Rawan Sharaf Khatib reviews the 2017 anthology edited by Anthony Downey.
Future Imperfect: Contemporary Art Practices and Cultural Institutions in the Middle East (2017) edited by Anthony Downey
Rawan Sharaf Khatib
This volume is an extensive anthology that investigates the history and current politics of cultural institutions and production in the Middle East. It is the latest addition to the series ‘Visual Culture in the Middle East’ published by Ibraaz, 1 and was preceded by Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East (2014)2 and Dissonant Archives: Contemporary Visual Culture and Contested Narratives in the Middle East (2015).3 The series, which is based on questions raised in Ibraaz’s ‘Platforms for discussion’, attempts to interpret and comprehend how the accelerated regional upheaval, with the social and economic breakdown caused by revolutions, counter-revolutions and civil wars, has echoed in visual and cultural practices in terms of responses to the specific antagonisms, and the developing of alternative structures and models of production while operating in precarious political conditions. And how, simultaneously, cultural production in the region is influenced by the global cultural economy, and perhaps even co-opted, or at least driven by, the politics and parameters of a globalised art market.
Hence, it is important to consider Future Imperfect, as a publication, not only in the trajectory of the ‘Visual Culture Series’ but also in that of Ibraaz’s past six years, and how Ibraaz has, through its online platform, fostered debate over contemporary cultural production in the MENA region and voiced how artists and cultural practitioners were responding to the political unrest and the rapid transitions in their countries, and as such forged a path for research and criticality that considers contemporary topics through the lens of the present as much as that of the past. In light of this, the significance of Future Imperfect is in how it addresses current structures, initiatives and practices, as much as in provoking reflections over how the history of antagonisms has contributed to the shaping of present structures and cultural practices, specifically under the legacies of suppression that have for long symptomised the relationship between Arab cultural producers and political systems.
Divided into four parts with over thirty commissioned articles, Future Imperfect features twenty-seven articles in its three-sectioned printed volume, and seven project texts simultaneously published in the online fourth section on the Ibraaz website.4 With contributions by writers and critics, and representatives of both formal and informal institutions, as well as individual models of cultural practices, the volume features a variety of texts including surveys, critical and reflective essays, project presentations and interviews. The contributions consider present-day state structures and civil society institutions, in addition to alternative individual and independent cultural initiatives. The book explores models from the major Arab cities, such that most of the Arab countries are covered. It also probes the Turkish art scene, indicating the intricate connections and analogies with neighbouring contexts, especially now that Turkey is a major player in the region’s socio-political and economic dynamics.
The online section responds, as the editor explains, to the urgency to ‘stay up-to-date’ in a region that is witnessing rapid transitions, but its relevance can also be considered in two ways.5 Firstly, while digital media and social networks have catalysed the initiation, mobilisation and perpetuation of civil insurgencies over the past six years, the online section of Future Imperfect demonstrates the co-option of digital tools and spectacles to produce critical discourse, and as such contribute to constructing/deconstructing and framing/deframing the knowledge that is generated from and about the region. Secondly, it resonates with the thematic framework of the former two editions of the ‘Visual Culture Series in the Middle East’, both of which tackled new media and digitised spectacle in their relationship to the global market of image production, circulation and consumption. In this light, and as Future Imperfect investigates institutional structures, it becomes important to ask how the agency of the digital spectrum has employed the rampant flux of images and knowledge to generate its structural modalities for knowledge production. Could it be suggested that digital platforms have contributed to the institutionalisation of a transnational form of digitised knowledge, capable of surpassing the borders of historic censorship and subjugation? And, in turn, to question how they become consumed within the dynamics of the global market of image production and consumption? It is here that Downey’s inquiry into ‘who is producing this knowledge, how is it utilised, and to what end’ becomes crucial, particularly as the post-revolutionary cultural production of the region has been attracting huge interest and acknowledgement in the West.
