RAYYANE TABET: ALIEN PROPERTY at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This article was originally published in The Brooklyn Rail

Seated figure, Neo-Hittite, c.10th–9th century BC (reconstructed 2001–10), Tell Halaf (ancient Guzana), Syria. Basalt, 75 5/8 x 32 1/4 x 39 3/8 inches. Max Freiherr von Oppenheim Foundation, Cologne.

Early one morning, sometime around the 1890s, a Bedouin tribe went to bury one of its elders on a hill at the border of Syria and Turkey. While digging his grave, they came upon a large stone sculpture of an animal with a human head. Scared and taken aback, they covered it up and went to look for another burial site. Their land suffered from unprecedented drought that year, along with a cholera outbreak and swarms of locusts. The tribe attributed these misfortunes to evil spirits that had been released when the statue was unearthed. When Max von Oppenheim—a German diplomat then living in Cairo—arrived in the village of Tell Halaf in the summer of 1899, the Bedouins told him the story of gods, demons, and monsters hiding underground. They hoped that his curiosity would lead him to dig up the statue so that the curse would be carried away from them. His interest was sparked, and for the next 30 years, von Oppenheim kept coming back and excavating Tell Halaf.

In its new exhibition Rayyane Tabet: Alien Property, the Metropolitan Museum of Art explores the circuitous route that ancient artifacts sometimes travel to wind up on display in a hallowed Western institution, if they aren’t first destroyed or lost. On view in the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art are four stone reliefs dating back to the ninth century B.C.—the same ones discovered by the Bedouins in the early 1900s at Tell Halaf. The stone slabs are quite remarkable in and of themselves: One features an image of a horse-drawn chariot hunting a lion; others show fantastic creatures and scenes of regality, combat, and ceremonial banquets. These slabs that once embellished the walls of a monumental Neo-Hittite palace now serve as far-flung time capsules that bear witness to the geopolitics of the mobility of ancient artifacts.

It is, as framed by the artist Rayyane Tabet, a “spy story.” In 1929, the governing authorities of the French Mandate stationed in Lebanon sent Tabet’s great-grandfather Faek Borkhoche to be the secretary to the German excavation director Max von Oppenheim, and to gather information on the archeological dig he had been carrying out in Tell Halaf. At the time, German intelligence officers disguised as ethnographers or archaeologists were sent on sham survey missions in the region. The French suspected that von Oppenheim was one of these officers, since he had been going back to the same location on the border between Syria and Turkey. Faek Borkhoche’s job was essentially to spy on a suspected spy. He wrote reports detailing von Oppenheim’s activities and sent them back to Beirut along with photographs, which later landed in the possession of his great-grandson, Rayyane Tabet.

194 orthostats, or stone slabs carved in low relief, were discovered in 1911. In 1929, authorities under the French Mandate for Syria and Lebanon began to divide and allocate the archaeological artifacts that had been discovered at Tell Halaf. Von Oppenheim received the bulk of the findings, about 80 orthostats. He traveled to the United States in 1931 with the intention of selling eight of the reliefs, but he was unsuccessful, so he left them in storage in New York, with the intention of retrieving them. However, shortly after the United States entered World War II, the government reactivated the Alien Property Custodian Act. By early 1943, the agency’s research into the property of German nationals had led to the storage facility that housed von Oppenheim’s reliefs. American authorities confiscated them after deeming them “enemy property,” at which point they were bought by the Metropolitan.

Rayyane Tabet, Orthostat #170 (detail) from “Orthostates,” 2017–ongoing. Framed charcoal on paper rubbing. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Bequest of Henrie Jo Barth and Josephine Lois Berger-Nadler Endowment Fund, 2019.

