I Must First Apologise …
Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige
Villa Arson, Nice
6 July – 13 October 2014
by HARRIET THORPE
In this exhibition at Villa Arson in Nice, Lebanese film-makers Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige explore the email scam, which, despite its online prevalence, tends to be mainly confined to the junk mailbox and overlooked in its contemporary relevance.
The artists present their findings through various models, from installation to sculpture and video, and the exhibition forms a screenshot of the contemporary scam. While following a path of internet research and documentation, they took an alternative route back into the real world, uncovering surprising truths about humanity and identity.
Villa Arson is a progressive art school founded, in 1972, in response to the artistic blossoming in the south of France during the 20th century, helmed by Matisse, Chagal and Picasso. Built on the sloping hills to the north of Nice, the modernist building holds a history of a hundred secrets. Pomegranates and peaches grow in the layered flowerbeds that overlook the artists’ studios, the city and the sea. The exhibition unravels through a series of interconnecting rooms, which Hadjithomas compares to the experience of parkour, an urban free-running activity. The works echo the theme, forming an informative and visual obstacle course, which accumulate depths and concepts along the way.
Hadjithomas tells me: “We’ve been researching and collecting these scam letters for a long time without knowing what to do with them. We decided to commission non-professional actors to read the scams aloud to see how the narratives could be addressed and made to talk about history.”
Fading into view, a person emerges in the foreground, reading a scam aloud while photograms of people, scroll by in the background like a prison lineup. This work, titled A Letter Can Always Reach its Destination (2012), was the duo’s first response to their research on the scam. Joreige explains: “We wanted to make the actors appear and disappear like the virtuality of the computer space, like a present that is not present. We wanted all the characters to provide an image to this imaginary without an image.”
The Rumour of the World (2014), the sister of A Letter Can Always Reach its Destination, is the first installation of the exhibition. It is built in a large, darkened room, where 23 video screens frame faces, who, with a chillingly direct gaze and speaking from the heart, read out the scams. At the centre of the room, a bundle of microphones hangs down, creating a confusing audio experience of competing stories. “As soon as you are attracted by one face on one screen, you will be taken by one channel. You will hear several speakers on the way, but moving closer will generate a more precise sound. When you are before the screen, the sound will be clear and you will even feel isolated in this confusion,” says Joreige.
Listening, a pattern of scam-vocabulary can be recognised. The stories are often extraordinarily unbelievable, yet facts and figures are used with such precision, along with full names such as Francis Oneka, Stephan Pyros, Madame Nenita Vollaran, and sentimental language: “If you could find it in your heart …” and a meaningful pause, followed by: “I trust you.” Joreige says: “Believing a story is like entering into a contract, like at the theatre. You know it’s fiction, but you agree to experience it as a performance.” It is the opposite effect to reading text on a screen. I find myself engrossed by certain faces, giving them my time and empathising with them, yet once I step back into the centre of the installation, the sound escalates and they are just a crowd of liars impatient for my attention.
As film-makers, Hadjithomas and Joreige are interested in a process of historic interrogation that is very research-led, resulting in an archival nature to the exhibition. Hadjithomas says: “If you keep things from the internet, so that they don’t disappear into this virtuality, they can become documents. For Geometry of Space (2014), it was clear that, together, all these documents would say something about contemporary history. It is a very alternative history, but it says something.” Geometry of Space is a series of abstract globes made of steel crisscross lines that track email correspondence across the world. “It was a way to show an imagining of this corruption, and it’s interesting because there are parts of the world that are not connected by these trajectories. Corruption is something rooted in people’s minds, and it is more possible in some parts of the world,” says Hadjithomas
“The first question, when we started to work on the scams, was should we answer one of them and see what happens. But it wasn’t our place to do this. We found this ‘419 eater’, a forum trying to combat all the scammers – “419” is the name of the law in Nigeria which forbids the scams,” says Joreige. The work La Chambre des Trophées (2014) investigates the “419 eaters”, showing rolls of endless email correspondence from floor to ceiling and a trophy of the accumulating result, which often ends in a humiliating task for the scammer. “What is incredible is the idea that a scammer could be scammed by people,” Joreige continues. “If the scammer can be scammed, it has nothing to do with being conscious that there are scammers on the internet. It’s about the desire to believe that something can change your life: they are greedy, and they always hoped for something better.” The artists found themselves in a strange position when they discovered that Fidel, one of their non-professional actors, was previously a scammer himself. Hadjithomas tells me: “He said the text so well and then he told us he was a scammer. So what do you do? We couldn’t let this guy go. This is why we did the videos called It’s all Real (2014), because the scams could have been anecdotal, but we finally we got to the heart of something.”
She continues: “We are all affected by what’s going on in the world. You can get lost with all the conflicts you cannot follow, and each person who is reading a scam email is also talking about a conflict, an event or a natural disaster. Some of the scams resonated very strangely with the actors, which we didn’t expect. We noticed these echoes and they were interested to continue the adventure too. Sasha was one of the most convincing people. Her mother is Nigerian, her father is Russian and she was born in Beirut. She has all these identities and she was totally divided, she was lost. We also related to this because we have multiple origins and we are interested in territories that are not geographical. We asked her if she wanted to talk to us. She said no, but she’s a dancer and wanted to choreograph how she felt.” Sasha’s dance is filled with struggle and electricity. To add to the drama, the artists divide her in half on two screens across the gallery. Another video shows Adib, who, in contrast, is silent, still and expressionless inside his screen. Joreige says: “It was an incredible moment when he looked at the camera, so helpless. He was speechless.” After losing everything in Syria, Adib came to Beirut in search of a new beginning. His situation was so harrowing that he could not find words to express himself.
And so, an exhibition that originated in an untruth, resulted in overturning many personal truths for both the artists and the participants. Hadjithomas and Joreige build a convincing debate to disprove the traditional positions of the victor and the victim in our ever more virtual world, and what once seemed binary, is now blurred.