interviewed by Predrag Pajdic, February 2007

In 'PARANOIA', our last project together, your work hit the headlinesbefore the show even opened. It was a story by a journalist from a well known London paper linkingyour art practice to terrorist propaganda, even though your work in the show was only a red coat with writingon the back saying "Record: I am Arabic". Is your work often misunderstood or attacked as in this way?

"Record:I am Arabic", this alone generates a reason to be questioned or misplaced.

The art of journalism was declared dead at the doorstep of the Paranoia show. This is to put it briefly. However, if you have a minute as this may take a while, please let me elaborate.

Contemporary art + contemporary journalism = the art of a paranoid journalism.
This equation is a part of what we are witnessing today in terms of journalistic practices, propaganda and a silent audience.

At the Paranoia exhibition, we wanted to question the vision and independency of the media. This is because, these days, Western mainstream media no longer delivers self-critic. We almost have to challenge it. Most media entities are engaged in self-promotion, promoting their respective ideologies (politics, patriotism and propaganda), aggressive profit campaigns, and silencing the audience.

Right under the nose of its audience, the Western media is successfully performing a propagandist print and broadcast paranoia since this is what attracts and pays.

Artists are not unaffected by such media performances. Contemporary art is becoming more activist and more socio-politically engaged and makes use of the realistic/documentaristic tools and methods of the media while at the same time criticising the current state of the media. To the media, which is familiar with criticising but not being criticised, contemporary artists appear to be an easy catch: we are bad news with an attitude.

Some artists are challenging that. My visible/invisible artwork debated in the papers was a good and challenging medium. It provided us with a new penetration tool: the tactics of the media.

The prevailing global logic, The Right to Strike First, was the logic implemented at the Paranoia show. As an interventional curator, you gave the media a dose of its own tactics and used its public appearance to the benefit of our point of view, namely the need to advocate a debate on propaganda. Dragging the media into ones trap and making it play by ones rules is not an effortless act. It is rare to persuade a newspaper to print an article about the notion of propaganda. In this case, the article nailed the newspaper itself, showing it as propagandist. Simultaneously with this, it basically confirmed the very point made by the artist, his/hers work, and the intervention of the curator.

Often, unknown journalists like to make the news, any news. So they pick up from the public sphere what seems to be controversial or provocative in order to reach the headlines.

My artwork at Paranoia, the 'Red Coat' carrying the Arabic text on its back, "Record: I am Arab", is a very personal work and it was not manufactured randomly. I designed it during my last visit to Beirut, a city in a global political mayhem. The work is not about visual manipulation or illusion. It is a reliable documentation of the current global political climate and how it has given rise to a clash of identity and self-denial among Arabs.

As an artist, I don't do random stuff. I try to think strategically, critically and analytically and perform accordingly. This screaming 'Red Coat' was designed to reflect appearance, distance and self-identity cancellation. You are on a quest of attention, not by wearing a screaming red coat, but simply by using the Arabic calligraphic text on it. Arabs are denied flights, stopped from entering airports and stations, excluded and discriminated if they wear clothing with Arabic calligraphy.

As an Arab living in the West, you are easily associated with conflicts, violence and fanaticism. My work is a statement about selflabelling and being labelled, confirmation and confrontation.

Did I succeed in my representation? I do not know, but certainly an art work is successful when it is able to combine both the appearance of historically accurate elements and present believable situations through a lens of aesthetical pragmatism, leading the audience to question the conceptuality and reality of what they are seeing.

Can one be sure that others will understand one's work of art the way one desires? Not always. Sometimes, your identity, background and history are at scrutiny first.

Seen from the point of view of an art historian, most journalists who do not deal with aesthetics on a daily basis have limited knowledge about artpractices and how they are performed. With such lack of insight, their reviews end up being shallow, focusing only on the visual, on the look, and very little on the content. This is a classical, wildly spread, contextual trap, which a majority of reporters who do not have art as their main subject are falling into.

The media still believes that it can shape our world-views and opinions. Here, I will say that with the rise of new electronic phenomena such as UTube, internet and mobile phones activism, bloggers, leaflet and handycam journalism, new movements are emerging as alternative global news powers. By their actions and stands, these audio-video campaigners mean to equalize the politicised, industrialised and standardised worldwide media journalism. Such movements mark the birth of a new, uncontrollable era of information and the death of fashionable journalistic reporting. Though it seems like an unbalanced struggle for power, these movements are gaining ground and winning over the manipulative, politicised, multinational media cooperation. The propaganda struggle, however, is endless.

