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Foreigner sweet, foreigner pretty - click opera
February 2010
 
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Tue, Sep. 30th, 2008 10:21 am
Foreigner sweet, foreigner pretty

Cairoscape - Images, Imagination and Imaginary of a Contemporary Mega City is a big exhibition going on in various venues around Berlin. I saw the Kunstraum Kreuzberg part of it twice at the weekend. As the title implies, it's about Cairo, a city I know very little about.

My favourite piece in the show was a video by photographer Hermann Huber of the Tiring building, a big shabby commercial centre in the centre of Cairo. With the eye of a still photographer, Huber leaves his camera set up to watch, in real time, casual moments of "street life" unfold in this warren of corridors, more like a covered city than a building. Gradually, you begin to understand how the dreamlike space fits together; Huber's static framings swivel, overlapping scenes you've seen minutes before. The time element is used mostly to communicate the acoustics of each environment, and also to show a certain existential quality: there's boredom and loneliness in the men caught staring -- both menacingly and pleadingly -- into the camera for minutes on end, and relief when they're joined by a friend for a smoke.



My second-favourite piece in the Cairoscape show was another video, "Chinese Sweet, Chinese Pretty" by Doa Aly. It's a reportage about Chinese peasant farmer women who've relocated to Egypt and make a living by selling lingerie and nightwear to the Egyptians from door to door, fishing them out of black garbage bags and modelling them for prospective customers. Watching the video, I had the following sequence of impressions:

1. After the scowls and machismo of the Egyptian men in Huber's video, sheer relief to be in the company of chatty, friendly Chinese women. I personally experience the Middle East -- and men -- as somewhat threatening and alien, and the Far East -- and women -- as reassuring and familiar.

2. A fascination with the "double foreignness" of the scenario, from my point of view. This wasn't just a video about Asian people, or a video about Cairo, but a video about Asian people in Cairo, made by an Egyptian artist. It therefore appeals to my Romantic sense of the exotic, and to my orientalism. (I'm trying to be honest here!)

3. The thought that -- given the current financial crisis -- we might all learn something from people who work without bank loans and without shop premises, in selling mode but not in a particularly capitalist-as-we-know-it mode.



Googling the piece when I got home, I found that the video has been quite widely exhibited since it was made in 2006. It's been in biennials, at Tate Modern, at the Arnolfini in Bristol. Something about it appeals to curators putting together shows which -- in the critical clichés -- "interrogate" globalization and migration by means of "dialogue" and "gaze".

In Focus tells us that "Aly is mainly interested in ideas relating to performance, growth, and identity; the constant struggle to Become which gives way to a hybrid form forever suspended between different sets of connotations". The blurb for the 3rd Guangzhou Triennial showing calls the video "an interrogation of the dynamics of cross cultural integration in Egypt", and adds: "Issues of displacement, belonging and memory are re-occurring themes that speak to the particular dynamics of globalization and migration and their effects on individual lives in and beyond Africa".

For Brian Holmes in Transform it's an Egyptian "gaze on immigration to their own country, and a look at the city from the radically different perspective of Chinese peasant farmers who find a way to improve their life back home by means of a temporary stay in Egypt". And for Nerve it gives "the sense of the individual as part of the vast and complex process of global migration".

Tate Modern, meanwhile, uses the video to remind us that "movements across international boundaries can lead one to encounter a storm of political and historical meaning... the pressures and fantasies of a better life which prompt the desire for migration must negotiate the limits of walls, barriers and occupations, as well as economy and status".



Now, all this curatorial langue de bois is perfectly true and perfectly reasonable and admirably progressive, even if it quickly becomes a boring cliché to those of us who encounter it too often. It seems to see the world through a rather 90s, Andreas Gursky-ish lens; globalization is occurring, it tells us, but not without problems and human consequences. It presents an "Egyptian gaze" on these problems and consequences, but fits it into a Western curatorial framework. What's more, when you look at the biography of the Egyptian artist in question, you find that she's working as a design intern in Milan and New York. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but this is not "the deep other"; there is nothing deeply resistant to Western framings here. This video is made by someone much closer to "our" perspective than the average Cairo resident.

