In the exhibition text, curators Malak Helmy and Raimundas Malašauskas wrote “Could we think of an exhibition as the home of an album that you enter when you open the door and climb the stairs?”
Entering an album means to deliberately abandon oneself to the experience of a non-homogenous time. We are here, when an instant of silence precedes the music. Then, as it starts, we are transported inside the tracks; time and again we magically transcend our current position, before being brought to the surface as the music stops, like a breath after a deep apnea. We are inside and outside the fiction, while the silences between one track and the other act like a theater curtain, veiling and unveiling the music, setting the rhythm of the show. The curtain does not simply divide the hall and the stage, it divides fiction from reality. For this reason the curtain was a crucial threshold in Michel Foucault’s Of Other Spaces, written in Tunis in 1967 to develop the concept of heterotopia, a space determined by being other than reality: while opening and closing, the curtain not only sets the rhythm of the show, it rhythms fiction within reality.
#3 Speaking About the Curtain
Curtain: the word cannot completely free itself from the heritage of its political weight, continuously echoing its iron-made counterpart in the geopolitical lexicon of the Cold War. The curtain is not that which beckons to be crossed, but the threshold beyond which the other stands.
A curtain is hung at the core of the title of Meeting Points 8 — Both Sides of the Curtain — organized by Mophradat as a program of international contemporary arts, designed for this edition in three episodes, Cairo (May 25–28), Brussels (December 7–17) and April 2017 in Beirut. The Brussels edition took place at contemporary art space La Loge, in the form of an exhibition and a multi-format public program, and stands as the starting point for this article.
Enclosed within the title’s reference to two sides, the curtain suddenly announces a question on the evolution of political otherness: the “political other” that, after the falling of the socialist block, emerged in the so-called West in respect to the Arab world. Through Meeting Points, in Brussels we see the image of the curtain being drawn, only four weeks after Trump’s triumph, in the wake of a campaign constructed through racism and the labeling of Arabs as the ultimate other.
And yet, more than simply reminding us of the geopolitical map, the curtain specifically raises a question about representation. Indeed, beyond the line of the curtain there is not simply the other, but its representation. As in all theaters, beyond the curtain stands an image constructed for the benefit of the hall. A heterotopia is not only determined by being other than reality, but is accurately preserved in order to be so: an “other” space that includes levels of fiction that set the rhythm for the stability of reality. With their prepared dissonances, heterotopias counter the stability of a single melody, the created exotic fiction of the other that stabilizes the perception of the self.
In the sound of the curtain being drawn, we hear the echo of Edward Said (quoting T.S. Eliot), whispering, “reality cannot be deprived of the ‘other echoes [that] inhabit the garden’.”
#4 Elias Rahbani and the Eye of the Tiger
By Sophia al-Maria: “A mash-up of my favorite Elias Rahbani track “Dance of Maria” and the 1977 British fantasy classy classic Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. Obviously I don’t own the material here but I hope anyone who takes offense at a harmless little fan video knows: if you flag me I’ll transmorph”
#5 Oasis (or Self-Complexity Springing in the Middle of the Desert)
Speaking about the curtain does not mean speaking about the rhythm, but about the construction of rhythm; to question the codes of “othering” and representing the “other side,” which, more than being a construction, is often a form of reduction. Film-essayist has Adam Curtis identified the “oversimplification of complexity” as a primary feature of western politics: a desire to conquer the unknown that comes with the impossibility of dealing with the unknown as such. This gives rise to attempts to reduce complexity into a graspable image. Presenting works of artists from the Arab world (among others), Both Sides of the Curtain not only rejects the ongoing exoticism in contemporary arts, but discloses an act of self-representation that reclaims complexity in its full force.