In 2017, Tabet began making rubbings of the existing orthostats. So far, he has created rubbings of 32 basalt reliefs in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin; the Louvre Museum, Paris; the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore; and the Metropolitan. Here, the installation of the rubbings echoes the placement of the original stones along the niched walls of the palace. Above them is a complete list of the original orthostats, citing the current location, medium, and motif. In comparison to the definitive and majestic solidity of the stone artifacts, Tabet’s mournful etchings seem to exude a more ambiguous quality that’s decidedly modern. The charcoal rubbings may seem like mere tracings, but the artist doesn’t appear to be aiming to duplicate the reliefs’ designs; rather, he’s reinterpreting the creative output of a long gone civilization, while paying tribute to their subsequent history of plunder and redistribution.

Installation view: Rayyane Tabet / Alien Property, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2019-2021.

In Genealogy (2016), an installation of five segments of goat-hair rug, Tabet presents a different layer of Borkhoche’s story. When Tabet’s great-grandfather died in 1981, he left behind a goat-hair rug given to him by the Bedouin of Tell Halaf in 1929. It was his wish that the 65 foot-long rug be divided equally among his five children, with the request that they in turn divide it among their children, and so on, until the rug eventually disappeared. As of today, the rug has been divided into 23 pieces across five generations. Here, Tabet has borrowed five segments of the heirloom from family members and arranged them in the form of a genealogical table, with the oldest generation at the top. The pieces on display here illustrate the equal segmenting and dissemination of the rug amongst generations: the smaller the fragment, the further it has been handed down. Tabet’s artistic practice draws from experience and self-directed research, he explores stories that offer an alternative understanding of major socio-political events through individual narratives. Informed by his training in architecture and sculpture, his work investigates paradoxes in the built environment and its history by way of installations that reconstitute the perception of physical and temporal distance.

Metropolitan Museum of Art
Rayyane Tabet: Alien Property
October 30, 2019 – January 18, 2021

“Manifesto” at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Installation view of Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto in Manifesto: Art x Agency at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2019. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Lee Stalsworth.

“In this period of change,” narrates Cate Blanchett, “the role of the artist can only be that of the revolutionary.” The actress’s voice-over blares above footage of a bearded old man, pulling a shopping cart through a desolate industrial wasteland. “It is his duty to destroy the last remnants of an empty, irksome aesthetic, arousing the creative instincts still slumbering unconscious in the human mind.” The video slowly crescendos to the main event—Blanchett, playing the role of the homeless man, looking straight into the camera and chanting hypnotic verses akin to a political speech. The words we are listening to come from a manifesto, written by CoBrA artist Constant Nieuwenhuys—who was part of the influential collective of European avant-garde artists—for Reflex I  in September of 1948.

In 2015, German artist and filmmaker Julian Rosefeldt cut and merged several dozen historical texts by artists, critics, filmmakers, and architects to construct scripts for 13 short films that can be screened either back-to-back, or simultaneously as they are now, on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture garden in Washington D.C. The Hirshhorn’s Chief Curator Stéphane Aquin, who organized the current show Manifesto: Art x Agency, places Rosefeldt’s ingenious vignettes, together titled Manifesto, at the center of the exhibition. Shot in Berlin over just eleven days, in locations that ranged widely—from a puppeteer’s workshop to a newsroom to a high-tech trash transfer station—both their unified concept and Blanchett, their principal performer, connect the films. The actress plays the central figure in twelve of the videos (and two people in one of them). The 13th video, a prologue that she narrates, plays on its own separately at the entrance of the projection room.

Under chameleonic guises and a myriad of accents, Blanchett enacts the speeches that Rosefeldt collaged. As one walks through the projection room, one begins to discover the different screens scattered around, some placed parallel and others perpendicular to one another. In one, Blanchett proclaims in a drunken accent, “We glorify the revolution aloud as the only engine of life. We glorify the vibrations of the inventors young and strong. They carry the flaming torch of the revolution,” a composite of lines from several screeds. In another, she embodies a 1950s housewife praying before a Thanksgiving family dinner: “I am for art that comes out of a chimney like black hair and scatters in the sky” (Claes Oldenberg’s “Ode to Possibilities,” 1961).

Installation view of Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto in Manifesto: Art x Agency at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2019. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Lee Stalsworth.

