter icon, a cursor and an entourage of texts and interrelated links. This changes how one experiences the original message. In such instances, there is a unique coexistence between traditional and new media. While some write on paper, others write on cardboard. One example is of calligraphic-style writing in black marker against a brown cardboard backdrop that reads, ‘I am an orphan / Hafez killed my grandfather 2/16/1982 / Hama // Bashar killed my father 6/3/2011 / No Dialogue Friday’.2 This particular image was found in an online article, ‘Visual Aspects of the Syrian Revolution’, as part of the Syrian Studies Association Newsletter 17/1 (2012). According to the author of the article, Andrea L. Stanton, the image was also disseminated on Facebook. A place has been cut from the large protest sign to frame the carrier’s head. A boy holds the sign constructed from a box. He looks directly at the viewer. The image becomes a kind of message. Rather than an email or a text message, it is a digital photograph posted on Facebook. The Art of the Written Word and New Media Dissemination


The boy’s face is framed much like a profile picture, yet this image — with its handwritten lettering — communicates a quality that moves beyond the capacity of a typed comment. Profile pictures in social media are a visual representation of how people and organizations wish to represent themselves visually. Unlike the boy who framed his face in handwriting, the Freedom Wo Bas Facebook page frames handwritten letters as a profile picture. In fact, one can find instances of handwriting and graffiti writing throughout their Facebook page and YouTube channel. ‘Horriyeh w Bas (Freedom Only) is a series of two- to three-minute episodes conveying events from the perspective of demonstrators on the ground. Presented as intimate conversations between two Syrian men, the sketches provide a comic critique of the Syrian people’s tragic predicament.’3 These screenshots actually came from more than one episode. I first came across Freedom Wo Bas in an online article, ‘The Syrian revolution in sketches: Talking to the Horriyeh w Bas team’, in Now Lebanon by Nadine Elali. However, their episodes can also be found on their YouTube channel. Handwriting and graffiti writing is typically embedded within the episodes. It commonly exists within the background setting and at times comes to surface within foreground contexts. From chalk-white letters against a dark grey wall or blood-red spray paint on a scrap of cardboard, the writing found within the Freedom Wo Bas YouTube channel has had more than 700,000 video views at the time of writing this essay. In one episode, graffiti writing is sprayed onto a glass panel in front of the camera, giving the illusion the writing is floating. Viewers become the wall or surface that the words, ‘the people want to overthrow the regime,’ are sprayed upon. The Freedom Wo Bas examples in this essay are a little different than the others because they are created outside Syria, the people in the episodes are actors and the scenery is staged. Some of the writing is animated — the viewers watch it being written by an invisible hand — and the writing serves as a kind of logo and as a protest. It is a raw, tactile and human intervention within the episodes extracted from the visual aesthetic of the Syrian landscape. But while the Freedom Wo Bas episodes portray the predicament in Syria through the use of sets, scripts and actors, video activists document real footage and the images they present — handwriting and graffiti writing — are also embedded within the scenes shot in videos circulating the internet. An online article in the UK’s Guardian by Luke Harding titled ‘Syria’s video activists give revolution the upper hand in media war’, contains a documentary video with excerpts from activists’ videos.4 Casualties bear handwritten labels, while the city streets showcase graffiti writing. One minute the viewer is watching a protest and in another, driving alongside a rifle-carrying activist; from staring at a corpse to dodging an explosion. Phrases such as ‘Freedom Forever’ appear on the Syrian streets. A handwritten sign made from marker on paper lies atop the chest of corpse. The writing reads the deceased’s name and refers


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

to the individual as a martyr whose death was brought on by Assad’s military troops and God’s will. Such writings are one of many layers as they appear within a video in a documentary posted online. This video can also be found on YouTube. With video activists in Syria using new technologies to document atrocities as they occur and disseminate the evidence, these activists are also capturing one of humanity’s most fundamental forms of communication — handwriting. These instances of handwriting provide a human presence that adds to the influential power of the activists’ videos. Handwriting is a distinctly human means of visual expression with capacities to emote exceeding those of the typed text. Graphologists would agree that handwriting is a human marking with uniqueness and individuality. Philip Hensher describes it as a lost art in his book, The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting (and Why It Still Matters).5 In the majority of new media contexts, handwriting does appear to vanish into typed texts. Yet, it is not lost in the new media disseminations related to Syria’s current revolution. On the contrary, handwriting plays an integral role and exists within various facets. Even though much of the media in Syria is controlled by the ruling party, handwriting disseminated through new media is an outlet that empowers the Syrian people. Through the emergence of the web and activists’ efforts to tap into blocked sites such as Facebook and YouTube, urgent and expressive handwritings can be viewed by an international community.6 In these examples a unique aesthetic comes to the surface: the digital documentation and dissemination of intrinsically human imagery. What may at first be overlooked, due to its crude or ordinary appearance, is telling in regards to the Syrian people’s current predicament. Though the examples utilize new media and are visual imagery, I do not see them in terms of new media art. They do not intrinsically rely on the internet for their existence even though they exist online. They also lack a sort of interactivity that is meaningful to new media art. Yet, they are a form of self-expression reflecting Syrian culture. They allude to an underlying potential that raises questions about the future of Syria and new media art.

From Syria to Lebanon To examine how handwriting, as a result of revolution, can influence some modes of media beyond the streets, my research crosses the Syrian border and enters its neighbouring country: Lebanon. In examining Lebanon in relation to the Syrian revolution, various interrelations are explored. The Syrian–Lebanese border is currently being crossed by many. In January 2013 it was estimated that approximately 150,000 Syrians crossed Syria’s borders into Jordan and Lebanon.7 With this influx, Syrian graffiti also arrived on the streets of Beirut. As Pascal Zoghbi wrote in a May 2012 blog post: The Art of the Written Word and New Media Dissemination


Pascal Zoghbi, Graffiti in Beirut, 2012: ‘Liar/Syrian Media.’ Courtesy of the artist.

Pascal Zoghbi, Graffiti in Beirut, 2012: ‘Sorry for disturbing anyone, We are in Syria, Building a Nation.’ Courtesy of the artist.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

it seems that one of the few ‘free’ spaces for Syrians and supporters of the Syrian revolution to spray is Beirut. Stencils and writing in support of the revolution/opposition and against the Syrian regime are being spotted either fully rendered or blacked out. We have heard of arrests, tortures and killings of teenage Syrians who have sprayed slogans on the walls in Dera’a and Homs against the Syrian regime. It proved that in Syria it is not only a matter of censorship but also a matter of life and death. The Syrian government has also banned spray cans from the stores and Syrians need a special ID at the moment to purchase spray cans. This said, it seems like the Syrians in Lebanon and their Lebanese supporters are finding Beirut walls easier and safer to spray on …8 Additionally, Zoghbi explains how such graffiti is being censored immediately: blackened out by ‘pro-Bashar political parties in Lebanon’ and ‘replaced by pro-regime writings besides them.’9 Though the streets of Beirut provide a safe haven for Syrians and graffiti activists, a new and different kind of war emerges on its urban facades. The graffiti writings in Syria are quickly written statements in one colour spray. In contrast to this, there are now graffiti writings in Beirut that are stencils, multi-coloured, with designs integrating graphic representations with text. This change in aesthetics is due to the nature of the surroundings: between the raging war in Syria and the current mode of stability in Lebanon. Yet, the writings in Syria are a reminder of the graffiti that covered the bullet-ridden buildings in the streets of Beirut throughout its 16 years of civil war (1975–91). During that time, approximately 120,000 people were killed and 300,000 were wounded, many of them civilians.10 Syria is currently engulfed within its own civil war which has resulted in the deaths of more than 60,000 people.11 The other countries of the Arab Spring where regimes have been forced from power — Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen — did not have revolutions that spanned nearly two years, as has been the case in Syria. And, in the years since 2011, Lebanon did not undergo a significant revolution, though some view Lebanon as the first ‘Arab Spring’. As Turkey’s Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, stated in January 2012, his government regarded Lebanon’s stability as pivotal for the rest of the region and praised the country, proclaiming: ‘The first “Arab Spring” in order to achieve democracy began in Lebanon.’12 Indeed, as a country that experienced revolution, suffered from civil war, is a democracy and has had time to stabilize, Lebanon provides a base in the Arab region. It has been during this time of stability that the influence of revolution and war has played an integral role in artists’ works, but in a different way to how an artist works amidst war. Thus, Lebanese handwritten art and design

The Art of the Written Word and New Media Dissemination


Pascal Zoghbi, poster for Massira font set design, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Pascal Zoghbi, Photograph of Massira in use, Walls of Freedom: Street Art of the Egyptian Revolution (Don Karl and Basma Hamdy, eds.), 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

Jaber Al Azmeh, The Anonymous Activist, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

The Art of the Written Word and New Media Dissemination


Jaber Al Azmeh, Equality, Dignity, Freedom, 2012. Printed on cotton rag fine art archival paper, ed. of 5, 70 x 105 cm. Courtesy of the artist.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

The Art of the Written Word and New Media Dissemination


may provide a perspective on potential future works from Syria once the Syrian civil war comes to an end and the people see a time of relief. But until then, Syrian artists continue to create works that integrate handwriting in order to expose and express the gravity of revolution and war as they experience it.13 One particularly relevant artist’s work is that of Jaber Al Azmeh. As part of his collection, titled Wounds, Al Azmeh photographs Arabic writing in flames, with a dark figure silhouetted against a red backdrop. In an ongoing series of Syrian portraits with the Ba’ath newspaper, Al Azmeh also powerfully utilizes handwriting within photography as a means of expression. An article in Nafas Art Magazine, ‘Jaber Al Azmeh: A Small Group of Syrians’, showcased 20 portraits and explained: This project takes on one of the Syrian Government’s most prominent symbols — The Ba’ath Newspaper — as part and parcel of the Ba’ath Security State — and here turns it upside down to be a surface of new thoughts written by the Syrian people thus overturning the daily chronicle of government lies.14 However, beyond Al Azmeh’s photographs, a deeper examination of Syrian handwritten art as a result of the revolution becomes challenging, as it is engulfed within the revolution itself. Therefore, what follows is an examination of Lebanese art and design in relation to Syria. The following examples transform the handwriting of revolution in a manner that integrates it into the cultural landscape. After examining the handwritings of Syrian artists and activists the question arises: how can such writings evolve towards the realm of new media?

Handwriting in Lebanese art and design based on revolution Pascal Zoghbi’s work Massira (meaning ‘demonstration’ in Arabic) is a set of handwriting fonts based on writings of the Lebanese people. It is a family of fonts including four styles: pen, Tippex, lipstick and spray. It was inspired from the graffiti writings of demonstrators in Martyrs’ Square, Beirut, after the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon between 2005 and 2006. Zoghbi created the design by analysing handwriting on petitions and noting the various kinds of writing tools. He examined how each letter changed in comparing one person’s handwriting to another. Massira can also be seen within a design context. As people purchase and use Massirav its contexts will continue to vary, altering the original meaning of the typeface design. Some may argue that such alterations demean the significance of the Lebanese protests and the people’s handwriting. However, we may also view these alterations as a


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

means to embed a historically significant moment within a culturally relevant design. The underlying meaning of the typeface could then flourish as it is viewed in multiple contexts. This is one of the unique features of typeface design. It is not design that is exhibited, shown or used only one time. Rather, designers, artists and users can utilize the type within an infinite number of circumstances. For someone viewing Latin-based typeface design, this may seem somewhat commonplace. However, such contemporary Arabic typeface design is innovative and of great cultural importance. The amount of Latin-based fonts far outnumbers Arabic ones, and the development of contemporary Arabic fonts is still new in comparison. Arabic type design is traditionally limited due to the technology oriented towards the development and use of Latin fonts. Also, the nature of Arabic letters is strongly rooted in calligraphy, with letters that change their form based on their placement within words, which makes Arabic type design challenging. To have a fully developed digitalized Arabic typeface design based upon handwritten graffiti is part of a revolution towards the modernization of Arabic typeface design. Another Lebanese artist whose handwritten works reflect revolution is Nadine Kanso. In Kanso’s works, street banners (common within the Arab region, particularly in protests) are hand-painted and applied to found and refurbished chairs. Place settings are painted with writing. Of course, Arabic letters used within traditional and contemporary furniture and object design is not uncommon, but what makes Kanso’s work unique is its relation to the ‘Arab Spring’. As explained on the Cuadro Gallery website: Nadine Kanso’s chairs, upholstered in traditional fabrics, are not discarded, but rather sourced from different homes. Representative of the Arab street, the chairs come from different walks of life, yet are seated together at the same table. Revolutionary phrases recontextualized in a domestic setting are unnerving and even disjointed fragments of sentences still have the power to evoke the powerful emotion on the street.15 The designs of Pascal Zoghbi and Nadine Kanso, though utilizing the concepts of digital technologies in terms of production and/or dissemination, are still not new media. However, they do transform handwriting related to revolution into various medias, and transport concepts of revolution into new contexts disseminated by way of new media. This is also the case with the works of Jaber Al Azmeh. Yet, this online dissemination is different from the work of street activists or artists whose writings are disseminated through sites such as YouTube, Facebook, news articles or scholarly texts, as is the case with the writings that have emerged out of Syria since 2011. Rather, Zoghbi, Kanso and

The Art of the Written Word and New Media Dissemination


Al Azmeh are all disseminating their work through online gallery spaces or type foundries. In this sense, the works become part of customized spaces that showcase art. Interactivity in such instances can be more personalized, leading in turn towards interesting potentials in new media art and design.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

1. Gloria Goodale, ‘In Libya, Perfecting the Art of Revolution by Twitter’, The Christian Science Monitor, 2011. Available at http://www.csmonitor.com/ USA/2011/0510/In-Libya-perfecting-the-art-ofrevolution-by-Twitter (accessed 5 October 2012).

