The second workshop in the a-n Writer Development Programme took place at Manchester’s newest arts venue, Home, on Wednesday 28 October 2015.
The afternoon session was led by Frieze magazine reviews editor Amy Sherlock and the focus was on reviewing for the specialist art press.
Also present was a-n news editor and programme organiser Chris Sharratt, a-n staff member and artist Pippa Koszerek, and four of the five programme participants. (Unfortunately, Manjinder Sidhu was unable to attend.)
A lively, busy session with plenty of discussion, the workshop covered writing for different markets, pitching ideas to editors, and that perennial for any reviewer – how to pen a killer opening paragraph.
The latter part of the day saw everyone visiting the current Home exhibition (12 September to 1 November), I must first apologise… by Beirut-based artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige.
The writers were then given 30 minutes to come up with the opening hundred words or so of a 700-word review; these were then discussed among the group.
After initial feedback from Amy and a light edit by Chris, the finished reviews are published below – four different perspectives on the same exhibition.
Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige:
I must first apologise…
Home, Manchester, 12 September – 1 November 2015
By Anneka French
“I can’t trust anybody … My husband left me a large amount of money … Thanks to free internet access I can speak to you to ask you for your help.”
This is the beginning of an investigation into deception – one in which digital correspondence has real-world effect. I must first apologise…, an exhibition by Beirut-based Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, navigates the murky exchanges of the internet scammer via data collection, creative fictions and bent truths.
The darkened opening room contains a multi-monitored installation of amateur actors from various backgrounds. This parade of faces appears throughout the exhibition, sometimes in larger projections that conjure an emotive and discomforting presence. Each narrates a personal monologue detailing their entrapment and the ways in which you, the reader, can help them – and get rich doing so. Arranged around a central web-like structure from which are suspended 100 speakers, The Rumour of the World (all works 2014) overlays a disorientating clamour of voices. Snatched fragments can be discerned, their often heavily accented language littered with hyperbolic terms of respect and gratitude, marking the testimonies as falsehoods. Though it is hard to resist a cry for help, it is perhaps harder to comprehend the gullibility of those taken in by such widely-circulated and well-known scam tactics.
Geometry of Space purports to visualise the geographical spread of internet scamming with a constellation-like series of wall-drawn marks and oxidised steel sculptures in the rough shape of a globe. The attempt to map and materialise the slippery practice of scamming is a curious and futile one, echoed in the artists’ temporary marks and rusted metal – forms that lack the malleable complexities of the videos. That Geometry of Space references global peaks of online scamming in 2005 and 2008 is indicative of a decline in their traction – strategies that are overplayed and overworked. Much of this material feels familiar.
‘The attempt to map and materialise the slippery practice of scamming is a curious and futile one’
The majority of the work on display focusses on the actions of the scammers (the effect upon the victim is always implicit). An installation of wall-mounted scrolls and glass wayfinders that comprise The Trophy Room has an alternate nuance, moving the exhibition away from hackneyed regurgitations of the scam. The Trophy Room focuses on a group calling themselves scam baiters – a vigilante band that seeks to scam the scammers. The scrolls present a series of email exchanges between the baiters and the scammers. What unfolds is a troubling portrayal of the lengths to which the baiters will go to drain the resources of the scammer. At one end of the spectrum, the baiters force scammers to make objects and perform plays, and at the other, to get tattoos with humiliating acronyms and pose in sexually demeaning positions as proof of ‘good faith’. The work documents the result of a cruel revenge process, riddled with power problematics and twisted intentions. It leads me to think about the consequences for the scammers and about the reasons someone might have for turning to this ‘industry’ in the first place. Perhaps there is a finer line between hope and greed than any of us might care to admit.