Rosefeldt assigned some speeches to characters whom you would expect to address an audience—the newscaster in the studio, trading lines with a field reporter; a party hostess; an eccentric choreographer; a schoolteacher; and a funeral speaker—and Blanchett does so. In other videos, she performs as the homeless man, a financial trader, a machine operator, and a puppeteer. In these cases, Blanchett delivers the characters’ lines mainly in voice-over.

The intense chatter and narration of the contiguous films clash and overlap until—in an eerily hypnotic and effective touch—all twelve orators of each vignette meld into a sort of chant, as Blanchett directly faces the camera. Though each version of Blanchett is performing a different chant, and a different manifesto, what unifies them is the singular focus of each film on her face, which suddenly takes over the screen. The brief choral moment links the films, and the entire project, regardless of the visitor’s position in the darkened room. The characters all speak at once, in rapid monotone, as if the manifestoes are in dialogue with one another. The collective volume steadily rises until little is discernible. It’s at once passionate, intriguing and disconcerting, compelling the audience to gaze at the many characters that Blanchett performs, and become engulfed by the urgency and immediacy of the recited speech melting into one rhythm. There are assertions of debunking and destroying what came before in order to create a fundamental moment of unique artistic expression, but in looking around, and following each individual plotline, you’re struck by the similarities between the manifestoes: the rhythmic harmony, the energetic symbiosis, and the intellectual attack.

Though artists and creatives have written manifestos across history and geographical location, the term still evokes the revolutionary spirit of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Communist Manifesto, published by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848 set an example for breaking up with the past that seeped into many subsequent avant-garde manifestos and art movements. Its spirit suffuses Rosefeldt’s project, as he quotes from the text on an introductory screen: “All that’s solid melts into air.” Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism, and Suprematism are just a few of the artistic movements that inspired Manifesto. The earliest statement excerpted in the 13-channel video installation is from 1909, by the Italian Futurist Filippo Marinetti. Blanchett recites parts of Marinetti’s incendiary Futurist Manifesto while playing the role of a ballsy Wall Street trader in a clear critique of Marinetti’s misogyny. Not only is Blanchett playing a role normally associated with men and patriarchy, she is doing so while reciting parts of a manifesto that is very much known for its push to glorify war as “the world’s only hygiene.” The manifesto’s basic tenets, however, were nothing if not provocative: “Courage, audacity and revolt will be essential elements of our poetry,” it proclaims.

Installation view of Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto in Manifesto: Art x Agency at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2019. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Lee Stalsworth.

The earlier statements from which Rosefeldt mines all derive from Europeans, at the
time (1910s through late 1940s) impatient with the status quo. “Time and space died yesterday,” Marinetti announces; “I am against systems, the most acceptable system is on principle to have none,” proclaims Dadaist Tristan Tzara in the “Dada Manifesto” of 1918. “We will destroy the cult of the past,” and “Let us overturn monuments, pavements, arcades and flights of steps; let us sink the streets and squares; let us raise the level of the city,” commands another Futurist polemic (“Manifesto of Futurist Architecture,” 1914). However, Rosefeldt doesn’t limit the manifestos one to a time period or continent, as he’s also consulted the aforementioned American sculptor Oldenberg’s “Ode to Possibilities,” (1961), where Oldenberg affirms “I am for an art that grows up not knowing it is art at all,” and even more recent manifestos by filmmakers Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, whose Dogme 95 movement in 1995 declared a half-serious embrace of purist filmmaking.

Manifesto can be read either of two ways: as a showcase for the brilliance of Blanchett’s talent paired with art house cinematography, or as a spectacle. If you’re willing to spend some time with the videos (a total running time of one hour and 35 minutes) an arc of intellectual history can be discerned. As much as Manifesto is about the role of the artist, it also implicates the role of the audience. Manifesto does not underestimate the intelligence or the capabilities of its viewers, but instead addresses them directly, making the agency and urgency shared conditions between both the audience and the artwork. A main thread between the short films seems to be the looming question of whether art still has the potential to be revolutionary.

