Mahmoud Khaled in conversation with Louis Doulas
Was Originally published on Rhizome
LD: In Google Me/Duplicate Self-Portrait, a video playback command bar splits each paused screenshot in half, suggesting a ‘split’ identity between you, the artist Mahmoud Khaled and Khaled Mahmoud, the dancer. The work demonstrates the location and displacement of identity in a networked age–one that is defined by finding oneself in others. Could you expand on both these senses of biformity and disparity? Does the piece also hint at something more directly political? The individual’s relation to the architecture of search systems?
MK: I have been interested in issues related to the Internet as a space with infinite possibilities for self-representation, and how the current networked age has changed our personal and professional lives and the way we think about ourselves. Also the fact that on the Internet there is always hope to get rid of your ready-made self, discover another self or find someone else who can change your life, through what I can the “mechanisms” of duality and disparity. I started to think about “dichotomy” and “juxtaposition” as key tactics in my practice and my way of thinking as I practically filter all my ideas through these two concepts, which redefines the work, the elements it is composed of, its internal relationships, meanings, aesthetic qualities and social and political connotations. I also have a stubborn belief that elements cannot survive, as they are, that they can only survive in pairs or in relation to other things. Basically like personal relationships, even if the counterpart is imaginary.
The point of departure of this piece was based on my accidental discovery of Khaled Mahmoud, a popular London-based oriental dancer born in Cairo, who I found after trying to ‘Google’ my own name in an attempt to discover the level of information, success and fame I reached on the net. After a while I realized that Khaled and I as artists through our practices and career are confronting issues related to gender identity and notions of cultural ‘authenticity’ in different fields; one of them being the oriental dance, which is located outside the boundaries typically claimed by contemporary art.
As soon as we think or talk about identities, things become political automatically–although I believe that every artwork has a political impact and that the art practice itself is a very political practice in the meantime so I have a problem in differentiating what is political and what is not in this context–but of course when we think about the profession of Khaled Mahmoud, the internationally successful dancer in a field that has been always dominated by women to please eyes of men, in a very orientalist sense we will obviously realize that all his work is about deconstructing many of our ideas about gender, sexuality and what is so called “the other’s culture” which are things that I consider crucial in my own work as a visual artist too.
LD: When confronted with the threat of a seemingly anonymous recording cameraman (you), what seems to be the father of a family in Safety Zoom, does not perform for the camera or pretend to ignore the device, but begins to film you back. The hunter becomes the hunted and so on. I wonder to what extent after this incident did the man do with his own recorded captures of you (he probably didn’t exhibit them) presuming he was even really recording. When does surveillance become exploitative? How can we better understand the dynamic between the filmer and the one who films back?
MK: I really have no idea about what did he do with the footage at all, and I am also not really sure if he was actually recording or not but I think the action or the act of photographing/documentating the situation was the most important thing for him, to show me that he “CAPTURED” me filming him and his family, and to show his family that he has a document for the situation so they can probably feel safe and forget about this strange incident, so I think his re-action was very performative to evocate the state of SECURITY, and that’s exactly what makes the situation interesting for me.
Surveillance is an exploitive act in all ways; it is all about power struggle which is the cause of any political act. And I think here the relation between the filmer and the one who films back as you call it, just happened by a complete accident as none of them intended to film the other in the first place, and I think this relation here is specifically stimulated by the tension of the situation, otherwise we wouldn’t find it important to talk about it and we would rather talked about what has been actually filmed instead.
LD: In CAMARADERIE, bodybuilding often seems to be a vehicle or entry point for males to begin to define and oversaturate themselves with an artificial dose of masculinity, to the point where homophobic tendencies are rendered as perfunctory–though the entire culture is defined by the always looking and touching of each’s nearly nude, particularly maintained appearances. From this point, how does CAMARADERIE go beyond a study of self-representation and fascination with a particular culture? Where does critique begin?
