FIGHTING THE DJINN OF BOREDOM IN THE ARAB ART SCENE interview with The Freaks collective

“The contemporary art scene here is still being born and there’s an urgent need for avant-gardist ideas and experiments. Freaks were born out of this need. We’re here to make mistakes, try formulas, and break stone-age rules. We’re here to change the world not in the western sense which would read as progress; we believe in change as play on cultural boundaries. There’s an urgent need for a fearless artistic awakening.”

Besides promoting active graphic artists and comics authors under the flag of Risha Project, we also decided to provoke a number of people who had never made any comics, (or at least have never shown that to the world), to express themselves through this form of art. As a first contributor of this kind, we invited charming and mysterious contemporary art duo THE FREAKS from Beirut, Lebanon, to tell us a story about the Arab contemporary art scene from their angle. In this short interview we will try to throw some light on their first experience in the world of..13th art, was it?, and we will try to discover what kind of attitude stands behind the short comic that they produced for our call. As their manifesto says, Artists Michel Ayoub and Rima Chahrour have joined forces to battle the djinn of boredom in the Arab art scene and formed THE FREAKS collective..that was the sentence that definitely got our love at the first sight. Each member took time to give answer to our questions.

RP: Your comic was kind of an ironic comment on the current affairs and trends on the Arab contemporary arts scene and the receptions of it..fact is that the scene is 'branded' through some typical approaches, typical set of topics and formal realisations, more or less like any other geopolitically marked scene, or am I wrong? In your opinion, does this domination of globally accepted picture leave enough space for alternative and unheard voices, for different and experimental approaches?

R: Well, this typical branding is part of cultural formation anyway, there is nothing as a pure culture separated from how it is branded or perceived by the other, as Edward Said  and many different thinkers explain. Basically, this is the way we approached the comic too; We used visual vocabulary typical of the Arab art system as a tool to reflect on this system and criticize its trends. We did this through speech play and exaggerating the ‘brand’. I think this strengthens the alternative voices.

M: Because we’re not only criticizing the stereotyped image or “brand”, but also criticizing the typical Arab artist. There’s always space for the different, but it comes with the risk of being labeled as freaky, but we are FREAKS!

RP: As I understood, significant part of your collective was schooled abroad. Can you tell us what has this experience brought to you, could you imagine yourself as a person who has never left Beirut, how would Freaks look like if that never happened?

R: Of course this enriched our art practice and theory…simply because it gave us a completely different perspective on things. When I was studying art in Beirut - mind you at one of the major art schools in the country - art history ended just before Jackson Pollock; it didn’t even reach Pollock. Let alone the un-seriousness and guilt one gets from being an artist in Lebanon. Still, most of our knowledge is based on personal effort, which not even the best school can offer. If we stayed in Beirut, maybe we would still be doing what we do, primitively though, and without being aware of the whole science behind it.

M: Leaving Beirut was more of a psychological awakening for me and THE FREAKS were born during this awakening, in defiance and questioning of both Middle Eastern and Western culture. I don’t think Freaks would ever exist if we never left Beirut; Freaks are between West and East. We’re DJing in a world that has become a jumble.

RP: This what you just said gives me inspiration for another thesis. Could you imagine a mind, sensibility, a person who has actually never left Lebanon or the Arab world. And who never was influenced by western-world's versions of humanistic or art education, but thanks to his personal drive, efforts and talent, has developed a unique language and his own aesthetic perception of the world, apart from the models that are dominant in the local or global context..maybe that would be the true avantgarde of today. But where is he? What is he doing? How does he look like, how does his art look like? I am trying to imagine a photo robot of this artist, as i believe that he exists for sure, somewhere out there..any clues?

M: Western achievements in art are beyond what has been achieved in the Arab world historically. The notion of the avant-garde itself is western. I don’t think artists from the Arab world can develop further without being open to the West; Western thought developed and was influenced by cultures from this region, like ancient Egypt for example. We need to look at world cultures as a jumble, not seek to divide them and isolate ourselves. Is it even possible not to be influenced by Western culture? It’s as easy as stepping outside your house, you have two choices: either get closer to Western culture, kill the myth, or live with the myth of the west and call it decadence. I think isolation is no longer an option; cultural isolation gives birth to cultural extremism.

