Byproducts of Development
A conversation between Hamed Bukhamseen & Abdullah Al-Mutairi
“Byproducts of Development” utilizes the form of fan labour known as “vidding” to narrate inhabitant’s visceral experience of hyper-development in Kuwait through the use of personal, popular, and found media.
Focusing on the environmental and social impact industrial expansion has had on bodies and identity, these “fan flicks” attempt to contextualize the physical experience of severe economic changes. They aim to theorize the shift towards a specific “global empathy” that has emerged through digital connectivity and the emotional resonance youth find with corporate produced alt-media from the west.
Vidding, the term used for the practice of creating music videos using multiple media sources, grew out of a thirst for representation in the American media industry. Fandoms splice existing media to project their own emotional reading of scenarios, often heightening femme and queer undertones not often represented in popular media.
The prosumer impulse to consume and regurgitate media, though a global phenomenon, can be seen most clearly in regions where a phase of rapid development coincided with democratic access to multimedia technology; reflecting an aspirational desire to embody a recognizable modernity that pushes against, while simultaneously reinstating, empire.
Hamed Bukhamseen (co-curator of Kuwait’s Pavilion at the 15th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia) met with artist Abdullah Al-Mutairi to discuss his videos and their relation to suburban development and environmental pollution in Kuwait, the physiological and psychological repercussions of “modernity”, and emotionality’s relation to digital empire.
Hamed Bukhamseen: The mechanisms of urban planning and development in North American cities, and elsewhere, have followed calculated principles with sometimes sinister intentions: infrastructure is used as a tool to segregate portions of the population and areas are purposely designated to achieve the same goal.1
It could be said that cities in the Gulf seem to have taken these cues from such metropoli and implemented them to a degree during their rapid development in the mid-20th century onwards. However, the direct physiological and psychological impact on the populace that resides in these cities has seldom been taken into consideration outside of academic writing. That’s what I find kind of fascinating in this initial video.
Abdullah Al-Mutairi: There is a certain empathy in design that seems absent here, in art as well as in architecture. Empathy for the people. It’s rare to find a creative here in Kuwait who creates with empathy for those around them and their surroundings instead of for an abstract “global” audience. Sometimes creatives would like to think their work is global when it’s just self-exotification, and they act dumb when class appropriation is brought up…
HB: Empathy is a vital characteristic in the creative fields. A lack of understanding of your audience/client implies a certain imposition of an ideal that doesn’t necessarily resonate or relate to context. I’m thinking about the early growth of Gulf cities, Kuwait in particular, and how the suburbanization of the populace truly affected the sense of kinship and structure of society. 2
The inner suburbs closer to the once historic downtown would be associated with wealthier segments of society, while those on the city fringe would be relegated to tribal Bedouin communities and members of lower socioeconomic status. An almost literal socio-spatial interpretation of the city’s planning could be garnered based off of concentric proximity to the urban center.
AAM: I was just speaking with my Dad about this––the distribution of land and how certain areas on the outskirts became what they are now. There were certain feelings I wanted validated and rumors I wanted confirmed, for example that tribal families were pushed to the margins from the beginning! We know this to be true to some extent, but I’m also wary of applying certain social analyses rooted in the West to here. It’s so easy to self-victimize, or fall into conspiratorial thinking that isn’t based on lived reality. What came out of the conversation with my Dad was that, actually, in the beginning, residential areas were distributed in a pretty utopian way… on a first come first serve basis.
HB: It’s true that some residential areas in the country were originally designated for particular segments of society. However for the most part, the suburban areas of Kuwait were built with utopian ideals in mind, and planning authorities attempted to have various socio-economic strata live amongst one another.
The eventual concentration of wealthy families in certain areas such as the districts closer to the downtown contributed to higher market value due to more municipal attention being directed to these places.
The fact that tribal communities would live in the exterior suburbs of the city is partly due to the late transition to a sedentary lifestyle in place of a nomadic one. These areas are not as cared for as others; the lack of public spaces and proper updated infrastructure in these districts is evidence of a degree of marginalization compared to more affluent areas.
AAM: The wealthier an area is, the more it seems it’s inhabitants take on a “working class” image, which isn’t clocked or called out because class isn’t really openly discussed in Kuwait. It’s interesting how “authenticity” is playing out in the region, it’s as if a society isn’t modern until it parodies itself and it’s own heritage. Some of this exotification came from initial urbanization plans, but the conversation around urban development has remained between western architects and local authorities who want to project a specific image. It’s similar to Brooklyn… the glorification of a dusty past by people who can afford to gentrify an area. I was really confused by this growing up; how “bedu” was basically used as a slur against us kids from tribal families while the romantic image of the ’nomad’ in the Gulf has been increasingly appropriated alongside urbanization.
