November 6, 2017

Interview: Myriam Ben Salah and Martha Kirszenbaum

Interview: Myriam Ben Salah and Martha Kirszenbaum

Meriem Bennani, Still from 'Fardaous Funjab', 2015. Image courtesy of the artist.

By Heather Jones



I Heard You Laughing, a group exhibition of video work from the Middle East in its broad acceptation, is on view at Kunsthall Stavanger from November 9, 2017 – January 14, 2018. Curated by Myriam Ben Salah and Martha Kirszenbaum, the exhibition challenges stereotypical narratives of struggle and rhetoric of the past often associated with Middle Eastern artwork. Below, the curators further describe their research and motivation behind the exhibition. 

Heather Jones: Can you begin by telling us about yourselves and how you came to work together on I Heard You Laughing? What was the impetus behind the project? 

Martha Kirszenbaum: I am a French curator of Polish descent who has spent the last four years in Los Angeles, notably directing an exhibition space and residency program named Fahrenheit, where I have developed a program of exhibitions, screenings, performances and events in connection with the French art scene and culture. Growing up in Paris, I have been for many years interested in and inspired by Middle-Eastern popular culture—music, dance, cinema, and have traveled extensively to the region. In the summer of 2015, Myriam came to visit me in Los Angeles and we started discussing the topic of re-thinking the way we look at art practices from the Middle East,within the framework of an exhibition Myriam would organize at Fahrenheit the following year. We started, very organically, to compile video works by young artists from the region, and music videos from iconic musicians and performers from the 60s and 70s that we liked, such as Googoosh, Fairuz, Bendaly Family or Warda. Upon the invitation from Kadist Foundation in San Francisco the next summer, we organized our selection into a coherent screening, and in the past two years, it has been screened in three different versions at Kadist Paris, MOCA Los Angeles, Pejman Foundation in Tehran, and presented as a film exhibition at Gregor Staiger Gallery in Zurich, and finally, here at Kunsthall Stavanger. 

Myriam Ben Salah: As for me, I grew up in Tunisia and moved to Paris when I was eighteen years old to study. I spent seven years working at the Palais de Tokyo while developing my own curatorial projects on the side. When I visited Martha in Los Angeles in 2015, I was working on a project for “curated_by” an exhibition program taking place in Vienna. I was invited by philosopher Armen Avanessian to make an exhibition proposal around the notion of ‘accelerationism’ (the idea that capitalism, or various processes attached to it, should be deepened or “accelerated” in order to prompt radical change). My idea was to create both a conceptual and geographical shift and to look at this issue from another perspective which would be the perspective of the Middle East in general and the Gulf in particular. I dived into the essay of Qatari-American artist Sophia Al-Maria titled “Gaze of Sci-Fi Wahabi” (2007-2008) and from there I started researching the artistic practices of a generation of artists who were clearly shifting the narratives and suggesting a new way to consider the region. At the same moment, I became fascinated by this BBC report on a wedding singer from the Gaza Strip who had won the Arab Idol contest. Images of joy, emotion and dance were quite unusual for general television, telling a diverging account of current events from what is usually reported of Gaza, but also Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia. I felt at that moment that in the end, in the face of pop culture, we are all equal. I showed that video to Martha, we started to discuss and exchange clips, and we kept the ball rolling! 

The title of this exhibition points to humor and more playful representations of the Middle East, and indeed there is a thread of irony or mockery running through many of the works included here. Can you tell us more about the reasons behind the humor in these videos? Is it mockery of self, of Western culture’s interpretation of the Middle East, or both? 

Well the whole point of the exhibition as it started was to investigate new ways of looking at art and culture from the Middle-East and neighbouring countries. The post 9/11 period - that is still unfolding - was marked by a rise in the visibility of the region, but the world seems to systematically look at it through the singular lens of failure and conflict. The West has alternately romanticized and fomented fears of the Middle East, keeping it a “serious” subject matter. This is probably why for a long time, artists from the region have been obsessed with struggle narratives and a rhetoric of the past, creating works that were almost a response to a “tacit commission” from the West, arbitrarily linking authenticity with traumatic backstory and past/drama storytelling. 