R: The drive to create is a means for thinking and researching issues we can’t easily comprehend. I think, this artist would be isolated in a cave somewhere in nature, raised up by mother nature and the nice animals, and never seen another human being. This would be the primitive artist; not influenced by the high jargon of art but only by art as a tool for going beyond physical nature and communicating with this beyond. Perhaps he/she exists in whatever is left of raw untouched nature.

RP: How do people of Beirut react to your art? Do you have any interesting story to share about that? Can you compare it with some other receptions, in other countries?

M: Most of the Lebanese public is busy staying alive and not interested in cultural aspects in general. The Lebanese audience is mostly interested in our works in reference to their daily conflicts. While the audience in England for example, perceives our work from a different context, more critical, and in relation to the art world in general rather than the everyday, as they have a background on contemporary art which the public in Lebanon lacks.

R: The most interesting reactions were often from people provoked by the topics we discussed. During our sound installation ‘102 Resting in Peace’ that playfully comments on the UN failure to do much for the Syrian crisis, we got two English looking visitors walking into the exhibition space asking us to increase the volume, few minutes after, the man introduced himself as a UN official that has read about our show in the news and wanted to come see it upfront. The official started explaining how the UN is doing its best, and how he is personally not responsible, and wished he could do something about the situation. Couple of days later, however, a Lebanese man, from a specific political group, came into the show and wanted to discuss the political situation in Syria, assuming that our work takes a position against the Syrian regime. The point is that our work provokes different perceptions on the same situation and by this confuses both positions and challenges the audience to think for themselves.

RP: I guess thats what usually happens with the voices that do not fit in any known or currently popular 'mindset-slot', voices that avoid the known paths of common thinking - by being independent they provoke more unease than if they were cleary against this or that..

M: It is a part of what art is useful for at the end. We usually aim to provoke the unease feeling at the second sight, so the viewer trusts the banality of the work at first then gets the unease feeling double.

R: And this, ultimately, will develop critical thinking and warn against blind trust of the obvious ready-made paths. Its message is wait look again and think.

RP: Can you please recommend us some interesting artists whose work has influenced or impressed you lately?

M: I’m interested in artists that work with speech; I’ve been following lately UK-based Mark McGowan, the artist taxi driver as he calls himself. Our work is a jumble of imagery and speech; the comic form inherits the same elements we usually try to marry together. I think the marriage of image with speech in art also represents a marriage of western pictorial culture with the more lyrical Middle Eastern culture and that’s interesting. THE FREAKS stand for change, experimentation, flux, specifically for freakiness and unconventional approaches to art in general. We are here to provoke the limits of art.

R: Martin Creed, Marina Abramovic, Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelly, The Chapman brothers, Ai Weiwei...All these artists and many more influence THE FREAKS.

RP: How do you see the future of Arab cultural context, with special focus on contemporary arts scene?

M: The contemporary art scene here is still being born and there’s an urgent need for avant-gardist ideas and experiments. Freaks were born out of this need. We’re here to make mistakes, try formulas, and break stone-age rules. We’re here to change the world not in the western sense which would read as progress; we believe in change as play on cultural boundaries. The rest is beyond us. We think Sisyphus’ rock is made of plastic. Arab culture is currently based on religious traditions and nostalgia to the past. There’s an urgent need for a fearless artistic awakening.

R:Also the Arab cultural context is not separated from the rest of the world, and the whole world is in a cultural jumble right now. THE FREAKS are playing along, against the trends that are publicly imposed on art and artists in general. Against stereotyping, assumptions, against the so called art critics, so called intellectuals, so called bohemian artists and the so called art business!

What is your message to the emerging and developing young artist?

M: I think Freaks message is clear: Collaborate... We can do anything. Collaboration in the visual arts is not common in our country and generally not popular in the Arab world. We’re calling young artists to work together, start movements, groups, etc... Contact us even we can work together.

R: And mostly enjoy it!

Discover more about THE FREAKS on their website