Organised around three thematic sections, the printed edition of Future Imperfect includes a thorough introduction by Downey that presents an overview of institutional structures and cultural production and considers them against the varying factors and dynamics that have influenced the formation of their modalities, parameters and codes of operation, whether structural, political, social or individual. Downey critically positions contemporary cultural production within the socio-historic and political domains of the local and the global. He also suggests that there might be a ‘campaign being fought against culture across such a diverse region’6 – evident in the case of Egypt, for instance – linked to the history of despotism and oppression and the subjugation of cultural production, inasmuch as it is correlated to the politics of the globalised cultural economy. If, as Downey suggests, cultural institutions can be considered ‘barometers of sorts for acknowledging and registering, if not forecasting, prevailing social, political, historical and cultural conventions’,7 then the models from, for instance, Iraq and the Gulf states, stand as signposts to this proposition, as will be later alluded to here.
The first section of the book, ‘Regional Contexts: Fragmentary Networks and Historical Antagonisms’, focuses on models of cultural structures and institutions, mainly from civil society, and addresses the tensions – and sometimes intense struggles – they negotiate in their relationship with various forms of state control, censorship and the scarcity of funds, and in their battles against invisibility both locally and internationally. With examples from Palestine, Iraq, Yemen and North Africa, each with the specificity of their current and historical circumstances, Downey suggests that the varied forms of suppression have been met with a ‘prevalence of individual and community-based models of cultural expression’.8 Similar tensions arise in the second section, ‘Information Methods and Formal Critique: Learning from Cultural Producers’, which considers methods through which the conventional models of institution – as in the ‘physical edifice and structure in situ’ – have been challenged.9 The cases featured from Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan illustrate how cultural producers, in relation to the specific contingencies of their socio-politic contexts, have sought to ‘reinvent their operational dialectics and formal function’10 through alternative, discursive, self-reflexive and sometimes experimental approaches, as well as through community engagement.
Many cases have revealed the multi-layered battles between individual cultural producers and initiatives in the face of systematic depletion, military aggression and state oppression. However, the question that persists across all the contributions in the first and second sections is how far these civil society models have actually resisted political pressures and threats, and whether it is at all possible for them to engage meaningfully with their societies, acquire the visibility that allows them to mediate between their publics and cultural practitioners and effectively support the development of cultural production, while at the same time encountering the impellent surge of privatisation, commodification and co-option by the globalised cultural economy.
An interesting contribution by Alviso-Marino on Yemen demonstrates how today’s artists and independent practitioners are engaging with their audiences outside the institutional edifices through utilising public space and the memory of a once-vibrant Yemeni art history. Presenting a socio-historic account of Yemeni art structures, Alviso-Marino weaves a rich narrative of the Yemeni art scene, from the first art clubs (‘nadi’ in Arabic) established in the 1930s to today’s public reproduction of murals based on pioneering modernist Yemeni paintings. In a different approach to utilising public space, Touleen Touq demonstrates how independent and small group initiatives have served, through alternative, engaging and participatory pedagogical approaches, to fill the institutional gap in the cultural work in Jordan. In Palestine, under prolonged occupation and with the absence of statehood, Reema Salha-Fadda probes contemporary cultural organisations in the West Bank and Gaza, and in effect reports critically on how Israel’s military aggression and the Palestinian Authority’s neo-liberal economic strategies have resulted in an uneven development that is vividly apparent in the severe contrast between the seemingly flourishing economy and cultural scene in Ramallah and the devastation and rapid ‘de-development’ in Gaza.11
