Backbench, 2010, a collaborative project part of OVERSCORE curated by ACAF for Manifesta 8. Film: Ergin Cavusoglu, Set: nOffice, Moderators: Suhail Malik, Nav Haq. Participating Collectives: Action Mill, Take to the Sea, Metahaven, Red76, Courtesy of the Artists and Manifesta 8. Photo © Ilya Rabinovich.

Between January 2nd and 8th Bassam and I met a number of times. Face to face in various Alexandria Cafes we skyped away at this conversation. We both found it important to conduct this conversation in writing and to have the chance to revisit it over and over to allow the text to further develop. I was interested in engaging with Bassam’s profound and original understanding of the nature of art practice and its relation to history. Egypt and our lives of course changed over the course of the editing process but we decided to keep focused on what we had begun rather than attempting a fast and probably superficial recuperation of what is going on.

Hassan Khan: Best to begin with the most comprehensive question I can think of – I’ll try to stay specific to the field of art practice – based upon your position as the founder and director of the Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum, as someone who is in touch with what’s happening in different places in the world, who sees many exhibitions, attends numerous conferences both as a speaker and audience member, but also as someone who is active in his local context, who meets lots of younger artists, sees their work and deals with them on a practical bases, between these two poles, are you as a practitioner happy or satisfied with what you’re seeing and experiencing?

Bassam El Baroni: No, part of my job is to be productively pessimistic, I think that aspect is highly important. But it’s also important to always try to assert and visualize the links between local conditions and a larger picture.

Hassan: what do you mean by productively pessimistic?

Bassam: There are many types of criticality, but mainly three that I am interested in. One is an exhibitionist type of criticality that is predominately pessimistic but always in a self-satisfying loop, I call it chic pessimism. The second type is not even pessimistic, it just uses the vocabulary of criticality, and sometimes the subjects of criticality, but in reality it’s just an attempt at being part of the discursive wing of contemporary art. Finally, there is the criticality that I always try to adhere to which harks back to the Schopenhauerian tradition somehow, pessimism as an igniter of discussions and thought processes that lead to the development of some sort of solution or structure or rethinking of what you are critiquing.

Hassan: OK but to be a bit more concrete- is your pessimism not grounded in actual experience and perception or is it merely a philosophical position vis a vis the world?

Bassam: Both.

Hassan: What in your own practical experience leads to that pessimism?

Bassami: One of the major problems I feel most art practice is suffering from today is the universality problem. “Discursive” art today is produced under the pretext of the multicultural machine or logic, it mainly produces what can be called “paradoxical universality” that is very different from say the universality of modernism as for example Picasso’s Guernica which can be called “old school European universalism (OSEU)”. I think constructing a third universality which is neither OSEU nor the universality of multiculturalism is essential as a strategy that can be used to not just counteract the particularism of the system and its essentialism but also to test ideas that can later find their way into areas outside the sphere of art.

Hassan: How does that problem manifest itself concretely? In your experiences, in terms of what you’ve seen on both the local and the larger picture, in what you experience on a daily professional life basis?

Bassam: Well, I would say it’s in the elements that make up artists’ works, in the conscious or unconscious equations that they adhere to. Now if you are an artist say in Ethiopia or Egypt and you have just graduated from fine arts school, you have a number of choices or routes you can proceed to take, I will just call them choices here, but I am not entirely certain that it’s a question of total free will because bio-politics play an important role in which route you take.

Hassan: So briefly put what do you think connects all these routes? And what do you mean by bio-politics?

Bassam: Model # 1 or your first choice is what can be called fine art. In general it’s characterized by the very traditional academic application and re-appropriation of different art histories and art schools. While some fine art is interesting the overwhelmingly large majority of it is usually defined as ‘weird’, ‘commercial’, or ‘kitsch’ by contemporary art, thus it is a rare occurrence to see a work of fine art in a contemporary art exhibition and if one makes its way into such an exhibition it is always justified under some curatorial state of exception. But the question here is why fine art is seen as an oddity by the so called contemporary. I think a closer look at the premises on which different Universalities are based is key to understanding this. While contemporary art has successfully adopted the paradoxical universalism of multiculturalism, fine art has not. Fine art is stuck somewhere in-between the old universalism of Picasso’s Guernica and the universality of multiculturalism, not able to fully empower itself with either, it has become somewhat of partial object for contemporary art, dead yet very much alive.

Above Mappa, 1978, by Alighiero e Boetti.

