TABLE OF CONTENTS

OPENINGS: SOPHIA AL-MARIA

Sophia Al-Maria, Black Friday, 2016, digital video, color, sound, 16 minutes 36 seconds.

THE QATARI AMERICAN polymath artist Sophia Al-Maria grew up shuttling between rural Washington State, where she was born in 1983, and the Arabian Gulf, to which her bedouin father had returned after he unofficially separated from her mother. But the internet is the place where her work is generated and largely lives. There, she is a time as well as a space traveler. You might describe her as a cyberhistorian of the End Times.

I first encountered Al-Maria’s work by chance on July 25, 2015, when I idly opened an e-flux mailer only to discover an intriguing post for “Supercommunity,” a publication the online journal was producing in daily installments for the 2015 Venice Biennale. The text was headed “Sophia Al Maria—TBH IDK FTW” (abbreviations for “to be honest,” “I don’t know,” and “fuck the world”: TBH, I had to google the last.) Below was an image of a headstone bearing the inscription EXCUSE MY DUST and a caption that read, “A digitally customized tombstone displays Dorothy Parker’s suggestion for her own epitaph.” Basically, Al-Maria’s piece toggles between 2015 and 1915, the latter being the year in which Parker, then an editorial assistant at Vogue, pinned above her desk a large color illustration from the mortician’s magazine Sunnyside of a cadaver ready to be embalmed. Vogue was not pleased, and Parker was forced to take her talents elsewhere. Al-Maria speculates that “writing 140-character captions for fashion magazines in wartime led [Parker] to believe that civilization was dead.” (Note the temporal collapse in the “140 character” anachronism.) Next come screen captures of a wide range of centennial tweets, including the infamous photo of a Turkish official taunting starved Armenian children during the 1915 genocide with a piece of bread. Al-Maria then fast-forwards to Kim Kardashian, Vogue cover celebrity, visiting the genocide memorial at Yerevan in 2015 (though there’s no illustration); the author’s own visit to the Armenian capital a few months earlier; and her travels in Azerbaijan, describing in one breathless paragraph the provenance of the Heydar Aliyev Center, a Zaha Hadid building named after Azerbaijan president Ilham Aliyev’s father, who is also the grandfather of a teenage boy who allegedly owns “nine Dubai mansions worth $44 million, which is calculated to amount to approximately ‘1000 years’ worth of salary for the average citizen of Azerbaijan.’”

This passage, which encapsulates Al-Maria’s aesthetic of epiphany by association, is illustrated with a screen grab of her own tweet. Captioned “Downloading a president on dial up,” it superimposes a truncated photo of Aliyev’s head and shoulders onto a tall, narrow stained-glass window, below which is an altar-like arrangement of flowers. The design of this image suggests the basic shape of Al-Maria’s current installation at the Whitney Museum of American Art (on view through October 31), which fuses two video works, Black Friday, 2016, a montage of footage of the interiors of nearly empty Doha shopping malls projected onto a tall vertical screen, and beneath it The Litany, also 2016, a burial mound of sand and glittering glass where dozens of digital devices, connected to a dizzying maze of cables, display the flickering looped images of their final downloads. But we’re getting ahead of the narrative.

When I read William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition shortly after it came out in 2003, I identified with its heroine, a “coolhunter” in search of her father, who perhaps was some kind of secret agent and was thought to have died in the destruction of the World Trade Center. She was also tracking mysteriously powerful film footage that had been released on the Web as a kind of serial. What clinched my involvement with the book was the heroine’s fascination with the display window on the ground floor of a building on Spring Street in SoHo in which antiques and collectibles were arranged as in a giant Joseph Cornell box. For decades, I had been similarly enchanted by that window, which stood only a block from where I live. The signless shop no longer exists. In 2007, Al-Maria moved to New York from Cairo, where she had attended the American University. She worked at Labyrinth Books, on 112th Street, near Columbia, and during breaks she often borrowed a book to read in the gardens of Saint John the Divine, where she was fascinated by the resident albino peacock and a grotesque piece of public sculpture named the Peace Fountain. Among her readings was Gibson’s follow-up to Pattern Recognition, Spook Country (2007), in which he describes that very peacock and the Peace Fountain. “I know I’m not the only person who loves that spot or the only person who is narcissistic enough to feel like a character in someone else’s novel,” Al-Maria writes. “But I do believe that coincidences are little more than algorithms—formulas we concoct with outcomes we least expect.” This passage is part of her introduction to “The Jackpot: A Conversation with William Gibson and Sophia Al-Maria,” her contribution to “Fresh Hell,” the 2015 issue of the UK journal The Happy Hypocrite, which she guest-edited.

