This issue marks the third 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, and Wafa Gabsi addressed Tunisia in The Daily Route. Following Yasmina Reggad’s (/A.R.I.A/) gallery on Algeria, Alya Sebti and Holiday Powers will further explore the intricacies of daily life in the Maghreb with Poetics of the Everyday
So there are some grounds for hope?” “I think things are stuck. I am not so disillusioned as to think that history is finished. But I do think that what Gramsci would call the balance of social forces are very powerfully against hope.
It seemed to me that the center of your paper today was the thesis that a transformation of society must be preceded by a transformation of needs. For me this implies that changed needs can only arise if we first abolish the mechanisms that have let the needs come into being as they are. It seems to me that you have shifted the accent toward enlightenment and away from revolution.
M. You have defined what is unfortunately the greatest difficulty in the matter. Your objection is that, for new, revolutionary needs to develop, the mechanisms that reproduce the old needs must be abolished. In order for the mechanisms to be abolished, there must first be a need to abolish them.’ That is the circle in which we are placed, and I do not know how to get out of it.
When late post-modern capitalist society is plunged into social, political, ethical and intellectual crises, our abilities to think of an alternative become paralyzed. Within this context, can art still function as a social process of transformation and develop critical discourse? By addressing the everyday and what the very now is made of, artistic process can still reveal its ability to imagine possible worlds within the framework of what I call the economy of hope.
I have borrowed this expression from bio-sociology and bio-ethics fields where hope and responsibility for the potential recovery of patient is not merely attributed to scientists and doctors, but to the degree of investment of biocitizen activism in economic and ethical involvement and self-formation.[iii]
The economy of hope is determined by “situations where we understand our own agency to be limited with respect to the things or conditions that we desire”, and the relative energy and motivation we are investing in them. It is the realm within which we project our expectations, aspirations, and desires forward into the future in order to overcome the pathologies of the present[ix]. For an economy of hope to function within a neoliberal logic and in times of crisis, policy makers or uncontrollable and often nebulous forces, through inventive rhetorical strategies, instigate the driving force or utopian impulse of human action in order to constantly engender confidence in the future they offer (an economy of reward). This has allowed a privatization of hope where individuals pursue their own goals and where the social order is controlled. Additionally, unfulfilled (or failed) promises have led to a ‘crisis of hope’ deeply rooted in sense of deception and powerlessness in front of continuing economic and political injustice, which has made any form of contestation or collective action desperate or hopeless.
It is within this territory that artists Amina Menia and Mohamed Bourouissa venture to reclaim human agency over hope and an increase emphasis on the active role of the collective in the emancipation of a common future.
Wishing, Longing, hoping and desiring are essential dimensions of everyday life and “[…] every work of art, every philosophy had and has a utopian window, from which one can perceive a landscape still in formation.”[v]
Amina Menia is an artist based in Algiers whose work addresses issues related to the status of the public and urban realm, public interventions, and questions notions of memory through architecture, concepts of appropriation and restitution. Between 2009 and 2011, Amina Menia explored the Northern costs of Algeria driven by her interest in collective memory and its diverse manifestations in public art and institutional commissions. She has found two forms of demonstration and of the commemoration of Algerian past and/or its future: monuments and steles dedicated to the martyrs of the Algerian War of Independence or to government construction projects.
It is not without irony that she titled this series of photographs of monuments ‘Chrysanthemums’ after the French expression ‘inaugurer des chrysanthèmes’ [to inaugurate chrysanthemums] which recalls the tradition of placing chrysanthemums on a grave. Moreover, it is also a metaphor for an official who doesn’t possess any real political power. Monuments to the dead of the Algerian revolution are often erected in place of (or adapted from) French statues or memorials. In cities such as Blida, Jijel, Douéla or El Affroun, cenotaphs and memorials take the shapes of obelisks, an open Koran or the Algerian map. These monuments convey questionable taste and aesthetics not to recall some French codes mixed with Byzantium and neo-classical styles, in a variety of material with a predilection for marble and colorfully decorated with the Algerian flag.
Here, Menia unfolds the strategies of the government to systematically refer to the idealized representation of Algeria’s glorious independence building on memory as crucial to the construction of individual identity. The uncertainty and insecurity of the Algerian present create fertile grounds for exploiting the past -and particularly nostalgia of a great past- to avoid any kind of response to the disenchantment and the loss of trust in the everyday. Menia contests here the abused dialectical relationship between nostalgia and history in which these monuments fall by promoting a certain historical narrative order and opportunistic ideological meanings.
Menia’s scepticism regarding the fair occupation or distribution of the public sphere in the process of remembering (or forgetting) shows that memory also depends on topography. Roman philosopher and orator Cicero gave a statement on the principle of the topography of memory or the ‘art of memory’: ‘Persons desiring to train this faculty of memory must select places and form mental images of the things they wish to remember and store those images in the places, so that the order of the places will preserve the order of the things.’[vi]
Unfortunately the second type of commemoration celebrated with the inauguration steles fails to announce progress, hope and future-orientated consciousness. The photograph of the reproduction of a double-highway behind a stele is quite eloquent about what it once announced. These monuments were intended to celebrate the progress to come and were convenient promises to the future made in the present. They are now abandoned, vandalized or often ignored. With this disappearance of the inscription that enacts the intention behind the political gesture, the foundation stones are emptied of their initial meanings. How long can hope last? Behind the steles nothing has grown; no bridge, no public building. No structure will rise until the next stele is erected 10 meters away, announcing a new period of hope.
