003.04 VJ UM AMEL

INTERVIEW WITH VJ UM AMEL BY YOUMNA CHLALA


VJ Um Amel’s work takes hold of the dizzying speed at which image, text and communication collide and transform it into intentional markers of identity and possibility. As we discuss the role of reproduction, distance and theft in contemporary art, we also get a little closer to understanding Donna Haraway’s assertion that “race, gender, and capital require a cyborg theory of wholes and parts.”

Youmna Chlala: So, you are an Arab, a Cyborg and a Mother?

VJ Um Amel: When people ask me who I “am”, I honestly cannot say any one thing. So I place the identity of “mother” next to “cyborg” to challenge us to think about what the child of a cyborg might look like. If a cyborg is free from biological or technological determinism then what does it mean for it to procreate? Is it an extension of our lives in some performative way? And when you place the ever-shifting and seemingly different experiences of mother and cyborg within a contextual analytics of “Arab,” you get a deep fragmentation and set of multiple consciousnesses that produce a centrifugal force.
(Analysis is what we call the things humans do, usually through language, analytics is what computers do via computational and technological filters).

Youmna: In “A VJ Manifesto” you situate your work as post-9/11. How does this definition of hope shift now— post an articulated set of revolutionary acts in the Arab world?

VJ Um Amel: I feel like that moment in history and its after effects marked a critical call to action for all transnational Arab people. A lot has changed over the last 10 years…. Hope has become a loaded term. Just for the record, VJ Um Amel (Arabic for “Mother of Hope”) came into being before Obama’s hope campaign! In literature, hope dates back to the Greeks and Pandora’s box. As my story’s animated character, Femme Bot, says in Call2Presence, “Modern feminists have interpreted Pandora’s jar to represent the female womb. That the jar releases evils upon the earth suggests the culture’s unease with female sexuality. Pandora’s jar originally contained winged souls.” So, to answer your question, since these recent revolutionary acts, hope is somehow linked back to the womb, winged souls and the sea of creations. I have yet to map it out….but I see a feminist praxis at work here.


Scene from recorded live VJ poetic remix, “Women & Youth of the Arab Revolutions.”
This shot consists of Suheir Hammad’s performance of “War, Peace, Women, Power”
onTED.com that I rotoscoped. Then I added the word “Arabic” (feminine gendered)
running through a 4D cube patch I built in Quartz Composer.

Youmna: At the same time, distance and loss appear to be instrumental in your work, i.e. you are in Los Angeles while a revolution is happening in Egypt or in one of the videos, the viewer is invited to experience the loss of Amel and search for the metaphoric hope insinuated in your VJ name in the video series Call2Presence. How do you understand their function?

VJ Um Amel: I have to say, I am really taken by your questions, Youmna. This is insightful and triggers something within me for sure. I never quite thought of it like that but distance plays an interesting role in my work.

As for the role of distance in narrative making, I think of Edward Said and how the experience of the exile, emigrant, and traveler was a central theme in his work. Occupying an “in between” space, straddling two cultures rather than being grounded in one, Said learned to develop a “double-vision”—the ability to see each of his cultures both from the inside and the outside. The insider and the outsider have two different ways of knowing. Indeed, seeing from a distance sometimes provides a perspective you can’t get from the close-up view with its subjective angle. This tension between proximity and distance also makes me think of the cinematic close-up versus visualizations of such large data sets. I’m doing both in my remixes.

…it can be painful to straddle both. You end up focusing on entirely different things than you would have if you stayed put in one place. Good news is that I will be going to Cairo in June, so I’ll shift that perspective here shortly.

Youmna: You have named the concept of reproduction as a maternal connection, however it seems to also apply to the sequence of making—–if so, where does one clip, video, soundbyte or text begin and become another?

VJ Um Amel: I use the maternal connection to reflect a larger idea of the creative act and its transformative nature. I see a somewhat spiritual connection to this creative process. For me, the creative act carries a breath unto its own. I draw a lot of insight from my daily yoga practice. I have learned to emphasize alignment and the inner directional action and movement also known as vinyasa krama. “Krama” refers “to the effective sequence of actions” and “vinyasa” means “to place in a special way”. The concept of vinyasa krama means with reference to the yoga asana that each step needs to take us in the right direction and be made in the right way.

Then there is another reference to the maternal in my work, signified by the word “Um” in my name. And that is to a common Arabic-speaking practice of referring to Egypt as “um eddounya”, mother of the Earth, and to legendary Egyptian singer, Um Kalthoum, and to the many women and men who have been called, “mother of…” or “father of….” It’s a ground-shifting way of relating to the world.

Youmna: Interesting that you bring up movement as I was wondering about the moving images you create which are often a montage—-a kind of simultaneity of experience. How then does time function in your work?