Ultimately, the work explores the universal role that artists play in our society, and how that role is never passive. Manifesto seems to proclaim that the artist’s position must be towards social propagation and social commentary. It’s a utopian idea for sure, but in stating it and insisting on it Rosefeldt provides his takeaway—the character of the manifesto itself. It is the desire and necessity to feel heard, and the risk that comes with saying something that is almost impossible to realize.

“Manifesto: Art x Agency” is on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue and Seventh Street SW, Washington D.C., through April 6, 2020.


 at Garth Greenan Gallery

Howardena Pindell, Autobiography: Fire (Suttee), 1986–1987. Mixed media collage on paper, 90 x 56 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York.

In 1979, Howardena Pindell (b. 1943) had yet to turn 40 when a traumatic car accident interrupted her career. Cofounder of the pioneering feminist gallery A.I.R. and one of the first black women to be appointed curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Pindell was also an artist. When she began working at the MoMA in 1967, in the Department of Prints and Illustrated Books, Pindell had begun spending her nights creating her own pieces, drawing inspiration from many of the shows hosted by the museum. Her work explored texture, color, structure, and the process of making art. It also was often political, addressing the intersecting issues of racism, violence, exploitation, and feminism. The artist had cultivated a signature painting style: abstract canvases with colorful paper circles attached to neutral backgrounds, mashed with thick, protruding brushstrokes of paint combined to produce an effect like confetti sprinkled over a sidewalk. The crash left her with acute memory loss, but the years following her rehabilitation literalized a process of destruction and reconstruction in the artist’s work. Howardena Pindell: Autobiography, currently on view at Garth Greenan Gallery in Chelsea, presents a handful of paintings and mixed media works on paper from the artist’s “Autobiography” series, created between 1980 and 1995, when she plumbed her life and recollections in an effort to help herself heal.

Pindell had already been a tireless and diligent photo and postcard collector for decades. After the accident, these relics revealed their full usefulness to the artist. The first of the series, Autobiography: Oval Memory #1 (1980-1981) reflects Pindell’s initial attempts to amalgamate memories following the accident. Pindell cut images from her collection into strips before positioning them on the collage. She alternated between photographic imagery and acrylic paint, and integrated the printed fragments into layers of pigment and paper. The swirling combination of postcards, images, paint, and cibachrome forms a polyphony of perspectives—one that speaks to this period of the artist’s life when she was attempting to uncover and rebuild her memory. 

Hole-punched circles of paper meticulously attached to unstretched canvas are signatures of her work. Sometimes, the circles are caked together using globs of paint. Cutting and sewing strips of canvas into swirling patterns, she builds up the surfaces in elaborate stages. In Autobiography: Fire (Suttee) (1986-1987), Pindell used her own body as the focal point, referencing her silhouette on an irregular ovoid canvas by cutting and sewing a traced outline of herself onto its surface. Alluding to an ancient South Asian practice known as Suttee or “widow burning,” painted fingers of various colors (shades of red, yellow, and orange) overlap frantically with strips of photographic fingers all set atop a flame-blue background. The repetition of forms creates a vibrating, fractured feeling. This particular work can be seen as a form of purging: the artist is perhaps offering her own body and old self for sacrifice, same way as Suttee’s fire —which bears resemblance to the artwork itself—swallows the widow.

This particular period in the artist’s life was marked by reflection, influences, and changes in her path. Pindell has described being deeply influenced by the Black Power and feminist movements, as well as by exposure to new art forms during her tenure at MoMA and her travels abroad, particularly to Africa during the 70s, which were funded by the museum’s International Council. She became fascinated by African sculpture, and began to mirror the practice of three-dimensional accumulation in her own work. African art frequently embraces the use of objects in sculpture such as beads, horns, shells, hair, and claws, and these materials also informed Pindell’s work. She began to incorporate additional elements like paper, glitter, acrylic, and dye into her collages. The works on view echo the uncanny resonance between the artist’s embodied experience and her formal interests in fragmentation and integration.

Howardena Pindell, Autobiography: Japan (Hiroshima Disguised), 1982. Mixed media collage on paper, 60 x 118 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York. 

