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Envy

Evergreen.

    Letter from the Editor

    We have attempted to take on envy’s ambiguities in this issue. Tirdad Zolghadr pleads for a reevaluation of envy with a curious set of observations as to its political relevance. Negar Azimi explores present day experiments in selling America via the state department and otherwise. In a series commissioned for Bidoun, Shirana Shahbazi presents photographs that muddle fantasy, power and envy. Approaches to envy range from the mystical (the evil eye) to the humorous (fast food in Tehran). Our architecture section takes on ambitious modernist experiments and their broken legacy from Algiers to Cairo. We hope you like what we done.

    —Lisa Farjam

    PS We especially hope you enjoy this issue’s coloring book (crayons not included).

      News

      SANTRAL ISTANBUL

      Hot on the heels of last month’s announcement of Tehran’s Honart Museum of international contemporary art (see previews), and the success of the 9th Istanbul Biennial, comes Turkey’s vast new art center, Santral Istanbul. Working at breakneck speed, a team of asbestos cleaners and heavy duty builders are currently turning the 120,000 square meter site of a disused and dilapidated power station on the Bosphorus into three museums, two libraries, and a new contemporary art museum. While the former will occupy the spruced-up industrial buildings, the gallery —Istanbul’s equivalent of the UK’s Baltic or New York’s PS1 — will be purpose-built. The four-floor, 7,500 square meter building, a collaboration between three Istanbul-based architects, is set to open in autumn 2006. Director Emre Baykal modestly describes the project as something of a challenge, but acknowledges its importance in a region beset by a dearth of large-scale public galleries. Besides an active exhibition schedule, the Santral will feature a multi-disciplinary residency program, featuring international visual artists, musicians, scientists, writers and so on, organised in assocation with Istanbul Bilgi University.

      DRAMA QUEENS

      Since three of the four July 7 London bombers recently spent time in Pakistani madrasas, Donald Rumsfeld, and anyone else who has long seen Qur'anic schools as indoctrination centers for jihadis, is furiously pointing fingers, particularly at Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf — who obligingly banished 1400 madrasa students from the country. One must truly wonder at the notion that village shacks filled with fuddyduddies dissecting seventh century scripture are where one learns the technical and logistical dexterity to pull off a major bomb attack on the UK. Given these astounding, collectivist extrapolations of cause and effect, one wonders if statistics are available on whether the bombers ever watched Inspector Gadget, or wore hooded, navy blue Reebok sweaters to school. Incidentally, as the long tradition of international paramilitary violence — leftist, anarchist, fascist, or religious — has proven, terrorism can rarely be explained in terms of schoolroom indoctrination, spiritual overexcitement or material poverty alone. Terrorists usually pursue agendas typical of the privileged and overeducated: self-aggrandizing, vanguardist, operatic and doctrinaire. In a June 15, 2005 article in the Herald Tribune, Peter Bergen and Swati Pandey assert that, having studied the backgrounds of seventy-five men behind the iconic recent attacks, they found a majority to be university educated — at a higher rate than the US population (all twelve conspirators of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center had a college education, and two-thirds of the 9/11 hijackers had attended university). The millions of dollars invested in schooling aid in the Middle East every year, the authors write, should be “applauded as the development aid it is and not as the counterterrorism effort it cannot be.”

      HOLLYWOOD IN IRAQ

      In Hollywood’s fastest and most prolific response to a conflict since World War II, this winter marks the release of a spate of films inspired by the war in Iraq — or rather, the experience of US troops “over there.” Most promise to follow the action hero format beloved by teenage video game addicts, Hollywood’s main focus group. Making the most noise is the adaptation of Bing West’s book No True Glory: Fallujah and the Struggle in Iraq. Harrison Ford has signed on to portray Jim Mattis, the general who took troops into the beleaguered city. The film “will focus on the bravery of our soldiers and point out why our military can be relied upon to do the right thing,” notes Bing. Meanwhile, Kirsten Dunst has signed on to play activist Marla Ruzicka in a drama about the 28-year-old American who was killed in Iraq by a suicide bomber, and rumors are circulating about another Paramount project concerning an Al Qaeda cell. A host of other scripts involving vague “terror” plots, oil profiteering, and suicide bombers will have actors of Middle Eastern appearance practicing their menacing Oriental snarls. And, says USA Today, the run of big-budget films is nothing compared to the stock of soap storylines concerning the Iraq war and even dedicated military satellite channels available in the US. Steven Bochco, producer of the FX channel’s Over There, a drama series about an army unit serving in Iraq, describes the war as “such a grand natural human drama.” The “pro-soldier” stance of the majority of films and TV dramas has apparently had a salute of approval from the Pentagon’s film liaison office. Even with most movies still at script stage or in production, the new films tend towards either Bush propaganda or pro-insurgency cant. Few projects involve Arab actors or aim to present Iraqi points of view, but some at least attempt (Hollywood- style) ambivalence—albeit regarding more distant conflicts. Sam Mendes’s Oscar-tipped Jarhead, for example, released last month in the US, looks back to the Gulf in 1991. According to the film’s publicists, it stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Jamie Foxx as Marines surviving in “blazing desert fields in a country they don’t understand against an enemy they can’t see for a cause they don’t fully fathom.” The pre-release furor and consequently tight publicity over Steven Spielberg’s Munich, to be released December 23 in the US, has led frustrated journalists to quip that a Mossad agent would have trouble obtaining the script. Shot last summer in Malta, Munich focuses on Israel’s covert campaign to assassinate the Black September members responsible for the deaths of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Surviving Black September member Mohammed Daoud was out- raged to hear that the book Vengeance, maligned by both Palestinian and Israeli critics, helped inform the scriptwriters: “Were I contacted [by Spielberg], I would tell the truth,” he ingenuously told Reuters from an undisclosed location. “[Mossad] carried out vengeance against people who had nothing to do with the Munich attack, people who were merely politically active or had ties with the PLO. If a film fails to make these points, it will be unjust in terms of truth and history.” Meanwhile, two 9/11 films are set to tax marketing specialists further. Paul Greengrass has just wrapped shooting on_ Flight 93, an apparently gritty (hand-held camerawork, improvised dialogue) portrayal, in real time, of the so-called fourth flight that crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside. _The Bourne Supremacy director goes head-to-head for a mid-2006 release date with an Oliver Stone picture starring Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena as Port Authority police trapped in the rubble of the Twin Towers.

        Previews

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        Alexandria
        Family You, Me and the Trajectories of a Post-Everything Era
        Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum
        December 4-24, 2005

        Artists Mona Marzouk and Bassem El-Baroni launch Alexandria’s first independent visual arts space in December with a project curiously titled Family You, Me and the Trajectories of a PostEverything Era. Six artists have been invited to explore the shifting notion of the “family unit” — an ever-changing, nuanced historical construct born of interplays between the individual, the family and the wider body politic. Marzouk and El-Barroni explain that “the ever growing mobility of the individual, and the struggles of vernacular cultures to find their voices, seem to be influential shaping factors in the current paradigms of the family unit.” The six artists invited to produce work on this theme include three Swiss artists, Peter Aerschmann, Elodie Pong, and Costa Vece. Heba Farid, Hassan Khan and Hadel Nazmy will join them from Egypt. Given the dearth of independent cultural spaces in Egypt, ACAF’s debut is sure to be an important one.

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        Wael Shawky, Dodge Ram, 2004. Video installation. Courtesy the artist

        Cairo
        PhotoCairo 3
        Various venues
        December 11-31, 2005

        This winter will mark the third annual PhotoCairo, initiated in 2002 as Egypt’s first event dedicated to still and moving images. While the first PhotoCairo stressed the local, showcasing the works of Egyptian artists exclusively, and the second expanded upon the first, this year’s event promises to be unprecedented in scale and breadth. Organizers Aleya Hamza and William Wells of the Townhouse Gallery, together with Hala Elkoussy and Maha Maamoun of the newly-founded Cairo-based Contemporary Image Collective (CiC), have put together a program that centers on the theme of the “positioning statement,” a marketing-speak reference to the branding of identities. PhotoCairo will address the reproducible image as a vehicle used to position individuals and institutions within broader cultural, national, political and socio-economic contexts. And the line-up looks good. The show will boast commissioned works by Iranian-German Setareh Shahbazi and Egyptians Iman Issa and Basim Magdy. A curated exhibition will include works by Beirut-based Akram Zaatari, Amsterdam-based Fernando Sanchez Castillo, a collaborative installation by the Swiss duo Giovanni Carmine and Christoph Büchel that premiered at this year’s Sharjah Biennale, a two-screen video installation by Alexandrian Wael Shawky and an installation of photography and video by Palestinian-American Emily Jacir. A retrospective selection of Swiss video artist Ursula Biemann’s body of work will also be on view. As in past years, a program of panels, discussions, workshops and films will supplement the visual arts component.


        Cairo
        Kairotic
        Townhouse Gallery
        January 8–February 8, 2006

        Egyptian-German artist Susan Hefuna makes her curatorial debut with Kairotic, bringing London-based Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum and American video art pioneer Gary Hill together with New York–based designer Karim Rashid to produce work in relation to the city of Cairo. “Kairos” is an ancient Greek word meaning “the right moment” or “the opportune.” Its second meaning references the art of weaving: the critical time when a weaver must draw the yarn through a momentarily open gap. Combining these two meanings, one might understand “kairos” as referring to a passing instant and a crucial step in the creative process. The artists worked with this premise in the city this fall, and now return in the winter to produce site-specific work born of their initial investigations. By all accounts, the meeting of the blue-chip (artists) and the site-specific (the city) will doubtless be a fruitful (if not rare) opportunity.

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        Shirin Aliabadi and Farhad Moshiri, You are the fearless rose that grows amidst the freezing wind, 2005. C-print. Courtesy the DCCD

        Copenhagen
        Farhad Moshiri and Shirin Aliabadi: Images of the Middle East
        Danish Center for Cultural Development
        March 2006

        Over the past few years there have been a number of Middle East-themed shows in European museums; in 2006, the trickle becomes a flood. Among the Islamic art festivals and general geographic surveys, a few have stand-out potential, including an exhibition of Beiruti artists at Modern Art Oxford and a show of contemporary Iranian art at the British Museum and a vast celebration of contemporary Middle Eastern culture in Copenhagen and other Danish cities. The festival, developed over the past two years by the Danish Center for Cultural Development and directed by Jutta Helles and Arabist-turned-curator Michael Irving Jensen, promises to dominate Denmark’s cultural scene for most of 2006 — and, via an education program, into 2007. The festival includes a series of photographic images created for giant billboard sites around Copenhagen by Peyman Hooshmanzadeh, Shadi Ghadirian and Tarek Al Ghoussein among others; a contemporary art exhibition curated by Charlotte Bagger Brandt and Hoor Al Qasimi at the Charlottenborg Museum; and a photography exhibition, film festival, contemporary dance performances, symposia, a music festival and other satellite projects.

        Ingeniously, Farhad Moshiri and Shirin Aliabadi have been charged with creating the promotional material for the festival. As a preamble to the main summer show, festival organizers are mounting an exhibition of this and other new work by the Tehran-based duo in March 2006. Moshiri and Aliabadi have turned to the brassy stuff of pop culture and branding for inspiration: typically tongue-in-cheek images being developed for the Copenhagen show include Freedom of Choice, featuring eight pairs of shoes made in Iran, and the Fearless Rose, a kind of window cleaning poetry. The two artists will be working with students in Beirut, Sharjah and Kolding on a series of virtual shows as well as an installation project that will feature the collaborative work displayed on outdoor “cubes” in eight Danish cities in the summer months. News and updates about the festival’s main program will appear on its website and in the spring issue of Bidoun.

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        Lina Nader, Anawabas font

        Dubai
        Kitabat Arabic Calligraphy and Typography Conference
        American University Dubai
        April 5-8, 2006

        Held in Dubai in April, Kitabat will be the first major design conference in the region to explore both ancient calligraphic design principles and the new generation of digital typographic technologia. Meaning writing(s) — in the widest sense — in Arabic, “Kitabat” was chosen for its design-friendly lettering and the ease with which in can be pronounced in any language, a selection that goes some way to describing the nature of the designers’ gathering. Organized by the Visual Communication Department at AUD, in partnership with Germany’s Linotype Library and the Amsterdam-based Stichting Khatt (Center for Arabic Typography) and in collaboration with the Association Typographique Internationale (ATypI), the organizers quote Edward Said’s “dialogue of civilizations” as inspiration for their East-West fest. While we wait to see how that worthy but hackneyed concept — which is wheeled out in Dubai for everything from film festivals to shopping mall architecture — plays out in the international design community, the program of lectures, panel discussions and so on takes note of the recent increased international interest in Arabic typography and is set to mark a significant step forward in developing innovative graphic design in the region. Topics up for discussion range from early metal printing types developed in Europe and the Middle East to contemporary corporate branding and motion graphics. Accompanying events include an exhibition of the winning entries to Linotype Library’s Arabic Type Design Competition, and the launch of the first dual-script (Arabic/Latin) font families, currently being developed by joint Dutch/Arab teams of type designers under the patronage of the Stichting Khatt. The conference is open to all design students and a juried exhibition of student work from the region will also be on display.


        Tehran
        Honart Museum
        Opening 2008

        An industrial site on the way to Karaj, a suburb of Tehran, is an unlikely spot for what is likely to be one of the most innovative large-scale museums in the Middle East. Ebrahim Melamed, a young Tehran collector with a sharp sense of humor and a visible, contagious enthusiasm for contemporary art, is endowing a part of his private collection to build Honart, which will open in 2008. His museum stands for the keywords “Exchange and Fusion,” (honar means art in Farsi). The museum will encompass 5000 square meters of gallery and office space, and house temporary exhibitions as well as the permanent collection. The latter already includes painting, sculpture, experimental film, video, installation, and photography by Anish Kapoor, Ugo Rondinone, Ricky Swallow, Shirin Neshat, Parvis Tanavoli, Sohrab Sepehri, Farhad Moshiri, Pierre Bismuth, Francis Alys, Julian Opie, William Kentridge, Pouya Aryanpour, Haluk Akakce, Olafur Eliasson, Sylvie Fleury and Gary Webb. Further acquisitions are being discussed by an international advisory committee.

        Melamed has been collecting art since the age of sixteen, and says he conceived of a museum when he realized that despite the “thirst for art” in Iran today, Iranian artists were isolated from developments in the larger art world.

        Terms Falling

        Between artist, curator, and entrepreneur

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        Akram Zaatari, In this House, 2005. Video, 30minutes. Courtesy the artist

        Does a curatorial démarche deserve its own rubric, or even need to be identified in the first place? With independent curators, the word has come to designate one who thinks and makes sense of artists’ works, one who reflects on, questions and challenges evolving realities in the world of art. A curator is an editor by nature, an author of contradictions and analogies, and an inventor of narratives. In the terms of contemporary art, a curator is the maker of a frivolous present, one soon to become past history. From this point of view — putting administrative tasks aside — a curator’s démarche is not that different from an artist’s.

        An artist is in a narrow sense a maker of art products, and in a wider sense a producer and instigator of thought. Concerned with questions of the times, an artist testifies to a present that, once witnessed, becomes social, political, or urban sediment, and once translated into an art form, becomes in its narrow sense myth, and in its wider sense memory.

        In November 2000 curator Christine Tohme invited thirteen artists from Beirut to reflect on the recent history of that city’s Hamra Street in what was known as the Hamra Street Project. Out of the thirteen, only six produced site-specific works that were ephemeral in nature — more or less meant for accidental encounters with the general public on the street. These works were installed in different sites along the street itself: in a projection room of an old movie theater and its lobby, in an old café, in another theater and so on. Other works included a single-channel video, an image that was displayed on a rolling commercial billboard, a poem that was published in the form of a postcard-sized book as well as a “mental map” of Hamra that was distributed with the exhibition catalogue.

        For a small artists’ community such as Beirut’s (Then and Now),1 the roles of artist, producer, curator and art entrepreneur are not well defined. In the absence of state support for artists and arts institutions, and lacking a robust market, artists and curators have improvised with a balanced working relationship that dates back to the creation of the Ayloul Festival in the mid-nineties. They have shared the little funds available to produce works that communicate thought and create dialogue.

        Despite the history of Ashkal Alwan’s past interventions in public space — notably in Sanayeh Park in 1995 and the Beirut Corniche in 1999 — the Hamra Street Project was the first art project staged in such a socially and politically charged historical site. The energy surrounding it was symptomatic of two things. First, despite a strictness in the project’s guidelines, artists’ responses were diverse, and resisted the idea of site-specificity by producing works such as single channel videos, poetry, billboards and maps. As noted above. The artists’ responses to Hamra Street Project transformed the notion of site-specificity into an open forum, and transformed its organizing body, Ashkal Alwan, into a commissioner. The Hamra project was the first of Ashkal Alwan’s projects to have an un-ephemeral component. Not surprisingly, it was also the last of its interventions in public space—perhaps an organic evolution given evolving concerns and needs.2 Second, the Hamra project showed how closely aligned curatorial démarches can be to an artistic ones. Production, organization and making overlap, while the distinctions between them are blurred.

        My own work has been circulating in the loosely defined channels of art, committing to different tasks without settling into one realm—swinging between the documentary and video traditions, between the production of art and its teaching and curating. I was also involved in the creation of the Arab Image Foundation,3 which, in addition to preservation, is increasingly focuses on supporting artists’ projects that are based on collecting and studying archival photographs from the region. Working in such an open forum has opened up possibilities in my own work, possibilities often related to the drafting and collecting of documents. Such an influence is evident in two recent works: This Day (2003), which was conceived as a platform for studying images that I have been collecting both in my capacity at the Foundation as well as personally, and In This House (2005), in which I carried out research on the personal documents related to the Lebanese wars. In the latter work, I dig out a letter buried in 1991 by a member of the Lebanese resistance in a garden of the house he occupied for six years.

        In the absence of dedicated art institutions, an artist often finds him/herself focused on the development of structures without being an arts administrator or a curator, interested in histories without being a historian, collecting information without being a journalist. It is indeed distracting to be an artist in such conditions, yet it is also an unequivocal privilege to be able to sustain so many positions simultaneously.

        Such a blurring of positions and roles is neither superior nor inferior to an increasingly clear-cut assignment of roles. Nevertheless, when a structural reality that is particular to a city (such as Beirut) produces “nomadic” art forums (independent from institutions), the resultant art is often viewed through an unfortunate geographic lens. Such viewing lends itself to the pigeonholing practices of the inter-national art market and, ultimately, limits the realm of interpretation of the work. How better for an artist to resist than to migrate between the rigid poles of the art world by blurring production, curating and education?

        1. The exhibition included Rita Aoun, Tony Chakar, Mahmoud Hojeij, Lamia Joreige, Bilal Khbeiz, Nesrine Khodr, Rabil Mroueh (with Fairouz Serhal), Walid Sadek, Ghassan Salhab, Salah Saouli, Jalal Toufic, Nadine Touma and Akram Zaatari
        2. Since 2002, and bi-annually, Ashkal Alwan has been organizing a multi-disciplinary arts event held in Beirut entitled Homeworks
        3. Since 1997, the Arab Image Foundation (AIF, Beirut) has been funding research and acquisition of — up until now — more than 150,000 photographs from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Morocco and the Arab Diaspora in Senegal and Mexico. Acquired collections are preserved, studied and made accessible to the general public through the AIF database (www.fai.org.lb) and through projects that present a critical and/or historical outlook on the function of the photographic record in past and contemporary times

        In each issue, we invite one curator to discuss strategies currently at play in the art world.

        The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art

        Shimmering totalities

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        Photo by Solmaz Shahbazi

        For some time now, public museums the world over have been implementing their own highly professional, big budget mises en scène of what international-standard contemporary art should look like, usually opting for something comparatively urbane, in a Duchampian wit meets iPod joie de vivre sort of way. On that count, the Muzeh-ye Honarhâye Mo’âser, the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art — or the muzeh, as it is also called — begs to differ: not so much in that it rejects or transcends the modish iconography of the current circuit, but in that it simply cannot help but draw all the attention to itself. Though the museum does indeed decontextualize the work on view, it does so only to embed it within its own matrix of political rumor, historical heritage, and architectural detail so dense one ends up reading every single show as an experiment, another weird muzeh occurrence.

        In the last few years alone, the institution has hosted group shows of “Islamic Art,” retrospectives of Iranian modernist greats, biennials of painting, mass exhibitions of local conceptualism, a tribute to British Artists, and much more. None of it really worked in the sense of slick curating, or clever conceptual choreography, or anything else that makes a visit to, say, Tate Modern a pleasant afternoon stimulus. Rather, it is the very interaction between any specific selection of artworks, good or bad, with the museum itself that is most striking.

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        Photo by Solmaz Shahbazi

        The muzeh was founded by Queen Farah Diba only two years before the 1979 revolution. The actual building is something of a sprawling, uneven complex of minimal, sober design, built by Farah’s cousin, architect Kamran Diba. The visitor’s bewildering circular trajectory through it moves from generous hallways to small, quirky chambers and back again — sometimes leading underground, at other times offering delightful views of the surrounding park (complete with playgrounds, tea houses, the neighboring carpet museum, teenage lovers, unemployed day laborers and junkies on heroin).

        Taking advantage of a slump in art-market prices, Farah swiftly invested sizable sums that actually saved several weathered American galleries from bankruptcy, and the collection quickly came to include a spectacular range of western canon masterpieces, from Gaugin to Leger to Rauschenberg and so on. After the 1979 revolution, the collection was stowed away in the cellar for almost two decades, but if you visited the museum any time during the past six years, you were likely to run into a refreshingly slipshod display in some corner, lumping together, say, two or three Miros with a handful of Rothkos. Meanwhile in the courtyard, some Giacomettis are being eaten away by acid rain, looking more measly and miserable than ever.

        According to Bidoun contributor Serge Michel, the collection also includes some natty Adolf Hitler watercolors, which were presented at a 2001 press conference. The staff unveiled them with a vague air of embarrassment, then carried them back to the cellar with hardly a word of explanation.

        Today, it is hard to overestimate the influence of the muzeh on the artistic modus operandi of the Tehran scene. On the one hand, the museum became more accommodating and attractive with the appointment of charismatic director Alireza Samiazar in 1998, who stepped down recently (amid a host of speculations on the actual reasons, leaving the museum to an uncertain future under a certain Majid Hosseini-Rad). But on the other, throughout Samiazar’s tenure, the space upheld a rather idiosyncratic definition of fair and critical professionalism, and it is hard to hold anyone accountable when living under a dictatorship, for the latter means you can always blame a fuckup on “the hardliners.” Be that as it may, international collaborations such as an extra large-scale cooperation with the Beyeler Foundation in 2002 had to be canceled due to highly erratic decision-making processes. My own, very modest curatorial endeavor at the museum five years ago, a week-long workshop/exhibition with Swiss artists, did not exactly gain in inspired ambiance when for some unknown reason on the third day, the museum guards started telling visitors at the door that the event was over.

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        Photo by Solmaz Shahbazi

        In addition to logistical obstacles, the museum is known for embarrassing examples of petty financial mischief. Established Tehran painter Khosrow Hassanzadeh, for example, was once summoned as a court witness; he’d received a $300 per diem for a Beirut show, only a fraction of the money that had disappeared into staff pockets. The institution is also regularly accused of nepotism. If this is a standard occurrence affecting even minor institutions in any major city, what makes things more dramatic in the case of the muzeh is that there is so much at stake. For one thing, in an art scene suffering from considerable infrastructural shortcomings, the internationally well-known museum can easily dominate the fragile network of relations with foreign curators and institutions. In addition, any noticeable public funding for local artistic projects runs through the museum, which is often granted a decisive advisory role. Artists who choose to circumvent its tentacular sphere of influence must usually rely on private donors.

        Since the museum never publicized a complete and official inventory of the work in its subterranean vaults (as, admittedly, few museums do), many local critics voiced concerns that it was bound to disappear sooner or later. Indeed, in early 2004, rumor held that Jackson Pollock’s Mural on Indian Red Ground had been sold to David Geffen for some $105 million. The sale was denied by Samiazar on national television.

        Nevertheless, Ms. Diba’s collection was on show through most of last fall, under the terse exhibition title Modern Art Movement. Director Samiazar’s last muzeh show, including 188 artworks, was arguably a mature, dignified exit. It was seen as a sensation by much of the international press, if not so much for its curatorial prowess as for the wealth of journalistic soundbites it offers (the patchy censorship of various masterpieces, the air of Queen Farah glamour and 1970s nostalgia, the $2 billion collection in the hands of ayatollahs).

        Admittedly, the exhibition’s amalgam of jumbled temporalities, political subtext, art-market history and sheer retro appeal is pretty jarring even by muzeh standards. To top it off, the show even included a helpful directorial statement by Samiazar himself, on “the Museum’s contribution to the universal endeavors to enlighten people about art,” along with several Warhol silkscreens, a Bacon triptych that was reportedly dismantled towards the end, and — surprise, surprise — Mural on Indian Red Ground.

        Mehrnaz Afzali’s The Red Card

        A Portrait of a Somehow Endearing Criminal

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        Recently I saw the first scenes of Shahla Khadijeh Jahed’s court defense. Shahla was accused of the first degree murder of Laleh Saharkhizan, wife of famed Iranian footballer Naser Mohammadkhani. This soap operatic affair, which has captured the attention of millions, began more than three years ago.

        As a woman in Iran, Shahla has less legal power than her famous lover, but seeing her in action in the courtroom reveals another story; the very last adjective that comes to mind is weak. She sings poetry, teases the judge and is generally an enormous flirt, playfully adjusting her chador. She wears a yellow scarf that enhances her bright brown eyes — the very eyes that presumably once caught Naser’s attention. In short, she’s in control.

        Shahla’s tale has dominated the headlines of Iran’s papers and weekly “family” magazines since the story first broke. Somehow she has involved everyone in her story, from those who casually peruse Tehran’s newspaper stands to those who unabashedly follow the story religiously.

        The Red Card, a film in progress by Mehrnaz Afzali, has followed and documented Shahla’s tale for the past year. The work, a pastiche of sorts, consists of scenes from the trial (which began last year), images from national TV, scenes from Naser’s football matches, and Shahla’s personal home videos. These videos are especially fascinating, and nearly give one the impression that she made them only in anticipation of later use in a film or some other retrospective. She follows her lover Naser in the house, talking to him — or interviewing him, oddly announcing the exact date and time of most of the shots. Such a rough home-video approach is compellingly voyeuristic. Incidentally, the famed couple never share a single frame.

        In the end, the glories of Mohammadkhani’s national reputation and multitude of football feats quickly fade, and we are left sympathizing with the somehow endearing accused murderer — not your typical hero, even in the noir sense. We remain in the dark as to whether she is in fact responsible for stabbing the victim to death thirty-seven times, and watching The Red Card isn’t much help: the movie ends just as a new inspector in charge of Shahla’s case appears. We see his suit but not his face, and learn that new evidence may eventually help her out of the cell. The last scene is marked by Shahla’s voice on her home video as she prepares her traditional Haft Sin (decorative ritual) for the Persian New Year.

        Afzali’s previous films include Without Witness and Zananeh, the former also about a female killer (a heroine named Farangis who slaughtered two Iraqi soldiers with an ax). Perhaps more than anything, Afzali has a winner of a subject; it is hard to go wrong with such compelling characters. As we wonder if Shahla is guilty of first degree murder, we might momentarily note that our bizarre fascination with the case reveals more about us than it does about a love affair gone awry. Either way, we have the privilege of not seeing the execution before the credits roll.

        Shala was originally convicted on June 17, 2004, and then again on January 11, 2005. On October 30, the Supreme Court of Justice ordered a re-trial for the accused murderer.

        “Work in Progress” is an ongoing series previewing artist projects.

        Feral as in Pigeon

        Kate Rich and Natascha Sadr Haghighian Buy Some Rice Cookers

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        Iranian electric rice cooker from Pars Khazar factory

        “It all started because I wanted some decent coffee for my bar,” explains Kate Rich, the British-based artist-cum-import-export entrepreneur. “Everyone said I should get Fair Trade, but the packaging was patronizing, full of these sentimental images and information about how the farmer could now send his children to school. But what did he know about how I spend my money?”

        In 2003, Rich ended up sourcing coffee directly from the Cooperativa de Caficultores Nonualcos in San Pedro Nonualco, El Salvador, for her customers at the Cube Microplex bar in Bristol. Coining the process Feral Trade, she began a series of projects that cut across art and business. Two years later, packets of coffee are continuously exported from the cooperative cinema to destinations in the UK and Europe over various social, cultural, familial and vocational networks.

        Each transaction is noted in minute detail: when it comes to Rich’s trade database (www.feraltrade.org), the project is anything but feral. In mid-September 2005, for example, her online log records that ten bags of ground coffee were shipped from Bristol to Vallum Court in Newcastle, to restock supplies after ten bags had been transferred up to Stills Gallery in Edinburgh earlier in the month. The courier was novelist Hari Kunzru.

