PRINT Summer 2018


Adelita Husni-Bey Postcards from the Desert Island, 2010, digital video, color, sound, 22 minutes 23 seconds.

“REPEAT DARKLY,” said Adelita Husni-Bey: “‘There is no such thing as society, there are men and women.’” During an interview with Clara Schulmann in 2015, Husni-Bey uttered Margaret Thatcher’s famous words as if they were a sinister spell—in J. L. Austin’s terms, not a constative (“There is no society”), but a performative (“I, Thatcher, hereby abolish society”). Husni-Bey is hardly alone in ascribing a malevolent power to the Iron Lady. Across Britain, downloads of “Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead” shot up when Thatcher passed away in 2013. And while the Munchkin effervescence was doubtless invigorating, it was somewhat premature.Thatcher’s legacy, that cauldron of policies and attitudes known as neoliberalism, has only grown in potency. Ruthless and relentless, it now encircles the globe.

Adelita Husni-Bey, Gestures of Labour, 2009, Super 8 transferred to digital video, color, silent, 5 minutes 39 seconds. Adelita Husni-Bey, Story of the Heavens and Our Planet, 2007, Super 8 transferred to digital video, color, sound, 7 minutes 7 seconds. Adelita Husni-Bey, Clays Lane Archive (detail), 2009–12, still from the 26-minute 24-second video component (color, sound) of a mixed-media installation.

As with many well-worn quotations, there are conflicting records of Thatcher’s exact phrasing. Did she say, “There is no such thing as society,” or “Who is society? There is no such thing”? Sources vary. One certainty, however, is her self-contradiction. “There are individual men and women,” she added, “and there are families.” What are families if not a social unit? Political theorist Wendy Brown has pointed out this discrepancy in Thatcher’s rhetoric to explain why our own era's prevailing order inflicts so much harm. Neoliberalism compels individuals to behave as entrepreneurs of the self, free to succeed (or fail) in a volatile marketplace. The realities of family, community, and other relations of care have no place in an economic theory premised on perfect autonomy and pure competition. Thus, to achieve its ideal conditions, neoliberalism must eliminate all structures of mutual support while refusing to acknowledge or compensate for their disappearance. Where neoliberalism flourishes, collective life withers, or, worse still, degenerates into a virulent tribalism.

Adelita Husni-Bey Postcards from the Desert Island, 2010, digital video, color, sound, 22 minutes 23 seconds.

Husni-Bey seeks alternatives. Her work asks what forms of collective life are still possible, and what concrete steps can be taken to reverse neoliberalism’s individualizing effects. She is alert to the irony of pursuing her inquiry through the art world, which can easily be construed as a neoliberal fever dream of lax regulation and flexible labor. Where else does one find such widespread internalization of personal branding, self-sacrifice, status consciousness, and anxiety over one’s own disposability? It’s a wonder that Thatcher never launched a second career as a dealer.

View of “Adelita Husni-Bey: Playing Truant,” 2012, Gasworks, London. Wall: Policy. Benchmark. Criteria., 2012. Photo: Hydar Dewachi.

Raised in Libya, Italy, and the United Kingdom, Husni-Bey studied at Chelsea College of Arts and Goldsmiths, both in London. There, she supplemented the formalist and semiological methodologies of her art-school training with research into sociology, anarcho-collectivist pedagogy, and the group exercises of Brazilian activist and theater director Augusto Boal. Her early work can be seen as a series of experiments in how to represent social groups living in states of heightened precarity. For the video Gestures of Labour, 2009, she focuses her camera on the hands of migrants living in Jakarta, Indonesia. In Story of the Heavens and Our Planet, 2007,she interviews and records conversations among eco-activists blocking deforestation by camping in the trees of Titnore Wood and Stanton Moor in England. Clays Lane Archive, 2009–12, consists of photographs, drawings, and other materials collected from the former residents of a London housing cooperative torn down to make way for the 2012 Olympic Games. During the summer of the Olympics, Husni-Bey exhibited the archive at Supplement Gallery, then in the city’s Bethnal Green district; in parallel, she staged at a nearby public library a theatrical performance in which former Clays Lane residents played their past selves.

Husni-Bey asks what forms of collective life are still possible, and what concrete steps can be taken to reverse neoliberalism’s individualizing effects.

For a solo exhibition at Gasworks, London, in December 2012, Husni-Bey constructed a timeline that tracked the infiltration of neoliberal principles into UK public education. Titled Policy. Benchmark. Criteria., 2012, the wall piece highlighted successive funding cuts, including the one that inspired the refrain “Thatcher, Thatcher, Milk Snatcher,” and the rise of privatized “free schools” (the British equivalent of charters like Success Academy in the United States). As a counterpoint to this market-based definition of free, Husni-Bey screened Postcards from the Desert Island, 2010, a twenty-two-minute video set at École Vitruve, a Paris elementary school modeled on the pedagogy of syndicalist Célestin Freinet. There, Husni-Bey asked the students to map out their own makeshift desert-island civilization. The video documents their planning process, a bubbly debate, conducted with cardboard and Magic Marker, over how best to delegate responsibility and distribute resources.

