Lebanon’s Pioneering Artist Duo On Spam, Scams, And Storytelling
Known for their films and art projects that investigate the relation between reality, fiction, and the workings of the imagination, Lebanese artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige have turned their attention towards what some may consider hitherto unexplored territory. According to them, however, they’re simply continuing their practice of storytelling and narration. To find out more about their latest exhibition, I Must First Apologise …, currently on display at France’s Villa Arson, I chatted with the affable couple at length, who were taking time off (really) to relax in sunny Beirut. The following is a shortened version of our conversation.
How are you? How’s everything in Beirut?
Joana – We just arrived yesterday at night… The situation is not brilliant – very difficult and sad in the whole region …
What are you doing at the moment over there?
Joana – [Pauses] We’re resting! Or trying to rest [laughs] Because the show in Nice was really big with a lot of new productions, so … we’re taking some time off with two interventions at Home Workspace at Ashkal Alwan … Then, we’re going to write, think, work – the usual!
What was the opening night like? How was the exhibition received by audiences?
Joana – It was a great opening. The show is not a traditional one …
Khalil – The reception was great. Villa Arson, in Nice, is at the same time a National art centre and a school; it is a very interesting place for experimentations, so, there were a lot of people coming for the end of the year, and a lot of people also came for the opening: friends, directors of museums, curators, collectors, critics … we were really well-surrounded, I would say, and it was a very warm reception … It was an important moment for us, because we’ve been working on the show for several months with the curator, Eric Mangion. The place where we are exhibiting is huge; I’m talking about 1,500 square metres. And the show featured entirely new works, except for one.
Khalil – It was presented in Dubai for the Abraaj Art Prize – A Letter Can Always Reach its Destination. We presented it two years ago – it is a video installation featuring 38 non-professional actors and each one of them has a scam, a swindle [to be] received [via the] Internet. It is like a chorus, characters standing side by side, and suddenly, one of them comes out of the background and starts to talk … but each character appears as a hologram, human-size, [with] a kind of spectral presence …
Looking back at your body of work, I mean … your films and your art projects … A Perfect Day, Lebanese Rocket Society, Wonder Beirut … the question naturally came to my mind: where does spam come into the picture? The concept of the exhibition is fascinating.
Khalil – Actually, it’s very close to what we were looking for, for years. If you look at our previous work, you can always link it to an interrogation of the power of the image, and on narration and its relation to an imaginary life. For example, if you take I Want to See and the works that were related to that, one of the main questions was, how can we make fiction after a catastrophe? And, in Lebanese Rocket Society, the question was, how come this event that was so important at the time has completely gone and faded out of our memory and even history? It’s because it was not matching an ‘imaginary’ anymore. In the case of spam, junk emails – you know it’s fiction, you know it’s a scam; nevertheless, you can find some relation to [it]. You can believe in this spam. These kinds of scams are very efficient today – you have just from the US [alone] more than $200 million that are transferred to West Africa every year. A lot of people believe in these things. Actually, when we started to collect all the scams, it was because we were interested in narration.
Joana – We collected the scams between 1999 and 2013, considering that we had, like, 4,000 of them. But we chose a very particular scam, the type of scams that base themselves on a plausible reality, real events referring to present conflicts and [that] usurp famous individuals identities – wives or children of dictators, politicians … They try to play on people’s gullibility and abuse them. In a way, if you read ten years of scams, they serve as a cartography of the conflicts of the world, writing an alternative history and at the same time telling you something about that narrative – it’s very linked to what we do, usually, because we are very interested in the construction of imaginaries, in representations, in the way you tell a story; we feel like storytellers, in a way, too.
Khalil – In our films, in our works, as artists … we always dig into the way you can question the writing of history, or the presentation of it. So, suddenly, we thought about scams as a perfect opportunity to work on this concept.
The other thing that kind of stood out for me, is the fact that your work usually has Lebanon at its core, particularly events in recent Lebanese history. Would you say this exhibition marks a departure of sorts? Or is the Lebanese connection still there?