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        Feral Trade Coffee from El Salvador

        Designing her own packaging, which details the beans’ complex financial and geographical journey, Rich elevates — or as she says, “adds density to” — the banal tendencies of import-export. Her projects expose the intricate web of relationships that exists around a product and the high-tech/low-tech messiness of the supposedly simplistic, frictionless nature of global trade.

        Wanting to test the economic model, and highlight this messiness further, she then turned to a more exclusive product, Iranian sweets — the best kind, generally unavailable outside Iran, are objects imbued, as she says, with “an air of impossibility.” Her journey to buy the candy was deliberately complex: following the smugglers’ routes from Bristol to Tehran, via Brussels, Novi Sad, Zrenjanin, Arad, Sofia, Istanbul and Yazd, she documented and photographed each transaction and gave trade talks along the way. Approximately sixty boxes of sweets have since been traded by artists via their hand baggage in the UK, Europe and the US.

        Rich is on an underlying quest to investigate the trade process and make money for her producers, but her approach is playful. Her documentation of the journey includes an intricate budget, which notes free dinners at artists’ houses and bribes (in a bid to secure a couchette) to the guards on the Arad-Bucharest sleeper train.

        Digital communication is key: at the crux of Feral Trade is the question of whether ephemeral electronic networks, typically established at international exhibitions and other artists’ meets and through friends of friends, can sustain the passage of goods. Feral Trade turns such dynamics on their heads: here it is cultural, social and digital networks that establish routes for commercial products, rather than culture serving as innocuous padding around the serious stuff of commercial politics. In turn, the passage of goods opens up what Rich calls “wormholes” between diverse social settings. (The pastoral theme continues in her definition of feral, denoting “a process that is wilfully wild [as in pigeon] as opposed to romantically or nature-wild [wolf].”)

        Last fall Rich, together with Berlin-based artist Natascha Sadr Haghighian, traveled to the Iranian city of Rasht to purchase rice cookers from the Pars Khazar factory. They bought premium brand products — chrome-plated, the king of rice cookers — for a network of subscribers in Europe. For the first time, Rich is working without British Council or European Union funding, relying instead on what she terms “class action shopping” — here, a group of people clubbing together to circumvent usual trade routes.

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        Iranian electric rice cookers from Pars Khazar factory

        After stopping off in Istanbul, Sofia and Brussels to fulfill orders, Rich received the bulk shipment in London, and the rice cookers are now in circulation in the UK and Europe. In a further step, the two artists are commissioning the factory to produce a new product for the busy, globe-trotting singletons of the art world: a one-person rice cooker. Rich pitches me: “It’s apocalyptic: a full kitchen on one power socket, meaning that when you’re staying in that crappy hotel at a biennial, you can cook a nutritious meal for one…”

        Art as European Invention

        Can one exhibition change the tenor of the art world?

        More than twenty-five years have passed since Edward Said’s ground-breaking Orientalism (1978) was published. Said’s brand of discourse analysis was formative in post colonial critique, since introduced widely in university courses as well as in a number of art exhibitions. But despite the increasing number of followers, the less interest seems to be stirred by critical global perspectives on art practices. Has a vague and generalized locality stepped in to take its place?

        The website of the upcoming Documenta 12 (opening June 2007) announces that the its chief curator, Roger Buergel, has set out on an project initiative called the Documenta 12 Magazine. Some seventy magazines will be involved, and the project will enlist art world pundits — artists, curators, theorists and editors — to discuss various issues in workshops and electronic symposia, and contribute articles. Documenta 12 Magazine will appear in German and English in 2006, but an online version for readers also will be published in Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian and Spanish. At this stage, it is unclear whether the organizers hope to engage readers in a dialogue, and if so, in what language.

        A striking feature, however, is the desire for consensus and the exhibition’s thirst for exceptionally wide (global) acclaim. This is not unique for to Documenta 12: similar use of reference groups featured in preparation for the Ninth Istanbul Biennial (2005), as well as in Documenta 11 (2002), where workshops also had a legitimizing function beyond the actual duration of the exhibition.

        The latter event interrogated the globalization of culture, through an ambitious array of topics, such as creolization, global urbanism and deterritorialization, and sought to decenter the entire locale of the exhibition, since it was divided into five Platforms, four of which were symposia on economic, social and urban matters (the fifth was the exhibition proper). The symposia took place in Vienna and Berlin, New Delhi, St. Lucia, and Lagos. If curator Okwui Enwezor made a point of selecting artists who were born in as many countries as possible, Buergel’s appointment marks a return to the local. This seems to give some substance to fears that perhaps the “global” quota for big exhibitions has been filled, implying a return to business as usual?

        There is more. Recent art history in the US and Ireland has made a global(ized) fresh attempt at the 19th-century ghost of established, universal art historiography — eg David Summers’s Real Spaces: World Art History and the Rise of Western Modernism (2003), as well as a huge project at Cork University orchestrated by James Elkins, author of several books on artistic practices on the art historical margins. Elkins’s initiative will result in a series of volumes on contemporary artistic practices and art history — including the issue “Is Art History Global?” Summers’s spatial categorization of images from various parts of the world is, however, not very different from that in a traditional general art history survey book. Elkins expresses his doubts as to the feasibility of the world art history project, but still maintains the ambition to find a fundamental methodology and terminology applicable to all arts, times and purposes.

        In 1994, artist Jimmie Durham titled an essay: “A friend of mine said that art is an European invention.”1 As Durham’s irony suggests, it is absurd to think that art would not have existed before the invention of the European art institution. Surely, art exists beyond the confines of capitalist aesthetics. But that art is seen as irrelevant by the very same art world that claims to have relativized artistic value and gone global. If anything, I expected that the globalization of the art world would call for new ways to conceptualize quality in art, including a revised genealogy of current art concepts. From there, the notion of contemporary art concepts as categories of “Western” or “European” invention could be abolished. Judging from these — small, if ambitious — contributions to art historiography, and the fact that so many departments of art history in the US and Europe have not been particularly perturbed by the thirty years criticism that post colonialism represents, the future looks a little bleak.

        To avoid “Western” conceptual bias, Enwezor is said to have banished the word “art” from his vocabulary when working on Documenta 11. This alone would not solve the problem, however. Even as new nations appear on the art scene, the preference for photo-journalistic rather than more poetic modes of expressions, for instance, spares the global art community a great deal of friction that would be involved in developing aesthetic criteria. On the positive side, Documenta 11’s manner of turning exhibitions into a series of workshops, seminars, and platforms contextualizes the exhibition projects in question, and packages exhibitions as contributions to ongoing discussions on contemporary culture beyond center or end, which is in line with political and aesthetic radicalism, and suggests a radically inclusive art practice. On the other hand, one must also add that contrarily, discussions of contemporary art avant-gardism are, for better or for worse, firmly tied up with geographical and personal co-ordinates, and these do need to be addressed explicitly.

        But was a global history of artistic practices ever a possibility in the first place? Can the European variety ever become one among many others? It seems that as long as the international art world is premised on the references and values of European avant-gardism, it will remain an intrinsically local affair. And “global” and “local” will remain interchangeable catchwords.

        1 Jimmie Durham in Jean Fisher (ed.), Global Visions: Towards a New Internationalism in the Visual Arts, London: Kala Press & inIVA, 1994

        Baghdad Deluxe

        A Stone’s Throw from the Green Zone

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        Illustration: Nikolas Gambaroff

        The Al-Hamra has become an Iraqi icon — part hackneyed myth, part hardened reality. This hotel, in the Baghdad neighborhood of Al-Jadria not far from the banks of the Tigris, is where you could once find a cosmopolitan lounge band playing Sinatra on Thursday nights and still get a quality gin martini at the bar. That was back in the day when Saddam was somewhat softer and architect Robert Venturi was running around town fulfilling the mustachioed president’s every whim. More recently, the Hamra is where Iraqi exile Kanan Makiya hid his family’s art treasures, where the lead singer of an Iraqi boy band would hang out on Friday afternoons and, finally, where a young activist named Marla Ruzicka would throw her famous pool parties for the influx of peoples, foreign and Iraqi alike, who arrived with the fall of Baghdad. Until recently, one could find Muqtada al-Sadr’s followers pacing about outside the Hamra’s walls, hoping to make a buck as a guide, guard, or driver. A handful of beggars and the occasional prostitute also marked the surroundings, while some particularly entrepreneurial Iraqis offered the most gullible of foreign visitors the chance of a peek at the “secret archives” of the fallen despot.

        During the early days of the Occupation, the Hamra was among the top draws for accommodation. While the Palestine and the Summerland were somewhat swank — for Coalition stars and the like — the Hamra seemed to attract a more idiosyncratic following. Its Christian Iraqi owners had fled to Amman with the invasion, and the hotel’s new owners capitalized on the arrival of press corps and aid workers who had come to be a part of history made. Rooms cost upwards of $150, with little obvious justification. Some sought shelter at the neighboring Karma or Doulaime hotels — less known and certainly far cheaper.

        Arguably incongruous with its surrounds, the Hamra boasted a pool situated between the two towers that define its structure — perhaps a rarefied vision of a Florida spring break destination or a broken Club Med. Marla, who died in a car blast last spring, could be found swimming laps in the pool by day and hosting parties for hotel guests and their buddies by night. For a minute, you could have oddly been anywhere but there — save for the enormous protective wall that marked the pool’s perimeter.

        In the lounge, Samir, a Christian Iraqi in his fifties — part vagabond and very much old playboy —would sit behind the piano with a Camel cigarette dangling from his mouth. He spoke English with an Italian accent and had studied music in Italy and Hungary. Many years ago, he had been the chief pianist of the Baghdad Sheraton and, on the side, gave piano lessons to the sons of ambassadors — and not infrequently, we were told, made love to their wives. Later, he fought in his country’s nine-year war with Iran, and you’d notice the signs of a trauma that lingered if you spoke to him for just long enough. Nevertheless, at the post-Saddam Hamra, Samir always managed to stir up a crowd with his epic comb-over, old world air and the performance that came with it. At times, all of this seemed a bit like journalists playing in an amateur high school version of Casablanca, but it served to distract and entertain all the same.

        Evenings at the Hamra’s restaurant brought together a funny bunch. You could very well be seated next to group of Iraqi businessmen in search of juicy American contracts, the Mayor of Baghdad, an analyst from any one of myriad democratizing outfits or, as I did one day, a hired killer. At the start of the Occupation, some savvy French journalists managed to dig up glorious wines from Saddam and Uday’s subterranean vaults, though those quickly dried up and yielded the foul Lebanese and French variety. The hotel chef, however endearing, overcooked the spaghetti. The “Special Chinese Rice” was short of special, and hamburgers came complete with a fried egg inside. The French fries, nonetheless, were delicious.

        Eventually, the Hamra became a world within a cracked world. Stepping outside of its vacuum-sealed confines, one would encounter a gigantic white mesh cage. Guards manned the entrance twentyfour hours a day, scanning for things-dubious in the Green Zone’s unknown. The hotel eventually became packed with foreign mercenaries — “private military contractors” is perhaps the more politically correct term, but they were mercenaries all the same. Soon enough, you could find yourself crammed in the hotel’s small elevators with a beefy Serb, Croat, South African or perhaps an American — each with enough artillery to hold out against Saddam’s national guard for a week. It wasn’t long before the sign that read All Weapons are Forbidden in the lobby became an old joke.

        Today, the Hamra’s chef has left the hotel — most likely working for the coalition somewhere in the Green Zone (if he is in fact still alive; he had received more than a few death threats during his tenure at the hotel). Last we heard Samir was in Jordan, jobless and awaiting news on a visa application he filed some time ago to travel to the States. Back at the ranch, the mercenaries remain and the foreign press corps have set up mini-fiefdoms within the hotel’s rooms — marking their territory with satellite phones and high-speed internet. Some of them may spend six months in Iraq without exiting the compound once, save trips to and from the airport in armored vehicles. Tales of kidnappings are more than enough to convince them of the merits of staying indoors. Some days you may find the more ambitious among them scaling the hotel’s fire escapes for a bit of exercise. Perhaps you could say their vision of Iraq is a bizarre one — limited to little more than the four walls of the hotel room and an endless stream of images of that which occurs in an invisible outside. At the Hamra these days, “Reporting live from Baghdad” has taken on a whole new meaning.

        Wael Shawky

        At least there are no puppets

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        The Cave, 2004. Video, 12 minutes. Courtesy the artist

        Wael Shawky’s most recent video work, The Cave (2005), included in the current Istanbul Biennial, features the artist at the center of the frame speaking without pause for eleven minutes. Shawky advances toward the steadily retreating camera as he recites the Qur’an’s “Surah al Kahf” in one take. The artist’s throat runs bone-dry several times; one watches with empathy as he hastily swallows to preserve continuity. Adding insult to injury, he carries out the exercise while weaving through tight, product-lined aisles in a populous supermarket.

        Shawky says it took him more than four hours (and probably many confused shoppers) to nail this feat. This is easy to believe. Having spent time in Cairo with the soft-spoken artist a couple of years ago, I learned that discreet disposition pays no heed to melodrama. Egyptian-born Shawky spent part of his youth in the Gulf before returning to Alexandria, allowing him to witness firsthand the raucous transformation of the region at the hands of astronomic oil wealth and dubious international power plays. He emerged alongside a small group of Egyptian artists including Hassan Khan, Mona Marzouk and Amina Mansour — who employ more decidedly “contemporary” techniques (such as video and multimedia sculpture) than their predecessors. This is no small task when one has the nation’s staid Ministry of Culture arbitrating much of what the world gets to see of new Egyptian art: pretty, patriotic, petering out at modernism.

        These notions bring me back to Shawky’s recitation of the “Surat Al-Kahf” — specifically the story of the Seven Sleepers that is claimed by Islam and as well as Christianity. In both traditions, the sleepers flee the encroachment of evil pagans seeking to dash their (respectively) sacred beliefs. They’re subsequently sealed inside a cave where they sleep for two or three hundred years. Eventually they awaken, safe and pious as ever, to invigorate the faith of a new but weary generation through their miraculous existence. What’s crucial to Shawky’s broader agenda is the Rip Van Winkle notion of vacuum-sealing the wisdom of yesterday so as to smash it into today’s mess. In the best case, this yields a terrific rattling of collective convention; more likely it yields an even bigger mess, like it did in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, or with colonization.

        Given the weight of the work’s direct subject matter, one cannot help but react with an initial knee-jerk: is the artist really so literal as to align the many bleary-eyed shoppers in The Cave’s contemporary supermarket with the Seven Sleepers’ depraved masses awaiting salvation? Or is Shawky trying to position the shoppers as sleepers themselves, innocently drifting toward their own cataclysmic destinies, beer and chocolate bar in hand? At the moment the video might be swallowed whole by an Intro to Philosophy class, a completely average teenage boy enters the frame to all but make rabbit ears over Shawky’s head. Thankfully the whole affair is wrested from moral severity by its setting in the neon-drenched bosom of consumerism. This way, the revelation comes by acknowledging that Shawky’s gesture of labored didacticism must bow to the reality of grocery shopping, absurdly quotidian and insurmountably human as it is.

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        The Green Land Circus, 2005. Video stills from an installation, 7:47 minutes. Courtesy the artist

        In much the same manner, the video installation The Green Land Circus shines a light on the scuttle of the masses. As shown in 2005 at the Townhouse Gallery’s factory space in downtown Cairo, the work takes the form of a huge two-pole tent, swollen around pre-existing support columns, pushing up against the roof of the exhibition space. Inside the tent inside the gallery, the fabric is painted silver so as to eerily reflect the blue glow of three plasma screens.

        Any technological ambiance in the installation is sharply offset by a floor completely covered with earth that the audience traverses on a dilapidated, wood-planked walkway. A mud-brick enclosure on the left of the tent stands partly in ruins to boot. Similar to The Cave’s invocation of ancient scripture, contemporary tactics here remain tethered to dusty aesthetics—a strategy that risks cramming both artworks into the easy (and kitschy) “ethnic” pigeon-hole. But to dismiss Shawky’s work as resting on its nouveau-Mid-East laurels is to overlook its considered commentary on the smudge of civilians at large. For in as much as the artist dramatizes elements of the Arab world, he also dramatizes the body, the reach of capitalism and the art world’s hunger for entertainment.

        Take The Green Land Circus’ trio of projections. The main screen, located at the end of the walkway, shows a staged altercation erupting between fifteen people. A second projection to the right of the walkway reveals the casting process for the main video. The third screen to the left features old screen tests of Shawky’s actors. (The most memorable is a 1970s comedy sketch showing conversation between a Middle Eastern Burt Reynolds and a peroxide-headed midget.)

        The whole thing stinks. But in a really effective way. Shawky successfully captures humans’ odd physical matter: rotund women caked in makeup staring out at the viewer, tiny people fiercely tussling, close range shots of sullied midsections mushing together. The idea of these characters overcoming their screwball corporeality to convince an audience of a heated fight scenario is ridiculous. Yet while the viewer is privy to this behind-the-scenes view of creating a fiction, they are also in the scenes themselves, standing within the bizarrely man-made meta-environment where the projected images were staged.

        One of Shawky’s earlier works, Sidi El Asphalt’s Moulid (2001), also benefits from ramshackle architectural installation. This time the audience is invited into a tar-drenched, cardboard shanty-town. The mini-metropolis is scaled so that the average viewer stands as tall as a five-story building. There is no attempt to conceal either the phoniness or the hand-made quality of the construction, which takes on the odd properties of Mr. Roger’s Land of Make Believe. The tacky black space turns even more sharply toward twisted dreamscape with Shawky’s addition of recessed plasma screens showing the rhythmic hypnosis of a crowd at a Moulid set to Cypress Hill’s (Rock) Superstar. (At least there are no puppets.)

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        The Green Land Circus, 2005. Video stills from an installation, 7:47 minutes. Courtesy the artist

        As with much of Shawky’s work, one marvels at the fact that these disparate slabs do fall together —i n this case thanks largely to the deft syncopation of whirling Moulid footage with the beats of a 1990s movie trailer staple. Viewers are even invited to laugh at the sight of an attendee grabbing his crotch like he’s Eminem at the Video Music Awards. For a moment the work seems to address the concept of “globalization-kids” foisted on today’s youth by older folk in awe of the internet. Does Shawky invite homies the world over to build their treehouses, too? I don’t mean to say that Sidi El Asphalt’s Moulid is all construction. But in the end Shawky’s work functions for the widest demographic as a heartfelt monument to creating something out of too many things.

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        Sidi El Asphalt’s Moulid, 2001. Video, 3:54 minutes. Courtesy the artist

        Envy as Consumer Credo and Political Temperament

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        It’s hard to compete with the righteous wrath of the disinherited. I am not mentioning this to deconstruct once again the problematic attraction of class exotica or racial aroma. I’d like to circumvent blame games of that kind via a more descriptive conjecture of envy as an analytic premise. Obviously, there is good reason to believe the token Eurocentric Subject is still comfortable defining the rest of the world as simply digressions from itself. But this does not mean that traditional utensils still do justice to the complex consumer mentality that has developed over the centuries. I’m referring to ever more complex blends of DIY anthropology, quick-fix solidarity and sustainable hedonism — all of which warrant terms more malleable than the tired models of racism, tolerance, essentialism, or xenophobia. Perhaps it may prove useful to resuscitate envy from the netherworlds of individual pathology.

        The notion of envy is relevant not only in terms of specific objects of desire, but also to exclusion spatially defined, particularly when traces of the conspiratorial are at play. Consider the eerily brutal sounds of a party to which you haven’t been invited. Or compare the handling of spatial commodities such as the Middle East or the Orient, even in “progressive” arenas like Third Text, a journal long hailed as the cutting edge of postcolonial acumen. Third Text mentions the “collectivist” spirit of “the Arab street,” “Al Jazeera,” and “Al Qaeda” in one breath (“The first of these new, airy forms of collectivism [is that of] the collectivism of public opinion rising and falling on the Arab street or ricocheting across Al Jazeera’s or Al Qaeda’s networks or whispering in this or that secret, self-isolated cell gathered together in a cave”), thereby throwing the very party it can thus feel excluded from — and which it can thereafter describe from without.1

        To take another example: Have you ever compared the marketing value of White Trash to that of Brown Immigrants? In the eyes of those who are neither, the white working class is common, taste-less, ugly and embarrassing, while people from places cast as outside (Muslims and famine victims and such), are at least solemn, serene, enduring, old-fashioned and dignified. If the working class is now a peroxided caricature of the political leviathan it once was, Cultural Others still have a certain poise. They safeguard the simple family values of religiosity and devotion that all great-grandparents share, the kind you’d never want yourself, but that you f ind reassuring to have around.2

        Someone with an outstanding eye for such delicious shifts in mass consumer sensitivity was German artist Martin Kippenberger, who in 1985 devised a flyer with the slogan, “What’s your favorite minority — Who do you envy most?” shortly before embarking on a working holiday to Brazil, which he explained as a “Magical Misery Tour.” The advantage to Kippenberger’s approach, of course, is that it brings up issues of exploitation and pays homage to the frisson of flinching, to the pleasant poetics of voyeurism. If, as scores of theorists have been arguing over the last few decades, we underestimate the complexity of pornography, voyeurism, and other pleasures of the gaze, perhaps this applies to envy as well.

        Stemming from the Latin invidere (in: “upon,” videre: “to see”), the verb initially meant “to look at with malice, cast an evil eye upon.” It betrays not only a penchant for the visual, but also the animist subtext of the term’s age-old demonization; fear of the evil eye was equally relevant in the drafting of the Tenth Commandment — thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s ox. Incidentally, the Tenth is the one Commandment that relies entirely on self-censorship and a dynamic of private guilt, as opposed to the physical, clear-cut acts of stealing, fibbing, or sleeping with your neighbors.

        Even the Seven Deadly Sins were initially only six in number, until St. Gregory the Great added envy to the list in the late sixth century. Prefect of Rome, Gregory renounced both political career and family wealth in favor of a life as a monk — “he who had been wont to go about the city clad in the trabea and aglow with silk and jewels now clad in a worthless garment served the altar of the Lord” and all that. In a gesture as self-congratulatory as it was disarmingly honest, Gregory ranked envy and pride, two things he’d demonstratively abandoned, as the two most Deadly of the Deadly, imbuing them more decisively than ever with connotations of petty material greed.

        Envy later became the butt of countless soundbites in various Quotation Encyclopedias, with Francis Bacon naming it the “vilest affection, and the most depraved” and Samuel Johnson claiming envy was “unmixed and genuine evil; it pursues a hateful end by despicable means and desires not so much its own happiness as another’s misery.” If it is hardly surprising that the literati, with their tangled triad of the Good, the Beautiful, and the True, would deprecate envy — when they’re not applauding it with Oscar Wildean coquetry — it is perhaps more surprising that Adam Smith, corner-stone of capitalism as we know it, described envy as an “odious and detestable passion.” But surely enough, even today, envy is still a forceful, knock-down argument against any form of economic egalitarianism.

        Should anyone succeed in proving envy to be among your motives for demands for redistribution then you’re suddenly deprived of any authoritative ethical ground on which to base those demands. This leads to an unfortunate double bind: if sentiments of envy are neurotic, denying them categorically would imply there’s nothing to covet — and hence no reason to redistribute anything in the first place. This, as some have pointed out, is disingenuous in a society that worships wealth and power, and systematically nurtures envy in order to encourage consumption.

        I am not pleading for a simple reversal (covet thy neighbor), for in matters of sheer survival or career rivalry, envy is hard to translate into political action. Contrary to its reputation, envy doesn’t necessarily imply a decisive drive for actual ownership, membership, or identification. Take a recent essay on Saddam Hussein, written by Amatzia Baram under the auspices of the German Orient Institute: “Since his days of exile in Cairo, Saddam Hussein developed a highly ambivalent attitude toward Nasser, ranging all the way from admiration and a wish to emulate him to [later on] opposition and envy.”3 The interest here lies not in Saddam’s sentiments per se, so meticulously identified by Dr. Baram, politicopsychoanalyst supreme, but in the very textual shift from “admiration/emulation” to an awareness that the respective object of desire was not necessarily worth emulating. It indicates that envy is not the binary opposite of noble emotions of respect and approval, but a critical shift away from the virtues of adulation altogether.

        Allow me to end with a phrase by Carolyn Steedman: “by allowing envy to enter into political understanding, the proper struggle of people in a state of dispossession to gain their inheritance might be seen not as sordid greed for the things of the marketplace but attempts to alter a world that has produced in them states of unfulfilled desire.” Steedman is not rallying you to hold mass envy sessions on campus, with titillating slideshows and outraged soapbox orators, but to rehabilitate the notion of envy as an analytical tool. To this end, envy would need to exit the rhetoric of private neuroses of want and deficiency, and become a marker of an intellectual mentality not only unabashedly consumerist, but also crudely judgmental, avoiding all the customary channels of politico-stylistic self-censorship. To envy, in other words, is to acknowledge an itch without intellectualizing it into something with which your Über-Ich would agree.

        1 Blake Stimson and Gregory Sholette, “Periodising Collectivism,” Third Text, issue 6, 2004
        2 Beverley Skeggs, Class, Self, Culture, New York: Routledge 2004
        3 Amatzia Baram “Saddam Husayn and Nasirism: 1968-2000,” in Orient, Vol. 41, No. 3, (Hamburg), September 2000, pp. 461-472

        Pashmina Power

        Class structure in international arts funding

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        Photo by Ketuta Alexi-Mekshishvili

        *A SIMPLIFIED VIEW OF THE STRUCTURES *

        There is just something about the working class receiving money and creative freedom that makes the flesh of the middle class crawl. Why is this? Is it because the middle class considers creative and aesthetic production to require education and cultural savvy, which they believe the working class do not possess? Or is it because the middle class believes itself to be the entity that somehow survives in an informed, and taste-led existence, and subsequently it frowns at those that don’t? I am speaking in decidedly general terms about existence in the West, but in either case several sweeping assumptions are made by this particular class demographic around knowledge distribution in society that may or may not be true. Especially when discussing class in the West, or from a predominantly Western European outlook, class cannot strictly be considered a financial condition. It also has to do with taste. (Very often those in the middle class do not have a lot of money, while those in the working class do.) Some governments claim that they oversee classless societies —such as the New-Labour government in Britain — but even this is a class-orientated perspective (the vote of a particular class demographic has been gained). Within the visual arts, simply looking at the networks of creative decision-makers within its prevalent mainstream structures in the West — from funders through to museum and gallery directors and curators — it is also evident that it is predominantly, though not exclusively, a middle class arrangement. When it comes to the selection, presentation, promotion and dissemination of artistic practices, do the middle classes persist with their own strategies for accumulating knowledge capital in order to culturally inform the whole of the class structure, including those deemed as being above and below them? Is it nepotistic even or is it less consciously conceived than this?

        FUNDING AND INTERNATIONALIST WORKING

        Whether public or private, funding structures, such as the ones that promote (“promote” being an operative word here) national culture overseas, predominantly exist in countries that have some form of welfare state, and are at a key stage in their development in terms of their focus for this promotion in the field of visual arts. Increasingly, such funding structures load sets of conditions that promote ideological agendas tied to economic and neoliberalist concerns, which can be specifically in terms of presenting idealized views of national identity around the globe, or perhaps for bringing to the West the identities of certain regions to counter the ones presented of them in the media. This does not just go for the support of “culturally diverse” institutions such as Berlin’s House of World Cultures, but for the majority of mainstream institutions, passing round such exhibitions as ‘Africa Remix’ (Museum Kunst Palast, Düsseldorf; Hayward Gallery, London; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Mori Art Museum, Tokyo; Moderna Museet, Stockholm). These funding structures are becoming increasingly the purveyors of taste and the decision-makers of what others should be seeing. They make decisions on contemporary ideas of “what is critical” and “what is international,” which very often have repercussions on class structure in countries around the world. Take, for example, the Middle East, which is a vast region that is currently an area of focus, both politically and in subsequent terms of cultural consumption. Here funding bodies attempt to make visible the culture of these countries that are deemed underprivileged. The number of western curators, or “pashmina cardigans” as they have come to be affectionately known, being herded around the Middle East on “cultural safaris” in order to absorb and disseminate the practices of this region is particularly striking at present, and sets precedents for the future of internationalist funding, that may or may not be handled sensitively.