HB: The idealization of the nomad is basically an attempt to connect rapid development in the Gulf to its context by relating to a specific history/culture and precedent. The Bedouin being the emblematic symbol of the “noble savage” who was willing to leave his nomadic lifestyle yet still retain this “machismo” associated with the culture. It is here you begin to draw a direct link between populace characteristics and place.
In our previous discussions you also mentioned that these fringe communities and suburbs in fact lie in close proximity to oil processing plants… which contributes to further inadvertent marginalization through exposure to toxins that are pumped into the land, air and water.
AAM: That was actually what I was first looking into while conceptualizing this show- how the residential areas on the fringes of the city housed a lot of tribal and lower income Kuwaiti’s, and the impact such proximity to pollutants could have on mind and body. I had a neat, naive theory that petroleum produced plastics change the body. I was reacting to the bisphenol A hysteria I recently became aware of that suggests ingesting the chemical “feminizes boys”. I was relating this to when I was a one-year-old in Sabahiya after the Gulf war, breathing in the black oil fire clouds drifting up from the the fields. There’s no direct scientific link yet, but I believe pollution definitely has an impact on physiology and subsequently on the shaping of the self and identity…
HB: Plastics and waste become a recurring symbol throughout your work, which references the byproducts of development associated with fossil fuel economies and their relative environments.
An abused term coined by your colleague, Sophia Al-Maria, flashes before me: Gulf Futurism.
AAM: A lot of people misunderstood the term, I think. It became a scapegoat for people looking to belittle the entire Gulf under the guise of “critique”. The Khaleej, like anywhere else, is socially complex and contains systemic oppression that we all need to fight against without a doubt. People choose to see the wealth in the region, it’s pretty hard to miss, and generalize based on that, when in reality a huge percentage of Khaleeji’s (Gulf citizens) are poor. Sophia Al-Maria’s work was a revelation to me; not least because of the fact that she also comes from a tribal background, which is rare to find in the local art scene. What resonated with me in her work was specifically her likening of mobile technology to time-travel and her focus on the visceral experience of rapid modernization, in particular the experience of those masses who might not have known what the hell was going on or had the power to change it.
HB: A fantastic pairing that was made in this “Going Under” preview for your show dealt with human growth and the city’s growth. A pairing that calls to mind the significant amount of Kuwaitis obsessed with physique.
AAM: It’s not just Kuwait, this is just my personal experience of the phenomenon. It’s everywhere. Drastic changes would impact anyone anywhere, the only thing specific to the region is the dramatic shift in overall wealth. Increase in wealth leads to increase in free time. The issue is we don’t have the infrastructure or knowledge of what to do with this time besides “self-care”. What is lacking is empathy and a real understanding of the toll development has, and continues to have, on communities and on bodies; the impact it’s had on self-image. What did people think was going to happen when 2nd-gen wealth coincided with a newly accessible internet and an information overload? “Self-actualizing” comes off as a really violent act to me, but I can see why it’s deemed necessary by some people. I think this obsession with image, both social and personal, is connected to post-imperial anxiety and the strive to achieve and represent “modernity”. I understand why those around me choose to shoot up hormones to achieve a particular ideal instead of challenge it. It’s superficial, but real.
HB: Challenging seems to be the entire premise of this effort. Particularly how you see hyperdevelopment reinforce a specific hypermasculinity, and how any sort of ambiguity veering away from this paragon would seem to be an affront to society. The anxiety of ambiguity is one of the central themes you are dealing with. You hypothesize that those who do not fit the prescribed mold have to conform or resort to different places – virtual places – to find things to relate to.
AAM: The more I think about it, the more it seems there is a link between feelings of vulnerability and identification with a “western” counterculture. Vulnerability is something typically pushed aside as unnecessary or even embarrassing; but it’s how people learn to empathise. If a person doesn’t receive emotional affirmation in their environment, in our case a rapidly changing environment, they’re going to look for that mirroring elsewhere. I grew up with the internet, so I can testify to the satisfaction a person can get from thinking they found “their people”, in my case gender ambiguous Emo culture and fan-fiction. I really think the internet was a turning point in how global masses of people learned empathy, how youth learned to relate and identify. With this coming video series I’m trying to validate certain prosumer impulses within me while also being cognizant of how this type of media came to be in the first place. Fan flick culture really had an impact on how I see media. The realization that you could project your own readings onto existing media or construct a theory, which is what I’m doing here. It takes a certain sensitivity to tap into undertones or reconfigure media in a way to portray how you see things. An “outsider” sensitivity–– often mistaken as weakness–– becomes a means of survival.
