Riant Spaciousness: The Ci-Ça of Language and Image within Malak Helmy’s Tinkering Pinks

Let’s balance on this pivot: the change from glyph into an alphabet of letters, the moment when one politics becomes another. Slow and fast, dense and happenstance, these alchemies are glacial and all at once. “Alexandria right now is all mood, no structure. There is no architecture to speak of, or city, only force,” Malak Helmy writes in 2011 about the Egyptian Revolution. She is an artist working in Cairo. We spoke as she completed a residency near Turin. I say illusion, mirroring, Malak says mirage. Malak says, “revolution lacks a document,” and writes of “a space without archives,” “a saline dehydration of language” (Solicited Document, Hordaland Kunstsenter, 2011).

I am noticing, at least, that language is not opposed to the image in your work, that the image is also under scrutiny (or suspicion). I see recurrences of illusion, mirage, and mirroring.

Yes. For a long time I was quite obsessed with how to work with that. I’m often building lexicons and exploring semiotics. I’m particularly interested in the life of signs . . . what they look like, what they’d say, or if they’re a geography, how they’re shaped, how you’d pass through them. I think about their personalities, breakups and moods, paranoias and psychologies.

frist still

Still from Record from the Excited State, Chapter 3: Lost Referents of Some Attraction

Malak’s work has an edgelessness, even her writing. Her video works and texts don’t resolve as much as radiate. It’s the space of the infinite, and just as quickly, abyss, negation.

I grew up in the brand new city of Doha, Qatar, with what at the time seemed to me—and pretty much almost was—just three compounds, two schools, a shopping center, a crossroads, the corniche (sea), and one hotel and then desert, endless desert in between, and empty roads connecting. Also each of these things I described were walled compounds. And so it was in many ways a non-place; only later did I come to understand the particularities of it as I had experienced them. Going out of the compound was really like falling out of the house in Beetlejuice, this fear built of a never-ending yellow, and you had to jump back into the spaces saved for the realm of the living/dead.

I want to ask her, is an image the opposite of a desert?

Malak writes: The north coast of Egypt lies to the west coast of the city of Alexandria. It is an area where the circular flow of money and wealth is regenerated during the summer months and suspends itself in a complete standstill during the rest of the year. The project will begin with producing an archive of documents, records, images, verbal, visual, and tactile data that emerge from the site (visibleproject.org).

I think of the desert, the way it’s been written about by Nicole Brossard, by Baudrillard.

Poet Susan Holbrook describes Brossard’s novel Mauve Desert: “There is not simple progression from the negative to a positive inflection. Rather, its persistent ‘repetition with change’ compels the reader to perform the defamiliarizing act of looking both ways.” And, “This is a processional poetic, driven by association. Proposals, then, are thrown over in favour of a mobile unraveling of propositions.”

maybe still

Still from Record from the Excited State, Chapter 3: Lost Referents of Some Attraction

You have stated that you do not want to talk much about what is going on in Egypt, which is changing daily and dramatically right now.

It is addressed, not directly politically, but sensorially . . . what the moments allowed, what kinds of madnesses fell, how one fell out, the sensation of time suspended, “characters waiting for the event to happen.” I would say I was interested in how one dealt with knowledge, with time, with order, with the collapse of institutions, how it affected the body, affected being together, affected being alone.

She writes: No documents are left as evidence of this moment of profound intelligence and self-organization. It is something that emerges and then ends. The evidence is the event itself–the value is in the self-preservation at the moment of experiencing this emergence (Solicited Document).

boy epic

Still from Record of the Excited State, Chapter 3: Lost Referents of Some Attraction

A revolution is a cascade which gets written in reverse as a specific moment of change.

Change points back resonantly to hundreds or thousands of notes which made it necessary, and forward toward hundreds or thousands of directions it will affect. Crisp, tucked in, and assertive, the visual communicates with immediacy. It is an echo flashed, quickened by the authority of the enlightenment. The image is too fast for revolution; it is Muybridge’s caught horse, Descarte’s horse, already won.

Resonance gives way to multiplicity and change. In music, in writing, in time-based art, meaning appears to emerge during the course of that change. Malak’s cuts, like line breaks with their attendant non sequitur gaps, set the sequence vibrating.