VJ Um Amel: Well, if you spent more time with me in person, you might get a sense of how time functions in my life! I tend to be late for most everything, almost like an act of intervention. I sleep weird hours, if at all, and am online UTC (computer time) rather than (PST) Pacific Coast Time where I live. The man-made clock for me is something I resist in so many ways. In conversation, I often respond with not one, but several possible avenues of thought – divergent thinking. So simultaneity is natural for me. It is a lot of work to construct a forced linear narrative. Personally, I don’t experience life like that. My more recent videos of #Jan25 might be a good example of how I try to bring in the recursive nature of history by mixing in clips of the 1952 revolution of the last King of Egypt.


Scene from “#Jan25 Remix for #Egypt.” This shot consists of three layers of
images, which I animated and altered. Images in this shot include cartoon by
Carlos Latuff, green screen of flying birds, and snapshot of January 25th’
demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Cairo.

Youmna: As you sort this data, signs, image, text and speech, how do you encounter multiple languages and define culturally specific indicators?

VJ Um Amel: I think that is a question we should all consider. Contemporary cultures—influenced by global trends and transnationalism—have become a fully designed and mediated phenomenon. From the built spaces we inhabit to the paths of circulation we travel through—a set of expressive practices, professional skills, and making protocols—play a critical role in the production of global culture.

Youmna: So then what are the differences between live and virtual performance?

VJ Um Amel: This is a research question that has inexhaustible responses. There is a blur somewhere where the body ends and the machinated extension performs. I would like to say that it’s mostly in the mind. Meaning, we have the choice to act in our real life, to act in ways that are not socially prescribed somehow, and so often choose not to. Virtuality offers us another perspective on our lived realities.

Youmna: You use data-bubbles and graphs to chart these ideas so how do you see the structure and ideology of maps as articulated spaces in and of themselves?

VJ Um Amel: The data-bubbles I play with emerged from my objective to remix the discourse by including the input of a “community-author” in knowledge production. I see my online visualizations as a form of extending single subjectivities–– whether expert, popular, or imaginative—and activating new virtual worlds.

Configuring ideas and activating various landscapes—archiving, commenting, rating, tagging—is a new way to mobilize a multi-lingual practice. As an example, R-Shief is a digital nonprofit organization that I’m launching actually this month. R-Shief’s lab is committed to fostering innovative research on transnational Arab history and culture. It provides activists, scholars, journalists, professionals, and artists with tools and methodologies for comprehending the Arab world. It is conceptually designed as the virtual embodiment of a 21st century transnational Arab imagination.


R-Shief Semantic Analytics and Sentiment Analysis” is an informational video
about a project to archive and analyze Twitter, Facebook, and other Internet
platforms to help better understand the Arab Spring.

Youmna: You address interactive components as “co-creation with audiences and other texts.” For you, what are the differences between collaboration and appropriation? Is it necessary to be a skilled thief in order to be a good VJ?

VJ Um Amel: This is an important point to address. And maybe it’s hard to assess but I think a lot of it comes down to intention and methodology. Sometimes appropriation is intentional and meant to be subversive. It becomes clear when work is remixed with the intention to be in conversation with it, similar to when we write a paper and cite other texts within it. And this may be because I think of VJing as a critical research methodology.

At a time when ‘Arab’ is misunderstood in many parts of the world, an emergent twenty-first century community of researchers and thinkers are publishing and producing copious amounts of work on the region in digital form. I want to bypass the notion of the critic as an authority who controls narrative and instead work to create a new role in the transnational Arab community that resonates with web culture: to function as critic, curator, and artist all at the same time. This cyber conscious, digital art practice allows me to shift roles between VJ Um Amel and acting in R-Shief’s web-based technoscape, occupying both subjectivities simultaneously. At the same time, audience members are encouraged to participate in my live VJ performances via SMS, online, and through VJ remix competitions that I will host on my website.

Interactive Visualization: Semantic Analysis of 800,000 Tweets on #Jan25

Youmna: At what point then does your art and VJing practice converge with your critical research and academic practice?

VJ Um Amel: For me, critical research and artistic practices are all tied up together – they inform each other. I am suggesting an interdisciplinary approach to questioning and learning that incorporates an art research methodology. For example, social media practices can offer a transformative understanding of the nature of blogs, social networking sites, Twitter feeds or YouTube and how these new media platforms engage and affect us. Research is the praxis of systematic critical reflection that focuses on compelling questions. Like many orchestrated performances, VJing is necessarily based on collaboration among many different parts and peoples. This work is meant to be open for co-creation with audiences and other texts. When directed towards knowledge production, an art research practice can open up all kinds of potentialities.

Youmna: Thank You VJ Um Amel. I look forward to your future co-creations.

Published June 22, 2011.