8. Pascal Zoghbi, ‘Censored. Why Now? Graffiti in Beirut Post Arab Revolutions’, 29 Letters/29 LT blog. Available at http://29letters.wordpress. com/2012/05/16/censored-revolutionary-graffiti/ (accessed 1 February 2013).

2. Andrea L. Stanton, ‘Visual Aspects of the Syrian Revolution’, Syrian Studies Association Newsletter 17/1 (2012). Available at https://ojcs.siue.edu/ojs/index.php/ ssa/article/view/2722/673 (accessed 9 October 2012).

9. Ibid.

3. Nadine Elali, ‘The Syrian Revolution in Sketches: Talking to the Horriyeh w Bas team’, Now Lebanon, 2011. Available at http://www.nowlebanon.com/ NewsArchiveDetails.aspx?ID=292824 (accessed 12 September 2012). 4. Luke Harding, ‘Syria’s Video Activists give Revolution the Upper Hand in Media War’, Guardian, 2012. Available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/ aug/01/syria-video-activists-media-war (accessed 12 September 2012).

10. Elsa Marston, Lebanon: New Light in an Ancient Land (New York: Dillon Press, 1994), pp. 45–8. 11. ‘What’s Next for Syria in 2013?’ CNN, 2013. Available at http://edition.cnn.com/2013/01/02/world/meast/ syria-2013-outlook (accessed 12 February 2013). 12. ‘Davutoğlu: Lebanon Home of First Arab Spring’, Daily Star Lebanon, 2012. Available at http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Local-News/2012/Jan-14/159880turkish-foreign-minister-arrives-in-lebanon.ashx#ixzz2KrelerDB (accessed 12 February 2013).

13. Ian Black, ‘Smuggled Out of Syria to Show London, The Art of War,’ Guardian, 2012. Available at http:// 5. Phillip Hensher, ‘Why Handwriting Matters’, Guardian, www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/nov/23/smuggled2012. Available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/ syria-london-art-war (accessed 12 February 2013). books/2012/oct/07/missing-ink-handwriting-art-hensher-extract (accessed 10 October 2012). 14. ‘Jaber Al Azmeh: A Small Group of Syrians’, Nafas Art Magazine, 2012. Available at http://universes-in-uni6. ‘Syria Profile’, BBC News Middle East, 2012. verse.org/eng/nafas/articles/2012/jaber_al_azmeh Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle- (accessed 19 February 2013). east-14703914 (accessed 18 September 2012). 15. Cuadro Fine Art Gallery, ‘Kanso, Nadine’, 2012. 7. Stephanie Nebehay, ‘UN says 5,000 Syrian Refugees Available at http://www.cuadroart.com/en/artists/kanFleeing Each Day’, Daily Star, 2013. Available at http:// so-nadine.html (accessed 20 February 2013). www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2013/Feb08/205600-un-says-5000-syrian-refugees-fleeing-eachday.ashx#ixzz2KriUS100 (accessed 15 February 2013).

The Art of the Written Word and New Media Dissemination


On Revolution and Rubbish What has Changed in Tunisia since Spring 2011 Timo Kaabi-Linke

Spring is the season of change. But one year after the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, it seems that these changes have done little to attain the goals that brought people out onto the streets at the start of these uprisings. The spring revolution in Tunisia ended with the first free elections, which took place in autumn 2011. But as each spring is followed by the next autumn, many aspirations and yearnings for change have quickly fallen back down to earth after the Ennahda Party took 40 per cent of the votes, thus becoming the leading member of the constitutional assembly. The result of this choice, which did not express the wish of the majority of Tunisians, is that women now have to fight again for equal rights and artists face a new form of censorship. And the post-electoral fall out is not over yet: it seems to have lasted longer than the spring of 2011. Now that the vernal enthusiasm of 2011 has already evaporated, it is worth reviewing. But before going into detail about the new conditions for arts and culture in Tunisia, I would like to grapple with some theories behind the internet-streamed uprising in Tunisia known as the ‘Jasmine Revolution’.

The technology of new revolutions The events of spring 2011 were often described as a kind of web 2.0-based socio-political movement. Indeed, the first pictures and news snippets covering the events in Tunisia were transmitted via do-it-yourself, citizen broadcasting on YouTube and Facebook. It took a while until international news agencies paid attention to the posts and tweets, and it was only after the first weeks of the uprising that the editorial departments of foreign media started to recognize that there was something going on in the Arab world. At this time, the protests in Tunisia reached national proportions and were followed by similar movements in Yemen, Bahrain and Egypt. It was the very dynamism of the posts and the sharing on social networks that rendered these activities

visible to a worldwide public, transmitted by the medium of the internet. For this reason, some were led to ascribe to these social networks an important and supportive role in the uprisings during that period. However, this notion of ‘Facebook Revolution’ or ‘Twitter Revolution’ quickly produced a mythical lens through which to comprehend the civil uprisings taking place in the Arab world. Journalists, reporters and bloggers immediately adopted the idea of a ‘streamed’ revolution, lavishing praise on the liberating forces of social networks. This made the observations of the Arab Spring much easier to theorize— but also a little too simplistic in terms of understanding what was really going on. What about the many different voices and ideas that were squeezed into one and the same interpretational frame? The whole movement started in small towns of the Tunisian hinterland, where it was the protesters’ physical presence that produced the image of what appeared as a battle for common interests. Yet, if the internet had not been considered the ‘tool of change’ for a mainly young and well-educated pro-democratic youth, it would have been more noticeable that the protesters in fact did not share a single interest, but many different interests. The use of technology in the revolution was given too much attention. In characterizing the pro-democracy protesters through the social networks they used, rather than through the many different interests they were fighting for, the different dynamics within the social movement were not considered enough. It was Evgeny Morozov, a young media theorist at Stanford University, who was the first to call the national uprising in Moldova a ‘Twitter Revolution’ in 2009.1 He was sure that people would one day think about these events not so much in terms of the protesters but rather in terms of the technologies they used. Despite its poor theoretical content, the term ‘Twitter Revolution’ triggered the myth that Western technologies were capable of dispatching the very set of tacit values that instructed the design of these technical objects. This way of thinking just channelled the eighteenth-century ideas of empowerment into glass fibre cables, computer networks, grids and clouds; and since ideologies were considered the agency of the civil revolution, it once more became the agency of a civil movement in the 21st century, now embodied in gadgets and technical facilities. Of course, theory is all about the reduction of complexity, and sometimes it functions only as a method through which to recycle old ideas in order to understand new things. In the verve of the many different approaches inspired by social constructivism, many researchers were convinced that technologies invented and designed in certain societies with a given set of values would also carry specific moral codes that organize and develop a certain behaviour corresponding to ruling norms.2 Professional hand tools are seldom made to fit in children’s hands because most societies abandoned child labour; alarm clocks— for many the most disturbing invention ever made— are On Revolution and Rubbish


a perfect response to the desires of societies who understand working time as a merchandise. Similarly, computers, connected information and communication facilities are the perfect tools to increase productivity in the time of what some have called a third Industrial Revolution. Although it makes sense to read sets of common values and ideologies in artefacts, these findings or ascriptions are based rather on theoretical understanding than observation of the media in practice. In other words, the evaluation of innovations is biased in terms of both social order and knowledge: the conclusion seems to be embedded in social and cultural contexts, where thinking is strongly affected by the newness and benefits assigned to ‘useful things’. However, these qualities can change. In 1976, Joseph Weizenbaum, a prominent figure in computer science, presented a more critical view of computerized civilization. His question was whether the automatic response to increasing computer power and calculation would inevitably lead to a decrease of human reason.3 A few years later, in the mid-1980s, these concerns preserved a certain validity, but the communicational success of new technologies replaced the critical and historical meaning with a more pragmatic assessment. Friedrich Kittler welcomed apparatuses and machines as new agencies of the historical subject, changing the epistemology of media theory.4 It was a dramatic U-turn from basic anthropological principles expressed in Marshall McLuhan’s media philosophy towards technological materialism. Finally, it became possible to explain forms of subjectivity that reflect in literature, arts and science without any concession to humanism and teleology. Rather than understanding media as extensions of the human body, humans were now understood to be adapting to new media and machines.5 At the same time, Andrew Feenberg brought this insight to a more sociological level and understood conflicting ideas such as François Lyotard’s post-modernism, Habermas’ communicative rationality, Foucault’s microphysics of power and Derrida’s deconstructivism in reference to both social movements and community building, with specific focus on how new technologies were facilitating such phenomena. Here, the machine became a reference for critical understanding: presented as a medium that could change social practices and reflections of society in social theories. By way of example, the French videotex MINITEL, designed as a telematic information system with some interactive functions, took only five years to become a communication network,6 where people could find everything they were willing to pay for: gadgets, friends, sex and love. For Feenberg, MINITEL became a social system unto itself and thinkers like Lyotard and Derrida shaped their theories to supply the philosophical grasp to make sense out of it.7 But though new technologies may change society, they cannot realize the utopia of a global community. Ten years after Feenberg’s short history of MINITEL, a big-budget study conducted by the Carnegie Mellon University


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

at Pittsburgh investigated the community-building properties of the internet. At that time, the net was already considered a ‘social technology’, but researchers found a sad and lonely world in cyberspace.8 To sum up the results, ‘a greater use of the Internet was associated with declines in participant communication with family members in the household, declines in the size of their social circle, and increases in their depression and loneliness.’9 The quality of real friendships seemed to be replaced by the quantity of wired relationships that were weaker but easier to cultivate. Now the meaning of the internet has turned again in a new direction. After a web 2.0 facelift with new interactivity features and social networks, the internet is considered as the agency for international civil rights movements that responds to local needs. It started in many countries of the so-called ‘Arab world’, moving on to Israel and China where it mobilized the civil criticism of repressive politics and economy before its purported political and social agency became a global phenomenon in shape of the Occupy movement. But, if one looks at the different meanings given to the internet during the last 30 years, without ignoring the conclusions of studies about the social cohesion of connected communities, the confidence in the social and political power of these facilities collapses. This leads to the question: are social networks really made to run and empower new revolutions? For example, after the 2009 uprisings in Moldova and the post-election protests in Tehran, electronic networks were praised for providing a political platform to the people. Yet although they were successfully used to organize people without any central form of organization, the reliance on and the impact of technologies on civil movements dropped. Today, Evgeny Morozov is one of the leading critics against the role of the internet during social and political transition. New technologies help to organize protests in new ways, but a protest is not possible without protesters on the streets. You cannot simply ‘follow’ a revolution on Facebook or Twitter without physically participating. The data highway is just a tool, not the propeller of the events, since it can be used by everyone and for any purpose. Of course, one could or perhaps should use the internet as a way to keep an eye on different protesters and different interests: this makes it easier to understand where movements are going, but in no way acts as the driving force behind the movements themselves.

