Adel Abdessemed, Practice Zero Tolerance (retournée), 2008, terra cotta, 14' 5 1/4“ x 6' 10 7/8” x 3' 11 1/4".


For nearly a decade, the Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed has produced provocative artworks in numerous media, many of which take the form of actions on the street outside his home in Paris’s seventeenth arrondissement. “Situation and Practice,” an exhibition of new and recent work, opens on October 11 at the MIT List Visual Arts Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

ONE OF THE NEW WORKS for this exhibition involves David Moss, the Berlin-based singer with whom I worked on my earlier video Trust Me [2006]. For the new piece, called Hot Blood, I asked him to sing a simple sentence of my devising: “I am a terrorist, you are, you I, am I, am I a terrorist?” I put him, singing this little tune, on the sidewalk outside my home, like a piece of red meat. Perhaps luckily, there were not so many people out that day, whereas some of my past street actions—especially the one involving a lion—drew a lot of attention. For another new piece, I have re-created, in terra cotta and at a one-to-one scale, the hulk of a burned car that was impounded after being found on the street in the banlieues of Paris in late 2005. For a third piece, a sculpture, I paid prostitutes to copy out by hand the texts of the Koran, the Bible, and the Torah. As we face social and cultural forces that are increasingly dogmatic—contemporary religion being a prime example—we, as artists, cannot play games. We have a very important responsibility, perhaps now more than ever, to speak to the pressing social and political issues of our day. Presenting an exhibition in the US at this critical juncture in the country’s history speaks to my belief in artistic responsibility.

Being an artist-in-residence here in Cambridge this autumn has been a wonderful experience. Noam Chomsky and I discussed art and politics—a transcript of the conversation will appear in the exhibition catalogue—and now I am leading students in a series of workshops. One of these will play off of an annual MIT ritual; the students will have to find a piano located somewhere on campus, destroy it, and put it back together. The last part, I think, is the key lesson for them to learn: Art today should be about building something new, not only destroying what is unjust or what you do not like. To destroy is easy, to build is quite hard.

— As told to Brian Sholis