Despite the historic and contextual differences, the inefficacy, depletion, de-development or absence of institutions seems to be a condition that is rife in several of the countries’ cases as described above, and which is further exposed in the articles ‘Filling the Gaps: Arts Infrastructures and Institutions in Post-Dictatorship Libya’ by Hadia Gana,12 and ‘In the Absence of Institutions: Contemporary Cultural Practices in Algeria’ by Yasmine Zidane.13 Comparably, the survey of current cultural institutions in Iraq by Adalet Garmiany asserts that today Iraq has ‘no cultural infrastructure’.14 While questioning the capacity of ‘individual and small groups endeavouring to make a difference’ under a precarious political and economic situation, Garmiany draws the example of SADA, an institution founded in 2010 in Baghdad that had to suspend its activities in 2015. ‘On Closing of SADA for Iraqi Art’ by Rijin Sahakian expresses how paradoxical, morally conflicting and effectively invalidating it was to work in cultural production in today’s Iraq, when the only path was through ‘collaborating with the very sources that have caused or benefitted from the crisis’. Referring specifically to the funds coming from the US and the Gulf’s ruling families, Sahakian illustrates the problematics behind regional agendas of cultural funding, strategies of soft power and the politics of corrupt authoritarian governments. For a country like Iraq, which played a central role in the development of a modernist Arab culture and discourse,15 and which, despite the despotism of its past governments, accommodated some prominent cultural institutions, Garmiany’s statement testifies to the devastating repercussions of oppression, warfare and Western imperialism on culture. Inevitably, it recollects the haunting images of the looting of the National Museum of Iraq in 2003 at the dawn of the US troops’ conquering of Baghdad in what Kirsten Scheid has referred to as the ‘manifestations of cultural imperialism’.16
Other articles demonstrate how Beirut and Cairo, the two cities that historically shared with Baghdad a central role in Arab cultural production, have also been severely challenged by both historic antagonisms and the predominance of globalised political and economic structures. Non-governmental structures, such as the Townhouse Gallery (Cairo) and Ashkal Alwan (Beirut), established in the early 1990s in the aftermath of the first Gulf War and the Lebanese civil war as alternative subversive civil society institutions, have been seen as conduits ‘for international cultural diplomacy and soft power’.17 In today’s post-insurgencies context, they appear to be at a juncture that requires a revision of their roles, relevance, operations and methods, in order to secure their survival, or at least their evolution.
William Wells, the director of the Townhouse Gallery, in commenting on the capacity of the institutional sector to operate independently, for example, has asserted that such organisations ‘created a format of the alternative, but it has become the status quo… it’s not an alternative at all: it’s just something parallel to the norm’.18 This self-critical assessment is concurrent with continuing to ponder on the meaning of the cultural institution in post-revolution Egypt, especially now that a counter-revolutionary regime that is more suppressive and belligerent has risen to power. In addition to the interview with Wells, two other articles (‘How Much Future is Left? On Speed and Withdrawal in a Cairo Arts Institution’ by Ania Szremski, and ‘Institutional Role-Play: The Case of Beirut’ by Jens Maier-Rothe) reflect on and examine the cultural landscape in post-revolution Cairo and pose questions on possible modalities and codes of operation, and the meaning of the institution.
In Beirut, Ashkal Alwan, created in the early 1990s in response to a post-civil war political urgency,19 responds to ‘young people[’s]’ tendency to back away from institutional structures through experimenting by ‘doing things’, by practising and trying new methods, which, as Christine Tohme explains, constantly redefine Ashkal Alwan. In the same framework, Sholette and Dedamen comment on Ashkal Alwan’s well-known Home Workspace Program (HWP) and question whether the pedagogical patterns it has adopted have succeeded in being responsive and experimental, and to what extent they have truly inspired young cultural producers. Both writers’ arguments emerge from the concern that the socio-economic conditions imposed by the landscape of neoliberalism and privatisation leave little space in reality for autonomy, subversion or innovation. Instead, and for the sake of their survival, institutions are compelled to answer to the demands of the artworld, and to the parameters of the globalised cultural economy that inescapably encompasses them.
The third section of the book, ‘Cultural Institutions and the Political Economy of Global Culture’, focuses specifically on the political economy of global culture in the Gulf region and Turkey, exploring the politics of mega-museums and biennials through considering models of artist-run spaces, curatorship and institutional critique. With investments of an unprecedented scale, the booming cultural industry in the Gulf has significantly influenced the dynamics and shifted the centres of cultural production in the region. Whether it is Saadiyat Island in the UAE, the museum projects in Qatar, or the Saudi art scene, which has recently grown in visibility, the Gulf has created new centres for cultural attraction, consumption and operation. While Sahakian associates the Gulf’s amplified museum scene with post-war whitewashing politics, Monira Qadiri’s project Myth Buster reiterates a similar statement through a series of manipulated photographs that juxtapose images of the Gulf’s mega-museum projects with images of destruction caused by the 1991 Gulf War. Featuring Qadiri’s art project in the book not only incorporates contemporary art into the domain of critique but also contributes to redefining the role of the artist as critic, commentator, knowledge producer, and possibly an institution, as elucidated in Ala Younis’s essay exploring the notion of the individual as institution.
