An interview with Haig Aivazian, by Tom Jeffreys

1440 Sunsets per 24 Hours

March 14, 2018

 

“Perhaps artists can still see more than ordinary human beings–but they see less than the algorithm. Artists lose their extraordinary position–but this loss is compensated: instead of being extraordinary the artist becomes paradigmatic, exemplary, representative.”
Boris Groys, The Truth of Art (2016)

“Shine bright like a diamond. Shine bright like a diamond…”. The singing fades to nothing in the darkness—not Rihanna’s nasal twang but the thin, uncertain voice of artist Haig Aivazian, who sits behind a desk in the corner of the room wearing a black baseball cap and black button-down shirt. This low, awkward singing is a moment of vulnerability, one of several interspersed throughout World/Anti World—On Seeing Double, a performance-lecture at Kadist, Paris, in September 2017. Such moments are important: they serve to clarify the distance between the artist—here, physically present in the room before us—and the abstracted, diffuse, networked, absent, unlocatable sources of power that the work so patiently, poetically unpicks. Nonetheless, like Rihanna before a crowd of thousands in the Stade de France, Aivazian is in control: “If the sovereign giveth light,” he says at one stage, “he can sure as hell take it away.”

World/Anti World—On Seeing Double is a work rooted in the city in which it is performed: Paris. Its focal point is the Stade de France itself—a sports stadium in the suburb of Saint-Denis to the north of the city centre. During a football match between France and Germany in November 2015, three explosions were detonated just outside the stadium, as then-president François Hollande watched the match inside. One hundred and thirty-seven people were killed in a series of attacks across the city. Shortly thereafter, Hollande declared a state of emergency that was only ended by new president Emmanuel Macron in November 2017 (and only after transferring a number of temporary regulations into permanent laws).

Stade de France in Saint-Denis, by Macary, Zublena, Regembal & Constantini, 1998; photo © Site Officiel de l’Office du Tourisme et des Congrès.

 

Aivazian draws out connections between these three explosions and three corresponding states of emergency: 1955, at the start of the Algerian War of Independence; 2005, during the riots that followed the deaths of two boys chased by police in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois; and 2015, the state of emergency announced by Hollande as part of the war against the Islamic State (IS). As well as these three historical moments, Aivazian also connects the explosions to three geopolitical entities: the “ghetto”, the “sportsfield”, and the “distant warzone”.

World/Anti World—On Seeing Double traverses a multitude of more or less connected places, people, moments, notions: Rihanna singing at the Stade de France; the history of public lighting in Paris; ball-tracking technology and its links to the Israeli military; big data; security; predictive policing; academia… It also does so in a way that manages to combine extensive research and rigorous analysis with a poetic sensibility and, in places, anger. The poetry exists not only in the dexterous use of language but also in the weaving together of overlooked traces, suggestions, ideas, links that may or may not be tangential or necessarily causal.

Several times over the course of the work, the artist professes to be “grappling with” particular problems or working through ideas “with” the audience. By opening up the process of his own thinking in this way, Aivazian creates a vulnerability that may or may not be rhetorical. Either way, it helps to carve out a space for the artist as embodied and embedded, critical and creative. “I want to hold on to entanglement and complexity,” he told writer Rayya Badran in a 2017 interview for Ibraaz.

In an age of frequently simplistic answers, that is a vital task. World/Anti World—On Seeing Double was presented as part of 1440 couchers de soleil par 24 heures (1440 Sunsets per 24 Hours), an exhibition at Kadist that also included large-scale sculptures of stadium floodlights, a film analysing footballer Zinedine Zidane’s infamous on-field 2006 headbutt, chalk drawings on blackboards and bronze casts of candle-snuffers. It is the latest example of Aivazian’s adroit threading-together of detailed research, ideas and histories. Other projects have focused on the politics of architecture (Rome Is Not In Rome, 2016-ongoing) and music and cultural identity in Turkey (Hastayim Yasiyorum, 2015-ongoing). A second sculptural iteration of 1440 couchers de soleil par 24 heures was recently on show at Ming Contemporary Art Museum (McaM), Shanghai.

In November 2017, we spoke via Skype for LapsusLima.

Installation views of “Rome is not in Rome”, Haig Aivazian, Marrakech Biennale 6, 2016; photos © Sfeir-Semmler Gallery, Hamburg/Beirut, 2016.

 

The funny thing with asking questions about your exhibition, 1440 couchers de soleil par 24 heures, and in particular about the performance-lecture, World/Anti World—On Seeing Double, is that the work already addresses so many of them! But here goes anyway: one of the focal points in both is the relationship between sport and warfare, something that of course has a very long history. What is your particular approach to this relationship?

