Universes in Universe

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Magazine for art and culture from the Middle East. Interview with Lisa Farjam, founder and editor in chief.
By Pat Binder & Gerhard Haupt | Jan 2006

Lisa Farjam, founder and editor in chief of Bidoun tells in an e-mail interview with Universes in Universe about her vision, experience and plans.

Haupt & Binder: What were your reasons for initiating a project like "Bidoun"?

Lisa Farjam: To fill a gaping hole - especially in the West. So much print and visual media on the Middle East is either politically hysterical hype or nostalgic for something that I'm not sure ever existed. We realized that we have nothing that speaks of our micro realities -- whether in Cairo, Beirut, Tehran or elsewhere. The media, academic circles and so on always speak about democracy in the Middle East, terrorism in the Middle East, women in the Middle East and beyond, these stylized mega-themes that lend themselves to cliches and punditry. Our aim is not being authoritative about this part of the world, but we do speak about an emerging movement within the region that urgently demands a platform. It's fresh, it's born of that locality and it's exciting. This is to say nothing of the awesome and diverse art histories that this part of the world has.

H&B: What are your main concepts and how did they develop in the course of 7 issues?

L.F.: Of course, as with any new magazine, it took us a few issues to find our feet and hone the vision of what the magazine could be. We wanted to encourage readers to take a fresh look at the region - vast and nuanced as it is. We wanted the magazine to feature a new kind of writing - one that is engaging for readers both in the Middle East, and in the West, who may be very familiar with the region and its arts and politics, or may just pick up the magazine because they like the fresh design.

We started with a period of research during which we traveled widely, talking to artists, gallerists, writers, architects and so on, about what they needed. The feedback was that artists were desperate for a medium that was high quality, in terms of production - within the region, their work is sometimes reviewed in newspapers or featured on the Internet, but there were no magazines like those that exist in London and New York, with the highest quality printing and attention to design detail, which accurately reflects their work. Secondly, they wanted something independent, not tied to governments or concepts, and not fawning to particular gallerists, personalities or collectors. Thirdly, they asked for their work to be critiqued, for Bidoun to break away from the tradition in the West, where artists from outside the mainstream are so often described, rather than written about seriously, by well-informed critics. We also wanted to commission artists each issue, so we're directly facilitating them to make new work and develop and disseminate their practice. We work with established artists, such as Shirana Shahbazi and Yto Barrada, commissioning them to do projects that aren't necessarily directly related to their day-to-day practice, as well as younger, upcoming artists, architects, illustrators etc.

Each issue features news and previews, and reviews of exhibitions and events, and extensive coverage of artists' works-in-progress, profiles of upcoming artists and so on. There are sections that look specifically at film, fashion, design, architecture, books and so on. And funny sections like products - witty takes on bizarre and noteworthy ephemera - and recipes. And each issue features a themed section - from the more generic, like the spring 2005 issue which looked at the cultural and architectural development of the UAE, to the more obtuse, like envy, icons and hair.

H&B: How does a new issue come into being?

L.F.: Just barely. I think we practically all sleep with our computers in tow. Email, phone and a lot of miscommunication are rules of thumb between New York, Cairo, Zurich and Dubai. We're poster children for the wonders of technology, I suppose. It's cheesy, but true. Our goal is to one day all be in the same place at once. It's never happened up until now. The idea for this issue - Tourism, out worldwide on March 20 - came from one of the editors about a year ago. We all debated it from time to time, gathering in ideas and brainstorming them whenever any of us got together. (We tend to work on ideas for several issues at once.) A few of us managed to get together in Istanbul, when the Biennial was on there. Two of us met up in Beirut when Homeworks was on, and spent two days in a coffee shop, honing down the issue. Then, when we had a clear idea of the scope of the theme, and what we were hoping to explore, we started commissioning out articles to our network of contributors. Along the way, we're all in touch with writers and artists who suggest topics and exhibitions and so on. The exciting thing is that each issue, new contributors emerge - through the editors, word of mouth, through finding Bidoun on the Internet or in their local bookshop or gallery.

H&B: Who is the audience you are targeting at?