        INTERNATIONALIST WORKING AND ITS DISASSOCIATION WITH THE CLASS ISSUE

        Take, for example, the (to some, unfortunately titled) Bush Global Initiative, which began at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, in 1999 and was funded by the Bush Foundation. It culminated in an institutional reevaluation to reposition the institution on the global stage. It also led to the exhibition ‘How Latitudes Become Forms: Art in a Global Age,’ which considered artistic production in numerous cultural capitals from around the world, forming, in some respects, a truly internationalist exhibition. Though the Walker should be applauded for looking beyond the age-old trans-Atlantic dialogue, the jury is still out on whether the initiative was in real terms a cultural safari of the highest order, thinking less about the regions that they are dealing with than about themselves. The class divide in a country such as Pakistan is vast, and, without wishing to overgeneralize, artists are predominantly of the upper classes. It is often a similar story around the world, from Mexico City to Mumbai, yet many of these places are scoured for artists because they are considered economically and even culturally underdeveloped places. Also, their diasporic communities in the West are underrepresented in the visual arts and mainly working class citizens. Artists who position themselves as being from many of these countries, such as Shirin Neshat or Yinka Shonibare, are also championed primarily to tick off the institutional boxes that represent a more inclusive and diverse outlook for western society, and also for educating the Caucasian masses about international cultures. Simple, but again inordinately generalized facts: most Pakistani people in a western country like Britain are working class, whereas the vast majority of Pakistani artists in Pakistan are upper class. The difference is never acknowledged.

        A MORE CLASS-REFLEXIVE STRUCTURE?

        This is by no means a new thesis, yet western funding bodies continue to utilize arts institutions to promote international art practices without consciousness of the fact that they are dealing with the upper and even ruling classes. This form of ideological patronage, often leading to national and regional representations that attempt to help those they deem underprivileged, can ultimately end up fueling class hierarchies around the world, and within western culture can even form a complex racialized envy in a multi-ethnic society. Class structure is a latent operative within visual art and is undoubtedly one of the major factors for broad focus on creative practice. But is often used to perpetuate itself by imposing a set of acceptable aesthetics for local and world viewing, and is far from class-reflexive in terms of promoting production. Study after study indicates that social mobility is at a standstill like never before, and due to this lack of class-reflexivity in the field of visual arts in the West, the middle classes continue to fortify their position as the cultural voice of the masses. So the questions arise as to how culture, at all its levels — funding, production, presentation and consumption — can become more class-reflexive? And how can the current ideas of internationalist working break from the ideological patronage that is guided by a certain class demographic?

        Nuclear Capabilities Aside

        The Trickle-Up Politics of Ahmadinejad

        6_180.jpg
        Along one of the numerous highways zigzagging through Tehran, a man hangs posters for Hashemi Rafsanjani, June 2005

        Ducking the election flyers thrust through my car window one evening, I found myself face to face with a shapely midriff. A teenage boy’s abdomen, undulating beneath a thin cotton t-shirt had been further tapered by campaign stickers for “Hashemi.” In last summer’s presidential election, several candidates pursuing the youth vote (two thirds of Iranians are under thirty) set out to capture Iran’s imagination by way of north Tehran’s designer teenagers. For police chief and Revolutionary Guard veteran Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, this meant sweeping his revolutionary credentials under the carpet and rebranding himself as a sharp-suited moderate in Ray Bans. For Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a cleric and the hot favorite for the presidency, it meant paying uptown kids to drive around town in their parents’ sports cars, swathed in his “Hashemi” stickers, playing German techno on their stereos.

        Just before the elections, the country erupted onto the streets after Iran’s footballers beat Bahrain 1-0 to reach the 2006 World Cup finals. That night I watched a blond siren dance on her car roof in front of a group of gyrating boys. Carried away by the euphoria of pre-election street festivities in a country where parties go on strictly behind closed doors, I and countless others were sure that Rafsanjani had it in the bag. The mood in Tehran had shifted tangibly, the youth were on the streets and the exuberance of those flag-waving football fans seemed certain to carry him and his promises of economic liberalization and continued social freedom to victory. My tip for second was Qalibaf. I’m not sure I could have told you what he stood for, but I was won over by his casual-cool wardrobe and his slick graphic design.

        I had no idea that a diminutive blacksmith’s son from Garmsar, whom commentators had written off as a right-wing oddball, would mobilize seventeen million Iranians to vote him into power — silencing the stereos. While allegations of vote rigging and coercion by the Revolutionary Guard hover over Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s passage through to the second round of voting, it’s hard to argue with the decisive sixty-two percent of the vote with which he trounced Rafsanjani, the Godfather of Iranian politics, in the run-off for the presidency.

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        On Iranzamin, a road northwest of Tehran, a young supporter of Hashemi Rafsanjani hands out flyers, June 2005

        With the luxury of hindsight, the wrap around sunglasses and long haired poster boys of the Rafsanjani campaign seem a miscalculation: the emphasis on the youth vote had been a red herring. Ultimately it was not the lop-sided demographic of Iran but another statistic that turned out to be the key to the election: high unemployment, fifty-two percent of which is that of youth.

        Rafsanjani tried to stir up hype around a kind of Ronald Reagan “trickle-down” model for wealth creation. Ahmadinejad’s supporters wore looser t-shirts and tighter headscarves and were unconvinced by Rafsanjani’s intentions to open Iran to the free market economy. Like the surprise win of India’s Congress Party in 2004 over the BJP’s India Shining campaign, Iranian voters chose a man who at least promised to look after the poor.

        Nationally broadcast campaign films became the wider arena for jostling between candidates. Rafsanjani asked filmmaker Kamal Tabrizi, fresh from the success of his film The Lizard, to produce two campaign videos. The Lizard is a comedy about a thief on the run who dresses up as a mullah, and Tabrizi was a brave choice for the cleric whose wealth is rumored in the mega millions. The films, however, were duds. Farcical depictions of the loneliness of power, Rafsanjani weeps on camera in one sequence, while a young girl talks about her disillusionment with Iranian politics. As contrived as the tears were, the films soon became a laughing stock.

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        Mahmoud Ahmadinejad walking to his local mosque to cast his vote in the second round of elections, July 2005

        Meanwhile Ahmadinejad chose his university contemporary, film maker Javad Shamaghdari, to make his election broadcasts. Director of Love and the Sun, an adulatory biopic of Ayatollah Khomeini, Shamaghdari was determined to make a film of which the Islamic Republic’s first Supreme Leader would have approved. His un-flashy and seemingly un-spun filmmaking struck a chord with the electorate. Unlike other candidates, Ahmadinejad didn’t bother with the catchphrases of “democracy” and “human rights.” For Hossein Kermani, a student and member of the Basij, Iran’s volunteer force whose block vote helped propel Ahmadinejad into the second round, these are “meaningless phrases imposed on Iran by the West.” Instead, Ahmadinejad’s film talked up “social justice” and his determination to serve “the people” before he hugged a distressed Azeri farmer with financial problems and promised, in the farmer’s own language, that he would sort things out.

        For Qalibaf, however, the “big mistake was to dress up like a commercial rather than a military pilot,” said Shamaghdari, whom I met in his office at the Society for Islamic Arts a month after the election. “People know he’s a pilot because he flew MiGs in the Iran-Iraq war, and it was a mistake to try and hide it.” Shamaghdari, in the meantime, played up Ahmadinejad’s credentials as a war veteran (he ran covert missions behind enemy lines during the eight year conflict). The scene in which he hugs a chador-clad mother who lost three sons to the war brought tears to the eyes of many, among them Basij veteran Hossein Mohammadi. Only sixteen when he was hit by Iraqi fire, Mohammadi lost both legs and a brother at the front and now maneuvers around Tehran in a wheelchair and a converted golden cadillac. He feels that with Ahmadinejad’s presidency, “Our time has come. Ahmadinejad will make our sacrifice count for something again.” Staring at his brother’s portrait on the wall, he tells me “Look at Tehran’s streets. They are full of lost kids in bad hijab doing drugs. Khatami called it freedom but I call it a prison of sin. Ahmadinejad has come to bring them home.”

        Mohammad and others describe Ahmadinejad’s victory as a second revolution, the only difference being that the ousted ringleader of a corrupt elite was wearing a clerical turban and not the Pahlavi crown.

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        Painting political banners for the campaign of Hashemi Rafsanjani, in one of the candidate’s campaign offices in Tehran, June 2005

        Shamaghdari’s film could not have been more explicit about Ahmadinejad’s attitude to conspicuous consumption. After a tour of Ahmadinejad’s simple house in the unfashionable district of Narmak, his camera took us, like voyeurs, through the empty halls of the mayoral mansion occupied by Ahmadinejad’s predecessor, but later donated by him to the city. As though entering the scene of a crime, we creep past the marble staircase and the chandeliers, through the French windows to the swimming pool and sauna. The horror of the material nature of it all!

        Shamaghdari compiled a rousing soundtrack for his film. He plucked tracks not only from Spygame (Iran has no copyright law) but also from Oliver Stone’s Alexander the Great: “Alexander put out the lights on the Achaemenid Empire’s party.” Ahmadinejad put an end to Rafsanjani’s.

        One campaign poster of Ahmadinejad announced his zero tolerance on corruption like a call to arms: a row of images showed a colonnaded villa, a high security wall and a flashy Mercedes Benz, while underneath them scrawny kids in a hatchback are sandwiched between a shack and a mud partition. Twenty-seven years after a revolution that was meant to close Iran’s social and economic divide, the poster mainlined the same bitterness as images from 1979. That year, photographer Kaveh Golestan plastered black and white photos of child workers and destitute orphans to the walls of Tehran’s University. He wanted to draw the world’s attention to what lurked behind the pipelines and glittering parties of the Shah’s oil aristocracy. Golestan’s photographs were put up a stone’s throw from what became Revolution Square, the epicenter of the uprising that sent the monarchists packing and ruined the Pahlavi party.

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        The supreme leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, addresses the crowd at the Imam Khomeini shrine in the south of Tehran on the sixteenth anniversary of the late leader’s death, June 2005

        Today, Shamaghdari’s office is two streets away from that square where he once marched as a student activist. His calm demeanor as he asks me to leave my shoes by the door belies the excitement he feels to be at the center of this “second revolution.”

        Iran’s eight years of progressively freer social codes are over and Ahmadinejad is now busy implementing his particular vision for Iran. Nuclear capabilities aside, he has sent the presidential carpets to the National Museum, moved the receptions for visiting dignitaries from the Saadabad Palace in the north of the city to offices in mid Tehran, and arranged for arrests of oil executives on charges of corruption. A young bearded man in an Islamic Republic souvenir shop sold me his last poster of Iran’s new president because “Ahmadinejad wants the paper to be used for school books instead.” He was excited to be part of a movement “that will bring justice and jobs to the people of Iran.” The message, like the films, appears so straightforward.

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        An electoral meeting held in a crowded stadium in Tehran by Mostafa Moin, the primary reformist candidate running, June 2005

        Heavy on words like “justice” and “equality” and much lighter on detailed plans to tackle inflation and create jobs, Ahmadinejad’s campaign, however, left plenty of room for speculation as to what the future holds. Along with much of the world, the upper echelons of Iranian society are less enthused by new developments. Nervous of Ahmadinejad’s seemingly antagonistic approach to relations with the West and worried by the specter of wealth redistribution, my better heeled acquaintances are relieving the tension with jokes about their new president’s personal habits. The election has certainly touched up the paint on old battle lines, and whether you laugh at the punch lines or glower at the insult depends on which side of Iran’s enduring social divide you stand. Ali, a student at Azad University, spent his twenty-first birthday in the company of the Basij after they broke up his party and arrested him and his friends. “They hate everything about us,” he says about Basij vigilantes whose nighttime terrorizing tendencies have stepped up noticeably since Ahmadinejad’s victory. “They don’t want what we have, but they can’t bear for us to have it.”

        Envy and Luck

        The bliss of ignorance

        “Jealousy we understood and thought natural—a desire to have what somebody else had; but envy was a strange, new feeling for us. And all the time we knew that Maureen Peal was not the Enemy and not worthy of such intense hatred. The thing to fear was the thing that made her beautiful and not us.”
        Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye

        BEYOND CLASS ENVY: PITY THE IRANIAN

        This “thing” that made Maureen so beautiful in Morrison’s novel and quite unlike Pecola is the same thing which cuts two those born in South Tehran and others born in, say, Zurich: concurrent lives, yet unequivocally separate. On the one hand is a life assured to be more or less comfortable. On the other is a life that is increasingly precarious, a life marked by strenuous exertion, and yielding little similar to the relative bliss of that of contemporaries in Switzerland.

        BEYOND CLASS ENVY: PITY THE ATHEIST

        According to the Laurent Gaude novel The Sun of Scorta, a person’s sole task in life is to toil, and toil becomes precisely that which we bequeath to those who follow. This seems a rather atheistic or even pagan approach — at least inasmuch as Umberto Eco distinguishes between an atheist and a believer in his Cinq Questions de la Morale. According to Eco, the atheist is markedly less lucky than the believer, for he is without access to contrition and bound to live under the growing weight of his deeds. And if we were to extend our contemplation of the matter to include Paul Ricoeur’s definition of good and evil, we would conclude that evil is but the unavoidable by-product of good deeds. Evil is the collateral damage — to use a topical expression — of good deeds, like the killing of innocent civilians in times of war. The atheist is condemned to accumulate this collateral damage and live under its mounting weight.

        BEYOND CLASS ENVY: PITY THE ISRAELI

        In following such a train of thought, “belief ” becomes crucial if one is to escape a mounting sense of guilt. One believes that the needs and interests of his wife take precedence over those of the neighbor’s wife, that his children are the best, not the kids around the corner. And when defending his country against strangers, invaders and ambiguous “others” he is but practicing his belief of belonging, and in so doing is able to relieve himself of that inevitable collateral damage — of the evils that chaperone his belief. The damage incurred becomes tolerable, redeemable. Is it then unwarranted for us to say that in certain situations, an acquiescence towards evil marks our actions: Is this not the case of a citizen living in a nation led by imperialist interests, such as Israel or today’s America? Is this not the putative justification of all that cruelty unleashed against the Palestinians? Is this not precisely the practice of making the other responsible for the evil that must come with every good, of sending evil to the other side of ethnic, religious and geographic borders?

        WHICH IS MORE PITIFUL: THE IRANIAN OR THE ISRAELI?

        What makes a Palestinian or an Iranian look so feverishly upon a Swiss or Dutch citizen is not jealously, as Toni Morrison implies. Nor is it a sense of plenitude and self-righteousness, so typical of imperial subjects. Rather it is envy. It is an envy which paradoxically does not incite or energize but rather inspires lethargy and fatalism. Yet such envy makes the envious knowledgeable about the envied: envy requires knowing, and knowing well, while the envied basks in the bliss of ignorance toward the true nature of the collateral damage incurred. George W. Bush knows little of those who envy him, but they know much of him. Furthermore, knowledge begets envy and spurs it. And so the Iranian will grow increasingly envious and deeply vindictive as he learns of the ignorant bliss of others. Surely enough, luck lands only where it is not awaited. Its prerequisite is that we be as inadvertent as the Swiss and quite unlike an Iranian who is constantly aware of how distant luck is and how close envy can be.

        THE CASE OF IRAQ

        Although ignorance is enviable, one is often caught in a cauldron of contradictory emotions as one witnesses the absolute ignorance of those who pompously espouse the independence of Iraq. To think that Al Zarqawi has the ability to defeat the United States is to question whether he understands the meaning of victory: there is no victory in sending Iraq to the era of Taliban-Afghanistan. Such victory would mean nothing but rendering Iraq unlivable. In such a “victory,” little room would be left for envy or jealousy. The Iraqis would become absolutely ignorant, divorced from any knowledge of the outside. In such a victory, Al Zarqawi and bin Laden promise an ignorance that exceeds the ignorance that motivated Bush to invade Iraq in the first place (his belief that the idyllic image of America is prevalent among Iraqis and is a cause for envy). Perhaps what Bush needed to gain complete victory was for the Iraqis to have simply known that America is America and that Iraq is Iraq. Or perhaps there is ignorance on both sides. Perhaps we should once again mention luck—our bad luck of living on the battle line between two warring factions moved solely by ignorance and with hearts too vacuous to harbor envy. Further, it would be best if we no longer wished for jealousy.

        THE CASE OF PAMELA ANDERSON

        It is possible to envy Bush for his ignorance as we could do the same with Pamela Anderson for her luck. Envy has geographical, natural and ethnic ramifications too numerous to list. What is deeply painful about this whole matter are the many reasons that make us envious rather than envied, and surrounded all the while with ignorance on all sides. I could possibly envy Bush, but I cannot envy Osama bin Laden. Perhaps luck will come my way once again so that I may feel pity for the latter.

        California McDreaming

        Fast food in Tehran

        In the early 1980s, at the peak of Iran’s war-stricken, coupon-dependent economy, there were still some people with more than enough in their pockets to move outside the country’s borders — where long lines didn’t form next to grocery stores and siren calls didn’t go off at regular intervals. At that time the internet still lay in the distant future and the number of available television channels did not exceed two. We had nothing better to do than sit in the candlelight of missile attacks launched by “Saddam the heathen” and listen to Iranians living abroad who told us of places where there were no wars. Blessed were those living in the West, the land of milk and honey. Of course, these visitors were often encouraged by our seemingly endless thirst for information, and embellished their tales accordingly to satisfy our appetites. We may have known that they were exaggerating, but we savored the accounts nonetheless.

        Somehow, the experience of eating out was always a part of these conversations. We heard of pretty young girls standing behind clean counters with eager smiles, taking orders, ready with the goods before customers were through placing them. Their restaurants served Coca-Cola—the original, which was unquestionably better than our own local sodas — and crispy French fries, which wouldn’t remain lodged in your throat the way ours did. We dreamed of McDonald’s and “fast food” while sitting in our paltry local sandwich shops waiting for the owner to prepare the requisite rubber sandwich wrapped in oil-stained wax paper.

        In the early 1990s, when the breeze of Reform was yet to hit the country, a big billboard with a double arch appeared on Tehran’s Africa Street. News traveled swiftly that a restaurant-owner of Iranian origin living in Spain had decided to open a branch of the biggest chain in the world in Tehran. There was such a commotion on the opening night — people were salivating at the thought of a Big Mac — that the police had to interfere. If only they knew that this was in fact McDonald’s faux-style.

        The hunger for fast food was only to increase. A few months after the Africa Street episode, the more prosperous northern part of town saw the opening of several more McLook-alikes. “Nader” was one these. We made sure to go to the barbershop and put on our best clothes before standing in long lines that reeked of perfume and cologne. Seeing the spotlessly uniformed staff was a novelty, as was the visually stimulating menu. We paid two times as much for the same meal elsewhere, but we were happy.

        Iranian fast food from this point on became a favorite of visiting relatives, the sons and daughters of exiles, who came back in increasing numbers. They were so impressed by the Iranian version of burgers and chicken sandwiches that we thought they chewed on the equivalent of old shoes in their McDonald’s. After a slew of these gastronomical tours we started remembering the stories that we had heard during the War, not without some irk. “Weren’t the Burger Kings and McDonald’s that your parents spoke of dreamy places only found in fairy tales?” we asked them eventually. Our cousins explained that fast food “over there” was quite common, that what found its way into the stomach was nothing more than an easily digestible ball of cholesterol void of any nutrient, and that burgers and nuggets looked alike and tasted the same everywhere. Hearing these accounts was never pleasing to us. We wanted our fairy tales back.

        Then came the era of fast food franchises. “Boof ” was first with its iconic owl emblem, “Venus Burger” next with its television ads, “Super Star” with its playground, “Apache” with its controversial name, “Barun” with its claim of healthyness and “Heeva” with its tagline, “Mother’s milk is your child’s best food.”

        Today, our palates are familiar with the taste of foods that, in the absence of our own ghormeh-sabzi, take little time to order and eat. When we get out of our offices, we step into the brightness of these mushrooming restaurants routinely, unimpressed by what was once a culinary novelty. Things have changed, and even the son of our local sandwich shop owner now covets the cult of fast food. His restaurant is mottled with neon lights and a slick menu. Somehow, we miss the sandwiches that his father’s grimy hands once prepared. 

        How Can You Listen to Those Bastards?

        Conversations with a Marxist publisher in Tehran

        Bidoun: In the history of European thought, envy has been disregarded as something ugly and despicable. Do Iranian high cultural traditions concur with this opinion?

        Mahrokh Mosta’ari: I’m not an authority on European thought, but in the case of Iran, yes, it’s been regarded as an emotion that is low, unworthy and revolting, even demonic. Whether you look at theology, spiritual doctrine, classical literature and poetry, or the long traditions of practical and theoretical moralism, envy is considered a deeply and intrinsically negative force. Look at Sheikh Farided in Atar Neyshabouri, or Emam Mohamad Qazali, or Allameh Majlesi. Even Khomeini mentions envy in his book Sahefeye Noor (World of Light), where he defines it as a deeply repulsive sentiment.

        On the other hand, we have to say that competition was never considered problematic around here. Even as far as official government is concerned, competition with the West is something quite necessary. We need to prove that anything they can do, we can do better. We need to disprove any notions of racial inferiority by proving our worth to the world.

        Bidoun: Can envy mean anything different in Marxist thought?

        MM: Again, if it’s competition you’re talking about, then of course. Contradiction and competition are the very engines of world history. Envy, however, is a problematic concept to use historically. For it actually implies that you’re wishing for your rival’s demise, rather than for your own well-being. I don’t like it much as a term.

        Bidoun: In this issue of our magazine, we argue that it’s unfair to pathologize envy but worship wealth and power.

        MM: True, but that’s a contradiction that is not quite as pronounced in Iran. Here, being wealthy is frowned upon. For thousands of years now, our cultural values have been those of modesty and humility. If you have a swanky car, you don’t flaunt it; you hide it. I agree that is changing rapidly, but we still have a heritage of centuries and centuries of being urged to pity the greedy, not envy them.

        Bidoun: Someone coined the term “missile envy” with respect to Iran. To be fair, wouldn’t you say that if you want have a sovereign, independent state in the region, you need to be able to threaten your adversaries with credibility?

        MM: Your question has a political bias with which I deeply disagree. It’s an old-fashioned, fossilized way of phrasing things, a political cliché you encounter everywhere from Lenin to Franz Fanon to Nasser. Independent from what, and from whom? What’s the rational use of this kind of sovereignty? Isn’t Indian nuclear power another new form of dependence, of colonialism? Look at the collapse of the Soviet Union. The arms race is a trap we must avoid. Propaganda machineries the world over are telling us we must arm ourselves to avert disaster. How can you listen to those bastards? According to official figures in the news, the nuclear program has cost us $22 billion already. In the meantime, we have 14,000 street kids in Tehran alone, five million junkies in the country, and some ten million citizens under the poverty line. Those are the official figures; other estimates count twice as many Iranians living in poverty.

        Bidoun: With respect to the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, would you say there is such a thing as invasion envy at work in Iran?

        MM: No, not envy. On the contrary; in Iran, you sense that most people are relieved that Afghanis and Iraqis are developing a democracy. They wish them well. After all, it’s in our own interest that such developments bear fruit. What more can an Iranian intellectual ask for?

        Remaking Hair in Georgia

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        Ketevan Maisaya by Elene Dumbaze

        Anna and Lisa are identical twins; one is an art student, the other is studying to be a journalist. With friends they have started to re-make — frame by frame — the 1970’s cult American musical “Hair.” Here, they discuss hippiedom and the new free love in the post-Soviet Republic of Georgia with Bidoun.

        Bidoun: Why did you choose this particular film? Do you sense that it’s relevant to cultural changes taking place in Georgia?

        Anna: We had all watched the film numerous times from childhood on; for some reason it was always on television. Growing up, I had always loved it, but didn’t realize what it meant or symbolized. To me, these people were just having a really good time. Then two years ago it was on television again, and I realized how amazing it was that people lived like that, that their life didn’t solely revolve around going to university and then coming home. The next day my friends and I found a tape of the movie somewhere and watched it together over and over. It started to feel as if it was our experience, as if these people were our friends — it became our thing. You have to understand that here, there is nothing for kids our age to do but get married or get high.

        Lisa: Then a friend, Ketevan, who studies in Paris, bought a book of the movie’s lyrics and dialogues, and we started memorizing it. The idea of a remake came about spontaneously. Most of us go to the Academy of Fine Arts and decided to fool around — get all our grandmother’s clothes out, put makeup on, lip-sync, and shoot. Then one of us started to learn an editing program. Although we work hard and are totally dedicated, the project is still informal .

        Bidoun: A film production company offered to fund, distribute, and promote your project. Why did you refuse the help?

        L: Because it’s not about any of that. It’s about having fun, about making the film the way that those characters live, about using whatever money we have in our pockets the day we shoot and not having anyone tell us what to do. Also, they assumed it was a parody, and offered to collaborate on a series of remakes. But our project is not a parody — we love Hair.

        Bidoun: How many are you?

        L: There are four or five main players, but about twenty or twentyfive people ended up being seduced by the project. They mostly heard about the shooting days and showed up in torn jeans, messy hair and so on because they knew they could get away with it on the shoot. When we first started the project, the number one question was whether any boys would get involved. Because most boys have so many complexes and are so restrained, we never thought we would find any who would be willing to dance around in wigs and think about the notion of freedom. But surprisingly we found a few boys who didn’t want to spend their lives playing with guns, showing off weird knife tricks, and looking for a fight.

        Bidoun: The remake seems to have created a space where no rules apply and there are no repercussions. People can come to the shoot, go crazy, and go home safely. It makes me think of S&M clubs in the West.

        A: Yes. Our parents and their friends have heard about the movie and like the idea of it — for some reason—so it’s less of a stigma.

        L: The sole reason we do this stuff is to have a good time. There is nothing to do around here. Go to a café, have a coffee, smoke a cigarette — it’s so boring. We don’t go to clubs because I always feel tense that someone is going to offend someone and start a fight. We barely leave the house unless there is something really important going on, like a birthday or a funeral. We save our energy for the shoots and the summer rock festival.

        Bidoun: Why don’t you go all the way and live like the hippies did back then?

        A: Well, probably because we are not really as free as they were, and the time is completely different. Also, Georgians have so much ingrained respect for family. Once, as I watched Hair for the tenth time, I caught myself thinking, “Okay, it’s awesome that they wander around aimlessly all day, but don’t they want to go home and sit down for a minute? Go have tea with their grandmother?” We are all so busy with our lives. We don’t have much free time. They were protesting; what do we have to protest? We only want to say that we have no way to have a good time, and that’s why we do it: to be young and have fun. We have such a great laugh making our costumes, scouting locations, taking photographs, and discussing the results from the shoots.

        L: Our goal is to make a tape of the finished version and distribute it all around the city, so that the very people that ridicule us can see how much fun we were having while they spent their time being cool or acting like gangsters.

        Bidoun: During and after Perestroika, Hollywood gangster films such as Scarface or The Godfather were considered iconic in Georgia. These movies emblematized chaotic times in a way that Georgian youth really related to. It made sense for them to romanticize violence, wear black, make money illegally, and produce more violence. Now, instead of gelled hair and shiny black leather shoes, I see kids in colors and beads and Converse sneakers. It seems like what was going on in the West in the 1960s or the ’70s is happening here now, but in a much less radical manner. We don’t hold quite the same opinions of sexual liberation and drugs.

        A: No, we are all for free love, but more in theory than in practice. As for drug use, you have to understand that drugs in our context mean heroin or subotex. And for us, it’s the lamest thing for a person to do. So, no, drugs don’t hold any prestige with us. It’s the other values, of love and friendship and comradeship, that attract us.

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        Anna Zizishvili and a friend by Nino Zizishvili

        Spoiled by the Promise of Brilliance

        American universities in the Arab world

        6_003.jpg
        Photo courtesy AUS

        … Thirteen years since I first entered this place and I always till now still feel the absolute sharp divide between the outside and the inside every single time I walk in and out…

        —Hassan Khan, 17 and in AUC (extract)

        In the desert beyond Sharjah’s scrappy industrial sprawl lies the emirate’s eight-year-old University City. The American University sits at the top of a long, speed-bumped avenue of neat lawns, flanked by the lesser mortals of the higher education system — the police college, the women’s college, the arts college and so on. A kind of anytime, everywhere architecture, the imposing domed buildings sport myriad references cherry-picked from European, Middle Eastern and American classical traditions. In addition to the guards at the gate, who quiz me on my appointments and check my driver’s license, the only people who appear to occupy this Sim City are municipal gardeners, dressed in bright yellow jumpsuits, who are busy tweaking the sprinklers and manicuring the sections of grass.

        Inside AUS’s courtyards, small groups of students scurry from one block to another, or gather around laptops, as if models in a promotional architectural program. Starbucks is rammed with the latte-sipping elite of the Arab world, Iran and Islamic Africa; in contrast the tiered Architecture and Design floors are reassuringly messy and industrious.

        Entry to the Architecture and Design program is highly competitive: only twenty to thirty students graduate with a Bachelors in Architecture each year. The teaching is exceptionally intensive, and not every student makes it through the rigorous requirements. Most students live on campus and pay about $15,000–20,000 per year. Kevin Mitchell, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs in the School of Architecture and Design, notes that undergraduate commitment is generally exemplary; he currently has alumni studying at MIT, Harvard and Columbia.