I wonder, most of all, what it means that the curatorial stuff leaves out the things I mentioned in the numbered list of my own personal responses. All this talk of globalization pointedly ignores the Romantic, escapist and exoticist angle which I responded to -- foreignness for the sake of foreignness, doubly strange because it's doubly foreign. This, not economic and social ruminations on the process of globalization, is what made me sit fascinated in front of the video.

But to frame it this way sets me up for inevitable disappointment. I'm disappointed -- as an unrepentant orientalist, interested in net difference -- both by a curatorial tone which basically seems to come straight out of The Economist, and by discovering that the Egyptian artist is in fact a design intern in New York. The curators seem to usher you towards one kind of personal pleasure (the pleasure of knowing you're a good person, concerned with human geography and the consequences of globalization) but to block the way to another (the pleasure of escaping, for twenty minutes or so, your own life and your own culture, and perhaps of learning something by an encounter with true and utter difference, and perhaps even the pleasure finding foreigners -- or just their fabrics -- sexy).

Or is this just a question of curatorial texts (the kind nobody reads, to be honest) being a sort of Freudian super-ego, and orientalist pleasure being a sort of id, unspeakable but powerful, a kind of buzzing hub of pleasure supplying the real power of the aesthetic experience? And mightn't the cultural-historical equivalent of this personal id be empire, the thing the curatorial texts don't mention, perhaps because to mention it might be to propose globalization as its contemporary face?

Do you see what I'm getting at here? If we have empire (disguised as "globalization"), why can't we have its cultural corollary, orientalism? Maybe we do. Maybe that's what this art is, secretly. Then again, given the current meltdown, I think our empire just went. And what may replace globalization (the globe as we'd like to see it, all roped together in our perspective -- globalization in Fareed Zakaria's odd phrase as "America's great mission") is globe: the world as it is, unphased by (and uninterested in) what we see as its foreignness.

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(Anonymous)
Tue, Sep. 30th, 2008 08:41 am (UTC)

I don't think a Berlin contemporary art space is a very likely locus for discovering the "Deep Other".

Have you ever been to the Middle East, Momus? If so, where?

I've been to Cairo and it's a totally exhilarating mega-city. I'm not sure I found it any more threatening than any other third world mega-city. People, on the whole, were extraordinarily friendly.


ReplyThread
imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Sep. 30th, 2008 08:46 am (UTC)

I've never been to the Middle East, no.

Cairo may be friendly, but you won't have missed the foreign tourists kidnapped there this week, or the occasional shootings of tourists visiting the pyramids and so on.

But I think I'd probably really love Cairo -- bits of it look like a shabbier version of the shabby bits of Osaka.


ReplyThread Parent

(Anonymous)
Tue, Sep. 30th, 2008 09:04 am (UTC)

Yeah, the extremist threat against tourists is there, and was there when I was there, it's been ongoing for about 15 years. Although personally I was more worried about getting killed trying to cross the roads. The traffic is insane. Cairo did feel a bit dangerous and threatening, but not more so than any city I've been to with that kind of demographics - a megapolis with a young, desperately poor population. I felt a lot more threatened in Rio de Janeiro.

How do you know the Middle East is alien and threatening when you've never been there? Is it like reviewing art exhibitions you don't go to? Media representations of the Middle East are crap and don't prepare you for the experience.


ReplyThread Parent
imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Sep. 30th, 2008 09:26 am (UTC)

How do you know the Middle East is alien and threatening when you've never been there?

There's no such thing as "objectively alien and threatening". It's an emotion, feeling alienated and threatened, and all you need to prove you feel it is to 'fess up. But you've been there and tell me it "did feel a bit dangerous and threatening" in the flesh too.

