Arab Experiments: Creation, Exhibition, Distribution
In what follows I will examine issues regarding exhibition venues, distribution and artists' rights, focusing on experimental film and media art in the Arab world. Will only lightly touch of theoretical issues, but we can discuss them further later.
1. Arab experimentalism: a (post) avant-garde?
In the Arab world from the late twentieth century until now, a host of political pressures created a crucible: neo-imperialist wars, international law's impotence against illegal aggressions; Israel's ever-expanding occupation of Palestinian land; Arab governments' own corruption. Samir Kassir, the great Lebanese journalist assassinated in 2005 check, characterized the resulting feeling at the point it had reached after the Iraq War of 2003:
Powerlessness to be what you think you should be. Powerlessness to act to affirm your existence, even merely theoretically, in the face of the Other, who denies your right to exist, despises you and has once again reasserted his domination over you. Powerlessness to suppress the feeling that you are no more than a lowly pawn on the global chessboard even as the game is being played in your backyard.
A lot of contemporary Arab art and intellectual culture works with this state of painful suspension. Many Arabs have detailed knowledge of both Arab and Western history, a keen awareness of the present circumstances of their society and its relations with others, and a razor-sharp analytical capacity. But they are unable to act.
The incapacity to act intensifies the conditions of creativity. It presses Arab artists to perceive even more keenly, inform themselves even more precisely, plunge into public archives and private memory, dream, fantasize, and invent. These works can be thought of in Deleuzean terms as Arab affection-images, Arab time-images. The affection-image suspends qualities that might become the basis for acts and instead makes them vibrate with the potential for other kinds of acts, feelings, or perceptions, as in Hassan Khan's films of communal paranoia. The time-image elevates the incapacity to act to a high creative principle that allows any image to connect with any other, as in Mohamed Soueid's surrealistic documentaries.
I also suggest we can observe manners of unfolding in Arab cinema. This view, based in Isma'ili Shi'ite thought as well as Deleuze, can be compared with Jalal Toufic's influential concept of "the withdrawal of tradition after a surpassing disaster" by which, given the 20th-century disasters in the Arab world, representation is no longer possible. I propose, in contrast, that Arab experiments range from complete enfolding—the refusal to represent—to a variety of manners of unfolding.
Arab people's position as geo-political seers, sharply critical of received representations, yet incapable of action, generates experimentation. Even if people in the Arab world gain more political autonomy, as I hope they will, their geopolitical position will probably continue to give rise to sharp and creative experiments.
Creative communities and alliances support and nurture experimentation: film and media production organizations, festivals, galleries, archives, formal and informal schools. Beirut DC, Ashkal Alwan in Beirut, Townhouse Gallery and the Contemporary Image Collective in Cairo, the Alexandria Contemporary Art Forum, the Cinémathèque de Tanger, L'Appartement 22 in Rabat, and DoxBox documentary festival in Damascus, and many others—like the Sudan Film Factory in Khartoum, nascent at the time of this writing— cultivate free expressions and emergent perceptions.
2. shift from single-channel to installation
a. I contend that this shift is not primarily aesthetic, but market driven. All over the world, experimental media artists are producing more work at the same time that paying venues are diminishing, and facing the decision of where their work is best placed, in the movie theater or in the gallery. These problems are especially challenging for those in the Arab world, who struggle to get their work seen and to be paid for it. On one hand, Arab media arts have a fragile infrastructure, vulnerable to funding decisions by Western NGOs, On the other, people sometimes steal Arab film and video, including unscrupulous curators who show work without paying for it, in what looks like old-fashioned imperialism.
A few people definitely prefer the theater. Sherif El-Azma considers himself an experimental filmmaker and prefers to show his works in theaters; Gheith Al-Amine considers himself a video artist and prefers to show his works in theaters. Festivals tend not to pay (though Canadian festivals that receive government funding must) but some provide commissioning or finishing funds. Al-Amine writes that ARTE CREATIVE paid him "on the spot!" to stream his video "Once Upon a Sidewalk" for one year and that, with a contract from Arsenal, he will be paid for screenings at the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien this year.
Films screened theatrically need distribution to prolong their life. Some non-profit distributors pay a decent fee. For example, New York-based Electronic Arts Intermix is a selective distributor. Its fee schedule shows the same fee for a five-minute or 40-minute work. Note the differentiation between educational, screening, and exhibition rental, and educational and archival purchase. V-Tape in Toronto is less selective than EAI. V-Tape’s rental fees are cheaper than EAI’s, and the distributor leaves gallery screening fee and sale cost up for negotiation. At Lux in London, artists can stipulate purchase fees. The more inclusive a distributor is, the less chance any individual work has of being rented or purchased. Then of course there are the free platforms, filtered like UbuWeb, unfiltered like Vimeo.
Akram Zaatari expresses what many experimental artists feel: that experimental film has become a ghetto. "The film world has grown too big, and so many filmmakers don't find a place in it, they seek other territories. Let's call it voluntary displacement. Where else other than a museum would you find a possibility to value a 5 minute work, in time and space. … there is a feeling that the museum has become the place for dedicated film thinkers who have no place anymore in the film world."
