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February 7, 2007

Lisa Farjam

Celia Peterson

Paolo Woods

Negar Azimi

Tarek Al-Ghoussein

Bidoun was established in 2003 by editor-in-chief Lisa Farjam as the first international magazine to focus on the arts and culture of the Middle East. As a platform for dialogue and exchange, the publication challenges some of the stereotypes associated with the region through the language of visual art and culture. Artkrush contributor Sara Raza interviews Farjam about the magazine's history and evolving future.
AK:  The Middle East is a politically charged area; what do you see as the relationship between art and politics there?
LF:  Any form of expression is a political act, but you could make the case that the link between art and politics is exceptionally intimate in the Middle East, whether it's a question of representation, expression, funding, or exhibition space. In the Middle East, art-making occurs in relation to ideas about nationhood, "good art," censorship, etc., which all intersect with political discourse. One can't really talk about the arts in this part of the world without raising the question of politics.
AK:  What do you feel are some of the editorial advantages and limitations of producing a magazine that initially set out to focus purely on one particular region?
LF:  The limitations are obvious enough — especially when it comes to questions of representation — but the advantage is that we're contributing to a dialogue that is occasionally stagnant by filling a void of knowledge about the Middle East outside of the region. There is so devastatingly little beyond sound bites. There's also the feeling that we're part of a movement, a collective exchange that spans cities like Beirut, Cairo, Tehran, and Rabat. It's very exciting that we're linking artists, writers, and curators who would otherwise have little opportunity to meet.
AK:  Satire and wit are key elements in your editorial style and selection of artists, such as Shirana Shahbazi and Farhad Moshiri, who both frequently appear in the magazine. How important is the magazine's sense of humor during a time of great uncertainty and change in the region?
LF:  Precisely because of the loaded nature of representation, there's an intense self-reflection and even subversiveness about our work. I suppose this goes beyond personal taste and is born of the fact that you can't pretend to be authoritative or absolute when it comes to arts and culture from the Middle East. Some artists — like the two you mentioned, as well as the SHARZAD Collective — are well-aware of the dominant tropes that define the views of the region and work to turn those assumptions upside down. Humor is of great importance, and we do have a firm belief, editorially, that a lot of writing about the arts, or writing in general, takes itself far too seriously. Contributing engaging, original, and accessible writing to the mix — which often owes a great deal to humor — is certainly a central goal of this project.
AK:  Who are some the most interesting artists working with social and political issues that you have featured in Bidoun, and what did you find most engaging about their work?
LF:  I'd hate to pigeonhole artists as working purely with "social or political issues" because, in a sense, they all do. However, I can name a few who make activism a serious part of their work. Naeem Mohaiemen, who writes for us, blurs the line between art and activism both in his personal work and in his curatorial projects. In our next issue he'll produce an artist's project. Walid Raad clearly addresses issues related to history and representation, as do many other artists who deal with the Lebanese civil wars, such as Akram Zaatari. Jill Magid, another artist featured in our forthcoming issue, focuses on surveillance culture, and her work is an important alternative to knee-jerk political art.
AK:  Are there any limitations for artists working in the Middle East whose work addresses political and social topics?
LF:  It would be naïve to think that artists in the Middle East are censored or limited to using extended symbolism because of repressive regimes. They're getting away with a lot; for example, the Tehran art scene is rich and extremely active.
AK:  Who do you perceive as your core readership, and do you feel this will change in accordance with growing interest and investment in the Middle East?
LF:  Our core readership is mixed, which may be one of our greatest achievements. Sure, we have the predictable bunch whose lives directly intersect with the arts and culture of that region — but then we also have people who enjoy the arts, those who have an interest in the Middle East, and those who simply like the idiosyncratic nature of our pages.
AK:  The magazine has embarked on several curatorial and collaborative projects with galleries including the Counter Gallery in London and P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in New York. How have such cross-disciplinary collaborations affected the magazine and its subsequent reception?
LF:  Bidoun is an idea and an ethic before it's a magazine. Of course, these ideas and tendencies spill out of the realm of print production, and we like to organize events as often as we can. We engage with exhibitions such as The Galleries Show at Extra City in Antwerp, Belgium and film screenings at the Curzon Cinema in London, curated by Tirdad Zolghadr, a regular contributor. We're currently producing a collaboration on architecture with Markus Miessen and London-based curator and writer Shumon Basar. By exploring other venues, such as cinemas, galleries, and museums, we reach new audiences we would have otherwise missed.

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