We tried to focus on the works and researches of a new generation of artists who digested both the rich cultural history of their respective countries and the contemporary connected world that we live in. They are not afraid of self-mockery and don’t think about political-correctness, thus paying tribute to centuries of overlooked Middle Eastern cultural modernity and avant-garde movements that few people know about. They’re reintroducing the wit, the humour, the party spirit, the attention to appearance, the objects of mass culture, the laziness, the research of happiness, the kitsch and the star system among other things that are crucial in defining a region otherwise barely unified. So I think the humour and irony that is present here is less about criticizing a Western culture's interpretation of the region and more about a gentle and affectionate social critique from within. These works don't cater in any way to the West and address the question of audience in a very straight forward way: they are made from and for the region, defying any presumed homogeneity or audience expectation the West might have. 

The exhibition comprises selected music videos from iconic Middle-Eastern musicians of the 1950s-70s alongside video works by younger contemporary artists. Why the combination of these two seemingly separate genres? 

It felt really important for us to deconstruct the traditional hierarchies within the medium of moving image, that is to say to break the assumption that a cinema feature is be more valuable or important than an artist film, that is itself to be placed above a TV series or a music video. Our idea was to place next to each other artists’ films and music videos found on YouTube to precisely emphasize, on the one hand, that the definition of moving image is broader than just one genre and, on the other hand, to build a visual and cultural connection, and sometimes evoke contrast, between today’s representation and tropes related to the region, and the period of 1950-70s, that can be considered as the golden age of cultural production in the Middle East, from Egyptian cinema through Lebanese or Iranian pop music. This is why, for instance, hippie 1970s Lebanese band Bendaly Family’s clip shot in Kuwait made sense when paired to an evocation of the country today by Fatima Al-Qadiri and Khalid Al-Gahraballi, or when Fairuz sings a Christian Christmas carol on National Lebanese TV in the early 1960s next to Dor Zleka Lévy’s 2014 video depicting a Jewish cantor performing in Arabic a famous old Egyptian song. 

Why did you decide to focus on the medium of video for this exhibition? In the exhibition text you state that artists/artworks from the Middle East are often associated with narratives of struggle and rhetoric of the past. Does the medium of video itself counter common expectations of artwork from the Middle East? 

One thing for sure is that we live in a cultural context dominated by images and by the accessibility to technologies. Today, anyone in Paris, Los Angeles, Rabat or Tehran has access to cable channels and YouTube, and can make use of a smartphone to document his/her everyday life. The screening reflects on a generation of artists who grew up with TV and the Internet and who are using all possible technologies — phones, social media, etc. — to express themselves. In this sense, the medium of film (whether it is HD production, a cellphone footage or a music video) does bring a new dimension to the topic and representation of the region. A good example is Meriem Bennani, who is fully exploiting the wide scope of possibilities offered by moving image and technology. She travels to her native country of Morocco and captures footage with her smartphone. Once back in New York, she edits and manipulates the footage with different software, and finally present her work as expanded cinema installations.  

I want to ask you about audience and mediation. Many of the works, such as Mendeel Um A7mad (N x I x S x M) and Fardaous Funjab, reference cultural traditions, rituals, dress, etc. Some of these cultural markers are more widely understood, such as the hijab, while others less so, such as the chai dhaha ritual. You are presenting these video works in Norway in obviously a very different context from which the artworks were made. How do you think about the audience and the communication of these videos? 

Of course we are very aware these works will create surprise because of some references, but we also think they have something quite universal that precisely sits in the humour and the use of popular cultural markers. Fardaous Funjab goes from hijab to Metallica, Mendeel Um A7mad (N x I x S x M), despite the specific ritual it is contextualized into, will speak to everyone who witnessed a gossipy conversation among the women of their family. We are really interested in this split of having people look at something that is seemingly very different from what they know, but in the end becomes very familiar. It’s that space that’s relevant. In Sarah Abu Abdallah's Out to Lunch video for example everything is strange and "foreign": no subtitles, no clues of where this is happening or even what is happening. But all of a sudden a Whatsapp' window appears and although it's in Arabic, the viewer feels a certain familiarity that allows to connect to the video. It is also quite specific to works from a generation of artists that grew up as "digital cosmopolitans". 