MK: After working and investigating the mechanisms of the professional international careers of male oriental dancers during my residency at Gasworks in London, I tried to discover other professions that confront issues related to gender, sexuality and national identity/cultural authenticity (basically the ideas that I am struggling with most of the time within my practice and my career). I came across the bodybuilding field through some found videos on YouTube showing some Egyptian professional bodybuilders in different situations in their exercises and their final training before posing in local and international championships, etc. and a number of other videos showing some young men living in the city of Cairo who are interested in this type of sport which quickly affects and changes the body shape of the practitioner. In fact my interest in these videos started with the idea of self-representation, then it went totally beyond this. When I started editing the materials and trying to find ways to put them together, I realized that there are many layers and meanings generated automatically in the working process which actually went with the work beyond the conceptual framework that I created for it in the beginning, which I think is something very much related to the fact that I was working in this piece with preexisting materials, fully charged with meanings and aesthetics that stimulated a lot of memories in my mind related to images of masculinity and nationalism in pop culture.
I think this piece did not try to take any critical position to any of the presented content and ideas in it but in it was more an attempt to deal with this content and construct a different narrative out of it. Maybe it was about criticizing my own memories and fantasies with these video materials but I am not sure about that and I prefer to leave it to the viewer.
Later on I tried to investigate another field which is bull fighting, during some trips in Spain in 2010 and I am still working in these materials now. Soon I will be starting a project that features a kind of portrait of the businessman character.
LD: Your identity plays a large and oftentimes integral role in your practice. At what point do you think addressing identity/race/ethnicity becomes antithetical and self-perpetuating?
MK: This is always a concern for me, and of course when you are addressing theses elements in your work you have to be aware of it all the time. But in fact I think most of my work is anti-identity or based on imagining the notion of being liberated from the idea of representing a certain identity.
How long have you been working creatively with technology? How did you start?
Well, in fact I am not really sure about what you mean by the word 'technology' in art practice, but I graduated as a painter in 2004 from the fine arts school in Alexandria. As a painter/student, I studied art in a very classical academic way. We were always driven towards a very formalist, rigid and preconceived understanding of art. But then I realized--as I was developing a more conceptually driven practice--that I was drawn to ideas that have no physical form, so to speak. And accordingly I realized that I should not frame or associate my works with specific mediums. I think since my graduation I mostly did not paint at all, as I wanted to get liberated from this idea of being “professional” in a specific art form.
My doubts about using the word 'technology' here are related also to my early educational experience as a painter, because I remember in my school we use to deal with some basic technical actions like stretching a canvases or analyzing the chemical contents of the pigments as a way of dealing with technology, which considered in that context as part of the “painter practice”. I am interested in technology as a generator that creates different forms of life and I think my work and my art practice benefits from technology when I try to understand how technology is effecting and changing our lives and our identities.
Describe your experience with the tools you use. How did you start using them?
I don’t think I have tools, and in fact I don’t want to have some as I kind of like the fact that I am producing different works every time I collaborate with different people in my production process. Basically I think the idea of the work always comes with its own tools, and every time I try my best to learn how to use them, I leave them and use other ones.
Where did you go to school? What did you study?
What traditional media do you use, if any? Do you think your work with traditional media relates to your work with technology?
I don’t really feel comfortable in separating my practice between traditional and technological because most of practice is based on ideas and I can not do that with ideas. But as I said before, I trained as a painter in a traditional sense, and although I don’t paint anymore the traditional educational experience has had a lot of influence on the way I think about the notion and value of the 'Artwork'. I am usually concerned with questions relating to the raw meaning and value of an artwork. Materialistically I am very interested in the canvas for example as a surface that is at once very inviting and challenging for an artist to record a certain artistic value at a specific moment in time. This very classical relationship between painter and canvas is something I experienced during my academic education that also challenged a lot of ideas about the creative process. Painting is a particular mode of artistic production that is emotionally charged and extremely personal, which can explain the stereotypical image of the painter/artist figure.
So just to give you an example, I made a piece called, The Studio as a Work of Art, for my last solo show in Cairo. This piece constitutes a point of culmination for the debate surrounding value, materiality and form in a work of art that was triggered during the working process of the exhibition. In a way it could be seen as a radical departure from my previous work in that the form of the work, its physicality, was prioritized, as a rather modernist formalist concern that seems at odds with the conceptual inclinations seen in the other works, and in which subject and content override the emergence of its physical form. I also play around with stretched canvas and the value associated with its function in the production of a work of art. Canvas is a taut surface prepared to receive and contain the charge and labour of the painter figure, which makes it a popular material for image production. However here it is used as raw material to produce a sculptural piece that is built on a formal logic connected to its mass and relationship to the physical space that it occupies.
