On Radical Self-Interest

Bassam El Baroni, Hassan Khan

In August 2012, some sixteen months following the ousting of Hosni Mubarak after country-wide protests, Hassan Khan and I met up for a short summer break in Crete. At the time the now militarily-ousted Mohamed Morsi was a newly-elected president and it was extremely difficult to predict how things would shape up. As the situation in Egypt never left our waking thoughts for long, we decided to have a discussion about some of Hassan’s then-recent works, as well as tracking and thinking through some popular ideas within the expanded field of art. We offered the interview as our response to an invitation by BAK, in Utrecht (NL), to contribute to their upcoming reader entitled From Viewer to Consumer-Spectator to Citizen, edited by Maria Hlavajova and Ranjit Hoskote. The reader in its original format remains unpublished at present. With the permission of BAK, we are publishing it in this issue of Manifesta Journal, as it is relevant to the content of the conversation and the moment in which it took place. Even though our ideas and even possibly how we would express them have shifted over the past two years, the interview is reproduced in its original wording without any editing.

Hassan Khan, Blind Ambition, The Agreement, 2011.

Hassan Khan, What Haytham Thinks He Wants, The Agreement, 2011.

Hassan Khan, Transitions, The Agreement, 2011.
Hassan Khan, Fekry’s Soul and Hassan’s Tree, The Agreement, 2011.

Hassan Khan, The Village Is in Our Memory, The Agreement, 2011.

All images:
Photo by Kirsten Daem. Image courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris

Bassam El Baroni [B.EB.]: In the intro describing the concept of this publication (BAK Reader: From Viewer to Consumer-Spectator to Citizen), an attempt is made to introduce and speculate about “the citizen”. The text states that we are transitioning into the era of the citizen as opposed to previous eras where the art public was first seen as a viewer and then as a consumer-spectator. “The citizen” to me sounds like an attempt to articulate the positivity of feelings garnered from various recent protest movements, revolutionary environments, and uprisings. The collection, use, interpretation, and speculation about this positive energy within art-theoretical circles is very evident. Some have even argued that the collective processes of communication and message building and the various modes of aesthetical-political engagement we have witnessed in different rebellious contexts actually started in academic environments, gradually made their way into art, and finally went through art into the theatre of actual political protest. As someone who was present in some of the Tahrir Square protests of January–February 2011 and also someone who happens to be an artist, musician and writer who is very much aware of international theoretical arguments, how do you view this and similar narratives that attempt to make connections between the academic, the artistic, and the actual sites of protest?

Hassan Khan [H.K.]: Let’s ignore the citizen for a moment as I feel this can be a slightly different discussion. When I was in Tahrir at certain times of the pivotal eighteen days I experienced a rather uncomfortable feeling of being surrounded by a materialized presence. This “presence” was the sum total of what most of those present in that shared space were able to invest into it from their own. A fantasmatic space that has been made concrete through the activity of taking over the center of the capital, i.e. the center of authority. So what lies at the center of authority is not some “ideal” alternative world but rather an inversion of what that authority stands for. This is the space of grotesquerie rather than stylized “participation”. People participated because of a compulsion, the necessity to make an existing (and conditioning) pathology formalized and focused upon one goal. The humiliation and removal of the symbol of power; the perceived source of the pathology. What I saw was a ritualized shaming of authority. A consistent and continuous exorcism. And it made me quite uncomfortable the way I guess an exorcism could even if I recognized its power and understood its efficacy. It is my conviction that it was actually the fact that these acts were deeply connected to the pathologies that they stem from, that an action in this space is deeply wedded to the context of exploitation, humiliation and shame, that allowed them to succeed in the first place.
I find it actually quite insulting that academics or artists would make claims that what happened in a place like this had anything to do with their formalized production of consensus. I believe that if, as some have claimed, certain trends within academic research and art practice have actually crossed over to the field of political action than this action in Tahrir would have been doomed to failure. It is possible that this argument is more relevant to the “occupy” movements and is part of its inability to become something more than a half-embarrassed attempt at striking a pose. Pathology is much more profound, wider, and deeply implicating than any of these proposals. What it produces in the context of “revolution” is fetishistic form (not art)—to unleash the potential of a revolutionary movement, i.e. the ability for every subject touched by this act to feel disturbed, unsure, afraid, desperate as well as ecstatic, aggressive, and/or confident, the taboo has to be broken and the totem humiliated. And that shared space reconfigures the cultural itself not as an intention but rather as a side effect. The references it draws upon precede a specific moment of cultural production and are more closely related to a sense of the historical body, thus even if we find in many cases a sort of populist detournement of popular forms (songs, moments from soap operas, advertisements, slogans etc)—the detournement is here, [it] is not an artistic strategy that leads us to the situationists but a practiced perversion of an established order.
In some sense the outside gaze represented by the cell phone camera as well as the broadcast cameras of international news channels was also understood in a strategic manner. The participants in this event have learned what a camera does through their own position as “passive spectators” and were thus able to communicate with it without even trying—this is not to establish an ideal situation, but to self-servingly use the same tools to their own advantage—to procure sympathy, and pathos. This understanding of the gaze was calculated yet instinctive and understood in a collective manner. So what we have here are two things happening at the same time: a shared collective outburst of pathological ills that are deeply wedded to their context and their assumption of ritualistic forms that are however also able to access the mediamatic space of communication on its own terms to serve its own purposes.