The fall of leaves People still don’t know exactly what happened in January 2011. Was dictator Ben Ali (also known as Zaba) cast out through the power of a people’s protest, or by a deliberately planned coup d’état? What was the intent behind his getaway to rescue his family and himself, or was it the result of a misunderstanding On Revolution and Rubbish


between him and his staff? These questions are still being discussed, but whether much has changed in Tunisia since 2011, it must be pointed out that the Tunisians making money before the revolution have continued to make money in its aftermath. Following the first free constitutional elections, the resolve to shed light on the involvement of Tunisia’s high society with the Zaba regime has clearly weakened, and one of the most shocking mysteries, the rooftop snipers shooting at pro-democracy protesters, remains unsolved. Although many people witnessed snipers in action, the government has since denied their existence up to now; hence the mystery becoming a cold case. Since many such questions like these have yet to be answered, there is reason to ask whether the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ was a turning point in Tunisian history or just the beginning of a new myth that functions as a way in which to brainwash public opinion. With this in mind, it is important to note that at least two things have altered the Tunisian landscape remarkably since spring 2011. For one, the first thing one now notices on arriving in Tunisia is the litter. Secondly, the increase in young men flying the flag of the Salafi movement or even the Al Qaeda flag on the streets and from houses has become more noticeable. These flags are either white on black or black on white and look like a photo negative of a disarmed Saudi flag. It carries a stitching of the shahada: the Muslim declaration of faith stating that there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet. It is also known as the ‘Caliphate’s Flag’, the political symbol of a fledgling Muslim nation that is now purchasable in selected souvenir and grocery shops in Tunisia. Now, I have no idea if there are any connections between both phenomena— rubbish and post-revolutionary extremism— but I am quite certain that too much of both could threaten any country’s civil society. Years ago, I read a book talking about how humans have been producing rubbish since the beginning of time and how one could call civilization the very state in which the processing of waste has been organized into a running system.10  In today’s Tunisia, this system seems to be out of pace. Ruins that are thousands of years old are now overwhelmed by non-degradable plastic litter, while black smoke from burning polyethylene waste spreads out into the horizon. The new and the old come together, but without any systematic order behind such a union. You see waste everywhere: on the roadsides, in the streets, on fields and fallow grounds, in parks and gardens. Of course, there are also public dustbins in some streets, but they are hard to find. If one wants to throw garbage into a bin, one must cross a three- to six-metre trash belt; I even found a literal ‘wall of trash’ in the Medina of Tunis obstructing the way into and view of a courtyard. In residential areas, people are living both with and within their domestic litter, but this is far from being solely a problem for residential areas. The beaches are still the most popular places to visit during summer, but now


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

there is more litter than ever before: not a square metre that doesn’t need to be cleaned up. People simply leave waste on the beach, as if there was no tomorrow, as if they were not planning on ever coming back. Consequently, even though the beach is a public place, there is no civil responsibility to keep the beaches clean. Of course, this might have something to do with the fact that people usually tend to look after their private estates more. In autumn 2008, I followed the artist Nadia Kaabi-Linke into the suburbs of Tunis. At this time, rubbish was a barely significant social issue, but it was already becoming a problem to many people. We were collecting prints of graffiti that residents had written on the walls of their houses and gardens to prevent others dumping garbage outside their doors. There were many inscriptions, in different styles and expressions, sometimes in the same street. Depending on the politeness, piety or fury of each home’s inhabitants, there were civil pleas to respect the neighbourhood and not throw garbage in front of the houses, and some clear warnings, too: ‘No dumping here (concerning all kind of waste)!’ and even threats: ‘A broken arm and foot for every one who throws litter.’ More striking to me was the use of non-secular warnings and spells: ‘Those who throw their garbage here will neither be blessed nor they will find graciousness,’ or a step further: ‘God will not have any graciousness for the parents of those who throw their rubbish here.’ To me, it was a mystery how religion related to trash, but I was then told that religion and superstition are an inveterate part of daily Tunisian life: it can be used for everything, even to keep the pavement clean. Maybe there is a connection between litter and belief. Divine retribution in the face of littering can be seen as an indicator of the religiosity of Tunisian people. If home owners use one’s belief to stop garbage from being dumped in front of their houses, the motive points towards a common fear of God. But this cannot explain how outdoor litter has increased proportionally to the rise of religious extremism. And it also does not explain why religious extremism could grow into a political movement against any kind of cultural and sexual emancipation. For example, in March 2012, half a dozen more or less bearded men climbed up the rusty clock tower at the entry of Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis, a monument erected by Ben Ali and the flashpoint of the capital’s revolutionary protests.11 These men entertained themselves and other protesters by hanging the Salafi flag, which has become a symbol for a growing body of religious hard-liners and hooligans. A similar incident occurred three weeks earlier at the Manouba University, where a supporter of the Salafi movement climbed up onto the roof of the Humanities department in order to replace the national flag of the Tunisian Republic with the Salafi flag. These incidents might seem like unconnected events, but until now the Salafi movement has been pushing society towards a new kind of self-censorship, which has since changed the lives of many artists and people working in culture. On Revolution and Rubbish


In former times, artists dealt with political censorship against clear stipulations: no criticism of the country, its leader and his family. However, artists could still sometimes explore how far they could push the boundaries of this no-go zone, lacing their works with criticism. Conversely, today there are new limits of artistic expression and the new form of censorship is disguised under the idea of ‘the Sacred’, a notion that is gaining ground in Tunisia’s increasingly religious political landscape. Here, it would be recommended to describe ‘the Sacred’, but unfortunately I cannot do this; perhaps nobody really can. While ‘the Sacred’ is mentioned and defended all the time, no one has ever come up with a useful definition or description that would explain what exactly should not be offended.

The invisible sword Compared to the old censorship, which was pretty clear in that it was a matter of one political leader, one party and one country you could not deride, the new censorship is blurrier and more difficult to avoid because it is the notion of holiness in question. In this, the dilemma is that there will never be a satisfactory definition of what is sacred, while any attempts that fail to present a fully fledged or acceptable description risk the condemnation of blasphemy. After all, though for ‘believers’ the idea of ‘the Sacred’ may be viewed as an entity, logically it is nothing but a class of objects, words and meanings. If one makes use of these things, one can automatically and unknowingly come into conflict with religion itself, with all its incumbent politics. This leaves a Kafkaesque vacuum that makes any artistic undertaking akin to digging into the darkness of a no-go zone. In May 2012, Lara Favaretto showed her work As if a Ruin (2012) in the National Museum of Carthage. The work was a site-specific adaptation of her confetti sculptures, consisting of about 800 pounds of confetti shaped to form a dark brown cube that referred to the ashes of Carthage the day after it was burned down by the army of the Roman Empire. The work touched on the historical depth of the site: a ‘momentary monument’ that decomposed and degraded during the time of the exhibition. Yet, despite the Italian origin of the artist and the historical context of the place, many Tunisian visitors were convinced that the piece represented the Kaaba. In the exhibition, another piece represented the Salafi flag, the declaration of belief stitched with fading jasmine flowers on black tissue. The organizers of the exhibition were worried about this artwork, since the shahada was embodied in fading flowers and could therefore be taken as a comment on fading belief. Yet surprisingly, the work was popular and on the closing day of the exhibition, the artist offered it to a Salafi who sincerely promised that from now on, he would take care of the flowers— probably to keep the faith.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Nadia Kaabi-Linke, Smell, 2012. Chkoun Ahna © Vipul Sangoi.

Lara Favaretto, As if a Ruin, 2012. Chkoun Ahna © Vipul Sangoi

On Revolution and Rubbish


Sometimes, it is hard to anticipate whether a work of art will be understood in a spiritual sense or not. In view of this, the issue of ‘the Sacred’ recalls Walter Benjamin’s conception of an artwork’s auratic character, when something viewed from afar can appear close or something close can seem distant.12 No artist— and no curator or organizer either— can be certain of the very position of his or her practice towards ‘the Sacred’. Sometimes the notion might seem close, even if it is in fact quite distant, while at other times it can seem distant, even if the invisible line between what is sacred and what is not has already been crossed. This can influence artistic practices, like Cicero’s anecdote of Damocles, who, rather than enjoying his life, could not keep his eyes off the sword hovering over his head. In quite a similar way, the artist must keep an eye on what others might understand as blasphemy, instead of thinking freely about artistic and conceptual matters. This was made clear on the closing day of the Printemps des Arts exhibition in June 2012, when officials condemned artworks for insulting Islam and accused the artists of blasphemy. It was not an isolated incident. Moez Mrabet— a Tunisian theatre director, actor and choreographer— recalls the same behaviour from the government and Mehdi Mabrouk, the Minister of Culture, when threats against artists and intellectuals began some months ago. In March 2012, a huge Salafi mob attacked a downtown theatre in Tunis, and intellectuals have been repeatedly attacked during public conferences. In May 2012, Salafis made an attempt on a theatre director’s life and committed several severe physical aggressions in El Kef.13 Mrabet remembers that all this happened openly and publicly, without police intervention and without any serious statement from the government, condemning the attacks. Printemps des Arts took place in the Abdelliya Palace in La Marsa and at other venues across Tunis from 1–10 June 2012. During these ten days, the exhibited artworks were publicized via the internet and print media and images circulated on social networks. According to the chronological reports from the Union of Tunisian Artists— whose members I have been in contact with— everything was going smoothly until the last day of the exhibition, when a bailiff commissioned by a Salafi association, accompanied by a lawyer and two other men, demanded the removal of two paintings in Abdelliya. At 5pm, representatives of several associations, deputies of the Tunisian parliament and political parties, got together at the Palace to defend the interest of artists and gallerists. At the same time, a group of men gathered outside the Palace. That evening, police kept control over the situation and the exhibition closed at 8pm. At 11pm, an angry Salafi mob gathered in front of the Palace and residents left their houses to protect the building before the police arrived. The next day, the Minister of Culture published a statement distancing himself from the art fair, while accusing participating artists of provocative actions. He went so far as to announce the closing of the Abdelliya Palace as an


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

off-space for cultural activities.14 Later that evening, the Minister of Religious Affairs, Noureddine El Khademi, charged the artists with an assault on Islam and called everybody to defend the religion on local television channel Tunisia 1’s eight o’clock evening news. In the same programme, the spokesman for the Minister of the Interior insinuated that the whole incident had been staged by the artist themselves, even questioning their credentials as artists. Soon after, violence broke out at several locations across the country and was followed by dusk-to-dawn curfews.15 From that week onwards, artists and members of the Tunisian Artists Union have argued that the artworks in question did not assault ‘the Sacred’, and in doing so, have appeared to corroborate the rule that an artwork should not touch or question any religious matters. On Friday 15 June, Rached Ghannouchi— the leader of the Ennahda party— called on the Tunisian people across the whole country to demonstrate after prayer to protect ‘the revolution and the Holy’. The same day, during his prayer, Houcine Laâbidi, the Imam of the old Zitouna mosque in the Medina of Tunis, called for the murder of the artists in the exhibition.16 Since then, many Tunisian artists— whether they participated in the exhibition or not— have been living with death threats.17 Their names and those of their children, their addresses and mobile numbers have been published on Facebook, together with manipulated images. Unfortunately, this is another way that new technologies and social networks can be utilized and it has nothing to do with freedom and democracy. In the case of Printemps des Arts, these social networks have been used to discredit artists by spreading fake images of provocative artworks that were never on show in the Abdelliya Palace in the first place. This ambiguous use of technology in Tunisian society invokes Melvin Kranzberg’s observation that ‘Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.’18

The emergency state of art In August 2012, Tunisian actor Lotfi Abdelli experienced something similar to the anti-art riots caused by the Printemps des Arts with his one-man show Made in Tunisia, 100 per cent Halal. On the day of the opening, hundreds of Salafi Muslims, who believed that the piece was offensive to Islam, occupied the open-air theatre and began to pray. The play was cancelled and Abdelli’s life has since been threatened. On the experience, Abdelli told Reuters: ‘I am not afraid of threats or assault, but I do really fear for our freedom of expression and creativity, which is the only thing that we got out of the revolution.’19 During this time, Minister of Culture Mehdi Mabrouk revealed that 12 artistic events were to be cancelled for security reasons.20 Considering Mabrouk’s accusations and discriminations against artists who participated

On Revolution and Rubbish


Sunday at 5pm outside the Palace Abdelliya. Photograph by Héla Ammar, 2012.

‘Tunisia is Muslim country! With the permission of the Minister of Culture the prophet of God was insulted.’ Tag on the Abdelliya Palace. Photograph by Amel Benattia, 2012.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

in Printemps des Arts a few months before, it seemed the Minister of Culture found himself again in a delicate situation. While saying that he was ‘afraid of Salafis dominating the cultural landscape’21 Habib Kedher, a member of the Islamist Ennahda movement, claimed that all these protests were nothing but an unequivocal push to make insulting religion a crime.22 In September 2012, Human Rights Watch (HRW) informed Tunisia’s National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) that some of its proposed articles directly contradicted universal rights. ‘If passed with these articles intact,’ wrote Eric Goldstein, Deputy Director of HRW, ‘the constitution will undermine freedom of expression in the name of protecting “sacred values”, provide a basis for chipping away at the country’s proud record on women’s rights and weaken, in other ways, Tunisia’s commitment to respecting the international human rights treaties it has signed.’23 His concerns were mainly about two articles: a) the freedom of belief in regard to Article 3, which, though it guarantees the freedom of belief and religious practice, does not protect the right to change one’s religion or to choose no religion; and b) Article 22, stating the equality of all citizens in rights and freedoms before the law without discrimination of any kind, contradicting another article stating how only a male Muslim can become President of the Republic.24 The reaction of the NCA was as prompt as it was simple: the commission in charge of the constitution announced its abandonment of Tunisia’s adherance to international human rights laws.25 The sad irony is that this decision was made by a non-secular and ‘secular’ assembly; democratically elected after a ‘revolution’ that brought people out into the street to fight for their rights. Obviously, religious issues deserve more protection. Supposing that democracy still is the common aspiration of the NCA and considering the view that democracy can only be based on equal rights, something has gone terribly wrong in Tunisia. Considering that the fundamental rights constitutive of any democracy are often confined, restricted or erased in an emergency, it is legitimate to address the contemporary situation in Tunisia as a state of emergency. Instead of protecting freedom of expression, the government is trying to use religion to censor and normalize the arts in respect to the demands of avowedly anti-democratic and hostile groups. And when religion is used to prevent other people from dumping rubbish in front of their front doors, politicians may then adopt it to respond to people’s demands. Today there is more rubbish in the country than ever, but the real problem seems to be the political mobilization around religious matters. Yet, if another spring arrives to replace the autumn, the importance of religion in public life must be addressed if change is still kept in view. Such cultural workers as artists, writers, actors, choreographers and filmmakers must find subversive ways to undermine governmental restrictions and extra-governmental repressions. Many wrong decisions have affected policies in Tunisia, which have led to an increased awareness of how civil society is changing in On Revolution and Rubbish


ways that are as troubling as they are problematic. So long as the people in Tunisia are still having fun at the beaches and stockpiling beer and wine in the run-up to Ramadan, ascetic restrictions are still worth resisting.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

1. Evgeny Morozov, ‘Moldava’s Twitter Revolution’, neteffect.foreignpolicy.com, April 2009. Available at http:// neteffect.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/04/07/moldovas_twitter_revolution (accessed 7 October 2012).

