Curated by Emanuele Guidi “Abeyance & Concurrence” (from 12 December 2020 – closing date unknown), is remotely controlled from the artist’s studio in Berlin through a software and hardware system, that allows the contents to be constantly modified and updated, ensuring Khazrik’s ‘mediated’ and performative presence even though she could not be physically present due to travelling restrictions.
The idea of transformation becomes a metaphor for the relationship between man and the environment, understood both as a real and virtual space. On 16th April, at 6 pm (on Jitsi, link at the bottom of the interview), Emanuele Guidi and Jessika Khazrik will be in conversation as part of the platform hostileenvironments.eu.
Born in Beirut in 1991 ( presently lives and works in Berlin) Jessika Khazrik is an interdisciplinary artist, technologist, electronic music producer, and writer. Her practice focuses on topics ranging from ecotoxicology to linguistics, photography, artificial intelligence and the history of science. As a technologist, Khazrik uses cyber-space to explore the pitfalls of the global economy, highlighting its manipulations.
I reached out to Khazrik in her studio in Berlin over the web, to talk about the exhibition and the pressing and burning issues, from toxic waste trafficking to the banking crisis in Lebanon and global surveillance, that she touches upon in her holistic art practice.
Could you please explain what Abeyance & Concurrence, title of your exhibition at ar/ge kunst, refers to?
Jessika Khazrik: Concurrence refers to multiple simultaneous occurrences. “Concurrence” also has currency transcluded in it. Some succinct sentences about currencies, like protest banners, appear in the installation, sometimes concealed, sometimes more visible. I feel that the idea of ‘currency’ is very much separated from what we are going through. Based on a notion and shared experience of currency that is responsive and sensitive to the changes and exigencies of the present, since some time now, I have been wanting to conjure into space an “anti-currency currency” project or AC2. It’s a long, short story.
I also thought of the many concurrent uprisings, organizations and similar political strategies, such as leaderless protests, that have emerged in recent years in some of the world’s most neoliberal nations, such as Chile, Lebanon, Iraq and Hong Kong.
Abeyance is a French legal term that connotes absence of ownership and legal responsibility. In the sixteenth century, when it started being used outside a legal context, it took up the meaning of something in a state of disuse or dormancy, or a thing deeply buried in memory or even in the ground, like toxic waste.
Besides all of the mentioned, I find a certain musicality in this title that I want to further relay in new tunes.
Multilingualism, metamorphosis and opacity run in all of the many different strands of your practice, visual and sound. Can you tell me about the thoughts and experiences that shaped your artistic approach?
Jessika Khazrik: I feel that my generation, and this is also my personal experience, was born in a world of crisis, where old and stale state protocols are still in use. It is very evident that these protocols are inapt and violent, and need to be transformed. There also is an overload of information. One of the reasons for the urge to continue developing AI, is that we think it will be able to process all the information that we don’t have time to sweep through.
There are many pervasive means of accumulating information and data, gaining power on areas that are seen as intimate: in Capitalism’s surveillance, in the Visa system, and in the bureaucracy around the right to mobility, for example.
At the same time, there is a widespread fabricated ignorance about the ways in which these data are collected and produced. If you consider current developments in the field of cryptography, we have anonymous systems that give us access to contact tracing, but no information on how the virus was being disseminated. Still, based on contact tracing, we could make personal choices on how to collectively conduct our lives.
Do you mean that there is opacity in information?
Jessika Khazrik: Opacity is different, it is having the right of being impermeable and unseen through. Opacity is what is needed to counter surveillance in an active way, and create dynamic alternatives. We also need a different production of knowledge. So we need to make some levels of our intimate and personal lives more opaque. This is our collective responsibility.
How does this stratification of concepts come into your art practice, particularly in respect to the work at ar/ge kunst? How is technology layered into Abeyance & Concurrence?
Jessika Khazrik: To organize knowledge differently also means organizing space differently, as today spatial relations are toxic.
At ar/ge kunst, stratification comes out on many different levels. The idea of moving the work outside the gallery, on the vitrine, is a kind of protest at a time when all spaces are being closed. I wanted to create a surface that was at once flat and very deep, responsive and reflective of what happens outside, in a very material way.
But there are further meanings to it. For a long time, I was not able to travel. I had already wanted to limit travel in solidarity with the sick and the possible from Covid, but from March 2020 until January 2021 I couldn’t move at all, because I did not fit the criteria of classification of the visa system.
This reflected in my use of technology. I installed a remote access system on a small computer in Bolzano, that allows me to manipulate it from my studio in Berlin. I also built a speakers’ system made up of transducers/exciters, that create vibrations on the vitrine. I applied weather-proof speakers used on ships, as the idea of channels of circulation and the cargo economy are also very important to my work.
