Interview with curator and publisher Jacob Fabricius

Dec 12, 2010

JB> Why is the Les Temps modernes (Modern Times) important to you? Why announce/restage the Sartre & De Beauvoir seminar?

OT> Well the background to it interests me. In 1967, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre visited Egypt’s thriving existentialist philosophy scene, hosted by Lutfi Al-Khuli and his wife Liliane. The couple paid visits to writers, teachers, workers, and to President Nasser where they supposedly successfully pleaded the release of several communist prisoners. Sartre’s journal, Les Temps Modernes, was to publish a special issue on the Arab-Israeli conflict and upon the insistence of Suhayl Idris, publisher of Al Adab journal in Beirut, the couple only then accepted to visit camps in Gaza to listen to the narratives of Palestinian refugees. 

Only days before the 1967 war, Sartre signed a pro-Israeli manifesto condemning Arab aggression.  A meeting was held in Cairo during which Arab intellectuals strongly (and rightfully) condemned Sartre for inconsistency and hypocrisy. Frantz Fanon’s publishers, Maspero, went so far as to remove Sartre’s preface to The Wretched of the Earth. Existentialism in the Arab world took a negative turn, while Sartre continued to insist he was ‘misunderstood’.

Come 1979…Edward Said receives an invitation at his door in New York to attend an absurdly titled forum on ‘peace in the middle east’. The invitation was from Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre themselves and eventually it was to be held at Michel Foucault’s apartment in Paris. The summit was to be transcribed and published in a 1979 issue of Les Temps Modernes.  In 2000, a few years before his death, Said published his account of that specific conference.  He does it in what I found a superb dairy entry in the London Review of Books where he playfully critiques de Beauvoir for going on and on about flying to Iran to demonstrate on the Chador or Sartre having no solid opinion on Israel.

My intervention in the New Yorker re-conceives the invitation Said received, and discreetly places it in the advertising columns of the magazine.  The New Yorker itself has this tiny 100% cyan add that says ‘There is nothing “small” about them: engage the New Yorker(s) coveted readership with a small space ad’.  I simply appropriate their colour, size and layout but instead extended my invitation. At Liverpool I had intervened with that same invitation by dispersing actual post card size exhibition like invites throughout the Biennial on stands, wherever there were Biennial press releases or pamphlets among other work on this diary entry.  So in sum I found and still find this account a ripe and beautiful example on political voyeurism today, even our fascination with intellectual celebrity, and the over-exoticism of politically motivated content.  

JB> 'Please respond' it states... but that is not possible of course.  How will people read this (respond)?

OT> I am not sure? I think that is why I enjoyed this piece, cause it’s a rather strange encounter. It’s inviting a potential reader to a symposium belonging to another time and place, and by two deceased global literati figures.  How do you do that. I like subtle absurdities, those you barely feel unless you think of them.  Said himself writes…“at first I thought the (invitation) cable was a joke of some sort…It might just as well have been an invitation from Cosima and Richard Wagner to come to Bayreuth, or from T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf to spend an afternoon at the offices of the Dial. It took me about two days to ascertain from various friends in New York and Paris that it was indeed genuine”.  So I guess I was interested in recreating that same ‘response’ of reading his own encounter with the original telegram. The add we placed was tiny.  And it was perfect because I am always interested in these kind of below the visibility radar encounters and how and if they work.

JB> What were the historic consequence of Les Temps modernes? What would ideally happen if this meeting took place again (nowadays)?

OT> I don’t think I care so much about what would happen as much a referencing the closeness of this case to what is still an intellectual world consuming tv dinner politics, if you will, at its fancy. But I can say that, that specific meeting was apparently a fiasco in the end! The discussion points were hilariously vaguely set out as wide as “1) the value of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel (2) peace between Israel and the Arab world generally, and (3) the rather more fundamental question of future coexistence between Israel and the surrounding Arab world”.  The proceedings were published in a special edition of Les Temps modernes, and a few invited arab intellectuals simply left it by the end of the first day.

JB> Why were you thrilled being placed close to the Peter Schjeldahl article?

OT> Nothing specific. Merely that the night before this particular issue of the New Yorker came out I was hearing him speak at the School of Visual Arts at David Levi Straus’s lecture series. Though I respect him immensely I found myself utterly frustrated by his comments…re. arts somehow needing to free itself from wages, from the word ‘practice’, from professionalization, that curators should just stick to hanging good shows and leave the writing to critics, etc. I.e. I took it as a ‘nothing should be professionalized in the arts but criticism’.  All this among a mix of nostalgic modernist anecdotes on the ‘way things were’ in the art world in New York and the way they are now.  I did not comment during his lecture and left frustrated because the questions to him were in so much awe that I started to feel like I am in a CNN TV studio audience speaking to Martin Scorsese or something.  So opening the mail the next day and finding that my add was placed next to his contribution in that edition made me happy only cause it was some kind of symbolic or self-satisfying reconciliation. Thats all!

JB> When we first started emailing about this advertisement project you were quite keen on doing an advertisement in an art magazine. Did you have a specific project/advertisement in mind?

OT> Well I feel I had something in mind and I fulfilled that in the end in this particular add intervention. But as discussed on email and in this interview I am interested in the idea of when political engagement actually crosses the line into voyeurism in our work. Sometimes I look at works and think they are using politics in exactly the same way as Yves Saint Laurent is using May '68 for advertising, or Diesel uses the Iranian revolution, or HSBC uses Islamic ‘values’ etc.  A political gaze if you will…almost othering politics and walking in and out of it to our liking as though it’s separate from human instinct or civic responsibility even.  I’v worked with that for some time by intentionally fetichising the Middle East as object in past works.

JB> What do you like about manipulating the audience, reader with fake advertisements – like your large-scale installation at the Istanbul Biennale 2009 - within the art context?

OT> I think I am not entirely sure what differentiates a fake advertisement from a real one.  There is nothing tangible about manufacturing desire in the end. It becomes real when a framed well thought out fantasy is neurotically drilled in to our way of seeing the world and can only be killed with a transaction. The work you are referring to is a 2 year body of participatory work on auctioning off the Middle East.  It started with writing a letter to Christies in 2007 at their opening in the Gulf proposing to replace auction objects with nation states.  From thereon I worked with experts who consulted eventualise such an auction.  So in the advertising spreads entitled Reworking Ammar I guess I tried to mimic an aesthetic that belongs to global late capitalism- systematic, ordered, glossy, and regulated somehow.  The original poster was created by the advertiser. Its text said something like ‘Own this view…and everything in it …in a bold step towards the future of global real estate, Nayruz invites you to bid for the ultimate luxury: The Middle East. In an historic one-off event, these balconies of time may be yours to own for 100 years. Own it.  The Middle East Auction….’.  In the spread, he plastered a beautiful image set in the Bahai temple of Haifa.  I then appropriated the poster and created 10 posters in which I wanted to make fantasy, desire and structure collide at every turn in their design, the authenticity of the language at play, and the mix of being confused between images of real estate/property development projects with images of existing Israeli settlement projects.