In a narrow corridor on La Loge’s first floor lies a video by Qatari-American artist Sophia al-Maria. Similar to the re-appropriation and neutralization of orientalism in the afore-positioned 1977 film Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, images here are layered one on top of one another, in a complex montage that creates a narrative beyond linearity and forms an imaginary that refuses to be domesticated. The screen lies on the sand, an ironic allusion to the exotic stereotype of an oasis in the middle of the desert, reclaimed here as a source of self-complexity springing up amid exoticism. Pioneering the use of the terms “Arab” and “Gulf-futurism” since her early work, and through her 2008 blog The Gaze of Sci-Fi Wahabi, al-Maria once again resets the deliberate use of fiction as a tool to shift the boundaries of assigned identity.
#6 To Dance Under Cover of a Fictional Rhythm
During the second day, Lawrence Abu Hamdan gave a lecture-performance titled Contra Diction: Speech Against Itself, disclosing a reflection on the taqiyya. Appearing in the Quran (16:106), taqiyya is defined as a dispensation from telling the truth, allowing Muslims to lie in order to protect themselves or the Muslim community. Albeit originally described as a defensive technique, taqiyya could be used as a tool, making a weapon of the doctrine. Ten years ago the term was used at the core of a text by Iranian philosopher Reza Negarestani, describing taqiyya in militarized jihadism as a technique that allows for a high degree of assimilation among civilians before a jihadist attack, which aims at putting the whole population under suspicion. Quoting Muhammad abd-al-Salam Faraj’s manifesto The Neglected Obligation, Negarestani wrote:
“if they take drugs we must do the same, if they take part in every type of sexual activity we must drive those activities to the point of excess.”
Taqiyya here implies an act of camouflage — instead of suggesting silence, it instructs you to speak like the other in order to be invisible. To assume the rhythm of the other, and yet not completely adhere to it. To become a hidden rhythm within it.
Isolated from a militarized context, Lawrence Abu Hamdan shows taqiyya’s potentiality as an act of freedom: a freedom to lie, a freedom of artificiality, a freedom from identity. In the words of Abu Hamdan, it is a shift from being subservient to subverting: Being unrecognizable, working with fiction, to push the boundaries of an assigned fiction.
In this same sense, in a text on her blog titled A Fictional Account of the Arabian Gulf’s Exodus from Reality, Sophia al-Maria spoke about herself in the third person. “I have named her in order to redepart from my person, nation and race all of which are undergoing a reversal of values brought on by the jawal. I have also masked her in science fiction in order to create a pure screen of identity, in order to ‘rearrive’ at the place of critical engagement unrecognized and uninhibited. The third person is a useful tool.” To merge a rhythm into the other and appear as a polyrhythmic song. Or to finally dance, uninhibited, under cover of a fictional rhythm.
#7 A tooth for an eye
To suit our needs
Open my country
A tooth for an eye
The idea of what’s mine
A strange desire
Drawing lines with a ruler
Bring the fuel to the fire”
(The Knife – A Tooth for an Eye – 2013)
The basement of La Loge hosts the Cairo-based artist-run space Nile Sunset Annex. It emerges as an exhibition within the exhibition, and we enter a project in which the idea of the exhibition itself is challenged.
The works of Shehab Awad, Olivier Castel or Marnie Slater are not simply presented, rather they appear in a peculiar display that perturbs the logic of the white cube. The space of the basement is defined by upward-growing forms that merge with the architecture like organic stalagmites emerging from the ground. They are the pedestals supporting the works of the artists, and yet they refuse to adhere to their usual role, that of disappearing discretely to serve the centrality of the work of art. At first sight, one cannot say whether they are part of the work or not, and as we lose the limit between the setting and the work, we lose our certainties as spectators.
On a poster on the wall, a text about Strategies to Dismantle Binary Thinking Through Salsa Dancing, composed starting from fragments of text by Colombian artist Ericka Florez, suddenly gives voice to these thoughts circulating in the space:
“Cannibalism also confuses the sharp division between the strong and the weak: who contributes, who receives, who is the asset and who is the liability. A fertile metaphor for rethinking power relations dialectically. Is it possible to be ‘with’ and ‘against’ something at the same time?”