Over 250 small lights can also be remotely controlled. I can record a sentence in Berlin and have it appear on the installation within seconds. In short, though I couldn’t be physically present, my mediated presence and operational power is there. In a very mundane way, there is a performative aspect to the work.
The team at ar/ge kunst was really great in helping to set up the installation, and considering that it is a whole new remote access system that I had to come up with on the levels of both software and hardware, all worked really well.
Could you talk about the correlation of truth, false testimony and manipulation of information as political weapons in connection to your practice at large and in particular in relation to your ongoing project Blue Barrel Grove, that has been exhibited in many different countries?
Jessika Khazrik: As long as dated documentary practices are in use, and we can consider sight as being such, and as long as politics are based on very selective documentary attestations, there will be room for false testimony.
My work around false testimony began in 2013, when I became interested in an episode in 1988, when a traffic of heavily contaminated toxic waste from Italy to Lebanon was uncovered. 15.800 blue barrels and 20 containers were dumped in several, secret, waste sites in Lebanon. The traffic was run by a faction of the Italian mafia in league with the Lebanese Forces militia, created during the Lebanese civil war, which is now part of the government.
The government appointed three scientists for the investigation, a hydrologist, a nuclear engineer and a pharmacologist and eco-toxicologist, which is interesting, because investigators usually come from a legal or sometime journalistic background.
The investigators were in charge of finding dumping sites and collecting samples to be tested. When the case led to massive public scandals, the government, it is believed under the pressure of the Italian government, tried to shut it down.
There was a lot of documents’ forging on both sides about what was inside the barrels: the forging of these documents is dramatic in Lebanon, but it is common in other places too, Italy included.
The first demand of the scientists in their report had been to return the waste to Italy at Italy’s expense, with the Embassy foreseeing the operations. The scandal came after twelve years of war, the infrastructures were torn. Lebanon is not an industrial country, there were no means of disposing of the waste, the scientists said. Let alone, the means to produce them.
After seven years, the investigation was forcefully closed down with a scapegoat. A new prosecutor was appointed, called Said Mirza, who was later nicknamed in the mid-2000s ‘the judge of false witnesses’ because whenever a case became controversial, he would accuse witnesses of false testimony. Many speakers of truth were falsified as false witnesses. From there, the Society of False Witnesses is born.
The pharmacologist and photographer Dr. Pierre Malychef was jailed for a week and accused of false testimony. He was a well-liked and known public figure, he had also worked to uncover the pollution caused by often illegal big quarries, and had bombs planted in his pharmacy twice.
While we think of science as the voice of truth, the scientists appointed to find it out were silenced, attacked and discredited as false witnesses.
Recently, in the wake of a major banking crisis in Lebanon, you had a bad experience that became the inspiration for an exhibition. What happened?
Jessika Khazrik: On 10th January 2020, I visited my bank that had been withholding my money for two months. With the banking crisis in Lebanon people were dispossessed of their access to their income and their pensions, and some evidence shows that policemen began getting paid by banks to guard the banks by keeping people from withdrawing money from their accounts or protesting when they could not, all without acting upon any legal justification.
On the third, vain attempt to withdraw my money, I voiced out that banking has become a form of statecraft: it should protect people from the crisis, but on the contrary, it is one of its major causes and benefiters.
When I arrived to the bank that day, I was ‘invited’ into a small office and where I ended up being held captive for 3 hours and a half. They tried to beat me up and looked up and criticized my writings and whatever I do on the internet, in total violation of the law. I was physically, literally, being held captive by capitalism. I believe that we all have been, held captive by capitalism for some time.
VRLAMXXAB8ND, a five-channel installation piece shown at the Kunsthalle in Wien, emerges out of this experience. It was made up of a dynamically immersive sound and light environment with a 12 x 7 m. vinyl floor print that transformed the space into a sort of an intergalactic prison, a bank’s treasure box and/or a crypto-dancefloor.
At a time when it’s difficult to see hope, I’m starting to understand that though capitalism is strong because it is so pervasive, this very fact also makes it very vulnerable. Because, we also are pervasive: if we all concurrently act for a different economic model, then our action will be effective and strong. Anti-capitalism is also everywhere.
I’ve read that both your parents somehow influenced your artistic direction, particularly the performative aspect of it.
Jessika Khazrik: My dad used to be a vocal Jazz singer, he worked in the nightlife in Beirut, and in the first eight years of my life I grew up listening to concerts. He also taught me a lot about cinema.