Left Red and White Domes, 1914 Watercolor and body color on Japanese, vellum mounted on cardboard, 14.6 x 13.7 cm; Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf by Paul Klee. (Photo by Mark Harden)

Image Commentary: Consider the difference between how Paul Klee responded artistically to a stay in Tunisia and between how Boetti created his map series by working with artisans from Afghanistan. Klee represents the artist who starts spreading his individuality as the universal, while this 1978 piece by Boetti signals an unconscious understanding of how art was going to be shaped along geo-political and cultural lines for decades to come, its also the beginning of the universality of multiculturalism, this I think is one of the main engines behind the collective unconscious of the contemporary art industry.
Hassan: How can we locate what you call “fine art”, why has it not adopted a universalism of its own? What does it have instead of that? What makes it a ‘partial object’?

Bassam: Regarding the overall predisposition of Fine art today or as you suggested its exact location and what keeps it alive, perhaps there is no single exact reason for its continuity and its characteristics but we can try to pin-point a set of conditions that give it its momentum and crystallize its formulas, an equation that generates its continuity. In the Egyptian context for example, we need to look no further than the practices of the Fine art faculties or schools of fine art where art history is the first layer or the informational grounding for the artificial resuscitation of the fine art mode of practice. Art history is delivered as a clear cut story that links non-critical narratives of socio-political history to artistic practice step by step in a deterministic formula. The idea is that the artists’ methodologies and subject matters were a logical result of their political and social environments and that changes or shifts only occur as a direct result of changes or shifts in these environments. The implications of this mode of delivering art history are huge, it leads to a kind of fossilization of art through narrative, the idea of the end of art begins here, the end of art (i.e. Contemporary art is not art) is indirectly linked to the notion of ‘the end of history’.

We are somehow led into an artificial time-zone where we feel and act as if art’s great achievements have been already inscribed as something permanent, and that now we exist in an era that can be described as an infinite intermission that starts after the end of this historical narrative; putting a freeze on any attempt to step outside this zone. This artificial zone is cut off from the present and the future as much as it possibly can through the deliberate delay of information and knowledge about what is happening now in art, you need certain skills to inform yourself via the internet and if you don’t have them it’s hard to build up an information base. Thus, the only valid artwork in this zone is one that has a direct and simple predecessor in art history from ancient Egyptian to Pop Art. The artist must use indicators, symbols, signs, and devices that strongly connect him/her to the lineage of this art history otherwise it will not be recognized as art.

Hassan: Can you point out how both Fine art and Contemporary art relate to ‘art history’?

Bassam: Indeed, one of the crucial differences between Fine art and what has been labeled as Contemporary art is how art history is perceived. For Fine art, art history is a catalogue or some sort of script, or perhaps a scripted catalogue of artist characters, methods, styles, symbols and socio-political indicators. For contemporary art, history is seen as yet another archive of images, facts, subjectivities, social and political agendas and notions. During post-modernism and at least until around the first half of the 80s, most art in Europe and the United States was being produced ad continuum with this notion of a scripted catalogue of art history. Consciously or unconsciously artists had to somehow insert themselves into this script called linear art history. So if we take for example artists such as Beuys, Jan Ader, Burden, Kiefer, the Transavanguardia Italiana, and others, we can correlate their work to the idea of the scripted catalog of art history through the artistic persona they embody in their works, the romantic, the utopian, the expressionist, the redeemer, the mannerist, the scientist etc. An extreme break with art history never occurred but what changed later was precisely this idea of how an artist perceives art history as well as social and political history, when more artists started perceiving it not as a linear scripted catalogue but as a non-linear extensive archive where almost no materials in this archive had the quality of being semi-sacred and where these materials or info could be renegotiated, faked, deconstructed, etc. the category of contemporary art really came into place.

The whole idea of ‘knowledge production’ (the pretext for most of the current discursive art industry particularly its institutions, curators, and financing systems) be it subjective, objective, or a marriage of both, starts from the moment the artist perceives art history as an archive, the moment of the contemporary. At the other end, a Fine art graduate trained to perceive art production as a cataloged linear script may be interested in ‘contemporary’ production, but to actually produce a work that can be seen as contemporary they must make the shift from wanting to insert themselves in that catalog to a recognition of the archive. This explains why we get works that are half and half, you know what I mean, a video portrait of the artist with Islamic calligraphy and colored geometric ornamentation making visual patterns over his/her face while gunshots and cello music can both be heard in the soundtrack. Here the artist still perceives of art history and general history as a catalogue, he/she is looking to insert their work in this encyclopedia of artistic identities and characters, and the work actually starts from this place of artistic identities and characters.

