With Public Figures, a series of densely political videos manipulated so that the subjects expose themselves and their post 9/11 agendas, Hamdi Attia slyly insinuates himself into their discourse — into the billion-dollar business of TV news and commentary. Born, raised, and art-schooled in Egypt, now living in New York, Attia’s visual intelligence on the Middle East may be over the heads of those accustomed to Fox News. His videos are not exposes and not rants. Their subtly satirical tone gives Daniel Pipes, Tom Friedman, and Richard Perle enough rope to hang themselves; the artist has only to keep reeling it out.
Two Performances 2006.RAM first gives the stage to a frenetic Islamic Egyptian TV Preacher, the immensely popular Amr Khaled (now broadcasting from London). His (subtitled) stories, liberally featuring the prophet, are accompanied on the split screen by ads from the Satellite channel on which he appears: Mecca Cola, hands counting money, and a large outdoor amphitheatre as it fills up with his growing audience. The parallels with our own TV evangelists are inescapable, but Attia chose him because of parallels to another favorite subject: New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. Not only do they have similar middle-class and college student audiences attracted to half-baked philosophies, but also “like Friedman,” he says, “Amr Khaled offers big ideas with no citations; his universalism leads to Islamic nationalism the same way Friedman’s glorification of globalization promotes Americanism.” If we missed it, “RAM” implies messages being rammed down our throats. What we get is not a thought process, but final results from those who know.
In the second “performance,” Friedman himself gives the same word-for-word, gesture-for-gesture, “spontaneous” lecture in different places, different clothes, while the right screen asks us to “Subscribe to The New York Times,” and touts “globalization 2.0.” Friedman hypes “energy independence” as “the moonshot for your generation,” and bemoans the fact that when he was a kid he was told “clean your plate because children in Indian and China are starving…Now people in China and Indian are starving for our jobs.”
In The Prince (2005), Attia googles the Machiavellian Richard Perle, who suggests, among other wild-eyed ideas, that the US should invade Palestine and the U.N. is “an obstacle to the safety and security of this country and maybe we should get out.” As Perle drives a car over snowy terrain, he remarks, “We live in a dangerous world, by the way.” The second “chapter” of this video essay features Daniel Pipes, instigator of Campus Watch against “liberal professors” and “Berkeley’s war against Israel” (“a new academic specialty”), tracks down such subversions as “unpatriotic bumper stickers,” saying “weird stuff” in class, and reading The Nation. An aerial film of a university campus parking lot frames these suspect activities as in a surveillance tape. “You’re in the public eye, the public record,” he warns his targets. “Get used to it!” The ensuing collage includes a noisy demonstration, our own evangelical leaders supporting Israel, newsreels of the 1948 war, and — perhaps most interesting — martial music accompanying propaganda film footage of the Israeli Defense Force in English (“Make us Warriors in Your Kingdom”). Pipes opines that it’s “not a bad idea to bomb the Al Aksa Mosque…” wonders “why does the Left love Osama and Saddam?” and at one point offers the disoriented exclamation: “Officials said Arabic has replaced Hebrew as official mideastern language!”
The third video is Ladies and Gentlemen (which could also have been titled “Some of My Best Friends”), featuring Friedman’s stories of his “Arab friend” in Jordan, complete with cozy family snapshots and chatty commentary. The New York Times’s front man on globalization enthuses about a series of cameos of Egyptian glamour girls in a “Vote for Best Eyes” contest his friend sent to Friedman. In Attia’s hands, this is an obvious example of westernization and cultural degeneration, while Friedman extols it as “a web-based thing popular among mid-eastern young men” – a happy example of globalization.
In the second half Attia gives us a taste of visual seduction, with striking black-and-white MRI films scrolling across the screen — slices of brain and body, with differently accented American voiceovers extolling the (scripted) “diversity” of our troops in the Middle East. Here he “dissects” the body politic and the poignant ignorance of its viewing audience. At the same time, Friedman complains, “History has taken a right turn into a blind alley and something dear has just been taken away from us” — presumably national security after September 11th. Nothing is said about the sufferings of the Palestinians from whom Israel/the U.S. has taken a good deal more that’s dear, and many more lives.
By blurring the boundaries between terrorisms in a conceptual collage, Attia skillfully utilizes the Internet as his activist art medium, thanking Google, Yahoo, and other web-based tools in the acknowledgements. At the same time he produces a critique of visual information and its untrustworthy “truths.” Operating in a zone of subtle dissent, he apologizes for no-one in this multipartite (and ongoing) treatise on the creation of information determining life-or-death policies. It’s a dangerous world, indeed.
–Lucy R. Lippard (with thanks to Jim Faris for his informative rants)
Lucy Lippard is a writer, activist, and author of 20 books on contemporary art and cultural studies. Her latest books are Lure of the Local, and On the Beaten Track (both from New Press).