Patterns of rupture and healing are overtly present in Pindell’s life story: her sense of self as an African-American, and being a composite of many cultures and backgrounds (her heritage includes African, European, Seminole, Central American, and Afro-Caribbean roots, along with her position as ethnically Jewish, raised Christian) come together with her fascination with science, mathematics, and rationality on the one hand and her interest in spirituality, traditions, and rituals on the other. This synthesis is apparent in Autobiography: Japan (Hiroshima Disguised) (1982), one of the earliest works of the series. The artist created a composite of ten separate pieces that together form one artwork. Informed by the way a nuclear bomb shatters a geographical place, Pindell represented her own life that had been shattered by her memory loss. The ten irregular shapes are hung side by side, but unlike other works in this gallery, they are not stitched or bound together. This speaks to Pindell’s healing process: she found her mind and subsequently her life scattered around, and slowly began to piece them together. In Japan (Hiroshima Disguised), the elements started off separate, but then in later works she began to closes the distances, until the elements eventually fused.

Howardena Pindell, Autobiography: Red Frog, 1982. Mixed media collage on paper, 60 x 118 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York.

As Pindell ventured further into abstraction, the circle remained a constant shape. In a 2014 interview with ARTnews, the artist recalled a memory from the 1950s when, driving through Kentucky with her father, she spotted a root-beer stand where every mug had a red circle on its bottom. Asking her father about the meaning of the red circle, he responded that the circles were used to segregate the drinking cups because “we’re black and we cannot use the same utensils as the whites. I realized that’s really the origin of my being driven to try to change the circle in my mind, trying to take the sting out of that.”

The large-scale works on view in Howardena Pindell: Autobiography have the effect of looking totally flat and white from a distance but actually being made up of tiny dots (or circles) of colored paper, sequins, and paint. Pindell has likened this experience of viewing her paintings to whitewashing her own identity to make it more palatable for the art world. However, her thick-layered paint strokes tell a different story: they are loud, daring, and very much present. Her adoption and reconstruction of the circular shape additionally reinforces this resistance. In this exhibition, Autobiography: Africa (Red Frog II) (1986) comes closest to being a true circle. Bearing within it a red frog, a stitched oval shape, and short and thick brushstrokes of paint, the piece functions as portal to a different iteration of the artist’s life and history—one where she was younger, on the road, inquiring about the red circles.

Howardena Pindell: Autobiography remains on view through December 7, 2019 at Garth Greenan Gallery, 545 W 20th St, New York.



On Post-irony, Parafiction, and Other Distortions: Sahar Khraibani in Conversation with Hicham Faraj

Hicham Faraj is a multi-disciplinary artist and designer currently based in New York City. He holds an MFA from the Yale School of Art. Faraj’s work deals with friction and dissonance in an age governed by technologies seeking to eliminate them. He explores serious questions on the tension between the human and the post-human with a rather casual and humorous tone. He recently sat down with Sahar Khraibani to talk about post-irony and parafiction, repetition and immortality, and other distortions of time in the Internet age.

Sahar Khraibani (Degree Critical): You talk about post-irony and “parafiction” in your work. Can you tell me a little bit more about these concepts and how you apply them?

Hicham Faraj: I discovered post-irony independently of my work. I was in conversation with my colleagues at the Yale School of Art in 2017 that were engaging with research on post-irony, and the concept resonated with what I was working on at the time. One aspect of post-irony is that it is almost impossible to decipher people’s intentions. I grappled with the inability to tell whether someone is being sincere or being ironic in their statements. We witness many instances of post-irony online, with the way people engage with social media platforms, and the way they share their opinions or worldviews. I think there’s something very ironic about the Internet and social media in general. It’s a great platform for people to be ironic. The way I see it manifest with my work is less about how my work makes people feel but mostly in the way I describe other people’s work or the way I approach it.

DC: What do you mean by that?