Within the scope of this project, what I was struck with was the clarity with which sporting events and sporting infrastructure have come to constitute an ideal testing ground, a controlled space where one can conduct all sorts of experiments which can then be extended to society at large. This has to do with control of movements of masses, but also different approaches to marketing and consumption, and also of course security. All of the different players come together in this controlled environment, in a synergy which we see increasingly in society at large: private security, the army, various factions of the police, information gathering services, etc.

Now, of course there’s a much longer history of militarism and sports. The relationships between statistics and the military, statistics and sports, statistics and society: those are very broad questions. But my impulse to focus on the Stade de France and on Paris was the organisation of the Euro 2016 tournament, and its focus on unprecedented security in light of the state of emergency which was declared a year prior, after terrorist attacks which swept through Paris but which were ignited from the stadium itself. So, the central question was, how does the stadium become a lens to talk about the history of exception, in France in particular, but in other countries too.

In what way does the stadium function as a microcosm of society, rather thanas some people might arguesomething separated from it, often geographically but also legally?

If somethingin this case, the stadiumis an exception, it doesn’t mean that it is not related to broader systems and movements. For me, it is precisely this distinction between the state of exception and the state of law that is in question. The state of exception is never actually exceptional; it is only a step towards a permanent integration into law. We saw that with the current exit from the state of emergency in France, where many of the exceptional measures have simply been integrated into law.

One of the things that I say in the introduction to the lecture is that the state of exception can be applied onto different territories in a permanent manner. In other words, the state of exception is not so much durational (or about how long it lasts) as much as it is spatial (where it is enforced). Within this spatial logic, I think the stadium offers a case study that is interesting. The Stade de France specifically was also narratively rich, since the state of emergency was declared after the attacks at that very stadium.

There are laws that govern the stadium that have to do with behaviours, substances, slogans and so on that are specific to it and under a different kind of legislation than the city. The territorial integrity of the stadium also benefits from a particular status: during the Euro 2016, for example, there was a double perimeter of security searches. At the stadium, your behaviour and movements are monitored in ways that do not fall under the broader sovereignty of the city.

The stadium can also arrest or expulse or prevent somebody from entering, it can profile people and create a record for them. There is a prison within the Stade de France, for example, and a police unit that is specific to the stadium. Then there is the collaboration between the constellation of playersthe Opération Sentinelle servicemen, the RAID snipers, police, private security, and other businesses that are present in the stadium. In that sense, the stadium is not so exceptional. It is a testing ground and therefore a microcosm of society. More specifically, it is a microcosm of the marriages of state and non-state, entertainment and security, that are proliferating in society.

That reminds me of something I witnessed while living in Paris. Along Canal St Martin, sand and deckchairs are installed during the summer months to create a kind of beach atmosphere. These are accompanied by a perimeter fence and bag searches upon entry. But as soon as the sand and deckchairs are removed for winter, then the security disappears too. It suggests somehow that it is only the deckchairs that are worth protecting…

That is a good example of a state of emergency measure that was integrated into law: determining security risk and assigning that risk to a particular space; then cordoning off that space regardless of whether it is being used in the moment itself. It means that the space in question can be cordoned off permanently24 hours a day for a particular period. This is something they really perfected during Euro 2016 in the form of “fan zones”. The zones were an extension of the sovereignty of the stadium onto these areas where fans were going to get together to watch the matches on giant screens. Again, there were double perimeters of security, people were frisked, and you were subject to being profiled before you had even shown up. They had in place what they call “truth corridors”, meaning that essentially all of the metadata on your phone is automatically extracted during your presence there. This is something they have in various airports and train stations as well.

I’m glad I have a very antiquated phone!

Good man.

Thank you. I’m interested in this relationship between technology and power. There is a sense in which the functioning of both is seen as absolute; it never fails. And this is from both sidesthose who want to wield technology and those who wish to critique it. But your work touches on those things that fall beyond the limits of technologyits failures and blind-spots. I’m thinking of the Zidane headbutt which a player-tracking algorithm would not have predicted in How Great You Are O Son of the Desert! (Part I), or, more seriously, the drone bombing of a wedding procession in World/AntiWorld. What informs your interest in the failures, limitations, and blind-spots of technology?

“How Great You Are O Son of the Desert! (Part I)”, Haig Aivazian, 2009-2013; photo by A. Mole for Kadist Paris, 2017.

 

In a broad sense, I would say that the very idea that more information means better preparation is not trueand this applies to all of the uses of the technologies that I’m interested in, be it in sports, security or elsewhere. There is this idea that the more massive the security apparatus is, or the more data we’re able to collect, then the more likely we are to make the right decisions. But, even if the technology is functioning as it should, this is a myth. It’s the driving force for ever-increasing security but the equation of data = knowledge is just not true.