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        Photo courtesy AUS

        For lecturers in the Arts and Humanities, the biggest hurdle is not students’ lack of drawing skills (given the paucity of arts courses in the local high schools), but instilling a “landscape of independent thinking.” One senior lecturer notes that at an earlier time, when students went from UAE universities to American graduate schools, it was “too late” to counteract the factual learning of the local education system with the golden ideals of breath, depth and critical thinking.

        Peruse the CVs of any of the UAE’s top Arab business and governmental VIPs, and most will have attended a US university. They are perhaps evidence that the strong economy in Dubai, in particular, does encourage a return on its intellectual capital. The Middle East’s other major American universities in Beirut and Cairo help feed the Gulf’s rising brain gain, in particular its preference for western-educated Arabs; and the vast, active network of American University of Beirut (AUB) Alumni Associations in the US indicate that Lebanon has trouble hanging on to its “American” graduates.

        The great export of American education began with AUB, founded under a charter from the State of New York in 1866. (As the Khalijees have risen from the dust, it’s struggled to retain its cliched status as the Harvard of the Middle East.) Its campus, however, partly rebuilt since the Civil War, retains that leafy, Ivy League aura of modish internationalism.

        AUS is affiliated with the American University in Washington (AUW), and achieved the holy grail of full US accreditation (from Middle States, one of the main regional accrediting bodies) in 2004, around the same time as AUB. The AUW website describes AUS as “engaged in the experiment of growing an American-style institution in the soil of a traditional Islamic society.” Waxing lyrical about the KFC opposite the campus mosque, it’s the kind of hearts and minds stuff that nervous State Department officials presumably visualize to help them sleep at night.

        As befits its place in the slickest of Arab capitals, attendees of the American University in Dubai, a branch campus of the American InterContinental University, Atlanta, are perhaps most akin to the Hollywood students in the film Clueless. The European ideal of the penniless intellectual is an anomaly here: the car park is a shiny homage to Lexus and BMW; engines chug as drivers wait to pick up their charges come the end of class.

        Beyond Hard Rock Cafe and Starbucks, and the curricula and top staff, it’s hard to define what exactly makes these institutions American; after all, the AUS campus plays host to over 75 nationalities. Mitchell speaks of the need to engender constant debate about the university, its location and aims. Bidoun contributors who attended American schools and universities in the 1970s and early ‘80s look back wistfully on the days when McDonald’s was a symbol of unattainable chic, but today’s widespread Americana renders this consumer dream meaningless.

        What’s changed in the past few years are the numbers of those who eschew a foreign education-with the requisite post-9/11 finger-printing and other immigration hassles-for a foreign education at home. In addition, more women are able to persuade their families of the values of further education. (Two thirds of students in the AUS Architecture and Design program are women.) Meanwhile, as private education has internationalized, teams of American university evaluators have begun traveling abroad.

        The pressures on the likes of the American University in Cairo, built in 1919, come more from within, particularly from the country’s rapid population growth. In the next few years, the university is set to move to a vast, new, out-of-town campus.

        In 2003, artist Hassan Khan, as part of a performance, video and book project titled 17 and in AUC, sat in a sound-proofed, one-way mirrored glass room in an old apartment every evening for two weeks, drinking, smoking and reminiscing about his undergraduate days in the early 1990s. His intimate monologue, later screened in video documentary form at his old university, critiques the institution that is both at the center of and yet wholly separate from Cairene life, and that, as Khan muses, is defined locally by both resentment and aspiration.

        Describing himself as “spoiled by the promise of brilliance,” Khan expresses the universal crux of the intellectual Left, demonstrating against the elite while being of the elite. He speaks of “our super-contemporary urban privileged lifestyle,” which is influenced by “number one, the English language, and number two, American mass pop culture.” For Khan, students then and today are more defined by their class and privilege than their blurry relationship with a political notion of America. Even today’s AUC radicals, the Islamists, says Khan, appear to have little truck with their educational provider.

        In some ways, the debates are reminiscent of those around the expansion of the World Trade Organization and US Free Trade Agreements in the Gulf. Western lefties, having absorbed all that footage from Seattle and Genoa, know that, fundamentally, the US-dominated Big Brother is a Bad Thing. But these cozy opinions aren’t shared by the (unofficial) spokesmen for South Asian laborers, who have embraced the idea of better-defined labor laws based on international standards, a condition the trade master would impose on Gulf rulers as part of its package.

        Mindful of the value of service economy-oriented identities, both Qatar and Dubai are currently vying for the education card. Qatar’s educational ambitions are well established; the state is investing in cherry picking programs from the likes of Weill-Cornell Medical School, Texas A & M University and Virginia Commonwealth.

        In the UAE, Dubai has launched Knowledge Village, Educational City and Harvard Medical School in Healthcare City, while US accreditation is being sought by the UAE for Zayed University, and, over the years (according to the Chronicle of Higher Education) the entire “public” education system. Of course, educators note that it’s a long shot but — to borrow a term usually applied to racism — their aim can be seen as a kind of institutional fetishism.

        Presumably those well-rested State Department officials join lecturers in wondering how this new, larger generation of Western-educated graduates, emerging from their gated educational utopia, will impact on the traditional way of doing things in the Gulf.

        The topic of accreditation is a current favorite along US educators, given the growing numbers of wannabe universities, especially from the Middle East; contributions to journals range from the enthusiastic to those that identify the growing trend as “academic neo-colonialism.” Some agreement on the quality of the (regional) independent American accreditation system exists; it relies on peer review, and universities like AUS operate on a non-profit-making basis. And the words of the US-based critics seem a far cry from the fervor of students in the Gulf for their gleaming facilities and “liberal education.”

        He Who Eats Alone Chokes

        The global mythology of the evil eye

        Envy is as old as desire, and belief in the evil eye has probably been around just as long. Also called the “envious eye,” the old British term for the evil eye is “overlooking” suggesting that to admire an object of desire overlong, is to do it harm. In Hebrew it is called ayin ha’ra, in Italian mal occhio and in Spanish simply el ojo (the eye). While the notion of the evil eye is prereligious, it is sanctified by the monotheistic religions, with some mention of it in the three holy books. A verse in the Qur’an is an explicit appeal to God for protection [113:1-5]: “I seek refuge in the Lord of daybreak… From the evils of the envious when they envy.” In contemporary Egypt, belief in the envious eye cuts across classes. Somewhere at the busy crossroads of culture and religion, this vestigial belief in magic continues to enjoy a broad currency.

        If mind over matter is the mantra of the empirical, then spirit over matter is that of the irrational or spiritual, depending where you fall on the belief spectrum. Some perceive the air as dense with stray spirits, and believe the spirit world to be the invisible double of the apparent world. Within this worldview, there are those considered more receptive to negative energies, and euphemistically referred to as possessing eineen midawarra, or round eyes. In most cases, these unfortunates transmit the evil eye unwittingly, and are not regarded as bad people per se.

        “Only something supernatural can express the supernatural,” pronounces Wittgenstein. And in much the same way, these maladies of the spirit are not diagnosed by men of science. A medicinal antidote won’t do for this otherworldly poison, so only those versed in these arcane arts may prescribe a remedy to undo or avert evileye contamination.

        Children, perhaps unsurprisingly, are considered most susceptible to the evil eye, with the least developed immune systems to fend off such harmful energies. To protect kids, voodoo-like paper dolls may be repeatedly pierced and burnt, with the ashes smeared all over the bewildered child, or newborns may be given unattractive nicknames, and declared ugly, to deflect the evil eye. Likewise, baby boys — the coveted sex — maybe dressed as girls for the first two years of their lives. (Which helps explain why my conservative grandfather, from macho Upper Egypt, had both his ears pierced).

        But, it’s not just children who are at risk. Any good fortune: wealth, good health, relations with family and loved ones, or even a boon such as a new possession, is not safe. Which is why if you compliment someone about their new shoes, they will reflexively offer them to you. Or if you should happen to pass someone enjoying a quiet meal they will automatically ask you to join them, since according to a proverb: He who eats alone, chokes (Elly yakoll liwahdoo yizwar).

        Greater good fortune, like getting a promotion, getting married or passing an exam requires greater sacrifices at the altar of the ubiquitous evil eye. Depending on your budget, that could mean anything from slaughtering a calf and sharing it with the poor, to throwing a lavish party for well-off but less fortunate friends, or distributing free sweets and cold drinks to your neighbors.

        As a precautionary measure, for example, beautiful girls and/or healthy boys will periodically be blessed, with chants and incense, by the elders of their families. The definition of good fortune even extends to being in a good mood; so that if someone forgets themselves long enough for a good laugh, they hastily mutter: May everything turn out all right, God-willing (Kheir Allaho maga’aloo kheir).

        Another strategy is simply to play down your good fortune. So that say, if someone asks you how you’re doing, you might sigh and suggest you’re just scraping by when in fact things are going quite well. According to another proverb, complaining is one way of avoiding the unwanted attentions of the envious: “a complaint is preferable to 100 blessings [against the evil eye]” (Shakwah bi meet ra’wah). By the same token, if you’re expecting something, or embarking on a new endeavor — travel, business, romance — one is advised to keep quiet, or “cover your candle if you wish for it to light.” (Another injunction against the evil winds of “overlooking.”)

        On a daily basis, most of the 16 million Cairenes are exposed to a fantasy version of a city they cannot participate in, through provocative society pages in glossy magazines or popular youth films flaunting a privileged lifestyle. Given these circumstances — the appalling gulf between those who have too much and those who don’t have enough — it’s a miracle there isn’t more rancor.

        What remains is a paradox: a people downplaying their good fortune (to shield it from envy) out of one side of their mouth and noisily thankful out of the other side for what little they do possess, lest they seem ungrateful. And they will remind you, no matter how pitiable their situation, that God created us of different stations in order to better serve one another. Or, in the shrewd wording of yet another proverb: He who looks up, tires. The result is a people disproportionately afraid of envy and yet, to an astonishing degree, remarkably free of it.

        A Persia More French

        Paul Poiret: Orientalist bon vivant and inventor of mass haute couture

        Almost a century since Paul Poiret’s ascent as one of haute couture’s founding fathers, the fashion world has suddenly gone Poiret-mad again, as evidenced by the last couple of seasons. Spring 2006 was dominated by the P-word (New York Times fashion critic Cathryn Horn recognized the “Oriental robes of the Paris couturier Paul Poiret” in Caroline Herrera’s collection; style.com’s Sarah Mower tsk-tsked Roksanda Ilincic’s “Poiret-esque” flourishes by way of last year’s Lanvin; and style.com’s Nicole Phelps claimed that “many designers have focused on the surface treatments of designer Paul Poiret” and Anna Sui “opted to concentrate on his uncorseted, loosened-up silhouettes and lovely, painterly prints”). The fruit of Eastern-tinged Edwardian romanticism is just about overripe with the season’s high-art-meets-boho experimentalism — so much so that you can already smell minimal uptight-chic cutting into its excesses. It’s a fitting transition in keeping with the annals of early fashion history; the same tide turned on the tens and teens when in the twenties a young socialite by the name of Coco Chanel invited steely conservative realism to rain on the vibrant parade of Paul Poiret’s career-spanning homage to the individual and its landscape of Otherness.

        The Poiret formula is tricky: one part French aristocracy, one part bohemian avant-garde; one part whimsical and unacceptable, the other part premeditated and institutional; another part old baroque and another part modern; another part haughtily Western and transgressively Oriental. There were the famous lampshade skirts (wired lampshade skeletons that hung from the waist) and the “hobble” skirts (narrow fitted skirts that drew the legs closely together through a “fetter” belt in order to create a hobble effect). An advocate of the bra over the corset, he was known for saying he had “freed the breasts and shackled the leg,” as the hobble skirts forced the wearer to take Geisha girl-like tiny steps. This would prove to be just the tip of the Oriental iceberg as Eastern ethnic motifs and silhouettes abounded in his work; Poiret was known for his turbans, jeweled and beaded tunics, harem pants and “Minaret dresses.” The Poiret look was a pantomime of a region’s folkloric characters from the shameless view of an almost infantile outsider — it created a race in itself, like Persian drag in a Parisian rinse.

        Both more complicated and innocent than racist, Poiret’s purely aesthetic Orientalism was the romantic artist’s impossible answer to global chaos in a prewar era where problematic ideologies were cooking all around Europe. His look, of course, could not last in that world; Poiret’s reign was one of the most short-lived stints of influence that any legendary innovator could claim.

        Flash to the France of La Belle Époque. The indulgent spirit of pre-World War I Paris meant that art movements and personal aesthetic ideals were carved out of a rich minority’s lofty visions. Poiret worked at the House of Worth — haute couture father Charles Frederick Worthington’s business — before leaving in 1903 to branch off from too-traditional craftsmanship. He wanted more than his own line; he wanted a fashion empire. He wanted to work in theater costume design and launch a perfume line (Les Parfums de Rosine made him the first designer to venture into the olfactory arena). He wanted to be a patron of the arts, keeping company with the artists whose work he purchased — in his case, Matisse, Modigliani, Picabia and Picasso. “I began to receive artists and to create around me a movement,” he wrote, an explanation that developed into his famous statement, “I am an artist, not a dressmaker.” By 1913, even the New York Times agreed: “If he had not been a dressmaker, he would have been an artist. Oh, he is original, this many-sided artist. He travels, like a comet in an orbit all his own.”

        Not only did he run a nightclub and then a theater in his own garden, he also held famous parties there. Much of the modern cat-walk spectacle was born out of the stage he erected in his couture house, upon which he insisted models “act out” his clothes for guests.

        Rather than his imagination shaping his parties, it was one of his early parties that ended up influencing his artistic vision. For not until his most famous gala in summer 1911 did Poiret fully embark on his life’s most consuming and damning obsession: the Orient.

        Orientalism was in the air and Poiret was one of the first in the fashion world to catch the bug wholeheartedly. Of course it was rooted in the wrong things; Europe’s idea of the Orient was largely shaped by fear and misunderstanding of the Ottoman Empire’s threat. And that fear — like the very terror generated by our current War on Terror rhetoric — yielded to subversive fascination. Largely inspired by Leon Bakst’s set and costume design in the Ballets Russes productions, Poiret and much of Paris were particularly spellbound by a Middle East of folklore and fantasy, an airbrushed and technicolored version of their much-maligned Asian neighbors.

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        On the night of June 24, 1911, Poiret outed his Eastern obsession with a bang, inviting three hundred guests to what he dubbed “The Thousand and Second Night” costume party. Presented on stationery decorated with Persian miniatures, the rules of attendance were simple but strict: dress in “Oriental” theme or else be refused entry, unless of course one was game to strip down at the door and sport the Persian-style clothes Poiret had designed “according to authentic documents.” Poiret himself played Nebuchadnezzar in full sultan’s garb, flanked by a group of his models as concubines in the “tradition of Islam.” Modeling in golden cages, they unveiled his harem trousers, which while perfect as party wear, caused a stir the morning after.

        The harem trousers were instantly a scandal. Known as “jupesculotte” (“jupes” in modern French meaning “skirt,” derived from the Arabic “jubba” meaning “loose outer garment”; “culotte” meaning “trousers”) the ballooned trousers were tied at the ankles and mostly covered by a smock, resembling the recent tween favorite, gaucho pants. They shockingly blurred gender roles by putting women in pants. They also blurred class distinction in their reference to the garb of slave women. And of course, there was the racial blur — white women imitating brown?! Only Poiret’s crowd, the high-art aristocracy, embraced it blindly. Critics admired it cautiously — it was a wearable art, sure, but certainly it could not be worn in public.

        How could Poiret justify the scandal? He chose to mask controversial fetish with class discourse: “In our democratic times, when everything is measured according to the banality of the masses, women would not dare put it on out of fear for what people might say. However, we wouldn’t dream of adapting it to ordinary usage. [Women] wear my outfits in the context of their aristocratic homes. These are residences of such an artistic cachet, so individual, so far above the crowd, that my clothes seem to complete the harmony in them.” Art was always the excuse for Poiret. If his public did not get his clothes, it was because they were common; if critics were appalled by his harem dress, it was because they weren’t uppity enough to reside in domestic galleries that simply demanded such sartorial drama. Elitism padded his iconoclasm.

        By 1913, Poiret’s “Minaret dresses,” inspired by his costumes for Jacques Richepin’s popular Paris production of Le Minaret, were out of the private parties of the wealthy and on the streets — even in the States, with Macy’s creating a “Moorish Palace” on the eighth floor of its store. While the play’s directors tried to protect it from nationalist critics by insisting it was of “a Persia [that is] more French,” full of “Persian costumes for the Parisian imagination,” Poiret remained unshaken. “The sun rises from the East each day and it is in the East that all artistic revolutions are born,” read his reproduced handwritten inscription on Wanamaker’s invitations to their Le Minaret display.

        But Poiret’s Orientalist fervor was simply seen as anti-French as World War I grew closer. Critics began to openly condemn his work as alien, Other, German, Russian, Eastern — everything but what it should be, purely French — and women’s tastes began to shift toward the prudent. Poiret did what he could to refute these charges by westernizing future collections, but it was too late. More condemning than adopting the Orient was the dangerous crime of mixing races. In his world, classicism was intertwined with Orientalism, couture with costume, male with female, high with low. Gallic purity had not just been challenged; it had been intoxicated.

        Furthermore, Orientalist fervor — suffering from being uneducated, foundationless, fiction-fueled and escapist — was caving in on itself in general. Edward Said, in Orientalism, declared that much of Orientalism’s downfall lay in its dissociation with the real world: “I consider Orientalism’s failure to have been a human as much as an intellectual one, for in having to take up a position of irreducible opposition to a region of the world it considered alien to its own, Orientalism failed to identify with human experience, failed also to see it as human experience.” Fantasies of Otherness had become wearying for a France moving toward survivalist self-absorption and identity reinforcement. Humoring the wandering eye of artists was fruitless when the artists, after all, weren’t even Orientalizing properly. They were so aesthetically-driven that Poiret and his Orientalist-lite colleagues were barely conscious of the aspects of Orientalism that would have appealed to Western leadership of the time — much of the racial-superiority discourse and imperialist bloodlust that was to ignite another major world war. Instead they chose to be deliriously enamored of the mere glossy surface of the Orient. Orientalist art became at most a pretty Impressionistic blur when a people craved the photograph; cold hard true reality triumphed over intoxicating, mind-clouding, sybaritic theatrics.

        So the curtains came down abruptly: in 1914 Poiret joined the military and closed his house until 1918. But as the twenties approached, he was never able to dress to the tastes of postwar women. Poiret’s investors bought the house, and became Paul Poiret Inc. He was eventually forced to declare bankruptcy in 1929. For the next fifteen years of his life he lived in poverty and obscurity, no one really bothering to remember the man who had once dressed Isadora Duncan and Sarah Bernhardt, who had Man Ray as a photographic assistant and Erte as a design employee. Everything he had helmed overshadowed him hopelessly in the jolted postwar climes of fashion’s anti-revolution.

        Perhaps Poiret’s greatest achievement to date sadly came half a century after his death. Just as designers began to leap a century back and critics began Poiret-purring, last year a 600-piece collection of his designs, dating from 1905 to 1928, was discovered in the home of his granddaughter. In April 2005, Francoise Auguet, an antique clothes dealer, held an incredibly well-attended auction that reaped £1.2 million. Paris was more shocked than old Poiret would have been.

        After all, the Paris world for many decades (and counting) engendered the single name that can be tagged to Poiret’s demise: Coco Chanel. His rival effortlessly took over his position by seizing the spirit of the political climate. Chanel’s signature “little black dress” projected images of standardization and practical utility — clothes for the sporty, cigarette-smoking, bob-haired, new twenties woman. The conformity, reproduction, simplicity and pure French chic that Chanel channeled was made for the culture of the time. Poiret biographers reluctantly recount his perhaps most tragic moment, when he met the young Coco Chanel and made a stab at her black dresses by snapping, “Who are you mourning for?” Her triumphant retort rang out like a gunshot: “For you, dear Monsieur.”

        Land of the Seven Scarves

        The Kuchi, Afghanistan’s nomads

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        Out of a dust squall in the parched, defeated land, a ribbon of Technicolor crests the desert hills. You’ll see these images all over the Afghan landscape — in crevices of the jagged mountains, on switch-back mountain roads, in the Kandahari desert caves. They may be clans on the move, with camels and goats and sheep and babies. Or just a gang of girls, in dazzling dresses of purple, yellow and red, speckled with sequins and mirrors to guarantee that the sun’s rays and all of us passers-by in our modern transportation won’t miss the spectacle, won’t forget the Kuchis (the Dari word for nomads). The Kuchis are Pashtuns, the dominant tribe in Afghanistan, and though most of them are settled now, once upon a time they were almost all nomads, among them the Afghan royal family.

        Whenever I see the Kuchis, they conjure a fantasy of unlimited freedom: no borders, no boundaries, no bonds. And what I envy about them most is that they seem to have banished the essential problem of road life — loneliness — with their collective nomadicity. Intimations of winter, time to move? Take down the tents, pack the tambourines, fold up the dresses, waistcoats, grab the goatskin sacks of water and milk. Tie it all on the camels and go. And everyone goes. It’s easy of course to romanticize the Kuchis, everyone does it. Even they romanticize their way of life as they see themselves becoming more like pariahs and refugees than proud herders and traders.

        A few years ago, I was wandering in the mountains south of Kabul with a former Taliban commander when a shepherd dog nearly assaulted us. He was guarding a Kuchi family tucked into a craggy Mordor-like outcropping. A white-bearded willow of a man waved us down. “Come for tea, yogurt; we’ll kill a sheep, spend the night,” he said. We sat under their patchwork tarp to share some tea with rancid milk, as he showed us a suppurating wound on his scrawny leg. It was self-inflicted. He’d burnt his flesh to deaden the nerves and appease his rheumatism. Even the former Talib winced.

        The Kuchis are like the Gypsies — bottom rung. Despite their enchanting aura, no one wants them on their land, because their sheep and goats devour crops. And here there’s been drought for so many years. This family had just been kicked off the Hazara highlands nearby. They’d grazed those pastures on and off since the nineteenth century. This time around, the banishment was as much about revenge as land. The Hazara — an ethnic group descended from the Mongols and mostly Shias — see in the Kuchis an enemy Pashtun tribe who collaborated with the Taliban. The Taliban, who were Sunnis, massacred thousands of Hazaras in the late 1990s. Now it was payback time, and the Hazaras had reclaimed the Kuchis’ grazing land. The commander I was with wrote a note to the doctor to admit the old man into the local clinic, while his wife stared at me. She was beautiful if worn, with green tattoos on her chin and forehead, silver saucers in her ears, bangles up and down her arms, and a dusty red and green velvet dress. She had seven sons and six daughters, one of whom was tubercular and hiding in the tent. She prattled on, her green eyes hypnotizing. I asked a friend what she was saying. “Alas, I don’t have any heavy artillery, or I could have killed all those motherfucker Hazara and grazed my sheep there.”

        Envy is a tricky chemical. At its best it can inspire competition and be appeased by visionary creation like an extraordinary symphony. Or, it can be appeased by murder. Recently I returned to Afghanistan during the parliamentary and provincial elections. Ten parliamentary seats were reserved for the Kuchis, out of acknowledgment that they make up a sort of mobile province. But they were bitter that they’d have no representation on any provincial council. Their lives seemed to have deteriorated in even three years. I went to visit them in the deserts west of Ghazni city, the old seat of the Ghaznavid empire, where the shrines of poets and Sufis still attract the penitent and desperate and the bazaar still boasts the most supple and aromatic almonds. Ghazni was a Taliban holdout, and I couldn’t help laughing as I watched two grim-faced Talibs conversing at a juice stand shaded by a flimsy banner painted with half-naked Barbie dolls.

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        One of the Kuchi candidates, Gul Mohammad, had set up his campaign office in a hotel room overlooking a garbage dump. He is a rare Kuchi. He’s educated. He’s a poet. And, more important, he was a professor of literature at Kabul University until the communists threw him out during the 1979 revolution, sending him back to a nomad’s life. After the Taliban fell his fortunes rose again and he was appointed head of education for Ghazni, but not for long. The new, young, pinstripe-suited governor told me he preferred an elegant young woman in place of “that rough primitive looking guy” (Gul Mohammad does have the gnarled-if-handsome Talib look about him). Never mind that she was unqualified; she had the new order look about her. The governor was himself a not so distant descendant of the Kuchis. But most of the settled Kuchis now look upon their mobile clansmen with a haughty disdain similar to that with which the Iranians look upon the Afghans.

        Gul Mohammad is angry with everyone, but he salves his temper with a poet’s fatalistic gaze. He compares the Kuchis’ talents to a beautiful desert flower that lives and dies, unseen and unrecorded. “Kuchis have the worst life in the world,” he told me rising on his knees, still sitting cross-legged. And in one long tirade he tried to extinguish my foolish envy. “We still have the primitive life of a thousand years ago, moving from one home to another. We have dusty faces, and if you ask about our lives, they will say, ‘Don’t ask. I’m moving, always moving.’ People would say the deminers are coming. Not Kuchis. Because either it was us, the Kuchis, or the livestock, that were killed by the landmines.” Then he said, “You know, Kuchis have lost so much confidence that even if someone said, ‘Paradise is in your palm,’ we wouldn’t trust them.”

        His clan and their fellow travelers were sprawled on a swath of desert, and by early afternoon I could see that signature ribbon of Technicolor resolve into a band of girls balancing on their heads yellow jerry cans of water hauled from thirty kilometers away. They were laughing despite the ordeal. And it is a rough life out here. Take Gul Mohammad’s cousin, a widow now hiding out in a grungy room in the city. Five years ago a boy took out her son’s teeth and never apologized. Finally her son retaliated and punched out his attacker’s teeth. Now they’re in seclusion lest a blood feud ensue. “All fights are usually about jealousy. Someone getting ahead of someone else,” said one Kuchi. Cousinly covetousness is so common that there’s a well-known Pashtu proverb that my old friend Sami, a poet and former Taliban, loves to repeat. “Your cousin is good for fighting another tribe; your brother is good for fighting your cousin, and your son is good for fighting your brother.” Sami has four daughters and no sons and often says, ruefully, “When I die, all my assets will go to my enemies.” Which enemies? “My cousins.” In Pashtu, the word tarbur means “cousin,” but it also describes a state of rivalrous envy. Another kind of envy is siyali, which conveys a kind of insistence on keeping up with the Mohamedzais. A woman goes to a wedding and sees a cousin in a particularly beautiful and expensive dress. Because of siyali, she hounds her husband, casting doubt on his manliness, honor and Afghaniyyat until he buys her a more expensive dress. Siyali also explains why each glass-sided office tower in Shahr-i-Nawin Kabul is at least as high as the one built before it. And why Ashraf Ramazan was murdered in Mazar-i-Sharif — his luxury hotel was larger than Ustad Moham-mad Atta’s, the local warlord.

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        The Kuchi home is a goat’s wool tarp. Everything happens under there — stories, sex, fights, food. I sat under one to talk to Gul Ba, a big-boned widow and mother of nine. Everyone was chattering at once, saying that before all the wars and drought decimated their livestock and families, they migrated each season without fear of enemies or landmines. Families earned a hefty price for girls — sometimes the equivalent of $15,000, or hundreds of sheep or goats. Gul Ba said that she was happy then. “I was young,” she said.

        Now their children have to work in the bazaar washing animals’ hair for a dollar a day. When I asked Gul Ba if she wanted to send her children to school, she unexpectedly shouted, “Why should I? When the government doesn’t consider us as dogs. Has Karzai given me a water well? Or a cemetery to pray for our dead?” A communal cemetery is an archive, a physical memory, and the Kuchis long for it. Now, they bury their dead while on the move, usually forgetting where. Gul Mohammad spoke for many Kuchis when he said, “Don’t settle us. The government should give us money to buy animals, do husbandry, graze, and stay as real Kuchis.”

        At night, Gul Ba tells the children long stories to make them forget their hunger. With a little coaxing, she began to narrate the love story of Momen Khan and Sharino — children of two kings bequeathed to one other at birth. The sun was dropping fast. The winds were picking up. The mistress of the tent was scraping up old charcoal in a USA cement sack and the small fire was painting another layer of blackness on the teapot as Gul Ba told us her tale.

        By the time Momen Khan came of age, his father had died. He was ready to pay a dowry with his father’s gold until his mother mocked him with the fatal words: “How easy it is for the son to spend the gold his father has earned.” Honor wounded, off galloped Momen Khan to make his fortune in Hindustan. He arrived in a kingdom plagued by a dragon who was only sated with a daily meal of human flesh. That day the king’s daughter was slotted for dragon fodder. Momen Khan saved Sharino by slaying the dragon. The elated king offered him his daughter. That’s where the story’s lesson about Pashtu honor was slipped into the children’s ears. “No,” said Momen Khan. “I rescued her because she’d become my sister. It would be a big shame for a woman to be killed while a Pashtun man stayed alive.” So the king offered to share his kingdom. But Momen Khan was obsessed with the news brought from his homeland by an Iago-like man — Sharino was in the arms of many men. He galloped home that night and went straight to sleeping Sharino. He pulled off each of her seven scarves and touched her chest. Sharino awoke. “Thief, thief,” she cried. Her brother stabbed the intruder.