If normally plinths and pedestals are rendered invisible by our gaze, here they manifest their autonomy from the work they support as an excess of matter that reclaims attention. They support the works, but compete with them. With and against at the same time. Subserving and subversive in the same relationship. The camouflage travels into the basement to affect the very way we conceive of an exhibition.
Neither part of the work, nor of the gallery, the stalagmites challenge the possibility of defining the limit of the work. Neither part of the fiction nor of reality; neither part of the stage, nor of the hall, they are, in their materiality, nothing but the limit between the two of them.
The third night, during The Listening Hour — a format of collective listening of selected music tracks — Raimundas Malašauskas explained his desire to listen to the end of the track, focusing on change as a substance and not a transition.
The stalagmites make tangible this substance: the change is not an empty transitory space between two poles, but a material space that reclaims its autonomy. Neither part of the stage, nor of the hall, the stalagmites lie in the space of the curtain. Suddenly it appears differently: it does not simply divide two spaces, but rather it is a space — a substance more than a transition. More than simply dividing the volume, the curtain has a volume.
Looking at the two sides of the curtain might be different now. Are they not two faces of the same matter? We take the curtain and detach it. Following Möbius we reconnect both sides to obtain a single surface with only one side and only one boundary, in the materiality of which a new space emerges. The curtain is not only an instrument that asks us to position ourselves in relation to it, but an object within which we can live.
We take it and dress ourselves up with it: we lose the boundary between the real and the fiction, because the curtain is nothing but the possibility of fiction that appears in its materiality.
We dress ourselves up with it and dance under its cover. Beyond the duality, the rhythm is not the alternation between the two sides, but is created by the curtain itself, as we dance. “Dance as a weapon,” as the Knife sang. Finally the rhythm of the opening and closing of the curtain no longer simply sets the rhythm of our supposed reality constructed with fiction, but becomes a polyrhythmic song where dances merge; a doubt where we can meet.
#10 Yourself Remixed Five Times
The description of this space brings us back to the sound of the beginning of the album, and the image of the heterotopia. Was it not suggesting, more than a single rhythm supporting the lines, a complexity beyond domestication? In Of Other Spaces, Foucault wrote, “The heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible. Thus it is that the theater brings onto the rectangle of the stage, one after the other, a whole series of places that are foreign to one another.”
We are not simply on one side or the other one of the curtain: we might be the curtain: a material space of complexity, as the one lived by Sophie al-Maria and Ericka Florez. Is a place that has the consistency of a remix, where different atmospheres coexists to construct the complexity of the track. Not by chance do we find in the program of Meeting Points 8 a quote from a review of Brandy’s 1998 Full Moon album, “I think what’s hard is to keep all your selves with you, or if not with you exactly then somewhere in the mix: not to wince away from the histories inscribed in you, but not to get bogged down in them either, to avoid nostalgia as much as false hope… some kind of perfect mix…” resonating in the words of the program that sound like a last invitation, “Yourself remixed five times.”
#11 Ghost Track
While you are reading I am still at La Loge.
This fiction is our meeting point.
Edward Saïd, Culture and Imperialism, New York, Vintage 1993, p. 336
Reza Negarestani, The Militarization of Peace. 2006 in COLLAPSE I, ed. R. Mackay (Oxford: Urbanomic, 2007)
Sophia al-Maria, A Fictional Account of the Arabian Gulf’s Exodus from Reality, 2008, in The Gaze of Sci-Fi Wahabi
The Knife, A Tooth for an Eye, 2013
Michel Foucault, Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias. From: Architecture /Mouvement/ Continuité October, 1984; (“Des Espace Autres,” March 1967 Translated from the French by Jay Miskowiec). p.6
Hannah Black, Full Moon, 2016, on The White Review
This piece was commissioned and edited by Lara El Gibaly