The other thing is the debates around privacy, which are somewhat misplaced. Privacy is not really the issue because surveillance doesn’t function in relation to the identity of the individual unless you have already been detected as a person of interest. Mass surveillance is much more about pattern recognition, and for pattern recognition you need groups of people, populations.

The way that a lot of these algorithms work, certainly in policing, is that they base themselves on data, that’s historical data, meaning past police records (which, as we know, are in and of themselves biased). They then determine ‘normal’ sets of movements and behaviours for certain areas or populations: patterns. What the algorithm then calculates is anything that steps outside of those patterns. This is also how the signature drone strikes work. So signature strikes do not target known individuals, they target behaviours deemed suspicious. They establish what a ‘normal’ pattern of movement is, and establish suspect behavioursin this case any sort of car convoy or groups of men coming together. These instances create peaks in the otherwise ‘normal’ patterns, and peaks mean bombs. That is how a wedding reception can be confused for a high-level terrorist meeting.

These are partly problems of artificial intelligence, which is, by definition, a learning curve. Artificial intelligence learns from its mistakes, right? It’s something that doesn’t recognise things, but then they happenas you said, with the Zidane headbuttand so the algorithms may calculate that in the future because it has entered into the realm of contingencies. There will always be things that the machine doesn’t know or doesn’t recognise or cannot read or hasn’t fathomed within the realm of possibility.

In all of this, what is interesting to me is not just the variable legal subjects that are created and confused with one another by these techno-legal gazes, but that the lines between the legal regimes themselves are also muddled, with, for example, an increasingly militarised police, or the military conducting police work (manhunts, etc). There is also the blurring brought by the machinic military gaze at the core of much of sports tracking and visualising technology. I talk in the lecture about how much of it is derived from Israeli war and surveillance tech, not to mention that US intelligence has looked to the sports industry to learn how to better collect, store and visualise data.

Chalk on slate drawings of maps by surveillance and information professionals, Haig Aivazian, 2017; photo by A. Mole for Kadist, Paris.

 

I’m amused by the possibility that the football player-tracking technologies must now factor in the possibility of a headbutt as a low-percentage possibility at all times… There seems to me to be a porous relationship between technology that functions to describe pre-existing behaviours and technology that functions to predict future behaviour. In the case of police records that you mention, the risk is surely in perpetuating the very behaviour that the algorithm professes simply to track?

Yes, it’s called a feedback loop. If the algorithm is not constantly being checked against reality, it can keep perpetuating itself and even exacerbating problems. I encountered the same issue when reading about how algorithms understand sports movements. A lot of player movements are completely away from the ball. There are sets of movements that resemble one another but could theoretically be for different purposes. It takes time for a machine to differentiate those nuances. And that’s true of algorithms that are linked to CCTV cameras for suspicious activity detection in public spaces, too. Essentially, they are looking at completely legal behaviour. It could be somebody taking notes, somebody taking pictures, somebody pacing back and forth. In and of themselves, these are not illegal or criminal activities. People can be doing these things for a multitude of reasons, but the machine has to discriminate within a generalised suspicion of any activity of that nature.

The idea behind this approach, as you said, is that if those in charge keep checking and referring and perfecting, then eventually the technology will operate without friction (a word you use somewhere I think). It will function perfectly. But this does not take into account what you’re looking atwhich is that, however much you perfect the technology, it still has inbuilt biases or blind spots or methodological problems.

Advocates for the supremacy of artificial intelligenceand they’re not all right-wing zealots!will say that that’s not true. They would say that the way in which artificial intelligence is developing will mean that those things will be resolved eventually.

But it’s not just a question of the technology itself. In a sense it is about the new and complex forms of sovereignty that are formed by the different players. In other words, it’s about who is deploying the technology and how. It is about how much that technology is regulated, how much governments regulate the private companies that develop these algorithmswhich most often are black boxes, meaning that you don’t even know necessarily why you’re being stopped, what aspect of your behaviour is suspect and so forth. To come back to this point: even if the technology is functioning perfectly, more information does not mean more security or more safety. This is also true outside of the technological debate. Critics of the state of emergency will say that in the period of its application, all of these exceptional measures put in place did not actually help preempt or prevent terrorist attacks. They only broaden the scope of suspicion within society and the number of people who are deemed suspect.

This seems to be exactly the point you make in World/Anti World—On Seeing Double, when you discuss the history of public lighting in Paris. There’s an example you give of early oil lamps that were too high to light the street effectively. You argue that they were less about the security of the urban population than about a public demonstration of authority. That seems like an apt comparison to today’s security technologies. 