L.F.: Everyone. Anyone interested in the arts, magazines and a more complex view of the region. I suppose some react with the predictable surprise along the lines of "I had no idea it was so contemporary over there' etc." That's frustrating but it's also fine if at a certain level we play that fundamental role in making people think beyond their narrow preconceptions. But at the same time, the magazine has inspired a lot of collaborative projects between artists in the West and East, it's garnered attention in cultural and academic circles, among people who have nothing to do with the region whatsoever. In fact, while our primary intention is to give a voice to young writers from the Middle East, we also have many writers who are based in London, Paris or New York and have had nothing to do with that part of the world at all. Who would imagine Christopher Hitchens or Elizabeth Rubin would write for the same publication as young bloggers in Tehran or Cairo.

Obviously there are some limitations - at present we're only published in English, with the occasional foray into Farsi or Arabic. We wanted the magazine to reach the maximum number of people, and knew that most readers in the Middle East would have at least some English. We've found, from feedback, that people engage with the magazine on all kinds of levels, from purely visual to reading every word. We often translate writers' work from Farsi and Arabic, and the articles deliberately take in a wide range of styles of writing. The take-up for the magazine has been superb - in two years, our circulation has more than doubled. It's also been exciting that it has become, in the words of one BBC journalist, a "sourcebook for editors" - and we've had some editors from major magazines and newspapers in the West ask us for help as they follow up stories they've read in Bidoun. So hopefully it also has an impact beyond its immediate readership.

H&B: How is the publication distributed in the Middle East?

L.F.: Via the subscription network, everywhere. At film festivals, exhibitions, events and so on. For newsstand and bookshop distribution, it depends on the country - some places it's quite easy - for example in Lebanon and the UAE, where we have efficient distributors. In Beirut, for example, the magazine is found easily and in a huge range of bookshops, newsstands and galleries. In other places, such as Iran and Palestine, we have to be more innovative about our distribution networks. You'll often find copies at galleries and people's houses in Tehran, for instance, that are very well-thumbed and have been passed from person to person - so by necessity we don't sell on mainstream newsstands there, and our sales figures aren't great, but the levels of readership are high. There's a partial list of outlets on our website, which gives a good idea of where to find it.

H&B: What are your future plans?

L.F.: We find we're just moving now to the next level with Bidoun - it's been an organic process - and we now need to fundraise to ensure the magazine's long-term future and for us to be able to develop it further. There are so many projects, such as books, events and exhibitions, that artists ask us to work on with them, but the team and our budgets are very stretched already.

We're currently working on issue 6, out on March 20. This double issue takes on the subject of tourism, in its widest sense, and features new takes on both the far-flung and the familiar. Quirky, funny articles by writers and artists cover hotels and airports - from Damascus and Istanbul to Khartoum and Baku, via New York and Moscow. More serious articles look at the history of guidebooks, the growing phenomenon of 'helper tourism', and how laborers in the Gulf states are dramatically impacting on society as well their cities' burgeoning skylines.

And as usual, Bidoun also provides a comprehensive coverage of several arts scenes - from Bitola, Bahrain and Bamako, as well as London and Beirut, and covering everything from exhibitions and new architecture to film, design, fashion and books. Upcoming artists commissioned to make new work (illustrations/photographs) for this issue include Iranian Laleh Khorammian and Israeli-New Yorker Yaron Leshem.

We're also working on a series of one-week exhibitions curated by artists and Bidoun editors at London's Counter Gallery, scheduled for April. One of the editors, Tirdad Zolghadr, is coordinating the series, in collaboration with artists, who are working with concepts related to the magazine and its process.


  1. Bidoun in its simplest form means "without" in both Arabic and Farsi. As stated in the magazine's editorial: In our contemporary context, it connotes the statelessness in which many of us find ourselves-sometimes voluntarily, sometimes not.

Pat Binder & Gerhard Haupt

Publishers of Universes in Universe - Worlds of Art and of Nafas Art Magazine. Based in Berlin, Germany.

Art and culture magazine. Published quarterly in English since March 2004.

Founder and editor in chief: Lisa Farjam

Bidoun Magazine

138 W. 15th Street, Ste 1
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