Julie Harrison’s solo exhibition, Fragments, recently closed at Wekalet Behna, an offshoot of Gudran for Art and Development, an artist coalition that Harrison briefly worked with in Alexandria, Egypt. As a U.S. delegate for the international peace organization CISV, Harrison collaborated with the Gudran to develop alternative modes of displaying art and engaging Egyptian society.
I’ve known Harrison since the late 1970s from our early days with Colab (Collaborative Projects), a group of New York City artists who created and distributed work through unconventional means. Throughout the years, Harrison and I have worked in parallel, embracing new technologies and denouncing the ghettoization of tech-based art. Later, Harrison developed an Art & Technology B.A. Program at Stevens Institute of Technology and invited me to teach.
Harrison’s conceptual, digitally printed photographs are often perceived as collages and/or computer based images, but are straightforward photographs, which makes the work even more intriguing. In Fragments, she re-photographs images of war, poverty, and suffering from magazines, as well as bits of text. The photographs’ aesthetically minded compositions activate the imagination, which Harrison believes has the power to aid in the politics of liberation. Her work is possibly emancipatory in its suggestive transformation of news media.
I was curious about how the recent political climate in Egypt has contributed to Gudran’s interest in politically based work, and how our Western need to build fear into our global landscape is perceived by Egyptian artists, so I communicated with Harrison via internet while she prepared her show in Alexandria.
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Joseph Nechvatal: Julie, your exhibition is taking place in post-Arab Spring Egypt during a time in its long, grand history when things have become increasingly sticky and strident. It seems, from the outside, to be a time when everything is deadly political, to the point of trauma.
In your works you reveal, you hide, you dissemble, you entangle. The fragments of words and sentences in and over the images seem to hiss and float with discomfort. Actually, the words appear to me to be experiencing some kind of dysphemia speech disorder based in emotional/psychological abuse. There are several close-ups of human flesh, and the discolored, reddish tinge of the images makes the skin appear sun burnt, or as though the images were emitting heat rays.
Do you think Egyptians need a rather thick and tough skin today? What do you hope to communicate to them at Wekalet Behna?
Julie Harrison: Well, the skin of Egyptians has always been tough, from decades (if not centuries) of political high jinx and change, including conquests, occupations, and takeovers. Violence in Egypt began well before the revolution of January 25, 2011. As a result, Egyptians are much more conditioned to sudden bloodshed than those of us in the United States or Europe. They are evolutionary, they adapt. Key to recognize here is the notion that “from the outside” it seems “deadly political, to the point of trauma.” We Americans (and I can only speak as an American) take the news we hear about Egypt (and elsewhere) and create an imagined reality, coloring our perception of what’s going on. As a result, most Americans won’t step foot in Egypt right now, contributing to a collapsed economy that was never strong to begin with. Do you think that would happen in France after the incident at Charlie Hebdo?
Artists in Egypt are resilient, they continue to make their work, and the art community is very strong, if small. Government censorship was relaxed after the January 25 revolution (though sadly not for journalists and those wanting religious freedom — perhaps the powers that be aren’t threatened by visual symbolism, only truth). With new freedoms to make and disseminate work, Egyptian artists feel they have some catching up to do, and there is a hungry appreciation for the experimental.
Artist-run spaces are a new concept in Egypt. Two years ago, I worked with Gudran and helped them re-inhabit a grand 12-room former film production and distribution office in downtown Alex, which had been empty and decaying for 50 years, now Wekalet Behna.
There is plenty of hope among the artists I know in Alex. However, I perceive a weariness that counters the excitement I observed two years ago. Perhaps it’s just a deeper and slower rhythm, readying for the long haul.
JN: The sense of conflict in your work and its weedy, dark beauty recall the distressed filmstrip images of Stan Brakhage. Like his, your images seem to be groping for something. They remind me of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, with layer upon layer of image and narrative, flowing in no particular order.
Demythologizing an image can be a philosophical struggle — it requires thoughts that are more than skin deep. Or is it a job for the atavistic, pre-speech part of ourselves that we have mostly turned off?
Your work reminds us that looking at printed photography and language is a form of constructed cultural reading, an understanding that is a necessary first step for people around the world who are afraid of their own governments. Is yours an effort to pull the rug out from under vapid media news? If so, why?
JH: I’m lucky enough to have never lived with the kind of violence that exists in places like Nigeria and Syria, and I probably never will. So, I can’t demythologize the images reflecting that, although I do think there is a devotion to the spectacle of news that permeates our cultural imagination. I don’t think media is vapid. We are situated as voyeurs; whether the allure is “reality TV” or news, the visual drama that unfolds through the veil of another medium arguably enables us to live a relatively safe but vicariously dramatic life at a distance. We live through the pain of others. That said, the nature of an artist is to be symbolical and imaginary, so I attempt to conjure the heart or humanity from a photograph, as well as the mystery behind and in front of it.
Re-photographing (or re-purposing) the news media began for me as a healing ritual, a kind of laying-on-of-hands, to purge my despair over news events around the world — war, famine, displacement, disease, extreme weather. I moved my video camera over the magazine, the macro lens almost touching the reproductions as I sobbed. When I later grabbed stills from the video, I realized that in so doing, I was able to take something very ugly and turn it into something beautiful, producing the ultimate alchemical transformation: art.
Yet, in writing this, I know that although the lens through which I view the violence is now different, the violence is still there. Nothing has changed. I am indeed groping, aren’t most of us? The whirlwind of political events that has transpired in the last 15 years is mind-boggling. But what I hope to evoke in someone when they look at my work is the realization that we don’t really know what we thought we knew, to question what we think of as reality.
JN: Curiously, this body of work recalls for me a song I love by Coldplay, “Talk,” as it tacks on flows and crescendos to the prominent motif from Kraftwerk’s 1981 song “Computer Love.” There is something unrealized in these images, as well as the sense of loss of ended crescendos. Yet the work has an easy poise and unforced eloquence as it grieves for that which is gone due to human violence. The work suggests that life carries on in all its murky complexity despite the violence and news media, with all its weird over-lit tints and hard voices.
Do you think that your images chastise those who are careless with violence? And those who allow themselves to be seduced by images of violence, by maskenfreiheit (the freedom to lose oneself behind masks)?
JH: I don’t feel my work chastises anyone, but it’s interesting to me that some people find it difficult to look at my images; the pain is too great for them. That confuses me. It’s a Buddhist precept that in order to attain liberation, we need to “examine things closely in order to come to know and understand their true nature.” I strive to do that; pain needs to be looked at. But I understand that for some it’s just too close to the surface. My friends in Egypt lost someone during this last spate of violence in Cairo, a young mother killed with birdshot (allegedly by the police) when she tried to lay a wreath at Tahrir Square. So I’m not exhibiting those works that evoke human suffering. I respect that sometimes it’s easier to lose oneself, not behind a mask, but under the covers, a comforting place to be when the going gets tough. Egypt is a stressful place to live; it’s hard to make a decent living here and many people have left the country. But the skins of the ones who remain will continue to thicken, as no doubt more change is seen on the horizon.
Fragments ran February 2 – March 2 at Wekalet Behna (1 El Kanisa, El Marounia St., El Manshia I, Alexandria, Egypt).