Arab Pictures Generation

“Archival artist” is not a medium I’d heard of before, but it’s fitting for Akram Zaatari, the Beirut-based artist and archivist whose work is on view at MoMA through Monday.  A founder of the Arab Image Foundation in 1997, devoted to preserving photography from North Africa and the Middle East, the two videos at MoMA bely the image-collecting tendencies at the center of his artistic practice.

The centerpiece of the exhibit (with movie house style seats and everything), “On Photography, People, and Modern Times” showcases items collected for the AIF in the late 1990s along with filmed interviews with the images’ donors on their memories of the events and people captured in those pictures.  The chance to see these images along with their contextualizing “oral histories” is a great introduction to the collections, which are brought out from their files in one of two screens, and reappear as an unmoving, monolithic entity in the later part of the film as a static shot of rows of boxes on shelves.  Contrasted with the often moving videos of the speakers, that second part is sort of a sad look on the reality of archival collections, hidden away and just waiting to be discovered and used.  That being said, I’m not sure how engaged the average non-information-professional feels watching this, because my library school training is certainly coloring my reactions…

These old images combined with reminiscences of past times can be especially touching in the context of the volatile history of the Middle East, and the other half of the exhibit presents a view of the modern Middle East via YouTube.

Dance to the End of Love” presents four screens of found YouTube videos by area youth which, presumably by no coincidence, is exclusively male.  This masculine domination often results in testosterone-fueled, sort of intimidating ventures, like weird-sideways-car-driving, muscle building, and the occasional gun use, but there’s also silly dancing and singing, so it gives as rounded a picture as an exclusively male snapshot can, I guess.  It’s interesting to pick up on the regional trends in social video sharing (that sideways-car-driving is new to me, at least), and how it is similar to and different from our own enormous corpus of socially shared video.

Even though these vernacular images, from studio photography to YouTube, are familiar to us and using them in artistic practice is also familiar from 1970s “Pictures Generation” stuff, the specific expression of these forms in the Arab setting can be an eye-opening experience and makes these works interesting, at the very least, from an anthropological perspective.

However, from the perspective of an information professional in training, it’s also interesting to think of collection-sharing initiatives like digital archives and oral histories as an art practice in and of itself.  Not sure what archivists could learn from these videos, and the others available in full on Zaatari’s Vimeo account, but as much as we’ve heard of artists taking on the museum, it’s neat to have an artist taking on the archive, while, in this case, also helping to create it…


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