HB: Masculinity is the ideal whilst sensitivity and empathy are signs of weakness? Sounds almost Machiavellian.
AAM: I hated that book, The Prince. It’s an example of how certain “sources”, comming from their own precise place and time, influence thinking and shift it away from alternatives. I read somewhere that The Prince is cited as a “must read” by many nation state leaders. I’ve always been interested in “pop” influences in the region because it’s so telling. Like how SIA is now sort of the posterchild of emotional strife in any connected city; she perfected the formula! What was thought of as counter culture is now pop. I guess to sum up my thinking here: there was a period when the internet opened up alternate possibilities for existence in the Gulf that sort of puttered out over time due to a “global media” takeover; “global” meaning an English speaking individual following western theory. You have kids in the gulf identifying as queer now, and that’s amazing, but then they’re also, consciously or unconsciously, acting condescendingly to those who exist outside this hegemonic information hell that separates their “queerness” from local forms of non-hetero existence. All these alternative existences being sucked into a singular form. I’m not trying to point fingers, it’s just how things are. After all, this interview is being conducted in English rather than Arabic; I’m definitely part of this process.. It’s not reversible. I’m just wondering if it’s possible to cultivate any sort of non-binary existence outside of the “non-form” forms all over Instagram rooted in western thought. “Queer” is so slippery since it’s very structure denies any root when it definitely has roots, and it’s so alluring now.
HB: Such terminology is intrinsically linked to the language of communication which has been something that we, as a generation, are grappling with. Communicating in English can mean catering to a “global” audience or mean that we are seeking validity from the outside. In this work you make it a point to provide subtitles, why is that?
AAM: Communication and language are really important to me; even more so now that I came to realize a lot of people just sample things and disregard the circumstances that allowed that work to come into existence. I wanted to focus on the significance of certain forms within a larger structure. I made an intentional decision to make work for the people I grew up with, using the forms familiar to us to discuss relevant experiences instead of pandering to outsiders with Arab drag. Intent is very important to me. I refused to translate previous videos, but in this case I included the subtitles to emphasize the lyrical meaning behind these songs that were originally in English; how this seemingly docile mirroring actually changes how people relate to others socially and culturally. A lot of these songs resonated with me and others because they are so easily understood in their embarrassing rawness. It’s easy to latch onto that emotional satisfaction and take on that culture wholesale when those around you don’t understand how the times changed how we see ourselves . if you look through Youtube you’ll find all types of fan translations, that are completely raw and invisible at the same time. I’m interested in this fan labour, in these mirror distortions of media that mark larger societal changes.
HB: Going back to the sampling of media, you draw inspiration from various sources and digitally/physically restructure them into a narrative. One of the works you mentioned you draw a significant amount of inspiration from is El Diesel by Thani Al-Suwaidi…
AAM: That novel was ahead of it’s time. I wish it was easier to find in Arabic… This was my first literary encounter with a non-binary khaleeji character that was treated with empathy and not used as an example. What I took note of was the naivety of the protagonist “El-Diesel”; they were the source and manifestation of all these changes but were themselves oblivious to this, they were just living their life! There are multiple layers to the story and I found myself constructing a similar allegory using my own personal archive of footage to narrate a larger story of regional development. I wanted to use this footage to mark a certain moment of existence but also to avoid the problem of “representation”; to consciously construct a theory of development while keeping in mind the impact, and repercussions of, the image. Honestly, I really just wanted to put video to music.
HB: Could you expand on the significance of repurposing existing material in your work? Originally through digital media, and physically through sculpture in the coming exhibition
AAM: We’re all so wasteful. I’ve always felt bad about buying new things, whatever they were, but especially art supplies.. The majority of materials in the coming show I found at friday market, the central flea market in Kuwait, or on the streets. I collected a bunch of discarded broken glass from a restaurant complex popping up near my house. A sign of the times. I want to approach the local perception of art and challenge it. I think there’s a difference between using knowledge to condescendingly come off as “in the know” and trying to have a conversation.. I’m trying to start a conversation here, I want things to change. I want people to realize what’s happening and how their actions impact what this generation is facing. And I want to do this with empathy, not blame.