Joana – You have a Lebanese connection, because a lot of things, almost everything, was shot or produced in Beirut – The Rumour of the World, or A Letter Can Always Reach its Destination … they were all shot in Beirut with people living here, and the exhibition tells a lot about the Lebanese context today. But it’s not only about Lebanon; [it’s] like most of the work we did where we took Beirut or Lebanon as a context, but opened questions that addressed other places. We try to get away from these notions: national identities, communities, geographical territories, surroundings … I think all of our work is very contextualised, rooted here but in another way. We try to blur all these definitions.
I particularly noticed that in Lebanese Rocket Society – in the ending I saw parallels between what happened in Beirut and what you imagined for Lebanon’s future but also for the region … Now, in the accompanying text to the exhibition, there was a reference to something called the ‘Jerusalem Letter’. Apparently it has something to do with an 18thcentury French criminal, which sounds intriguing …
Khalil – As we were telling you, we are interested in different forms of storytelling. We realised that today’s scam has the same structure – exactly – as some swindle, an old genre that existed in the 18th century, and even before that, in the 16th century. A guy that was the chief of police in France – Eugène-Francois Vidocq – wrote a text to describe the mechanisms by which the ruses operated and the first piece you see when you enter the exhibition is a blown-up version of this text and a facsimile of one of those letters.
… We always dig into the way you can question the writing of history, or the presentation of it … We thought about scams as a perfect opportunity to work on this concept
Joana – When you read the letter, it’s very strange – it’s so similar to what you receive in the scams on your computer today. Those letters were sent supposedly by servants fleeing with their lords (Marquises, Contes, etc.) [from] the events in France, the French Revolution, looking to retrieve a treasure with the help of the recipient … And then, the servant would end up in prison after his master had been killed. He’d be in a prison in Paris that is very close to Jerusalem Road. The scammers would throw the letters from the windows of their prison cells, and people would take them and read them. This is why they are called ‘Jerusalem Letters’.
I was wondering about the connection to Jerusalem!
Khalil – Of course, when you are Lebanese, everybody imagines that they have something to do with Palestine! But no – they have to do with the structure of a letter written in the 18th century.
Joana – The Jerusalem Letter is interesting, because it tells you how it works; of course, if you answer, you want to go and bring the money, and the scammer will tell you, ‘the map of the place where I put the money is in another place, and I need money to bring it out’… and you’re hooked! It has exactly the same structure and the same narratives as scams today. Vidocq was saying that these kinds of scams appear at specific historic moments and contexts that allow certain forms to arise and prosper … In the 18th century, the people that would answer those scams were nostalgic of French royalty and [the old] regime.
Khalil – For Vidocq, these kinds of letters – like the ones in Spain in the 16th century – were written at certain moments in our history; and usually, they appear when there is a struggle in our history. These are the kinds of things that make you have to imagine gaps in your history …
Were there any letters in particular that prompted you to think more about the concept of spam and start working on this project?
Joana – The first time we began receiving these emails, it was in 1999/2000. We were new, all of us, to the idea of the Internet, and so when you received a letter, you thought it was addressed to you; then, you began to realise that all those letters were scams … But at the beginning, you were surprised, when you saw, for example, that the son of an African dictator was sending you a message, an Iraqi woman, an American soldier in Iraq, or in Afghanistan, you know? Or the son of Gaddafi. At the beginning, you are just intrigued, and little by little, you see that all the emails are using personalities and characters that exist, talking about conflicts, political revolutions, wars, turmoil, economical changes, ecological disasters … and when you bring the scams together, you see that they’re telling a contemporary history in a different way.
Khalil – If you think about the scammer, what they do, usually, is choose places to set their scam in, places where in their eyes and in their minds, corruption is plausible. So, if you take the trajectory of these scams, and see the countries that are involved with them, a kind of map, a strange map of conflict appears – but at the same time [it’s] a map that shows you this imaginary of corruption; and, if you take those trajectories and use bars of steel [like] we did to produce [the] sculptures that are in the exhibition – you’ll see how [all the scams] are very concentrated in some places and not in others, because, what are these texts about? They’re about corruption; they’re always linked to a situation and an imaginary link to corruption. This is happening in our region, in Africa, in Russia, and not in Europe, for example.
