This issue marks the fourth installment of a six-quarter cycle of the Virtual Gallery that spotlights artists from the Maghreb leading up to the 2014 edition of the Marrakech Biennial. Each subsequent gallery will showcase artists who deal with the every day in their work to reveal the conceptual threads and regional connections that underlie the expanding North African art scene. Previously, Alya Sabti focused on Morocco with Younes Baba-Ali, Everyday Activist, Wafa Gabsi addressed Tunisia in The Daily Route, and Yasmina Reggad (/A.R.I.A/) looked at Algeria with The Economy of Hope [Working Title].
The newspapers talk about everything except the daily…what is really happening, what we are living, the rest, all the rest, where is it? What happens every day and comes back every day, the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the background noise, the habitual, how to notice it, how to interrogate it, how to describe it?
Georges Perec, L’Infra Ordinaire
The everyday – by its very daily-ness, by its lack of the spectacular, the lack of extra-ordinariness – is paradoxically harder to see than moments of emergency, than the unexpected event. Increasingly, however, artists are mining the everyday as a strategy to intertwine art and life, revealing the everyday by slightly mediating its conditions. This is part of the contradictory nature of the everyday in art : that it must be modulated using self-imposed parameters that make visible the daily experiences that are hidden in their expression by rote. Ideally, however, this practice is meant to not make the ordinary into the extraordinary, but to encourage viewers to see the connections and possibilities that are repeated each day, while also cultivating a different viewing experience of the artwork. As Jennifer Dyer writes in reference to Maurice Blanchot’s theorization of the everyday in art, “The claim is that this art demands the viewer experience its objects in the repetitive, passive, and uneventful terms of the everyday without reverting to more familiar viewing practices that tend to set the artwork off from the world.”[i]
These are appealing propositions, embracing and highlighting everyday creation while also fostering a more intimate and direct viewing experience for the audience. These are by no means new ideas: well before artists that are inextricably linked to ideas of the everyday like Yoko Ono or Sophie Calle, the Situationnistes and celebration of people walking in the street or everyday architecture pervades much of modern art, as in Baudelaire’s writing. Yet the question becomes: how is it possible to reveal the everyday? This is in part a question of heightening awareness of the shared daily life that is lived almost automatically. Jennifer Dyer continues, “Noticing is poetic because it involves selflessly attending to the ordinary reality of others, a process that enlarges vision, stretches the imagination, and elicits judgments.”[ii] In other words, our own vision, our own experience of the everyday — as creators or viewers — is expanded by virtue of the confrontation of our reality with someone else’s, stretching our imagination but also perhaps our empathy well before we try to connect to larger events or histories.
Yet given how well-trod this ground is, how then do new media allow new possibilities for creating the sort of attention that is required, and what can contemporary artists do to make viewers notice the world around them in ways that are relevant today? Part of the answer to this – especially for artists Hicham Berrada and Zineb Andress Arraki – is by creating an aesthetic experience out of the everyday, bringing a poetics to daily life and processes that can be captured through the use of media. Both Hicham Berrada and Zineb Andress Arraki, in their differing personal practices, focus on the small details of lived reality. Both artists concern themselves in different ways with the small moments or the small particles that make up daily existence as they see it. For Hicham Berrada, the everyday is mediated through art, imposing slightly changed scientific parameters as a gateway towards revealing something that is arguably more universal, while for Zineb Andress Arraki, the question is more how to live the everyday aesthetically.
Zineb Andress Arraki has a background as an architect, and the precision and aesthetics of architectural layouts can be seen in her work. As part of her ongoing project “Mobilogy,” every day she takes three pictures from her Blackberry and sends them out to social networks (both Facebook and her own blog). She has been working since 2008 in this same format with this same exact process, every day at the exact same moment, wherever she is. These pictures are spontaneous, yet come from a disciplined approach that finds creativity within its strict self-imposed guidelines. The images include people, the details of buildings, and street scenes and manage to maintain a consistent aesthetic that isinspired by borrowed from architecture. While her practice has also broadened to include multiple media, the “Mobilogy” project continues. Inspired by Georges Perec’s idea of the “infra ordinaire,” Zineb Andress Arraki asks in this work, What about the ordinary? How does one question, describe, recognize the everyday when the heightened emotions and visibility of the event or of the emergency are over, or never even happened?
