TUCSON — On Saturday May 12 a bus departed from MOCA Tucson to a mystery destination in the desert where a performance was going to take place. Artist Khaled Jarrar was to shoot at paint vials to create canvases, but that was all the audience knew as they arrived at the scene. The title of the performance was “I’m Good at Shooting, Bad at Painting.” It perfectly described this piece and perhaps the artist, though I know he is good at making art.
I spoke with Jarrar, whose work I have previously curated, the evening before and asked him to give some background on his piece. He reminded me of an Independent article from 1995 that had resurfaced on the internet about eight years ago, titled “Modern Art was CIA Weapon.” The modern art referred to was Abstract Expressionism, flaunted as quintessentially American during the Cold War era: “[I]n the propaganda war with the Soviet Union, this new artistic movement could be held up as proof of the creativity, the intellectual freedom, and the cultural power of the US. Russian art, strapped into the communist ideological straitjacket, could not compete.”
When I first read the article in 2010, I was quite shocked. But in 2018 it doesn’t surprise me at all anymore. Propaganda runs far, deep, and wide, and takes many forms that we are now so much more aware of.
Jarrar wasn’t always an artist. Born in Palestine, he witnessed the First Intifada as a young child, and by the Second Intifada he was enrolled in the Palestinian Presidential Guards as a soldier. He went on to become Yasser Arafat’s bodyguard up until Arafat’s death in 2004. Jarrar told me he was trained to shoot and he was good at it.
He explained to me how part of his training took place in Jordan and was conducted by the Security Forces of Jordan as well as, strangely enough, the CIA. He showed me an object that puzzled me: a sock filled with rice. At the start of his training his supervisor told him to fill his sock with rice and carry it with him for the next 30 days. It didn’t occur to Jarrar to question this — a soldier learns to follow orders, not ask questions. They learn to look through the barrel of a gun in a form of literal tunnel vision and not look outside of it. He soon also learned the purpose of the sock. It functions as the perfect stabilizer for the stock of your lightweight but most deadly AR15.
In his performance in the middle of the Arizona desert, Jarrar turned these two pieces of information on its head; if art could be used as a propaganda tool, or weapon, then perhaps the artist, who is good at shooting and bad at painting, could use a weapon to create art. Abstract Art.
MOCA Tucson built up the expectation that we were about to witness a spectacle in the desert. But it wasn’t. Jarrar’s strength as an artist lies in how he is able to draw in an audience while making it clear that his art is not a spectacle; his art is serious and worthy of contemplation and often moves viewers to concretely engage with issues raised.
The atmosphere on arrival, at what turned out to be a remote ranch in the desert, was solemn, and somewhat surreal. The scene: an old office chair and desk, over which Jarrar had placed an American coffee cup, donut, and AR15. In the distance two large canvases held in place by temporary beams and stacks of hay were placed at the last minute, as it turned out to be an exceptionally windy day. In between them stood a makeshift beam from which the vials of paint were going to be shot, and behind the canvases large sacks of sand would catch the bullets. We were given earplugs. I felt like I was on a movie set, the movie a cross between the video for David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes,” Men at Work’s “Down Under,” and scenes from Pulp Fiction and the original Twin Peaks.
I was once again reminded that this was not a spectacle when sternly told not to take photographs. The artist asked something from us: we could receive a piece of the art that would be the result of the performance but only if we gave him something of our own first. Jarrar had mentioned to me in an email: “In this performance I will create a situation where people have to choose between receiving free art by accepting the rules of the new situation that they are in.”
He cut a piece from his shirt to indicate that he wanted a piece of our clothing. If we complied, he would return it to us with art added, thus creating a transaction of value. It was a beautiful metaphor for the concept of branding, which is what propaganda is, too. In total, 17 people, including myself, volunteered to have pieces of our shirts and tops cut with very large scissors; these pieces of cloth were then added to the lefthand canvas. One other piece was from Khaled himself and one was sent to him by author, curator, and filmmaker Ariella Azoulay. A few women were visibly uncomfortable with the fact that Jarrar only cut pieces from the front of our shirts and to the side of our bellies. The gesture did not feel intrusive to me, but a woman’s discomfort with exposing a body part that may not have perfect dimensions according to our beauty standards is all too familiar. It was a deliberate gesture by Jarrar, whose work often explores femininity and patriarchy, which in turn is interconnected with colonialism and warfare.
The pieces of cloth were numbered and we were asked to write our names and addresses on a piece of paper which were then collected. The pen given to me was Jarrar’s signature pen, whose ink was pink. Back in the day, when Jarrar started taking photographs, making movies and art, his use of a pink pen was a way of questioning his previous life as a soldier. His questioning of masculinity made him appreciate pink, a color he has just always really liked. He has repeatedly used pink in his art. The colors chosen for this work were different, though. It turned out they were the colors of Jackson Pollock’s painting “Convergence”: beige, dark yellow, black, white, a reddish orange, and a little blue.
The earplugs turned out to be quite necessary, the shooting of the 40 to 70 bullets was going to be loud. This particular rifle may be lightweight but packs a punch. The bullets departing it travel faster than the speed of sound. Jarrar is indeed good at shooting; he hit the target, the paint vials, almost every time. The paint exploding from the vials ended up in splatters on the canvas, thus creating a version of Pollock’s work. It was like an opposite version though — where Pollock’s paint followed laws of gravity, Jarrar’s paint traveled in the opposite, unnatural, direction.
While Pollock’s Abstract Expressionist art was used for propaganda in the Cold War by the CIA — used as a weapon — Jarrar’s iteration turned this concept around. His weapon was used to make art. The piece reminded me that weapons are made with only one purpose: to kill. Perhaps only an artist has the power to appropriate its intended function. Jarrar stated that his art is an echo to the chaos and violence in the Middle East as a result of “liberalization,” when the US is creating strategies that only raise the levels violence in the Middle East and is sustaining a war that will help the arms trade and have other economic benefits for the US.
The first definition for the word “abstraction” in the Oxford dictionary deals with “ideas rather than events,” the opposite of “concrete,” and the second definition alludes to art. Both definitions were present yet conflicting in Khaled’s piece. There was nothing abstract about the performance itself, though the outcome was. The canvases will be abstract art and left with the idea, the event over.
But the most striking and lingering part of the performance involved the desk with the AR15, coffee mug, and donut. That setting was a performance in itself about the dangers of abstracting violence, the rifle casually lying on a table among everyday objects. In the days of the Cold War and in Jarrar’s days as a soldier, people shot at people. The use of drones in warfare has changed this radically, not only in the field but also in the reporting of it. Abstraction, or the lack of figures, quite literally dehumanizes casualties of war.
After his performance, Khaled reminded me that Abstract Expressionism was an art form largely created by, and for, white males. Abstract Expressionism in this sense, and in this context, can be seen as a symbol of white male supremacy and colonialism. At the same time, we are witness to how propaganda today is used in the most figurative, and effective, ways; the videos produced by Daesh couldn’t be more figurative, and they strike fear in the hearts of Americans, which, at the end of the day, help the US push their agenda in the Middle East further.
Khaled Jarrar’s performance “I am Good at Shooting, Bad at Painting” with the Museum of Contemporary Art Tucson took place near Tucson, Arizona on May 12.