        “Light the lamp,” shouted Sharino. “My pillow is full of blood.” When her brother saw Momen Khan dead, he stabbed himself. “Make another grave, for I want to go with Momen Khan,” said Sharino before killing herself. Momen Khan’s mother buried her son on a hill so she could make pilgrimages to see him. Gul Ba slowed down to recite the last line of the poem. How the mother glowered at Momen Khan’s horse and said, “May all your bones break and your body be cut in pieces. How dare you bring my son from India in the middle of the night?”

        We were silent. The sounds of a wedding party tambourine in the hills drifted our way. But still we sat, as if entranced by the power of Othello-like jealousy to kill all. I began to think that it wasn’t the kings and their concubines who needed these tales; it was the rest of us.

        Yesterday’s Utopia

        Learning from extra large-scale modernism

        “Modernism’s alchemistic promise—to transform quantity into quality through abstraction and repetition—has been a failure, a hoax: magic that didn’t work. Its ideas, aesthetics, strategies are finished. Together, all attempts to make a new beginning have only discredited the idea of a new beginning. A collective same in the wake of this fiasco has left a massive crater in our understanding of modernity and modernization.” Rem Koolhaas S,M,L,XL, 1995

        What has become of experiments in modernist housing? That utopian project was inspired by the radiant city of towers, highways and green spaces but instead produced giant block housing projects whose morphologies, according to the usual criticism, destroyed street life by walling off neighborhoods and locking inhabitants in the sky. These huge public experiments transformed the landscape, redefined urban experience and forced a new social organization.

        The alchemy, as Koolhaas put it, of the materialization of a perfect urbanism may have failed, but another urbanism has arisen in its place. Giant carcasses survive — legacies of abandoned theories — and communities mutate into unexpected forms as daily life within these sites presses on. A perversion of scale is the typical attack directed toward extra large-scale modernist developments, but there is nothing inherently wrong with really really big. Problems arise from a lack of diversity and differentiation within the projects and from their isolation from existing urban fabrics. Because modernist architecture did not yield to its surroundings — to the social and cultural contexts in which it was placed — societies coped by growing around developments like a scar, becoming neither skin nor wound.

        Then there are moments when the tensions mount to a break-point, as in the weeks of rioting across France that began in late October. The one-way integration policy that protected the sacrosanct culture of France by resisting the culture of its immigrants has exacerbated isolation within the country’s suburban ethnic ghettos. A now famous observation of François Mitterrand’s from 1990 lays the blame on architecture: “What can a young person hope for who is born in a soulless neighborhood, lives in an ugly building, surrounded by other ugliness, gray walls on a gray landscape for a gray life, while all around him there is a society that prefers to look away and only intervenes when it has to get angry and forbid things?” Beneath this seemingly sympathetic attitude lurks a denial of responsibility. These same “soulless neighborhoods” were the utopian projects of the 1960s — their slip into wasteland was not some accident of ill-conceived planning but rather the product of neglect and racial inequality.

        After a distressing silence following the first weeks of rioting, lame duck president Jacques Chirac came forward with a cautious admission of fault. While still maintaining a focus on clamping the violence by granting emergency powers (a euphemism for the suspension of the civil rights of non-white French), Chirac sited the ubiquitous discrimination as one of the factors leading to what he called France’s “crisis of identity.” Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, on the other hand, clearly denied any government accountability and ignored the charge that he was in part responsible for the riot’s escalation by slinging such nasty epithets such as “scum” and “gangrene.” In the same statement, Chirac made promises of reform, yet we shall see if these will translate into real solutions or if Sarkozy’s (and more importantly, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s) rhetoric will provoke a backlash that escalates France’s xenophobia. In any case, the rehabilitation of France’s housing projects will surely come to the table.

        In the following series of articles, Bidoun assesses the state of XL scale modernism in the Middle East. First came Le Corbusier’s Plan Obus for Algiers, an unrealized urban plan to overlay a massive modern infrastructure on the city and establish it as a world capital, thereby ensuring colonial dominance. The plan, Le Corbusier’s most ambitious, demonstrated his new interest in forms inspired by encounters with other cultures. Next we look at Medinet Nasr, a development zone on the edge of Cairo gripped by modernist sprawl, and the communities that have emerged there despite deep infrastructural flaws. Contrasting Medinet Nasr is the mega-scale housing development of Ekbatan in the center of Tehran, which has dealt with its isolation by moving toward self-sufficiency. Finally, leaving the modernist epoch but following the tangent of discrete housing communities within an urban context, we discuss the self-imposed isolation of gated communities in Istanbul. In some ways, these communities are a reaction to the failed idealism of modernism; they intend to blot out urban experience in favor of a leisure

        Le Corbusier’s Algerian Fantasy

        Blocking the Casbah

        6_115.jpg
        The 1933 rendering of Plan Obus for Algiers demonstrates Le Corbusier’s superimposition of modern forms: the long arching roadway that includes housing — his viaduct city — connecting central Algiers to its suburbs and the curvilinear complex of housing in the heights that accesses the waterfront business district via an elevated highway bypassing the Casbah.

        By the time Le Corbusier trained his sights on the development of Algiers, he had already begun to turn away from his machine-age ideology, in part due to a general disillusionment with technology in the face of the market crash of 1929 and the rise of Fascism and Nazism (all frightful by-products of a collective faith in progress). He began searching for new forms of inspiration beyond the stylistic echo chamber that Modernism had become, looking to nature, vernacular architecture and women for inspiration. While mining these spaces of difference, his impulses and thinking shifted away from angular brutalism toward the more plastic and poetic forms of his later work.

        Le Corbusier came to Algiers almost by chance. On the occasion of the centennial celebration of French rule in 1931, a new city plan was unveiled by Henri Prost and the French colonial government. Le Corbusier deeply disapproved, and saw it as an opportunity wasted; he wanted to offer the French colony a bold plan that would raise Algiers to the level of an international city. He argued his case to the colonial government by relying on the anti-capitalist flavor of the month, “Syndicalism,” which intended to structure political power around regional industry. He declared that because colonization was over (the startling, naive general opinion of the time), Algiers was destined to become the world capital of Africa, and thus complete his fantasy of a diamond of Mediterranean centers including Barcelona, Marseille and Rome. Without any formal commission or invitation, he took it upon himself to design and submit his own sweeping scheme, called the Plan Obus.

        The project became a personal crusade for Le Corbusier and kept him busy for eleven years, though nothing resulted from his obsessive efforts. While it impacted the discourse of architecture, no part of Plan Obus was ever built in Algiers. Its legacy is intellectual, marked by an encounter with difference in the search for new forms — yet another Western drama played out with appropriated images of the other.

        The Plan Obus consisted of three main elements: a new business district on the Cape of Algiers (at the tip of the Casbah) at a site slated for demolition, a residential area in the heights accessible by a bridge spanning over the Casbah, and, finally, the ultimate expression of his “roadtown,” an elevated highway arcing between suburban cities and containing fourteen residential levels beneath it. These levels were raw space that Le Corbusier believed would fill in “little by little” with homes for the working class that would accommodate as many as 180,000 people. His vision of this new Casbah took the layered domestic spaces of the medina and stacked them as if sweeping up a scattered deck of cards. Obus, which means shell, is often taken to refer to the spiraling form of the plan, but could also reference its infrastructural “shell,” within which homes would be constructed. The plan was a modernist megastructure to be laid directly over the Casbah, with its elevated highway and bridges allowing high-speed travel over the prohibitively narrow and complex streets below.

        If built, Plan Obus would have been one of the largest and most ambitious modernist projects ever — an inspiring sight of monument and beauty — and likely one of its greatest failures. Clearly disaster loomed in the project’s disregard for Algerian social and religious traditions, the segregation of the workers and the European communities, and of course the abrupt change in the spatial arrangement brought on by its brutal scale. What is most interesting about Plan Obus now is not imagining these problems, but contemplating the extreme disconnect between Le Corbusier’s solution for Algiers and the romantic harmony, sensuality and poetry of the exoticized other upon which he drew.

        He was, for example, very enthusiastic about discrete examples of vernacular architecture. In his writings, he passionately declared his appreciation for individual houses: “O inspiring image! Arabs, are there no peoples but you who dwell in coolness and quiet, in the enchantment of proportions and the savor of a humane architecture?” Le Corbusier contrasted such vernacular manifestations with the European city in which “‘civilized’ people are holed up like rats.” He also celebrated the “Arabs” because they ignored the street and cultivated the private garden courtyards that delighted him.

        Yet when Le Corbusier referred to Algiers at large, he was less compassionate. In his typically self-aggrandizing form he presented his plan: “Here is the new Algiers. Instead of the leprous sore which had sullied the gulf and the slopes of the Sael, here stands architecture… architecture is the masterly, correct, and magnificent play of shapes in the light.” At the urban scale he is no longer enchanted by the Arabs; he is taken with himself and the fantastic syntheses he proposed. Within his rational, formal organization, he envisioned inserting his beloved pre-industrial, oneand two-story homes, complete with gardens flourishing on each of the levels under the highway.

        Women provided another powerful source of inspiration. Le Corbusier’s intense encounter with Josephine Baker (“the most erotic woman he had ever known”) in 1929 precipitated the introduction of nude, mythic woman in his painting. While in Algiers, he was taken by the beauty of two girls and returned to Paris with a notebook full of nude studies of them and several racy postcards of “native” women. As his encounter with Baker unlocked his sense of Rio, it has been suggested that the elegant curves of the Plan Obus, previously uncharacteristic in his work, derived from the fleshy forms of Algerian girls.

        Plan Obus was conceived as a collision of the idealized dwelling, mythic feminine and romantic landscape offset by modern technology in the service of colonial needs. Le Corbusier’s encounter with Algiers was turning point for his practice that shook his faith in the power of modern architecture to activate large-scale social reform. It also deepened his longing for a poetic primitivism, a desire to escape the industrial world that was quickly heading toward World War II. It was during the war, in 1942, that Le Corbusier was forced to finally abandon his plans for Algiers, which was clearly for the best. Twelve years later the Algerian revolution exploded out of the Casbah and by its end in 1962, European colonialists had fled to France.

        Medinet Nasr

        Unresolved amnesia, self-imagining and the marginal center

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        Nasr City, Abbas Al Aqad Street. The neighborhood’s monotony is softened by the collage of shops at street level. Photo by Osama Dawod

        Nasr (Victory) City, or Medinet Nasr, is one of Cairo’s earliest “satellite cities,” a government-sponsored urban development that originally covered 6,300 feddans (6,539 acres) of desert land along the airport road between Abbasiyya and Heliopolis. In its early stages, Medinet Nasr represented the new Nasserist government’s approach to remedying Cairo’s booming population and infrastructural growing pains. Today, Medinet Nasr figures as a predecessor to Cairo’s “planned cities,” the likes of which continue to come into being in simultaneously jerky and grandiose gestures at the margins of the ever-greater Cairo. Originally designed to serve as a government center away from Cairo’s central business district, Medinet Nasr has developed an infinitely unresolved, yet distinct identity. This identity straddles Cairo’s recent history in a way that seems to define a particular Cairene present and foretell the future of an ever more state-sized metropolis.

        Medinet Nasr’s rapidly expanding concrete rings trace a particular history of Cairo’s socio-economic and political climate, its uneven droughts and periods of growth. The city’s 1956 urban development master plan channeled direct government involvement into the proposed settlement program. What preceded the development was a non-site (declared retroactively) to the east of Heliopolis, one of Cairo’s chic residential neighborhoods, and claimed for development under that suspiciously useful label of “vacant land.” The quarter’s development began in the 1960s and had already outgrown its original blueprints by 1971, when boundaries were extended to incorporate an additional 14,000 feddans (15,162 acres).1 It continues to expand today with the addition of neighborhoods to the east.

        Medinet Nasr’s unapologetic modernist sprawl seems to insist on the physicality of history, especially the history of a reclaimed and self-determined Egypt that followed the 1952 revolution and the renegotiation of those concepts in following decades. Original housing was constructed by public companies, building and housing cooperatives made low-interest loans readily available, and the area was rapidly settled. The expanding ranks of nationalist-era civil servants and government employees constituted a majority of the area’s first residents. Medinet Nasr became home to a flurry of new ministries and important government institutions such as the National Planning Institute and the Central Agency for Mobilization and Statistics. A newly installed metro line was intended to ensure access to the rest of Cairo.

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        A typical apartment building within Nasr City’s modernist sprawl, photo by Osama Dawod 

        Shifting dynamics in the international oil market catalyzed the area’s growth. A boom in oil revenues from the early seventies until the late eighties led to an influx of wealth into Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, dramatically changing the region’s economic situation and spurring major development initiatives and widespread investment there. At the same time, more and more people flooded into Cairo from the countryside, as increasingly subdivided agricultural land became less and less sustainable. Many Egyptian men joined the multitudes of foreigners flocking to the oil rich region to work in all sectors and at all economic levels. Their imported income supported a parallel boom in Medinet Nasr real estate and lent the area a particularly Gulf architectural influence and an association with new money.

        Most of the area’s current residents live in lowand high-rise modernist style uniform apartment blocks. Individual balconies jut out from every apartment, breaking building facades into three-dimensional, public/private, outdoor/indoor constructions. An almost uniform grayish brown color coats the cement and stuccoed landscape. These are not suburban, one-family, post-World War II cookie-cutter homes that suggest a creepy alienation in superficial homogeneity, nor are they self-contained residence villages with surreal theme park names now popping up on the outskirts of Cairo. While there is a certain anonymity in their size and repetition, the apartment buildings also exhibit the intimacy of shared living space, an intimacy echoed throughout the rest of the central city, one of the densest areas in the world.

        While no clear center exists, main thoroughfares informally divide the area into smaller quarters, with centralized areas of commercial activity serving localized communities. These neighborhoods are lined by the major and minor roadways that compose Medinet Nasr’s automobile-oriented grid, and some of Cairo’s longest streets are located here. This layout contrasts with many of Cairo’s older road systems, built in a variety of non-orthogonal patterns, including the intricate and convoluted streets of medieval Cairo, as well as the French-style main streets extending from radial axes that characterize downtown Cairo and nearby Heliopolis.

        Although Medinet Nasr’s layout is designed to facilitate car commutes, traveling to other areas of Greater Cairo can be challenging. As in many other parts of the city, traffic jams routinely snarl the main thoroughfares leading in and out of Medinet Nasr. The congestion is compounded by the unevolved state of the area’s metro line, which appears to have been neglected since it first rolled down the tracks in the direction of Heliopolis some forty years ago (although plans for new fourth and fifth lines are ostensibly underway). Residents also face infrastructural woes such as water shortages and rampant illegal building (shared by Cairo’s so-called new cities), as well as more established but underserved city quarters, which differentiate it from older and more established neighboring areas and put into question its status as a “planned city.” This is an urban center without a core but with a redoubtable internal framework, substantial boundaries marking it off from older areas of the city, and an evolving eastern frontier.

        A significant number of commercial centers have sprung up and provide some form of an answer to the problematics of the area’s diffused residential sprawl, lack of a distinct center and tricky access to neighboring districts. The city’s reputation as a consumer center is buoyed by its dynamic youth culture, government designation as a public free zone (a taxand duty-free business district established to encourage investment) and the spending power of the area’s wealthier classes. City Stars, one of the Middle East’s biggest shopping centers, opened under a year ago in the vicinity of a safely “historic” Medinet Nasr quarter on the edge of Heliopolis. Teeba Mall, Geneena Mall, El Akad Mall, El Serag Mall and Wonderland Mall serve distinct constituencies.

        The draw of these shopping centers extends beyond the often boutique-y goods and accessories they offer. They represent socially validated public spaces and shared interiors within Medinet Nasr’s horizontally diffuse topography. The malls, with their panoptic layout, provide points of congregation where open-ended interaction between groups who rarely mix (such as high-school aged boys and girls) can occur.

        Distinct from the rank and file gray apartments above, the first and second floors of the buildings that line the landmark Abbas Al Aqad Street are transformed into store exteriors of kitschy, shiny glass, ersatz glamour and bright lights. The shopping strip’s often fantastic and somewhat disorienting mixed architectural styles seem to indicate the possibility of an unreality within the otherwise banal apartment building. The physical framework of Medinet Nasr’s consumer activity thus supports escapism-voyeurism and the distraction of exchange-based value between groups and individuals-that simultaneously reinforces and subverts conventional architectures of social relations.

        Here is a touch of life on the frontier of consumption: a half-empty cafe called The Cowboy on a semi-lit street; groups of young men circling the stairs of a mall; a foreign school educated graduate and subsequent dropout with an on-call dealer and pedigreed dog; hierarchies of prostitution played out along main shopping streets and private apartments; heavy metal fans arrested in a mid-’90s government crackdown on alleged Satanists; groups of window shoppers and windows of bright clothes; a collapsed multi-story building and ensuing public outcry; couples at fast food restaurants; strange abstract fountain sculpture; families on balconies; thirty-year old trees and a packed metro car with missing doors.

        1 Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, 1985. “Cairo: 1800-2000 Planning for the Capital City in the Context of Egypt’s History and Development.” In The Expanding Metropolis: Coping with the Urban Growth of Cairo. Ahmet Evin, ed. Singapore: Concept Media/The Aga Khan Award for Architecture

        Super Center

        Life in Tehran’s largest housing development

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        Views of Ekbatan, Tehran, Iran. Photo by Hossein Altafi

        Built during the late 1970s as part of the Shah’s push toward western-style modernization, Ekbatan is a massive community, one of the largest of its kind in the Middle East, sprawling through the center of Tehran. The complex of housing, shops, services and park-like interstitial space cuts an imposing five hundred-acre swath across the westernmost expanse of the city center. It comprises a group of buildings that take the same basic template and stack them into towering and stepped configurations, with relentlessly repeated ribbons of concrete and glass wrapping each building in the 15,500 unit super-complex. Ekbatan was intended to bring a new standard of living, but was never celebrated; just before the buildings were completed, the Islamic Revolution started and brought with it a prescribed nostalgia for the near-rootless “traditions” of “true Islam” and a related opposition to forced modernization imposed from above. And as time passed Ekbatan took on the look — as many extra-large scale modernist housing projects have — of a dystopic prop, a stage for the critique of the contemporary world more than an ideal for living through it.

        Yet the conditioned allergy to the totality, anonymity and crushing scale of modernist planning belies an envy of its sweeping vision. Already disillusioned by the inadequacies and failures of postmodern architecture, we harbor an almost illicit satisfaction for the successes of its predecessors. In his essay from 1976 on the Bijimermeer housing project in Amsterdam (a complex that he calls a “socialist Las Vegas”), Rem Koolhaas characterized this phenomenon as “the father threatening the son” in the perpetual Oedipal cycle of architectural discourse.

        Still, Ekbatan is often perceived as a perversion of urbanism, a ghettoized scar marked by an isolation that breeds crime and delinquency, although it seems immune to standard attacks leveled at other housing projects. What one finds within is a largely functioning community that appreciates its lifestyle, one not riddled with the social and economic strife associated with the human warehouses of Paris or Chicago. Ekbatan may be traumatic architecturally, but its test-tube urbanism proves to be functional within the context of Tehran. This is a result of its positioning in the city, the completeness of the community and its difference from the other housing projects that are being hastily built to accommodate Tehran’s population explosion.

        supercenter2.jpg
        Photo by Solmaz Shahbazi

        The divide between north and south Tehran is significant. The north was the focus of the Shah’s attempt at cosmopolification, with tree-lined sprawling boulevards and one eye to the west, while the south is a working class neighborhood characterized by dense and polluted streets. Not surprisingly, there are resentments and tensions between these regions. Ekbatan was placed precisely on the very axis that divides them and is therefore not part of either. In addition to the mediation resulting from this symbolic suspension, Ekbatan collects within its vast complex housing over seventy thousand people, a range of residents with different cultural beliefs and lifestyles, and throws them all together. The towers are certainly striated, housing all the different strata of the Tehran middle class from civil servants to academics to artists to entrepreneurs. Yet Ekbatan itself becomes the unifying factor, even among different ideological camps, defusing prejudice or at least fostering a space where prejudices are less likely to be expressed. Unless, of course, you are not actually from Ekbatan — as a teenage outsider, you could find yourself in a spot of trouble. And even as an adult, you’ll be confronted with defensive, knee-jerk reactions defending Ekbatan to the end.

        This sense of community is reinforced by the fact that, to a certain degree, Ekbatan is its own self-sufficient neighborhood, providing the same conveniences that are offered by the city. Parks, malls, gyms, doctors, schools, friends, family-everything can be found right within its imposing bounds. For many, there is not much need or desire to step out into Tehran proper. Some even suggest that the city is a burden on Ekbatan, one young woman going so far as to say that everyone would be better off if the project was in the middle of a beautiful jungle — a far cry from the attitudes toward disastrous housing projects that were and are being constructed at smaller scales but with lower standards and in undesirable neighborhoods.

        Of course there are drawbacks of mega-scale modernism, a practice that eradicates difference and culturally-specific accommodations. There are no longer small courtyards for families to gather for tea, and one sees modernist comedies such as coming home to the wrong building because they all look the same and witnessing your neighbors’ most private moments through the floor to ceiling windows. But communities adapt, traditions survive, choices expand and, perhaps in the end, size really doesn’t matter. It’s the way you use it.

        Yet the conditioned allergy to the totality, anonymity and crushing scale of modernist planning belies an envy of its sweeping vision. Already disillusioned by the inadequacies and failures of postmodern architecture, we harbor an almost illicit satisfaction for the successes of its predecessors. In his essay from 1976 on the Bijimermeer housing project in Amsterdam (a complex that he calls a “socialist Las Vegas”), Rem Koolhaas characterized this phenomenon as “the father threatening the son” in the perpetual Oedipal cycle of architectural discourse.

        supercenter3.jpg
        Photo by Solmaz Shahbazi

        Still, Ekbatan is often perceived as a perversion of urbanism, a ghettoized scar marked by an isolation that breeds crime and delinquency, although it seems immune to standard attacks leveled at other housing projects. What one finds within is a largely functioning community that appreciates its lifestyle, one not riddled with the social and economic strife associated with the human warehouses of Paris or Chicago. Ekbatan may be traumatic architecturally, but its test-tube urbanism proves to be functional within the context of Tehran. This is a result of its positioning in the city, the completeness of the community and its difference from the other housing projects that are being hastily built to accommodate Tehran’s population explosion.

        The divide between north and south Tehran is significant. The north was the focus of the Shah’s attempt at cosmopolification, with tree-lined sprawling boulevards and one eye to the west, while the south is a working class neighborhood characterized by dense and polluted streets. Not surprisingly, there are resentments and tensions between these regions. Ekbatan was placed precisely on the very axis that divides them and is therefore not part of either. In addition to the mediation resulting from this symbolic suspension, Ekbatan collects within its vast complex housing over seventy thousand people, a range of residents with different cultural beliefs and lifestyles, and throws them all together. The towers are certainly striated, housing all the different strata of the Tehran middle class from civil servants to academics to artists to entrepreneurs. Yet Ekbatan itself becomes the unifying factor, even among different ideological camps, defusing prejudice or at least fostering a space where prejudices are less likely to be expressed. Unless, of course, you are not actually from Ekbatan — as a teenage outsider, you could find yourself in a spot of trouble. And even as an adult, you’ll be confronted with defensive, knee-jerk reactions defending Ekbatan to the end.

        This sense of community is reinforced by the fact that, to a certain degree, Ekbatan is its own self-sufficient neighborhood, providing the same conveniences that are offered by the city. Parks, malls, gyms, doctors, schools, friends, family-everything can be found right within its imposing bounds. For many, there is not much need or desire to step out into Tehran proper. Some even suggest that the city is a burden on Ekbatan, one young woman going so far as to say that everyone would be better off if the project was in the middle of a beautiful jungle — a far cry from the attitudes toward disastrous housing projects that were and are being constructed at smaller scales but with lower standards and in undesirable neighborhoods.

        Of course there are drawbacks of mega-scale modernism, a practice that eradicates difference and culturally-specific accommodations. There are no longer small courtyards for families to gather for tea, and one sees modernist comedies such as coming home to the wrong building because they all look the same and witnessing your neighbors’ most private moments through the floor to ceiling windows. But communities adapt, traditions survive, choices expand and, perhaps in the end, size really doesn’t matter. It’s the way you use it.

        City and Citizenship

        Istanbul’s gated communities

        6_014.jpg
        Istanbul’s Ata-ehir is a contemporary high-rise gated community

        According to urban myths surrounding Istanbul’s Tophane district, murder and robbery are common, walking around in the evening is unsafe, and prostitution and drugs are rampant. This neighborhood, where I happen to live, is an area of the city near the main cosmopolitan cultural centers of Taksim and Galata; its residents are primarily Gypsies, Arabs from Anatolia and Kurds. Tophane represents the “Other” in the urban conscious of Istanbul’s residents; it is both uncanny and dangerous, a place to which urban clichés and notions of insecurity are readily attached.

        In The Architectural Uncanny, Anthony Vidler discusses the connection between “urban memory” and the city. He writes, “In the traditional city, antique, medieval or Renaissance, urban memory was easy enough to define; it was that image of the city that enabled the citizen to identify with its past and present as a political, cultural and social entity; it was neither the “reality” of the city nor a purely imaginary …the city might be recognized as “home,” as something not foreign, and as constituting a moral and protected environment for actual daily life.”1 Vidler goes on to offer a crucial point on the notion of what he terms the “uncanny” in global cities. As a result of ethnic and social diversity and accompanying segregation in global cities, he argues, it is difficult to create a collective urban memory with which citizens can identify. As a result, obscure identifications with place lead to urban discourses based on fear, safety and insecurity. Urban ghettos, peripheries of city centers, gated communities and other urban areas whose inhabitants have diverse cultural, economical and social backgrounds are mythologized via such discourses even if they are not entirely based on fact.

        6_171.jpg

        Over the last century, the terms “city” and “metropolis” have referenced the utopias of cosmopolitanism — diversified communities and the participation in public space on a mass scale. In the 1990s, however, we have witnessed the failure of urban utopias and the idyllic notion of the elite, multicultural and modern citizen. In the past ten years, suburban areas marked by “gated communities” have developed on the margins of cities the world over-Istanbul included. Such communities are distinct from the gecekondu (“slum” or “shanty”) areas of the 1960s–1980s, occupied by Anatolian immigrants on the outskirts of the city. The gecekondu arose through illegal construction and occupation. After 1995, however, gated communities erected on the margins of Istanbul have been occupied by upper-middle-class residents.

        In simplest terms, gated communities are privatized housing settlements for citizens who seek a safe, higher standard of living than the one afforded by the inner city proper. Levent & Gulumser write that “this new social class, pushed developers of large-scale real estate investments to produce gated projects which offer a better life standard, quality of life and a way to diminish the daily life’s stress.”2 Land speculation and the development and privatization of public land were enabled by economic neoliberalism and mass housing legislation.

        6_182.jpg

        Terms such as public space, privatization, urban community, security, identity and citizenship accrue new meanings within the context of gated communities. Belonging to a city doesn’t make sense anymore, but belonging to a community-one marked by shared lifestyles, property ownership and a sense of belonging does. Herein is the new, conflicted definition of citizenship in the contemporary global city. On one hand, the global city comprises several cross-cultural and ethnic communities; on the other, the right to participate in the public sphere and share urban space is at odds with a definition of citizenship based on the form of nation-state.

        Since the 1990s, many of Istanbul’s eastern and western peripheries have been privatized by local investors. Most of these were joint ventures with American architectural offices; designs and models were often imported from the US Advertisements for gated communities often use English words to represent key concepts such as security, hygiene, sport and nature and promise a better lifestyle that counters dystopian discourses surrounding earthquakes, pollution, traffic and urban fear. “Sinpaş, Central Life,” for example, promises wellness, with a fitness club and no traffic to speak of. “Ağao ğlu My Town” offers nature, security, less traffic.

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        Artist Solmaz Shahbazi augmented the research of sociologists and urban planners on gated communities in two video works, shown in the 9th International Istanbul Biennial. She studied the gated communities of Kemer Country, Bahçepehir and Optimum interviewing residents and nonresidents and creating two distinct narratives. One video shows several images of the gated communities and their surroundings, and is accompanied by a soundtrack of three social scientists discussing urban sprawl. The other shows the interior of a home within this bizarre community. The owner speaks of her domestic life, the motivations behind her family’s move there, her new daily habits as well as her fear of Istanbul’s city center. She mentions her high security bills and talks about her new hobby: golf. Her fear of the city is convincing, as is her assertion that the development offers a “community feeling” that she takes comfort in. Such dwellers of gated communities choose to be part of a community, but one that is not rooted in ethnic, religious or even socio-economic difference. In the end, it is the reproduction of a community whose gaze re-defines the “other” of the city.