Returning to the Gulf context, Guy Mannes-Abbott reflects on the Saadiyat Island project and compares the museums to ‘shops’ rising ‘as part of a totalising process’ which decontextualises the ‘spaces of globalisation’ while questioning the role and rights of those exploited in the labour of their construction.20 His critique of the policies of commodification and the consumption of culture asserts the establishment of neoliberalism within the edifices of globalisation as a current model of neo-imperialism. This typically resonates with Downey’s statement that:
Globalisation, in conjunction with the neoliberal policies that enable its predominance, not only produces rampant forms of ‘uneven development’ but also co-opts cultural economies into the realm of a privatised, overtly politicised ethic of production, exchange and consumption.21
This is also verified in the contributions on Turkish institutional politics, which has seen cultural production and its institutions driven into the realms of a global market-led logic of consumerism and profit. Tom Snow’s article reflects upon how the AKP government, espousing neoliberal economic policies, has instrumentalised projects of gentrification and privatisation – such as that of Gezi Park – in order to fortify its rising authoritarianism. Snow questions and challenges whether art, as a public domain, and artists and intellectuals, should have, or are at all capable of having, a social role and a political stand in the face of urgency, especially when the government’s restrictive measures have targeted intellectuals, writers and artists as well as cultural and academic institutions. He alludes to the conflicting institutional politics where large corporations ‘whitewash themselves in [the] warm waters of [the] global art scene’, referring specifically to the case of the Istanbul Biennial and its sponsorship by Koç Holding, one of the largest industrial conglomerates. Eray Cayli explores a potential response to such queries in his article observing how an artist-run institution can perform within a public sphere that is dominated by the global dynamics of privatisation and the commodification of culture. While Turkey has grown politically into a game changer and major regional power – specifically in its intervention in the Syrian civil war – and has also reverted to fortifying an autocracy, the politics of the cultural structures and the tensions engendering between cultural practitioners and official state-structures, do indeed, as Downey assumes, inform of the wider socio-political dynamics.
In an overarching review, Future Imperfect offers a cartography of cultural structures and institutional practice, methodologies and behaviours, as shaped by current and historic antagonisms and precarious volatile socio-political transitions. It is a very rich, engaging and stimulating read that maps out the ground for further research, discussion and critique on cultural production as an interdisciplinary domain that is largely endorsed within the edifices of the global cultural economy. While the volume questions and reconsiders the efficacy of alternative pedagogies, independent initiatives and individual agency, it also offers space to contemplate possibilities of emancipation from the predominance of globalised economies and market-led aesthetics.
However, while the volume presents a much-needed overview and analysis, with documentation and reflection on cultural structures, its criticality is perhaps compromised by its adherence to some disputable definitions and taxonomies which are mostly set by the political structures that have contributed to the emplacement of the antagonisms addressed here. For instance, most of the featured essays, articles and interviews are nation-based – except for a few personal projects.22 While I recognise the complexity of breaking away from nation set-ups, it is important that domains of critique attempt to break or loosen the set boundaries of such definitions and to reference their geo-historic backgrounds. The thematic organisation of the book does seem to be an attempt at such. However, it still falls into creating some sort of institutional clusters based on the country/state political, socio-historic and geo-economic conditions which adhere to the colonial demarcations and classifications of the region. While the current regional state of affairs and reiterations of the insurgencies appear to be a culmination of autocracy and despotism, it is also imperative to identify the role of the colonial post-World War I geopolitics that demarcated the region territorially and engrained the roots of these antagonisms.23 Similarly, the term ‘Middle East’ – a term coined by British imperialism – continues to be a problematic one that flattens and subdues the complexity and heterogeneity of the region, although it also signifies it as a separate entity from a wider, comparable Global South.