Here where I am based, in Copenhagen, the Danish PM is carrying out a major campaign against the national Danish TV station DR1, accusing it of propagating against his rightwing government. He openly doubts its credibility because the station decided to show a documentary about the war in Afghanistan and the involvement of his government in hiding or falsifying the facts.

Tell me about your latest project. It is about suicide, isn't it?

Around December 2006 a friend debated with me the idea of suicide. At that time I did not understand why exactly she was concerned with such an issue and I did not recognise that such conversation was connected to her own depression and desperation.

To everyone's shock and horror, on the morning when they hanged Sadam Hussein in Iraq, my friend attempted to hang her self. The hook on the ceiling was weak so she fell down and survived, only to try it again one day before the New Year 2006, when she committed suicide in the most horrific way imaginable. She went and bought an expensive large knife, wrote everyone a letter and invited some friends who had keys to her apartment to come and visit her at her home later that day. My friend, dressed in the best outfit, cut a vein through and died in her bed silently. The scene witnessed by invited friends was beyond horrifying.

Some months before this act she bought herself a computer and spent hours without end in the cyber space watching videos and images of "this frightening world we live in" as she said. As days passed she got more depressed and isolated. Could this extensive use of the internet affect her state of mind? Or add to her depression? Could this be the reason for her suicide? What could she possibly witness on the net that could inspire her to commit such a dreadful act?

Since the incident I am still in state of shock, I simply can't let it go out of my mind. Therefore I needed to investigate it in order to understand it on some level. I documented the aftermath, the suicide scene in picture and video. I also set aside her clothing and other material from the site. Currently I am working on that as a theme questioning her motives and the state of mind before, during and after the act. Why, because two years ago I published an essay in the international art journal 'ATLANTICA' issue 35, about the suicide culture in the Middle East, as well as in the West. The essay, 'Suicide-bombers / Martyrs Video and Site-specific Text', debated the role and relevancy of video documentation in both cultures. ( There, I argued that :

"Most of the spectacular attacks that are called terroristic in one part of the world (the Western world, example CNN) and heroic in the other (the Arab world, example Al-Jazeera) have always been accompanied by pre-attack videotapes sent to the visual media. Usually tapes of this nature show those who carried out the attacks speaking, explaining, justifying, informing, but also embracing and inspiring. The staged audio-visual statement consists of different layers. Firstly, it is meant to reveal the identity of the attacker. Secondly, it is meant to give him/her a final possibility to communicate publicly. In other words, the pre-mission video is the action taker speaking corner.

All the pre-suicide/martyr mission videos are shot in clean and clear, staged, aesthetical backgrounds: in most cases an unknown and unidentified Middle Eastern space. Usually, the classical shooting location consists of private homes with very rare outdoor shootings. In the Middle East, the visual backgrounds of the pre-suicide/martyr mission videos are either carpet or fabric. Western suicide missions, on the other hand, have almost always different purposes, and in the West the background is either a mirror or a simple interior design. The manifestation is in the statement itself and in the ideological visual elements, which are usually exhibited behind the action takers. What all pre-suicide mission videos have in common, whether they are group suicides or individual suicides and whether they are carried out for political reasons or private reasons, is the phenomenon of public manifesto. Playing these visual statements by attackers/action takers on global media networks has become a media trend, a new wave of visual experience. Some networks dismiss them for political reasons but others don't and regardless on some occasions and on some web locations, they are celebrated. So what is the difference between committing suicide and being assisted in doing so? In terms of health problems, suicide is morally justified, but in political terms it is not. What about other forms and functions of other types of suicides, like that of the Heaven's Gate cult?
Not a computer cult but a cult that happened to have a Web site. To enter the 'Kingdom' or the 'next level', Heaven's Gate elevated the so-called method to a level of madness. In March 1997 the cult members took their lives in a mass suicide, condemning the human body for being just a vehicle. To make sure Heaven's Gate still exists, at least in cyberspace, the movement paid in advance for their Internet provider lots of money in advance to keep their Web site intact. If Applewhite was 100% sure that the world would end with or after the departure of his movement then why did they want to exist in cyberspace? So apparently for Heaven's Gate the most significant of all existence here is not in the physical vehicles or in the Next Level or in the actual space, rather, it is to exist in cyber space.

