To cross the labyrinth of representations: to belong nowhere, says artist Fareed Armaly, can mean a lot of freedom. In his complex installations he intertwines actual topographies with issues pertaining to their representation in the media.
The border checkpoint of Kalandia, between Ramallah and Jerusalem, recorded in the spring of 2002. Waiting people, and tanks. “Checkpoint” is the title of one of the three spaces of Fareed Armaly’s large installation work From/To which he developed for Documenta 11. The video has been recorded by the Palestinian filmmaker Rashid Masharawi. Two maps are visible on the wall.
”These maps don’t just show a territory, but forms of control of infrastructure: water, signals, electricity etc.,” explains Armaly. “These maps were done during the Oslo peace talks, where no maps were really used as everyone was afraid of determining final status. When one explores these maps in terms of their structures, they show a labyrinth. A labyrinth is made to conceal something. There is a secret, the fear of discovery, and the checkpoints from one side, guarding this secret.”
Okwui Enwezor had invited Armaly explicitly with an actualized version of this work which had been exhibited already in 1999 in the Witte de With Center of Contemporary Art in Rotterdam. Then hopes were high for a continuation of the peace process—by the time of Enwezors invitation to Armaly, these hopes had evaporated for some time already. Shortly after Masharawis filming at the Kalandia Checkpoint, Israelis tanks were moving into Palestinian territory. “It was very brave of Enwezor to invite the project,” says Armaly. “Therefore he had come under some strong critique. But my work does not intend to attack or offend anyone.” Masharawi’s camera does not show violent scenes. From a fixed position it watches the events unfolding. Impassively it shows a situation which for the Palestinians of Ramallah is part of their daily routines.
Armaly’ s father is Palestinian, his mother from Lebanon. But while Masharawi was born in the Shatii Refugee Camp, runs a Film Production Center in Ramallah and organises film festivals for children which in the past year drew 90.000 visitors, Armaly was born and raised in the USA. ”It is a problem for me when people address me as an Arab artist,” he says. “I am American. But no one is simply from America, except for the Native Americans. One has to become American, one has to go through a decision process.”
Armaly’s parents emigrated to the USA in the Fifties. “The history of Arabs in the United States runs in two divergent directions. Through the Sixties everybody worked to assimilate. Afterwards, a kind of de-assimilation took place.” This back and forth between identification and demarcation was shaping Armaly’s youth and forced him to reflect on his own position and point of view.”The fact of not really belonging nowhere can be quite painful—but at the same time it opens up a lot of freedom. This was the experience of the Eighties.”
Armaly distinguishes between identity and origin. Like Stuart Hall, sociologist of Jamaican-British background, he also prefers to asks for ”routes,” for paths into a possible future, instead of nostalgically longing for his ”roots,” for the geographical provenance of his family, and a traditional culture which has long since ceased to exist. “Everything I can identify with can become part of my identity,” says Armaly, “also music and film from Germany, from the Eighties, for example, the so called Neue Deutsche Welle. Back then, some of us in the States listened to this kind of music. It was as if a foreign, incomprehensible language with a music, that had something interesting, that was the point.” And he adds, “But also with photographers and filmmakers like Rashid Masharawi one has to ask, What does it mean, “Arabic”? We are about the same generation, he is a little younger. He grew up in a refugee camp and has consciously made up his mind to stay in Palestine. This is how we began our dialogue.”
In his artistic works—as seen in From/To—, Armaly weaves a dense structure of relations mostly starting from a specific form of topography. Brea-kd-own (Brussels 1993) and Parts (Munich 1997) investigated the exhibition space’s (the institutional) architecture to pose questions related to the art space which does not just end with the museum’s walls.
On the occasion of an exhibition which took place in 1992 in Le Corbusiers Unité d’Habitation it was a raï-Music-DJ who referred to the urban environment of the famous building. When Armaly was showing the same project two years later in Hamburg he involved some young graffiti artists. “The interesting thing about art is that it is an open field. Contrary to other disciplines, the definition of artistic practice is not a fixed, stable one—and exactly what this is about.”
By inviting designers, architects, historians and geographers, photographers and filmmakers to participate in his projects, Armaly constructs networks of cognition which are nevertheless directed towards “objective knowledge,” but which perform a “medial turn”: being liberated from their usual purpose, these contributions reveal their construction, mediality, and media of representation. Behind the way in which something appears in various media one can always locate a specific form of politics. Armaly talks about “politics of representation” and adds, “I ask myself: What is the role of art? It is a mirror game, it can be confusing, but it also opens the possibility to play with this.”
The exhibition >redirect also represents such a mirror game: a multimedia exhibition and series of events, talks, screenings with which Armaly concludes his function as the artistic director in Künstlerhaus Stuttgart of four years. He used the long-overdue renovation of the building which dates back to the turn of the century to also renovate and renew the internal structures fundamentally. Armaly calls his program for the Künstlerhaus haus.0, thus combining and intertwining brick walls and websites into an indissoluble entity. Besides the internet address there are plug-ins like audio- and film studios as well as the library.
The program defines the institutional identity. “This is what such a space is about—to build a strong identity of one’s own—then you will draw an audience.” Armaly talks about a “script,” which defines the program’s structure without fixing the application. One the one hand, the identity of the space consists of the possibilities opened up by the program, on the other hand it is also the history of the projects which have been realised during the time of its existence.
Some of these projects from the past years can be seen and heard in the exhibition >redirect. Among these are Rashid Masharawi’s “Waiting,” which was shown in documenta11, as well as the video Stadtluft by Wendelien van Oldenborgh, who understands the pavilion of a public toilet to be the stage of the vernacular dramas of homeless people. In all cases there is only a thin line separating fiction from reality.
This is exactly what >redirect is about: the way of representation—not just in artist’s works—, about the reflection of cultural practices and about the transferences which appear when things eventually change their context. The focus of this series is on two seminal recordings from the past century: Jean Rouch’s ethnographic documentary Les maîtres fous from 1955 documents a West African ritual in which participants are possessed not by their traditional gods but by the ghosts of the colonial masters themselves. Although the film had been commissioned by a group of priests of the Hauka cult, there was a number of Africans living in Europe who could not identify at all with this representation of Africa. The second object is a recording, a disk which has been sent along with the Voyager spacecraft in 1977. It contains voice- and music-recordings from around the world as well as a collection of natural sounds and voices of animals.
A number of various artistic projects are set in always different relation to these artifacts. Christian Marclay’s Record Without a Cover instead of protecting the surface emphasizes the scratches and noises. John Akomfrah, founding member of the London-base “Black Audio Film Collective” in his film Last Angel of History combines space travel and black culture through the counter-worlds of musicians like Sun Ra, George Clinton and Lee Perry. From there, the path leads towards Isaac Julien’s documentary Black and White in Colour which deals with the represenation of Blacks in the history of British TV, and then to the documentary films of the American film theorist Noel Burch on various issues pertaining to early forms of cinema.
Sometimes the works in the series >redirect lead into a veritable labyrinth of narratives: as in the selection of a segment of the Aachener collector Wilhelm Schürmann which contains different drawings on the subject of Patty Hearst by Raymond Pettibon and others. These were generated along the concept of a Product Placement of artworks, as in the widely known American Soap Melrose Place, which again inspired Fareed Armaly and Rainer Kirberg to do their script writing workshop Melrose Plays.
A labyrinth? Contrary to the labyrinth which still remains from an earlier project on the fourth floor of the Stuttgarter Künstlerhaus, Armaly’s networks are open, and not closed systems. “I want to open up a field,” he says, and in relation to his function in Stuttgart, “I don’t want to close it down. I want to leave and leave everything open.”