Alien Encounters: an interview with Rana Hamadeh

Author ········· Danah Abdulla
Published ······ Online, May 2013

Section ·······  Art & Design

Rana Hamadeh is an artist based in Rotterdam. Her recent work, exhibited as part of the The Magic of the State exhibition at Lisson Gallery in London, explores the relationship between resistance and contagion by considering the plague in ancient Athens as an allegory for the ‘Arab uprisings.’ Rana’s piece makes viewers stand over the battleship like board, reminiscent of a 1980s alien television programme, and attempt to make links between the various images, objects and text. I paid a visit to the Lisson gallery to discuss the work with Rana and find out more about her practice.

Rana Hamadeh The Big Board or …’And before it falls, it is only reasonable to enjoy life a little’ (2013). Performance and stage set with various objects. Courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery.

DA | Could you tell me about your practice and this particular work?

RH | I work mainly with text and performance. Most of my projects are discursive, based upon a conversational practice that combines theory with fiction. In 2008 and 2011, I initiated two long-term umbrella projects under which I have been producing different artwork, texts, artist publications and conversations. Such conversations are either private encounters that I appropriate and re-enact in my performances, or public conversations that become the act itself. Most of my performances occur at the border of the theatrical and the artist talk, where the talk about my work becomes the performance.

Since 2011, I’ve been working on a project titled “Alien Encounters.” This project contemplates and complicates the notion of alienness, where the alien is seen both as an outcast with regard to the law and as an extraterrestrial. The research is thereby particularly informed by this conjunction between the legal and the spatial. Throughout the course of the project, I ask whether it is possible to think of the notions of rights and justice outside the paradigms of terrestriality and gravitation, but also beyond the territorial imagining of the nation-state. Is it possible to think of extra-planetary space – and I don’t mean here only ‘extraterrestrial space’, but particularly the space that is not subjugated or existing in a secondary relation to some ‘ground’ – as a possible space for dissent?

Alien Encounters comprises different works including (lecture)-performances, cartographic projects, a film-in-progress, and several writing projects. In my most recent work titled ‘The Big Board’ or ‘And Before It Falls It Is Only Reasonable to Enjoy Life a Little,’ I focus on the term ‘resistance,’ which, in the light of the current Arab uprisings, I find incredibly dubious. I try to interrogate this notion, attack it, and re-think it. The work investigates the contrast between the dynamics of resistance and those of falling ill. It proposes thinking of contagion, rather than resistance, as a possible dynamic of propagation of dissent.

Rana Hamadeh The Big Board or …’And before it falls, it is only reasonable to enjoy life a little’ (2013). Performance and stage set with various objects. Courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery.

DA| How did the project develop? And what sort of associations does it include?

RH | The main inspiration for the entire project, which you can also see in this map, are two scenes from Sun Ra’s[1] 1974 film, ‘Space Is The Place.’ I take these two scenes as a starting point. I scrutinise them and produce my first theoretical proposal within the work through them. I do not make an analysis of what Sun Ra wanted to say himself, as much as I take from them the suggestions and hints that I find relevant for my work.

In the film, Sun Ra claims that he had disappeared with his crew, The Arkestra, after his 1969 European tour. He reappears for the first time in the film itself, in 1974. He claims that during the time of his disappearance he had landed on a new planet, somewhere in outer space. When Sun Ra returns to Earth, he decides to go back to the U.S. and open an employment centre to recruit African Americans who were eager to settle on that new planet.

As he visits an Oakland youth centre to spread his word, a teenager asks him: “How do we know you are for real?” “I'm not real', I'm just like you. You’re not real. If you were, you’d have some status among the nations of the world. So we’re both myths,” he replies. At the end of the film, when Sun Ra's spaceship carrying ‘blackness’ finally sets off towards outer space, we see planet Earth entirely destroyed, and the film ends.

The first scene, during which Sun Ra insists upon his position as a myth, is a foundational moment for my project. For, Sun Ra doesn’t claim to be the ‘real,’ nor does he claim to fight for becoming the real. Rather, he counter-intuitively proposes going in the opposite direction. Let’s say, his struggle against the racial injustice that African Americans had been subjected to, and against their social and legal alienness, was particularly through the embodiment and literalisation of this alienness.  