Typically, any raw material acquires an artistic value when it is subject to a process of reformulation. For example, when we consider the value of an unadulterated lump of bronze and another made of clay, bronze is valued more than clay because of its materiality. But if these two materials are subject to an artistic intervention, the balance between the values tips. This is precisely why I used canvases as main raw material in this sculpture. What interests me here is that this gesture frees the sculpture from the limitations imposed by the values and connotations traditionally associated with aesthetic material. It allows it to derive its actual value from its functional role in the creative process, in addition to the value added from being a component in a sculptural work.
Are you involved in other creative or social activities (i.e. music, writing, activism, community organizing)?
That’s a very interesting question for me at the moment, as I spent mostly all last year trying to figure out the relationship between Art and Activism, and I was not at all able to produce any new work because of all the emotional confession happening with all the political uprisings starting in the world around me and particularly in Egypt. Just two days ago I was reading an article about the relation between graffiti art and the political situation in Cairo during the ongoing revolution since last year, and in this article I was surprisingly introduced to the term ARTIVIST (Artist/Activist). I always think that being an Artist is part of being an Activist as well but just with different strategy and tactics, because as an artist I don’t really expect much from my work to change a current reality, but an activist is always waiting for a change as a result of his/her work.
I always try my best to be as politically involved (on many levels) as possible but also in the meantime I always try to protect the option of pulling myself back to the studio at any moment I want, which is not an easy thing to do these days at all.
Since 2006 I've been a member of Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum (ACAF), which is an artists run initiative in Alexandria, Egypt, with my friends and colleagues Mona Marzouk and Bassam El Baroni. It is a project that takes a lot of our time and energy since we started it with the desire of building a professional contemporary art community in the city where three of us live and work.
What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously? Do you think this work relates to your art practice in a significant way?
In fact I don’t do anything professionally apart from being an artist; I just don’t think I have time to do something else parallel to my art practice. I know it is very hard all the time and everywhere to be JUST an artist, but I am enjoying being starving sometimes and being spoiled by the art system some other times.
Who are your key artistic influences?
That’s very hard to answer actually because really anything in my life could be a great artistic influence in my art practice. If I have to put this into words then I would say for example, cities, trains, flights, subways, buildings, fashion designers, passengers, strangers, online chat rooms, bars, clubs, nature and lovers. And also, Felix Gonzalez Torres and Alfredo Jaar.
Have you collaborated with anyone in the art community on a project? With whom, and on what?
It depends on how we understand the word 'collaboration', because in many of my works in order to produce the pieces I collaborate with carpenters, dancers, actors, graphic designers, architects and professional photographers,etc. I believe that all these professionals--without their existence in the art community--we wouldn't be able to do any work.
Do you actively study art history?
I do but on a project/research base, only if I am interested in a specific point, but in general my best “art experience” is to visit museums to look at their old art collections which most of the time I enjoy more than contemporary art shows.
Do you read art criticism, philosophy, or critical theory? If so, which authors inspire you?
Slavoj Zizek and many other friends, bloggers and students..
Are there any issues around the production of, or the display/exhibition of new media art that you are concerned about?
I can’t really talk about “new media art” specifically as I am also not really sure about this term but I can talk about the international exposure/presentation of contemporary art production for many artists who live and work in scenes that lack a solid institutional support system such as Cairo and of course Alexandria where I’m based. Here the artwork easily runs the risk of being instrumentalised to serve the agendas of the institutions in power. So generally the participation in exhibitions charged by the multiculturalist rhetoric is always very problematic for me. Avoiding this position has been one of the most demanding challenges for me on the professional front. How can I get out of the reductive (and often racist) understanding of how my culture effects my artistic production? My problem with this discourse or agenda is that it deals with artists and cultural producers reductively as representatives of their land or culture or as explorers of other cultures, often fetishizing the notion of “otherness” in a much more contemporary and sophisticated framework that reproduces the original model of the “ethnological museum”. The notion of identity and its formulation is far more complicated than these popular models of multiculturalism. We all know that it is such an old argument but it is still looping all the time over and over around us.