Your individuality as an artist in Fine art is prized highly but at the same time its source can only be the catalogue, so in the end it’s a question of what you can come up with by diluting and mixing prefab identities and icons. If on the other hand you conceive of art and life as an archive you are not necessarily bound to such a fatalistic route although the power of the market and its institutions constantly push artists to stabilize their identities and equations. So, if the category of Contemporary art today is going through what can be called a routine phase because of the repetition of once radical gestures and equations that have lost most of their agency, the category of Fine art is a form of hyper-routine, functioning in an agency free zone (the infinite intermission). It is not meant to produce knowledge but to reincarnate previous knowledge, all through the necessity of it perceiving art history as a catalogue. In my view this might be one of the main reasons why Fine art still exists. But, if the whole mechanism is revealed and artists lose their ability to relate to the catalogue and start thinking in terms of the archive, usually a gradual transition into the contemporary can be made. Universality in Fine art is linked to the catalogue, particularly to those pages in the catalogue that appear under Modernism and the artist’s persona or the artistic self as the centre from which the universal emerges. Universality in contemporary art is linked directly or indirectly to the premise of ‘knowledge production’, the archive, the grand “global” Culture of many cultures, the “global economy”, and in the end one can replace universality in contemporary art with another more pragmatic term, “multiculturalism”. The difference between the universality of modernism and the universality of multiculturalism, the dominant universality today, then becomes the indicator for how compatible an artwork or an artist’s practice is with the contemporary market.

Above, a sculpture by Gamal Meleika, found on the artist’s website.

Below, the eleven sculptures accepted in the 20th youth salon held in Cairo’s palace of arts in 2009. Here shown together on one long low plinth in juxtaposition to other works that question the concept of the artist. Various artists.

Image Commentary: The presentation of the sculptures in the 20th youth salon in this manner makes them loose their perceived individuality, that for “an artist in Fine art is prized highly but at the same time its source can only be the catalogue”. This desacralization of artistic identities,and the suggested need to look at art history from the perspective that all its elements formulate an archive that can be used and abused is highly significant. In contrast Gamale Meleika’s sculptures uses the Giacometti reference to evoke Ancient Egyptian mummies in a manner that undermines the proposals of modernism yet uses its caches as a valid historically approved form.

Hassan: Well thank you for this detailed historical and theoretical analysis, but can you with concrete examples explain how the “universalism” you refer to operated? What were its blind spots?

Bassam: The artistic cannon of modernism managed to use its individuality as the medium of the universal, while considering the particulars of time, place, ethnicity, gender and so on to be of a secondary nature. These particularities and what they were part of were in a way almost invisible to the cannon, so for example Picasso could reference African sculpture as form, spiritual significance, and so on but whatever he did with it, it was not really referencing or commenting on Africa or the idea of Africaness simply because Africa was somehow invisible to his individual self, the creator of universality. This strangely explains why the ways of the cannon could actually become popular all over the world without there being clear forms of resistance towards their aesthetics or their ethics, simply because at the core of the work there was prominently the individual and the ethics of individuality.

An artist from Africa or Asia could switch this equation around with Europe being invisible to her/him, and his/her individuality being the nucleus from which universality emerges. As long as the source of universality was an individual with all his/her specifics of individuality and was not a heavy-handed cultural entity or a particularity outside of the artistic self it was not an issue to re-appropriate, develop, and build upon the mannerisms, techniques, and ideas of the cannon.

Hassan: And today, how has that developed?

Bassam: Yes, look at the universality of today … It asserts that its core is outside the individual and invites what it perceives as identities, cultures, and particularities to formulate a “plural” universality. The problem is that it has to first define them as identities, cultures, and particularities in order to allow them to form its core, thus the equation cannot be turned around any longer and full control is achieved.

Above Straight Down to below, text various dimensions, by Lawrence Weiner. ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008.

Below, videostill from Rant (2008) single channel video by Hassan Khan.

Image Commentary: Unlike previous conceptual practices, in this series of works by Lawrence Weiner, one finds it very difficult to pin-point the artist’s character within the scripted catalogue of artist personas. There is a noticeable shift evident in these works; they tell us that art has made the complete transition from the perception of its history as a scripted catalogue to the perception of it being an archive of ideas, images, macro histories and identities. This shift signals a new equation of balance between subjectivity and objectivity; in RANT for example, we can relate to the emotions of the actress, we can relate to the textual material in the video, yet we cannot identify a clear model of the artist’s character that we recognize from the catalog of art history. The artist is not creating something from within himself and sending it out to the world as his universality but through visual and textual signals tapping into this shared pool of experience the archive.


Published on April 25, 2011.