I was very happy really, performance, two-channel video/eight-channel sound;4:21 min, 2009

I always had a sense that Youmna Chlala was involved in collaborative projects. Her way of working, it seems to me, calls for a mutual playfulness unusual in the face of disappearing or abandoned cultural remains. Youmna is at once eager to share time and restless to leave. In this exchange she stayed long enough to fill me with the optimism and pleasure of her variegated approach.

Rheim: I am going to begin abruptly, introducing your work the same way that atmospheric extremes, political upheaval, or mad love are introduced into our conscience.

Your practice is based around a compulsive series of artist residencies. It is as if you are continuously engaging in a self-uprooting regimen. By so doing, what do you look for, and why can’t you find it without traveling such far distances?

Youmna: It is all a kind of mad love! Maybe it’s because I’m reading Lolita right now that I want to claim the ecstatic in the creative process. Residencies and site-specific projects function under the constraints of time and space in a way that is less about dislocation and more about a re-location that requires me to rely on the elements of improvisation. It allows failure to exist alongside the suspension of belief/systems/rules simply by being elsewhere. Out of this vulnerability, the work becomes about the desire to insert what I carry (body/objects/memory) into these relocated spaces.

Minor Encounters, social sculpture/ performance at the San Jose Museum of Art, project of the Quatres Cotes Collective, 2007

Rheim: By measuring your relocation tactics, how then do you account for what you leave behind once you have departed again and again? In effect, I wonder if where you came from — an unavoidable detail of relocation — is not as important as where you are going.

Youmna: No matter how much I try to create a present-tense situation the place before lingers and resurfaces. In a way, this is comforting. The work finds unexpected consistencies and the gestures, mannerisms and embodiment of what was before. It is not a forgetting but a kind of building or layering. This is similar to the way that drawing functions for me. The marks are made not only through lines but very intentionally through erasure. It takes a kind of disappearance for something else to appear. In my own life, this has taken form most significantly through space and language.

Rheim: I think drawing is an interesting point because, in my mind your work is rooted in a writer’s discipline, which is extended into descriptions of architecture or space, transcribed in the practice of drawing; you invoke a process of physically building ideas. You might anticipate your departure or you might mimic it with an eraser, but you are constantly building [theoretically] livable structures to accommodate what we could call your relocation practices. Would you describe your project with Jeanno Gaussi — where you collaboratively made a domestic space in an abandoned house?

Youmna: Somehow writing (habit, obsession, form) always affects my ways of making. As for the collaboration, we were both interested in the varying notions of shapeshifting. We did not quite name it like that but at the core of our exchange is how constantly moving shapes our selves as they relate to where we were born and formed culturally, emotionally and intellectually—she in Kabul & I in Beirut. For the first project, we looked for our dream home and inhabited an unfinished house in a village in Jordan where everyone our age had left. This became an interrogation of the contemporary empty space. By documenting the process of “really living” and producing a publication as an archive, we uncovered our relationship to spatial memory and imagination. We just held the second manifestation of the project in the old city of Jerusalem where we moved into a staged homespace that we activated by performing and documenting the ritual of location.

Home Sweet Home, Shatana, installation & video (single channel,10 minutes/Collaboration with Jeanno Gaussi 2009

Rheim: In your mind, what makes empty space contemporary? Is “contemporary empty space” applicable as a concept outside of your project?

Youmna: It’s an interactive and experiential ground undergoing the temporary suspension of movement. What is the meaning of our daily encounters with empty apartments, storefronts, buildings? It is about an in-between space that once was but also has the potential to be again. It is not void or marked with nothingness but holds traces of previous uses as well as the stirring/desire for future activity. I love spaces that feel like that, suspended, like muallaqat poems.

Rheim: Because these projects have taken place in cities like Jerusalem and Beirut, you are not talking about empty space generally. You could be talking about moving through embattled or contested spaces, spaces that are already predisposed to meaning from all directions. What specifically makes empty space in these contexts contemporary? Is the effort to ‘suspend’ the emptiness of an existing, overdetermined space a means of generating indeterminacy? Indeed, what are the benefits of this suspension?

Youmna: I really like your idea of an overdermined space—almost like it’s too loud with meaning. I think that’s exactly what I’m trying to understand with suspension or erasure. How to temporarily put on hold the over-flux of didactic language that dominate such places and predetermine a context. In an attempt to move away from symbolism or cultural kitsch, I sometimes feel like I’m going towards a regionally specific minimalism, if there is such a thing. I’d like to find a way to detour language away from itself (heavy & burdened w/ geo-political reality) and to suspend it into a state of (disjointed and bound) lightness. This is why I work with multiple forms such as book and video and drawing, this allows for simultaneity, which feels like a truly contemporary condition. I am also really curious about the relationship of these cities to each other as a way of creating a kind of regional intertextual conversation that also acknowledges the diaspora. How do Baghdad and Beirut and Los Angeles relate to each other? Where do Cairo, Bethlehem, and Istanbul fit in? I would like to figure out ways where city-based (as opposed to nation-based) methodology generates new modes of cultural production.

Piscine1, c-print 24 x 30 inches, 2008

Rheim: You are based in New York. What do you do there?

Youmna: I fall in mad love.

Rheim: How have you found that places like Baghdad, Beirut and Los Angeles relate to each other on an aesthetic/textual level? Where does that conversation happen – is the explicitness preferably unspoken, unseen? (By asking these questions, I feel as if I am emptying my heavy-burdened baggage into pockets you prefer to keep light!)

Youmna: (empty here) (anytime!)
One way is through public seeking like research & interviews for the Beyrouth:Baghdad project I did with Dena Al-Adeeb where we began to document Cairo’s relationship to those two cities and realized that myths are still hyper-present in the formation of each other’s narratives. Explicitly, print and TV media, music and films remain vital modes of exchange. The other kind of investigation is much more implicit and personal. Beirut and Los Angeles can be understood as similarly performative. They are on a global stage, watched, anticipated. This manifests in behaviors, language and spatial interactions that make me want to push the edge of fiction and name it reality.

Rheim: Is your investigatory process one of observation alone, or do you perform these cities as well?

Youmna: This reminds of how you, in your work, are precisely investigative of images. I try to encounter cities or places in a similar way by freeze-framing moments to pull at the tension between euphoria and fractures. And I insert myself in an attempt to use the elements happenstance/fate. I’m playing with this idea by staging personal and collective moments that utilize the performativity of destiny.

View Video Talk City to Me, single-channel video, 20 min collaboration with Deena Al Adeeb, 2008

Rheim: By collaborating with other variously displaced or relocated artists, by talking about contemporary empty space in terms of suspended odes [to the city], by using the book as format for your multiple relocation practices, it’s clear that the city positions your work. How does hair — extension of the geopolitical body that it is — fit into the equation?

Youmna: The materiality of memory. As much erasing, moving, relocating, place-making that happens, memory remains embedded, genetic, determining. My work using body/hair functions as a way to define those implications for myself.

Rheim: What does your embedded, genetic, determining memory hold in store for you? Or, where will the “performativity of destiny” take place next?

Youmna: Destiny is seeped in the idea of the written, the maktoub, which is always part of performance for me. The video projects I have been working on lately are about the asynchronicity between moving image and text. They are filmed improvisational performances that took place before the act of writing a fictitious script that then gets produced as a publication. Time is malleable and words are no longer documents or records and instead function as simultaneously temporary and magnified narratives.

Rheim: Thanks, Youmna.

Published December 1, 2010