• Neïl Beloufa on the film set he built in a former factory outside Paris. Photo courtesy Sean Donnola (NY TIMES)

Neïl Beloufa in Conversation with Azar Mahmoudian

Published in Catalogue of The Abraaj Group Art Prize 2018 10th Edition
– Of Other Spaces

AM
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about art’s extended realities, which are not limited to spectatorship. Art has always produced its own reality, and has been determined by that reality in turn in all sorts of ways—infrastructurally, economically, hierarchically, institutionally—but this contiguous reality has been largely reduced to and focused on art’s dependence upon the viewer’s interpretational agency. Looking beyond this dependence, what do you think your artworks enact? I don’t necessarily mean their utilitarian aspect, but rather their actual (as opposed to conceptual) relation with reality, their own sense of agency.

NB
I think my practice is always trying to display the mechanics of how the ideology and authority of representation function. But rather than addressing the world or the reality directly, I do so by creating systems that place it at a distance. Until now, it has been my strategy never to be frontal—to try to get a hold of things that could be named without naming them, thus keeping a distance, and trying to let the viewer find out what it’s about for themselves. I guess I’m naive, too.

AM
Well, if I may, I think you’re both indirect and straightforward. Your forensic approach in pointing out mechanisms of representational regimes, forms of mass surveillance or speculative regimes, sometimes takes a rather literal and direct path. For instance, there’s the iconic element of the grid, which reappears as an embracing background in many of your works, including Data for Desire (Rationalized Room Series) (2015). Human emotions are speculated and turned into data, while private spaces, personal objects and humans themselves re-materialize within and via the grid; it serves as reference to the increasing cyber-spacialization of our lives, as well as the intangible materiality of computational systems. Nevertheless, your sculptural grids look like hasty, hand-made sketches, fragile and open, with a touch of color at times, some gum or a cigarette left here and there. I often feel cold and suffocated in front of accelerationist, future-oriented artworks, with their machine-generated imagery, Post-Internet aesthetics and evolutionary, ergonomic, slick-designed objects. But when looking at your works, it is as if you’re domesticating the grid, overcoming its alienating presence, breaking its gloomy curse. It’s like you’re doodling inside the grid!

NB
It’s a part of my system of work to make art the way humans do things—DIY, if you will. It lets us have some proximity to these alienating elements, to desacralize them and have some affection towards them. Even Data for Desire, in which one can see a criticism of control systems and the representation of humans through mathematics, ultimately remains a movie about love, youth, and a fiction that doesn’t work out. In a way, the idea is to include ourselves in the mechanics of criticism, because we cannot claim we aren’t willingly participating in these systems we feed and create.
As for the cigarettes, the game is even more perverse—forcing these cold objects into being personal, leaving DNA traces on them, which also makes them into documents of their own construction. But it’s also a joke, as I’m pretty much always smoking when I make my art.

AM
Is the humor in your work an attempt to make it less didactic, or to reduce the bleakness of a dystopian future looming large? Or is it intended to highlight the cracks in a system which is not as efficient as it purports to be?

NB
Both. I think of art as power, a place where power is legitimized—often the same kind of power we criticize in our work. Of course, we cannot really solve a problem we are part of. So my way of playing with this short circuit, talking about it without falling into a dialectic opposition between good and bad, is humor. There is a form of cowardliness in there, or at least the acknowledgment that my naive belief that art could change society is clearly just that: a belief.

AM
For me, humor is rather a psychological reaction to the bipolarity we all feel, stuck as we are between those binaries, especially between hope and disappointment. It’s a means of bypassing the melancholia.
NB
I also think that desacralizing might be a way of including viewers in the conversation, rather than trying to tell them what I think, which has no specific value, since I don’t know much. But yes, it’s clearly also a way to produce things while being in a permanent cognitive dissonance. Doing things that inherently create a paradox is both a decision and a chance. So I guess we all find ways to participate and soften the complexity of it. The other solution would be to stop doing altogether, but for the moment, I still have a desire to act.

AM
I find the “benches” you recently presented in exhibitions in Sérignan and Tehran (Tropical Harvest, 2016) resonate both with units for residents of a labor camp and steamgoth cryogenic units for surviving an apocalypse. Where does the title come from?
NB
The benches change meaning according to their affect on the viewer and the ideology they want to place in these objects. I used titles that would look like commodity branding names, in order to suggest they might actually come from somewhere else: they might be industrial, or they might even be personal, like when kids name their teddy bear.
The series was first produced by Museum Ludwig for the exhibition “Home Visit,” that took place not in the museum, but in a loft apartment that was on the market for sale. The benches were placed in the living room with pipelines hijacking the toilets.
We hired a real estate agent that had to sell the apartment: he would have two types of communities visiting the space, both of which were people he could have sold the apartment to—art people/collectors, and actual apartment buyers—but he didn’t have the right to talk about the art. So the presence of the objects necessarily created a contradiction, sparked discussions about housing, migrants and so on, but interestingly enough, all I did was design a bunch of objects, place them in a certain context, and fix a conversation rule.

