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Canceled Texts: An Interview with Maryam Monalisa Gharavi

The artist and writer behind South/South talks experiments in social fiction, sharing the secrets of strangers, and writing fictional telegrams by Luis Buñuel.

By Rami Karim

I first discovered Maryam Monalisa Gharavi’s South/South as a teenager frustrated by the nexus of a growing American empire and uncritical Westernization in Beirut. Insurgent and cerebral in its spirit and scope, Gharavi’s blog was antidotal, a platform for the critique of the dominance of Western universalism. It understood “Souths” to exist in multiple contexts—from the Global South to the American South—where systems of knowledge and cultural production were often undervalued. South/South has hosted pieces ranging from “Room Boys,” an examination of the relationship between freedom and the ability to dominate others, to “Afraid is a Country,” a visual poem metaphorizing fear as a nation-state by overlaying Executive Order 13769 (known as the “Muslim ban”) with words from Audre Lorde’s diary entry: “AFRAID IS A COUNTRY WHERE THEY ISSUE US PASSPORTS AT BIRTH / AND HOPE WE NEVER SEEK CITIZENSHIP IN ANY OTHER COUNTRY.”

Gharavi has since completed a Ph.D in Comparative Literature at Harvard University and an MFA in Film/Video at the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College, while concurrently building a body of written and visual work. The artist and scholar’s practice deploys criticality in aesthetics and intellectual grounding. Her video installations address the human face, the limits of knowledge, and the seen and unseen forces that pervade human life, particularly in affective or romantic encounters. They include “Eva’s Face,” “Lovescript,” and “Mutual Recognition System (Concerning Max Factor).” Gharavi is on the heels of another publication, Bio (Inventory Press, 2018), a series of texts examining erasure and visibility in a heavily surveilled net, each composed in a Twitter bio that circumvents traditional algorithms storing user content. At Pioneer Works in New York, she launched Secret Catalan Poem, a collaboratively performed inventory of secrets belonging to various dwellers of Catalonia. The work correlates to Alphabet of an Unknown City, the title of her Belladonna* chaplet released in February. This interview picks up where our conversation that followed that event left off.

—Rami Karim

Rami Karim: You mentioned at the Secret Catalan Poem performance at Pioneer Works that you would be living nomadically this year, so I’m curious, where are you right now?

Maryam Monalisa Gharavi: I’m nowhere and everywhere this year. I’ve taken a geographically ambiguous leap. That has some risk to it and is maybe less conventional, but it also has come with benefits. I freed myself up to do an art residency abroad, and out of that experience came public performance commissions that took me well into 2018.

During a spell of Peter Pan months in the U.K., I took a self-initiated trip to Catalonia. Secret Catalan Poem came out of this. Almost in the moment I conceived it, Belladonna* and Pioneer Works got in touch about a publication and performance, and that led to the performance you saw and a chapbook called Alphabet of an Unknown City. Right now, I am in preparation for the release of Bio as a printed publication from Inventory Press and a 365-day updating internet installation on The Contemporary Journal.

What prompted the desire to not have roots?

Everyone has roots somewhere, mine just happen to be very intertwining. Movement has been a part of my personal history since childhood, when much of it was without my agency. I watched a dog training video the other day and the trainer said that the number-one need of a dog is knowing it has a permanent and loving home with its owner. Wouldn’t that be a potent idea if applied to human beings, that they be tasked to build a permanent and loving home within themselves?

But the step in the past year was very deliberate and involved months of preparation that took the form of minimizing my life in a really big way. At the minute level, I decided what needed to stay and what needed to go and took steps to lighten my load. It was a process of deep reflection and far-reaching contemplation.

It’s almost like letting go of some attachments made room for perhaps the most important ones. What projects are in the works right now?

I have a vault of work that’s never been seen or exhibited, especially physical art, and getting that out will take up a significant chunk of my attention. There is also a recent body of video involving the human face. It is almost all completed but requires a good fit in terms of installation spaces.

Then there’s American Letters. It’s an experimental book of epistolary and other fictional imagining, but with every new text added it feels like a new becoming. I want to say that I’m completing it, but I’m actually slowing down so that it completes itself. Maybe that sounds too dense or poetic but I’ve accepted that it is not like other things I’ve done, and it will take the time that it takes.

What do you think films do that writing alone can’t? And vice versa? This is not to imply that their capacities are binary, but I’m convinced that film is more democratic or inviting than writing because it doesn’t require literacy—only sight.