HF: I frequently use the adjective “cute” to express my opinion about a project, or an artwork. While my intentions are sincere, they are often mistaken for being ironic, crass or indifferent. The misapprehension of intentions — what makes this situation post-ironic — is the result of the underlying ambiguity of cute. The term cute has three definitions. Cute can mean attractive in a pretty or endearing way, or sexually attractive. But cute can also be defined as cunning and clever, especially in a self-seeking or superficial way. The last definition itself sounds pretty ironic but it’s the only one that comes close to the original meaning of “cute,” which first appeared in English in the 18th century as an abbreviation of “acute,” which also meant sharp or clever. But it seems that over the years the word’s slang meaning caught on and the aesthetic sense has overtaken the intellectual values. Because of its ubiquity in teen magazines, and more recently, the Internet, “cute” is now chiefly used to refer to things we find attractive due to their tiny sizes, fluffiness, and irresistible smiles.

But I’ve also been using “cute” to describe work that isn’t meant to bring out a similar reaction to the one expected when looking at a video of a baby panda sneezing. My confusing choice of words spurs a knee-jerk, pejorative reaction that leaves me wondering about my real intentions in the first place. Have I been using it to mean clever and sharp? Is it a reaction expressive of my attraction to the aesthetic value of the artwork in question the same way I might use it to describe someone’s physical appearance? Could it be my own version of the equally dreaded yet possibly less problematic adjective “interesting?” Maybe I’m not as sincere as I thought I was.

DC: So how does “parafiction” function in relation to this? How does it manifest itself?

HF: What’s interesting to me about parafiction, very similarly to post-irony, is again the incapacity of being able to tell what one thing is. With post-irony, you can’t tell the real intentions behind something, with parafiction you can’t really tell if something is true or false. In my opinion, what makes parafiction successful is that something feels visceral and real, but then you come across minute details that make you question this reality. Parafiction is a term used to describe an emergent genre of artwork that plays in the overlap between fact and fiction. If a parafiction operates within that space between the fictional and the real, alongside this term we might position a second one: a “parafact,” an artwork that draws from the real, but a real whose narrative is so curious, exquisite, or implausible so as to call into question its own veracity. In my work, parafiction and post-irony are major influences. But my work doesn’t quite fit any of these categories fully. This is best embodied in the Immortality Record (2018).

DC: Can you tell me more about the Immortality Record?

HF: It’s a project that was a culmination of a lot of ideas and references related to immortality that I was exploring at the time. The main inspiration for the record was Shin Kubota, a Japanese marine biologist who researches the Turritopsis polyps[1]—the immortal jellyfish—and who also writes karaoke songs about the jellyfish and dresses up as a jellyfish to perform them in karaoke bars in Japan. The relationship between his research and music was intriguing, so I started looking at immortality through the lens of music. In pop songs, the theme of eternity or eternal/immortal love is very relevant. There are so many songs that talk about being immortal in their lyrics. The other influence came about when I was looking into immortality and reading biomedical research about cryonics,[2] rejuvenation, and blood transfusion. I was also looking at online life hacks on how to live longer. Those were more spiritual: drink more tea, look at more art, laugh more often, and finally, listen to more music. All these different references came together and I created the Immortality Record. The record had 12 songs that went chronologically backward from the most recent song to the oldest. They were all pop songs about love that included the word “forever” in the title. The record mimicked the life cycle of the immortal jellyfish and came with the premise that if you listen to it repeatedly, you would keep going back and forth in time, extending your life. In that sense, maybe the record works and fulfills its mission, but it’s a very exaggerated form of parafiction. The balance between fiction and reality here is steeper, and it’s more obviously fiction than it is fact.

Hicham Faraj, Outside Unit A5 (2017). Courtesy of the artist.

DC: Your work operates under specific themes, and you tend to think a lot about a certain idea—shadows, smudges, repetitions— and then create a body of work in relation it. I’m interested in knowing more about two of your projects Outside Unit A5 (2017) and Do you feel alone? (2017).

