Yazan Khalili, still from 'Hiding our Faces like a Dancing Wind'

How can we make sense of that which cannot be sensed? – in conversation with artists Sami Hammana and Yazan Khalili

Issue no4
Aug / Sep 2022
roleplay & eindexamens 2022

Deep into the ocean's floor, cable-laying vessels are installed for all kinds of social, political and technological purposes. With his work, Sami Hammana travels beyond the limits of our perception to engage with what happens in such 'lightless' zones. In his own way, artist Yazan Khalili explores tensions between materiality and immateriality, recognition and anonymity and appearance and disappearance as well. Manuela Zammit visited both artists and asked them about their combined practices of art and research architecture.

In legal terms, ‘reasonable doubt’ denotes a remaining doubt about the guilt of someone being accused of a crime following thorough consideration of evidence. The works of Hammana and Khalili that I recetly saw in the groupshow Reasonable Doubt at Rotterdam's V2_ invite a different way of interpreting this phrase. Considering the many effects of prejudices and biases that are built into our social and technological systems, isn’t it perfectly reasonable to doubt the models upon which modern technologies infiltrating everyday life are built, and the intentions behind them?

Yazan Khalili’s installation Medusa (2020) consists of a row of screens suspended in mid-air. Usually, screens are interfaces built to facilitate a seamless connection between physical and digital reality. They are designed to ‘disappear’. Yet, in this work, their physicality is over-emphasised, speaking to the fact that technology is not an abstraction, but a human invention with a material dimension and, therefore, fallible. Upon closer inspection, I realised that the screens, albeit functional, were shattered, and some had additional items attached to them, such as a cast of the Medusa’s face. Khalili uses this classical mythological figure as conceptual tool to reflect on the rise of facial recognition technologies and digital archives in times of political unrest. Taking a few steps back from the work, it did seem like the screens, hanging neatly one in front of the other, resembled some sort of folder drawer in which someone was busy keeping tabs. I wondered, had my face been captured already? And if so, in whose archive might it have ended up, and for what reasons?

Both Khalili and Hammana, albeit through diverse artistic strategies, enact spatial practices that reveal how political and economic agendas are at play in the physical world

Yazan Khalili, 'Medusa', at exhibition Reasonable Doubt (2021-2022). Photo © Sander van Wettum

Sami Hammana, '~~~~', at exhibition Reasonable Doubt (2021-2022). Photo © Sander van Wettum

In a similar manner, Sami Hammana’s film ~~~~ (2020) engages with the partially visible and the imperceptible. The film investigates how the present-day speculative market economy operates through submarine cables laying across the same navigational routes as 16th and 17th century Dutch colonial ships. It is significant that contemporary infrastructures are based on violent colonial practices. Hammana engages with the physics of the ocean space and imagery related to contemporary maritime technology in the attempt to answer a recurring question throughout the work; How can we make sense of that which can’t be sensed? I found it quite striking that both artists turn out to have a background in research architecture, while Khalili is also trained as an architect. Research architecture critically engages with how space is not a neutral void, but highly political and manipulated by overarching power structures to fulfil specific aims. Both Khalili and Hammana, albeit through diverse artistic strategies, enact spatial practices that reveal how political and economic agendas are at play in the physical world.

In conversation with Yazan Khalili

—Manuela Zammit You are a visual artist but also an architect. How does your background in architecture inform your artistic output, particularly in relation to investigating systems and infrastructures?

—Yazan Khalili ‘Architecture for me isn't a discipline but rather a method of thinking, working and imagining. It’s a way to construct, deconstruct, and reconstruct ways of understanding the world we live in. The way I approach architecture varies depending on the situation or ideas I'm trying to work with. It moves from being a tool and methodology, to becoming a framework and a concept. Through its discourse, I approach economic, political and social systems, not by wanting to engineer them, but rather through wanting to expose them, open them, and make them available to the public. Such an approach has been developing in my work, slowly shifting from only being interested in representational work, into work that produces platforms and infrastructures for cultural producers to use and engage with. For instance, projects such as Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre, Radio Alhara, Rizq: The Giftshop, and The Question of Funding, are projects that aim to invent structures for artists and cultural producers to imagine, create and share cultural, economic and political spaces.’

—Manuela Zammit In Medusa, you manage to incorporate notions of materiality and immateriality, recognition and anonymity, appearance and disappearance, all within the same work. There are a lot of productive tensions at play. Can you elaborate on this?

—Yazan KhaliliMedusa is a work that tries to encapsulate our understanding of the digital within the physical, the algorithmic within the political, and the abstract within everyday poetics. Through it, I engage with facial recognition technology, not as a technical aspect but rather as a political structure that needs to be addressed as such. I’m not trying to work with dichotomies of technophobia and technophilia, the good and bad, but to think of it as a political tool affected by politics, but that also produces politics. Facial recognition technology is not a passive structure, and also not a one-dimensional one. Rather, it is an extension of contemporary politics of individualisation and the neoliberal economy, and therefore I’m suggesting that we need to think in this extension. How does counter-politics extend itself into these structures? How does it claim back its space within digital systems? And how do we look back at the individualising gaze (the machinic gaze that is trying to define each one of us as an individual unique being) with the gaze of collectivity and commonality?’

'How do we look back at the individualising, machinic gaze with the gaze of collectivity and commonality?’

Yazan Khalili, 'Rizq: the Giftshop'

Yazan Khalili, 'Rizq: the Giftshop'

—Manuela Zammit Why are you interested in working with the motif of the face and masks? Why are faces important to our thinking about the role of technology, and more specifically artificial intelligence in society?