The idea is followed through in Fidel, one of the videos in Hadjithomas and Joreige’s It’s All Real series. The knots of the exhibition are both tightened and untangled in this work. According to the exhibition literature, Fidel, an amateur actor who appears as a recurring cast member in the videos, was a scammer in Lebanon. That Fidel is also ‘occasionally a stripper’ paints a rather different picture of his life and the choices that are open to him. His testimony indicates a sense of entrapment and a desire for release from his difficult circumstances. Fidel shows remorse for his scamming past. The xenophobia that vaguely niggled in the opening room is foregrounded here – for each of the actors in the videos are immigrants. The countless reports of financial extortion in exchange for passage to safety from war and political disenfranchisement, and the consequent loss of life, provide the most urgent, though entirely unstated, context for I must first apologise…
By James Steventon
Please allow me to introduce myself. I am inhabited by the ghost of the late and respected critic Brian Sewell, and I am writing to you to inform you of Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s exhibition at Home in Manchester. I must first apologise…
Since 1999, the artists have collected correspondence similar to the above from over 4000 junk email scams, purportedly from famous politicians, dictators or their families. We’re all familiar with these scams, and their ubiquity raises questions as to the relevance of this collection in 2015. However, the exhibition tackles this issue head on. Upon entry visitors are confronted with a poster-sized reproduction of a ‘Jerusalem Letter’, locating the so-called ‘Nigerian scam’ within a literary tradition dating back to 18th century France. The persistence of these hoaxes through 300 years of junk mail filtering suggests it may still be fertile ground to plough.
The exhibition begins with The Rumour Of The World, a disorientating installation in a darkened room where multiple screens and 100 loudspeakers present various non-professional actors reciting scams. The multiple voices vying for attention mirror the volume and confusing nature of the email archive. As we pass close enough to make eye contact with an actor, an overhead loudspeaker helps reveal the scam from the mêlée of noise in the centre of the room. As the actors are heard struggling to convincingly deliver their lines, the ruse is revealed.
‘The multiple voices vying for attention mirror the volume and confusing nature of the email archive’
Many of the other works in the exhibition repeatedly mine the same resource but the outcomes are often far less convincing. Geometry Of Space, for example, includes stretched oxidised steel sculptures, three-dimensional trajectories of the emails’ circulation that resemble globally connected data visualisations literally seen the world over. The wooden casts from which the sculptures were made are also presented, but while they may complement the curved wall of the gallery space, they only repeat an idea already well visited.
Another recurring presence is Fidel, a contributor to The Rumour Of The World. Filmed in the artists’ home country, Lebanon, he demonstrates the few degrees of separation in the online scamming world, revealing to the artists his past life as a scammer in Nigeria and his familiarity with the script he was asked to memorise.
He also appears in both (De)Synchronicity and It’s All Real, works housed in later rooms. Lacking the immersive quality of The Rumour Of The World, these were less successful. Yet while the repetition of the idea doesn’t take us anywhere new, Fidel’s persistence in the exhibition points to the durability of the scams worldwide. Sometimes we don’t want the truth, we just want to believe.
Another video work, Fidel, presents an opportunity to further address its namesake – however on my visit the piece was temporarily out of order. The promise here of Fidel detailing the genuine methods behind his scams was tantalisingly out of reach.
In The Trophy Room, the tables are turned on the scammers. ‘Scam baiters’ deliberately respond to scammers’ emails in order to waste their time or money, often humiliating them in the process. Souvenirs of their ‘victories’ are displayed in vitrines like fresh kills. Accompanying the trophies are long prints on rolls, allowing the reader to physically scroll through the ongoing correspondence between scammer and baiter. Ludicrous, amusing and often cruel activities are requested as a show of good faith, eliciting an empathy with the scammers’ will to believe in a genuine connection.
This is reflected by a charming inclusion in the show, …About Love, a wholly conceptual work existing only, as curators Omar Kholeif and Sarah Perks describe it, as ‘the ghost that haunts the exhibition’. It is representative of the many people who have fallen victim to these scams, ‘like a love story or an addiction’, each victim believing that despite their better judgement this time is different since ‘they are the only remaining trustworthy person’.
