Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige: I Must First Apologize…
by Duncan Scovil
As you approach the young man speaking, the chatter of the room fades and the boy’s voice becomes clear as he quietly confides in you. He apparently is a prince on the run, in need of your help to reclaim the wealth he has lost. He promises you riches for your assistance. You see, you are his only hope: the last trustworthy person. As he finishes speaking, he disappears. An old woman, the widow of a former senator, quickly replaces him, requesting your assistance in recovering the fortune she too is due. Again, rewards are offered, desperation imparted and trust ensured. Fade to black again.
From these opening moments of I Must First Apologize …, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s exhibition currently on view at MIT’s List Visual Arts Center, you, the viewer, are asked to participate, your sympathy casting you the hero in the show’s fluctuating and surreptitious narratives. Moving around the painfully dark room of the show’s opening installation, The Rumor of the World, the appeals of the prince and the widow quickly lose their exceptionality. Engaging with a field of television monitors, each with a pair of characters speaking, the story of lost wealth repeats, as a humanitarian, a refugee, a president, a banker, even a soldier all plead for your help. Slowly, the room becomes clear, as you adapt both to the light and the con. These are scammers, or to be more precise, actors portraying scammers, reading out actual emails collected by the artists.
As you numb yourself to these pleas, the physical mechanisms of the room are subsequently revealed. A web of microphones branches out above you in the space, enabling both the intimate moment–the private confidence of the scammer – as well as the overwhelming and disorienting voice of the crowd. It is an impressive structure, an embodiment of the tricky network that the show ably navigates and charts. In its interplay of narrative and structure, and manipulation of sympathy, The Rumor of the World serves as a guide for what is to follow in this focused, yet productively contradictory exhibition. I Must First Apologize… unrolls as an experience of acclimatization, each subsequent piece further revealing the reality behind scam – its history, participants, geography and emotions.
The rest of the show that follows The Rumor of the World begins by fully exposing the structure of the con first presented. The Jerusalem Letter, a blow-up print of the 19th-century precedent for the email scam, reiterates the story of lost treasure, showing its historical origins and longevity. Accompanying this print is Fidel, a video interview with a former real-life scammer who describes the contemporary processes of the con. Further revealing the overwhelming scope of this practice, two partial globes entitled Geometry of Space, constructed through the overlaying of bent steel rods, chart the movement of individual scams around the world.
If these initial pieces offer the hope of a would-be objective understanding of scams, exhibiting research as evidence, the show quickly reinstates the disorientation necessary for these scams’ existence. synchronicity, a four-channel video installation, presents an active street in in Lebanon, complete with the scammers’ internet cafes and wire-transfer centres. A cast of characters walk between shops and cars, awkwardly jumping between screens, disappearing at a single display’s borders, only to re-appear elsewhere later. In this way, the street is revealed as a construction, suggesting the instability of the scammer’s reality.
The Trophy Room continues this movement, fully destabilizing the scammer’s position, inverting the roles of victim and perpetrator, as it catalogues the efforts of “scambaiters,” who attempt to manipulate their would-be attackers. These vigilantes’ successes are displayed as a field of monuments celebrating the scammers’ humiliation: images of tattoos gotten, performances enacted and sculptures carved. It is a strangely agonizing moment in the show, in which you become aware both of the humanity and desperation of the scammers. Sympathy begins to drift.
In its final room, I Must First Apologize… makes painfully real the narratives The Rumor of the World first presented as false. It’s All Real consists of video interviews with the actors who portrayed the characters/scammers in The Rumor of the World. Residing in Lebanon – which is also Hadjithomas and Joreige’s home – these actors are, like their characters, struggling. Their lives are filled with the same pain and adversity their characters claimed. In these true stories, however, there is no silver lining of fortune to be found. Lying nearby, on the floor of the gallery, is 200 , A Matrix, the mold used to form Geometry of Space. Instead of the vectors of movement seen in that previous work, here only single points dot the partial globe, each burned into its inverted surface. It is a poignant gesture, one that instills the analysis and research of the show with the marks of reality, removing any link between (or even indication of) victim and perpetrator.
One last piece goes unnoticed in the gallery, listed only in the show’s notes. Entitled …About Love, it is a ghost, apparently standing in for the victims of scams. In the text, Hadjithomas and Joreige cite a friend who fell prey: a prototypical stand-in for the scammed. Yet reaching the show’s conclusion, … About Love’s apparition appears to be a broader spectre, haunting seemingly everything and everyone: the scammed, the scammers, the characters and the actors. Returning to the darkened room of The Rumor of the World, fully adjusted to the show’s layered reality, empathy rewrites the room’s components, as the characters/scammers/actors emerge now fully dimensional, with the above structure serving to link their burned-in stories through the geometries and geographies of sorrow. Unable to actually participate in these narratives, given no avenue to help, you, as a viewer, can only observe the connections and the emotions, acting as a hollow embodiment of the “last trustworthy person.” It’s hard to imagine an exhibition could ever ask as much of a viewer…or offer quite as many rewards.