Everything involves some kind of language, and by that I mean grappling with matter and material within a syntax, not “verbal arts.” My three-year old nephew is obsessed by Batman a.k.a “Betmem.” He’s never seen any Batman movies or taken a film studies course but he has somehow intuited that a cape and a face mask endows Batman with strength and power—a kind of automatic heroism. He understands that wearing Batman t-shirts and holding Batman action toys do not make him Batman, but place him adjacent to Batman. Watching all this unfold is glimpsing into the mysteries of human intelligence, where so much of it is formed by the dance between identification and dis-identification, separation and wholeness, explicit visibility and implicit non-visibility, certainty and uncertainty. And it connects deeply to the limits of knowing, which preoccupies me.

But to dig further into your question, the time-based nature of film is exceedingly important. Not because clock-time should be fetishized, but because there is some synchronicity with the time of the audience. The body of work I’ve been making since around 2014 premises itself on the “live” film. Even if the work is pre-recorded and being played back it can still synchronize with the time of the person watching it. Present-ness in time-based forms is a major point of inquiry.

Totally, and it’s very specific to film, I think because it comes closest to emulating real life. Can you say more about American Letters? I’m specifically curious about your process of choosing addressees, and how you execute performing them, so to speak, in writing.

The earliest foundations were sparked by the question, “What would ________ [a non-American, immigrant, or minoritarian American] write about the U.S.A., the greatest social fiction experiment of all?” And the form took the intimacy of the epistle. I knew the launching point and process would in some way involve correspondence, regardless of the particulars of each piece. The first text I wrote for American Letters was by Luis Buñuel. In college, I’d read his autobiography—a spasmodic and unorthodox un-memoir—and a few biographies, remembering that he had exiled himself from Spain and landed in Hollywood. So I conjured a 1938 telegram, written to a fictional secretary at Paramount Pictures, in which he announces his plans. Every word of it is made up. But I try to be a clear vessel for such a text. You’re right to allude to its performative nature. It ships and sails through you. All you can hope for is to be a good ocean. And to discern the right sound, spacing, breath, image, and word.

I love the idea of being a good ocean. I know most of Bio was written in Palestine. What was your time there like, and how did it affect your writing?

Snowflakes make an avalanche. The process was very much like that. Writing 160 characters per day for 365 days eventually turned into a 736-page book. I conceived the work and announced my motivations and intentions publicly, putting the work in a long artistic lineage of artists’ canceled texts. But how would an artist in the 21st century make a canceled text, when self-erasure in the digital age is nearly impossible? The next step was picking a date and beginning the performance. I deliberately call it a performance because it was a time-based internet piece. Once the performance stops it becomes a text. I recomposed the 365 entries of that text as poems—or another genre I don’t have a name for—and that became Bio.

In the middle of that year I moved to Palestine on a postdoctoral Fulbright, and the work moved with me. Initially my house didn’t have wifi, which is necessary if you intend to update a work on the internet every 24 hours, so I would frequent cafés and buy guilt coffees. Once or twice I was in air travel mode for over 17 hours, and those were the only times I worried about missing a day. There are no page numbers in Bio, instead dates correspond to where pages would be, so on a given day I might have connected an entry to the world around me, like at the checkpoint at Qalandiya. Or not.

To me your work is rare in that it is consistently equal parts politically and aesthetically rigorous. This seems maybe too obvious given how surreal American politics feels these days, but what do you think has changed since you began South/South? How does this factor, if at all, into the questions and analytics informing your work? (I, for one, am more aware of the mismanagement or commodification of identity politics as a reaction.)

South/South was instigated by a certain question: What would a non-Western universalist orientation entail? The siren call of that question was de-centering the subject position of a reader who is assumed to be, let’s say, white, male, North American, majoritarian in gender and sexual orientation, with access to class and status hierarchy. Beyond this puppet assumption of a “norm,” who and what else can be imagined? How can spaciousness of experience be created? And more specifically, why is Anglo-American or Anglo-European experience the origin point of comparison for everything?

The positioning was always local and translocal. What I mean is that when I started it I was living in Brazil. The very first post, one that came out of indignation, even despair, was about the “Gaza wall” being constructed in Rio de Janeiro, not far from where I was living at the time. It’s important to pay attention to the language of politics, and that’s the kind of indivisible aesthetics I’m talking about. The way that wall was conceived and sold as an idea through language in Israel: a barrier to separate us from the savages that seek to do us harm. The way it was conceived and sold as an idea in Brazil: a barrier to save the Atlantic forest from the incursions of the lawless poor on us law-abiding people. Who is getting positioned as us, and what language and thought-forms are generated to sell the dogma of separation, stigma, and supremacy, is something we should always be paying keen attention to. And like I said, this carries a local element in the sense that “all politics is local” but goes beyond the confines of any one place, history, people, etc.