As alluded to earlier, Future Imperfect is an impressive editorial work that reflects a well-researched domain, despite its complexity. The book speaks to a wide variety of audiences, from professional curators, artists and critics, to students, researchers and academics in the field of cultural studies. It offers a varied array of articles and essays that provide accounts, documentations, personal projects and critical analysis of cultural structures in a region of complexities. As the title suggests, however, it is an ‘imperfect’ edition. Yet it should also be considered a milestone in the urgent and much-needed research into cultural practices and institutional structures as domains with sociocultural and geopolitical global entanglements.
Anthony Downey, ed, FUTURE IMPERFECT: Contemporary Art Practices and Cultural Institutions in the Middle East, Sternberg Press, Berlin, 2017, 430 pages
Anthony Downey is a member of the Editorial Board of Third Text and Professor of Visual Culture in the Middle East and North Africa within the Faculty of Arts, Design and Media at Birmingham City University. Recent and upcoming publications include Zones of Indistinction: Contemporary Visual Culture and the Cultural Logic of Late-Modernity (forthcoming, Sternberg Press, 2019), Don’t Shrink Me to the Size of a Bullet: The Works of Hiwa K (Walther König Books, 2017), and Art and Politics Now (Thames and Hudson, 2014). He is the series editor for Visual Culture in the Middle East (Sternberg Press).
1 Ibraaz is a research and publishing initiative of the Kamal Lazaar Foundation launched in 2011. For more See: http://www.ibraaz.org/
2 Anthony Downey, ed, Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East, I B Tauris, Berlin, 2014
3 Anthony Downey, ed, Dissonant Archives: Contemporary Visual Culture and Contested Narratives in the Middle East, I B Tauris, Berlin, 2015
4 To access online projects see: http://www.ibraaz.org/publications/73#_ftn1.
5 Anthony Downey, ‘Future Imperfect: Focus on Visual Culture in the Middle East’, interview with Alan Cruickshank, Di’van, December, 2016, pp 110–119
6 Anthony Downey, Future Imperfect: Contemporary Art Practices and Cultural Institutions in the Middle East, Sternberg Press, Berlin, 2016, p 15
7 Ibid, p 16
8 Ibid, p 18
9 Ibid, p 20
10 Ibid, p 46
11 Reema Salha Fadda, ‘Playing Against Invisibility: Negotiating the Institutional Politics of Cultural Production in Palestine’, in Downey, ed, Future Imperfect, pp 149–166
12 Hadia Gana, ‘Filling the Gaps: Arts Infrastructures and Institutions in Post-Dictatorship Libya’, in Downey, ed, Future Imperfect, pp 48–60
13 Yasmine Zidane, ‘In the Absence of Institutions: Contemporary Cultural Practices in Algeria’, in Downey, ed, Future Imperfect, pp 74–84
14 Adalet R Garmiany, ‘On the Ground: Cultural Institutions in Iraq Today’, in Downey, ed, Future Imperfect, pp 107–118
15 For more on this, see Nada Shabout’s Modern Arab Art: Formation of Arab Aesthetics, University Press of Florida, 2015
16 Kirsten Scheid, ‘Imperialism, in its Last Cultural Manifestations’, Al Adab, Beirut 2003, 5/6, pp 4–11
17 Hanan Toukan, ‘On Being the Other in Post-Civil War Lebanon: Aid and the Politics of Art in Processes of Contemporary Cultural Production’, Ibraaz, 2013, http://www.ibraaz.org/essays/63
18 See ‘Thinking Within and Beyond Institutions: William Wells in Conversation with Amal Khalaf and Anthony Downey’, in Downey, ed), Future Imperfect, p 223
19 See ‘Christine Tohme in Conversation with Rachel Dedman, Present Continuous’, in Downey, ed, Future Imperfect, p 187
20 Guy Mannes-Abbott, ‘Utopian Dust Versus Perfumed Amplification: Object Lessons from Saadiyat Island and Gehry’s Guggenheim, Abu Dhabi’, in Downey, ed, Future Imperfect, pp 229–308
21 Downey, Future Imperfect, op cit, p 16
22 For example, the article by Ala Younis on ‘Individuals as Institutions’, and Monira Al Qadiri’s project Myth Busters.
23 Specifically, the Sykes-Picot treaty of 1916 by which the borders of today’s Levant were drawn, cutting through ethnic and religious communities.