November/December 2006

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My conversation with Hassan Khan began with a studio visit in Cairo, where he lives. It continued in London where he was doing a residency at Gasworks this past spring. In a London café, we discussed remedies for writer‚s block, since Hassan also writes. „I like to write in really busy, noisy placesš he stated, which seemed to characterize more than just a preference.1

Hassan Khan, stills from Kompressor Videos, 2006, looped single-channel video, 11:09 minutes, a component of the exhibition KOMPRESSOR, 2006, at Gasworks Gallery, London (courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris)

It‚s as if the very energy of the metropolis fueled his output of images and sound. Khan works from, with, and in the face of, the physical and mental demands of Cairo, a city teeming with a speculated population of twenty-five million. While his practiceųwhich encompasses video, photography, sound installation, music production, and performanceųis not necessarily about Cairo, it is undeniably caught up in its strong undertow. Processing, editing, and distributing condensed moments of urban life, Khan positions himself as both canny observer and mediator.

Hassan Khan, Enginepie, 2006, vinyl print attached directly to the wall, 105 x 135 cm, a component of the exhibition KOMPRESSOR, 2006, at Gasworks Gallery, London (courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris)

Boundaries between public and private spaces are porous in Cairo. Domestic lives overflow into the streets and rooftops. Engaging with the city‚s street life, its characters, and its material and sonic excess, Khan‚s work operates between a document, a stage, and an operating table. Because of this, we are never quite sure where he positions himself in the mixųfabulist or truth-seeker? „I am interested in the leap, the shift, the gapųthe space where one meaning is born∑.where we are both forgotten and found.š While Khan‚s disjunctive narratives and fragmentary images give a lot to the viewer, they say very little. Attempting to further the work, you enter it as an active reader. Here, as you are about to form causal judgments, you may encounter strands that elicit identification. You may also lose yourself in the rabbit holes, dissolving in the work‚s content. Questions about individuality and anonymity arise. In this senseųon some inverted levelųyou may be experiencing Cairo itself. How do you articulate yourself when you are connected to millions? Where are the synaptic points?

Hassan Khan, performance view of 17 and in AUC, 2003, performance in old downtown apartment in Cairo, soundproofed one-way mirrored glass room, microphones, amplifiers, speakers embedded in the glass (courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris)

17 and in AUC, 2003, one of Khan‚s most striking works, fearlessly tackles this question of individuation within a context. On one level, it‚s the self-portrait of a person, time, and place. On another level, it‚s a performative act of sado-masochistic proportions, calling to mind the early work of Vito Acconci or Bruce Nauman. For the two-weeks‚ duration of 17 and in AUC Khan confined himself to a glass chamber where he ate, slept, smoked, drank, and talked incessantly while a video camera recorded him. The glass was a soundproofed, one-way mirror so that Khan could only see and hear himself, while the outside world could survey him with guilty pleasure. During this time in isolation, he recounted his uneasy experience at the American University of Cairo (AUC), which he entered at the age of fifteen in 1990 and from which he graduated at twenty. He called this act a „technology of communicationš tracking „a personal investigation of the construction of memory and persona in relation to a specific institution and the context it is in.š2 His fifty-six-hour monologue was then transcribed into an unpunctuated text, which reads like one run-on sentence. The book looks like a bound ocean of text, revealing deeply personal accounts of Hassan‚s teenage life at AUC, along with ranting and critical reflections about the privileged place that AUC and its student body occupy in greater Cairo. In narcissistic isolation, Khan enacted the institution‚s own blindness and detachment from the rest of the city. Viewers, who had often heard of this act by word of mouth, uncomfortably became complicit with Khan‚s voyeuristic game in order to gain the power of the gaze and of anonymity.

DOM-TAK-TAK-DOM-TAK, 2005, divides and conquers in a similar way. This sonic work‚s title refers to a dumbek sequence found in shaabi, a popular musical genre that rose out of Cairo's poorest districts. Unlike Western music, traditional Middle Eastern music usually follows standards or templates that both allow musicians to easily play together and simultaneously enable a range of individual interpretation and expression. This arena of collaborative performance where degrees of personal expression are delicately negotiated is particularly compelling to Khan. DOM-TAK-TAK-DOM-TAK started with his re-recording and mixing of six found shaabi standards. This remix then served as a backdrop for individual, live street musicians to play over and improvise withųeach performing in isolation. The independently performed sequences were then mixed together, producing six hybrid master instrumentals, each in some way resembling standard shaabi fare. The resulting compositions of disjointed performances are significantly less dissonant than one would imagine. Ultimately, the piece amplifies the musicians‚ performative aspirations and the vague familiarity of a misreading in the making. Once again, the listener is the site of confluence, and authorship is endlessly distributed.

