View of “Yto Barrada,” 2016. Photo: Iris Ratzinger.

View of “Yto Barrada,” 2016. Photo: Iris Ratzinger.

Yto Barrada


View of “Yto Barrada,” 2016. Photo: Iris Ratzinger.

Yto Barrada’s video Faux départ (False Start), 2015—an investigation of the artisanal production of fake fossils—served as something like an establishing shot for her recent exhibition “The Sample Book.” The film follows the exacting methods used to fabricate historical specimens in a location somewhere “between the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara desert,” and considers why specific modes of labor have cropped up to meet the needs of particular capitalist markets. Though we do not witness a single transaction—the camera is closely focused on the physical strain and remarkable skill involved in manufacturing these curios—we can easily imagine the tourists whose desire for prehistoric souvenirs propels this trade. Barrada clearly appreciates the craftspeople’s dexterity in meeting the demands of the global travel industry; if the search for the exotic runs the gamut from locally woven rugs to “authentic” fossils, so be it. The exploitation of consumers by producers and vice versa is mutual.

Of course, the reception of objects, ideas, images, and narratives at a contemporary art venue is similarly modulated by market forces. Not unlike many other practitioners, Barrada situates herself as a highly specialized purveyor of authentic, out-of-the-ordinary experiences to visitors imagined as aesthetic day-trippers. The idea of the sample book offers a compelling framework in which to consider diverse models of labor: By definition, it is a portable medium used by merchants (often in showrooms) to display a collection of fabrics, wallpapers, color swatches, etc. Before buying goods and committing to an object in toto, customers can consult a comprehensive catalogue of smaller-scaled examples. The volume is both an archive of existing possibilities and the basis for a speculative future. Thus, the artist has tested the coloristic effects of chemical interactions between various natural substances—henna, copper, chamomile, turmeric, cochineal, quebracho, and indigo—on fabrics hung in close proximity to a blackboard (Untitled, 2016) with scraps of textile that could be rearranged by the visitor. Elsewhere, she aggregated her handcrafted fabric samples in three books that were displayed in proximity to embroideries made by unknown Moroccan artists in the 1930s and 1950s. Elements from these experiments also migrated to a digitally produced volume of images (“sampled” illustrations) that accompanied the exhibition. The overall effect was that of an emporium touting a “do-it-yourself” attitude.

An exhibition brochure explained Barrada’s discovery of a handpainted lithological chart in a museum of natural history in Morocco, which inspired her attempts to translate scientific information into color codes and geographical patterns. This hermeneutic clue expeditiously points to Barrada’s interest in the subjective dimension of even the most objective of enterprises. We can certainly appreciate her whimsical detournement of diverse scientific systems; for instance, Untitled (Nougat Sampler), 2016, is a multicolored selection of the eponymous candy occupying a vitrine that looks like it dates from the nineteenth century. Far more illuminating, however, is the notion that the sample book—which might be a commercial tool, a homemade archive, or a research or pedagogical apparatus—made visible a model for labor in the context of neoliberalism and its entanglements with all modes of life. Though the sample book focuses on types of individuation, it’s a format in which the reproduction of life circulates between the ready-made, the handmade, and the remade. Within these overlapping coordinates lay the possibilities for both the instrumentalization of labor and its self-management, thankfully, Barrada did not try to resolve this ambivalence.

Nuit Banai