Hicham Berrada, on the other hand, interprets the idea of the everyday in a radically different way, by paring his work back towards nature and chemical elements, re-imagining the everyday also as that which exists in the natural world and our relations with it. Berrada comes from a scientific background that profoundly influences his artistic work, which often revolves around the recreation of natural chemical reactions. In some works, as in “Natural Process Activation 2” (2011), Berrada initiates actions that will become sculptures over time, playing with our perception of the elasticity of time. In the case of this work, time is drastically extended to the point of making it almost imaginary: 300 kg of iron powder and 10L of acids were combined in order to create a field of crystals in 25,000 years. He also recreates conditions to encourage a natural process with slightly changed elements, and it is thanks to this change that the viewer is able to see what might otherwise pass by unnoticed – that is, it is in this very intervention that we are able to see what has been there all along. “Bloom” (2012) focuses on dandelions that close entirely at night and open during the day. Hicham Berrada went into a park in Paris and recreated the condition of daylight using the projection of strong lights and, in front of our eyes, we watch the flower open. In “Natural Process Activation #1 – Arche de Miller” (2011-2012), the viewer sees a square on the wall as if it were a painting. Here, it is an aquarium equipped with an electromagnetic field that creates waves, making a moving tableau. Here, he backs away from the everyday by leading the viewer towards an extended question about time. The water, sugar, heat, and movement are the basic elements existing before the event – before life and maybe therefore time itself. Here, it is the elemental that we are seeing, as we wait for the moment when a bacteria appears, the baseline environment before everything else happens. It is by placing these elements into a tank presented almost as a moving painting that we are able to imagine the moment that might come next, while also actively seeing what was there before. Berrada thus allows the viewer to see the base elements, to see the elements that make up the everyday environment before or thanks to the alteration he invites or imposes. There is a poetry also to guiding our sight towards the small pieces that make up the larger picture before the event, before the emergency that will attract the gaze.
For both of these artists, the everyday is what is marginalized in sensationalized news coverage, or even just news coverage in general. As Dyer summarizes Henri Lebvre’s argument in Clearing the Ground, the everyday “is an eruptive and revolutionary force that can disarm social, political, and disciplinary confines.”[iii] Left out of the news, left out of the event, are the experiences that are perhaps banal, perhaps disruptive, but are in either case experienced daily. In Morocco, artists joked that after the spring of 2011, curators and critics began showing up, asking them if they were part of the Arab Spring (or why not), trying to fit each previous work into the framework of “The Lead-Up To The Arab Spring,” looking to make sure that each new work communicated this Arab Spring directly. Morocco was not in the news to the same degree that other countries were, but even so, the question today frequently remains if the Arab Spring “worked” or not.
Negar Azimi, in an article from March 2011 [iv], questions the larger trend towards “socially engaged” or “political” art. She argues that although there is of course a lengthy history of entwined art and politics, the mushrooming presence of politics in contemporary art is new, and has new stakes. Often a comfortable distance from politics as such, this art is, in Azimi’s words, “often borne of an idea rather than a lived reality.” Rather than enacting the lived experience and weight of politics, political art in its current iteration easily becomes a performance of “good” politics (with the affirmation shared by the artist, art space, and viewer) or even political correctness that encourages nothing more than a pause during a tour of an exhibition. Azimi compares this to Tom Wolfe’s 1970 essay Radical Chic, by pointing out the lack of follow through, the absence of direct action in “today’s dislocation of reality, i.e. raising one’s fist from the safe distance of the computer, the cinema or the art gallery to ardently declare, that war sucks!” Moreover, this political art has proliferated often at the expense of aesthetics, or the expense of the art itself.
Artists Hicham Berrada and Zineb Andress Arraki do not claim politics. They also do not claim the ugly, gritty, disruptive antagonism that Azimi calls for at the end of her article. Yet the stakes of their engagement are also far more meaningful read through the lens of Negar Azimi’s argument, because they avoid the emergency-driven stance in favor of the careful exploration of the everyday. For all of the politically-inflected ways that we might read this close attention to daily life, both artists emphasize poetics more than engagement, leaving it up to the viewer to situate herself in relation. Both artists are interesting to consider because they are not surfing on the wave of media buzz – which is not to say that this work is done as a rejection of the Arab Spring spectacle, or that either means for the daily to take the place of these overblown ideas. The Arab Spring is not a reference in their work, and this distance from what is expected from them internationally as artists from Morocco highlights the minute attention they bring to the daily. Yet this implicit rejection of the emergency in and of itself inflects the work with an alternative and perhaps more lasting engagement by forcing us to learn anew how to actually see all that surrounds us. Moreover, these are not minimalist artists that are offering thoughts for consumption. Instead they are creating beauty, claiming the lush and romantic possibilities of aesthetics and poetry.
This recalls in many ways Wafa Gabsi’s essay for the winter gallery on art in Tunisia, The Daily Route. These artists all provide an answer to our theme, of how the everyday is an attempt to distance us – as artists, writers, curators, critics, viewers – from an arguably facile spectacularization in order to retrieve the territory of both lived experience and the imagination. The poetics of the everyday perhaps rest in questioning this everyday reality in order to reveal a constructive creativity, in order to resist the broad sweeps that level precisions out towards a generalized lack of differentiation, and instead to allow us to construct our own possible imaginary.
The everyday in the history of art becomes a site to be celebrated for its very banality, a way of invoking awareness for one’s surroundings for visitors, or a site of erasures to be brought to visibility. Both Hicham Berrada and Zineb Andress Arraki try to bring visibility to different understandings of the everyday, whether it is the small elements that we do not notice creating the environment we inhabit or the people that anonymously accompany us as we walk through the street. Both artists bring to their work a careful scientific approach to their creation, much as they privilege beauty and poetry in the aesthetic experience, and it is the precision of these gazes that incites the viewer’s own. There is no spectacle. There is a person leading her life, a wave crashing, a flower blooming. They instead show us what this entire series of exhibitions tries to show – it is in the lived experience of the everyday that we can approach the contemporary.