With art as with email scams, a suspension of disbelief is required in order to participate. We are required to have the will to believe. Whether in ghosts or in love or in the prospect of several thousand Nigerian Naira, ready to be wired into our bank accounts.
By Lydia Ashman
Can acts of generosity exist without reciprocation? Can we read them without a subtext? A group of homeless people and activists recently squatted Manchester’s former stock exchange, a grand building that ex-Manchester United footballers Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville are transforming into a boutique hotel. Instead of evicting them, the pair have given the group permission to stay over winter. It’s a good-news story, but on hearing it I immediately became cynical – what’s in it for the footballers?
Down the road at Home, Manchester’s newest arts centre, Beirut-based artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige explore our responses to requests for help and tales of suffering in their exhibition I must first apologise… Taking as its starting point an aspect of modern life we’re all familiar with – those unsolicited emails that recount dramatic events, an unexpected fortune and the inevitable financial proposition – the show was the culmination of 15 years of research into the practice of online scamming.
Consisting of ten works ranging from photography and sculpture to film and installation, the artists want us to spend some time with the protagonists of a practice that they claim has an overlooked and strange history. Coming to prevalence in the 2000s, online scamming might feel slightly dated as subject matter. It is, however, interesting to read the show in the context of how we cope with and interpret the countless narratives and requests for time, money and compassion that flow into our lives – whether via our inboxes, the media, politicians or the person on the street canvassing for Greenpeace.
‘The novelty of hearing these emails anew means that it’s inviting to temporarily comply with the illusion of truth’
The Rumour of the World (2014), a sound and film installation in the first room, cleverly encapsulates the experience of multiple storytellers competing for our attention. In a large, dark space populated by 100 loudspeakers and 17 screens, you are greeted by the recorded voices of non-professional actors simultaneously reading out scammers’ hyperbolic emails. Disorientated by the cacophony, you can only decipher a storyteller’s plight by standing face to face with them. Do you, like me, veer towards the stereotypically more trustworthy women and the downtrodden-looking young man? Although the stories are fiction, the novelty of hearing these easily discarded emails anew means that it’s inviting to temporarily comply with the illusion of truth.
One of the piece’s ‘aliases’ is Fidel, a good looking, charming young man who appears throughout the exhibition. A Nigerian ex-scammer, he now works in a gym and as an occasional stripper in Lebanon. You might question his scammer’s remorse, however, when he enthusiastically explains the psychology and ‘magic’ behind the practice in the film, Fidel (2014). He also features in It’s all real (2014), a film piece dedicated to authentic stories from six of the faux-scammers in The Rumour of the World. In contrast, these films are played one-by-one in a more intimate, calmer space. This intimacy is reflected in the films’ locations, which connect us to the protagonists’ realities. Young friends Omar and Younes recount their stories in the Beirut basketball pitch that they meet up in, while Fidel dons sportswear and stands in front of gym equipment. Free from the awkward English and predictable narrative arcs the scammers use, these storytellers communicate in a language they are comfortable with, such as dance or even silence.
Listening to these personalised accounts of hardship feels urgent as thousands of Syrian refugees, each with a story to tell, continue to make the dangerous journey to Europe in search of safety. As well as containing details of scams themselves, the show highlights the broader factors that shape patterns in online scamming. In Geometry of Space (2014), steel sculptures and subtle pencil marks on the walls map the dates and claimed locations of 200 scams from 2005 and 2008. Clusters of marks and steel correlate with spikes in global instability, showing how scammers ground their stories in religious, political and economic conflict to make them seem more credible. The piece mirrors the myriad narratives that circulate during a situation like the refugee crisis, which can disguise or distract us from the truth.
For me, though, it’s not the reframing of scammers’ repetitive emails that provide the most interest in the show. Instead, the grey area that Fidel embodies – between reality and fiction, cynicism and compassion – is a richer seam. It’s worth seeking out these nuances among the din of voices, emphatic language and formulaic structures.