In preparing for I Heard You Laughing, we’ve come across the term ‘Gulf Futurism’ coined by Fatima Al Qadiri and Sophia Al-Maria, two artists included in the exhibition. Can you discuss where this term comes from and what it describes? 

It's a very interesting notion that actually came up at the very beginning of the reflexions that initiated this screening exhibition. The term was coined by Sophia Al-Maria and appeared through her writings ("Gaze of Sci-Fi Wahabi," The Girl Who Fell to Earth, among others). It defines a phenomenon that spans architecture, urban planning, art and aesthetics in the post-Oil Gulf. It is characterized by the isolation of individuals via technology, wealth and reactionary Islam, the corrosive elements of consumerism on the soul and of industry on the earth, and the replacement of history in the collective memory with fantasies of a glorified heritage. The concept is interesting as this region that is often associated traditions of the past is suddenly viewed as " an uncanny preview of long-imagined futures/nows, where love is mediated by mobile and death conquered by camera", as Al-Maria herself puts it. 

I was surprised to find a very fluid relationship to gender and sexuality in many of these works, from the scantily clad Googoosh from pre-revolution Iran to the blatant sexual imagery in Ass 4 Sale to the same video’s male twerkers and the gender role reversal in Mendeel Um A7mad (N x I x S x M). What is the importance of playing with gender and sexuality in Middle Eastern artistic practices? 

This was essential for us to highlight as again, there are different things to consider: first, the conservatism displayed by some governments or religious parties in the region concerns the public space, not individuals and their private space that remains a preserved area in terms of freedom. Despite the biased stereotypes that circulate through the media, people in the Middle-East deal with relationships, with sex and with gender issues. Besides, the conservatism—that is effective in some parts of the region— hasn't always been there and there was an incredible moment of cultural modernity in the region in the 60s and 70s, which is also why we chose to show video clips from that moment, hence Googoosh in pre-revolution Iran. The spirit didn’t disappear with the rise of religious and radical politics and although the public sphere is regulated, individuals have the same complex relationship to sex and gender. 

I understand that I Heard You Laughing began a screening series at Kadist and Galerie Gregor Staiger and has expanded into a larger exhibition here at Kunsthall Stavanger. Do you have any plans for next iterations of the project? 

First of all, being able to show the screening series as a proper film exhibition in Stavanger appeared as a very important opportunity for us to expand the reflection around the themes developed in the screening, and how we wish to present those works. The upcoming iterations of the film program hopefully include screenings in New York and London (institutions to be confirmed), and one at State of a Concept in Athens. We’re also working on bringing the films to Beirut, and some of them possibly to Israel, at two non-governmental and independent spaces in Tel Aviv and Haifa. It is important for us to also target audiences that are most directly concerned with the subject and the realities conveyed in the videos. It was for instance fascinating to show the program in Tehran, in a context that at the same time triggers and restrains the possibilities of debating about them, and to gather so many feedbacks and reactions.  

Martha Kirszenbaum (b. 1983, Vitry-sur-Seine, France) is a curator and writer based in Los Angeles, where she has founded and directed Fahrenheit, an exhibition space and residency program (2014-16). She graduated from Sciences Po in Paris and Columbia University in New York, and worked at the Media Department of MoMA in New York (2006-07), the Photography Department of Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris (2007) and at the New Museum in New York (2008-10). Additionally, she collaborated with the Center for Contemporary Art in Warsaw, the Belvedere Museum/21er Haus in Vienna, Palais de Tokyo in Paris and the Kunsthalle Mulhouse. Kirszenbaum is a regular contributor to Flash Art, Mousse, CURA and Kaleidoscope among other publications, has led seminars on curatorial practice at the Université Paris VIII and Parsons, Paris, and serves on the selection committee of Art Brussels.

Myriam Ben Salah (b. 1985, Algiers) is a curator and writer based in Paris, where she has been coordinating special projects and public programs at the Palais de Tokyo since 2009, focusing especially on performance art, video and publishing initiatives. She is the Editor in Chief of KALEIDOSCOPE magazine’s International Edition. She co-edits F.A.Q., a periodical image-only magazine with artist Maurizio Cattelan, as well as FEB MAG, the publication of the Underground Museum in Los Angeles. Ben Salah is the curator of the 10th edition of the Abraaj Group Art Prize taking place in Dubai in 2018.

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