I ask: Can there be an image which describes pure change?

She answers: One turns the image over and makes a score on its back each day: this is one yesterday, this is two yesterdays, this is three yesterdays (Solicited Document).

Excerpt from Record from the Excited State, Chapter 3: Lost Referents of Some Attraction

Part 2: The loss of the image to the market.

We are bubbling spectators in the glittering building having the encounter again and again, communicated at, receiving, sending, frenetically facing. The market is where we see one another.

I wrote to Malak in Turin, “It was a glittering Saturday and I was headed to the annual SF art fair [ArtPadSF] at the Phoenix Motel. There, each gallery exhibits in a motel room; outside, people chat and drink around a shimmering, blue swimming pool. It is the same weekend as all the MFA shows. Running around to all these events one begins to feel positively filled up with the frequency of encounter—encounter with visual surface, with other faces absorbed also in the quick frequency of encounter. It almost feels too fast to be communicative. I stopped on the way to snap a picture of a building made entirely of mirrored windows. When I slipped into the Krowswork Gallery space your work, Record from the Excited State, changed the pace. The first thing I noticed was beauty—purple reflected in water, a mirror reflecting a cloud. Next, I recognized a poetics in the video’s cuts, something which seemed like enjambment. I noticed the accoutrements of language, and of system-making—its designation as “Chapter 3,” its classification as a “Record,” the “Lost Referents” of the subtitle—but also that the slow, mysterious images resisted language, or had no use for it.

Jean-Jacques Lecercle talks about a “simultaneous deficiency and proliferation of signifieds underneath each sign.”

Malak says: . . . lost images, lost ideas, wandering around feeling depressed, feeling dumped and used, becoming mutants, maybe becoming super sensual because they’re not tied to anything in particular, unengaged, promiscuous, like polyamorous things. I think about their personalities, breakups and moods, paranoias and psychologies.

What if the revolution was the arch from the picture into letter? What if the history of writing is only a long divergence from the local born of globalization and its attendant abstractions? What happened to those old pictures and do pictures now still hover inside their matrix?

The concept carries the resonance and the force of word and image. “Revolution,” “Woman.” Conceptual art, tipping over into language / conceptual writing begging reception within the matrix of the image.

The market is where we see one another, but within the liberal State, an individual is only speech.

That individuals exceed their lives as capitalist subjects, but as democratic ones too. That politics define and defend what is undifferentiated and primary. Protection of life which precedes representation.

A change in the governance of the sign (and all the small attendant changes and bends in resonance). The line which can be traced from Ox to A.


Malak Helmy‘s work has been included in the Ninth Gwangju Biennial (2012), Documenta 13’s Cairo Seminar (2012), Art Dubai (2011), Southern Exposure (San Francisco, 2011), Krowswork Gallery (Oakland, 2011), Projectos Monclovo (DF, 2011), Bergen KunstCenter (2011), and Mediamatic (Amsterdam, 2010), among others. She is represented in the Bay Area by Krowswork Gallery. 

Comments (1)

  • Anne Lesley Selcer says:

    Today on Facebook poet Maged Zaher made a comment about the situation in Egypt being linked to colonialism. I messaged to ask him to say more and he sent me an essay he wrote about the complexities which lead to this current crisis. Here it is, in entirety:

    Coup or Revolution: the origins of the power struggle in Egypt

    When asked to write a piece about the current situation in Egypt I wondered where to start. I – strangely – had to go back to the colonial era: Egypt was the main cotton producer for the British empire which officially occupied Egypt in 1882, and left in 1956 (realistically their power grasp had loosened earlier) – Britain messed royally (no pun intended) with the Egyptian state of politics, Egypt then was a multi-party liberal monarchy. This era witnessed the birth of a group that brought to the world the notion of political Islam, this group birth was in a city called Ismailia under the leadership of Hassan ElBanna, the group name is the Muslim Brotherhood. Like many British and French colonized third world countries (except India for example) the army was the strongest institute, so when the colonizers left the army turned around and ruled the country, this happened in the 1952 coup (we like to call it a revolution) – led by colonel Nasser and the free officers who were a bunch of army officers from different political groups, e.g. communists and Muslim Brotherhood, etc… As you would expect the young Colonel and his colleagues ended politics in Egypt, disbanded all parties. Having big dreams – a unified Arab world under their leadership for example – they didn’t realize they know jack shit about running a country, and they ended up being majorly defeated in the 1967 six days war against Israel. As part of ending politics in Egypt, Nasser – after an attempt at his assassination that some argue was a fake one by the Muslim Brotherhood – terrorized the group and imprisoned lots of its rank and files. Anyway, the army has been ruling Egypt since then. Sadat and Mubarak are from the army. Mubarak claim to fame was leading the first air strike in the 1973 war which the Egyptian army started in order to move the political situation against Israel. In 1977, during Sadat rule, a peace treaty was signed with Israel at Camp David with the chaperonship of Jimmy Carter, the USA offers Egypt $2 Billion dollars of aid, $1.3 of them go to the military in exchange of honoring the Camp David treaty. Sadat needed local allies as he was facing the leftist oppositions from Nasser’s era, so he resorted to the Islamists (yes, this was almost the same time the USA did the same against the Russians in Afghanistan) – The Islamists got really powerful and assassinated Sadat. Mubarak – who followed Sadat – did a great job honoring the Camp David treaty and he also terrorized the Islamists who by then were made of three groups: violent group called Gamaaa Islameya (yes, they are the ones who produced Omar Abderrahman) the blind sheikh responsible for the first World Trade Center bombing, and the Muslim Brotherhood who were more moderate but not by far, also the Salafis who mostly – then – stayed out of politics and who Mubarak used to fight the Muslim Brotherhood. Mubarak had a lovely systematic way to keep power, which was: don’t piss off the US or Israel, and internally do a major divide and conquer sweeps everywhere and promote the mediocre. During Mubarak era Egypt descended the stairs of civilization on multiple levels, near the end of his life, Mubarak decided (some say just under the pressure of his wife) to install his son as president, this is what the Egyptians couldn’t take and started the January 25th revolution, at the end of which Mubarak stepped down and the army took over, again, remember, the army is the major institute in Egypt that can run the place, due to the post colonial situation and the systematic weakening of other institutes that Mubarak did. However, the army knew it needs to hand the power over to a coherent civilian body in exchange of a safe exit without prosecution, and for the army to be given a special budget status in the new constitution, the Muslim Brotherhood stepped up as the most powerful group that can rally people and win elections, a powerful state they achieved over years of working underground and organizing, eventually by the first presidential elections after the January 25th revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood nominee (Morsi) ran against the old regime nominee (Shafiq) – Morsi became the nominee of the revolution and won by less than 1%. Everyone expected a new era, except the ones who knew that it will be hard for the Muslim Brotherhood to build a wide alliance given that they are an international organization with very tight loyalty to each other (you can think of the top down hierarchy of the Muslim Brotherhood as the ultimate Leninist party), anyway that aside Morsi wasn’t as politically savvy as he should have been, he passed a constitutional declaration that announced that the judiciary branch can’t undo his decisions, then went ahead to half bake a constitution that a significant number of the liberals and minorities of the country resigned from its committee in strong disagreements. It was clear that Morsi is ruling only for the interests of his group and not the Egyptians at large. So, one disaster after another: looking bad in front of world leaders, or serious shortage of gas and electricity, etc… eroded his popularity, and the popular opposition against him increased, and due to lack of an impeachment clause in the constitution, a group of youth called themselves “tamarod” – i.e. rebellion – started asking people to sign an impeachment petition – it was reported that 22 million people signed such petitions. The Morsi camp didn’t take this seriously and launched a counter campaign called “tagarod” that announced – in an obvious lie – that they collected 26 million Morsi supporting signatures. The youth group that instigated “tamarod” called for public demonstration on Jume 30th where a historically unprecedented number of people showed up (numbers estimated from 13-30 millions) – the army stepped in and ousted Morsi in compliance with such large demonstrations, this ousting people like to call a coup, a revolution, a coupvolution, a revolcouption. Take your pick. -Maged Zaher

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