Adelita Husni-Bey Postcards from the Desert Island, 2010, digital video, color, sound, 22 minutes 23 seconds.

A reviewer for Frieze wondered aloud whether the children in Postcards were being fed their lines off camera. The suspicion was unfounded, but nonetheless telling. Just as it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, so it is easier to assume that children will squabble selfishly than accept that they might work to build consensus. Yet the students of École Vitruve do just that. They draft laws to distinguish between public and private, vote on whether to build a prison, and, when one of the boys attempts to assert control, gleefully chant, “Pas de roi!” (“No king!”) while waving protest signs.

Adelita Husni-Bey, White Paper: The Law, 2015, six silk-screen posters on cotton rag, each 55 1/8 × 39 3/8". From the series “White Paper,” 2014–16. Installation view, Casco Art Institute: Working for the Commons, Utrecht, Netherlands, 2015. Photo: Niels Moolenaar.

Postcards established the template for Husni-Bey’s uniquely bisected practice. First, she organizes workshops in which she serves as an educator, leading a group through pedagogical exercises or a shared project. Scenarios have ranged from one in which she assigned Italian teenagers to represent the interests of workers, bankers, and other political actors (in Agency, 2014) to the remarkable three-part “White Paper” series, 2014–16, for which she assembled homeowners, activists, and lawyers in Egypt, the Netherlands, and Spain, respectively, to draft proposals for local land use and stronger squatters’ rights. Once the teaching is done, Husni-Bey reassumes her role as an artist, compiling and editing documents, drawings, photographs, and video footage to create a record of the workshop for a broader public.

Importantly, Husni-Bey treats these roles as separate, upholding a distinction between communal process and exhibited product. This is the concession she makes to operate within the art world, which, for all its issues, she views as a more open forum than, say, an NGO or an academic department. Picking her battles, she accepts that museums will inevitably designate her the sole author of these projects and makes efforts to mitigate the resulting power imbalance: She allows workshop participants to opt out of being photographed or recorded, compensates them for their time, and distributes among them a portion of the profits from the sale of her videos. Ultimately, however, her ability to secure support for her exploration of modes of collective engagement hinges on her willingness to cultivate an individual profile. The paradox is real.

Husni-Bey’s films set off a push and pull between the detachment of ethnographic study and the empathetic engagement of a slow-burning narrative.

Husni-Bey’s approach resembles that of the artist Artur Z·mijewski, insofar as both place participants in predetermined setups and record the outcomes in documentary videos. Yet whereas Z˙mijewski’s scenarios prominently feature individuals marked by profound trauma, and seem premised on the belief that subjective transformation comes about through shock, Husni-Bey roots out the social conditioning that arises from simply surviving capitalism day to day. Thus, for those of us who encounter Husni-Bey’s work through her exhibited videos, the experience has little in common with that of viewing Z˙mijewski’s discomfiting provocations. Instead, Husni-Bey’s films set off a push and pull between the detachment of ethnographic study and the empathetic engagement of a slow-burning narrative. The workshop documented in After the Finish Line, 2015, gathered together a group of Californian high-school athletes who had all pushed their bodies to the point of serious injury. At first, one studies these teenagers’ clothes, postures, and personal statements for insight into the socioeconomic impact of sports on the American education system. With time, however, a subtler theme emerges: In the very act of vocalizing their investment in athletic pursuits, the students register the shared set of external pressures that led to their respective injuries. Pain, which so frequently is not just debilitating but isolating, becomes a medium of mutual recognition.

Six stills from Adelita Husni-Bey’s After the Finish Line, 2015, 4K video, color, sound, 12 minutes 39 seconds.

Portions of After the Finish Line were set in an abandoned section of a Cupertino mall (quite literally a marketplace that had failed to survive in the neoliberal marketplace). One student, a gymnast, performed a parallel-bar routine on an escalator outside a former Sears. Husni-Bey shot the video in HD, taking full advantage of slow-motion and lighting effects to achieve an uncanny resemblance to Nike advertisements. She employed this same commercial-grade technology to capture quieter moments, such as a Boal-inspired exercise in which the students repeatedly placed their hands on one another’s injuries. It was this switch in registers—from the sheen of spectacle to the intimacy of bare skin in contact—that led me, on a recent studio visit, to ask Husni-Bey about technology: Could she imagine holding a workshop over communication networks, despite the individuating effects of digital devices, or did she see the need for a physical setting, be it a classroom, a theater, or a museum? “I do think there’s a need for touching,” she responded, “for feeling bodies in the space.” Collective life, she contends, is intrinsically haptic. The process of breaking Thatcher’s spell begins at our fingertips.

Adelita Husni-Bey’s work is on view in “Being: New Photography 2018” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, through August 19.

Colby Chamberlain is a lecturer at Columbia University.