More people than ever are awake to how separation, stigma, and supremacy are a false bill of goods sold to us in increasingly cunning ways. The fascinating reality about identity as a shaper of experience is that many people come to that wakefulness through the very body they’re carrying. Because of the way they are carrying their body in a world where it is less safe to be them, they are more immune to the lies and illusions and deceptions of politics.

But even that is a relative truth, not an absolute one. There’s no way my experience or particular biography or “identity” is absolute, it’s always relative, so that’s one major reason why turning identity itself into an object and as you say, a commodity is a form of cryogeny. If my identity has any purpose or usefulness at all, it’s to widen and expand beyond my own particular bubble. If it is disconnected, what, honestly, is the point?

Right, that route feels far too insular to be liberatory. This makes me wonder, how would you describe aesthetic decisions in your current practice? For example, does your engagement with form intersect with material politics?

I like to think all you have as an artist are your aesthetic decisions. In the bigger scheme of things I like to ask myself questions about the forms I’m putting in the world. I need to be accountable for them. You know that saying about sound? “How is the music you’re putting out in the world an improvement on silence?” It’s a very relevant question, maybe the only one. Perhaps that’s why it’s hard to discount Formalism as such, because what is in the work must be responsive to what is of the work—a kind of perfection or wholeness between structure and content. I’m particularly interested in the way artists like Lee Ufan and Anna Maria Maiolino expound on this. There’s a way the world beyond the artist intervenes on their work. It is so much less solipsistic than what we are lead to believe “art” is, especially in the cognitive, Western, Cartesian-based empire.

My visual work has been frequently vested in reenactment and restaging, not because I care about replication as such, but because of the way the remake stands alongside the source. The adjacency, the non-hierarchy, and the series structure is an aesthetic decision. That spaciousness in the juxtaposition is everything. That’s the space of activation for a viewer, the point of entry, even. Without it, it holds no interest for me in the least.

I’m with you, which is part of why I so drawn to Secret Catalan Poem as both a text and live performance. It felt cinematic. Was the work always conceptualized to be communally performed by an audience?

I wanted to connect the secrets extracted and collected in Catalonia to the same number of readers in New York. It first started from the landscape itself with my encounter with the Bunkers of Carmel, the site of anti-aircraft defense systems during the Spanish Civil War. There are few remnants of that history in open sight, of course, so in shaping the work I was thinking about cities and relationships, especially secrecy, paranoia, and censorship. Taking the secrets across the Atlantic—one of the lesser-used meanings of translation is “carrying across”—changed their alchemy somehow. I had the good fortune of meeting Ethel Baraona Pohl and César Reyes Nájera while working on the piece in Barcelona, and one thing I remember from that conversation is César commenting how the main ingredient of a city is communication, which in turn builds relationships, which builds infrastructure, and so on. Ethel pointed out how the Bunkers, my chosen site, contained positive and negative energies, from protectiveness to paranoia. I think that the secrets being “told” by someone other than their originator emphasizes their polarity. So in effect, there were at least two performances sites: one in Barcelona where the secrets were culled, and one in New York where they were divulged. I make no investment in site specificity. The work must go beyond the physical site itself, or it holds little value for me.

Right, though even the local felt defamiliarized in Secret Catalan Poem, as well as “Dictionary of Military Terms.” There is a strong multi-perspectival narrative going on in both pieces. They give the audience glimpses of specific events or characters that cohere as part of the larger world of the work. There is so much political analysis embedded in this small diaristic-seeming piece. I’m so curious about the world you’ve created—who are these people? Are they autofictional? Where do they live? Where do they work?

I don’t know who these people are either. They are ordinary people—they are you, they are me. By ordinary of course I mean that their secrets go beyond a single life, the shoes they walk in. Alone they are ordinary, but in this greater container their secret is more significant. It was a very labor-intensive process extracting the secrets, which I did in exchange for a rose. I was joking that it’s the most expensive text I’ve ever written, only I didn’t write it, though I bought many euros worth of roses for the people who did. The ages ranged widely. I think the first person to come up to me and write down his secret was an eight-year old Dutch boy. He was very self-assured, and had the solid encouragement of his parents, though he didn’t need it. There was the energy of a serious adult inside of him as he wrote down his secret of peeing twice inside his ski suit, and he stopped to ask me how to spell a certain word.

But beyond a first name, and sometimes not even that, I don’t know and didn’t care to know who these people were per se. It wasn’t about a stable self. There were some heartbreaking secrets exchanged, of course, especially dealing with suicide, and those were especially hard to read and then hear read aloud by the audience in the New York performance. But it wasn’t about identity, unless we’re talking about what identity can help carry elsewhere. And I think that’s what makes the work distinctly anti-diaristic. It’s not performing your “self” on social media, for example. It’s sharing something no one knows and cannot connect back to you. It can only be told and retold, making your secret “auto-fictional” like you say, a part of someone else’s history to whom the secret never really belonged.

