Beyond borders

Jul 25, 2007 at 12:00 am

On the winter 2007 cover of Bidoun, a muscle-bound Uncle Sam rolls up his sleeves and proclaims "IRAN ... You're Next!" The image, altered from a 1940s piece of anti-Japanese propaganda, raises questions about who "our enemy" is.

Editor-in-chief Lisa Farjam, an Iranian who grew up living in the United States and Dubai, founded the magazine in 2003, two years after 9/11 when "our enemy" came to refer almost exclusively referred to the Middle East and its peoples. At the same time, the art world's interest in the Middle East was growing, a phenomenon senior editor Negar Azimi refers to as "post 9/11 fetishism." A market for cultural interpreters arose. Whether this interest grows or wanes, Azimi explains in a phone interview, the magazine's role isn't to anoint star artists.

Farjam and Azimi say they started the magazine for people like themselves, people with, in Azimi's words: "mixed, confused, bi-geographical identities." The word Bidoun, in both Arabic and Farsi, translates literally to "without," connoting the statelessness many people of Middle Eastern origin now find themselves in. Even the way the magazine is run underscores this: The central office is in New York City, the printing is done in Canada, and most of the work is accomplished through phone and e-mail since staff and contributors are spread out all over the world.

Since the publication premiered in spring of 2004 — with issue "zero" entitled "We are you" — Bidoun has offered a potent mix of theory, arts, pop culture and politics. Not strictly a visual arts magazine, it also covers literature, technology, television and cinema and politics — basically, culture, roughly defined. While earlier issues focused more on art as decoration, recent issues have edged closer to the border of art and politics.

"We're looking at a lot of fringe movements in the Middle East," Azimi says. The topics covered aren't necessarily the general concerns of the Middle Eastern public, for instance, the political significance of pop stars or analysis of soap operas. Food photographs and recipes for haggis samosa and a blood-red Iranian martyr's fountain cake subvert taboos and mix cultures in ways that are hilarious, visually appealing, but maybe not all that delicious.

Bidoun's sparse, bold layout, which has become much more elegant in recent issues, includes centerfolds, commissioned art work and even multi-lingual tear-out phrase books full of both inappropriate and irreverent questions and statements — and recipe cards. A curatorial column accompanies the requisite exhibition reviews. The Diwan Arab Arts Conference, held biannually at Dearborn's Arab American National Museum, was discussed in an issue last year.

The publication has received worldwide press coverage, some of which ironically emphasizes the need for multi-dimensional representation of the Middle East — and then perpetuates stereotypes. A June issue of Time Out New York inaccurately reported that police raided the office of Bidoun's printers in Dubai over an image of exposed legs, forcing the printing operation to move to Canada. This is a sensationalized exaggeration of what happened. The editors did decide to black out the legs in the tiny image, but they see it as a matter of accessibility more than self-censorship. There was no police raid.

Says Azimi, "We're very aware of these contexts in which we're circulated," and it's more appealing to circulate cutting edge cultural criticism and theory than to show a lot of skin. "We've been able to do everything we've wanted to do." The move to Canada was motivated by cheaper printing rates and the possibility of a better quality publication. Bidoun still has a good base in Dubai.

At $10 an issue, Bidoun can't pretend to be totally accessible. But the editors are mindful of this. Bidoun sells for less in Cairo and is distributed for free in Iran. While the magazine is written in English, an Arabic or Farsi supplement is planned. While the Middle East is the magazine's point of departure, there are no limits, evidenced by an article on Yoshua Okon's Boca Negra, a video installation spotlighting a group of Mexican "Third Reich enthusiasts" who sell Nazi memorabilia in Mexico City.

"Our vision of the Middle East is really, really flexible," Azimi says. "It's the Middle East and its diaspora, but we've written about India, Central Asia and Afghanistan, so it's very fluid. It's very difficult for us to pinpoint exactly what's interesting to us, but it's just kind of, you know, weird cultural phenomena and developments of the arts in that region, vaguely defined. The voice that we're pushing links all these seemingly disparate voices."