From these two scenes I make in my work an association with the theoretical work of historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, known for his important contributions to post-colonial and subaltern studies. I claim that the two scenes serve as an anachronistic response to Chakrabarty’s call for ‘provincialising Europe,’ pushing it even further towards proposing the provincialisation of planet Earth itself. The two scenes suggest that the moment the aliens (outcasts with regard to the law) became literal aliens (extraterrestrials), is particularly the moment when they were disburdened from their alienness. For, the moment planet Earth was destroyed in the film, there was nothing anymore to be alien towards.

Getting back to the term ‘resistance’ that I try to challenge in my new work, I see Sun Ra’s proposal to literalise one’s own alienness, as a provocative and interesting alternative for thinking about dissent today. The problem with the dynamics of resistance in my view is that they operate solely in ‘opposition’ with the functions of the state. In my view, resistance perpetuates the structures and functions of the state – only, inside out. So, this was the beginning of the Alien Encounters project altogether. I want to make a little remark here regarding ‘blackness.’ ‘Blackness’ as proposed by Sun Ra’s film refers to one’s alienness – one’s ‘falling out’ of recognition with regard to the law and the systems of justice – rather than to skin colour. After all, the people aboard the spaceship were both black and white.

The Magic of the State, installation view. Rana Hamadeh, Al Karantina (2013). Performance and installation; Christodoulos Panayiotou, The Invention of Antiquity, 2011. Two B&W digital prints. Images sourced from the Press and Information Office, Cyprus. Background, Lili Reynaud-Dewar, Interpretation Drawing (What America should consider), 2010. Pencil on Cardboard. Courtesy of the artists and Beirut.

DA| You mentioned previously that this project is for you a tool for thinking of the Arab uprisings.

RH | Throughout the project, I have been thinking about the question of citizenship posed by the Arab uprisings. For instance, I have been asking myself, what do the Syrian dissidents want? I don’t want to talk about the ways that the revolution has been mutating. What matters is the initial question: what are those demonstrators (‘aliens’) claiming, while knowing that they are going to die as soon as they reach the streets? Are they trying to claim sovereignty from the state? Or is it something else? And here begins my research into the Syrian revolution, starting with Sun Ra’s and Chakrabarty’s proposals. To my understanding, claiming sovereignty from the state is setting oneself up to the wrong bunch of questions. I am also making an association here with Gaddafi. Although the Libyan context is very different from that of Syria, the regimes of both states claimed for decades to be the ‘fortresses of resistance and defiance.’ What sort of resistance do those states embody? When Gaddafi addressed the demonstrators with the famous question “Who are you?’’ ‘resistance’ has become one of the functions of the state. “I am resistance” he declared, “I am revolution,” suggesting that it cannot be possible, being the embodiment of revolution as he is, to be standing in resistance against himself. Therefore, there was no way, in Gaddafi’s view, that a revolution could have been taking place in Libya against his power. It is from this kind of rhetoric that I started researching the notion of alienness, as it unravels all these sets of questions regarding citizenship, resistance and contagion.

Rana Hamadeh, Al Karantina, 2013. Lecture-performance, approx 45 min. Part of The Magic of the State at Beirut, Cairo, 7 March 2013. Courtesy of the artist and Beirut.

DA | I want to mention that I really like that you used a 1980s type of aesthetic. As a designer, the layout, colour, is important, and it works with context here very well. There’s this show from the early 80s, it looks like this concept, I’ll have to look it up.

RH | I’ve never designed anything before!

DA | I see on the table words like ‘boat’, ‘quarantine’, ‘Marseille’ and ‘Mauritania’ within the network of terms, images and associations. Could you expand on this?

RH | What I talked about up till now is the theoretical umbrella of the project, but there are of course personal encounters that the work tries to narrate. This table that you see here is the stage for my play/performance. I do not see it as an installation. Please note that this narrative is just a passing narrative within The Big Board work, but is the main narrative of another work under the umbrella of Alien Encounters titled ‘The Tired Land.’ Let us start from the beginning, once again – another beginning:

In 2011, I conducted a conversation with four illegal immigrants living in Marseille. The interview was on board a little inflatable boat near the coast of Marseille. The four lived together in a compound not far from the centre. The interview happened days after a dispute we had, during which I wanted to call an ambulance for one of their friends whom I had discovered lying half dead in the street. The four guys discussed in Arabic whether or not they should allow me to call the ambulance or to let the guy die. They didn't know at that point that I spoke Arabic. They tried to force motion into the seemingly dead guy. They would lift him, kick him in the face and force him to stand up time after time. And just before the four men could close the gates of the compound across which they had thrown the sick man's frail body, the sirens and the medics were all over the place. He was going to be fine, the medics said. When the four men learned that I spoke Arabic, they invited me to dinner, and the story, once again, begins from here.