I’m constantly thinking about a given speaker’s background, though I suppose these segments are meant to be anonymous on some level, unlike say, your actual voice in an essay, which leads to my next question. I’m curious about how your studies influenced your practice. How do you understand the relationship (if any) between going to school and being an artist?

My trajectory has always felt atypical; it’s not like law or medicine where you follow a curriculum, secure the degree, and apply to jobs within the field. It hasn’t ever been like that, there’s a lot more jaggedness, self-initiative, raw unknown. There is no “sure” path to anything, there is no cobblestone or laid groundwork. That is even more true when you consider who formal higher education was built for. I do not come from privilege—neither financial nor status networked—and was keenly aware for whom the places I inhabited were actually built and my own purpose in being there.

When I got the call that I got into a doctorate program at Harvard, I was waiting tables. I literally took my apron off and got a call from Harvard, and the next day I got fired from that job. And with Bard MFA too, the first time I got in I turned it down, because it didn’t seem like a financially solvent decision. It can be jarring to suddenly become peers with people whose parents own buildings in Brooklyn or pay their entire law school tuition. There is so much a school or academic institution cannot do, is not equipped to do, because of its very material conditions or it may threaten its own existence to do so. As the institution grooms you to distinguish your class position in ever more distinct ways it overlooks the very real structural inequities belying that distinction.

Meanwhile, because of the deep animosity toward intellectual life in the U.S. and the sad vacuum of the truly provoking and forward-thinking, the university becomes a sort of bastion. Grad school afforded extended time, purposeful travel, and close study. I was very lucky to have John Hamilton as my principal adviser. He’s the smartest person I met, and in personal approach, among the most warm and engaging. His “Theories of Security” class, which later became a book, was life-changing and something I draw on in multiple theoretical and artistic projects. I honed my obsession with etymology alongside him, and witnessed how comparative philology can be quietly radical.

On an institutional level, being a thoughtful examiner and scholar was welcome and nourished, but being a cultural worker or producer was neutral, at best. Especially if for you art is not an extension of an idea or an illustration of a discipline, which is what I saw at times. I had been making work in undergrad, but even in film studies, my prior training, there were still implausible separations between examining and making.

I’m wondering how South/South makes appearances in your current practice. Is it something that’s frontal in your mind or does it happen on its own? Or is it something else?

I’ve continuously seen South/South as an open text, and I use that word deliberately. Giovanni Tiso had this really interesting idea of the open text as that which exists on the internet and has not ended. Until I die or end it, it’s open. Once I end it or die, it’s a closed text. Roland Barthes made a similar distinction when he wrote about a text as open, receptive, even unstable, and a work as closed and fixed. I really love that, because the idea of “open text” means that I can hold some things loosely. I feel a sense of accountability to myself and communities I’ve been engaged with, particularly radical communities, to be able to play and hold an idea loosely, investigate it, play with it like it’s matter or material, and let it spill out into my other work and into the world.

I started South/South in 2009 with no belief that it would have other readers. I think that’s important because it eventually allowed me to show the seams of process. Now it feels like it’s something I invite someone into. There’s a sense of hospitality: “Welcome to my studio. This is what it looks like when I’m in it.” Or a sense of indexicality: “Hello unknown reader, look at this thing I am intrigued by, and why I choose to be surprised by it.”

Some completely unforeseen things have followed from this. One is that it got the attention of the editorial board at The New Inquiry, who convinced me to be an editor there as well from 2012 to 2017. I had never aspired to be editor of anything but looked at it as an opportunity to create spaciousness, and invite writing and art work outside the origin point we discussed earlier, of Western universalism as the de facto normative marker for everything.

Another time I wrote about looking up at the sky in Jordan as I was leaving an art residency in Amman. What was I truly seeing? Logic tells us it’s a plane, but what kind of phenomenon is it really? What propositions could we offer about something our eyes say is one thing, logic says is another, and a certain flavor of 21st-century unknowability another thing still? In that instance, Metahaven reached out to me based on mutual concerns with these knowable unknowables, and that led to a collaboration with them in their film The Sprawl. But I offer that example to say that South/South is like speaking into the dark about the darkness itself.

Does this apply to your visual work?

I think they’re vastly different, given what it takes for a “work” to become a work versus notes, seams, propositions, etc. in an open text. But when I was visiting Fundació Antoni Tàpies I wrote down this rousing line from Marcel Broodthaers: “An antifilm nonetheless remains a film, the way the antinovel cannot completely escape the frame of the book and of writing.”

Would you call yours an anti-practice?

I don’t yet have a name for what my practice is. It is thus far unnameable.