As for art exhibitions, one of the things today's entry is about is how the same pieces pass around the biennial / institutional circuit and get parachuted into different shows in different parts of the world with surprisingly similar curatorial framings. Having seen works by Cameron Jamie and Luke Fowler and Tino Sehgal in other biennials and museum shows, I know pretty much how they're going to feel at Yokohama. It's like drinking a Coke in Japan; it tastes pretty much the same as the one you drank in Cleveland.

This is why people criticize "parachuting" in art biennials, of course. I'm personally not against parachuting -- I don't accept that locals are these blinkered people who just want to see themselves represented in everything. "Locals" have as much interest in international culture as anyone else. Locals are allowed to be interested in the exotic and the foreign too.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Sep. 30th, 2008 09:37 am (UTC)

There may be no such thing as "objectively alien and threatening", but you're not comparing like with like. You've created your comfy binary - Middle East = male, threatening; Asia = female, reassuring - when you've spent plenty of time in Asia and none in the Middle East. The Middle Eastern male gets such a hugely bad rap in the West that one is quite surprised when one goes to Egypt or Palestine or wherever and encounters a hell of a lot more hospitality and generosity than your average Arab would in Europe.


ReplyThread Parent
imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Sep. 30th, 2008 10:02 am (UTC)

You've created your comfy binary - Middle East = male, threatening; Asia = female, reassuring - when you've spent plenty of time in Asia and none in the Middle East.

Of course that's the binary for me precisely because I've spent time in Asia, live with an Asian, etc. Come on, you're not making the subjective-objective distinction here! This came in an honest description of my personal response to a video, based on my own areas of experience and inexperience, and you're saying I'm not allowed to react this way?


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Sep. 30th, 2008 10:10 am (UTC)

You're allowed to react in any way you like, and I'm allowed to react to your reaction! After all, if my reaction to Japan was "the women there are backward and submissive", surely you'd be the first to criticise my reaction? You've bought into a cliché about the Middle East, one that you might have modified if you'd actually been there.


ReplyThread Parent
imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Sep. 30th, 2008 10:21 am (UTC)

You're allowed to react in any way you like, and I'm allowed to react to your reaction!

Now it's you not comparing apples with apples!

You're reacting to my reaction as if I were proposing it as an objective statement about the comparative merits of Asian females and Arab males. I'm not, I'm measuring my personal proximity to these two groups, my comfort zone. If you made a statement about Japanese women being "backward and submissive" it wouldn't be proposed as a measurement of your proximity to them, but some kind of assertion about what they're really like.

I carefully situated my comment in my own subjectivity, made it relational, not assertive. It was about who I personally felt comfortable with. Your statement couldn't really be made relational. "For me, they're backward and submissive" doesn't really work. It's a categorical value judgement.


ReplyThread Parent
imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Sep. 30th, 2008 10:14 am (UTC)

But what I noticed in the Huber video is the way Egyptian men stare. They stare into the camera in a hostile, glowering, unflinching, macho way that contains some threat, but also, as I said, some kind of beseeching plea too. You get the impression they stare this way at women too. Just fixedly and relentlessly, with the same mixture of desire and disapproval.

But then a male friend comes along and they slap each other on the back and clown and smoke and seem warm and animated. Only to return to impassive staring mode as soon as they're alone again.

The brash friendliness of the Chinese women is super-reassuring next to this, for me. These women -- who aren't attractive, and would be hard to make into sexual objects -- approach strangers and give them sales chat. They seem to escape the usual Arabic prohibitions on female expressiveness, and they wouldn't be daunted by the male stare. Then again, they're selling female clothes mostly to women, and being foreign (and non-religious) certainly gives them some freedoms the Egyptian women don't have.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Sep. 30th, 2008 10:43 am (UTC)

Although you're right about the way Egyptian men impassively stare, you're bringing a lot of Western baggage into your interpretation of it. I don't know whether they do this to Egyptian women and, if they do, how Egyptian women respond and whether they think it hostile, glowering, unflinching, macho and threatening. Physical responses are just so different in Arab countries. There's a lot less personal space. There's a lot of touching (between men anyway). What you interpret as hostile might not necessarily be seen that way by them. Staring is definitely a cultural thing. In Northern European countries it's rude and hostile. In Latin Europe it's more normal (the difference in eye contact between the Paris métro and London tube is striking).