Also in the West some individuals choose to focus on the media weakness to manifest their points. Ricardo Lopez's aim was successfully implemented with remarkable impact. A dead man managed to get his wish while in the grave: a young American who shut himself in front of his remote controlled handycam video camera and dedicated his act to the singer Björk. He sent a letter bomb in advance to Björk's London home before filming his own suicide. Media double spectacularism. Ricardo Lopez did not want to go alone to the 'NEXT LEVEL', but wanted to take his beloved singer with him. He wanted his legacy to be permanently cemented to a legendary figure. His pre-mission video performance was offered to global TV networks and not to Björk. For viewers around the world, Lopez's video was transferred into the entrapment of TV in houses and salons. The story was told with a Hollywood flavour and for Lopez that was mission accomplished...

I find myself forced to debate this act on some level so I decided to make documentation of memorandum about my friend's suicide. Perhaps, because I could see her act as retaliation against the madness in our world, self-inflicting vengeance against the visual mass media world. This is why I have to investigate it and engage with this project.

Is your work always related to hardcore reality? Is there a room to relax, play and enjoy life?

The last 20 years or so, there has been remarkable interaction between what is private and what is public, what realism is and what fiction is. One characteristic of this interaction is the way in which margins are redrawn and ultimately abolished. Our real life, looks like advertisements and fiction. It looks very much like reality, wars and the style in which wars are being covered and reported, computer games, film and TV culture. Our real world has adopted the entertainment industry style: a big brother performing culture. In such mayhem can one still talk about hard core realism? I would say maybe, if you live outside of the Western world.

I will start with your last question. Actually, whenever I see the news and read about events, I feel less relaxed and more motivated. I believe that is the case for many society-engaged individuals who simply cannot stand still without acting or reacting on events. Being born and raised in Beirut means that you are never short of excitement and events. Basically, you are overloaded with news and events from your home country, and your host country leaves you with little relaxation, I am afraid. The relaxing space probably appears during sleep, but then again you have the dreams and the nightmares to worry about.

Despite all this, playing and enjoying life is inside all artists. I am a child who never grows up, especially when I am in contact with nature. One needs a balance between one's intellectual practices, responsibilities and reality. I find that balance when fishing and swimming. Cyber space, play stations and computer games, well, I have never been a big fan of that. But I enjoy performance, electronic communication and filming under cover. That, for me, is so enjoyable.

Back to my work and its relation to hardcore realism. Well, I am an artist with a lot of apprehension about the world we live in. I attempt to stay alert and manoeuvre between reality and fiction, but in most cases, I find myself attracted to social critic and realism.

I am a theoretician and a practitioner, and my production depends on which space and context it is going to be shown in. In my academic writing on art and my public lectures, I have to be theoretical and critical. There is not much space for fiction and tricks, not for me at least. When and if I do fiction, in most cases, you will find that in my art practice. During the last 5 to 7 years, my artistic practice can be characterised mostly as public activism. I find myself entangled in the global socio-political debate, concerned about our reality, identity and the concept of ambiguity.

When it comes to my artistic production, the playground is larger. I gamble, reflect, trick and communicate with the masses using a variety of methods, such as presenting and debating serious matters in an entertaining way. I am also on constant search for alternative audiences and alternative spaces, because out there, out of the art institutions, we can better reach out to the public.
Nevertheless, I like to take advantage of the medium I utilize in my work. I like twisting the medium so much that it ends up condemning itself. Like, for example, when producing and presenting controversial fake documentaries. I like to call that 'performative video' and not 'mockumentary'. I do performative video only as life performance and never broadcast such videos on TV. Even though I have the access to such a space, I never do it.

Together with other artists here in Copenhagen, I produce frequently for a TV station called Tvtv. Though it is experimental, I do not regard such a public signal as a playground. As a responsible artist, you need to live up to the responsibilities that come with public broadcasting. You need to provide the public with alternative and independent information in order to attract and educate, and open their eyes to what they do not see and hear in mainstream media. Tvtv as a station is very experimental in its structure and most of my colleagues take that literally. I do not. Working with TV as medium/space is enjoyable, but I like to challenge the very format of the station, with awareness and seriousness in mind.

I do not know… maybe I am trapped in a grey zone between realism and art. Now I am going to watch 'Fight Club' for the 30th time, which, after watching it ten times, made me start to see our true reality as Middle Easterners.