Rana Hamadeh, Al Karantina, 2013. Lecture-performance, approx 45 min. Part of The Magic of the State at Beirut, Cairo, 7 March 2013. Courtesy of the artist and Beirut.

DA | Did you get the backstory of that?

RH | I learned that the four men, and the almost dying man, had arrived together in Marseille some months earlier through the Harraga boat. The sick guy suffered from some broken ribs and was getting a lot of drugs to soothe his pain. Obviously the group had agreed with him not to take drugs in public in order not to risk their exposure. During the boat conversation, one of the men stated: “The compound is our island. It is our safety. There, it is us who decide who shall live and who shall die. That guy you saw on the street last week was risking our exposure – twelve of us. And he knew it. Perhaps we should have let him die after all. He was going to get us all into prison just for a broken rib.”

Of course, when I think of this statement I remember the very first sentence of Achille Mbembe’s text ‘Necropolitics’ which states that the ultimate expression of sovereignty resides, to a large degree, in the power and the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die. When thinking of the sick man on the street of Marseille, I ask myself: is the reason for him almost dying, that he actually ‘fell out’ of the compound, ‘towards something,’ and crashed? This falling that I refer to in this context is not a physical falling. Rather, I am referring to a ‘falling out’ from this ‘island’/compound that the man that I was interviewing mentioned, whose inhabitants enjoy and practice their full sovereignty exclusively within its walls. The moment one falls out of these walls, towards visibility in the eyes of the law – towards the public institution (including the need to go to hospital and to get an ambulance), then this person is crashing into the "atmosphere" of the law, the paradigm of Earth and the ground. Between one island of sovereignty and the other there is a sea that swallows lives every single day. From the compound and the boat we were in, there is some sort of doubling or mirroring, where the material glass of the mirror is the shore – Marseilles’ land borders. Therefore, to reach from one island to the other, you have to crash through the materiality of the mirror. Yet the only way to survive this crash is to keep walking inside a crack – a passage between two walls that separate you from the law. This passage is not called precarity, nor as many would say, a state of 'in betweenness.'  Rather, this passage is a passage where both life and death meet simultaneously, it is a passage of intensification, of simultaneity, of being ready to fall all the time, while at the same time, provincialising the sense of ‘towardness’ in order not to crash. Here we are again reminded of what I was talking about previously regarding Sun Ra’s proposal for provincialising planet Earth/the paradigm of ‘towardness’.

Rana Hamadeh, Al Karantina, 2013. Performance and installation. Detail. Courtesy of the artist and Beirut.

DA | What about Mauritania?

RH | On the boat the men drew this map for me, which shows where they came from. One of them came from Cansado, a mining town in Mauritania that was built by a French-dominated mining company called MIFERMA. The town was built from total scratch in the 1960s, as a settlement for the company’s European upper management. The railway in the middle of the desert [points to the railway on the piece], was built by the French in order to transport the iron ore from the mountains towards the coast and then into Europe.

DA | Basically like industrial cities in the US and Germany…

RH | It is different, I think. A shantytown housing the Mauritanian workers started to grow around these European settlements. The very interesting thing about this is how the town, supposed to function originally as a modern form of colonial/corporate ‘protectorate,’ conceived, designed, and managed in order to ensure a ‘secure’ presence of the ‘European assets’ in the Sahara, has become today one of the main objects of European border police paranoia. Cansado’s porousness and close proximity to the Spanish Enclaves, has led to the complete militarisation of the sea, with the purpose of stopping any possible attempt to enter the borders of the Canary Islands, and thereby Europe, illegally. There is also a reference to the detention centre on the table, the islands – real and allegorical – and of course, once again, a link with the discussion regarding alienness – alien with regard to the law and alien as extraterrestrial. I bring together science fiction, colonial history, and the Arab revolutions in a complex map of associations and super-impositions.