B.EB.: Can we swiftly look at the citizen through your work then perhaps? The citizens in your recent work BLIND AMBITION that was presented at dOCUMENTA 13 don’t seem to be the citizen-public of art that is mentioned in the intro but somehow these citizens are empowered and this empowerment does not seem to be coming from involvement in direct political engagements. Usually empowerment would refer to increasing the spiritual, political, social, educational, gender, or economic strength of individuals and communities, but the source of empowerment one senses in the characters featured in BLIND AMBITION seems to be very different. Perhaps you can tell us more about this?

H.K.: I think that the work is constituted by the people who appear in it ; they are central in a way that does not seek to position or categorize what they might be except through their own discourse. They inhabit a very special position—as they exist in a world that is absolutely silent except when they speak—in a sense this world lacks substance till that moment. They are the animators of that world—and it is their voice that makes it whole. However this dynamic is not about empowerment in any way because it does not propose either a space of origin or a telic end as the roots or destiny of these people who appear in front of us. The inhabitants of this world do not need anything beyond what they express (including unspoken implications). What I mean is that the work is not concerned with trying to work out an ideal position where particpants “should” be placed.
However we also have the interludes or intermissions that act as scans—they are also silent segments but in this case no one speaks. As we move through the different modes of transportation we are put face-to-face with the wider context of a shared collective. We are introduced to the constitutive elements of a social order, the crowd. But this is no anonymous irrational mass. The constantly moving point of view shot that enters and exits different modes of public transportation is the anonymous figure here. We never see the cameraman’s hands or body—taxi doors open on their own, and we never glimpse the camera in an accidental reflection (the cameraman was told to not be visible and all reflective shots were consciously edited out)—i.e. the point of view is dematerialized. It is this balance between an invisible exploratory roving eye and its ripple-like effect in the public field that allows for a scan of the world that does not transform the inhabitants of this world into explanations or props.

Hassan Khan, G.R.A.H.A.M., 2008. Installation shot at the Yokohama Trienalle. Courtesy of the Artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel.
Hassan Khan, The Hidden Location, 2004. Exhibition view, SALT Beyoglu, Istanbul, Turkey, 2012. Photo by Serkan Taycan. Image courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris.

B.EB.: Not allowing yourself to look at or reproduce “the inhabitants of this world” as explanations or props and your earlier use of the term “telic” create a useful link to help understand your work in general.
I mean teleology is in essence about the purpose of beings and things and their intentions, and in your work it seems that the purposes can tightly define humans as a subject. Their aims, ambitions and intentions are elusive and never revealed but yet its these very same purposes or rather hidden purposes that drive us to make attempts at making meaning of the work. We see this in The Hidden Location, The Agreement, Blind Ambition and other works as well. One could say that humanity remains a subject for you but humanism is deliberately counteracted through process, technique, and form. Perhaps this is why you find many theoretical and institutional configurations regarding what the artist, the artwork, or the audience is supposed to be, supposed to do, or how they are supposed to relate to politics or society annoying, because they are mostly heavily humanistic?