ReplyThread Parent
electricwitch
electricwitch
For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Tue, Sep. 30th, 2008 11:14 am (UTC)

lol yeah I'm sure Egyptian women loooooove being stared at intimidatingly.

BTW just because Egyptian and Latin men are tremendously gay doesn't make them less aggressive.


ReplyThread Parent

(Anonymous)
Tue, Sep. 30th, 2008 07:47 pm (UTC)

I spent almost a week in Cairo!



It was a year ago. I went with a group of art history students that were all girls, and when we walked around the city unsupervised at night they got stared at quite alot, and at one place (a market further south, in Luxor) were shouted at repeatedly. Cairo is the most populated city in all of Africa, and as such there's a great deal of cosmopolitanism there was isn't elsewhere in Egypt. But the Islamic presence is inescapable and definitely a culture shock.

Anyways the girls romanticized our tour guide (an Egyptian traveling with us for about a week and a half) quite a bit - they found him friendly, charming, and exotic. At the very last day he brought us to the Muhammad-Ali mosque in Cairo and did quick Q&A about Islam and on the way out you could have knocked them over with feathers. They were pissed off!

Adam


ReplyThread Parent
electricwitch
electricwitch
For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Tue, Sep. 30th, 2008 11:11 am (UTC)

I agree with this giant TIRING.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Sep. 30th, 2008 12:43 pm (UTC)

Unfortunately, our empire will be just fine. If the Dow goes down to 8k and international markets shed 30%, that's a setback, not the end of an epoch. International finance and multinational corporations are here to stay. There is no philosophical change. There are no discussions about the morality of loaning money for interest, the large scale industry that results, and the kind of world that it creates. The left is certainly not opposed to this world. In fact, they may be its strongest supporters, by implementing stabilizing policies which sustain its life.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Sep. 30th, 2008 12:54 pm (UTC)

I disagree. I think the credibility of a whole philosophy has been massively challenged. Even really mainstream, non-radical media and commentators are declaring the market-as-salvation philosophy of everyone since Thatcher and Reagan dead. And I think there will be many discussions now -- in public and in private -- about the morality and desirability of lots of things, from property-ownership to interest to new forms of banking and barter and localization and self-sufficiency.


ReplyThread Parent
imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Sep. 30th, 2008 01:00 pm (UTC)

To continue: I think it's basically the end of the market as model, and the end of the West (specifically America) as model.

But I think the West's reaction will now be split between two basic reactions. One is the libertarian reaction, which will see self-sufficiency and even survivalist drives, fed by paranoia and mistrust and rampant individualism. The other is the communitarian reaction, which will see the revival of Keynsian statism and the adoption of more Asian forms of collective living.

I feel personally rather split between these reactions myself.

It's interesting that Republicans shot down the bailout basically on philosophical grounds -- they think it's too socialistic, too statist -- but that many ordinary Americans reject it because it rewards the "fat cats" for their errors. All sorts of philosophical contradictions in the Western mindset are currently playing out as tragedy (with a bit of farce thrown in).

Edited at 2008-09-30 01:03 pm (UTC)


ReplyThread Parent

(Anonymous)
Tue, Sep. 30th, 2008 02:30 pm (UTC)

what you call the libertarian reaction is the extremely american anarcho-capitalist reaction. don't forget the other anarcho-syndicalist side of libertarianism.


ReplyThread Parent

(Anonymous)
Tue, Sep. 30th, 2008 03:13 pm (UTC)

There's a lot of overreaction going on right, including from you, Momus. There have been banking collapses before, there having been crashing stock markets before. Yesterday's drop was not as big in percentage terms as Black Wednesday in 1987 - which precipitated a recession, but not the end of the market economy as we know it. In fact, the derivatives boom came after it.