… You see that all the emails are using personalities and characters that exist, talking about conflicts, political revolutions, wars, turmoil, economical changes, ecological disasters … and when you bring the scams together, you see that they’re telling a contemporary history in a different way
Joana – It is what we called Geometry of Space, an installation shown in three rooms of the exhibition that are nearly the same size, with three walls, where some drawings of those trajectories are shown made with pencils of lines with dates. There are books called The Atlas of the Scam, presenting a selection of 200 scams per book. After studying those scams, we tried to reproduce the trajectories between countries that were involved in them. And, with those trajectories, we built the sculptures in metal that are in the middle of each room, giving a physicality to those scams. You have three rooms for three years of scams: 2005, 2008, and 2010.
There’s quite an eclectic mix of works on display – videos, installations, sound pieces, sculptures – how do these all come together?
Joana – We think about the exhibition as an experimentation, a film; but as a film that unfolds in the shape of installations, sounds, sculptures, drawings … Like a narrative itinerary, you go from one place to another, there are characters and people that come back, but playing other roles when they do, and there are trajectories, original sets, parallel edits, essential props … For example, in terms of lead characters, you have the victim, the scammer, the scam beater who wants to take revenge and scam the scammer … And with the scams, you have very different narratives, scenarios, and virtual fiction turning points, and there’s always something happening; things are always suddenly or accidentally happening.
[At this point, a baby begins screaming in the background, and we get disconnected]
Hello? We got disconnected …
Khalil – Yeah, we are in Beirut … it was an electricity outage … we had no more electricity.
We were discussing the role-playing …
Joana – In The Rumour of the World, for example, we asked 38 non-professional actors to read the scams …
Khalil – They weren’t reading them – they were playing them. We worked as directors with non-professional actors in a studio, until they managed to play their roles. In the installation, The Rumour of the World, you have more than 23 screens, 38 actors, 100 speakers with the voices or the faces of those actors, and [they are] creating a rumour, the rumour of the world with all those incredible stories. But if you get closer to a screen, you’ll be able to hear an individual voice, the narrative ofone person; and what’s going to happen? Are you going to believe them? It’s a relationship that you have with films and fiction; you know that they’re not true, but you believe – because it’s pure desireto believe. One of the main questions of the exhibition is, why do you believe? Or, more precisely, how [elevated] can our desire to believe become?
Exactly. You want to believe.
Joana – This question is at the core of our research: in which image can you believe in? In which kind of story? This relation to images, or to fiction, for example, in our films, is really at the heart of all our research, and has been from maybe the beginning. When we were shooting with these non-professional actors, we had a very long casting [process] in Lebanon, and [had] the chance to get to know [the actors] better. We met individuals with incredible fates. Immigrants from all over the world, workers, sons of workers born [without documents] in Lebanon, refugees … their personal stories encountered the scammers’ invented narratives. This gave us the desire, in a way, to continue a part of the exhibition with some of the characters played by the people we met for The Rumour of the World. We did an installation called It’s All Real, [for which] we followed those people living in Beirut in a parallel world. Among them [was] an Iraqi woman who was really very moving, [and] two kids born in Lebanon, torn by their multiples identities …
Khalil – We also followed a guy called Fidel. During the shooting, we were surprised, because he was reciting the scams, really, really well. We asked him, ‘how do you know the scams so well?’ Because usually you have to repeat things a lot, and give the actors lots of explanations, because they are all non-professional … Fidel said, ‘look, I’m from Nigeria, and I was a scammer before’.
Joana – [Laughs] Yeah! And we were so surprised, because we couldn’t believe it! You do a casting, ask people to come, and suddenly there’s a scammer [among] them ! We asked him if he was OK with us filming him, asking him questions about how the scams work, about how he became a scammer … and you [can] find these videos in the exhibition.
