Q&A with curator Christine Takengny co-curator of ‘Whos Map is it?’ at Iniva, London on the New(er) Middle East, 2007

CT. What inspired you to create 'The New(er) Middle East?' What was the starting point?

O.T In 2006 I got an email that had an attachment of Condoleezza Rice’s new plans for the Middle East.  In it was a map entitled the New Middle East (‘al sharq al awsat al jadeed’).  The map was being circulated in both mainstream press and conspiracy theory circles and was presented as a master plan for redrawing the region.  Later it became clear that a retired US Lieutenant, originally conceived it to make recommendations on how a better Middle East could look ethnically, politically, economically and culturally.  His propositions included ‘a Phoenicia reborn’, an ‘Arab Shia State’, an Iraq divided in three, a Sacred Sunni State, etc.

Generally, I am interested when absurdity is or becomes the form.  That is actually often my starting point.  Or when reality becomes a performance in and of it self that can only be digested with humour.  A scene drawn in L’Equarrissage Pour Tous for Boris Vian sums this idea up for me he sets up a torture scene, but the torture comprises tickling the victim. 

So this act of creating new territories, borders, and indeed, forms, at ones random fancy, interests me.  Borders in Africa and West Asia are amusingly straight only because they were crudely drawn on drawing-tables with a ruler and a fountain pen.  So much so that the thickness of these felt-tip lines to scale, are still being contested or that the eastern tip of Jordan’s cookie cut map for example has a bump that is literally called ‘Churchill’s hic-cup’- Churchill hiccupped from too much whiskey while drawing Jordan and formed a sudden small burp blurb.

Ultimately I appropriated this found map and I placed it over the psyches-picot map to end up with new bits of territory that I magnetized.  Marwan Rashmoui, Seth Price, Michealangelo Pistoletto, to name a few (very generally), presented wall ‘cutouts’ in different works that interested me. I wanted to visually build on those, but wished to layer the representational elements with interactivity, industrial reproduction of territorial bits, de-contextualising otherwise known miniatures, and the play of magnetic fields. 

The New(er) Middle East is probably my simplest form of play yet, and especially among my earlier work. Looking back I think it stings itself with becoming too much of a one-layered parody.  But what I only saw later and appreciated, was that it was actually the beginning of thinking about institutional critique in my practice; in this case having the gallery put down the work at intervals or engaging the institution to destroy the work whenever audiences construct it.

C.T. What role do maps and mapping play in your art practice?

O.T. Though my academic background is in photography, it is very much concerned with mapping.  I have a Masters both in Fine Arts as well as Information Systems and also Environmental Geography.  Theoretically this has all obviously influenced the way I think of the world in systems of whole and parts, in systems of configuring and reconfiguring objects, images, and texts….the thing is, ‘Mapping’ (as you are using it) is intrinsically part and parcel of how we all read and think anyway.  As Vilém Fluser puts it when we read, say photographs, we are effectively mapping them.  I can go on and on about what mapping is to me...

But as far as maps go, when ever I do use them, I simply treat them as found objects; things that start and pull together the reading of a work.  For example thinking of Guy Debord’s ‘Naked City’ schema in my 2007 city intervention ‘Can you see me: Monologues in Air’, or referencing a found photo of a map in my video ‘I found myself on Google Earth’ 2008 which in itself is an incredible found archival photograph in Emily Jacir’s ‘Memorial to 418 Palestinian Villages which were Destroyed, Depopulated and Occupied by Israel in 1948’. Without a doubt, I like to start a direct conversation with other (current) works- and I don’t mean that in ‘a painting about painting’ sense!  So for example when I made the Auction catalogue proposing to Christies Dubai to auction off nation states at their opening, I placed a rock on the cover that tried to locate Khalil Rabah’s wall auction performance.  In it he beautifully auctions off pieces, bits, of the apartheid wall.  The rock I initially placed referenced an attempted auction in 2006 of a cosmic rock in Jordan where an elderly man in Jordan tried to auction off a found meteorite rock and the government demanded hand-over as it is property of the universe and so not up for auction.  But while playing with it, I realized if converted it equally becomes a map of Palestine or a trompe-l'œil of the mimicry of it all.  So I can say that I often look to re-contextualise maps as forms or as drawings in their own right and in a larger formal conversation.

C.T. What role does the viewer play - as 'The New(er) Middle East' is created as an interactive piece?

O.T. Nothing and everything.  Should the viewer choose or not choose to engage with recompiling the map, the work still stands as complete in the space.  From the many times I have had to build the puzzle myself, I can attest that it’s a challenge that takes some effort!  So to answer your question, my relation to the viewer here actually comes from my own relation to the critical framework around ‘relational’ work and more so an often uncontested idea that participatory works automatically ‘democratize’ art and space…as though this happens in a void of making a spectacle out of the audience itself (and in this case the Middle East as object) and that there is no politics in that exchange.  If relational work argues for more proximity, participation, and inter human experience in the experience of art, I look to try to self-reflexively point to (and use) the politics of that exchange.

The New(er) Middle East (2007); interactive puzzle- magnet, forex; total area 5 by 4 mtrs ; installation shot  at Iniva

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501 objects auctioned off by the Sate of Israel (2009), 501 c-type prints, approx 7 x 4 mtr wall space

Page 14-15 from ‘The Other Shadow of the City’, ArtSchool Palestine/Platform for Contemporary Arts