—Yazan Khalili ‘The work is a continuation of another work, Hiding Our Faces Like a Dancing Wind, in which I connect the historical trajectory of contemporary facial recognition to the colonial-era anthropological practice of measuring faces to define humans. I did that by looking at mask collections in European museums and seeing how these masks were recognised as faces by the facial recognition technology on my phone. In Medusa I’m trying to expand on this reflection by questioning the politics embedded within the structures of the technology. I wasn’t interested in exposing racism and prejudices. Nor was I asking for the system to become less racist by being able to identify individuals’ faces equally, regardless of their race and gender (facial recognition technology can identify a white man’s face with an accuracy percentage of 99.7%, and this percentage drops to 70% for Black womens’ faces). Rather, I was interested in finding a crack or a glitch within the system that we can claim as a moment of collectivity, to use it as a proactive failure to demand to be seen as a collective rather than as individuals by a system that is actively aiming to break us into individuals with unique wants and needs for capitalism to be better able to exploit our individuality.’

In conversation with Sami Hammana

—Manuela Zammit Your film ~~~~ investigates the connections between past colonial violence and modern-day technology, more specifically between the colonial practices of the Dutch East India Company and the contemporary speculative market economy. Can you elaborate further on these connections?

—Sami Hammana ‘The comparison between contemporary financial markets and the Dutch East India Company can be spoken about on many levels. Within ~~~~, this question is investigated primarily on a vehicular and infrastructural level. Through the former, we can see that repetitive manual labour is performed on cable-laying vessels in order to allow for the cables to be spooled inside of the ship. These workers essentially walk the cross-continental distances that are needed to stitch the continents together in small circles inside of the ships. It is these forms of neocolonial labour that have to occur in order for speculative finance to increase its capitalisation. In short, without undersea cables, the speculative financial market wouldn’t be able to operate with the same speed as it does today.
In regard to the infrastructural level, we can take a look at the navigational routes that the Dutch East India Company’s ships sailed in relation to the placement of the undersea cables currently residing on the ocean's floor. When both of these historical and contemporary networked lines are drawn on the same map, a striking similarity arises. With a slight margin of error, the routes traversed by the undersea cables currently populating the ocean floors, and the manner in which the wooden ships used to sail, are almost identical.
Speculative financial trades on (intangible) prices of goods are transferred through undersea cables that are laying on the bottom of oceans. The Dutch East India Company, on the other hand, traded in (tangible) goods that were taken from different geographies and stored on their ships that sailed across the surface of oceans. The vertical layer of operation, that is the practice of moving (in)tangible goods within the oceans, has changed. This change can be described as being visibly present on the surface, to being submerged deep into the ocean floor. The differences in depth evoke an interesting question to consider: are the political subscriptions changed too?

—Manuela Zammit How can we make sense of that which can’t be sensed? Why is the ocean space so interesting in relation to finding an answer to this question, which also recurs in your film?

—Sami Hammana ‘I consider the oceanic space interesting for a multitude of reasons. I’ll limit my response to the primary reasons that make this space politically, conceptually and aesthetically interesting within the context of the film: namely, its verticality. Oceans, like landmass, consist of layers. These layers are called photic zones, which refer to the amount of light that penetrates to the specific density and depth, depending on how deeply submerged the perspective is. In the case of the Dutch East India Company’s ships, they sailed on top of the oceans, where light reaches easily. This means that a very visible visual culture develops — wooden ships adorned with impressive symbols and sculptures.
On the other hand, we have the contemporary cable-laying vessels which lay their undersea cables deep into the ocean’s floor. This deep layer is a lightless space that is referred to as the aphotic zone. If light can’t reach this space, then (human) perception does not occur there either. As a result, a completely different visual culture is developed for the practice of cable-laying. Light enters the water bodies of oceanic spaces, but only to a certain extent. On the level of undersea cables, phenomenality ceases to exist. The vertical differential of light penetration complicates the desire to "sense" the similarities between aforementioned vehicles. "Sense" in the sense of "sensing" can not be an investigative model to rely upon anymore. Hence the reiteration of the question: how to make sense of that which can’t be sensed?’

'"Sense" in the sense of "sensing" can not be an investigative model to rely upon anymore. The question is: how to make sense of that which can’t be sensed?'

Sami Hammana, still from ‘~~~~’ 

Sami Hammana, still from ‘~~~~’ 

Sami Hammana, still from ‘~~~~’ 

—Manuela Zammit Language and text also play an important role in your work. Why is this the case?

—Sami Hammana 'Within my artistic projects I’m mainly interested in what I call the "phenomenal threshold of perception". This concept refers to the moment(s) where perception stops being possible. These moments arise, for example, in many large-scale systems such as speculative finance, where certain complexities are hidden away from perception in order to escape political, ecological, economical and social responsibilities. This allows for a smoother process of capital accumulation, with violent ramifications as a result.
This conjures up the following question that I ask myself: Is this simply the case? Or can perceptual insight be attained through a refusal of this imposed darkness? Are there (conceptual and speculative) vehicles that would allow for traveling beyond the limits of perception? Are there artistic methodologies for imaging that which isn’t imaged yet? It is here that language and text become of crucial importance. They allow for speculating and talking about that which isn’t a visual image yet. They can allude to images that we can’t see. Language and text help in the desire to make sense of that which can’t be sensed.

Reasonable Doubt ran until January 16th 2022 at V2 Lab for the Unstable Media, Rotterdam. Curated by Vincent van Velsen and Florian Weigl, featuring work by Anna Ridler, Femke Herregraven, Hannah Dawn Henderson, Navine G. Khan-Dossos, Paolo Cirio, Robert Glas, Sami Hammana and Yazan Khalili

Manuela Zammit
is a writer and researcher

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 4 — 2022