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In the summer of 2011, Hassan Khan was halfway through his first solo show in New York, at the Queens Museum, when the curator, Sohrab Mohebbi, organized an evening of video screenings at Alwan for the Arts, in lower Manhattan, followed by a conversation with the artist. Khan lives and works in Cairo, and he travels extensively to execute and exhibit his work. He couldn’t be in New York for the event, so he Skyped in from home, groggy in the early morning hours either from sleep or lack thereof.
In the museum, Mohebbi had placed The Hidden Location (2004), Khan’s magisterial, 52-minute, four-channel video installation, in dialogue with a selection from Lust (2008), a series of 50 seemingly incidental, everyday images, described somewhat evocatively as "photographic miniatures," which Khan took using the camera on his mobile phone. After the opening, Khan had also performed The Big One (2009), an hour-long concert synthesizing precise elements of new wave shaabi music, a genre he adores, and also records with studio musicians in Cairo, in part for the purposes of interrogating the popularity of a musical style that is at once gritty, rude and excessively sentimental. For the screening program, Mohebbi presented Transitions (2002) and a pair of Khan’s early video works from the late 1990s, rounding out a picture of his practice without being retrospective about it.
The question-and-answer session that followed ran through queries about Khan’s interests in music, film, narrative, and fragmentation. And then came the question that was perhaps inevitable some six months after the start of the demonstrations on Tahrir Square, which ultimately toppled the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, or at least, displaced the dictator if not the rest of his regime.
What were Khan’s thoughts on the revolution and how was he dealing with it in his work? At least, that seemed to have been the question, which was so politely phrased by the young woman asking it that she left us a little room to wonder if that was really what she meant by the relationship between his work, a recent event and the context where he was based. Khan, for his part, was unperturbed, seemed to have been anticipating the question, and had an answer ready.
His work was there "before the event, and after the event," he said. "I’m not interested in what the event is or was but in how you engage with it. That’s not to deny its content. But as an artist, I am not rethinking my practice because of the event. As a human being, I feel a great need to be publicly engaged, but that was always the case. Anyway," he added, in lieu of a more effusive response, "I’m working on a film called Blind Ambition, which may have that vibe."
Skip ahead to the summer of 2012, and Blind Ambition is now complete. Shot on the cameras of two mobile phones, the 47-minute video is black and white, dubbed, silent except when its subjects speak, and projected onto a single screen. Commissioned by the curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev for dOCUMENTA (13), it is currently being shown in a gallery on the lower floor of the Neue Galerie in Kassel. In that darkened room, Blind Ambition faces another, very different work by Khan, titled The Knot (2012), a sculpture made of frosted glass in the form of a rope tied into a figure eight.
"I wanted these two pieces together because they speak completely different languages," says Khan. "They are separate works. I wanted to put them in a relationship with one another. Blind Ambition is about the conditions of material culture. The Knot is quite distant from these conditions and is about form. In my work I’m always interested in these two poles and how they relate to one another."
In many ways, Blind Ambition builds on the concerns of three earlier works: Conspiracy (dialogue/diatribe), from 2006, which treats conversation as an artistic material, a medium, in and of itself; Muslimgauze R.I.P. (2010), which captures a specific moment in time and suspends it; and The Hidden Location, with its meticulous structure of sixteen chapters playing across four screens arranged in a perfect cube.
Blind Ambition features nine sequences, each a social situation in a public place. Four employees from an advertising agency hold a meeting in a chic café. Two friends dissect obligations in the food court of a shopping mall. Another two men appear catatonic in a traffic jam. Yet another two men fool around in a kitchen. Two girls hash out the intricacies of friendship, loyalty and betrayal while walking along a shopping arcade. Six boys play football on a strip of grass between train tracks and the street, until their interest turns to an abandoned car, which they nearly destroy. Another six boys, slightly older, circle around a parking lot, discussing a debt that threatens to become an explosive issue among them all. A shopkeeper steps onto the street to take a phone call and shoulder the weight of an unspecified burden.
In between the situations are interludes involving forms of public transport – trains, trams, subways, shared taxis, minivans, microbuses, the works. What Khan refers to as "blink cuts" carry the viewer from one scene to the next, breaking the rhythm of each sequence and clearing the proverbial slate. "I want it to be so many things," he says, "but I don’t want it to be stories around the city," a cliché among the denizens of Cairo’s contemporary art scene.
While the interludes were shot on the second camera, all of the footage used in the nine sequences was shot on the first. The editing, as such, is in many ways deceptive. "[It] creates the illusion of real time, while it is actually culled from many different moments over a much longer duration," says Khan. "We experience a sense of time that seems to be continuous [but is actually] produced by cuts, or jumps and gaps. This paradox suspends the action in front of you and produces a parallel economy that we, as the audience, can engage with rather than just observe."
The piece has an improvisational feel, but in fact it was made with 27 actors who auditioned, rehearsed, followed carefully scripted scenarios, and were paid for their time. The situations, says Khan, "are absolutely fictional." The details, however, are more than that. "I see the details as history. I can’t escape that feeling." And what the details speak of – a phone, a watch, clothing, an accent, body language, a references to a book, an anecdote about an absent friend, an image on a laptop screen, biting a cigarette directly from a pack before lighting it, a low-slung car seat, eyes rolling, singing an old song under one’s breath – are the striated landscapes and emotional ups and downs of class.
Blind Ambition trades in various forms of idle talk – gossip, invective, rumor, innuendo, conjecture, speculation, boasting, posturing, badmouthing your friends and colleagues to their faces or behind their backs – of the kind that good manners advises you to avoid. But these are also patterns of vernacular speech, the stuff of social bonds, and for Khan, they are the very substance of the piece. Speaking of his actors, he says: "It’s as if they make the world every time they speak. But this world possesses them, too."
A few days after the opening of dOCUMENTA (13), Khan was part of another conversation, this time in person, with Sarah Rifky, one of Christov-Bakargiev’s eighteen curatorial agents. Again came the inevitable question, this time a bit more explicit. How does this work relate to that conflict? "It’s not a conflict," Khan replied. "It’s a revolution."
When pressed about why he always refused to divulge the contexts, background stories, and personal motivations that drove his own ambition, he laughed and said: "Because I believe in the artwork. That is my utopian dream that fails. Even if these things are true and important, and I believe they are, they are not there to produce the artwork. The revolution is never mentioned in Blind Ambition. It’s as if it never happened. It could be before, or it could be after, only a few details would be different. Anyway, people talk about revolution all the f------ time."
Beirut-based writer. She is a contributing editor for Bidoun and writes regularly for The Daily Star, Artforum and Frieze.