15. See: ‘Tunis Declares Curfew after “Islamist” rioting’, BBC News, June 2012. Available at http://www.bbc. co.uk/news/world-africa-18416328 (accessed 7 October 2012).

2. See: Andrew Feenberg, ‘Subversive Rationalization: Technology, Power, and Democracy’, Inquiry 35/3 and 4 (1992); Langdon Winner, ‘Citizen Virtues in a Technological Order’, Inquiry 35/3 and 4 (1992); Wiebe Bijker and John Law (eds), Shaping Technology/ Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992).

16. See: Houcine Laâbidi, ‘Imam de la Zitouna, appelle au meurtre des artistes “blasphémateurs”’, Business News.com.tn, June 2012. Available at http://www.businessnews.com.tn/details_article. php?t=534&a=31711&temp=3 (accessed October 2012).

3. Joseph Weizenbaum, Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgement to Calculation (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1976). 4. Friedrich Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999). 5. Stuart Jeffries, ‘Friedrich Kittler Orbituary: Philosopher and Media Theorist Known as the “Derrida of the Digital Age”’, Guardian, October 2011. Available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/oct/21/friedrich-kittler (accessed 6 January 2013). 6. See: Andrew Feenberg, ‘From Information to Communication: The French Experience with Videotex’, in Alternative Modernity: The Technical Turn in Philosophy and Social Theory (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995). 7. Ibid. 8. Amy Harmon, ‘Sad, Lonely World Discovered in Cyberspace’, New York Times, 30 August 1998. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/1998/08/30/us/ sad-lonely-world-discovered-in-cyberspace.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm (accessed 7 October 2012). 9. Robert Kraut et al., ‘Internet Paradox: A Social Technology That Reduces Social Involvement and Psychological Well-Being?’, American Psychologist 53/9 (1998), p. 1017. 10. Volker Grassmuck and Christian Unverzagt, Das Müll-System: Eine metarealistische Bestandsaufnahme (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1998).

17. See: Lilia Weslaty, ‘27 artistes tunisiens ont reçu des menaces de mort’, Nawaat, June 2012. Available at http://nawaat.org/portail/2012/06/18/27-artistes-tunisiens-ont-recu-des-menaces-de-mort/ (accessed 7 October 2012). 18. Melvin Kranzberg, ‘Technology and History: “Kranzberg’s Laws”’, Technology and Culture 27/3 (July 1986). 19. Tarek Amara, ‘Tunisian Artists Cry for Help against Religious Extremists’, Reuters.com, September 2012. Available at http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/09/19/us-tunisia-salafi-art-idUSBRE88I0SM20120919 (accessed 7 October 2012). 20. Ibid. 21. Ibid. 22. Ibid. 23. ‘Tunisia: Fix Serious Flaws in Draft Constition’, Human Rights Watch.org, 13 September 2012. Available at http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/09/13/ tunisia-fix-serious-flaws-draft-constitution (accessed 7 October 2012). 24. Ibid. 25. See: ‘Le référentiel “Droits de l’Homme universels” définitivement refusé dans la Constitution tunisienne’, BusinessNews.com.tn, October 2012. Available at http://www.businessnews.com.tn/ details_article.php?t=520&a=33784&temp=3&lang (accessed 7 October 2012).

11. Mohamed El Dahshan, ‘Of Flags and Salafis’, Foreign Policy, April 2012. Available at http://transitions.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/04/03/of_flags_and_salafis (accessed 7 October 2012). 12. Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (New York: Prism Key Press, 2010), p. 17. 13. See: ‘En toute impunité, des islamistes agressent un artiste au Kef’, Tunisie Focus, May 2012. Available at http://www.tunisiefocus.com/politique/5429-5429/ (accessed 7 October 2012). 14. Hanène Zbiss, ‘Attaques salafistes: la Tunisie en otage’, Réalités 1382, June 2012.

On Revolution and Rubbish


Saadiyat and the Gulf Labor Boycott Gulf Labor

Introduction Anthony Downey: The following essay is by Gulf Labor, a coalition of international artists working to ensure that migrant worker rights are protected during the construction and maintenance of museums on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi. Whilst Gulf Labor note improvements since the beginning of their involvement, they also observe continued failings across a number of areas when it comes to equitable labour rights in the building of Saadiyat Island. 

Changes on Saadiyat Island since the boycott began Haig Aivazian: When it comes to Saadiyat Island and the workers’ conditions there, we can talk about the changes observed since 2011. However, the history of the boycott starts a little bit earlier. While it is true that the boycott was made public in 2011, several key initiatives precede that date, including a letter signed by 43 artists sent to the Guggenheim in 2010 seeking guarantees of workers’ rights. This letter was sent after members of Gulf Labor consulted with Human Rights Watch (HRW) following their 2009 report on workers’ living conditions on Saadiyat Island. Several meetings also ensued with the Guggenheim following this letter. Soon after these efforts, in 2010, TDIC (Tourism Development & Investment Company, which spearheads Saadiyat development) issued an important document called the EPP (Employment Practices Policy), outlining a code of conduct vis-à-vis its employees. But the EPP is not a legal document. Rather, it is a non-binding pledge by TDIC to uphold fair labour standards. Unfortunately, there was no mention of producing any mechanisms to ensure the implementation of these policies. Additionally, one of the key demands of Gulf Labor from the start had been the assignment of independent monitors,

Scale model of the Frank Gehry Guggenheim proposed for Saadiyat Island, March 2011. Photograph taken by Gregory Sholette on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi, UAE. Courtesy of the artist.

Detail of the scale model of the Frank Gehry Guggenheim proposal for Saadiyat Island, taken in March 2011 by Gregory Sholette. Courtesy of the artist.

Saadiyat and the Gulf Labor Boycott


empowered and enabled to make impromptu inspections to the sites and accommodations on the island. This demand was also not addressed. Following these shortcomings, the boycott was made public in March 2011. In conversations and meetings with the Guggenheim, we then recommended a list of human rights organizations we thought would make for sound and rigorous monitors. We also suggested the implementation of the Institute of Human Rights and Business’s recently drafted ‘Dhaka Principles’ as a framework to move TDIC’s policies forward. Ignoring our list of recommendations, the TDIC assigned PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) as their monitor in June 2011, despite serious concerns raised over the firm’s business interests in the region, as well as real doubts about PwC’s ability to manoeuvre independently. Regardless of these facts, Gulf Labor welcomed the step as a positive development. PwC’s report came out several months after the expected publication date in September 2012. It outlined improvements in workers’ living conditions and a marked decrease in the common practice of passport confiscation. The issue of workers having to pay recruitment fees was referred to as alarmingly systemic, reiterating Gulf Labor’s concerns.  We issued a statement in response to the report, expressing optimism at these improvements. We did, however, also reiterate our concerns. We addressed problems with PwC’s methodology, pointing out the lack of unannounced visits, the strange inclusion of TDIC responses to the issues raised by PwC in the report itself, indicating that TDIC were given the time and opportunity to address shortcomings prior to the release of the report. On the whole, we believe that our efforts have kept the conversation around the fair treatment of migrant workers on Saadiyat Island alive and we have been able to make advances. While much remains to be done, it is important to praise the positive steps achieved and to continually remain stringent and critical with regards to the remaining shortcomings.

Evolution of construction on the Saadiyat site Walid Raad: Gulf Labor does not know how construction evolved on site. Our only official visit to Saadiyat Island was in March 2011, when we were invited and guided by TDIC officials through the site of the future museums, as well as through the Saadiyat Island Construction Village (SCV). In March 2011, we were informed that the SCV would eventually house 40,000 workers. The PwC report in September 2012 stated: We note that over the period of our monitoring programme [June 2011 to May 2012], the monthly average number of workers living


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

in the SCV has reduced from 10,486 to 2,802. Over the same period the monthly average number of workers on the island has reduced from 19,323 to 10,282.1 We do not know whether the reduced number of workers in the SCV was due to a slowdown in construction.  It is important to note that around the same time, the press published many articles about the various construction delays facing museums on the site. But we can assume that construction of the museums has evolved significantly since then, as TDIC announced on 24 January 2012 a new timeline for the opening of the museums (Louvre Abu Dhabi in 2015; Zayed National Museum in 2016; and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi in 2017). Moreover, TDIC announced on 8 January 2013 that it awarded the Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum’s main construction contract to an Arabtec-led joint venture.

Dialogue with TDIC and the Guggenheim Andrew Ross: We have been in regular touch with Guggenheim officials, sharing information and holding face-to-face meetings from time to time. The relationship is cordial, if strained — we are boycotting their museum, after all. All along, we have maintained that we are handing the Guggenheim an opportunity to pioneer a fresh, ethical profile for museums. Twenty years ago, the anti-sweatshop movement put the same pressure on globalizing corporations. That campaign to promote fair labour has had mixed results: capitalist enterprises are ruthless in their exploitation of offshore labour. We should expect more from non-profit art-world institutions, and this is something we have argued consistently to our Guggenheim contacts. Our most recent statement urges the museum to take a leading role in drawing other Western institutions on Saadiyat to promote fair labour on the island. As for TDIC, our relationship is more remote, in every sense. We have had conversations with relevant officials, and we would like more. We have also offered many solutions, regarding labour standards and monitoring methods, but there has been little reciprocity on their part. The Guggenheim is in the middle, as it should be, and as we intended. At this point, we are asking them to be more proactive. 

Construction processes of the new Louvre and other museums on Saadiyat Ayreen Anastas/Rene Gabri: As we see and understand the situation, most of the problems and challenges for improving conditions for workers in the UAE are structural ones. So they are by no means limited to the Guggenheim Saadiyat and the Gulf Labor Boycott


Museum worksite on Saadiyat Island. Photograph taken by Gregory Sholette on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi, UAE. March 2011. Courtesy of the artist.

Worker at Tdic headquarters, Saadiyat Island, seen through scrim-covered window. Photograph taken by Gregory Sholette on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi, UAE. March 2011. Courtesy of the artist.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Security at dining hall, Saadiyat Island, taken in March 2011 by Gregory Sholette. Courtesy of the artist.

Dining hall with color-coded tables for assorted ethnic groups at the workers’ station Saadiyat Island, taken in March 2011 by Gregory Sholette. Courtesy of the artist.

Saadiyat and the Gulf Labor Boycott


and do include the Louvre. There are legal and immigration processes, which structurally place workers in a very precarious state with very limited rights and freedoms. In fact, they reflect a more general trend in our time to put the so-called bottom line ahead of everything, including the safety and general well-being of workers and their living conditions. The same concerns we have for the Guggenheim are also reflected in the other sites on the island. Andrew Ross, who has been part of this campaign from its inception, has also been involved in the campaign organized by faculty and students of New York University to win better working conditions for workers constructing the university on Saadiyat Island, making this specific struggle against workers’ conditions part of a much broader context. In any struggle like this, one is trying to bypass administrators and habits and norms, which stand in the way of change. We seek to address those making decisions, as well as the public, so as to offer or encourage a different course of action. To the Guggenheim and to the real decision makers in the UAE, we are saying that the way business is done today is completely unacceptable. Why should 21st century cultural institutions — which spare no cost for the best design, materials, technologies, engineering, and so on — not value the lives of those who are materializing their visions? Our personal concerns as a group go beyond the Guggenheim and beyond the region, because the picture is not a good one, globally. Not long ago in the United States, a suggestion was made to allow migrants from the south (Mexico and beyond) to come as guest workers. This would then provide the USA with the low-wage labour it depends on, without giving these workers political rights or a path to take part in the future of the country (for example, citizenship). Some of us in Gulf Labor have also been involved in supporting the recent struggle of Sotheby’s art handlers. Sotheby’s decided to lockout its unionized art handlers in New York and tried to force them to agree to a lesser contract even though, by all accounts, art sales have been booming, even in this age of austerity. This struggle was successful: pressure from the workers and the many who acted in solidarity — and even took actions at MOMA and the Whitney Museum — forced Sotheby’s to see how it was far more costly to continue its lockout than to offer fair terms to its workers. When discussing Saadiyat Island, it is important to note how these dynamics and concerns manifest not only in different work sites in the UAE and the Gulf, but also in different forms in Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas. Migrant workers are quite likely the most indispensable and yet abused, discriminated and exploited class in this predatory, and often violent, economic paradigm we live in today. Of course, architects, transnational engineering companies and various professional services all make profits (sometimes quite exorbitant).