H.K.: Purpose strongly exists in my work. The status and self-definition of inanimate objects are constantly being questioned, while human beings possess and communicate a strong sense of their own purpose without necessarily disclosing or explaining what drives that purpose. I don’t think the total work determines that purpose itself—it is revealed or hinted at by the subjects of the work. Which is why in portraits like G.R.A.H.A.M. (2008) or GBRL (2010) or even in the earlier 100 portraits (2001) there is a tension between the subject and its representation, even in the fact that they are being represented. This tension in all three cases is produced though the very process of making these portraits. In the silent portrait G.R.A.H.A.M.—the subject (the now-deceased photographer and friend Graham Waite) is not allowed to speak even as I interview him about himself. The only act allowed is to roll and smoke a cigarette on cue. Graham’s inability to vocalize his response to the questions (that the audience do not hear and are thus not even aware of) creates a tension between the act of preparing your self-image for a portrait (in this cause a continuous ten-minute shot) and in dealing with questions related to what that self is exactly. Furthermore he was asked to keep his eyes trained upon me (as I walked up and down and constantly kept moving) which disassociated one of the focal points from a sense of his intentions. By allowing us to witness an interior dialogue as well as maintaining an external force we watch Graham dealing with Graham.
The issue of voice is here imperative and complex. Where is the voice of the work? It is not as simple as assigning it to any of the subjects involved in the situation but it is rather the specific and precise confluence of controlled and uncontrolled elements that allow for a situation which can then be formalized in a manner that configures the art work. It is thus not the author’s, the subject’s or the work’s voice that assigns purpose, but rather their interaction together.
In The Agreement, The Hidden Location and in Blind Ambition we are not only dealing with individuals but also with the presence of the collective. The works’s configuration of the human is one that recognizes and takes into account as part of its arsenal an understanding of individual consciousness as inextricably linked to the collective production of language, not as a limit but rather an unknown—a receding horizon that is both closed and open. Although each subject is treated as a fully valid independent voice the totality of the subjects in all three works acts as a conduit through which the collective in its synchronic and diachronic aspects is sensible. It is also the modulation (for example in The Hidden Location) between different methods of making that collective sensible that ensures that the ground is never fixed and that we are never left with a definition. The Shaabi song (“If you play me I will play you” by Aly Salheen) that accompanies the tracking shots of commercial products on sale in a mass retail store, or the breakdown of a character (who is played by an actress sublimating her own emotional economy) in a bathroom due to an unhappy affair, are put on par with the witnessing of ships passing through the Suez canal or young men reciting the true story of a sexual encounter with a prostitute. The social is recognizable yet reconfigured according to a precise sense of the purpose of each element. In a sense the hidden location is about the shared space of the imaginable as a starting point for the real. Yet it refuses to lyricize this source as a utopian promise (and thus I would argue steers away from romanticism), instead choosing to treat it as raw material. A trusted source.
In a sense the problem with humanism is not only teleology, it is also the fact that it refuses to allow the human to possess its own unknown quality. What is at stake here is the possibility of recognizing and sensing that quality, yet never taking the step of actually pointing it out and labeling it.

Hassan Khan, Blind Ambition, 2012. Film still. Image courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris.

B.EB.: Not pointing or labelling the possible unknown sides within each human is an interesting idea to contemplate in relation to the art economy. I think that is because it takes me back to the idea of what appears to be an ongoing struggle or at least a partial struggle between various elements / subjects of that economy. It could be argued that what is actually at the core of this struggle is the view, although usually not articulated this way, that some within the art economy insist on making attempts to inscribe artistic practices within a discourse of human rights. In a kind of Agambian reading, the art economy is seen as a camp that inscribes ideas about morality and ethics within a classic human rights discourse. The role of some art professionals (in particular some curators) in this economy is to use art discourse as a mechanism for the same human rights discourse that offers us some freedoms while absolutely controlling the boundaries and character of these freedoms. It is also the same set-up of rights that wars are waged for and communities suppressed. How do you see this struggle, and what position do you take towards it, if any?