By the way, I am not consistent in the use of a term alien. When I say ‘alien’ I mean it in one place in a certain way, and then I go in a totally different direction in a different context.

DA | So you never really qualify it?

RH | No

Rana Hamadeh, Al Karantina, 2013. Lecture-performance, approx 45 min. Part of The Magic of the State at Beirut, Cairo, 7 March 2013. Courtesy of the artist and Beirut.

DA | What is the relation between all the previous narratives and the images of the doctor, the plague, quarantine etc.?

RH | At the core of the dual understanding of alienness, are the shared lexicons of criminology and epidemiology. For, what is alien with regard to the law cannot be viewed outside the paradigm of criminal justice. Yet, crime itself cannot be viewed outside the paradigm of disease, and its physical and spatial logics of propagation. Crime, here, is to be therefore understood particularly as a crack in the order of social ‘sanitation’.

Getting back to the narrative of the boat, but also to that of Syria, I see myself particularly drawn towards the vocabulary of hygienification and purification. The plague comes from it, through the body of the alien. Thinking of the diseased/aliens, I am reminded of Gaddafi’s televised interview by which he described the demonstrators as rats. Why rats? Rats propagate the plague. I find it important to link the narrative of the boat to that of Syria and Libya, because of this vocabulary of hygiene and immunity; because it makes an interesting super-imposition between colonial history and the nature of totalitarianism in the Arab world.

There is a hell of a lot of narratives in here. I contributed a text to the catalogue [of this exhibition] that focuses on the narrative of the plague. I will be focussing on this narrative also in my performance. I take the plague of Athens as an allegory for all these stories and constructs. The plague of Athens is particularly interesting because it had been historicised by Thucydides, the Athenian historian, as a ‘legal disease’ and not only as than a somatic disease. He narrates how the state had to take legal action in response to the plague, due to the legal apathy that the Athenian society suffered. We find this superimposition between disease, the plague, hygiene, alienness and legal apathy (which is also apathy with regard to the king/sovereign) in the context of the Arab uprisings.  

I am again thinking of the law and notions of justice. Picture this: Bashar al Assad is called the ‘doctor.’ In Lebanon, one of the biggest mass murderers, Samir Geagea is also called the ‘doctor.’ They’re all doctors. It makes sense to speak of the plague doctor [points at the image of the masked doctor], particularly because of his theatrical authority. His agency to ‘heal’ (in the context of the Arab uprisings, the doctor’s healing machine is that of bloodletting) comes particularly from this theatricality. Justice – I argue – is the access to drama, the degree to which one can access dramatic means of representation.

Rana Hamadeh, Al Karantina, 2013. Lecture-performance, approx 45 min. Part of The Magic of the State at Beirut, Cairo, 7 March 2013. Courtesy of the artist and Beirut.

DA | Definitely you explaining it makes it much clearer. 

RH | I do not do thematic works. Mapping is my method of working. It is an attempt to create a world, an entire world with all its philosophies, histories, futures, geographies, etc. This kind of mapping helps me generate a system of relations that somehow does not assign meaning to spaces and places, as much as becomes a measurement of the levels of clashes and struggles involved in the production of the visibility/invisibility of such spaces and places.

DA | That’s really vast. It’s one of those works that makes you think about it. I’m sure people sat there and tried to interpret…

RH | It is only when I speak that I unpack all these vast narratives. But this stage is standing on its own. It works on an associative level without all these explanations. It’s not necessary at all to get the details of the narratives. The visual and textual map and the audio, which introduces the public to the terminology that I am using, is more than enough to generate a discussion.

[1] Sun Ra is an African-American jazz musician who is considered today a pioneer of Afro-futurism. 

Danah Abdulla is the Founder, Creative Director and Editor of Kalimat Magazine. A graphic designer/editor/writer/researcher, Danah is an MPhil/PhD candidate in Design at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her research focuses on contemporary Arab visual identity within communication design education in the Arab region, design criticism and social design. She completed her MA in Social Design at the Maryland Institute College of Art and her BA in Communications at the University of Ottawa. She has also worked for marketing and advertising agencies like Matchstick, DDB and Isobar.