If they choose to go the gallery route, experimental media artists can hope to have their work projected on a wall or shown on a monitor, with sound on speakers or headphones, in a space that may or may not be darkened, and through which visitors usually wander at will. Hassan Khan, whose work is represented by Chantal Crousel Gallery: "I am happy to show my work in exhibition contexts because I feel that there is in a sense no hypocrisy in the gesture. An exhibition space is clearly demarcated for showing works and so one escapes the discomfort of making claims about the social and public space to validate the work. The work may stand on its own. At the same time for certain works (like "Blind Ambition" for example) I prefer a cinema setting."
For a few people it is lucrative to show single-channel work in a gallery. To help understand single-channel artists’ decision-making process in ideal (Canadian) terms, it’s instructive to look at the reasonable fee schedules published by CARFAC (Canadian Artsts Representation/Le Front d’Artistes Canadiens), which Canadian government-funded arts organizations are required to follow.
Examining CARFAC’s fee schedules for screenings and installations we learn that if you exhibit your 14-minute film or video as a single-channel work for 3 months, you get $405. If you stick in some furniture and call it an installation, you will receive a minimum of $279 (as part of a group show in a smaller gallery), a mid-range fee of about $2000 (the price point for either a solo show in a larger gallery, or four-person show in a smaller international venue), and a top rate of $12,050 if you’re selected to represent Canada at a biennale. So clearly, according to CARFAC’s scrupulously fair guidelines, it’s advantageous for media artists to present their work as installations in small exhibitions, rather than as single-channel projections.
But of course, the Canadian standard is practically a socialist ideal—many galleries do not pay at all.
On the commercial circuit, a very few artists, represented by commercial galleries, are paid very well for their video work; or they're paid well for visual art objects, and this subsidizes their video practice. Hassan Khan writes candidly, "Screening and exhibition contexts either do not pay or pay a symbolic sum. However if the piece is sold as a limited edition (certified and signed by the artist) the price is usually satisfactory. There is not set standard but the price is vaguely pegged to the market - therefore the way my career develops (as well as the piece's duration, scale, reputation) affects the price of the piece."
In 2003, curator Chrissie Iles suggested to the U.S. journal The Independent that filmmakers sell their work as limited editions for $5000. “Why would you show an experimental film of yours for the $20 rental fee and then complain that Matthew Barney’s got a $2 million dollar budget? Whose fault is that?” I can only imagine Iles was joking by putting the blame on artists, for of course the volume of good single-channel work hugely outweighs the space available for it in galleries—and also the budgets of collectors. As true for Arab artists as anyone else.
Distribution (preliminary comments as this not fully researched yet):
The biggest problem is that there are no distributors in the Arab world. A number of distributors in the West carry Arab work. The film/video distinction remains to the extent that video distributors carry art video (Video Data Bank, V Tape, Heure Exquise!, Lowave, Arsenale feature work from Arab world), and film distributors carry narrative features and fairly conventional documentaries (Arab Film Distribution, First Run Films, ...)
Unfortunately, experimental documentaries and other experimental works clearly intended for theatrical screening find little distribution. Great experimental documentaries by filmmakers such as Rania Stephan (Lebanon)'s The Three Disappearances of Souad Hosni, Mohamed Soueid (Lebanon)'s oeuvre, Syrian documentaries that experiment remarkably with structure, style, and address are not in distribution. This March, on the anniversary of the uprising in Syria, the Damascus-based festival DoxBox made works available for free through ArteEast in New York: noticed that the Berlin Arab Film Festival sponsored a screening.
Now I would like to assert that movies installed in galleries tend to invite a more cognitive response than do theatrically screened movies. First, the fact that people don’t see most of a gallery film reduces it to a conceptual work. In galleries, duration tends to get reduced to an idea of duration. Here is Chrissie Iles on films at Documenta 2003: “No one knew Jonas Mekas was in Documenta because his work was only in the film program. But the art world was discovering people like Ulrike Ottinger because she had an eight-hour film in the gallery. The fact that people only saw ten minutes or half an hour of it was offset by the fact that many more thousands of people now know that she exists.” It’s a cognitive reward: Documenta visitors still haven’t experienced Ottinger’s work, but they’ve now heard of her.
This year several long Arab works showed at Documenta: Khan's 45-minute Blind Ambition, Wael Shawky's two approximately one-hour Cabaret Crusades films, Ayreen Anastas and René Gabri's video component of In The Horizon of the Infinite. How many people experienced the works in full?
3. Archives becoming distributors
Arab-world organizations that sponsor and program media works are turning into fragile archives and overwhelmed distributors: this the case at Cinémathèque de Tanger, Ashkal Alwan (Beirut), and Beirut DC, for example. Scholars and curators like me descend on these organizations, and some behave with a disdain for ethics that smacks of neo-colonialism. Christine Tohme of Ashkal Alwan writes that initially they allowed visitors to make copies of DVDs in their collection:
On many occasions people have taken DVDs, even DVDs that we have inscribed with a watermark saying that it's a viewing only copy, and shown them in festivals; other people have documented events in [the biannual festival] Home Works without our permission and presented them as videos in screenings or festivals. …
Not only this but it seems some people use the Ashkal Alwan library as a way to quickly and cheaply build their own archive.
To sum up: Arab cinema and media art are a crucible of experimentation, whose rich products people in the West are increasingly appreciating. The political economy of exhibition and distribution constrain Arab artists even more than they do Western artists; and the same probably applies to other poor countries whose infrastructure for creation and exhibition is partly dependent on whims of Western NGOs and curators. Urgent need for archiving and distribution to support and cultivate this work, and these need to be autonomous, indigenous, and perhaps for-profit projects.