This question is at the core of our research: in which image can you believe in? In which kind of story? This relation to images, or to fiction … is really at the heart of all our research
Khalil – Fidel left his scam business in Nigeria to come to Beirut to be a personal coach and a stripper.
Are you serious!?
Khalil – This is the kind of thing you cannot invent! It is too ‘big’ to be plausible – you see what I mean? But it’s true, and … he’s so natural and convincing, he speaks about the notion of making someone believe in a very pertinent way.
That’s quite a story. Now, I have to ask you – have you ever been a victim of spam?
Joana – We received a lot of scams, but we didn’t really answer them – never; and even when we began working on this project, we didn’t want to answer the scams, and to see what would happen, and play a role like that. The idea was more to think about how you can take those scams and do something about them that has a transformative quality, you know? To transform them into an artistic work, or into narratives; because it’s an art exhibition, even if it has a lot to do with films …
Khalil – But you know, victims are not so far from us. A lot of people who came to the exhibition revealed things like, ‘my father, my mother, my friend, my boyfriend was scammed’, etc. A lot of people around them had been scammed, and had incredible stories … It’s not only people who are naïve that fall for scams; it’s people that at a certain moment in their lives need to have a relationship … Joana and I thought that it’s like in certain love stories when you think that for you, things are different, you feel that you have been chosen, [that] you’re the only ‘trustworthy’ person …
Joana – One of the installations in the show is called … About Love, because we felt that these ‘relationships’ in a way have something to do with an addiction. For us, the victim is a kind of ghost that was all over the place, all over the exhibition, everywhere; someone that is continuously off-screen that you can never see, but that is totally present. It [has] a present absence.
Khalil – If you ask around, you will notice there are a lot of people who respond to scams – but they are ashamed; they are ashamed twice, actually. They are ashamed at the beginning because they are greedy – this is actually what Fidel said: there are people who respond because they are greedy, and it’s in human nature. Second, they are also very ashamed of being scammed. They are ashamed because of the scam, and because of their greed. This is why, most of the time, there are no complaints. It’s only when there are huge amounts of money involved that there are complaints, and sometimes, even murders.
Joana – We didn’t answer the scams, but we followed very precisely the very long correspondence between scammers and individuals that call themselves ‘scam beaters’ and try to scam the scammers and make them fall into their games. They make them do what they call ‘trophies’ – sculptures, paintings, performances, tattoos, [etc., that] they exhibit in a forum under the name, The Trophy Room. An installation in the show has the same name. This game can be very cruel, blurring the lines of credulity abuse, power, and capital. It shows also once again that even with the scammer, there is this incredible desire to believe that makes him fall into the trap of the scam beater.
Will the exhibition be shown anywhere else?
Khalil – It will be shown afterwards in Manchester curated by Omar Kholeif and Sarah Perks … in a new place called ‘Home’. Previously it was the Cornerhouse. It will go to other places, too, but the dates haven’t been confirmed.
Joana – Ah, Toronto? Maybe one day!
What’s next for you? Will you be in town for the film festival this year?
Joana – No, I don’t think so. We were there two years ago for Lebanese Rocket Society, but no … I think we’re going to take some time to finish writing a film, and we are preparing publications onLebanese Rocket Society and one on the scams, because … we didn’t really finish this project, even though we had this exhibition. We still have a lot to say about it…
It sounds like it! Well, it’s certainly a fascinating concept and I haven’t come across any other artists that have dealt with the subject in their work, so … we’re all waiting to hear what you have to say.
Joana – You will! In this exhibition and also maybe in a film on scams and scammers …
That would be fantastic. Thank you so much.
Both – Thank you, take care.
Joobin Bekhrad (BBA, MSc.) is the Founder and Editor of REORIENT, as well as a co-founder of artclvb, an online platform for contemporary Middle Eastern art. He is also the author of a new translation of Omar Khayyam's poems from Persian into English.