HF: When I start working on a project, there’s always a formal interest at the beginning. I try as much as possible—and that’s when I feel like I’m being the most successful—to follow where that takes me without being influenced by the ultimate formal result. And I think that was the case with shadows. I was initially just interested in silhouettes of shadows, but as I looked more deeply into them I started getting bored of the formal aspect, and became more interested in the verb “shadow” or what it means to shadow someone and follow them around. Do you feel alone? came from the idea of being watched all the time, or being followed around. It references different contemporary situations, the myth of being constantly watched through your webcam, or receiving targeted advertising, or walking alone at night and feeling as if someone is following you. It also references self-help books. At a time where people are talking and thinking about what it means to be lonely today, the short clip started off as a self-help audio book. Its purpose is to assuage the feeling of loneliness, to make you feel better, and to tell you that you’re not alone. But it’s not telling you this in the sense where you have friends you can reach out to, it’s telling you that you’re not alone because so many people are watching you—the Internet is watching you.

DC: Did this come after working on Outside Unit A5?

HF: It actually came before it and is what prompted Outside Unit A5. When I started becoming interested in shadows, and dove deeper into the topic, the research made me think more about digital surveillance and being watched by other people online. It was post-human in a way. Outside Unit A5 was a complete opposite reaction to that, where I was trying to actually get the attention of my neighbor in New Haven.

My neighbor would always leave their shoes outside the door of their apartment. For some reason, I started taking pictures and documenting their shoes whenever I would leave or come back. At the time I wasn’t working on shadows yet. But when I started researching and working with shadows formally, I looked back at these images and realized that the shoes themselves were an indexical image of my neighbor the same way your shadow is your indexical image—a trace we leave behind. I also noticed that my action of photographing the shoes was in and of itself an act of shadowing my neighbor. I wanted to push that and I wanted to make it a point to find out who my neighbor is just by looking at their shoes and putting clues together. The first step for me was to embody the persona of a private investigator instead of calling myself an artist. I started paying more attention to the habits of my neighbor and the traces of things they left behind until I was actually able to find out whom they were. Once I found out I wanted to reveal myself, which is ironic because I was functioning under the secrecy of a private investigator.

DC: Did calling yourself a private investigator make you approach the work differently? Why did you feel the need to work on this under the guise of an investigator?

HF: I think it was a way to exaggerate the fictional aspect of the project. At the end of the day, I was fetishizing this idea of them leaving their shoes outside when it’s actually a very normal habit. I wanted to exaggerate the shadowing aspect of the work and to push it to its limits. How far could I really go with this? I exaggerated this habit and I wanted to add to the fictional aspect of the work by pretending that I was a private investigator.

DC: What were you reading at the time you were working on these projects, or what were your influences? Whose work were you researching?

HF: At the time I was taking a class at Yale School of Art about German cinema in the 70s and the 80s, and we were looking and thinking about movies by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Michael Haneke. Voyeurism is a big theme in their films. There are a lot of mirrors, the characters were often very melodramatic, and there’s always an aspect of sensationalized violence, or a characteristic of just being watched and looked at. With Haneke’s movies there’s always a feeling of things being on the verge of crashing, or moments of high tension. These influences made me want to tap into things that made me a little less comfortable in my practice. Like putting myself in situations of being a character in a movie. I think that’s why I wanted to exaggerate the fictional elements in the work.

DC: For a while, you did a lot of work about smudges like Compulsory Figures (2018). How did that come about and how did you become interested in smudges? How did you take this almost mundane aspect of everyday life—smudging your phone surface with your fingerprints—and conceptualize it? What was it about these smudges that made you interested?