When I first stumbled upon the "Icon" issue, with the masthead's raised metallic lettering in Arabic/Farsi, designed against a collaged history of colonialism, I knew the magazine was for me. I willingly dropped the 10 bucks for it. Often art from the Middle East is seen as something ancient and Islamic, something that happened a long time ago, lost under rubble or stifled by repressive regimes. Many of us who are Middle Eastern artists feel anomalous in our community. The ads alone, featuring countless Dubai galleries and high profile Middle Eastern artists, inspire re-evaluation.

For metro Detroit's massive Middle Eastern population and its artistic community, Bidoun offers a much-needed connection to the global scene and a vision of our place in it. Local artist Basma El-Bathy says she appreciates the magazine's "unparalleled uptake of creative forms as means of communicating, educating, and activism by young and unordinary minds in thinking and discussing the many urgent issues facing or involving the region." El-Bathy also says Bidoun offers "a vital and engaging dialogue from the artistic and intellectual perspective."

Inside a wooden box, located in a field of Technicolor flowers, two young people, presumably Iranians, have a picnic together. A young man stares at the blank back of the box as if it were a TV. These images, comprising the matte-finished front and back covers of the spring 2007 issue of Bidoun, underscoring the loose definition of this issue's theme: technology. The cover image speaks to our role as TV viewers, boxing ourselves in by passively consuming what happens on the screen. But the article "One Life to Live" tackles a more interactive activity. Illustrated by screenshots of avatars staging a virtual anti-war protest, Gary Dauphin's article takes on the topic of warfare in the virtual reality sphere of Second Life, discussing war fought by individual game-users against a racist French nationalist organization. He compares this war to Joseph DeLappe's infiltration into America's Army, an online combat simulation computer game run by the U.S. Army. Instead of shooting his opponents, DeLappe performs a more subversive act, entering text that contains the name, age, branch of service and date of death of American soldiers killed in Iraq. He writes this as a sort of virtual memorial, until other displeased players shoot and kill him. It's clear why articles like are in a Middle Eastern arts and culture magazine. Many of us in the diaspora are connected to our families and homelands solely by the Internet, and media is used as a tool to recruit American youth for deployment and destruction abroad.

The summer issue of Bidoun, themed "Failure," arrived this month. The irritated hand gesture of a Bedouin woman, caught in mid-sentence addressing the viewer from a black and white screen collaged against clouds in a surreally blue sky and the cracked clay terrain of the desert punctuates an article entitled "How Not to Resist Modernity" by Sophia Al-Maria. As a descendant of the tribe enshrined on three screens (represented in the pages of the magazine with three collages) in the sparsely attended Qatari National Museum, Al-Maria reflects on the regional failures behind the destruction of her tribe.

In typical Bidoun style, there is no authoritative voice; many different approaches to "failure" are present, confronting Orientalism, colonialism, war, religion and media. In A Portrait of the Jihadist as a White Negro by Gary Dauphin, the concept of failure is represented by the media coverage of the ultimate perpetrator/victim, the "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh, and Lindh's own media-making — creating a false black persona on Internet hip-hop message boards who accused other posters of "acting black" instead of being true school like him — which Dauphin connects to Lindh's positioning of himself within the Taliban when dissatisfied with modern Islam. Rough renderings of TV screen images illustrate the article, reminding us of the CNN images we consumed in which Lindh looked both crazy and pitiful, but hardly threatening.

Bidoun covers the stuff that many other magazines would need an interpreter for, whether we're talking about the Middle East, youth culture or Internet culture. Azimi explains, "We're not strictly an arts magazine like Artforum or Art Review or FlashArt. What we're doing, you can't really reduce it to 'We look at x, y and z country,' but there is a kind of ethic and a voice that we're pioneering, and it's that we're looking at quirky, idiosyncratic phenomena that we believe in and think deserves a platform."


If you are looking for Bidoun locally, the Arab American National Museum's library has a subscription, or try Borders, 34300 Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-203-0005.

Nadia Abou-Karr writes about art for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]