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

We wish we had the potency to put pressure on every institution and every new construction in the world to improve its working practices. But we have initiated this movement directly in this context, because we had knowledge of it and the feeling that we had a chance to actually convince everyone involved that our position points to a more just course. Mariam Ghani: Both the Gulf Labor working group and the list of signatories to the Guggenheim petition include a number of people who became aware of, or engaged with, labour issues in the Gulf through their involvement with one or more editions of the Sharjah Biennial. Having produced or exhibited work in the region not only gave us an opportunity to observe labour conditions firsthand, but it also somehow implicated us, one way or another and to a certain degree, into the systems and structures that rest upon or benefit, even if indirectly, from those conditions. As such, we felt a personal responsibility to work towards improving them.

Freedom of expression in the region Doris Bittar: But we have to be critical about the inherent assumption about the Arab and the Western worlds. Of course, Gulf Labor is concerned about artistic freedom. However, the question of regional freedoms of expression makes an assumption that the art of Europe and the United States is without repression, censorship or exclusion of certain opinions. For example, almost all museum of contemporary art venues in the USA (the MOCAs) do not show artists whose focus is critical of US foreign policy, despite the splashy press they have received over the years. There is a de facto censoring of voices in American museums, even though we assume them to be liberal or leftist spaces. The fact that the USA has been at war for over a decade and it has not been addressed in museums of contemporary art in the country is suspect. Ironically, the Guggenheim has been an example of one of the few spaces outside college and university galleries that has made room for alternative opinions. That may be why we are holding them to a higher standard.  In some Arab countries, of course, there are areas that are off limits for exploration. Generally, there is freedom in countries like Lebanon, unbridled when it comes to scrutiny of their history and political process. Also, both historically and now in the present time, Egyptian and Tunisian artists have freedom. The idiosyncrasies vary from country to country. But in the Gulf States, artists, academics and others have to tread lightly when addressing the government or sexual subject matter. Religion is another area that artists tend to stay clear of in their art, even in Lebanon. Yes there is apprehension and some real fear. There is repression in patches of the Arab world, but there is in the United States, too. Saadiyat and the Gulf Labor Boycott


Workers entering compound through security gates, Saadiyat Island. Photograph taken by Gregory Sholette on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi, UAE. March 2011. Courtesy of the artist.

Worker housing, Saadiyat Island. Photograph taken by Gregory Sholette on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi, UAE. March 2011. Courtesy of the artist.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Impact of the ‘Arab Spring’ Naeem Mohaiemen: It was both an ‘Arab Spring’ and now a complicated winter. There are new equations in Egypt and Libya; deadlock in Syria and Bahrain. The impact on labour, rights, democracy and free speech issues in the context of arts in the Middle East has been both positive and, at times, negative. There is a conscious wish to loosen controls a little, and be responsive, so as to not risk larger, uncontrollable ripple effects. There is also a parallel path of lockdown mentality, where organizations come down even harder on signs of dissent, fearing it can grow into a people’s movement on the streets. These concerns show up in art institutions, and although they vary across the region, sometimes contradictory behaviour is embedded even in the same institution. There is a demographic specificity in the UAE, which is that more than 60–70 per cent of the population is expatriate, split between white-collar professionals (more European) and blue-collar labour (majority Asian) — but the same trend is there, albeit to a lesser degree in other countries. For migrant labour, the opportunity to express dissent, whether building a museum or a golf resort, is very limited. Your passport is with the employer; you owe two years’ worth of salary to pay back recruitment fees, your right to stay is tied to this single job. All of this automatically puts a brake on the ability to speak up. When construction workers went on strike at the ‘world’s tallest building’, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the company running the construction of the building, ArabTec, responded by deporting 70 Bangladeshis who had organized the strike effort. So, in that context, the ‘Arab Spring’ is an Arab-only phenomenon, while the migrant labour that runs the economy of these countries remains frozen outside of that historic process.

Expectations for the Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi Doug Ashford: Our expectations for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi are that it produces a context for fair labour practices as advanced by its context of the distribution of cutting-edge art. These days it is increasingly difficult to separate art from tourism, as major investment in cultural infrastructure by a state or private entity will, by definition, create opportunities for urban ‘revitalization’. And although the amount of money being spent on Saadiyat today overwhelms most conventions about the connection between artistic research and luxury holidays, the logic of such an investment makes sense in today’s global financial scene. Gulf Labor is simply insisting that if such investment is an entrenched part of this urban plan like many others around the world, the conditions be as ethically considered as possible. In particular, when thinking about museums, it can be

Saadiyat and the Gulf Labor Boycott


argued that as places where one looks for new ideas about what is possible for human achievement, human rights issues should be at an even higher standard than elsewhere. The Guggenheim has an established history now in the global development of museum infrastructure at the most sophisticated level and dating back to the establishment of the Guggenheim Bilbao. Now, with this initiative by artists and thinkers around the world for fair treatment of employees, the Guggenheim has the opportunity to position the museum on the cutting edge of what this development may create for its audiences. Gregory Sholette: The remarkable ambition of Saadiyat Island is not entirely unprecedented. Think of the utopian vision of the early Russian avant-garde or of Brasília in the 1960s. Likewise, in the UAE there is an expectation that the highest standards of Western cultural sophistication can be grafted onto a waterless stretch of beige sand side-by-side with the centuries-old Islamic culture of the region. That is impressive. Except that this 21st century, modernist revival differs from those of the past in one crucial respect: the early-twentieth-century avant-garde imagined its project transforming an entire society from the bottom up, beginning with the collective aspirations of the international working class. By contrast, the highly capitalized Saadiyat Island experiment may indeed involve impressive displays of light and scale and architectural freedom. Nevertheless, there is absolutely no pretence on the part of its planners that the 99 per cent who actually construct this ‘Island of Happiness’ and its dreamy empire of knowledge and culture will ever be permitted entry into it except as labourers. In fairness, of course, the West has hardly managed to accomplish anything approaching such ideals and, in that sense, the builders of Saadiyat are only participating in the art world’s cynical reclamation of another generation’s hopes regarding the future: our present. But what does seem reasonable is to insist that this mega-bankrolled exercise in disenchantment lives up to fundamental standards of fair labour practice, especially if it is to get the stamp of approval from those artists, intellectuals and activists still not quite ready yet to give up the ghost of their visionary predecessors.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

1. PwC and Tourism Development & Investment Company, ‘EPP Compliance Monitoring Report to the Corporate Social Responsibility Committee’, Annual Summary of Findings, 2012.

Saadiyat and the Gulf Labor Boycott



Sarah Abu Abdallah is a visual artist born in Qatif, Saudi Arabia. She is currently studying digital media at the University of Rhode Island, USA. She recently participated in Arab Contemporary (2014) at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark, Migrating Forms Film Festival (2013), NYC, the 89plus Marathon at the Serpentine Gallery (2013), London, the 11th Sharjah Biennial (2013) and Rhizoma at the 55th Venice Biennale (2013). She also contributed to the Arts and Culture in Transformative Times Festival by ArteEast, NYC, and the Moving Image panel on video and film in Palazzo Grassi, Venice. Sophia Al-Maria is an artist, writer and filmmaker, whose work has been exhibited at the Gwangju Biennale, South Korea; the Dowse Museum, New Zealand; and the Architectural Association, London, among others. She explores her interest in ‘Gulf Futurism’ through sculpture, video and sound, explaining it as a ‘projection of conditions the rest of the world is moving towards’. Her writing has appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, Triple Canopy and Bidoun, where she was a contributing editor. Her first book, The Girl Who Fell to Earth, was published in 2012. The New York Times reviewed her book, saying: ‘Hers is a more visceral exploration. She offers us an original outlook on ancient ground — what any artist hopes to achieve. Currently she is in pre-production on her first feature film, Beretta, a rape-revenge thriller set in Cairo. Born in Algeria, Fayçal Baghriche now lives and works in Paris, France. In 1997, he obtained a diploma in Fine Arts from La Villa Arson, Nice; followed by a BA in Dramatic Arts from Sophia Antipolis University, Nice; and an MA in Multimedia Creation from The National School of Fine Arts, Paris. He is a founding member of the curatorial organization Le Commissariat. He has participated in a number of large-scale exhibitions in France, including La force de l’Art (2009), La Nuit Blanche, and Le Printemps de Septembre, and in 2011 he participated in The Future of a Promise at the 54th Venice Biennale.

His work has been shown as part of the Gwanju Biennale, as well as in art centres such as the Contemporary Art Museum, Houston, Al Riwaq Art Space, Bahrain and The Museum of Modern Art, Algeria. He participated in the Dakar Biennial in May 2014. Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi is a writer, media-theorist and media-activist. He founded the magazine A/traverso (1975–81) and worked at Radio Alice, the first free pirate radio station in Italy (1976–8). After his involvement in the Autonomia movement in 1970s Italy, he fled to Paris, where he worked with Félix Guattari on schizoanalysis. He has been involved in various media projects, and published the books After the Future (2011), The Soul at Work (2010), Felix (2001), Cibernauti (1994) and Mutazione e Cyberpunk (1993). He also contributes to Semiotext(e), Chimères, Metropoli and Musica 80. Bifo is currently collaborating with e-flux.journal, and is Coordinator of the European School for Social Imagination (SCEPSI). He has lectured in many universities and currently teaches at the Accademia di Brera, Milan. His most recent book, Poetry and Finance, was published by Semiotexte. Iraqi-born artist Wafaa Bilal is an Associate Arts Professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and is known internationally for his online performative and interactive works provoking dialogue about international politics and internal dynamics. Bilal’s work is constantly informed by the experience of fleeing his homeland and existing simultaneously in two worlds — his home in the ‘comfort zone’ of the USA and his consciousness of the ‘conflict zone’ in Iraq. Bilal suffered repression under Saddam Hussein’s regime and fled Iraq in 1991 during the first Gulf War. After two years in refugee camps in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, he went to the USA, where he graduated from the University of New Mexico. He then obtained an MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2008, City Lights published Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun about Bilal’s life and the Domestic Tension project. Sheyma Buali is a London-based independent culture writer and researcher. She is a culture correspondent for Asharq Al-Awsat, editorial correspondent for Ibraaz and a regular contributor to Little White Lies, Harper’s Bazaar Art Arabia and several other publications. Her work has also appeared in academic journals, edited volumes and exhibition catalogues covering topics ranging from historical archives to cinema, political arts and Gulf urbanism. Buali is currently part of the London Palestine Film Festival organizing team. Previously, she worked for ten years in a range of roles in TV, film and documentary production in Boston, Los Angeles and her native Bahrain. Anthony Downey is an academic and writer with a particular interest in contemporary art’s potential to engage with and expand upon social and Contributors


political issues. He is the author of Art and Politics Now (Thames and Hudson, 2014) and is currently editing Archival Dissonance: Knowledge Production and Contemporary Art Practices (I.B.Tauris, forthcoming 2014). For the 54th Venice Biennial in 2011 he co-edited, with Lina Lazaar, The Future of a Promise: Contemporary Art from the Arab World (Ibraaz Publishing, 2011). In 2006, he graduated from Goldsmiths College, London, with a PhD and in the same year was appointed Director of the Master’s Programme in Contemporary Art at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, London. He is the Editor-In-Chief of Ibraaz (www.ibraaz.org) and, until recently, sat on the editorial board of Third Text. Maymanah Farhat is a New York-based art historian who has written widely on modern and contemporary Arab art. Her essays and reviews have appeared in Art Journal, Callaloo: Journal of African Diaspora Arts and Letters and ArtAsiaPacific magazine, among others. In addition to her writing, she has curated exhibitions in New York, London, Doha, and Dubai. Farhat is co-editor of Jadaliyya Culture and the Artistic Director of Ayyam Gallery. Azin Feizabadi is a filmmaker and visual artist, living and working in Berlin. Ganzeer is the nom de plume of the graphic designer and artist from Cairo who has been described by Bidoun Magazine as a ‘contingency artist’. Crossing freely between contemporary art, graphic design and political ‘artivism’, Ganzeer’s work has been seen in exhibitions from Egypt, Germany, Finland, Holland, Poland, Italy, the Arab Emirates and Jordan to Brazil and the USA. The Guardian has described Ganzeer as a major player in an emerging ‘counter-culture art scene on the mainstream radar’, Al-Monitor has placed him on a list of 50 people shaping the culture of the Middle East today, while Art In America has associated Ganzeer with ‘New Realism’, a label attributed to an art movement responding to a host of global challenges. More information is available at www.ganzeer.com. Mariam Ghani’s research-based practice spans video, installation, performance, photography and text. Her work was included in the Rotterdam, transmediale and CPH:DOX film festivals, dOCUMENTA (13) in Kabul and Kassel, MoMA in New York, the National Gallery in Washington DC and the Sharjah Biennials 9 and 10. She has published in Filmmaker, Foreign Policy, Mousse, the Radical History Review, Triple Canopy, Creative Time Reports and the New York Review of Books blog. Ongoing collaborations include the experimental archive Index of the Disappeared (with Chitra Ganesh), the video series Performed Places (with choreographer Erin Kelly), and the Afghan Films online archive (with pad.ma). Ghani has been awarded the NYFA, Soros and Freund Fellowships and numerous grants. She holds a BA in Comparative Literature