It seems to me like a lot of the problems you’re touching upon are ultimately unresolvable. And the idea that simply acquiring more information will somehow resolve them is a serious matter.

Right, and though it’s a problem that has gained intensity with these technologies, it is also the quintessential crisis in modernity. It’s that myth of neutrality: that if we categorise knowledge and have a rational approach to everything then we can constitute a body of knowledge that is all-encompassing. That’s what the Encyclopædia was about, it’s why we have clear categories between, say, culture and nature, human and animal and vegetal, etc. In the last few years, all of these things have been revisited in our conversations about climate and the environment, for instance.

Couvre feu, readymade; “1440 Sunsets per 24 Hours,” Haig Aivazian, 2017. Photo by A. Mole for Kadist, Paris.

 

What seems strange to me is that criticism of this type of Enlightenment thinking has been around for a very long time, and yet it doesn’t seem to have had any real traction.

On the subject of Enlightenment… as well as the history of public lighting, your lecture weaves together a wide range of different source materials and information: Israeli military technology, Nike football adverts, terrorism, drone strikes, war in Algeria, class histories, Rihanna… You’ve also told me that as part of your research, you met with journalists, government legislators, football coaches, statisticians, a campaign organiser for Paris 2024: how do you bring all this research together into something that makes sense? How do you decide which threads to weave in and which to leave out or return to for a later project?

As well as sculpture, your work ranges across installation, drawing, video, performance… What kinds of relationships form between these different types of work? What does each medium enable you to do differently?

The first thing to say is that the relationship between the different mediums in my mind is not always resolved. Sometimes it works, sometimes it works less and, often, it needs revisiting. The other thing I would say is that, for spatial work, particularly sculpture, it becomes about a different kind of experience. It becomes more about a bodily encounter or navigation of a space, which is very difficult to replicate in a discursive space. So the film can do that and I think generally, when I decide to do a lecture, there is some form of significance in the co-presence. There is something in the moment itself that crystallises energy in a particular way with myself and the people present.

You mention that sometimes a particular work feels successful; others, less so. Could you clarify how you know whether something is working or not?

With a material approach to an object or to a space, there is a proposal for some kind of universe, some kind of affected reality that the viewer walks into. Whether I necessarily have a grasp of the terms of what affected that realityand howor not, terms nonetheless exist and viewers interact with them. I think it’s about how much I understand those terms to begin with. They’re often understood in the process of making, but sometimes it takes a couple more attempts to get to know the space or the environment, even if I have created it. Perhaps that sounds a little bit ethereal, but that’s the best way I can explain it.

Thinking specifically of 1440 couchers de soleil par 24 heures: as well as the exhibition at Kadist, the work has also undergone a second iteration at McaM, Shanghai, which is very different in form. Is this an example of your ideas developing or is it simply a response to a different kind of space?

It’s a response to the space, but also I’m thinking of these interventions as a series rather than as iterations of the same work. I’m elaborating on a certain attempt at something, I’m not sure what it means at this point. But if I am to elaborate on the sculptural aspect of this project, I want to keep developing an index of materials and to see how they interact with each other. For example, there is a play with light and darkthe tar being dark and the chalk being the light, and to draw out the implications of those materialsalongside the stadium lights, which are recognisable objects.

For this iteration, I was looking at these heatmaps of cities where predictive policing software is in use. These are dynamic maps that shift as algorithms calculate the likelihood of a crime at any given moment. Based loosely on these maps, I did a kind ofwhat I reluctantly describe as“action painting” where I repeatedly threw these fitness chalk balls against the wall to create different densities.

Sienkewicz, Karol. Haig Aivazian @ Ming Contemporary Art Museum, Shanghai. Instagram, 06 January, 2018. 

 

Between the Paris and the Shanghai pieces, I was also thinking very much about weight. In Paris I had encased sliced light poles into heavy tar plinths; in Shanghai, the sculptural material were the fitness chalkballs. They are essentially these socks filled with powder that gymnasts or weightlifters or basketball players use to make sure their palms are not moist. The balls retain the imprint of the palm, which I enjoyed thinking about in relation to the negative space created in the tar to accommodate the octagonal light poles.

You mention action painting, and in the Kadist text there is also a mention of twentieth-century Minimalism as something you are referring to typologically, but not necessarily endorsing ideologically. How would you see your work in relation to those kinds of art-historical movements?