By Sunny Cheung
Philip Zimbardo’s infamous 1971 Stanford prison experiment involved the reversal of roles between two groups of people selected to be either prisoners and guards. Exploring the consequences that can arise from fluctuations in power, the experiment gained notoriety when it had to be shut down after only six days due to the psychological torture the ‘prisoners’ were made to endure by their captors.
In their exhibition I must first apologise – curated by Omar Kholeif and Sarah Perks – Beirut-based artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige explore similarly troubling power relationships, albeit in a very different context. Taking its title from a typical opening line used in scam emails, it draws an archive of 4000 messages amassed since 1999. And while these emails may seem like a modern phenomenon, the artists point out that such scams can be traced back to the handwritten ‘Spanish Prisoner’ and ‘Jerusalem Letters’ of the 19th century.
The large-scale installation, The Rumour of the World (2014), starts the show ambitiously. The raucous cacophony requires that you move closer to a sweet spot of sound situated above each screen, in order to pick out the individual voices of these pleading monologues. The actors – who also feature in other pieces in the show – always end by asking for a money wire transfer.
There are echoes of the duo’s previous work, Wonder Beirut (History of a Pyromaniac Photographer) (1998-2006), a series that coherently represents reality and fiction through photographic storytelling and the performative. The Trophy Room (2014) shows what can happen when a seemingly fun vigilante cause goes astray and ethical and moral considerations become subsumed into a form of entertainment. The piece touches on aspects of what we now call ‘trolling’ and the implications of what Jaron Lanier, in his 2010 book You are not a Gadget, refers to as ‘cybernetic totalists’, a term that refers to the collective online lynch mob.
‘The artists aren’t offering any easy answers when it comes to how the scamming issue can be effectively confronted’
The crux of the piece involves the baiting of ‘419 Nigerian’ scammers – named after the district of Nigeria it originates from, with internet cafes being the main sites that these performative fictions originate from (as explored in the piece (De)synchronicity (2014) in the adjacent room). The ruses in this ‘trophy room’ are portrayed in the form of photos mounted on pedestals and printed photographic scrolls, inducing a more intimate, lo-fi reading of the work as you physically pull the stories towards you. One humorous example involves a scammer being tricked into sending a hand carved Commodore 64 (an 8-bit ‘80s computer) to the scammer. The example seems particularly apt as the scammer has in some way been ‘gamed’.
The work quickly takes on a more sinister slant, with the scammers-turned-scammed asked to show photographic evidence that they’ve tattooed their arm with an acronym for Christians Uniting New Territories (C.U.N.T). Pain is etched on their faces. There is no sense of justice being done here, just a feeling of revulsion – it is apparent that the artists aren’t offering any easy, neat answers when it comes to how the scamming issue can be effectively confronted.
While the performative fiction concept does start off interestingly, works such as The Rumour of the World, (De) Synchronicity and A Letter Can Always Reach its Destination (all 2014) point to similar meanings. As a result, the theme starts to become repetitive. This may be the artists’ intention, rather like reading the slight variations in the similar prose of the various scams.
A second curatorial strand involves the mapping of the scammer’s communications. Strange pencil marks are scribbled on the walls of the gallery, curiously dated. It is initially unclear how these are related. Decoding with the ‘scam atlases’ provided reveals that they are two-dimensional representations of the scams’ global ‘journeys’. The criss-crossing steel rods that form the sculptures in Geometry of Space (2014) are a refreshingly analogue take on big data computer visualisations. They show that with computer technology, the world has become a much smaller place – geographically and economically – as thousands of individuals can be indiscriminately targeted without the drawback of upfront mailing costs.
Yet the exhibition also implies that the scammers and victims, although culturally far apart, do not act so differently after all. They are driven by similar urges, desires, insecurities – or perhaps the need to act this way through financial desperation. We must remember, then, that the fictions presented in these letters are much more than mere tales. They have been paid for with real currency, betrayal, and for some with blood.