ReplyThread Parent
thomascott
thomascott
Thomas Scott
Tue, Sep. 30th, 2008 06:02 pm (UTC)

That 3:30 comment concerning libertarianism is merited.
That caveat aside, two good posts over the last two days Momus.
BTW I've spotted that Ways Of Seeing is currently being shown on BBC4 so perhaps there is hope yet that it may be made available on DVD.


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georgesdelatour
georgesdelatour
Tue, Sep. 30th, 2008 08:26 pm (UTC)

The American system is really socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor. The massive US military budget exists largely to subsidize key industries - military Keynsianism, if you will. When Reagan launched his "Star Wars" program the real enemy wasn't the USSR; it was Japan. The US needed a way to subsidize their hi-tech industries which were then doing rather badly against Japan.

The rich have never really believed in pure markets and the "invisible hand" determining their own fate. That's okay for British coal miners and steelworkers, but not for bankers.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Sep. 30th, 2008 08:46 pm (UTC)

LOL, "more Asian forms of collective living." Sounds about as flaccid and stereotypical as "more European forms of individualist living." Which part of Asia? (or which part of Europe?) Way to perpetuate empty, imperial narratives about the world! Interesting, how you tirelessly point this trait out in other people's work, but continue to write things that are chocked full of the same sentiments. That's one of the main reasons why you continually have your intellectual hat handed to you here -- your unwillingness or inability to apply your criticisms of others to yourself.


ReplyThread
imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Oct. 1st, 2008 01:18 am (UTC)

Do you think that all cultural differences work in favour of imperialism? I'd have thought the opposite would be more likely -- that a world without cultural differences (and yes, on any meaningful measure, Asian societies are more collectivist than Western ones) would be one you wouldn't even need to conquer. It would already be yours, and share your views.

Most of my criticisms here, by the way, are self-criticisms. I am totally a part of, and a product of, the West I knock so much. Haven't you noticed that? And is there anything wrong with that?


ReplyThread Parent

(Anonymous)
Sun, Oct. 5th, 2008 07:04 am (UTC)

nothing wrong with your self-criticisms. and no sane person wishes for a world without cultural differences. (or even a country or city without them, either). the problem, as always, is with your broad generalizations. and the problem is compounded by your continual penchant for pointing this loathsome quality out in others!


ReplyThread Parent
bokmala
Junger Schwede
Wed, Oct. 1st, 2008 08:34 pm (UTC)

Instead of showing us the usual drama of us vs. the other, this video shows us the interaction of the other and "the_other.2" . Seeing an exchange take place that fails to takes us into account is unsettling (it threatens our conviction of being at the center of all things). I suspect we actually need to be confronted with the interaction of more than one foreign culture for this insight to hit, because if we are only shown one culture, we will somehow manage to turn what we are seeing into something that revolves around us anyway (if it isn't already prepared that way; most documentaries I see, no matter how foreign the subject, are prepared with terribly familiar premises)


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Oct. 2nd, 2008 01:20 am (UTC)
Chinese Sweet

Hi, can I just point out that I 'was' intern designer in new york and milan... many years ago even before I graduted.. I've tried to update the bio on a few pages but cant get to do them all.

I'm glad you have responded to the double foreigness of the video, the romantic, and also ridiculous, aspect of the situation. that's exactly what I wanted to convey, and what motivated me in the first place.

When I started editing this video I came up with a first cut (the one shown at the tate) which was much longer, and much more informative. It was more of a documentary, because I felt compelled to give information about the phenomenon. but then I didnt like it, and have re-edit it to what I think is a romantic glimpse into that which I will never fully understand and why should I pretend.

Curators, like artists, sometimes feel compelled to tackle serious/current issues. in one of his articles Matthew Collings describes this as some sort of guilt about not being involved (for what concerns artists at least.)

Thank you nonetheless.

Doa Aly


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Oct. 2nd, 2008 01:52 am (UTC)
Re: Chinese Sweet

Thank you for that guidance, Doa -- and for the piece!


ReplyThread Parent