Zurich

Karam Natour, Nothing Personal, 2017, two-channel HD video, color, sound, 21 minutes 8 seconds.

Karam Natour, Nothing Personal, 2017, two-channel HD video, color, sound, 21 minutes 8 seconds.

Karam Natour

Sommer Salon Zurich

In Karam Natour’s twenty-one-minute two-channel video Nothing Personal, 2017, the artist calls emergency services and then waits for them to come feature in his movie. At first, it seems like the kind of thing a bored teenager might cook up. And there’s the rub: Sometimes it’s only through idiocy that you pose the right questions.

The piece begins with a black screen. We hear a ringtone and Natour’s plaintive voice. We see him lying in a white room on a bed with vermilion sheets, wearing only a T-shirt and underpants. He can’t move, he says. Having established his address, in Tel Aviv, the operator asks some basic questions. Has he injured himself? No. Has he got a fever? No. He says he’s stuck, he can’t get out of bed. And—magnificently poker-faced—he says he feels like he has something inside of him that needs to get out. Within minutes the first responders arrive: motorcyclists, with the insignia of the Magen David Adom (Red Star of David) paramedic service, who are still taking off their helmets and pulling on their latex gloves as they reach him. They quiz him as well. Almost immediately another group of emergency workers arrive; these have come in an ambulance. They repeat the questions, perform diagnostic tests, and query one another. By the time a third team arrives, the small studio seems full of people in uniforms, with increasing amounts of equipment. It is clear that the artist is vulnerable, and we feel, with him, that he has lost control of his experiment almost from the moment he shared his address. The stakes of the deceit, by this point, have started to seem a little high.

Inevitably, someone sees the camera. “He is recording us with a camera here,” one of the emergency workers says. There is a fractional pause. A female ambulance officer responds, “Smile!” They quickly determine that there is nothing seriously wrong with him. One of the bedside medics gently suggests that all of Natour’s symptoms are likely the product of stress. As quickly as they have come, they leave again. Less than twenty minutes after making his emergency call, Natour is alone again. Looking for all the world like someone who has made it through a profound trial of strength, he sits up in bed.

Strategically, Natour had made his call in English. As he explained it to me, English enabled him to make requests detached from his identity. As an Arab Israeli, speaking imperfect Hebrew, to say nothing of Arabic, would have marked him out. English, for Natour, is the language in which one can claim universal rights. After Nothing Personal was screened at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in 2017, it drew the predictable and sensible criticism: How can you prank emergency services like this? What if someone had been having a genuine heart attack down the road? Natour’s response: Emergency services are there to help. Why shouldn’t an artist be able to seek help from them? After all, no one would criticize someone in labor for calling an ambulance. Wasn’t he in the same situation? But perhaps more to the point, his simple request enabled him to create a kind of “twilight zone” within which he could safely test the state.

Showing such a video in a major museum underlines that the work is more than a one-dimensional prank. But in Zurich for Natour’s show “Blessing in Disguise,” which also included eleven digital drawings as well as another video, Nothing Personal was screened in a single-channel version in an empty private apartment. I watched it sitting on what had once been someone’s bed. Neither an off-space in an ex–industrial precinct nor one of the luxurious showrooms of Rämistrasse, Sommer Contemporary Art is an anomaly by Zurich standards. It is in one of the city’s most prestigious neighborhoods, but it feels like the secret embassy of a government in exile; its unexpected shows frequently feel smuggled in. Part of the potency of Natour’s video is that it makes the day-to-day business of the gallery seem a sequel episode.