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The Creators Project: 17 Years of Scam Emails Ignite an Exhibition at MIT

Andrew Nunes — Apr 12 2016

 

Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, The Trophy Room (2014). Installation view: I Must First Apologize...,MIT List Visual Arts Center, February 19-April 17, 2016. Photo: Peter Harris
Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, The Trophy Room (2014). Installation view: I Must First Apologize…,MIT List Visual Arts Center, February 19-April 17, 2016. Photo: Peter Harris

 

Although we live in a time where our email inboxes are mostly spam-filtered, our earlier, collective web experience recalls a time where elaborate money scams and other spam ran rampant across our accounts. Those lawless Internet days serve as the conceptual starting point for Lebanese artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige‘s exhibition at the MIT List Visual Arts Center, I Must First Apologize…

The two-person show presents a series of works derived from a vast archive of over 4,000 spam emails collected by the two artists since 1999. Through a menagerie of mediums, including film, sculpture, photography, and installation, Hadjithomas and Joreige question our relationships to images and storytelling, attempting to understand the ways in which we believe in fictional narratives through the lens of email scams.

Joreige explained to The Creators Project how the motivations behind creating the entire body of work originated from email scamming: “Scams are a manifestation that interrogate our relation to images, context, and political background. Scams base themselves on a plausible reality rooted in news or real events, referring to present time conflicts. They draw a map of contemporary conflicts and so they suggest an alternative manner of writing a country or region’s history… And as such they express a lot of our contemporary world.”

Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, The Rumor of the World (2014). Installation view: I Must First Apologize...,MIT List Visual Arts Center, February 19-April 17, 2016. Photo: Peter Harris
Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, The Rumor of the World (2014). Installation view: I Must First Apologize…,MIT List Visual Arts Center, February 19-April 17, 2016. Photo: Peter Harris

 

One of the highlights of the exhibition is the video installation The Rumor of the World. Consisting of a series of videos displayed on 13 video screens, each video depicts an actor reciting a particular scam email from Hadjithomas and Joreige’s archive. As is often the case with these emails, the “voices” behind the scam often present themselves as real or fictional political figures in order to increase the credibility of their story. Different than the faceless nature of an email, these videos confront you with the physical face of individuals blatantly telling you lies, completely altering the experience of these scams.

 

Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, The Jerusalem Letter (2014). Installation view: I Must First Apologize...,MIT List Visual Arts Center, February 19-April 17, 2016. Photo: Peter Harris
Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, The Jerusalem Letter (2014). Installation view: I Must First Apologize…,MIT List Visual Arts Center, February 19-April 17, 2016. Photo: Peter Harris

 

“We decided to give a physicality to this virtuality through the body of actors, to embody these scams; to use them as literary material. We asked 38 non-professional actors to embody these scams, to incarnate the stories they contain, to give them a face and a voice,” Joreige tells The Creators Project. “As with theater, a kind of endorsement emerges between the set up and the audience where the spectator subscribes to the actors’ performance rather than reality. For the span of an instant, the monologues seem credible, until the character mentions money which dissolves faith and blurs the limit between truth and lie, fiction and documentary.”

 

Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, The Trophy Room (2014). Installation view: I Must First Apologize...,MIT List Visual Arts Center, February 19-April 17, 2016. Photo: Peter Harris
Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, The Trophy Room (2014). Installation view: I Must First Apologize…,MIT List Visual Arts Center, February 19-April 17, 2016. Photo: Peter Harris

 

The Trophy Room, another section of the exhibition, engages with people known as “scam-baiters,” individuals who attempt to scam the original scammers. Instead of credit card information, these individuals bait the scammers into doing ridiculous acts in the name of “trust-building” before they will supposedly comply with the scammer’s demands, as a lighthearted form of revenge. The Trophy Room shows excerpts from real interactions between scammers and scam-baiters. Among one of the exchanges, we see that a scam-baiter has convinced a scammer to carve a strange miniature sculpture consisting of two rats lounging on a sofa, which does not match the exact specifications of the scam-baiter’s request, and so the scammer promises to make another sample, desperate to win the scam-baiter’s trust.

 

Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, It’s All Real, Omar and Younes (2014). Installation view: I Must First Apologize...,MIT List Visual Arts Center, February 19-April 17, 2016 Photo: Peter Harris
Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, It’s All Real, Omar and Younes (2014). Installation view: I Must First Apologize…,MIT List Visual Arts Center, February 19-April 17, 2016 Photo: Peter Harris