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

from NYU and an MFA from SVA. Ghani currently teaches at Pratt and is an artist in residence at the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU. Gulf Labor is a coalition of international artists working to ensure that migrant worker rights are protected during the construction and maintenance of museums on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi. The Gulf Labor Working Group is: Haig Aivazian, Ayreen Anastas, Doug Ashford, Shaina Anand, Doris Bittar, Tania Brugera, Sam Durant, Rene Gabri, Mariam Ghani, Hans Haacke, Brian Holmes, Rana Jaleel, Guy Mannes-Abbott, Naeem Mohaiemen, Walid Raad, Michael Rakowitz, Andrew Ross, Ashok Sukumaran, Gregory Sholette, Beth Stryker and Murtaza Vali. Born in Germany, Hans Haacke has lived in New York since 1965. He taught at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York from 1967–2002. For the last four decades, Haacke has looked at the relationship between art, power and money, and has addressed issues of free expression and civic responsibilities in a democratic society. One-person exhibitions of Haacke’s work have been held at Museo Nacional de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid; Tate Gallery, London; New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Serpentine Gallery, London; Deichtorhallen, Hamburg/Akademie der Künste, Berlin. His work was included in four dOCUMENTAs and numerous biennials, most recently at the Sharjah Biennial 10, 2011. In 2000, a permanent installation of his work was inaugurated in the Reichstag in Berlin. Haacke shared a Golden Lion with Nam June Paik for the best pavilion of the 1993 Venice Biennale. Born in 1975, Aleya Hamza completed her MA in Visual Culture at Goldsmiths College, London (2001), and her BA in Political Science at the American University in Cairo (1997). She worked as a curator at the Contemporary Image Collective (CiC), Cairo (2006–9), and as an associate curator at the Townhouse Gallery, Cairo (2003–5). In 2006, she received the Ifa Rave Scholarship to work as a curatorial assistant in the artistic office of the 4th Berlin Biennale. She periodically writes and lectures about contemporary arts practices in Egypt and internationally. She co-curated Indicated by Signs at the Bonner Kunstverein, Bonn (2009), New Entries_PhotoCairo at Museet for Fotokunst, Odense (2009) and PhotoCairo3: Image Statement Position at the Townhouse Gallery and CiC (2005). Hamza is currently a Cairo-based independent curator, and part of the curatorial collective Hamzamolnár, alongside Edit Molnár, with whom she has co-curated multiple projects. Hamzamolnár is a curatorial collective formed by Berlin-based curator Edit Molnár and Cairo-based curator Aleya Hamza, which focuses on the production and presentation of contemporary art practices. Contributors


Timo Kaabi-Linke was curator of the exhibition Chkoun Ahna — On the Track of History in the National Museum of Carthage (15 May–15 June 2012), and co-founded the platform Carthage Contemporary. Dina Kafafi is an independent cultural manager based in Cairo. Graduating with a BA in Mass Communication from AUC, Cairo, and an MA in Fine Art from Wimbledon College of Art, London, Kafafi returned to Cairo to establish her career within the arts in the MENA region. She is currently the Artist in Residence Program Manager at the Townhouse Gallery, Cairo, and has run public programmes and PR campaigns for the gallery over the past four years. In summer 2012 she co-curated ‘Citizens Reporting, A Collective Memory’, a four-day symposium in Berlin, alongside Berlin-based curator Jens Maier-Roth and artist Azin Feizabadi. Kafafi has since been managing various media-related programmes addressing civil journalism via creative means with partner institutions. Kafafi’s current project, The Digital Resource Library, has taken a permanent space in Townhouse’s Library space, and will serve as the frame for curated programs with other collaborators in the near future. Amal Khalaf is a researcher and curator, and currently the Assistant Curator of Projects at the Serpentine Gallery, working on the Edgware Road Project. With an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from Goldsmiths, her research addresses themes of urbanism, community, media activism and art, through participatory projects and media initiatives. Previously, she has worked with Al Riwaq Gallery, Bahrain, and participated in setting up an art space in an abandoned railway arch in East London, Hold&Freight (2008–9). Khalaf was co-author of Moving Image and Everyday Life: Cairo, London and Shanghai, with Amsterdam University Press (2013). Omar Kholeif is an Egyptian-born, UK curator, writer and editor. He is Curator at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, Curator at Large at Cornerhouse and HOME, Manchester, and Senior Editor of Ibraaz. Previously he was Head of Art and Technology at SPACE, London, Curator at FACT, Foundation for Art and Creative Technology, Liverpool and Artistic Director at the Arab British Centre and founding director of the UK’s Arab Film Festival. In 2012, he was a co-curator of the Liverpool Biennial. Omar writes for the international press and was a founding editor of Portal 9, an Arabic–English journal of urbanism and architecture. His most recent publications include Vision, Memory and Media (Liverpool University Press, 2010), Far and Wide: Nam June Paik (Leonardo, 2013) and You Are Here: Art After the Internet (Cornerhouse Books, 2014). Kholeif holds degrees from the University of Glasgow and the Royal College of Art, London.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Tarek Khoury is Assistant Professor of Graphic Design and Associate Chair of the Graphic Design Department at the Lebanese American University, where he has been teaching since 2003. He specializes in digital media, motion graphics and advertising design. Currently, his interests are centred on motion design, the development of corporate identity systems and the use of technology to renew traditional media within a contemporary context. His research efforts focus on design culture and design education. In autumn 2009 he was a member of the review panel for the Cumulus 38° South conference, and presented research in Seoul, Korea. In spring 2010, he was a Contributing Editor for Design Principles and Practices: An International Journal. Alongside his teaching and research, he works as design consultant for major local and international clients. Among his recent projects is the title sequence design for the award-winning film Malaka. Jens Maier-Rothe is an independent curator and founding co-director of Beirut in Cairo. He lives in Berlin and Cairo. Laura U. Marks is a professor in the School for Contemporary Arts at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, and is a scholar, theorist and curator of independent and experimental media arts. Her most recent book is Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art (MIT Press, 2010). Her book on artists’ cinema in the Arab world will be published with MIT Press. Dina Matar is director of the Centre for Film and Media Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. She lectures on Middle East media, politics and culture, with a focus on the Arab world and international political communication. Previously, she was an international foreign correspondent and editor. Matar works on various aspects of cultural politics and production, the state, social movements, oral history and memory, with a focus on Palestine, Lebanon and Syria. She has published widely on these topics, and is author of What it Means to be Palestinian: Stories of Palestinian Peoplehood (2010); co-editor of Narrating Conflict in the Middle East: Discourse, Image and Communications Practices in Lebanon and Palestine (2013) and co-author of The Hizbullah Phenomenon: Politics and Communication (May 2014). Matar is also co-founder and co-editor of the journal The Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication, published by Brill. Edit Molnár is a freelance curator and critic based in Berlin. She has an MA in Art History and in Art Theory from Eötvös Lóránd University, Budapest. In 2002, she participated in De Appel’s curatorial training programme in Amsterdam. She was director of the Studio Gallery, Budapest; curator of the Műcsarnok/Kunsthalle, Budapest; and director of the Cairo-based, not-forprofit art institution The Contemporary Image Collective. Her recent projects Contributors


include co-curating Tales around the Pavement, Chapter 1–2, CIC, Cairo, 2007–8 (with Aleya Hamza); Indicated by Signs at the Bonner Kunstverein, Bonn; PhotoCairo4: The Long Shortcut, Cairo, 2008–9 (with Aleya Hamza); and Fear in the Black Box (with Marcel Schwierin), Trafó Gallery, Budapest 2011. Since 2010, Molnár has been a correspondent for the Hungarian Art Journal Műértő, Budapest. She is currently undertaking a PhD at the Freie Universität, Berlin. Mosireen is a media collective in Cairo, Egypt. The collective formed during the 25 January Revolution and seeks to support the revolutionary spirit through its activities, trainings, productions and space.  Rabih Mroué is an actor, director, playwright and Contributing Editor of The Drama Review. In 1990 he began putting on his own plays, performances and videos. Continuously searching for new and contemporary relations between the different elements and languages of the theatre art forms, Mroué questions the definitions of theatre and the relationship between the space and form of the performance and, consequently, questions how the performer relates with the audience. His works deal with the issues that have been swept under the table in the current political climate of Lebanon. He draws muchneeded attention to the broader political and economic contexts by means of a semi-documentary theatre. Nat Muller is an independent curator and critic based in Rotterdam. Her main interests include the intersections of aesthetics, media and politics, and contemporary art in and from the Middle East. Muller has written numerous catalogue and monographic essays on artists from the region, and is a regular contributor to Springerin and MetropolisM. She co-edited the Mag. net Reader2: Between Paper and Pixel (2007) with Alessandro Ludovico, and Mag.net Reader3: Processual Publishing, Actual Gestures (2009). Muller has taught at universities in The Netherlands and the Middle East, and has curated video and film screenings for projects and festivals internationally. She is a board member of the IMPAKT Media Festival (Utrecht), and sits on the advisory board of Artterritories (Ramallah) and TENT (Rotterdam). Projects in 2014 include Memory Material at Akinci Gallery (Amsterdam), and Global Positions II (Beirut) at the Stedelijk Museum Bureau, Amsterdam. Philip Rizk is a filmmaker and occasional writer living in Cairo, Egypt. Philip is a member of the Mosireen video collective (mosireen.org). Follow him on Twitter: @tabulagaza. Roy Samaha is a Lebanese artist who has been working with video and photography since 2002 and who has exhibited in numerous film and


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

contemporary art festivals. Between 1998 and 2008, he worked in the television industry as part of his field research on electronic media. He got his Master’s degree in film studies at USEK, Lebanon. His visually dense videos draw on multiple sources of imagery, exploring the effect of technology upon his own perceptions of reality and what an excess of communication can do to how we understand events such as those in Tahrir Square during the revolution in Egypt, not to mention the long-term effects of video technology in determining how we perceive the world. Nermin Saybaşılı is Associate Professor in the Department of Art History at Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University. Among her many essays published in books, catalogues and journals, Saybaşılı’s most recent publications include essays in Globalization and Contemporary Art (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011) and Mobility and Fantasy in Visual Culture (Routledge, 2014). Her book in Sınırlar ve Hayaletler: Görsel Kültürde Göç Hareketleri (Borders and Ghosts: Migratory Hauntings in Contemporary Visual Culture) was published by Metis in 2011 in Turkish.  Annabelle Sreberny is Professor of Global Media and Communication in the Centre for Media and Film Studies at SOAS, University of London. She has been researching and writing about Iran since before the 1979 revolution, and her 1994 book Small Media, Big Revolution (with A. Mohammadi) appears on Amazon’s best-seller list of books on Iran. More recent work includes Blogistan, on the internet and digital politics in Iran (with G. Khiabany, I.B.Tauris, 2010), and Cultural Revolution in Iran (with M. Torfeh, I.B.Tauris, 2014). Her latest book, Persian Service, examines the history of the BBC Persian Services as instruments of British public diplomacy and their entanglements in Irano–British politics (with M. Torfeh, I.B.Tauris, 2014). Filmmakers and identical twin brothers Tarzan and Arab — real names Ahmed and Mohamed Abu Nasser — come from Gaza. After graduating from Al-Aqsa University with a BA in Fine Arts (Painting), the brothers developed their passion for filmmaking. In 2010, Tarzan and Arab received the A. M. Qattan Foundation’s Young Artist of the Year Award for Gazawood (2010), a series of mock-Hollywood posters for imaginary feature films named after Israeli military offensives on Gaza, and their short film Colorful Journey (2010). Named two of the ‘50 People Shaping the Culture of the Middle East’ by Al-Monitor in 2012, they wrote and directed the short film Condom Lead as the first Palestinian short nominated for the Palme d’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival 2013. Derya Yücel was born in Istanbul in 1979. She is an independent curator, art critic, lecturer and member of AICA Turkey (International Art Critics Organization). She has an MA in Art Management and Museum Studies, Contributors


and is currently undertaking a PhD in Art History. Yücel lectures part-time at Istanbul Kültür University and Istanbul Bilgi University. She has curated a number of national and international solo and group exhibitions and has been writing on contemporary art since 2004. Her book New Media Art and the New Museology was published by Istanbul Kültür University in 2012. She was the editor for artist Nil Yalter’s monograph, published by Galerist/İstanbul in 2013. Maxa Zoller is a film curator and writer based in Cairo. She received her PhD in experimental film history from Birkbeck College, London, in 2007, where she studied with Ian Christie and Laura Mulvey. Her research into the relationship between the projected image, the body and ideology is based on her interest in the histor(iograph)y of post-socialism and feminism. In 2009, she co-curated the film programme Generation Berlin Wall: Films from West Berlin and East Germany in the 1980s at Tate Modern. A lecturer at Goldsmiths College and Sotheby’s Institute of Art, Zoller developed a keen interest in alternative pedagogical tools; she created the workshop series The Cinematic Body, which was presented in different contexts in Oslo, Vienna, Munich and Cairo. Maxa works closely with the artist-run space no.w.here in London, where she led the first edition of the no.w.here summer school in 2012.


Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East


The production of this volume has been a collective, ongoing effort that has involved numerous people and organizations at different times. For their work in this respect, I would like to personally thank Sarah Abu Abdallah, Lotfi Achour, Haig Aivazian, Gheith Al-Amine, Rheim Alkadhi, Sophia Al-Maria, Héla Ammar, Shaina Anand, Ayreen Anastas, Khajag Apelian, Tarzan and Arab, Artistes Producteurs Associés (APA), Doug Ashford, Hamdi Attia, Fayçal Baghriche, Lara Balaa, Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, Wafaa Bilal, Doris Bittar, Tania Bruguera, Sheyma Buali, Anna Coatman, Sam Durant, Ahmed El Shaer, Cevdet Erek, Ayşe Erkmen, Maymanah Farhat, Azin Feizabadi, Freedom Wo Bas, Ganzeer, Sherief Gaber, Rene Gabri, Loreto Garin, Mariam Ghani, Marta Gornicka, Genco Gülan, Citizens Reporting, Hans Haacke, Nermine Hammam, Aleya Hamza, David Hawkins, Nadia Kaabi-Linke, Lara Favaretto, Brian Holmes, Rana Jaleel, Timo Kaabi-Linke, Amal Khalaf, Mahmoud Khaled, Nils Klinger, Tarek Khoury, Maha Maamoun, Jens Maier-Rothe, Rania Stephan, Guy Mannes-Abbott, Laura U. Marks, Dina Matar, Houssam Mchaiemch, Jasmina Metwaly, Walter D. Mignolo, Coline Milliard, T. Mitchell, Naeem Mohaiemen, Edit Molnár, Mosireen, Jaber Al-Azmeh, Rabih Mroué, Nat Muller, Joe Namy, OBA, Elif Öner, Ahlam Oun, Walid Raad, Michael Rakowitz, Philip Rizk, Andrew Ross, R.M Ruehling, Roy Samaha, Lina Saneh, Fette Sans, Nermin Saybaşılı, Michelle Schultz, Gregory Sholette, Annabelle Sreberny, Beth Stryker, Ashok Sukumaran, Liza Thompson, Cressida Trew, Murtaza Vali, Stuart Weir, Roy Dib, Hamed Yousefi, Derya Yücel, Pascal Zoghbi, Maxa Zoller and Federico Zukerfeld. From the Ibraaz and the Kamel Lazaar Foundation team, special credit is due to Stephanie Bailey for her contribution in sub-editing this volume, and Hydar Dewachi for his assiduous project management. For their unflagging assistance and ideas, I would also like to thank Omar Kholeif, Nour K. Sacranie, Aimee Dawson, Jumanah Younis and Ajay Hothi. Ibraaz and this new series of books would not be possible without the generous support of the Kamel Lazaar Foundation, to whom we owe a particular and continued debt of gratitude.

Image Credits

[Cover] Courtesy the artist [12] Courtesy the artist [15] Courtesy the artist [16] Courtesy the artist [22] © Roy Dib. Courtesy the artist [23] © Roy Dib. Courtesy the artist [25] Courtesy the artist and Gallery Tanit [26] Courtesy the artist and Gallery Tanit [32] Courtesy Mosireen and Peter Nicholas [33] Courtesy Mosireen and Peter Nicholas [42] Courtesy the artists [43] Courtesy the artists [56] Courtesy the artist [57] Courtesy the artist [58] Courtesy the artist [62] Courtesy the artist [75] Courtesy the artist [76] Photo Cressida Trew. Courtesy Cressida Trew [77] Photo Cressida Trew. Courtesy Cressida Trew [80] Photo Sherief Gaber. Courtesy Sherief Gaber [83] Screenshot, courtesy the author. [83] Courtesy Silent Collective. [89] Photo Joe Namy. Courtesy the artists [91] Photo Housssam Mchaiemch. Courtesy the artists [92] Photo Housssam Mchaiemch. Courtesy the artist [98] Courtesy the artist [99] Courtesy the artist [100] Courtesy the artist [101] Courtesy the artist [104] Courtesy the artist [105] Courtesy the artist [108] Courtesy the artist [109] Courtesy the artist [110] Courtesy the artist [111] Courtesy the artist [112] Courtesy the artist [113] Courtesy the artist [114] Courtesy the artist [115] Courtesy the artist [118] Courtesy the artist [119] Courtesy the artist [120] Courtesy the artist [121] Courtesy the artist [125] Courtesy the artist [126] Courtesy the artist

[127] Courtesy the artist [128] Courtesy the artist [130] Courtesy the artist [139] Courtesy the artist and Gypsum Gallery [140] Courtesy the artist [150] Photo Maxa Zoller [151] Photo Maxa Zoller [152] Screenshot courtesy the author [155] Photo Marta Gornicka. Courtesy the Berlin Biennale [173] Courtesy the artist and Thomas Dane Gallery, London [173] © Olaf Pascheit. Courtesy the artist and the Sfeir-Semler Beirut/Hamburg [175] Courtesy the artist [176] Courtesy the artist [177] Courtesy the artist [179] Courtesy La Chambre Noir and Lofti Achour [179] Courtesy OBA [182] Courtesy T. Mitchell [186] Courtesy the artist [191] Courtesy the artist [193] Courtesy the artist [195] Courtesy the artist [198] Courtesy the artist [207] Courtesy the artist [207] Photo Niels Klinger. Courtesy the artist and Niels Klinger [208] Photo Niels Klinger. Courtesy the artist and Niels Klinger [208] Photo R.M Ruehling. Courtesy the artist and R.M Ruehling [216] Courtesy the artist and Chantal Crousel, Paris [216] Courtesy the artist [226] Courtesy the artists [227] Courtesy the artists [228] Courtesy the artists [229] Courtesy the artists [230] Courtesy the artists [231] Courtesy the artists [232] Courtesy the artists [233] Courtesy the artists [236] Courtesy the artist [237] Courtesy the artist [238] Courtesy the artist [239] Courtesy the artist

[242] Courtesy the artist [243] Courtesy the artist [244] Courtesy the artist [245] Courtesy the artist [247] Courtesy the artist [248] Courtesy the artist [249] Courtesy the artist [250] Courtesy the artist [251] Courtesy the artist [252] Courtesy the artist [253] Courtesy the artist [254] Courtesy the artist [255] Courtesy the artist [256] Courtesy the artist [259] Courtesy the artist [261] Courtesy the artist [265] Courtesy the artist [266] Courtesy the artist [267] Courtesy the artist [275] Photo Amal Khalaf [276] Courtesy the artist

Image Credits

[278] Courtesy the artist [279] Courtesy the artist [282] Photo Ahlam Oun. Courtesy Ahlam Oun [285] Photo Sheyma Buali. Courtesy Sheyma Buali [292] Screenshot courtesy the author [293] Screenshot courtesy the author [293] Courtesy cardboardkhomeini.blogspot.com [304] Courtesy Freedom Wo Bas [308] Courtesy the artist [310] Courtesy the artist [311] Courtesy the artist [312] Courtesy the artist [313] Courtesy the artist [325] © Vipul Sangoi [328] Photo Héla Ammar [328] Photo Amel Benattia [333] Photo Gregory Sholette. Courtesy the artist [336] Photo Gregory Sholette. Courtesy the artist [337] Photo Gregory Sholette. Courtesy the artist [340] Photo Gregory Sholette. Courtesy the artist



References to images are in italics; references to notes are indicated by n. 3rdi (Bilal) 12, 13–14, 15, 16, 17, 97, 98–101 33 Rounds and a Few Seconds (Mroué/Saneh) 19, 88, 89, 90, 93–4 5533 133 Abd al-Salam, Shadi 143, 145–6 Abdelli, Lotfi 327 Abu Abdallah, Sarah 103, 344 Abu Dhabi 27, 241, 332, 341–2 Adel, Kaveh 298 Aesthetics of Protest, The (Yousefi) 75 Afghanistan 14 Agamben, Giorgio 211, 295 Ahmadinejad, Mahmoud 295, 298 Aivazian, Haig 332, 334 Al Jazeera 194 Ali, Amro 86 Ali, Mohamed 137 Al-Ali, Naji 87 Alkadhi, Rheim 21, 184, 197, 199 ‘Alone Together… In Media Res’ (Baladi) 144 AltCity 73 Alwan, Yasser 178 Aly, Doa 138, 141 Amber Platform 131–2 Amer, Ghada 218 Al-Amine, Gheith 24, 260, 262 Anastas, Ayreen 335, 338–9 Al-Ani, Jananne 194 Anonymous Artist, The (Al Azmeh) 311 Apartment Project 133 Appendix (Mroué/Saneh) 88, 91 Arab Image Foundation (AIF) 172 Arab Spring 21, 90, 178, 214, 218, 219–20, 341 and Egypt 30–1, 34–8, 39, 40 and images 169–71 and Lebanon 309 and Tunisia 318–19 Arabs A-go-go (Salloum) 187 Arafa, Sherif 269 Arapoğlu, Fırat 133 Art Workers’ Coalition 189 Artellewa 220 Artistes Producteurs Associés (APA) 180, 181

Artist’s Studio, The (Öner) 133 As if a Ruin (Favaretto) 324, 325 ASCII Foundation 219 Ashford, Doug 341–2 Ashkal Alwan 63, 219 al-Assad, Bashar 78, 307 Atlas Group 172 Attia, Hamdi 21, 184, 189–90, 192 Attia, Kader 219 Al Azmeh, Jaber 314, 315, 316 Azoulay, Ariella 294–5 Baghriche, Fayçal 107, 344–5 Bahrain 24, 30, 72, 260, 278, 279, 318 and Lulu 272–3, 274, 277, 280–1, 282, 283–4, 285, 286–8 Baladi, Lara 144 BAS 133 Bassiony, Ahmed 138, 141, 142, 143, 156, 217 Batroun Art Space 219 Beethoven, Ludwig van 205 Beirut 63, 93, 142 Beirut in Cairo 220 Ben Ali, Zine El Abidine 54, 61, 321–2 Benjamin, Walter 165, 294–5, 326 Berardi, Franco ‘Bifo’ 18, 39–41, 44–5, 142–3, 345 Berlin 71, 78, 136, 156 Berrebi, Marco 61 Bilal, Wafaa 21, 184, 194, 196, 345 and 3rdi 12, 13–14, 15, 16, 17, 97, 98–101 Birnbaum, Dara 171 BIS 131–2 Bishop, Claire 141 Bittar, Doris 339 Bouazizi, Mohammed 65, 86 Bouderbala, Meriem 54, 61 Brand X Music 153 Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful (Rosler) 189, 196 Buali, Sheyma 21, 169–72, 174, 178, 180–1, 345 Burroughs, William 123 Cairo 19, 138, 148–9, 156 Cairo (Mosireen) 76–7 Cairokee 149 Çam, Tunç Ali 132 Camaraderie (Khaled) 263

CheckDesk 73 Chewing the Data Fat (Al-Maria) 235, 236–9 China 41 Chion, Michel 204–5 Christov-Bakargiev, Carolyn 156 ‘Citizens Reporting, A Collective Memory’ 71, 78, 85n.2 CNN/AI Jaz (Sinnokrot) 192, 194 Coca-Cola 149, 150–1, 154 Codes of My Kin (Hammamm) 176–7 Colourful Journey (Tarzan and Arab) 225 Conte de Printemps (La Chaise Renversée) 174, 178, 181 Credits Included (Toufic) 136 Dance to the End of Love (Zaatari) 172, 173, 174 Dar al Ma’mûn 63, 68n.20 Davutoğlu, Ahmet 309 Debord, Guy 170, 189 Deleuze, Gilles 212, 215 Delier, Burak 132 DGCF (Lotfy) 268, 269 Diary of an Imaginary Egyptian (LaBelle) 144–5 Dib, Roy 24, 260 Didi-Huberman, Georges 70 Disasters (Warhol) 189 dOCUMENTA 156, 209 Documenta (Erek) 210 Documenta 11 (Enwezor) 160 Dolar, Mladen 202–4 DOM-TAK-TAK-DOM-TAK (Khan) 215, 216 Domestic Tension (Bilal) 29n.3, 193, 194, 195, 196 Downey, Anthony 53–5, 59–61, 63–6, 345–6 Dubai 107 Duchamp, Marcel 189, 268 Egypt 11, 14, 18, 29n.6, 153–4, 156–61, 178, 269 and Coca-Cola 148–9 and Hamzamolnár 20, 136, 137–8, 141–6 and media 71, 72 and Mosireen 19, 220–1 and uprising 30–1, 34–40, 45, 47–52, 81, 82, 86, 215, 217, 302, 318 and video 257 El Baroni, Bassam 141 El Batout, Ibrahim 174, 181 El Khademi, Noureddine 54, 327 El Noshokaty, Shady 156, 218, 219 El-Sisi, Abdel-Fattah 157 El-Tayeb, Ahmed 157 Elgiz Contemporary Art Museum 133–4 Elshaer, Ahmed 24, 269 Enwezor, Okwui 160 Equality, Dignity, Freedom (Al Azmeh) 312–13 Erdoğan, Recep Tayyip 134 Erek, Cevdet 209–10, 211 Erkmen, Ayşe 132, 205–6 Eshraghi, Hojatoleslam Morteza 299 Etcetera Archive 42–3 Etganen (Cairokee) 149 Etisalat 154 Europe 30, 39 Facebook 18, 39, 88, 117, 134, 165 and Egypt 45, 86, 87, 90, 93 and Iran 298 and Syria 303, 305–6, 307 and Tunisia 53, 318, 319 Fahmy, Khaled 137, 138, 142 Family Friendly (Baghriche) 107, 108–15


