BLOUIN ART INFO: Shows That Matter: Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige at MIT List Visual Arts Center
BY NOELLE BODICK | APRIL 04, 2016
WHAT: “Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige: I Must First Apologize”
WHERE: MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts
WHEN: Through April 17
WHY IT MATTERS: The House of Rumor, in a Latin poem by Ovid, is a structure with “numberless entrances,” none of the thresholds “barred with a single gate or a door.” Fictions clamor and reverberate endlessly through the bronze-walled interior.
At the MIT List Visual Arts Center, the visitor enters into a din of voices not unlike the one Ovid imagined. This asynchronous chorus, however, takes a digital form: inexorable scam emails that clog inboxes and trace the peculiar networks of capital. The artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige call the 2014 work “World of Rumor.”
More than 20 screens play clips of actors reading scam letters collected by Hadjithomas and Joreige since 1999, each reader standing alone against a black background enjoining, pleading, and enticing the viewer to help — all with a flat, unaffected manner, meanwhile evoking various political or social upheavals to add credibility to their tales. “Suha Arafat,” an actor playing Yasser Arafat’s widow, requests that you transfer money into an outside account. (You’ll of course get a cut.) In Liberia, “Esther Jacob” asks you to invest her family’s money in your country, following the arrest of her father, a former head of commerce and tourism wrongly convicted of smuggling gold. In Iraq, the American “Sargent William Brooks” has found $35 million in drug money and wants you to help him move it. (Meanwhile, another soul has lost her husband and children in the Iraq War, “just for oil,” she says.)
Curators and artists have recently been adapting object-oriented ontology to their own ends, breaking down the conceptual distinction between the universe of things and the universe of people. Here, instead of a world of things, networks of money are imbued with consciousness, possessing the ability (here, quite literally) to address the beholder — an eerie counterpoint to the legal construct of corporate personhood. Capital (or lack thereof) is doing the talking: Together, the scammers animate a kind of neo-colonial present, strategically flattering Western liberal guilt.
In another work, “Geometry of Space,” 2014, Hadjithomas and Joreige map this peculiar network with a cartographic method, wrapping steel rods around an absent globe to trace the trajectories between scammer and reader. These correspondences, however, are not always one-directional. In the next room, modernist glass sheets — evoking Lina Bo Bardi’s display at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo — and long wall scrolls showcase schemes plotted by “scambeaters,” who essentially scam the scammer. The scammer will dress up as a superhero or make artworks, for instance, to prove his or her good faith, all for the cruel amusement of the scambeater.
Gained and then abused trust operates through the entire show, except in the last room, where we reencounter the non-professional actors from “World of Rumor.” A half dozen tell their actual life stories in short films — stories of migration and dispossession in Lebanon (where the artists are also from). Some of the immigrants are without papers and separated from family, a reality from which the quicksilver movement of the digital “rumors” feels devastatingly removed.