The distinction that I make between reference and endorsement is that there is an aspect of mimicry without necessarily signing on to the ideologymaybe some form of light parody? The references mostly became clear as I was approaching the actual making, and I think they make a lot of sense in hindsight. In some ways, I’m looking at the same things that those guys (and they were mostly guys…) were dealing with: they were trying to come to terms with the changes in their gazes at the advent of new technologies in the case of a lot of AbExers, or trying to quantify experience in the case of minimalists and some land artists. So I think it make sense that those references come into the work, hopefully with some palpable critique.

And in terms of Minimalism specifically?

I can really nerd out on formal decisions in some minimalist sculpture! That’s something I’m interested in and get excited by. But in terms of placing my own practice within that lineage, I’m less interested. That was one of the things I was struggling with in Kadist. The distinction wasn’t necessarily made clear by the work itself, which came with many of the same problems that Minimalism did. The Minimalists were interested in imposing an encounter with the work that you take in as one. And the work at Kadist maybe suffered some of those kinds of symptoms… I am not sure. My sense is that it wasn’t necessarily a work that you were able to circulate through and contemplate different moments in. In Minimalism, there was often also a kind of machismo. In my mind, I was being critical of that, but maybe it was still quite present in the work without being made vulnerable enough or offering enough of a glimpse as to where the critique was.

I guess it’s often hard to clarify a distinction between being critical of something and repeating that particular motif. Personally, I found I viewed the work very differently after seeing the film and after the lecture.

Yes, many people said thisthat there is an encounter with the sculpture that is difficult to penetrate, then you go in and spend some time with the film, and, on your way out, the sculpture becomes imbued with all these other layers.
But I’m interested in knowing more about that first encounter: is it just puzzlement and then it makes sense? In that scenario, that would signal a problem for me. But if it’s one kind of encounter with the space which you don’t necessarily make sense of but that marks you somehow, and then you have a different experience on your way out, then that is a more interesting movement.

To come back to your previous question about the relationship between different media: sculpture can be about a bodily or spatial encounter; film can use certain kinds of visual regimes that carry information in a different way. The lecture is in between the two. It has this more linear, more language-based and information-heavy approach. But at the same time, it also involves a certain kind of spatial or bodily encounterthis time it just happens to be with me. This is the kind of schematic distinction I would make in my own mind when I decide whether something is going to be a film or a lecture. It has to do with creating a moment that carries a certain kind of charge or tension, and it also has to do with placing my own body within the series of topics that I’m tackling.

OK, lastly, let’s look forward briefly to Paris 2024, as you did at the end of your lecture at Kadistvery amusingly and also a bit terrifyingly. Any predictions for what might happen? Any plans for further work around the event?

Paris 2024 certainly falls within the realm of things that I am interested in and will follow closely but no, I don’t have any specific plans to continue the work for that event per se. In terms of expectations, there are things I already know. I know that the success of the security measures for Euro 2016 were a big incentive for the committee to accept Paris’ bid, and that some of those approaches, such as the cordoned-off areas we’ve been talking about, will be developed further for the Olympics.

Otherwise, the person that I spoke to who was very active in the bid was actually a lovely guy, who seemed to think in all the right ways about making use of extant infrastructure as opposed to building new things for the event itself. There will be minimal building and the budget is relatively low (the Beijing cost was as high as 51 billion dollars; the Paris budget is under 7 billion dollars, for now). He came from Saint-Denis, the banlieue on the outskirts of Paris, and he attaches importance to the existing communities and their involvement in sports infrastructure partly because he is from one of those communities. He said that, for him, it was a point of pride to have the Stade de France built in Saint-Denis because a lot of people from the community were involved in the construction. It not only generated jobs, but also (according to him) a sense of ownership. He also said this funny thing: that one of the signs that the structure is integrated within the community is that it’s never tagged, nobody sprays graffiti over it.

Obviously, that’s his take on it. Anybody that goes to that area can also see the damage caused by such infrastructure, and the security that would render tagging the building a mission impossible.

In terms of 2024, security will be, as it is in the world in general, the primary concern. In 2016, François Hollande famously said this about the Olympics, which I thought was funny, but also very telling. He said: “I don’t know what the world will look like in 2024, but it will be just as dangerous. And no country can think it will be protected, immune…”


 

Haig Aivazian is an artist, curator and writer. Using performance, video, drawing, installation and sculpture, his work weaves personal and geopolitical, micro and macro narratives, in his search for ideological loopholes and short-circuits. He has had solo shows in Paris, Beirut, Berlin and Montreal, and his work has been shown at the Venice Biennale, Istanbul Biennial; McaM, Shanghai; and MAXXI, Rome.

Tom Jeffreys is a writer and editor based in Edinburgh. He is the author of Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on Foot (Influx Press, 2017).