        Analyzing the links between security, segregation and citizenship reveals how urban discourses are produced and consumed. In the new global city, the notion of citizenship is based on legal rights, on “…norms, practices, meanings and identities.”3 Some questions beg to be raised in this context: How do “gated communities” relate to these discussions, especially in terms of spatial organization and civil rights? How is space re-organized through bio-politics in the context of the city and how does the urban discourse of security transform the social rights? Bülent Diken argues that gated communities are desirable camps.4 Referencing Giorgio Agamben’s notion of the “camp” as a zone of distinction, in which formal law and human and social rights are suspended due to crisis, Diken offers that gated communities are panoptic sites in which inhabitants forsake some rights for security and the condition of “being under control.”

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        The means of achieving this security vary greatly. A gated community is marked by cameras, guards and other high-tech surveillance techniques (another strongly advertised feature). Tophane, on the other hand, is a highly secure place despite its appearance to the contrary. Such safety is not due to technological prowess but rather due to the tightly knit community marked by the urban poor, refugees, and ethnic groups who make their home there. Here is a different manifestation of Agamben’s notion of the camp. The “surveillance power” and, ultimately, the safety of this community is structured by the network of relationships among neighbors as opposed to the technological devices and huge walls of the gated communities.

        Within both spaces discussed here, the terms “public space” and “citizenship” gain novel meanings born of the negotiation of space and the community relations that redefine and reflect the rules of everyday life. The cases of Tophane and the closed and segregated areas that are Istanbul’s gated communities represent the complexity of the city today. It follows that such contemporary communities demand a redefinition of citizenship that is no longer based on the ancient construct of the nation-state or economical difference. Needless to say, the implications of such a significant reevaluation — for our conceptions of social and public rights — will be vast and significant.

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        1 Vidler, Anthony, The Architectural Uncanny, MIT Press, 1992, Boston

        2 Aliye Ahu Gülümser, Tüzin Baycan Levent, “Through the Sky: Vertical Gated Developments in Istanbul,” UIA 12th World Congress of Architecture, 2005 Istanbul

        3 “Perfectly Suited for You”, video installation, two videos: 1 projection, (15’30”) 1 TV screen, (13’00”), Solmaz. Shahbazi, 9th International Istanbul Biennial, 2005, Istanbul

        4 Isin, Engin F., “Democracy, Citizenship and the City,” Democracy, Citizenship and the Global City, Routledge, 2000

        Despotism, Democracy and the Fetish

        On Saddam Hussein

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        Paul Chan, The question of democracy is an extremely complicated one, 2005, charcoal on paper, 22" x 30", courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali Gallery

        Negar Azimi: You’ve created a series of works revolving around a number of speeches Saddam Hussein delivered in the 1990s on the unlikely theme of democracy. Where did you find these speeches?

        Paul Chan: A wonderful writer and a former organizer for Voices in the Wilderness, the Chicago-based activist group, showed them to me. They were given to him by an Iraqi friend in Baghdad who thought Jeff might find them interesting. When Jeff showed them to me, I freaked.

        NA: How can you be sure they’re real?

        PC: A little early for ontological questions, isn’t it?

        NA: I mean, how can anyone “certify” them?

        PC: Shiva Balaghi, who directs the Kevorkian Center for Middle Eastern Studies at New York University, helped me research these speeches. Her research assistant confirmed their presence in university archives at NYU and Columbia. It’s fair to say that these speeches are not rare. At a certain moment, Iraq and Hussein were active participants in the intellectual climate in the Middle East. So, like any aspiring academic, they published papers and gave speeches, translated them, and kicked them out into the world.

        NA: Is it fair to rob them of context? What about putting them in some sort of home?

        PC: What are you afraid of? That if people read the speeches without the tethers of its history that they will read them wrong? Can’t we be fairly certain that, regardless of how the speeches are framed, that at this point in time, they will always be read wrong? Isn’t that the most provocative thing about them?

        I don’t propose to contextualize them at all. I don’t see the speeches as a kind of Rosetta Stone that would, if placed close enough to the constellation of knowledge about Iraq, help decipher its situation, much less alter its course as a nation and as an idea. Let’s see the speeches for what they are: ghosts; like Hamlet’s father, who is both a threat and a promise. My job is to visualize — or maybe hallucinate is a better word — the speeches as both threat and promise to the idea of democracy — here, or there, in charcoal on paper.

        NA: Don’t you run the risk of fetishizing Third World dictatorships and their double standards? I mean, we know he sucks. And he’s a liar. So what? Look:
        Nasser: “presidential democracy”
        Sukarno: “guided democracy”
        Trujillo: “neo democracy”
        And these are military regimes only; the Soviet Union and China were “people’s democracies.” There’s a history of promiscuity associated with the term “democracy” and even with some of its most fundamental premises.

        PC: Yes, it’s true. But you’re forgetting Nixon, Johnson and Reagan. And there are really two questions here. The first is, am I fetishizing Saddam? And the answer is, I’m too late. He was made into a fetish long before this project, and he himself wanted this. The second question is, can it really be that interesting to make drawings mutated by Hussein speeches on democracy, given that virtually every despot has used the concept of democracy as an ideological weapon? And the answer is, maybe not. But there isn’t a definitive answer, yet. If I were to simply see the drawings as illustrations for Hussein’s ideas on democracy, then they wouldn’t be very good drawings. But what if art is not used, like a chain, to connect and fetter? What if art is wielded like a razor, to separate and set free. As Gerhard Richter’s recent book War Cut tried to demonstrate, art does not have to serve knowledge or history. As a promise and threat to both, art figures its own path toward the reconciliation between the living, the dead and the dying.

        NA: The drawings are eerie. What do you plan to do with them?

        PC: I plan to do around forty drawings based on and mutated by the speeches. After that, I don’t know. A book? An indictment? They’re done in charcoal. 22” x 30.” I try to draw them fairly quickly.

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        Paul Chan, Rather, principles are now standing the critical test, and are put into practice, which needs a special kind of awareness, care and suffering, 2005, charcoal on paper, 22" x 30", courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali Gallery

        NA: It’s odd that you render Abu Ghraib and abuse images in such a rudimentary way, when their very high-tech nature (i.e., digital photography, disseminated on the Internet) canonized them as brands of the Occupation and its associated abuses. Why create drawings like this?

        PC: I’ve found photography and video increasingly distrusted in places where I’ve been with political struggles. This distrust stemmed primarily from the use of photography and video as tools for institutional power, whether it was on the part of the government, the military or the international news media. Perhaps, once upon a time we could count on mechanical representation as something beyond the pale of rhetorical framing; we could count on seeing as believing. But after Rodney King, I think this is impossible. And strangely enough, people have returned to drawing, almost court-room-style sketching, to document the places and situations of their lives. It makes sense economically. I didn’t meet one Iraqi with a 35mm camera, much less a video camera. But they didn’t give up on documenting what was happening to their country as the US prepared to, and did, invade. Drawing as a mode of representation challenges the institutional truth of recorded media. It’s David versus Goliath. Guess who I’m betting on?

        NA: So there’s a definite upsurge in “political art,” whatever that means. Some of it leaves me uneasy; some work reeks of superficial appropriation of political themes and mantras that seem forced, hackneyed, not genuine, trendy? Am I wrong? Is there a measure of authenticity among these practices or is that a load of bullshit?

        PC: Isn’t it funny how people debate the merits of political art the same way they talk about political correctness? I mean, haven’t we all met bigots who say something like, “I don’t want to be politically incorrect, but …” and then they go on to spell out something so vile that it makes us want to throttle them. Doesn’t both “political art” and “political correctness” function a lot like a straw man, or better yet what Jacques Lacan would call objet petit a, something that functions like a blindspot, which is why describing political art always comes with the caveat “whatever that means.” That’s how blind spots work; they blind us and hold our attention precisely by its invisibility. To what end? To blur the rest of the picture and to implicate us in the blurring of the rest of the picture.

        NA: I think that’s an answer, however facile my question. Mark Danner has pointed out that the images created the scandal in the case of Abu Ghraib. Do you agree? If he’s right, what does this reveal about our image-programmed minds? I guess Slavoj Zizek would say that the very fact that these acts were captured on film reduces Americans to a bunch of fraternity brothers having a good time. Is this American culture? What does all of this have to say about the US, if anything at all?

        PC: I agree with Danner. And I think the effect of the scandal disproved Sontag’s early ideas about how we would become so desensitized visually that nothing would be able to move us. She corrected herself in her last book, Regarding the Pain of Others. I think it was a hopeful sign that people were freaked out by the images and began to actively question what was going on. The questioning didn’t last as long as I would have liked and didn’t get rid of anyone of significance in the administration. But it was worth it.

        As for Žižek’s assertion, I’m not sure if that was what he was after— the image of American culture as one big frat. Žižek has written some very incisive things about the many dimensions of the Iraq tragedy. In fact, the most important contribution he’s made is his notion of how fantasy is not something that escapes reality, but in fact shapes it, give reality a proper framework. So in a way we can say that the fantasy of America as “the frat of freedom” is what licensed the horrifying abuse at Abu Ghraib, whether or not there is any kernel of truth to the reality of this frat. But on the other hand, what Žižek teaches us is that getting rid of fantasy does not get us any closer to the truth of the situation. We should not revoke this license to fantasize for the sake of progress. Again, I think of Hamlet’s father. Is it important to know whether this ghost who speaks to Hamlet is real or simply a figment of his imagination? Obviously not. Hamlet doesn’t care either because he can’t trust the living to help him reconcile the past with the present. The living are all liars! So he takes a chance by listening to the living dead.

        Responding to War

        …while waiting for a work by Steve McQueen

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        An-My Lê, Cpl Hoepper, 29 Palms, 2003-04, gelatin silver print, courtesy of Murray Guy Gallery, New York

        Four weeks after US President George W. Bush had declared major combat in Iraq to be over, British artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen, winner of the 1999 Turner prize, was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to “create a work in response to the war in Iraq,” as the Art Commissions Committee of the IWM put it.1 As of September 2005, the time of writing, no “work” has been presented to the Museum and its public. More than two years after receiving the commission, McQueen has not “created” the commissioned project, though he has been to Iraq at least once, if only for a week and — for security reasons — in the company of British officials, in December of 2003.

        When the Imperial War Museum or, for that matter, the Center for Military History in Washington, DC, commission artists to produce images related to the war, they (as institutions aligned with the military) are looking less for anti-war statements than for perspectives somehow sympathetic to the military. Painters such as Elzie Ray Golden or Henrietta Snowden, who have depicted wars waged by the US via drawings and oil on canvas, are working in the tradition of the soldier-artist celebrating the heroism of troops — even if this heroism is expressed in pictures of rather banal daily routines behind the frontline. Linda Kitson, a draftswoman who, with a commission from the IWM, accompanied the British troops to the Falklands in 1982, deliberately stayed behind the combat action (which was primarily covered by photographers) and instead produced hundreds of sketches of the everyday life of the soldiers. Interestingly, the anachronism of drawing or painting the war proved attractive to other media such as television, which pushed the oldfashioned approach into the realm of spectacle. When British artist Peter Howson was appointed by the IWM to travel through Bosnia in 1993, a BBC television crew followed him as he was following the British forces participating in the United Nations Protection Force. The next time Howson visited Bosnia, he brought his own cameraman, who produced a video diary of the experience of being a war artist in the age of electronic media.

        Speculating about the type of work McQueen might provide “in response” to the war in Iraq, critic Nico Israel suspects that, “given McQueen’s filmic track record, he will almost surely produce something provocative and weighty.” Israel, nonetheless, wonders whether “McQueen [can] really learn that much more in seven days ‘on site,’ in the presence of Defense Ministry representatives, than, say, George W. Bush can learn talking turkey with US servicemen?”2 Both the expectation that McQueen would be the appropriate artist to render the war in a “provocative and weighty” manner, and the concerns that an embedded one-week stay in the region might not be enough to produce something adequate in relation to site and situation, destabilize the traditional task of artists covering the war.

        If “covering” rings a bit oddly in the context of “art and war,” it also points to the peculiar vicinity of art and journalism, one especially pertinent in the case of war. That McQueen, whose multi-thematic work revolves around questions of traumatic experience, the body and the psychophysical features of the image itself, is expected to do some sort of in-depth research in Iraq, acquiring a knowledge of place and people that exceeds the expertise of President Bush, projects onto him not only the image of an artist working in the documentary mode but also one of a journalist on a mission to find a story through which it is possible to narrate history — though McQueen’s approach rarely foregrounds the narrative level of his film, slide and sound work.

        Moreover, he should demonstrate, as some would hasten to add, a certain responsibility and interest in the material reality of the war, rather than relying solely on media representations and the virtual imagery of military popular culture. In the age of hyperterrorism, when rumors of the transformation of war into video game have long become hard currency in cultural theory and artistic practice alike, and where the frontline has been replaced, at least in the brains of philosophers such as Paul Virilio, by television monitors and other electronic interfaces,3 the actual visit to the site, even if limited and controlled, already cuts a difference.

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        An-My Lê, Resupply Operations, 29 Palms, 2003-04, gelatin silver print, courtesy of Murray Guy Gallery, New York Lê’s work deals with the aesthetics and spectacle of war. After documenting Vietnam War reenactors in rural Virginia, she traveled to southern California to document real soldiers training in 29 Palms, a desert-like terrain similar to that of Afghanistan and Iraq

        The entry of artists into the field of ethnological observation or journalistic reportage is complemented by the consideration of photojournalists who cover conflict and catastrophe as artists in their own right. Martha Rosler, an artist, writer and activist, who since the Vietnam War has worked on problems representing conflict, emphasizes how the “becoming-art” of photojournalism contributes to the creation of universalist tropes in which war is seen as culturally malleable and operable, at least in the West: “The convergence from reportage to art attempts to hurry a historical process, abridging the decent interval that is supposed to elapse before war photos are taken as universalized testaments to a set of ideological themes with a powerful hold on the collective imaginary: War Is Hell, Admire the Little People, Everything Important Occurs within the Individual, and finally, The Photographer Is Brave.”4

        Part of the conception of the war-artist/journalist as hero is based on the belief in his or her intimate relationship to an alleged philosophical or anthropological truth — one experienced in the heat of political turmoil and facing the gore of combat. The myth of privileged access to the very “ideological themes” that Rosler mentions is traditionally reserved for those artists and journalists who are visiting the site of war from elsewhere, instead of emerging from the local population. In other words, you have to be sent by an institution such as the Imperial War Museum or be propelled by your own will to truth to record the events and grasp the historical or existential meaning of a particular conflict. As visiting foreigner or tourist, the war artist or war journalist is equipped to translate this meaning into cultural languages that are shared by a public not present on the ground.

        One of the indisputable aspects of tourism is the promise that one’s expectations of a country, a city, a place or a people are going to be fulfilled, simply because those expectations were initially fabricated to be fulfilled by the tourist industry. Similarly, for the war reporter or war artist, the search for traces of an eternal truth in most cases entails individual epiphanies on the battlefield, or among the dead and mourners in the ruins of bombed cities, if only because such epiphanies are expected to happen.

        Staying faithful to the idea (or ideology) of the subjective, truth-conveying war experience — and thereby making a particular war “available” to oneself as well as others — requires a supreme act of observation and divination: to distill the universal significance from the particularities of the everyday, the endurance of civilians and soldiers, and the physical and psychological landscapes of conflict. Inevitably, almost every artist or journalist, covering a war on-site, is looking not only for moments décisives to render with pen, notebook, brush, or camera, but for a personal version of the war. One might even say the ultimate goal of the truly ambitious war journalist/artist is to become the (re)creator of a war, the maker of a guerre d’auteur.

        Whether this auteurism is necessarily bad or avoidable is hard to decide and touches on rather general questions about the definition and limits of art practice. Yet certain ideas or fictions of “subjectivity” are instrumental in communicating the meaning of war whether by providing assurance of the testimonial authority of an eyewitness or through a superior visionary capacity to “see” things that are hidden from the view of the common observer or participant.

        How does such a subjectivity relate to a more ironic or sarcastic stance on war and the military? Symptomatically, the work of artists coming from war-stricken societies is apparently less occupied with the pathos of the search for universal truth in (and of) war than the “visiting artist.” Consider, for example, the production of Israeli artists such as Raam Don, Meir Gal, Nir Hood, Adi Ness, Eliezer Sonnenschein and David Wakstein, all included in the recent exhibition “Die Neuen Hebräer. 100 Jahre Kunst in Israel” in Berlin. Clearly firsthand experience of military service and a society in a permanent state of emergency can lead to ambiguous results, which often border on bad humor or pop cynicism and avoid the seriousness usually demanded by official commissions. That these kitsch, campy, witty, tasteless, decorative, sexually charged articulations of subjectivity in relation to war were institutionally sanctioned5 is telling insofar it seems to mark a broadening of the range of “acceptable” responses to conflict.

        That said, one should add that in some countries (such as Germany or France) whose governments and/or citizens opposed the invasion of Iraq, anti-war art would more likely represent the “official” position toward conflict, rather than attempt to understand the meaning of war in the traditional sense of war artists’ art. Therefore, as resistance to the war in Iraq is particularly strong and visible in Britain, while the behavior of the British troops over there has become a subject of fierce public debate, it’s becoming very interesting to guess what the IWM-sponsored project by McQueen will be like. His work may turn out to be an important test of the category of war art itself, since McQueen has to carefully weigh the expectations regarding the “provocative and weighty” nature of his work against the expectations associated with art about conflicts. At the same time, the British public, critically aware of the pitfalls of this particular war, could be particularly prepared to respond attentively to a work commissioned from a well-known artist by an institution whose mission is to actively control the historical and aesthetic memory of war.

        1 Imperial War Museum, Corporate Plan 2004/2007, London 2004, p. 14 2 Nico Israel, “Atelier in Samara. Art and War,” Artforum, Vol. XLII, No. 5, January 2004, p. 36 3 See e.g. Paul Virilio, Kriegstaße, in Peter Weibel and Günther Holler-Schuster, ed., Mars. Kunst und Krieg, Ostfildern-Ruit/Graz: Hatje Cantz/Neue Galerie Graz am Landesmuseum Johanneum, 2003, p. 35 4 Martha Rosler, Wars and Metaphors [1981], in Martha Rosler, Decoys and Disruptions. Selected Writings, 1975-2001, Cambridge, MA/London/New York: MIT Press/International Center of Photographer 2004, p. 253 5 “Die Neuen Hebräer” were part of the celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the beginning of diplomatic relationships between Israel and the Federal Republic of Germany

        Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige on ‘A Perfect Day’

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        Still from A Perfect Day, 2005

        Filmmakers Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s second feature, the ironically titled A Perfect Day, won the FIPRESCI International Critic’s Prize on its premiere at Locarno Film Fes-tival, and has since played at festivals in Europe, Asia and North America to great acclaim and further awards. Due for release in Lebanon and France this spring, it is a lyrical portrait of the relationships between Claudia (Julia Kassar), her son Malek (Ziad Saad) and his girlfriend (Alexandra Kahwagi). The film takes place on the day that Claudia finally agrees to register her husband dead, fifteen years after he disappeared during the Civil War.

        Bidoun: Congratulations on your latest prize, the Namur Film Festival’s Bayard d’Or for Ziad Saad. How did you coax this subtle performance from a non-professional actor?

        Joana Hadjithomas: This is his first film, and we were casting for a long time before we met him and discovered his special rhythm. The actors, a mix of professional and non-professional, weren’t given any script: we just directed scene by scene, as we did on our short Ramad (Ashes). We tried to direct Ziad and Julia so that you don’t necessarily see their emotions but you feel them.

        Bidoun: Presumably Malek’s sleep apnea syndrome (which interrupts his breathing during sleep, and causes him to fall asleep at odd moments in the day), plus the scene in which he’s driving and puts in his girlfriend’s contact lenses, deliberately blurring his vision, is symptomatic of Beirut’s wider malaise, its liminality?

        JH: Yes. Our generation has always struggled between the heaviness of the past, a hypothetical future, and a present that’s lived as an intense instant. Even if you only spend a little time in Beirut you begin to lose your center. It’s not about using metaphor but about finding the right imagery that expresses our daily lives with some poetry. We go out a lot in Beirut; we go to bars in search of a community, trying to reclaim our bodies or the bodies of others. It’s a kind of hysterical repetition, a permanently hysterical present. The film could be dealing with one day that will repeat itself, or a day that’s anew beginning or an end.

        Khalil Joreige: The theme of breathing in the film relates closely to the rhythms of the everyday, to love and synchronicity, and the problem of synchronicity in love. Malek breathes in a different way. We wanted to explore, poetically, what can happen if a body is not “in rhythm.” In a way we’re asking how, in a place like Beirut, where individuals are subsumed by family, community, and religion, can you be an individual?

        JH: In a way, having a different rhythm is a new form of resistance. Claudia, the mother, cannot accept the disappearance of her husband. She’s stuck in the past trying to reconcile herself with the ghost of her husband, while Malek is stuck in the present. But he’s the one that’s like a “zombie,” as [Beiruti writer and artist] Jalal Toufic would say; in a way we have to accept the ghosts in order to resist the rampant cynicism of a society like ours.

        Bidoun: You focus on everyday, minute rituals: cigarettes, coffee, and so on…

        JH: We’re making films that are different from most people’s expectations of Arab cinema. And A Perfect Day is not a film with one “message”; it’s a film about sensation, bodies, frames of mind, atmosphere. We look for the small, secret things, to show the non-spectacular side of Beirut. Despite cinema’s stereotype of the overwhelming Mediterranean neighborhood, you are often alone. There is nothing called “Beirut,” just many Beiruts. We work in thin, small layers, building them up to give an impression of a place where the idea of ritual is key.

        KJ: We were working with a microscopic budget. We couldn’t afford to reconstruct reality, so we took a faux documentary approach, filming in traffic jams, on the Corniche, in night clubs. After a few hours, people forgot we were there. Usually cinema is constructed, but it’s important to us that you don’t feel the screen writers there, deliberately building metaphors. And this way of working gives you a real freedom — you deal with surprises, you try to capture this energy.

        Bidoun: I understand it was a personal film for both of you?

        JH: Yes, we felt the need to do something very close to us, and we re-wrote it many times up to (and during) the shooting. What we show in the film is our house, our daily life, our personal experiences. And there is the relation we have with “the disappeared”; Khalil’s uncle is one of them.

        KJ: I’m very close to my uncle’s family, but my family story is not in the film. There were 17,000 missing persons in the war. They left their homes one morning and never came back. Where are they? It’s frightening for us that no mass graves have ever been found. Beirut is a small city that’s been extensively excavated and reworked, but nothing. For us the trauma of disappearance has not faded with time.

        Bidoun: Perhaps, traditionally, in visual art there are more opportunities for open endings than in cinema, and you seem more interested as directors in imagery than dramatization. Are you artists who make films, or vice versa?

        KJ: We try to make films that are close to our art, and have been searching for years for their relation. Usually, without planning it really, we do an installation before the film around a similar subject, such as the work Lasting Images, which explored and developed the idea of latency.

        Bidoun: What would you say to critics who ask why Lebanese filmmakers keep making films about the war?

        JH: A Perfect Day is a film about our present. Our films don’t have a story that’s complete because our history isn’t. I was five when the war began, and the war is still a latent presence now.

        KJ: The official discourse is purely economic — “we have to reconstruct the country” — but what about reconstructing society? People consider the period of the war in parenthesis, but the premises of the war were here before and are here still, and current Lebanese films and artworks are expressing the present, not the past.

        The Most Fatal Attraction

        Kiarostami’s ‘Close-Up’ revisited

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        Ali Sabzian in Abbas Kiarostami’s Nema-ye Nazdik (Close-Up), 1990

        Hossein Sabzian, the hero of Abbas Kiarostami’s film Close-Up, has died. He suffered respiratory failure on the Tehran metro in August, slipped into a coma and passed away on September 29. Sabzian was a complex figure: a troubled loner, he spent the last few years hawking DVDs in Tehran’s south bus terminal. An unlikely devotee of Lars von Triers, he had an encyclopedic knowledge of film. Close-Up was the closest he ever got to realizing his dream of becoming a celebrated film director.

        Made seventeen years ago, the film recounts Sabzian’s trial and imprisonment for impersonating another internationally acclaimed Iranian director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Kiarostami heard the story, assembled a crew, and shot a film that would cement his own place in cinematic history. Close-Up is a layered web; part archival trial footage, part reconstruction of events in which Sabzian plays himself. The divide between acting and being becomes harder and harder to pin down: fiction and documentary ultimately become one as past slides into present and Sabzian and Makhmalbaf meet.

        Against the backdrop of Sabzian’s life story, Close-Up’s dance with identity becomes intense. Sabzian sought validation in his incarnation as Makhmalbaf, yet through identity theft he was accorded recognition — as himself — by way of another famous director. Endorsement, however, occurred only in the intangible realm of cinema. Sabzian briefly became the Tinkerbell of Iranian film, but as the years passed, and Close-Up’s intricate plot twists and character sketches slipped from the memory of all but the most cultish of film lovers, he faded away.

        Although they ignored him for much of his life, his family rallied round his hospital bed and became his mouthpiece in a new documentary on Sabzian by a young Iranian named Azadeh Akhlaghi. Despite the scorn poured by his brother-in-law on his experimental wedding videos, we glimpse a romantic obsessed with cinema, one who spent the entirety of his inheritance from his mother on a camera and filled his spare hours writing screenplays and sending them to directors without success. “I dreamt of being a general,” Sabzian told a friend who chanced upon him at the bus station, “but ended up a foot soldier.”

        Sabzian was not alone in feeling bruised by his fleeting brush with the limelight. It’s hard to identify with professional actors who whine about the downsides of fame; easier is to sympathize with nonprofessional actors, the short-lived darlings of Iranian cinema, plucked from obscurity and then dropped back into it.

        Channel 4’s recent documentary on Iranian cinema took Kiarostami to visit Babak, the boy-hero of his seminal film Where is my Friend’s House? Babak, now in his late twenties, was pleased to welcome Kiarostami into his sparse apartment in Karaj, an industrial town outside the capital. But as the camera rolled, he became wistful:“After the film I was someone in the village. I was the boy in the film. Everyone saw the movie and I became famous and popular. As I grew up it faded. I have never felt like that again.”

        Kiarostami is the most famous of countless Iranian directors who elicit performances from ordinary people who rarely get a second chance to relive their fifteen minutes.

        Akhlaghi’s The Film School of Hossein Sabzian, which captures Sabzian at his most helpless, premiered at Korea’s Pusan Film Festival and was screened alongside Close-Up two weeks after his death. Dizzying in its ironic reflexivity, the whole event screamed out for deconstruction. But just like the internationally acclaimed oeuvre of neo-realist Iranian cinema (to which Close-Up itself doesn’t quite belong), under the layers of a cinematic masterpiece lurked the fairly simple tale of a man who spent his life chasing a phenomenon that was simply out of reach.

        Emotional Fields

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        Stills from Sherif El Azma’s Television Pilot for an Egyptian Hostess Soap Opera, 2003, courtesy of the artist

        Sherif El Azma’s video/film Television Pilot for an Egyptian Hostess Soap Opera is brilliant. In the world of the film, characters struggle to maintain their positions vis-à-vis each other. Tensions, envies, jealousies and desires produced by that struggle coexist as part and parcel of a context in which personas are both defined and limited by the expectations of the system within which they function. El Azma’s film avoids becoming a melodrama of strangers by focusing on the ambiance and atmosphere through which a strange twist of events occurs.

        The action that unfolds is pretty simple. In the first half a group of young hostess trainees engage in a series of exercises and games in the headquarters of a fictional airline — during which they subtly compete against one another. Cut to a few months later in mid-flight (or are they two separate journeys intercut together?) and we’re with Farah and Lela, air hostesses and erstwhile competitors, colleagues and friends. On the flight they meet the enigmatic (and freaky looking) Count and his sleazily suave business manager, Mustafa. The film ends three minutes before landing, with Lela practicing her smile in front of the mirror. And that’s it. No narrative arcs, plots, complications or resolutions, no cathartic sacrifices and judgements, but rather an engaged and engaging suspension.

        The film tackles the emotional depth of the characters by bringing two, apparently contradictory elements to the fore — the complexity and ambiguity of motivations on one hand and the concrete nature of context on the other. It is an approach that allows us to engage with the emotional life of the subjects while steering away from the ersatz glitz of the glamorized heroes and victims that are the staple of mainstream media.

        El Azma’s focus on young women is at once scathing and gentle. Allowing the characters the depth of possessing contradictions makes the encounters between these aspiring young women (though, it is unclear what they aspire to exactly) ambiguous and profound. In these encounters a conflicting mixture of emotions and needs (friendship, love, desire, envy and competition) are experienced. Their constant negotiation is also a way of coming to terms with the world they share.