Gibson and Al-Maria, it might be noted, have both coined terms with which they are identified, even though the respective terms have taken on meanings beyond those intended. Gibson’s coinage is, of course, “cyberspace”; Al-Maria’s, “Gulf Futurism,” her shorthand for “observed phenomena of accelerating changes in the Arabian Gulf.” The first time it appeared in print was in 2012, in the November issue of Dazed & Confused, where it’s suggested that Al-Maria and the musician and artist Fatima Al Qadiri, who were then music-video collaborators, arrived at the notion together. But even before Gulf Futurism was given a name, its basis as critical analysis was laid out in Al-Maria’s richest written work, The Gaze of Sci-Fi Wahabi: A Theoretical Pulp Fiction and Serialized Videographic Adventure in the Arabian Gulf (2007). Posted as a blog in 2008, it describes and analyzes the Gulf as ground zero in a heedless industrialization, financed by the global addiction to fossil fuels, that has set the planet on an irreversible path to extinction. Sci-Fi Wahabi, Al-Maria’s Cassandra-esque alter ego, observes the accompanying extreme economic inequality and religious repression, out of which arises an alt-reality, subjective and subversive. Its portal is the mobile phone (the jawal), through which private, forbidden desires take a virtual form and can be virtually shared. The tragedy of the cyberworld that the jawal has brought into being is that it cannot prevent the rapidly approaching apocalypse of the actual.

Despite her commitment to cybertools, -forms, and -space, Al-Maria first published The Gaze of Sci-Fi Wahabi on paper, and she has written two other books. The Girl Who Fell to Earth (Harper Perennial, 2012) is a memoir of a childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood lived between two worlds, and central to it is the story of how the regressive nationalism(s) of both her father and mother after 9/11 allowed her to emancipate herself from both worlds and find the place from which she speaks today. Rougher and more provocative, Virgin with a Memory (Cornerhouse and The Third Line, 2014) is Al-Maria’s most explicitly feminist work. The novelization of a movie that was never made, it combines her script for Beretta, a rape-revenge movie that transposes Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 (1981) to Cairo during the uprising that began in 2011; a diary of the artist’s three-year-long, failed struggle to get the film into production; and a fictional first-person narrative in the voice of the screenplay’s central character, a mute lingerie-shop salesgirl who becomes a killer after she is raped. Virgin with a Memory was published in conjunction with Al-Maria’s first solo exhibition, an installation at Cornerhouse in Manchester of artifacts—texts, photos, videos—that might have become DVD extras had Beretta not been shelved.

As it was, the work on the potential genre/ art-film hybrid gave Al-Maria the credentials to land her day job, writing scripts for films and TV. (She is currently based in London.) It also led to a sustained involvement with the moving image. Purloined from “private” internet videos of young Arab women dancing together, some scantily dressed, the clips Al-Maria marshalled for the video installation Sisters, 2014–15, are “censored” by colorful arrangements of pixels that only partially obscure the bodies, making us aware of how much we want to see what is hidden. (Joan Jonas’s 1972 video Vertical Roll activates a similar voyeuristic impulse.) Al-Maria further eroticizes the footage by rotating some of the images ninety degrees, so that, instead of dancing, the women seem to be undulating on invisible beds. But by far her most expressive and moving short video is A Whale Is a Whale Is a Whale, 2014, which combines underwater images of Arabian humpback whales with the sounds of their cries and chatter and a delicately robotic voice—characterized as belonging to the whales—that describes the destruction of the leviathans’ habitat and the humpbacks’ awareness of their coming extinction.

Black Friday, Al-Maria’s installation at the Whitney, is more ambitious, imposing, and technically accomplished than the artist’s previous moving-image work. In a large darkened room, a narrow floor-to-ceiling screen displays footage shot inside two Doha shopping malls, edited together so it seems to represent a single space. The images are vertically stretched and horizontally squeezed to fit a screen whose proportions suggest an altarpiece in a house of worship devoted to consumerism. While these malls have the curved lines and mosaic designs typical of Islamic architecture (the structures’ Italianate aspirations notwithstanding), the arrangement of their corridors and escalator-connected levels is part and parcel of the mall experience that originated in the United States and was rapidly adopted worldwide. Thus strangers in strange lands everywhere are lulled into feeling at home in malls, where they find a salve for their alienation in shopping. But few shoppers are present in these images. The camera, often mounted on a drone, swoops through empty corridors, occasionally encountering attenuated figures moving in narcotized slow motion. A close-up of a woman’s face melts into a swirl of color. Another woman is sprawled out as if dead on the floor. A nearly seventeen-minute loop that begins and ends with an image of side-by-side escalators leading nowhere, Black Friday suggests a psychedelic horror film or the description in the Qur’an of the melting and upheaval of the earth at the apocalypse, an association confirmed by the frequent blasts of a ram’s horn that punctuate the work’s synth score, which is as scary and cheesy as that of a biblical B movie. The Qur’an specifies two horn blasts on the day of reckoning; here they sound as incessantly as a fire alarm. If you approach the screen in order to examine the heap of digital devices comprising The Litany, you will hear the chipmunk-like chattering of the jawals in counterpoint to the horn blasts, the two pieces making world’s-end music together. Still, nothing in Black Friday is as powerful as Al-Maria’s description of the death of Sci-Fi Wahabi: “The collapse/explosion that occurred when she disappeared with the rest of her people was not recorded. There was no final transmission, no fleeting last Bluetooth message to authenticate her exit, she was just gone, leaving only a dead and locked Nokia N95 rocking in the dust.”

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Artforum.