Hassan Khan, partial views of the exhibition KOMPRESSOR, 2006, constructed stage, ten-meter wide vinyl logo (courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris)

Most recently, London‚s Gasworks welcomed Khan as artist-in-residence, giving him the opportunity to realize an ambitious Gesamtkunstwerk. Named after a car, his installation KOMPRESSOR, 2006, brought together various new and existing works, including video, photographic elements, sound works, an off-site audio-visual performance, a radio broadcast, and a „speculative approach to exhibition-making.š In the gallery, a device serving as both an additive sculpture and a functional structure unified various elements. A simple carpeted platform, it brought the floor closer to the ceiling, creating a cozierųalbeit slightly claustrophobicųspace in, and from, which to view the works. The logic of the compilation of imagery was revealed in a wall text: „An exhibition based on translating sets of dreams into different forms by the dreamer.š In the land of dreams, images run amok, narrative is intuitive, time is non-linear and comprehension mostly elusive. The statement thus set the stage for the impossibility of knowing the true nature of the image selection, which seemed both random and contiguous.

Hassan Khan, partial views of the exhibition KOMPRESSOR, 2006, with The Alphabet Book, 2006 (courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris)

Placed on a shelf was the Alphabet Book, 2006, a large magazine-like publication in which Khan set luscious, penetrating photosųa close-up of meat, a lavish interior, a boy posing, a fragment of a gilt chairųnext to a single letter. Isolated, the floating images acquire obtuse meaning by means of proximity to their letter. Barthes once defined the obtuse as a form of disguise: „I believe that the obtuse meaning carries a certain emotion. Caught up in disguise, such emotion is never sticky, it is an emotion which simply designates what one loves, what one wants to defend: an emotion-value, an evaluation.š3 There can be no obtuse image, Barthes further maintains. Obtuse meaning has no structural stability. Its reading „remains suspended between the image and its description, between definition and approximation.š While KOMPRESSOR promises to deliver the real, subjective selfųwhat could be more subjective than one‚s dreams?ųit rearranges, and displaces, our assumptions of what subjectivity might be. All that is left is a notion of our own subjectivity, to which a contingent web of associative triggers guides us.

Hassan Khan, two single pages from The Alphabet Book, 2006, installation: constructed stage, three fifty-two-page handmade books, desk, and chairs, variable dimensions, page: 80 x 40 cm, a component of the exhibition KOMPRESSOR, 2006, at Gasworks Gallery, London (courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris)

Gasworks facilitated the citywide spread of Khan‚s tentative web of associations, partnering with other venues for two performative works: „a lecture that tries to speak about images but ends up being concerned with something else,š in which a photo archive meets a voice and a text, was presented at Camden Arts Centre and Tabla Dubb, which I saw, at Whitechapel‚s café. As much as Khan values the moment of reception, I believe that the premise of his workųand its place in cultureųresides in his selection of processes, vehicles, and economies of transmission. An evening performance, Tabla Dubb was more of an informal DJ/VJ session mixing vernacular and politicized images of Cairo in a way that seemed to re-frame the media‚s attitudes towards the Middle East. What was remarkable here was Khan‚s physical engagement with the process. Sustaining a measured yet laborious set of actions, he deftly switched videotapes in and out of the player while mixing sound, giving the audience a very physical, direct engagement with the process. VHS, he insisted, was the support of choice here because he preferred the tapes‚ material, reference, and economy. In this sense, they function like actual containers or boxes of imagery more than DVDs would. In addition, the work‚s decidedly old-school, home-boy ethos may or may not invoke Cairo‚s own industry of vernacular image production. We might also think of London‚s ethnic video rental shops, or other such immigrant neighborhood economies delivering Egyptian soap operas or Bollywood favorites to their familial clientele.

Hassan Khan, detail of the exhibition KOMPRESSOR, 2006, with The Rams, 2006, 3 c-prints (courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris)

In Cairo, Khan regularly presents these kinds of performances, inserting his art practice into the domain of popular street and nightlife culture, sometimes in collaboration with other sound/electronic artists like Mahmoud Refat. His participation in Cairo‚s growing art and electronic music scene has, in fact, been quite explicit: Khan has organized events and conferences, he has collaborated with other artists, and written on art for Bidoun magazine. Acutely aware of his agency as an artist and a content producer, Khan has resisted partaking of strategies, curatorial and otherwise, to represent Arabness or the Middle East. He famously refused to show in Africa Remix at the Pompidou Center and openly speaks out against Western institutions and media‚s insatiable desire to instrumentalize artists in simplistic termsųas if artists were responsible guides to „exoticš and „dangerousš cultures. In this, he reminds me of Gabriel Orozco, who early on also managed to bypass the route of national representation for Mexico. For Orozco, this meant rarely showing in Mexico City or in group shows of Mexican art abroad. Working towards the same ends, Khan expresses his active refusal by his insistent presence, rather than absence, in his own city. This presence defines its own territory, its own version on its own terms, of what it means to be from a specific place.


1. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from the author‚s interview with the artist, London, July 25, 2006.

2. Yasmeen Siddiqui, „An Online Interview with Hassan Khan,š Independent Video in Egypt, Cairo, 2006.

3. Roland Barthes, „The Third Meaning,š Image, Music, Text, Stephen Heath, tr., New York: Hill and Wang, 1977, 59.

Regine Basha is a curator and writer based in Austin, Texas. Her most recent exhibition is Daniel Bozhkov: Recent Works at Arthouse at the Jones Center, Austin. Her review of the last Istanbul Biennial was published in ART PAPERS 30:1 (January/February 2006).


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