        FLYING WOMEN

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        “Women” as dramatic tools have a long history of inhabiting a specific position within the cultural unconscious. They are forced to function as symbols, to carry the weight of redeeming the betrayals of drama. The pressures stemming from the everyday manifestation of such assumptions (and their internalization) is the emotional motor of the film. The complexity and contradiction of treating the characters as both objects of desires and active subjects possessing agency — are what lends them a multi-dimensionality that removes them from merely being objects of our passive admiration or condemnation. We are forced to deal headlong with what is stubbornly complex, what refuses to dissolve itself.

        In the opening scenes of the film, four aspiring hostesses engage in a series of exercises. The interrelationship between their personal desires and the world with which they are struggling with is evident throughout, while their trainer, a powerful older female figure perfectly played by Menha El Batrawy, acts as their guide and maintains a pregnant tension. In this land of looks, gestures and negotiations, these young women search for an image of themselves that affirms their respective aspirations as well as their sense of self-worth.

        HURTLING THROUGH THE SKIES: STYLE AND THE LANGUAGE OF DREAMS

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        As its title indicates, Pilot is marked by a conscious engagement with the tropes of mainstream drama, but it manages to maintain a distance from the limits of that genre. An investigation of drama, character and narrative is underway without sinking into a homogenous, complacent reiteration of the genre’s tendencies. A film masquerading as a television soap opera pilot complicates the conceptual ramifications of our expectations as to how mass culture (that great unconscious) tackles similar themes. El Azma’s focused insistence on producing content through process, rather than opting for a smug, arrogant ironic distance, ensures the film’s sophistication. For here, over a few months, the director brought together a group of young actresses and proceeded to work with them in a process based upon improvisation. Out of these improvisations characters were discovered, and played out as a series of relations rather than as internalized entities. Thus, tight and taut, the interplay between the characters manages to unconsciously betray their motives, fears, and desires through the everyday language of gestures, looks and words. Characters do not explain themselves as much as engage with each other.

        One of the film’s strengths is its ability to maintain a stylistic coherence while utilizing different shooting and editing styles — from hand-held sequences in which the camera becomes the emotional register of the actions it records to well composed shots that reference the aesthetics of high modernism and the sci-fi of b-movie extravaganza. The visual style is more concerned with the unconscious permutations of the culture that exists within the film than with the necessities of driving a specific plot forward, and although suspense and expectation are played with, they function here as a layer of the emotional field rather than as a method to entice the viewer.

        El Azma’s unforced pace, the casual manner in which he manages to construct (art direction, lighting, camera angles and movement) his images as a repository of depth, is part of an approach in which meaning is sensed and discovered rather than declared. In an especially poignant scene, Mustafa dons a sleeping mask and proceeds to flirt with one of the women. In another the hostesses in training practice mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on a male dummy. Uncomfortable and ambiguous, these images speak of a location that is beyond their mere concrete manifestation — gestures towards an invisible eye, toward what we can sense but not explain.

        Flame Wars

        We are Iran: The Persian Blogs
        By Nasrin Alavi
        Soft Skull Press, 2005

        Iran is a fascinating place. On the surface it seems so similar to Egypt (a country I call home), but once you move past the surface, you note how different the two countries in fact are. Trying to find out anything about Iran is a difficult task. The most prolific source is the Western media, and judging by their coverage of Egypt (which is more open and liberal than Iran, and hence more accessible to westerners), the last thing you want to do is to trust them completely.

        And then there’s the internet. As in Egypt, youth make up a bulk of the population in Iran. Most are educated (unlike in Egypt) and between four and eight million have internet access (like in Egypt). But unlike its neighbor to the west, Iranians have more than seventy thousand blogs. Blogs seem like a great way to learn about the country — reading the daily diaries, opinions and rants of seventy thousand (almost) random individuals. I believe Egyptian bloggers present a fairly decent window into the country and there are only about four hundred of us; imagine what can be learned about a country if this figure is multiplied 175 times.

        Then again, bloggers are not writing every day to explain to clueless Egyptians or westerners for that matter, what their society is like. They are more likely to talk about their own lives to each other in a sort of guerrilla network. Complicating matters, most of the seventy thousand blogs are in Farsi and remain inaccessible to the rest of the world. And that’s why I got very excited about Nasrin Alavi’s We Are Iran, a book that claims to be about Iran’s thriving blogging scene. I wanted to finally understand the enigma that is Iranian society, to gain even a glimpse of how young Iranians from all sorts of backgrounds think, but more important to get a clear map of Iran’s thousands of blogs-what they look like, what kind of debates and flamewars erupt in the comment sections.

        Halfway through the book I realized I was mistaken in assuming that it is a book about bloggers written by a blogger for bloggers. With a cheesy title like We Are Iran, and even cheesier chapter headings such as “A Nation of Steadfast Revolutionaries,” it doesn’t take much to realize that the book has an agenda — perhaps to convince the western reader that foreign interference in Iran’s affairs is the last thing the country needs. It’s too obvious a point, if you ask me. In other sections, the book was confusing. Half of the text is Alavi’s own writing about the politics, history and culture of Iran. Rather than providing context for the blog posts, these thoughts in fact seem to be there to support her own writing and not vice versa. Alavi doesn’t quote blogs only; she quotes poetry, newspapers (foreign and local) and even Lonely Planet! The book is full of photography and art, but not much comes from the blogs. There are no conversations with bloggers and minimal descriptions of the nuances of the blogging scene. Out of the seventy thousand blogs, fewer than two hundred are mentioned — those highlighted are mentioned repeatedly, which left me wondering how she picks and chooses.

        But if you accept that this isn’t just a book about blogs it makes more sense. The book is a mash-up, a product of the rip, mix and burn culture of the internet. Nasrin cuts samples from blogs and other sources, pasting and remixing, weaving them in with her writing to give us a book about her Iran, one that millions share with her. Instead of transferring the blogs to another medium, she uses them to create a new form more suitable for the book medium. And it works. Perhaps merely translating and republishing the blogs would not have made sense. Blogs exist in a complex environment; their value inheres not only in their words but in the networks they build and the interactions they sponsor. A book will never offer the same environment, but reconstructing a new environment for these blog posts was “the right thing.” Eventually I dropped my quest to “learn” and treated the book as an artwork in and of itself. And in the end, one still gets a good glimpse of the blogging scene, which fascinatingly spans different groups, generations, (there is a great post by a mother who must be as old as my mom talking about her son mocking her “Look at you, the trendy young rebel, keeping a blog…”), backgrounds (the dissent in Iran comes from mullahs as well as university students, and how many of you knew that the imprisoned blogger Mojtaba was actually a cleric and a student in the holy city of Qom?) and classes (see the wonderful post by a female taxi driver comparing her shopping list to the shopping list of her passenger, the wife of some big government official). Mash-up or not, the book remains very political and one learns a lot from it. For instance, I always thought that the dictatorship in Iran did not lead to corruption, (a common misconception here in Egypt), but it turns out there is rampant corruption there — not unlike what we experience in Egypt — (and, yes, Iranians too believe that they have the most corrupt officials). The book presents many of the key individuals in the reform and dissent movements, some of whom are known to the outside and many more who are not. And it doesn’t stop at politicians and activists; artists and poets are mentioned as well.

        In the end, the bits taken from the blogs themselves remain the best thing about the book; gems like Z8un.com’s piece about her parents challenging the regime by making out in the streets render the book a must read.

        Omer Fast

        Godville

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        Omer Fast, Richard, 2005, limited edition C-print, courtesy of inIVA

        London
        Omer Fast: Godville
        INIVA September 7-October 23, 2005

        Omer Fast, an artist of Israeli origin who studied in the US and is now based in Berlin, has exhibited widely in the last few years and is currently considered a rising star in the contemporary art world. His video and television works, particularly Spielberg’s List (2003), are considered comments on “fast food ancestor worship” (to use the phrase the artist appropriated from one of the individuals in this film) — in simple terms defined as the spectacularization and consumable presentation of nationalistic history and social patrimony. Fast analyzes this theme and its role in cultural knowledge production, predominantly concentrating on its American incarnations. His witty approach manifests itself in sensitive works that offer apposite disclosure rather than self-righteousness.

        For his first solo exhibition in the UK, held at inIVA, London (and simultaneously at Postmasters, New York), Fast presented Godville (2004), a two-channel video installation that documents colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, a town preserved as an eighteenth-century living history museum. Many of the town’s residents are employed to reenact, for the enjoyment of visitors, the daily lives of eighteenth-century townsfolk in period costume. While leaving traces of his own editing (he cuts out any of his verbal questions, for example), Fast composed a series of portraits of some of Williamsburg’s residents who discuss, at various times, the daily lives of both their real and fictional personas. Hovering constantly between the historical and the contemporary, and fact and fiction, three people talk about everything from their daily routines to the war on Iraq, clearly attempting to delineate the connections between two eras.

        The exhibition’s video projections were presented relatively slickly onto both sides of a screen suspended in the center of inIVA’s gallery space. One side showed three actors inhabiting their Williamsburg roles, and the other featured a montage of views of the town, including its public facade, behind the scenes of what is on public view, and also its construction areas. Just under an hour in length, the work offers a engrossing insight into the complexities of forming socio-historical landscapes. One of the individuals we hear is an African-American man who muses about the contemporary definition of God: “God is electricity… God is occupation… God is good… God is everywhere… God is destruction… God is amazing… God is…” This section lasts several minutes, yet based on the obvious nature of its editing it seems that his monologue has been looped and played with. This was perhaps the most significant part of the video; it represented colonial justification for existence and world events, whether problematic or peaceful, as all “in the name of…”

        Putting aside for a moment the utilization of documentary form in contemporary art, Godville’s strength lies in its capacity to investigate systems of belief in a way that is original, humorous, and insightful. It critiques sociologically-framed documentary practices through modest and subtle parody, yet more importantly it challenges us to avoid the consideration of artistic practice as a final word on understanding. inIVA is currently in a difficult transition, between directors and developing a major new building project. It’s been clear from their recent muted programming (and shortage) of exhibitions and other projects that their concentration is elsewhere, and it’s a shame that Fast’s Godville, a compelling project, had its debut in London in a location that’s below the critical radar. Nevertheless Fast clearly has the skills to make a mark.

        Studio Incident #1

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        Ahmed El Attar, Construction/Deconstruction, Five hour performative action held at Hassan Khan’s studio in the Townhouse Gallery during “Studio Incident #1”, 2005

        Cairo
        Studio Incident #1
        Townhouse Gallery
        September 11-15, 2005

        Waning mid-September heat and an uninterrupted urban drone provided the backdrop for “Studio Incident #1,” a five-day series of performances, installations and video work involving ten participating artists and musicians, a loosely defined audience of friends, art regulars and the curious, and, at two separate moments, a bottle of vodka and vast quantities of Stella. The event was organized by artist Hassan Khan and took place in his studio, located on the second floor of the Townhouse Gallery in downtown Cairo. A short collection of critical texts by Khan and artist and arts manager Bassem El-Baroni was published in Arabic and English with partial support from Cairo’s Contemporary Image Collective. An informal discussion between participating artists and audience members took place on the last day of the series. In the end, “Studio Incident #1” carefully avoided many of the more conventional approaches employed in framing art and culture events and its significance is perhaps best glimpsed on its own terms, through a consideration of the work itself.

        The first night featured performances by electronic music band Bikya (Maurice Luca, Mahmoud Waly and Mahmoud Refat), collaborators Khan and Mahmoud Refat, and Adham Hafez with Deborah Stokes. People spilled out of the studio space and into the lobby to listen to Bikya’s rock electronic music and Khan and Refat’s electronic “live sound.” Hafez’s vocal improvisation piece was performed over a prerecorded electronic composition and began the evening with a certain intimacy and poise that was in synch with the rest of the event. The three performances offered distinct approaches to the creative use of sound in the context of electronic and more traditional musical references.

        An 11-minute video piece by Wael Shawky entitled The Cave was presented on the second day of the series. The artist addresses the camera throughout the piece, seamlessly reciting “Surah al Kahf ” (Verse of the Cave) as he walks through the aisles of a supermarket in Amsterdam. The simultaneous representation of the supermarket, that iconic background of a post-industrial, consumer lifestyle, and the oration of a centuries-old Qur’anic verse narrating relationships of belief to power, wealth and knowledge seemed, superficially, to imply a contradiction of ideological, historical and cultural contexts. At the same time, the piece unfolded within a framework of continuity and coherency echoed in the uninterrupted recitation, the single take format and artist’s unwavering eye contact with the viewer (the camera), which complicated facile readings of the piece as a work addressing various conventional dualities and not least, the various iterations of “East vs. West.” The work was powerful in its ability to disassemble contradiction as a strategy by which all too familiar dichotomies are normalized and enforced.

        Zeinab Khalifa’s untitled installation featured a miniature cardboard model of an ambiguous mosque/shrine covered with tinfoil and situated under a sparse bower entwined with fake flowers and strings of plastic beads. The mosque/shrine was encircled by what appeared to be scattered offerings, including more fake flowers (in handmade containers), small bills and two-dimensional cutout tin figures. A video loop of a European catwalk performance was projected through the bower and Islamic home decoration kitsch, as well as more tin figurines hung on the walls. The readymade materials, the handmade objects and their collective arrangement within the installation were at once familiar and unsettling. The power of the religious, cultural and national ideologies that generally provide a context for these materials, seemed to quietly drain away as the video loop repeated increasingly unconvincing images of glamour in a space littered with popular symbols of shared ideals. This was a shrine whose symbolic visual language of faith somehow failed to deliver the viewer’s necessary suspension of disbelief and as a result, evoked a simultaneous sense of unease and joy.

        On the fourth day, theater director Ahmed El Attar was to be found meticulously assembling and disassembling crude wooden furniture for his performance piece Construction/Deconstruction. The sounds of his work mingled with the background noise of men doing renovation work in the gallery below and repair work in the surrounding auto mechanics’ shops. People wandered in and out, many seemingly unsure of the role expected of them as an audience. At the end of the performance, Attar proclaimed that the event had confirmed everything he knew about theater, which he later elaborated in terms of the importance of concentration and timing.

        While the outlines of an implied community came in and out of focus during the five day period, the curator, the audiences, the artists, and those participating in the last day discussion seemed instinctively to avoid any gesture of collectivity. What ‘Studio Incident’ offered unambiguously were propositions suggested in the featured performances and exhibitions: a simultaneous engagement of public and private cultural spheres, a complication of conventional understandings of the roles of artist and curator, and an insistence on the coherence of a program embracing multiple genres. These are not radical suggestions within the context of contemporary artistic production, nor was the incident a catalyst for the radicalization of cultural production and exhibition practice in Cairo. Rather, the event seemed to create a space for its own self-validation through an insistence on the centrality of the work presented and a refusal of common conventions of contextualization.

        The practice of locating the event was one of the conventions eschewed by Khan in organizing “Studio Incident.” For example, the terms “Cairo,” “Egypt” and “Middle East” never appear in the publication (although El-Baroni’s piece on Khalifa does refer once to “Egyptian popular culture” and once to “the Egyptian modernist movement”); the gallery appears in an abbreviated reference in the publication’s introduction as “the townhouse building”; emails advertising the event stated unambiguously, this is not a Townhouse event.

        The choice of critical theory as the framework of the publication was another gesture illustrating the refusal of a conventionalized context for the event. Its approach represented a distinct shift from the descriptive language that often marks writing about Cairo’s cultural events, as well as an unwillingness to concede the naturalness of the relationship between this descriptive norm and local cultural production.

        ‘Studio Incident’ was also ambiguously public/private and formal/informal and linked to an institutional setting. The avoidance of the use of norms of contextualization to frame the event implied an assumption of shared understandings about the way these are used in the world of cultural production and what it means not to use them. This set the terms for the event’s validation outside those familiar (and varied) discourses defining local cultural production, as well as those discourses shaping concepts of “local” and “Egyptian,” or “Middle Eastern art.” Instead, the incidence of the performances and exhibition of work, the open-ended comings and going of the audience and the artists’ presence and accessibility offered the elusive and loosely determined, if conscientiously figured and self-aware terms of engagement.

        Thinking Cypress

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        Shahab Fotouhi, Towards salvation, 2004, installation (resin, neon), 5.5 m x 1.50 m, courtesy of the artist

        Berlin
        Thinking Cypress
        Villa Rose
        September 11–November 30, 2005

        Rebell Minds’ professed aim is “to create a space in which social barriers and limitations cease to exist and to provide a means of communication that will inspire and provoke people to speak their minds.” Under this ambitious rubric, their latest effort presents contemporary work from Iran in the three-part show ‘Thinking Cypress,’ whose title alludes to the metaphorical significance of cypresses as Persian heroes. Perhaps over-the-top romanticized, the “heroes” here are the young Iranian artists Shahab Fotouhi, Mahmoud Bakhshi Moakhar, and Arash Hanaei, who address socially volatile subjects and positions.

        The first installation addresses the events of September 11, 2001. Fotouhi’s Toward Salvation, which intentionally opened on the four-year anniversary of the attack, is a poetic and soothing piece despite its obviously brutal subject matter. Two white neon tubes, symbolizing New York’s razed monuments to commerce, hang suspended and perpendicular to the floor in a darkened room. Surrounding their radiating beams are concentric circles of multicolored insects that fly directly toward the lights, transfixed and lured by their luminescent gleam. Just as the moth cannot deter its route despite its own imminent self-destruction, so these dragonflies — whose tubular form and extended wings recall an airplane — can do nothing but fly to their death.

        Here, the radiance of the lights suggests the promise of paradise toward which the kamikazes believed they were flying. Deeply committed to their faith, they were unable to alter their course. Yet, by using insects as his pilots, Fotouhi makes a fundamental point: humans are not mindless creatures controlled by nature, for they have the benefit of reason and choice to change their position. He passes no clear judgment and seems to argue both sides, questioning a radical Islamist mentality as well as suggesting that the US may have turned itself into an irresistible target, either through diplomatic failure or a unstoppable arrogance — as manifest here in not so subtle fashion by the soaring tubes.

        The second work is Moakhar’s sculpture The Great Middle East for George W. Bush, which probes issues of geography, nationality and ideology. The artist took an aluminum and Plexiglas case, usually used for shipping, and packed it with rows of national flags from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Palestine, Sudan, Syria and Lebanon. Their precise arrangement — seven of a one nation’s flag stacked in a column, with seven columns total — brings to mind a military parade, or perhaps a procession of flag-draped coffins of war victims. While the language of flag design is admittedly limited, the similarities in color and pattern remain particularly striking: almost all have horizontal red, green or black stripes flanking a white central band, bearing an insignia or a triangle. While this does seem to suggest a certain homogeneity of constructions of nationality, it might also be read as criticism of America’s wont to regard these countries as interchangeable, not separate, entities.

        Stamped in a row on the transparent case are a series of pictograms signifying prevailing American foreign policy in the region, their very orderliness denoting the cookie-cutter nature of the American martial mission in the region. A bag of money alludes to its penchant for economic exploitation (most horrifically as a direct result of war); a radioactive symbol represents its arrogant and controlling attitude toward nuclear power; a scale represents the legal system, which is clearly unjust toward suspect incoming visitors; a plane, boat, and customs line refer to the limited ability of citizens of these countries — or any associated with an even vaguely Islamic background — to enter the “Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.”

        Finally, the last part of the exhibition — which will be hung alongside the previous installations (from November 3–30) — comprises a photographic series by Arash Hanaei titled ‘The Benefits of Vegetarianism.’ Hanaei reflects upon the damage inflicted upon his country during the Iran-Iraq war. Close-ups of burned and mutilated dolls indicate the war’s general torment but especially that inflicted on children, who suffered especially serious injuries. The limbless toys graphically symbolize the physical results of bombs and fires, and with them Hanaei questions the discrepancy between the celebrated ideals of the war and the ugly truths they concealed.

        Although the worldview on show here is hardly cataclysmic, it may manage to defy some narrow-minded conceptions of the nature of expression in Iran; in the end, it’s not all that bad. Oddly enough, it appears that these artist/heroes did not require the sanctuary of Rebell Minds to speak their minds. They’re doing just fine on their own.

          Mona Hatoum / Sahel al-Hiyari

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          Mona Matoum, So Much I Want to Say, 1983-, video, 4:49 min., courtesy of Darat Al-Funun/Khalid Shoman Foundation, Amman, Jordan

          Amman
          Mona Hatoum
          Sahel al-Hiyari
          Darat al-Funun
          September 12–November 27, 2005

          There is a vague animosity among artists, curators and critics in the Middle East reserved for Mona Hatoum — a mix of envy for her fame and resentment for what is perceived as her tendency to market her “otherness” by reducing it to apolitical, ornamental gesture. But opportunities to critically engage her work — as physically present, not endlessly reproduced — are rare in the region. Rarer still are exhibitions of her early, experimental videos.

          Before the ubiquity of her sculptural work — all those kitchen utensils made massive and menacing — Hatoum began her career as a spiky performance artist in a similar vein as Karen Finley and Janine Antoni. From smearing her naked body with clay to using an endoscopic camera to explore her every orifice, Hatoum moved from video as documentation to video as form in the 1980s. Much has been made of ambiguity in her work. In her sculptures, that ambiguity is a quick and easy punch line (look, it’s a huge mouli julienne, scary!). In her earlier videos and performances, ambiguity manifests itself in technological innovation and a refreshing crudeness of form. These works are messy, untidy things — and compelling to behold.

          Darat al-Funun in Amman has two early videos in its permanent collection, So Much I Want to Say (1983-) and Measures of Distance (1988). This fall, the foundation mounted an exhibition to support the first public screening of the former (It was the first time Hatoum’s work had been shown in Jordan at all).

          Recorded as a satellite transmission of a slowscan exchange between Vancouver and Vienna in 1983, So Much I Want to Say features Hatoum’s voice repeating the title line at an even speed, while an image of her face and a woman’s face being gagged by a man’s hands freezes and updates in a top-to-bottom sweep every eight seconds. Her expression shifts with each sweep, from fear to desperation to defiance, suggesting the trace of a narrative but leaving it caught like a stutter in the throat. The disjunction between sound and image suggests dislocation, separation, the impossibility of bridging distances and communication breakdown. The video makes use of technology but at the same time exposes its failures. That it looks and sounds so dated now adds another layer of resonance — how quaint the slowscan in an age of Skype.

          Sometimes a shift in the geographic context in which an artwork is shown is only additive and not constitutional. To bring Hatoum’s work to Jordan may dull some of the western art historical references (such as her debt to ’70s era feminist performance artists, Surrealism and Duchamp), without losing much. But a shift in sociopolitical context works the other way around. Darat al-Funun director Suha Shoman hasn’t shown Measures of Distance publicly, at least not yet anyway, perhaps because an audience of Arabic speakers will be able to pick up on nuances that are inaccessible to non-Arabic speakers. Shoman worries that those linguistic nuances may be problematic.

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          Sahel Al-Hiyari, The Blue House, site-specific installation of architectural works, Darat Al-Funun/Khalid Shoman Foundation, 2005, courtesy of Darat Al-Funun, Amman, Jordan

          The mesh that makes up Measures of Distance starts with Hatoum’s voice over narration as she reads an English translation of an epistolary correspondence with her mother about when Hatoum photographed her body and recorded her voice in the bathroom of their home in Beirut, an incident that outraged Hatoum’s father. On screen are the nude photographs, overlain with the text of the letters in Arabic (a layering that could, of course, be read as overly or cheaply exotic: a veil of script that reveals as it obscures, a gesture that may well detract from the work in dulling its bluntness).

          Behind all this is the initial conversation, also in Arabic but untranslated and unsubtitled, visceral in its discussion of sex and marriage, men and women, parents and children. To grasp all of these elements at once adds new meaning and fullness.

          Simultaneous to the Hatoum screening, Darat al-Funun held a smaller exhibition for the architect and artist Sahel al-Hiyari. Born in Damascus, based in Amman, Hiyari recently completed a major renovation to the foundation’s exterior facade. Made from steel and concrete, it adds a decidedly contemporary layer to a site with ruins dating back the sixth century. To celebrate the new facade, he built a room to showcase ten years’ worth of architectural projects.

          Painted entirely black, the room houses a series of back-lit filtered (layers removed, put on film like a transparency or negative) drawings along one wall and an arrangement of stark white maquettes of architectural projects, buildings, houses and more along the other. Both rows seem to levitate in the space, highlighting line and composition on one side, form and volume on the other.

          Hiyari is unique among his peers in his modesty (working with low budgets and self-imposed limitations), his desire to recycle existing building stock (meaning a necessary engagement with the shabby concrete blocks that characterize Amman’s rapid urbanization), and his insistence on nesting his buildings into their environments. At a time when most architects are bent on erecting signature icons, Hiyari is building, for example, a low-lying house in North Yemen with a shape congruent to the surrounding hills, and a pair of midrise apartment buildings in Kuwait City marked by a double façade of aluminum panels. In the end, the diversity of design solutions on view served as an object lesson on a range of regional architectures and provided for a telling insight into Hiyari’s creative process.

          The 9th Istanbul Biennial

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          Huseyin Alptekin, H-fact: Horses & Heroes, 2005, mixed media, courtesy of Procuratoria di San Marco Venezia. Photo: Muammer Yanmaz

          Istanbul
          The 9th Istanbul Biennial
          Various venues
          September 16–October 30, 2005

          Why stage a biennial if you have difficulties embracing its format? Of course biennials are suspiciously event-driven, but does this characteristic really determine the meaning of the work exhibited? Istanbul curators Charles Esche and Vasif Kortun have composed a rather strict framework, to be taken with a large measure of critical theory. See the artworks, go home and do your homework. I don’t necessarily object to this approach, but it has its problems.

          Fifty-four artists and artist collectives is not very much by biennial standards, but it was enough to make the show big. Several works by many of the artists were on view, and it was more or less possible to take in the exhibition and surroundings without suffocating. Seven venues, from postmodern, postindustrial art halls to temporarily empty living quarters and galleries along the main street of Istiklal Caddesi took visitors through several blocks of the Pera but left the famous old town untouched. Istanbul is a remarkable global city, so the curatorial decision to take the city itself as a theme of the biennial was impeccable (although most biennials try to thematize their locations).

          Nedko Solakov’s piece in the Deniz Palas apartment venue worked well with the curators’ desire to look away from historical monuments. In small handwritten notes, Solakov told the story of an absent painting that supposedly had hung on various spots, while all that was left were nail holes, peeling wallpaper and chipped windows. In a humorous way, Solakov’s site-specific piece drew attention to traces of lives once lived in this flat (conveniently used for the exhibition before renovation). Other pieces that related literally to the local setting, like Halil Altindere’s slapstick video of surreal episodes involving a robber, a bridal party and an orchestra along the pedestrian area Istiklal Caddesi, were less convincing.

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          Khalil Rabah, The Palestinian Museum for Natural History and Humankind, 2005, installation, courtesy of the 9th Istanbul Biennial

          Much of the remaining art was rather strict: loads of interviews, even a lengthy excursion on the social and economic history of Berlin presented in text and video, supported by models. Visualizing user flows in built environments and pointing at hierarchies of movement and access are favorite ways to engage the politics of a place.

          I associate this trend with admiration for the Situationist International (especially its critique of capitalism) and a bit of iconoclasm. References to this 1970s radicalism in the name of relational aesthetics usually share a preference for textual work and built environments in very no-frills form and materials. However material props, or records of social events do not necessarily say much about the social relations themselves. Work by Maria Eichhorn, the Flying Citygroup, Gruppo A12 and Luca Frei, among others, are examples—if admittedly very diverse ones—of ambitious projects with rather vague social implications. Is it the power (or the very powerlessness) of images that attracts these artists? Either way, the exhibition context has a corrupting influence. Critical works become images, which in their turn become ready to be pleasurably consumed by culture tourists. (While speaking about social-economic critique, the exhibition is fairly conventional in its low representation of women artists.)

          Perhaps the strategic device of fictionalized fact-narratives is meant to uncover illusions within the current society of the spectacle. Sean Snyder’s real documentary photos from Iraq, Jaron Leshem’s news documentary stage sets from Israel, Michael Blum’s installation of the fake museum for Safiye Behar and Ola Pehrson’s tacky props for a “documentary” on the Unabomber are substantial works individually. But an exhibition situation that juxtaposes so many of these near-, pseudoor drama-documentary pieces, runs the risk of flipping over from a glimpse of realpolitik into a site of cheap, unaccountable political statements.

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          Halil Altindere, Miss Turkey, 2005, poster for a video, courtesy of the 9th Istanbul Biennial

          Most artists, still, retain some belief in figuration and images. Hüseyin Alptekin has imported four fragile plaster casts of monumental horse sculptures from Venice, copies of the ones atop San Marco cathedral. The catalogue entry to Alptekin’s work uncovers layer after layer of meanings centered on the sculptures. The original sculptures were taken to Venice by crusaders from the Sultanahmed hippodrome in Constantinople in 1204. When and how they came to Constantinople is unclear, although perhaps they were moved from Nero’s Roman villa.