Fanon, Frantz 34 Farhat, Maymanah 21, 184–5, 187–90, 192, 194, 196–7, 199, 346 Favaretto, Lara 324 Federal Arts Project 185 Feizabadi, Azin 19, 346 Fincancı, Kardelen 134 First Case, Second Case (Kiarostami) 71, 81, 82, 83, 84 Fisher, Heinz 156 Fluxus 189 Forgotten World (Brand X Music) 153 Fouda, Yousri 149 Freedom Wo Bas 303, 304, 306 Friedman, Thomas 189, 190, 192 Gabri, Rene 335, 338–9 Ganzeer 117, 346 Gazawood (Tarzan and Arab) 225, 226–33 ‘General Public’ initiative 136 Ghani, Mariam 339, 346 Ghannouchi, Rached 327 Ghost (Attia) 219 Ghost (Erkmen) 205–6, 207, 209 Google 41 Graffiti in Beirut (Zoghbi) 308 Greece 44 Green Movement 70, 81, 82, 297–8 Greenberg, Clement 189 Guggenheim 332, 333, 334, 335, 338, 339, 341–2 Gülan, Genco 129, 132 Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) 273 Gulf Labor 27, 29n.7, 241, 332, 334–5, 338–9, 341–2, 347 Gulf War (1990–91) 73 Gündüz, Erdem 87 Gürman, Altan 132 Haacke, Hans 241, 347 Hafez, Khaled 218 Hafriyat 133 Halasa, Malu 178 Hamdi, Khadija 217 Hammam, Nermine 178, 180 Hamza, Aleya 136, 347 Hamzamolnár 20, 136–8, 347 Hanafi, Hanan 64, 65, 69n.27 Handala 87 Hariri, Rafik 314 Hasala Productions 222 Hashim, Tariq 24, 262 Headless Woman or the Belly Dance, The (Yalter) 131 Home Workspace 142, 219 Hosni 260 Human Rights Watch 27, 329, 332 Hysteria (Öner) 133–4 I, the Undersigned (Mroué) 172, 173 Ibraaz 9, 10, 11 Ikhwan Kazeboon 72 İncirlioğlu, Güven 131 Indicated by Signs (Hamzamolnár) 136 Inside Out: Artocracy in Tunisia 61, 63 Iran 24, 27, 72, 81–2 and Khomeini 291, 294, 295–300 Iraq 13, 14, 63, 74, 97, 196, 197 Israel 225 Jordan 260


Kaabi-Linke, Nadia 323 Kaabi-Linke, Timo 27, 218, 318–24, 326–7, 329–30, 348 Kafafi, Dina 19, 348 Kamel, Ahmed 24, 269 Kamel Lazar Foundation 9–10 Kanso, Nadine 315, 316 Karaj 219 Kedher, Habib 329 Kefaya (Enough) 34 Khalaf, Amal 24, 272–4, 277, 280–1, 283–4, 286–8, 348 Khaled, Amr 190, 192 Khaled, Mahmoud 142, 263 Khamenei, Ayatollah 298 Khan, Hassan 215 Kholeif, Omar 20, 214–15, 217–22, 348 Khomeini, Ayatollah 24, 27, 291, 292, 293, 294, 295–300 Khoury, Tarek 24, 302–3, 305–7, 309, 314–16, 349 Kiarostami, Abbas 71, 81, 82, 84 Kluge, Alexander 82, 84 Kolina Khaled Said (We are all Khaled Said) 34, 86 Kroker, Arthur 41 Kuwait 13, 14, 273 La Chaise Renversée 174 Laâbidi, Houcine 54, 327 LaBelle, Brandon 144–5 Lebanon 73, 88, 90, 93, 172 and handwriting 307, 309, 314–15 and video 258, 260, 262 left–right (Lotfy) 268 Lévy, Pierre 40 liberté appartient au peuple, la (Freedom Belongs to the People) (Ammar) 58 Libya 11, 14, 302 Looking for a Missing Employee (Mroué) 88, 92 Lotfy, Kareem 24, 268, 269 Louvre Museum 335, 338 Lovink, Geert 41, 87 Lulu 24, 272–3, 274, 275, 276, 280–1, 282, 283–4, 285, 286–8 Maamoun, Maha 143–4, 145 Mabrouk, Mehdi 53, 60, 66, 326, 327, 329 Macbeth: Leïla and Ben – a Bloody History (Achour) 179, 180, 181, 182 Made in Tunisia, 100 per cent Halal (Abdelli) 327 Madra, Teoman 131 Magdy, Basim 214 Maged, Reem 149 Mahalla al-Kobra (Egypt) 36 Mahmoud, Mohammed 153 Mahroky, Tamer 148–9 Maier-Rothe, Jens 19, 349 Man with a Movie Camera (Vertov) 17 Manazer (Ganzeer) 117, 118–21 Al-Maria, Sophia 235, 344 Marks, Laura U. 21, 24, 257–8, 260, 262–4, 268–70, 349 Marrakech 63 Marsa, La (Ammar) 62 MASS Alexandria 219 Massira (Zoghbi) 310, 311, 314–15 Matar, Dina 20, 163–7, 349 Mawgoud, Mohamed Abdel 159 Media Art Workshop 219 Medrar for Contemporary Art 219 Meedan 73 Memorial to Failure, A (Khaled) 139, 142, 143 Menassat 73


Merheb, Nour 88, 94 Military State/Military Conscience (Alkadhi) 198 MINITEL 320–1 Mobinil 154, 155, 156 Mohaiemen, Naeem 341 Molnár, Edit 136, 349–50 Monologue (Kamel) 269 Morozov, Evgeny 41, 319, 321 Morsi, Mohamed 152, 153, 154, 157 Mosireen 47–52, 144, 148, 157–8, 160, 350 and Egypt 19, 220–1 see also Tahrir Cinema Moulton, Shana 221 al Mozian, Khalil 225 Mrabet, Moez 326 Mroué, Rabih 19, 88, 90, 93, 94, 172, 181, 247, 350 Mubarak, Hosni 35, 37, 38, 86, 153, 154, 159 and deposal 40, 51, 87, 137 Muller, Nat 19, 86–8, 90, 93–4, 350 Museum in Museum exhibition 133 Muslim Brotherhood 40, 154, 157, 159 Nancy, Jean-Luc 209, 210–11 Nasser, Gamal Abdel 137, 178 Night Visitor: The Night of Counting the Years (Maamoun) 140, 143–4, 145–6 Nile Sunset Annex 219, 220 ‘No to Military Trials for Civilians’ 72 NOMAD 131 Nyrabia, Orwa 78, 79 Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear (Dib) 22–3 Oman 260, 273 Once Upon a Sidewalk (Al-Amine) 260, 261 Öner, Elif 129, 133–4 ONtv 148, 149, 152, 153–4, 160 Onur, Füsun 132 ‘Op Anti-Sexual Harassment’ 72 Özkaya, Serkan 132 Palestine 87, 225 Paste 504 (Lotfy) 269 Pearl Roundabout see Lulu People Want, The (Serafi) 216, 217 Perle, Richard 189, 190 picturesclerk.com (Alkadhi) 197 Pink White Green Black: Noise/Silence Insinuated (Samaha) 262 Pipes, Daniel 189 PIST 133 Pixelated Revolution (Mroué) 181, 247, 248–56 Planet of the Arabs (Salloum) 187–8 Portugal 44 Prince, The (Attia) 190, 191, 192 Printemps des Arts (Springtime of the Arts) 53–5, 60, 61, 66, 326–7, 328, 329 Pseudo-Modern Museum (Öner) 129 Public Art Labour 133 Qatar 260, 273 Raad, Walid 172, 334–5 Race Riot (Warhol) 189 Rafsanjani, Akbar Hashemi 298 Ramadan, Tariq 53, 55, 64 Ramezani, Kianoush 298 Rancière, Jacques 53, 66, 141, 165, 181, 206, 209 Recycle (the Code) (Elshaer) 266–7, 269

Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East

Reporters Without Borders 72 Revolution (Ammar) 56–7 Rifky, Sarah 220 Rizk, Philip 18, 30–1, 34–8, 350 Rooms of Rhythms (Erek) 207, 208, 209–10, 211 Roosevelt, Franklin. D 185 Rosler, Martha 189, 196–7 Ross, Andrew 335, 338 Rumsfeld, Donald 190 Ruya Foundation for Contemporary Art (RUYA) 63, 68n.21 Saadiyat Island 332, 334–5, 336–7, 338, 340, 341–2 Saadiyat Island (Haacke) 241, 242–5 Said, Khaled 86, 87, 90, 94 Said, Mona 214 Salah, Gaber (Jika) 158 Salloum, Jacqueline 21, 184, 187–8 Salti, Rasha 215 Samaha, Roy 24, 123, 260, 262, 350–1 Saneh, Lina 19, 88, 90, 93, 94 Sarkis 132 Saudi Arabia 13, 72, 103, 273 Saudi Automobile (Abdallah) 103, 104–5 Sawiris, Naguib 149, 154 Saybaşılı, Nermin 21, 201–6, 209–12, 351 Serafi, Hamza 217 Shafik, Viola 222 Shawky, Wael 219 Shirky, Clay 40 Sholette, Gregory 342 Silent Majority Speaks, The (Silent Collective) 83 Sinnokrot, Nida 21, 184, 192, 194 Sisi bouZid (Ammar) 62 Situationists International 189 Smell (Kaabi-Linke) 325 Snowden, Edward 18 Society of Estranged Lovers (Alkadhi) 198 Soot Horeya (Cairokee) 149 Sorgunlu, Saadet 134 Soueif, Ahdaf 79 Spain 39, 40, 44 Sreberny, Annabelle 24, 291, 294–300, 351 Standing Man (Gündüz) 87 Stephan, Rania 24, 260 Sudan 30 Sura 178 Syria 14, 24, 30, 78–9, 174, 181, 247 and handwriting 302–3, 305–7, 314 and media 72, 73 and video 257 Syrian Creative Memory 164 Tabesh, Mohammad Reza 298 Tahrir Cinema (Mosireen) 71, 80, 81, 82, 84, 158 Tantawi, Mohamed 153 Tarzan and Arab 225, 351 Tele-rugby (Gülan) 130 Terrorism and Kebab (Arafa) 269 Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni, The (Stephan) 259, 260 Through the Looking Glass (Öner) 133 Tohme, Christine 63, 219 Topal, Hakan 131 Toufic, Jalal 136–7, 145 Transparent Evil (Samaha) 25, 262, 265 Tunisia 18, 53–5, 59–61, 68n.16, 163, 180, 217 and civil society 63, 66 and media 72


and revolution 14, 318–19, 321–3, 326–7, 329–30 and uprising 30, 39, 302 and video 257 Turkey 20, 87, 129, 131–3, 134–5 Twitter 18, 86–7, 88, 284, 305, 319 Two Performances.ram (Attia) 190, 191, 192 Under a Rainbow (Dib) 260 Unfolding (Hammam) 178, 180 United Arab Emirates (UAE) 107, 260, 273, 341 United Kingdom 44 United States of America 13, 30, 39, 40, 74, 339 and expats 184–5, 187–90, 192, 194, 196–7, 199 Untitled 753, Untitled 754 (Lotfy) 268 Untitled for Several Reasons (Samaha) 26, 123, 124–8, 260, 262 Upekkha (Hammam) 175, 178 Venice Biennale 63, 138, 156, 217 Vertov, Dziga 17 Video for the End of Time (Samaha) 262 Vimeo 81, 174 Virtual Jihadi (Bilal) 186 Vodafone 154, 162n.5 Wamda 73 Warhol, Andy 189 We are all Khaled Said 34, 86 Web Biennial (Gülan) 129, 130, 132 Weinstein, Michael A. 41 Why Riot? (Mosireen) 32–3, 148, 157–60 Williams, Raymond 171 Winter of Discontent (El Batout) 174, 181 World Intellectual Property Treaty 260 Wounds (Al Azmeh) 314 www.gilgamesh.21 (Hashim) 262–3 www.museummodern.org (Öner) 133, 134 xurban_collective 131 Yafai, Faisal Al 79 Yalter, Nil 131 Yassin, Mahmoud 141 Yemen 14, 302, 318 Younis, Ala 172 YouTube 81, 165, 174, 180, 318 and Egypt 143, 144, 158, 160, 178 and Lulu 283–4, 286 and Syria 303, 306, 307 Yücel, Derya 20, 351–2 Zaatari, Akram 172 Zico House 63 Żmijewski, Artur 156 Zoghbi, Pascal 309, 314, 315, 316 Zoller, Maxa 20, 148–9, 153–4, 156–61, 352