H.K.: I’d like to take your proposition and expand it a bit. The art economy is actually, whether it likes or not, dependent upon the unknown quality of art. It is a value system where a gold standard does not exist. The value of a work or an artist is established by different circles of consensus, yet in the end there is nothing material that can tie down that value and guarantee it. Yet it is not able to accept the value for what it is and thus continuously disguises it through the process of constant discovery of new trends, et cetera. It basically presents it as a “renewing” factor, a “discovery”; a sudden “urgency”. It is true however that the market (and I include the curatorial and critical circuits in my definition of the market) needs illusory markers of value to maintain that circuit and thus the reliance in some models on what you’re calling a “human rights discourse” it is also in my opinion a maybe unconscious desire to make art relevant—the basic implication being that art bare without props is not enough to function that effect. The tension of course is there—artists who do not see their work through that same prism are constantly trying to find ways to reconfigure the relationship, while institutions and those who run them are constantly trying to transform works into props and explanations. My position is one of “radical self interest”. I assume that my presence within this economy has a certain value, I feel responsible to my work and its dictates and I feel compelled to defend them to my best possible ability, and finally I realize that this in itself possesses a certain currency and value. Negotiation is then key—it also simplifies the situation when our respective positions are worked out a priori and an agreement is reached; we can then proceed to the next stage.

Hassan Khan, The Hidden Location, 2004. Film still. Image courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris.

B.EB.: The idea that an agreement lies at the heart of any human interaction is something that repeatedly appears in your work. In The Agreement, the publication you recently published, and its related exhibition The Twist, you present short stories you wrote about different characters, in which each character interacts with society on the basis of complex unwritten social contracts that negotiate their power, freedoms, relationships and desires. These contracts seem to be always open to renegotiation and volatility. These two correlated projects were made during the very unstable period of political friction that followed the January – February 2011 protests; a period still ongoing, where power, freedoms, relationships, and desires are all being contested under circumstances of uncertainty and newly-rising diverse social and political forces. Each character in your stories seems to uneasily embody a segment of Egyptian society as a whole. Although none of the stories or the characters seemed to be implicated in the uprisings, they somehow seemed to have an indirect relationship to it that remained as an unarticulated but possible knot that could link the stories together. Not as a meta-narrative but in the idea that the stories pointed towards certain societal conditions and readings that presented a certain frequency of tension that was high up on the meter, a tension that ultimately became part of what led to the demonstrations.

H.K.: It goes back to how we can read the events themselves. In a sense this “revolution” or “uprising” or “event” (depending on who you are and what you think) did not happen but rather appeared as a manifestation. A sublimation of the social order itself and its existing tensions that lie hand in hand with the slowly collapsing state. The characters that appear in The Agreement where all based upon observations of people I had met in my life (with two exceptions) in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I attempted to describe these characters through a partially omniscient narrator, whose relationship to the characters and the events being described is constantly shifting. This is a narrator who knows enough details about the character and their relationship to the world around them to be able to perceive their hidden and interior life, yet not enough to be able to explain that life away in terms of cause and effect. Thus the metaphors employed do not serve as sources of information but rather communicate something of the tenor or emotional intensity experienced by these characters. The characters “embody” as you say—yet it’s not a segment of society that they embody, but rather their idea of who they themselves are. And, it is exactly this idea that can be understood as a description of what the different social segments are. So we are in a world of agreements, one between the character and themselves, others between the characters themselves, and yet others between the different conceptions of whom these characters are and each other and finally a wider and more general agreement that makes the social order possible in the first place. The revolution was an attempt at changing that agreement—it, in a way, enacted that transformation in a speech act whose referent did not yet exist. Ambitions and statements are of a similar order. In a sense each act of communication in its implicit violence and lack of fixity acts as a latent correlative to the unsublimated agreements that order and categorize our definitions.