          Plaster casts were, of course, a pedagogical tool of traditional state-run art academies to enhance and spread civilization through the diffusion of cultural heritage. Knowing this, Alptekin’s video clips on historical equestrian sculptures around Europe accentuate the successful dissemination of the form along with the more suspicious question of their meaning. The work underscores how artworks can be staunchly and notoriously unfaithful to their commissioners, audiences, and enemies by refusing to deliver a steady meaning. Materials perish, meanings change and only the form remains.

          A little of the glorious power of imagination was restored by watching the secluded townlets in Solmaz Shahbazi’s light-boxes and films. The artist has visited a selection of gated communities and proceeded to dissect them in interviews with academics. A view of a very conventional and commodified paradise, sure, but also an idea of how to operationalize fiction. Since these unlikely ideal homes really exist, perhaps social critique can transform reality after all.

          Youssef Nabil

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          Youssef Nabil, Ghada Amer, New York, 2002, courtesy of The Third Line Gallery, Dubai

          Dubai
          Youssef Nabil
          The Third Line
          September 23–October 14, 2005

          Maybe I was just having a bad day when I saw Youssef Nabil’s portraits in Dubai. In the city that should accentuate the ghetto fabulous element in his work, Nabil’s handpainted images seemed surprisingly melancholic. Lying back, her closed eyes reduced to a line of kohl, his regular muse Natacha Atlas appeared regretful rather than seductive. In Self Portrait with Laila Elwy, the actress is all big hair and pouting lips, but standing against a backdrop that shouts her name over and over, Nabil’s work seemed to be about the sharper side of the double-edged sword of fame.

          Of course The Third Line director-curators Claudia Cellini and Sunny Rahbar included some predictable selections in the show— such as a tedious portrait of Samira Said, and the familiar one of Fifi Abdou, with her fulsome cleavage and tiresomely suggestive hookah smoking. This was one of their first major shows in Dubai, which has an embryonic art market, a generally conservative climate for contemporary photography, and an unhealthy obsession with celebrity. (The city of just over one million residents has at least eight high profile, locally produced Hello-style magazines.) Sales of Nabil’s work appeared to reflect the gallery’s canny approach — and perhaps Dubai’s rapidly changing demographic and its attitudes toward contemporary art.

          Not that The Third Line’s curatorial stance was entirely mercantile: alongside the undemanding kitsch were Nabil’s more complex portraits of artists Susan Hefuna and Ghada Amer. A highlight was an early study of Youssra swimming in the Sinai, her immaculate face frowning at the camera and partly obscured by lapping waves, that left you longing for Nabil to turn his lens and brush to detailed seascapes.

          In a way, Nabil’s work is a perfect preamble for collecting in Dubai. Despite being sold in editions, the hand coloring on each blackand-white silver gelatin print renders them unique. His style — influenced by his friendship with the late Egyptian-Armenian photographer Van Leo — harks back to the golden age of Egyptian cinema and the glamorous shots taken by itinerant Cairene photographers in the 1940s and ’50s. Lovingly detailed, the brushstrokes on the works are often slightly visible, giving the portraits a texture and adding to their cinematic drama.

          Nabil’s international career took off after his “discovery” by David LaChapelle. He worked as LaChapelle’s assistant in New York in the early 1990s, and a few years later was Mario Testino’s apprentice in Paris. He has since become a fixture in that terrain where art meets fashion; his recent subjects include Tracey Emin, John Waters and Nan Goldin. Nabil’s exploration of the nature of celebrity and portraiture has now seen the artist turn to himself, with a series of narrative self-portraits. His show in Dubai was a stop-over before his debut solo exhibition in (and move to) New York.

          Since its launch as an agency a few months ago, The Third Line has been trying to shake up Dubai’s mini gallery scene, which tends to be characterized by folksy courtyards on the one hand and slick hotel-based venues on the other. In November, they opened their base, a large warehouse space in the industrial zone Al Quoz; upcoming shows include international Iranians-du-jour Farhad Moshiri and Laleh Khorramian. The gallery’s place next to a couple of other artist-run spaces has had the local art crowd claiming it as the Gulf’s Chelsea; despite the desperate hyperbole, The Third Line does have stand-out potential in the region.

          The two directors also run a consultancy; their first commission is to build a corporate art collection for the Dubai International Financial Center, a new zone that aims to put the region’s financial services on a par with established centers such as London, New York and Hong Kong. They have steered the Board away from the usual — calligraphy, landscape painting — to invest in commissioning a raft of contemporary work from the region. I hope other wealthy corporates in the region will be persuaded to follow suit.

          Sub/urbia in Recent Photography

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          Amir Zaki, Untitled (OH04)X_, 2004, digital photographic laser print, 69 ½“ x 88 ½”, courtesy of Perry Rubenstein Gallery, New York

          New York
          Sub/urbia in Recent Photography
          Whitney Museum of American Art
          September 30, 2005–January 15, 2006

          A small but focused show tucked into the Whitney’s mezzanine collects the work of nine photographers, and despite a potentially overwhelming title, suggests several ways to look at — and ultimately make sense of — contemporary American cities. The photographs don’t attempt to document urban experience, instead finding and creating moments that offer new scenarios, whether real or imagined, fleeting or just overlooked.

          Gregory Crewdson’s trademark everyday eeriness is represented by a photo from his Beneath the Roses series (2004). He stages a mysterious nighttime drama on an anonymous Main Street, USA: a car, its door open, is parked below a traffic signal lit yellow. Light flows out from the car and nearby storefronts making the otherwise desolate streetscape seem incongruently porous.

          Contrasting Crewdson’s high-production detachment is Corin Hewitt’s deeply personal depiction of small-town life. Also constructed (but in a completely literal sense), herein is a photograph of a model of the interior of two rooms of Hewitt’s grandmother’s house, looking exactly as they did when she died. Every detail in 85 Union Street, Kitchen, January 13, 2002, and 85 Union Street, Living Room, January 13, 2002, is painstakingly depicted in 1/12 scale (and, with a scientific specificity, printed at ¼ scale), from the blueand-white checkered kitchen tablecloth to the crossword puzzle dictionary sitting in the living room. The photos memorialize the woman’s life and offer an intimate glimpse into a distinctively American domestic world.

          Walead Beshty’s couplet of photography projects, pictures of two government-funded housing projects built on the same site in New Haven, offer a starkly different take on the American home. The pieces are a critique of American urbanism embedded with a host of tangential references. One photograph, The Excursionist Views (Oriental Gardens 1983-, day for night, cinemascope), 20012005, shows banal suburban tract houses, while the other, Architecture is not Sculpture (Paul Rudolph, Oriental Gardens, 1970-1981, doubled, inverted, cinemascopic), 2005, is a stack of unlimited takeaway posters of a complex of stacked, overlapping boxy structures. A blunt caption quotes an unnamed source explaining that the project was experimental, pre-fab, low income housing that was “trucked to the site and dropped in place by crane.” The texts underscore the architect’s interest in formal qualities over more humanistic concerns of public housing, a privileging emphasized in Beshty’s title. As suggested by the dates in the titles, Rudolph’s Oriental Gardens were demolished and replaced with the more traditional housing.

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          Walead Beshty, The Excursionist Views (Oriental Gardens 1983-, day for night, cinemascopic), 2001-05, gelatin silver print stereograph; 36" x 86", collection of the artist; courtesy of Wallspace Gallery, New York

          Beshty probes Rudolph‘s (not coincidentally the former dean of the Yale architecture school, and the man responsible for its much-maligned Art and Architecture building) flawed vision and contrasts his irresponsibility with the functional, yet unidealistic version built later. Beshty takes this comparison further by layering his project with references that push into other territories. His carefully descriptive titles indicate the importance of his technique and his appropriation of cinematography. The “day for night” filter, for instance, gives the image the romanticized look of an old movie with any signs of use or decay obscured by the deep, fake night. The building’s superficial decorative aspects are emphasized — the simple building block shapes of the columns, arched triangular overhangs, and planters, all set off in high-contrast shadow. There was also a contrast between the practice of photography and architecture. “Architecture is Not Sculpture,” but photography can be, as demonstrated by the form made by the pile of posters (itself a critique of modernism via Felix Gonzales Torres). Photography jumps the categorical fence in depicting architecture that failed for attempting the same.

          Amir Zaki gives the show the most thrilling portrait of housing Untitled, (OH04X)_ 2004, which pictures two houses hovering over a cliff. Zaki ups the ante on Los Angles delirium by digitally erasing the cantilevered supports below the houses, making them appear as if they are balancing on one edge of the house. It is a thrilling exaggeration that augments the impression of Los Angeles as one big beautiful disaster.

          Baltic Triennial 33 ½

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          The acronym PB8 stands for “Pietus Bulve 8, Knitting Circle 8” if translated to English. The group uses traditional Lithuanian handicrafts while all eight members participate in the fabrication of the objects presented. This is an exercise in celebrating the traditions of the Baltic region

          Vilnius / London
          Baltic Triennial 33 ½
          CAC Vilnius
          September 23–November 20 2005
          ICA London October 1-2 2005

          Currently circulating: the urban myth about the film critic who is no longer of fixed abode. He travels the world from film festival to festival, and has so far amassed one year of living on the hop. “Only one year!” many in the art world might sigh, for between the biennials, the triennials, the quinquennials — not to mention the art fairs — there is every likelihood you could float around for much longer than that.

          “Black Market Worlds,” the IX Baltic Triennial, took a position against the itinerant’s ennui by hyperextending itself across the European continent and beyond. In addition to the exhibition at the CAC Vilnius and a website (ultimiere.com), the opening was purportedly celebrated, as reported by Judicael Lavrador, by “the entire company of contemporary art jet setters” on a flight between the Lyon and Istanbul Biennials, and the show was taken on the road to London for 33 ½ hours at the ICA. The Baltic’s neither-nor geopolitical position, linking East and West was thus the starting point for this concept of site-flexibility, not site-specificity.

          In keeping with the themes addressed by its title, Section 33 ½ functioned a little like a trade fair booth. “Booth Vilnius” at the “London Expo” was a promotional shadow of its triennial self: monitors showing the CACTV archives; a projection of Les Vampires; a framed copy of Pablo Leon de la Barra’s visa stamp, which had expired that day; and trestle tables loaded with posters, flyers, foldouts and press releases. In one corner Michael Zheng, posing as a black market bootlegger, sold copies of some of the works on view at the CAC. This self-critical move of giving piracy institutional legitimacy (and vice versa) was evinced elsewhere, including in the exhibition’s title, which was abbreviated to bmw. (One of the questions in bmw’s press release: “Didn’t Sony express any discontent with the fact that Soni and Shanel had their ads in the publication of the triennial?”)

          This trade fair booth took other contrary positions. For example, 33 1/2’s propaganda was (intentionally) more effective at obfuscating information than disseminating it. Things happened but when, and what kind of things, was flexible. According to Raimundas Malasauskas, who, along with Alexis Vaillant and Sofia Hernandez, was one of the triennial’s three curators, the intent behind the London cameo was to disappear “as fast as possible.” Hence a couple of red herrings in the cryptic press releases, the most confounding of which was the announcement that the ICA would open at 10 as opposed to the usual noon. This strategy of deliberate misinformation did confront the issue of institutional reliability and complicity, although the questioning unfortunately came at the cost of a few extra hours’ sleep.

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          Juozas Laivys: In 2002, he underwent extensive hormone therapy to change his gender from female to male. After beginning his life as “Maria” he now has a deep voice and fill facial hair. The letters presented in bmw questions the identity of the authors and challenge the readers’ preconceptions

          Most of the time the affair was a laid-back shambles which could at any moment deteriorate into a student party in the lull after fresher’s week. This unpretentious shambles was a refreshing change from the institutional machine’s norm. There were some very dull talks, including Londoner David Ellis’s rambling chronicle on venturing into Lithuania to rediscover his Lithuanian roots, which he ended with an unselfconsciously bad video meditation on the journey, but there were also moments that did successfully illustrate bmw’s unconventional curatorial strategies, such as the PB8 taxi concert. Six black London cabs rolled up outside the ICA on the Mall only to be asked to move along by the police; they drove round to the ICA’s offices and lined up in a rather grand parking lot (numerous “reserved” plaques affixed to the railings were marked ceo). For a renegade pirate affair this was hilariously offset by London grandeur: black cabs are swanky; the ICA’s exterior is white and swanky; its car park is enclosed and swanky (read: ‘no public disruption happening here, thank you very much’). The taxis broadcast Resonance FM from their radios, and the event was elevated above the fetchingly incongruous by the taxi drivers themselves. Mildly bemused London cabbies all, some gave tours of their cabs and one took a microphone and lip-synched to the broadcast.

          By far the most effective illustrations of curatorial intent, however, were the mounds of paper set atop trestle tables, including sharp essays on the topic of black market worlds by Nicolas Guagnini and Rene Gabri, among others. Lugging all this printed matter would of course be an obstacle both to disappearing very fast and chasing the next biennial, not to mention that for an exhibition that deliberately placed blocks on access to information it seemed to indicate a complete change of tone …but such flexibility reveals Black Market World’s determination to engage the travel-weary art world on its own intentionally elusive terms.

          If It’s Too Bad To Be True, It Could Be Disinformation

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          Martha Rosler, If It’s Too Bad to be True, It Could be Disinformation, 1985, photographs on board, marker, ink stamp, video, 16:26 min., color, sound, courtesy of apexart, New York

          New York
          If It’s Too Bad To Be True, It Could Be Disinformation
          Apexart
          October 19–November 26, 2005

          Mercedes Vicente’s recent exhibition at apexart, ‘If It’s Too Bad To Be True, It Could Be Disinformation,’ explores the phenomenon of media conglomeration and the official control and manipulation of information. With a surprisingly wide range of media, the show both symptomizes and comments on the current state of the media and the nature of information circulation —reflecting both the threat of the extraordinary manipulation of information itself and the uncertainty of just how to combat it. Moreover, this exhibition also underscored the problems that “political” artists face in confronting such issues. Are artists more successful at making political statements when they act as aesthetes or activists?

          Some of the works in the show are so forthright in their mes sage that they read like agitprop. The 1985 work by Martha Rosler after which the exhibition was titled, and Paul Chan’s The question of democracy is an extremely complicated one, 2005 and Untitled (for a long time to come), 2005 appear to emphasize the parallels between the canonically evil “them” and the good “us,” calling attention to how state-manipulated information is not simply other people’s problem. Rosler uses blown-up Cold War–era newspaper articles, video that references the American propaganda machine, along with historical quotations relating to totalitarianism’s comparable management of information. Chan displays a photocopy of Saddam Hussein’s writings on democracy on a table, the familiar democratic rhetoric Hussein espouses is meant to confusingly appear as true — and thus false — as the democratic rhetoric used in the West. Their points are perfectly valid, and in Chan’s work especially startling, but at times the execution can be so self-consciously serious that the significance of the idea is paradoxically diminished.

          Offering some humor is The Yes Men’s Dow Chemical Identity Correction, BBC World Service, 2004 and 0100101110101101.ORG’s Nikeground, 2003 which both use the anonymity of the internet to wreak havoc on large corporations (Dow Chemical and Nike, respectively). Unlike the aforementioned works, you become genuinely engaged with the ideas here precisely because of the intrinsic fun of pranksterism. In Dow Chemical Identity Correction we see the evolution of a hoax in three videos in which Dow Chemical’s website is mimicked in order to spread the news that the company is accepting and paying out 12 billion dollars to the victims of the Bhopal disaster, which is then dutifully reported as fact by the BBC. In Nikeground the collective 0100101110101101.ORG replicated Nike’s website to put out the news that Karlsplatz in Vienna was to be renamed Nikeplatz. The piece consists of a laptop with the fake website and a series of increasingly absurd printed emails in which fake Nike distributors go back and forth with unsuspecting buyers about the nature of “real” Nike shoes, with often hilarious results. The amusement holds your attention long enough to challenge you to decide whether the instigators’ “fake” information is in fact exposing a truth and whether the “real” companies are the ones propagating a lie; they cleverly use humor to encapsulate the way we are continually fed information with an agenda, resulting in (oft-intended) confusion.

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          neuroTransmitter, Frequency Allocations (in 3 parts), 2005, video, poster, and hand-outs, courtesy of apexart, New York

          The show also had poetic moments of exploring the nature of information itself. A work by The Speculative Archive/Julia Meltzer and David Thorne entitled There may come a time when these places will be no longer and all we will have left are the pictures: a selection of incidents of photographing or videotaping by persons of interest at various sites of interest, referenced with images from other sources consists of a series of small photographs of American monuments and other familiar sites such as the Golden Gate Bridge, the Statue of Liberty and the Houston skyline, coupled with a blacked-out print — ones presumably of the same subject but credited to photographers who were detained for taking images of these particular sites. The scale and rhythmic pacing of the photos, from blacked out to full color to blacked out to full color, allow for quiet reflection on the larger nature of the presented information. If something is omitted from our experience, can we still experience it as truth? Who is allowed to present these images to us and why? And, more practically, are we too trusting in what we are told (in the captions here, for example) in spite of our actual experience?

          Far more raucously boundless in its use of material is neuroTransmitter’s Frequency Allocations (in 3 parts), 2005. The viewer sees media conglomerates on video through utterly direct imagery in the form of towering buildings projecting power with endless lists of the companies that are situated within those steely citadels rolling by. At points the imagery seems contrived: the sequence of the looming Disney building, for example, is accompanied by promotional audio declaring that Disneyland will become “a source of hope, joy and inspiration to all the world.” But here a solution is offered: images of instructions on how to make your own radio transmitter are spliced into the video and juxtaposed with a chart nearby that maps out airwave administration and ownership. Frequency Allocations stands as a small call to individual action against the untouchable conglomerations.

          The variations in approach here were appropriate for the broad scope of the show’s topic, but they also expose a persistent ambiguity amid political art making. On the one hand, the earnestly outspoken, almost endearingly heavy-handed imagery of neuroTransmitter serves as testament to the power of information, information that can then be acted upon. On the other, the advantage of art’s more subtle, and perhaps more powerful, ability to communicate visually and imperceptibly is used more sensitively by artists such as The Speculative Archive. The show was illuminating both reflexively — as a disseminator of information itself — and as a picture of the state of political art making, the breadth of approaches and results come into focus under the unifying subject of information control. Here we can see not only the diversity of media being used to confront political issues, but the scope of the artists’ attitudes as well. The volume is turned up and down continually to see which voice can be heard, and, surprisingly, the silliest or quietest utterances are sometimes revealed to be the most formidable.

            Bidoun Phrase Book

            The Contemporary Traveler’s Indispensable Phrases

            phrasebook.png

            In this second part of our series, we offer the open-minded voyager a chance to get in touch with the locals with some elementary Beiruti Arabic. The following are essential phrases that will guide you through your everyday encounters. Check your next Bidouns for Egyptian Arabic and Turkish phrasebooks.

            Yes, I agree, the food’s quite amazing!
            Ya allah el akel shou [shoo] tayyeb!

            This place is, like, Paris of the Orient, you know?
            Hal mahal mitel bareez el-sharq, ma heyk?

            Really - you’ll miss me?
            ‘an jad rah tishta'eelee? (addressing female)
            'an jad rah tishta'lee? (addressing male)
            'an jad, rah tishta'ooli? (addressing plural)

            Bet you say that to everybody.
            Bchartik bit'ooleh heyk lall kell. (addressing female)
            Bchartak bit'ool heyk lall kell. (addressing male)

            A friend of mine said that if Cairo’s nouveau riche, then Beirut is boureois.
            Sadiqti aalet inno iza l-qahira nouveau riche ya'ni Beiroot boorjwaziyyeh.

            A Marxist reading group, every Thursday at Starbucks. That’s really neat.
            Majmoo'a bitne'esh marx kell nhar khamees bi Starbucks. Lazeezeen.

            Love your video installation. Is it about the war?
            Ktir habbeyt el video installation. 'an el harb?

            Are you really sure that’s all thanks to your French education?
            Inteh m'akkadeh inno l-fadel killo la sa'aftik el frensewiyyeh? (addressing female)
            Inta m'akkad inno l-fadel killo la sa-aftak el frensewiyyeh? (addressing male)

            Three languages. That’s impressive.
            Tlet loghghat. Wallah peshhhh.

            Arab intellectuals should be grateful Beirut exists.
            El msa'ffeen el'arab leyzem yeshikroo rabbon inno Beirut maowjoodeh.

            Of course I know you’re Phoenecians. I’d never assume you’re Arabs. It’s so obvious.
            Akeed ana ba'ref inno intoh fini'eeyyeh, ma bee hayteh b'ool 'inkon 'arab. Wadeh mitel noor el-shams.

            Nancy Ajram or Haifa?
            Nancy 'Ajram walla Haifa?

            Please don’t tell anyone.
            Please ma t'oolo lahadan. (addressing plural)
            Please ma t'ool lahadan. (addressing male)
            Please ma t'ooleh lahadan. (addressing female)

            Farewell to an Economy of Generalized Envy

            Envy is on the rise. It seems strange to say that about something so timeless — or at least so biblical — but historically speaking, phenomena like envy tend to wax and wane in keeping with broader economic trends. To acknowledge that is to recognize that envy is not so much a psychological category as an economic one; more precisely, it is the psychological reaction to regimes of scarcity.


            That was how I had intended to begin this afterthought for Bidoun. Then something slightly unexpected happened. I was fired from my job. It’s always a great feeling when that happens. Not that I had much of a job to speak of: as regional editor of an art magazine, I was participating less in a life-sustaining wage economy than a symbolic, reputation-based, envy-engendering economy. And that’s why I got fired: the more information I produced, the more envy became an inevitable by-product for the editor-in-chief. Anyway, to celebrate this fleeting euphoric moment, I went out for a few dozen beers with some fellow immaterial laborers—fellow members of the new international “cognitariat.” “You mustn’t take it personally,” commiserated one friend. “The boss was envious — as if there isn’t enough to go around.” I guess some people take getting fired personally, and transferring the blame to the other party struck me as testimony that we get by with a little help from our friends. Cheers! Our other friend disagreed: “Congratulations,” he said, “you produced a surplus, and the boss had to forcibly impose scarcity — always the last-ditch effort of a system unable to face its contradictions.” “Actually,” he added offhandedly, “I feel kind of envious.” It struck me that their very different usage of the word “envy” was not so much due to idiosyncrasy as it was reflective of a shift in the objective conditions of envy production in today’s global economy. In the first instance, envy is linked to an artificial economy of scarcity— there’s not enough to go around and we are envious of what we don’t have; in the latter position, envy is the expression of desire to be freed from this artificially-maintained scarcity.


            It so happened that one of my last self-appointed duties at the magazine was to review a book by McKenzie Wark called A Hacker Manifesto (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), which by any account is a fascinating book, but which under the circumstances provided me with the conceptual tools to link my personal encounter with envy with the broader economy of envy in our society. It is a rare thing, and the measure of genuine intellectual creativity, when a writer is able to develop and deploy a full-fledged conceptual vocabulary for sustained use. The book becomes at once the staging ground and the first application of a new way of talking. A hacker, in Wark’s lexicon, is very different from the image of the super-specialized anarcho-programmer that the term still conjures up for most people; indeed it was only in reading the book that I came to realize that I too am a sort of hacker. A hacker, he claims, is someone who taps into knowledge production networks of any kind, and liberates that knowledge from an economy of scarcity. In a society based on private property relations, scarcity is always presented as natural; but in the contemporary context, where intellectual property is the dominant property form, scarcity is artificial, counterproductive, and the bane of all hackers for the simple reason that appropriating knowledge and information by no means deprives anyone else of it. This is a key issue in artistic practice — indeed, Wark discusses hacking as if it is an artistic practice — for the system of value-production in the mainstream art world is also premised on an envy-fermenting regime of scarcity, one underpinned by the author’s signature.


            Wark hacks his rather unorthodox theory out of Marxism: like Marx, Wark believes human history can be conceptualized in terms of class relations and conflict. Today, he argues, this conflict is most acute between what he calls the “vectoralist” class (which has come to supplant the hegemony of the capitalist class) and the new productive class of hackers. Wark derives his name for the new dominant class from its ownership of the “vectors” of our society. A vector is the means by which anything moves: vectors of transport move objects and subjects; vectors of communication move information. Hackers, on the other hand, are the abstract producers of all that flows through the vectors. At the moment, Wark admits, hackers like artists continue to regard one another enviously as rivals, rather than as fellow members of a class with shared interests. However, he continues, “the hacker class does not need unity in identity but seeks multiplicity in difference.” In Wark’s mind, it seems, hackers of the world need not so much unite as continue to untie, freeing knowledge from illusions of scarcity. For those who might find Wark’s picture overly rosy, the book is full of accounts of actual zones of hacker liberty, including this gem from free software advocate and producer, Richard Stallman: “It was a bit like the garden of Eden. It hadn’t occurred to us not to co-operate.”


            Wark’s book, it seems to me, has everything to do with art. Of course the art world is rife with envy from top to bottom, north to south. I’m not arguing that it’s full of jealousy-smitten strategists, intent on one-upmanship like everyone else; that would miss the key to the story of how the symbolic economies of the art world mirror those of the world at large. The art world is so good at the strategic exploitation of inequalities in symbolic capital (which it persists in referring to as “talent,” so as to sweeten the pill and give culture the airs of a natural science), and by having artists and writers not merely accept but actually insist upon non-monetary remuneration and interpersonal competition — which is a fancy way of describing envy — that it has become a model that is studied in MBA-level management courses. But there is also a heuristic dimension to the problem. Take one example: one of the vectors of access to the prestige economy of the international art world is the English language. This point was underscored with corrosive and insolent matter-of-factness in 1992 in Zagreb conceptualist Mladen Stilinovic’s embroidered work, An Artist Who Speaks No English is No Artist. While that sort of quip had critical overtones some fifteen years ago, today it has become a statement of mere fact. And this is the sense of Prishtina–based artist Jakup Ferri’s recent video work of the same title: the artist, his face tightly cropped, addresses the viewer, apparently in English. The words, at any rate, are English and verbose, but they appear strung together by some random alien logic, intent on pulling the language apart. The result is utter gibberish and the effect is dizzying to the point of nausea — watching it is like trying to walk a straight line while drunk. Ferri here breaks with omnipresent “English envy,” displacing scarcity with a deluge of surplus.


            But of course the experience of envy is as widespread as it is oppressive, for the experience of scarcity in the world is all too real. Wark writes: “As more and more of nature becomes a quantifiable resource for commodity production, so the producing classes in the overdeveloped and underdeveloped world alike come to perceive the power the vectoral class has brought in the world: the power to steer development here or there at will, creating sudden bursts of productive wealth, and, just as suddenly, famine, poverty, unemployment, and scarcity.” On a more positive note, however, Wark senses “a detectable air of desperation in the work of the vectoral class, a constant anxiety about the durability of a commodified regime of desire built on a scarcity that has no necessary basis in the material world.” Scarcity, in other words, is the product of class rule, and not an objective fact of nature. But until we can grasp that admittedly counterintuitive point of view, envy too will appear an objective fact of interpersonal psychology. Perhaps in a pastoral society there was an objectively limited amount of arable land, but it was vastly greater than what is required to sustain human needs, and historically transformed into a scarcity only through forced displacement and enclosures. (Olivier Razac makes this argument in his devastating study, the Political History of Barbed Wire.) Under industrial capitalism, scarcity was maintained by the cunning ploy of paying workers slightly higher wages enabling them to buy back at the end of the day a portion of the goods they had just finished producing. But under vectoral capitalism, scarcity has become hard to sell. “The vectoral class commodifies information as if it were an object of desire, under the sign of scarcity. The producing classes rightly take all commodified information to be their own collective production. We, the producers, are the source of all the images, the stories, the wild profusions of all that culture becomes.”


            And it is just that wild profusion which may well make scarcity itself a scarcity! This is truly the irony of ironies: that profusion is relied upon by the vectoralist class to produce a surplus of desire (to consume) along with the scarcity of the desired object. There can be no fundamental limiting of the free productivity of the hacker class — whose role it is to fuel the free productivity of desire with images and stories, new vectors with which to channel them, new means of perceiving them — and so the system induces the very productivity that exceeds the commodity itself. Scarcity is destined to be outstripped by surplus, and it is worth imagining the difference between a human society framed in terms of scarcity and one premised on surplus. The first instance leads to legitimizing, a ruling class taking charge of scarce resources; the second insists that the productive classes produce more than their immediate needs, are deprived of this surplus — and want it back. That is basically what I had intended to say. Until reality intervened, as it always must, bringing envy closer to home than I had anticipated, and making me aware that the only way to thwart envy is to hack into the lack that produces it. Envy is not so much human as it is individual. Is there such a thing as collective envy? I’m not sure there is, and the reasons for that are worth contemplating. Suffice it to say that the only way to combat scarcity is with surplus — with the corrosive and strangely envy-eroding logic of the gift, the true bedrock of human sociality.