HF: I always have an interest in one thing and then I let it guide me. With the case of smudges, my interest started with videos of figure skaters falling down. I was really interested in the emotional repercussions of the fall. There’s a millisecond, a tiny mistake, when they fall down, and it breaks the whole illusion of elegance that they are creating. The gracefulness of their movement gets interrupted. Because of the way figure skating is broadcast on TV, a tiny mistake gets extended in time, slowed down, repeated over and over again and there’s nothing the skater can do about it. As I was watching these videos, my attention started shifting from the figure skaters to the surface of the ice. When the lights hit the ice surface, I noticed how flawed the surface becomes with all the skate marks. You can see all the flaws in what otherwise seems to be like a smooth and pristine surface. I was able to create an analogy between something that I know nothing about and something that I do every day: browsing on my phone. That moment when I noticed the ice reminded me of moments where I’d be on my phone and I would notice how smudged the surface of the screen is because of the cracks and the fingerprints on it. And then I realized that the way I slide my fingers on a screen is somewhat similar to the way a figure skater moves on ice. For the longest time, I thought there was something so romantic and beautiful about the way we use our phones but I wasn’t able to pin it down. I was afraid that I was romanticizing and sensationalizing an everyday activity. And I think being able to draw this comparison with figure skaters gave me an excuse to explore this further, and look at the romantic aspect of how we use this technology.

DC: Can you tell me more about this worry of sensationalizing an everyday activity or a repetition of some form?

HF: What’s interesting about repetition is the fact that there’s something satisfying about an action being repeated. It gives one a sense of order, perhaps even some sense of control. There’s also something very visual and systematic about it. My interest in repetition is a result of a broader interest in time, and this is where immortality comes in. One way I witness repetition and deal with it in my work is through animated GIFs. There are so many types of GIFs. There are some that repeat seamlessly where you can’t tell when it starts and when it ends, but then there are the more humorous GIFs, normally sampled out of videos, where it abruptly stops and then begins again. When I interviewed John Williams, Associate Professor of English at Yale, he told me that there’s something childish about these GIFs but that doesn’t make them less entertaining or humorous for adults. That’s a small example of the satisfaction you can get from repetition.

Hicham Faraj, Any (2018). Courtesy of the artist.

DC: Is this what prompted your web-series Any (2018)?

HF: In a way, yes. When you repeat something an excessive amount of times, it becomes comical, for many different reasons. You begin noticing underlying and less obvious aspects of what you are scrutinizing. It’s all about temporal measures. I created the web-series Any with artist Ingrid Chen, and it also relates to repetition, and the exploration of how we experience time. There are three episodes so far and we essentially deconstructed the trope of online tutorials of unboxing consumer goods, cooking videos and other instructional videos that are taken from a top view camera where you can only see the hands of the performer. It’s called Anybecause these hands can signify anyone and can do anything. The first episode is from the point of view of the viewer watching the video, and how for them the person behind the scene is anonymous. Essentially, these hands become yours, and your phone screen where you’re watching becomes a cheap and dissonant portal into a different life. As you hold your phone screen, your hands disappear behind it and they emerge again in the screen through the video. The second episode is from the point of view of the person making the video. We found the subculture of unboxing videos where the people who perform for the camera have very elaborate nail art—their hands are the only way to show their identity in these videos. Conversely, in more mainstream tutorials the hands are supposed to be as neutral as possible. The third episode of Any was more of a speculation on virtual reality in relation to these videos. We were noticing how most applications of virtual reality today take on our human perspective. When you put an AI mask on you are transported to a different constructed reality but you still have somewhat of a linear perspective—the same you would experience it in your natural environment. We were speculating on a virtual reality that takes on other perspectives, like the very unnatural perspective of a top view, or omnipresent perspective. These tutorials bend time: an activity that normally takes a long time such as baking a cake would take 30 seconds on a cooking tutorial and is made to look so easy. Whereas an activity that normally takes 30 seconds such as unboxing, is extended to a 20-minute tutorial video. Time is warped in that sense. Tasks that we find laborious or difficult in real life are made to look easy, whereas tasks that are simple are extended. The excessive amount of these videos that you can find online relates to this repetition, you get to live vicariously through these hands and these videos. The Internet can stop time.

[1] Turritopsis polyps is a species of small jellyfish found in the Mediterranean Sea and in the waters of Japan. It is one of the few known cases of animals capable of reverting completely to a sexually immature, colonial stage after having reaching maturity as a solitary individual. This process can go on indefinitely, effectively rendering the jellyfish biologically immortal.

[2] Cryonics is the low-temperature freezing of a human corpse, with the hope that resuscitation may be possible in the future.

New York, Beirut