We are currently living in a time in which the news feels like fiction. What may have sounded fictitious a handful of years a go is now reality, and what once had the potential to shock has now become commonplace, expected even. Dubai-based gallery Lawrie Shabibi’s first London pop-up presented an exhibition titled Scripted Reality, a show that commented on the new zeitgeist, looking at how technology has altered our perception of the world.
‘Scripted reality’ is literally a subgenre of reality television in which much of the contents of the programme has been pre-arranged by the production company. The result is a show that can be termed ‘reality’, despite it having been staged, and to a lesser extent, scripted. The most common methods of receiving news today have moved beyond the printed newspaper to online websites and social media feeds, meaning that the majority of us hear about breaking stories via the web. The dispersal of news has become inextricably linked to advances in technology, with many of the artists whose work is on display in Scripted Reality using this as a starting point. In Hiding Our Faces Like a Dancing Wind, 2016, Yazan Khalili uses a computer screen to project a woman making gestures through the machine’s camera. While she covers her mouth with her hands, text is typed out in another window, at the same time as face recognition software and other pop-ups appear on the monitor. Multiple programmes are running at the same time, completely disregarding and overriding the other, much like the way news trickles through our feeds on Facebook and Twitter. Through these channels stories can be shared, but also manipulated, taking on new lives of their own from anywhere around the globe, all within the space of a flat screen. Khalili’s work could be likened to the spread of ‘fake news’, a somewhat new phenomenon whereby fabricated stories are presented as factually accurate, mostly via social media, but also through traditional news platforms.
In the same way that news is now exploited, Farhad Ahrarnia’s mixed media images of Middle Eastern women reorganizes history and modernity. In Miss Iraq No. 4, 2008-9, and Miss Iraq No. 5, 2008-9, photographs downloaded form the Internet have been printed onto cotton Aida cloth. The images are layered together, with beauty queens and women waving fans depicted against maps of Iraq, adding to and changing the context. In one of the works ‘Miss Iraq’ is seen smiling, wearing a sash that looks like it has Chinese text printed on it. On top of the fabric Ahrarnia stitches arrows and maps, adding layers to the work. Through the addition of needlework Ahrarnia deconstructs and also puts together new narratives, agitating hidden ideologies and power politics embedded within the original images.
While Yazan Khalili and Farhad Ahrarnia’s work is immediately read as contemporary, Ayman Baalbaki’s paintings do not have such an obvious connection to technology. That said, his images of war explosions – on exhibition for the first time at Lawrie Shabibi – are direct illustrations of screen shots from online video games. However, if one were told that the works were representations of the wars and invasions that the artist had himself experienced in Lebanon, it would be difficult not to believe it. The paintings seem to demonstrate how fictitious video games now have the power to mimic reality.
In the most overt comment on politics within the exhibition, Adel Abidin’s Politically Correct, 2018, manipulates stainless steel text to question the socio-political implications of our age. Printed five times against a white wall, the metal text moves from ceiling to floor with the words ‘politically correct’ becoming more and more illegible as the eye moves downwards. It seems to question what our idea of ‘political correctness means’, and one may presume that by the completely damaged writing on the bottom layer of his installation, Abidin thinks that the ultra-sensitivity of our contemporary world has gone too far, and that we could do without being so preoccupied by it.
A few meters away from Abidin’s steel wall text lay a park bench in the middle of the gallery floor. You would not want to sit on this piece of furniture however. Completely covering Nadia Kaabi-Linke’s The Bank is Safe (In Memory of W. V.), 2017, are dozens and dozens of metal spikes. These pieces of steel are the same as those used on boundary walls to keep animals and people away from crossing them. What is normally safe has at once become hostile, much like the Internet in the modern era. Who is monitoring it? How, and when? Freedom has become relative. Are you really free if you are constantly under CCTV scrutiny? Especially if you don’t know that you are being watched. Like the concept of scripted reality television, Kaabi-Linke’s garden bench has been manipulated by those who built it. The producers who ‘build’ television programmes manipulate the ‘reality’ TV stars they film, as Kaabi-Linke has manipulated her sculpture. Kaabi-Linke’s bench is in memory of someone, ‘W.V.’, we don’t know who this is, but by creating an object to remember this person by, she is ensuring that they are not forgotten. Similarly, the Internet makes it impossible to erase any aspect of the past. Once something appears in the ‘E’ sphere, it is almost impossible to delete it.
Lawrie Shabibi’s Scripted Reality is a timely look at our technological age. Whether the exhibition had taken place in Dubai or London makes no difference to the impact of the comments made by the artists; the blurring of lines between fact and fiction is a global phenomenon. With many of the artists directly commenting on the post-internet era we are now living in, the exhibition emphasised just how easily images can be manipulated and re-contextualized to project a tailored, sometimes even ‘fake’ story so that something that is false is easily accepted as real.
Scripted Reality was on display at Lawrie Shabibi, 10 Hanover Street, London W1S 1YQ between and 26 June and 10 July 2018
Yazan Khalili’s Hiding Our Faces Like a Dancing Wind continues to be on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the exhibition Being: New Photography 2018 through 19 August 2018