My first performance involved re-writing my mother’s thesis on the influence of prostitution on tourism at university. Some have questioned the veracity of my story, but my reply is: well, that’s my mum!
My dad loved telling stories and my mum loved hiding them. I think my parental upbringing, post-memories and my parents’ past did very much contribute to my nurture as an investigator!
Can you describe your relationship to Beirut? In an interview for Mixmag in 2019, you said that “There is much more to delve into Beirut besides war and post memory”. Were you referring to toxic waste?
Jessika Khazrik: Now I feel hurt by Beirut, but no matter what, Beirut is my city. With the revolution, there was so much true collectivity! Now we are in a very encroaching and cryptocratic police state. I don’t think though that the revolution has really ended, it’s in its infancy. An anti-military discourse is still very alive all over the region, though Lebanon is one of the most militarized states.
When I talk about Beirut being “toxic” I don’t only mean toxic waste, but the state of being dispossessed on many different levels, from the abuse I was subjected to in the bank, to that of paying for services such as water and electricity twice and thrice, without getting them. Many people are having access to electricity for just two hours a day (or being dispossessed for twenty-two hours!), and many pay up to three bills a month for water in a costal country.
Speaking about electricity, you also made a project about the noisy ubiquitous presence of private electric generators in Beirut that are used to circumvent the frequent power failures.
Jessika Khazrik: My dear novelist friend calls them “private generators of anxiety” because their noise never stops, once on.
There’s also a lot of(but never close to enough) talk about how polluting these generators are. I tried to calculate their emissions taking samples in different places, and asked an environmental engineer and a hydrologist to review the findings. Over 29% of emissions come from private generators. If we didn’t need them, we could drop emissions in one or two years by 25%.
Artificial Intelligence is important in your work, but you said that the way in which it is developed today tends to ri-propose stereotypes. How so, and what is your counter-approach to this?
Jessika Khazrik: I’m as invested in de-militarization as I am in declassification of data, I think they complement each other. Though I feel that AI is always advertised as “the new”, if you look at the architecture of machine learning it always has to work with reproducing data from the past.
This data can be pervasively collected in a secret way, without public oversight about its means, storage and purposes of collection. Ontologically, I would argue that AI, as it is now, is very far from having a kind of subjectivity, and that a novel’s character is more artificially intelligent. There should be more public knowledge and a curricular revolution to develop an AI that does not reproduces past violent systems of classification.
You have also stated that “what we have today is not only an economic crisis, but a crisis of the imagination”. Is the marginalization of some artistic practices partly due to an anxiety that imagination can, partly, be an engine of change?
Jessika Khazrik: Art is at the same time commodified and marginalized. In advanced capitalism, you can have very revolutionary artistic practices on the level of promise. I feel that, let’s say, a situation, in order to be revolutionary today, has to happen concurrently in many fields. For instance, art, science and law should be more visibly intermingling.
Do you think that the Covid crisis will somehow be an agent of change?
Jessika Khazrik: We have failed to prepare for and tackle this crisis. But on the other hand, with the Covid crisis came a lot of clarity, so there is hope for transformation. Before, you mentioned metamorphosis, a term that only recently has been used in connection to my practice. But I very much agree that I’m always searching for transformative power.
Elaborate logistic strategies and rules of immediate lockdowns were developed during the Covid crisis, though they were not based on correct statistical data, so that sometimes they provoked violent reactions. We have denied the whole ‘State narrative’, which is also very much based on prognosis and prediction, and forgotten that human History has been full of pandemics. The response to the virus has been massive because it has disrupted production channels, but we don’t think in the same terms and in similar rhythms about toxic waste.
We allow everything to be disrupted as a means to eliminate the virus, but, on the other hand, toxic waste will stay in the environment much longer, and cause long-term disasters, as we have seen with the explosion last August in Beirut. We need to work out means to transform the system and face the circulation of the toxic with as much urgency.
To wrap up, can you tell me what your next projects are?
Jessika Khazrik: I’m developing two online platforms, one is a project called Cartography of Darkness, and the other will be developed from the work of a collective study, solidarity and strategy group that I set up with some friends, about Post-coronialism.
I also have a couple of exhibitions coming up in East Asia at UCCA in Beijing, Para Site in Hong Kong and have 2 new premieres, “IN FIRES & FUMIGATIONS” on 15th and 16th April at ar/ge kunst and “Pharmakopoeia قرابادين” world premiered online at Rewire Festival from the 6th till the 9th of May.
Sources and insights: -ar/ge kunst website - Talk with Jessika Khazrik and Emanuele Guidi 16 April, 6 pm (on Jitsi)