Why would anyone want to speed up capitalism? In Myriam Ben Salah’s current exhibition “Like the Deserts miss the real” – a part of the Tomorrow Today exhibition series at Vienna’s galleries this fall – the topic is being carried to the Middle East and to the Arab Gulf in particular. In conversation with Myriam, Melanie Sindelar inquires what this exhibition has to do with accelerationism, a space-time continuum and the gaze of Sci-Fi Wahabi.
Artists from the Arab Gulf are exhibiting currently at Galerie Steinek, a curated project named “Like the Deserts miss the real”. What led you to thematically deal with work produced in the Arab Gulf, and why did you choose this title? What is the “real” that the deserts are missing?
Basically I started from the essay that Armen Avanessian wrote for Tomorrow Today as a general theme for this session of exhibitions. To sum it up, he brought up the issue of artists helping us transition into a post-capitalistic society by accelerating the conditions of capitalism. Armen speaks about an art that overcomes the critical distance that defines contemporary art as a genre by instead acting within the world while creating economic projects that are actual concrete interventions in the capitalistic realm. 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. The region has a complex relationship to time, especially in the Gulf. I was wondering when you are an artist and you grew up in a region where everything is already so accelerated how do you react to that? Do you want to speed things up or do you want to resist by some sort of stillness or motionless approach in your work? What is your relationship to the future when you evolve in a society where science fiction is, indeed, the best kind of realism?
One of the ideas you have worked with in this exhibition concerns accelerationism, a concept proposed among others by Armen Avanessian. In the introduction to #ACCELERATE#, Avanessian and Mackay state that accelerationism is a “political heresy”, and that “the insistence that the only radical political response to capitalism is not to protest, disrupt, or critique, nor to await its demise at the hands of its own contradictions, but to accelerate its uprooting, alienating, decoding, abstractive tendencies.” How exactly did you deal with this concept and in which ways did you view it critically, if so?
The work of artists from the Gulf and especially GCC (a collective of 8 artists that have several works in the exhibition) is often linked to accelerationism because they adopt the aesthetics of accelerationism. Actually, they don’t deal directly with the issue as a theoretical concept but their work explores a society that mixes corporate culture and nation-building and thus matches with what we have in mind when we think about accelerationist aesthetics. In that sense, I didn’t really shape the show following Armen’s assertion. Of course there are artists, some very good, developing a more direct approach towards economic alternatives but that is only a fringe and I don’t think it represents the future of contemporary art.
In your curatorial statement you refer to the conundrum of what accelerationism proposes to a region like the Arab Gulf. In a place that has always seemed to operate on high-speed anyway, how can accelerationism be artistically applied? Does the exhibition have a preliminary answer to what you yourself have posed as a question in your curatorial statement, being “how would it be possible to accelerate the conditions of consumer capital in a region where they are already among the most accelerated in the world?”
I don’t think the show gives an answer to that. It offers more of an alternative view on how artists react to that acceleration. I think most of the works are actually dealing with the contrary: stillness. For example, the collective GCC is always dealing with the question of repetition and of rituals that are very important in the Gulf. You are submerged by this crucial duality between the high-speed and the fast technologies and the atrophy of the bureaucracy of the society and of the region in general.
In your curatorial statement you also say that the “works in the show shape a new space-time continuum where”, and you quote Reza Negarestani, “archaeology and science-fiction coincide in a notion of materiality”. What kind of envisioned space-time continuum is that?
Myriam: I wanted to focus on the way artists from that region deal with the notion of time. Artists from the Middle East are always associated with rhetorics from the past, and the West constantly expects them to deal with history and with traumatic backstories to be “authentic”. I wanted to show that they are also able to foresee a future and to deal with a sharper sense of modernity. There is a real shift happening in the practice of a young generation of artists from the region who bring back a very important heritage of cultural modernity that have been unforeseen due to media propaganda mainly. For example the work of Marwa Arsanios who is not from the Gulf but from Lebanon is a trace of a performance that she made two years ago where she cuts out titles of an Egyptian magazine called al-Hilal that had a section called the “news of tomorrow and the day after tomorrow”. The magazine was imagining what the year 2000 would be. I found it interesting to see that even in the 60’s there was a sense of this future and some sort of sense of science-fiction.
The artworks exhibited in the show are quite different in nature, there is video, there is smell, things to read. What is the logic that spins the golden thread between all these projects?
I guess that the main link was that idea of playing with time and the idea of mobility (and stillness) in time. There is also a major focus on the issue of “representation”: representation of the Middle East and from the Middle East is playfully deconstructed through a certain vision of stereotypes. The question of representation is very important and it is linked to the notion of mirage, of that false representation of the “real”. The wealth of part of the region is based on oil, a resource that is doomed to disappear.
Two more questions left. The first one reaches back to the texts that seems important for the exhibition. One is of course on acceleration but the other is Sophie al-Maria’s text “Sci-Fi Wahabi”. In this text al-Maria treats the rise of technology and increased use of mobile-phones quite skeptically; accelerationism however would argue for the need to make use of the products that have been yielded through a capitalist system. I was wondering how these two texts stand in a competition to each other.
I think what al-Maria describes is capitalism preview of the very end of capitalism, a disptopian tomorrow turned today.
Let’s zone out of the exhibition and focus on the wider art market. The art market in the Middle East – but especially in the Arab Gulf – has seen a new rise, with art fairs that have been established just 10 years ago and major art investments taking place in most Arab Gulf states. How do you evaluate the current situation, and in which ways would you envision the market to head to in the following years? What’s your take on it?
Myriam: I think a lot of these initiatives are really serious and obviously very interesting but a lot of them also participate to the nation-branding mechanism. Also, there is indeed a serious interest in the art from Arab countries and from the Gulf also because there is money in the region and important collectors. I feel that there is some sort of tacit commission from the market, and especially the Western market, towards Arab artists to produce a certain type of work, the one I was telling you about before as in dealing with the past, the history, the religion, the war. Meanwhile artists today are on the internet, they’re living in a globalized world and they produce work that can’t be stamped “Arab” which doesn’t mean that the work is disconnected from any place or time. It just mean that it doesn’t have to be aesthetically recognizable as such.
Thank you for your time!
// Interview by Melanie Sindelar
LIKE THE DESERTS MISS THE REAL
curated by Myriam Ben Salah
Part of ‘Tomorrow Today’ • curated by_vienna
Exhibition: 11/09 – 30/ 10/ 2015
Galerie Steinek • Eschenbachgasse 4 • 1010 Vienna • Austria