Once appropriated by Amina Menia these monuments seem to echo Marx: “Let the dead bury their dead”. When nostalgia refers to the fear of loss of memory and historicity, Menia warn us that mourning or devotion to past positive accounts or a specific social golden age can also lead to amnesia (about less glorious events). It is a handicap for the present and it damages Algerians’ capacity to resist or to hope. Marcuse confirms this when he states, ‘the ability to forget is the mental faculty which sustains submissiveness and renunciation.”[vii]
In the economy of hope, “doses” of hopes can be selectively injected so people don’t plunge into distress, frustration, and anger. Alternatively this state ensures that they don’t develop any form of agency or empowerment outside the limits of what they were allowed to hope for. The idealization of a glorified past establishes a relationship of trust in a promising future.
Although the negative and suspicious connotation attached to nostalgia prevails in cultural, philosophical, sociological and historical studies, Chrysanthemums suggests that the sense of loss associated with the past could be a set of resources to form collective longing and hope for the future. Such imposition of a predetermined future renders one’s perceptions of life fatalistic and consequently denies any forms of future-orientated action or means of production of hope.
Places of nostalgia and inauguration therefore belong to strategies which enable the economy of hope to function. Another emblematical place is the job center. In post-modern capitalist society, the place of exclusion from the world of work is certainly the major producer of hope and at the same time the core of its crisis. With France reaching three million unemployed persons, the French job centre (Pôle Emploi) theoretically has many hopes to fulfil in terms of accompanying people in finding a job, and promises of re-insertion into society.
Addressing the issue of commitment in the time of emergency, Walter Benjamin argues that “the rigid, isolated object (work, novel, book) […] must be inserted into the context of living social relations”[viii].
Following on the precepts of Benjamin, artist Mohamed Bourouissa inserted himself within the process of production toward an economy of hope.
The Utopia of August Sander was born with the artist finding himself in a situation of ‘unemployment’ after the company he was meant to collaborate with had to carry out a massive redundancy plan. He then decided to address the world of labor from the point of view of those who don’t have work.[ix]
The artist’s initial desire was to erect a monument to individuals, the invisible mass excluded from the world of work in order to reflect their iconic dimension. These include temporary jobseekers but extended to the ‘inactive’ people such as students, stay-at-home women and men, pensioners or economically inactive people. In this way Bourouissa responds to the way contemporary society glorifies the very function of the human being and emphasizes that without use or value one loses his/her identity. Within this framework capitalism has succeeded in operating on the basis of a commodification of hope by creating artificial desires for goods we are ourselves contributing to produce. Bourouissa takes over the means of production and reproduces this economic system from conception, production and distribution to consumption.
For this endeavor he set up some artistic protocols and created a dynamic framework with enough room to produce organic results and to open up questions rather than offer answers to the problems his artwork is shedding light on. He created a mobile ‘fab lab,’ a lorry he transformed into a photography studio, where he literally scans in 3D volunteers who are inactive and unemployed. The digital images are then processed by a 3D printer, and in approximately four hours produces as many statuettes in polyester resin as scanned individuals.
During a conversation two years ago, the artist mentioned his fascination during the production of Temps Mort for the prisoners’ ability to produce their utensils out of waste material. This not only gave him the self-confidence to create a human life size 3D scanner[x] but also triggered his interest in the concept of loss. In terms of conception and invention, the artist usually works in a ‘bricollage’ environment where in the final piece what disappears is as important as what is visible.
Bourouissa’s project is based on August Sander’s utopia which consists of a portrait of the ‘Man of the 20th Century’ (Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts) and classifies them by profession, social class and family relationships. Utopianism is commonly understood to describe hankerings after the impossible. The artist’s utopia could lie in a quest to represent the maximum number of persons of the same social condition in order to create a unity, one body. Imperfection and loss often inform his work to provide a ‘lecture en négatif’, a marginal reading from the outlines. Just as it exists in drawing techniques, the very essential form of a body remains, allowing the statuette to retain its corporality and somehow the plasticity of a corporal balance.
While faces are not discernable, the products of Bourouissa’s enterprise are not anonymous. The fact that the artist never presents or exhibits them en masse acknowledges his wish to keep each individual and their story singular. Besides, Bouirouissa ‘machiavellically’ files all participants by ‘hiding’ a serial number under the foot of each statuette. This identification relates not only to the notion of memory but is also indispensable to monitor and evaluate the economic system he created.
500 individuals have been scanned and 250 statuettes produced. However, The artist’s utopia is based on the absurd and predictable economy of failure that he has allowed to take place. Despite this element, it didn’t discourage the process and progress of the work towards its achievement: the success of failure. Bourouissa emphasises the imbalance of profit in relation to time and effort invested in his experimental enterprise by taking advantage of his residency period to read Marx’s Capital: Critique of Political Economy as a performative act.
Transcending the limitations of his economic system, he voluntarily creates tension between the status of an artwork and its power for social change. Leaving the exhibition space, the statuettes are sold (not without difficulty) in confidential flea markets for 2€ to custumers unaware of the artist’s work. So far, 150 pieces have been sold, subverting and bypassing the art market. Not enough unfortunately to break even on a profit and loss balance sheet, but enough for a successful utopia of failure. Nevertheless, we could easily imagine or hope with Bourouissa for these statuettes to be promoted at the rank of artwork and therefore subjected to the laws of appreciation of the art market.
Neither Amina Menia or Mohamed Bourouissa are pretending to resolve any social issues or engaging a collective action. Instead, within the field of relational art practice, they invite us to critically rethink how the individual and the collective are articulated in our relations to the world. The artists deconstruct the power relations which impede the quest for alternatives and a better future and remind us that, “only hope […] has within its powers to oppose the given state of things, the human distress, suffering and privation, and to lead the hoping man into a different, better future”.[xi]