AM
I wonder in which direction would you like to navigate now? Or perhaps you don’t want to take any direction at all?

NB
I’m constantly trying to change my system or my strategy, because every system, once it gets functional, starts to reproduce the very mechanic that it tried to avoid and eventually becomes authority. So I try to contradict myself as much as I can, while always trying to do the same thing.

AM
Back to your comment about making a distance to address the world: I feel you are meandering between various distances and loops—not only critical distance, but visual, chronospacial and ethical distance as well. This constellation of multi-dimensional positions does not seem to direct us anywhere, other than self-referencing and intensifying the sensual experience of “taking position,” or “believing,” or not.

NB
I’ve tried new mechanics recently where I move my center of gravity towards what is supposed to be my opposite, to the other, to the “enemy.” Doing so, the practice gets out of its comfort zone and takes a chance at being criticized. By decentralizing it ethically and morally—in other words, by avoiding my own opinions—the work can ask more questions, including questions about its own production and my role in that process. I’m not sure if these attempts are virtuous, but it’s interesting to me because I learn a lot. I also think that such a movement, even if it plays on this self-referencing mind-f***ed dissonance, might help to separate layers of art, politics and communication in each object, which then makes oppositions and binary thinking impossible to apply.

AM
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that editing and assembling are your favorite methods of working.

NB
I think my brain is one of a film editor that works with associations in order to create meaning—the work is simply the forms that follow. My medium is much less “crafty” than it looks; it deals more with the relationships between objects, film and the viewer. This is the place where I try to work.

AM
Once, as we were talking in Tehran, you mentioned that you would like to establish a democratic, horizontal relationship between the visual and conceptual elements of your installations. This happens through your maximalist approach to juxtaposing the aesthetic tropes of mass media, combined with a guerrilla approach to filmmaking and experiments with studio material and modes of presentation—for instance, framed pieces hanging on the wall in a salon style—on top of which some representational tricks are also revealed, making a closed circuit. It is an inclusive system that stimulates a sense of equality between the elements, but it also defies any sense of an outside to this system, since its maximized inclusivity embraces its own critics as well. I was wondering if you could elaborate a bit on the politics of such dynamics?

NB
I think the political aspect of art is the way it’s made, distributed and received. But of course, the object itself remains art, which creates a conflict of interest between myself and my work: I have the belief that my objects are open, but I rationally know they are closed. It’s impossible to resolve.
I feel this impossible resolution is everywhere
in society, and this idea has become a driving force in my work formally. This is why I parasite my voice, my shows and my videos all the time, why I show the wires that make my TV work. let the lighting remain visible in my movies, or throw my cigarette butts or the garbage of the studio into my pieces. It’s a self-critical method, a bit like those that liberal countries use to prove they are “open,” that I push as much as I can so it deactivates itself. My works always say they are works, even if I would love for them to say something else.

AM
About your comment on the political aspect of art enacted in the way it’s made, distributed and received; I think this leads us back to our initial question of whether, and how, you might contribute to the systems of production, circulation and reception of your works. Let’s put the interpretative agency of the spectator aside for a moment, and think of other realms in which art institutes and legitimizes its own reality. How would you address the grids, representational mechanisms and their attached economies differently in this other realm? Would your only option be to criticize? Or could there be the potential for different actions?

NB
I’m not sure. I don’t know if my role as an artist is to change; I think it’s more about creating cracks and proposing the possibility of different mechanics.
I think being politically active is something I would do as a human, but not as an artist. Both might be compatible as much as they might be contradictory. It’s the same conflict of interest we mentioned before.

AM
You travel a lot and make site-specific works. Apart from the socio-economic dynamics of the global art world, is there a specific reason for that?

NB
I’m interested in the difference (if any) between globalization, decentralized thinking, and appropriation mechanics. This is a big problem for me, and perhaps one that can’t be resolved, but I always try to push it further. Apart from that, there is the desire to believe in humanity, as stupid as that sounds. It’s the hope that you can talk about humans everywhere, from anywhere on earth, and that this might be interesting. But then again, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this is just another liberal domination strategy.