Rana Hamadeh is a visual, performance, and sound artist based in Rotterdam. Her latest exhibition, Standard_Deviation, curated by Pauline Doutreluingne, took place at Kunstverein Arnsberg from May 5 to June 18, 2023. Standard_Deviation explored tragedy as a “technology of endurance” by revisiting Sophocle’s Oedipus Rex, employing the language of theater, gaming, and algorithms. For Arts of the Working Class, independent curator, lecturer, and writer Vanina Saracino discusses the exhibition project with the artist.
Rana, I wanted to start with a comment on your general approach to artmaking: your exhibitions seem to actively refrain from representation, instead developing a site for the production of specific knowledge, or even modes of making sense of the artistic experience. What is your methodology?
Generally, I produce sequential works under larger theoretical “umbrellas” that ground terminology, references, bibliographies, and citational politics, as well as the aesthetic logics of the works. My formal research always departs from some “baroque” (extravagant, elaborate) claims or questions that require the construction of methodological frameworks, to become operative beyond, or independently from, established approaches commonly employed within academic disciplines. The art work—itself the labor that constitutes my practice—is the development of a methodology for thinking through those initial claims and questions. And the exhibition is the space in which these bespoke thinking tools and methods are activated and tested out.
Standard_Deviation is the most recent research “umbrella” you developed. Can you talk about the presentation of this body of work at Kunstverein Arnsberg, and the process that led to it?
Standard_Deviation is a long-term research project developed in various stages at Edith-Russ-Haus (Oldenburg, 2022), Secession (Vienna, 2021), and the festival steirischer herbst (Graz, 2020). It focuses on the production, consumption, and distribution of (machinic) desire within the contemporary global public discourse, with one of its core questions being: “Can the machine strike?”
The exhibition at Kunstverein Arnsberg centers around my 3D animated film installation Standard_Deviation I (2021–ongoing), a 22-minute looped projection accompanied by an immersive and cacophonous sound and media installation, which I created in collaboration with my sister and conversation partner, Sara Hamadeh. In the other four rooms of the exhibition, I present new studies that explore various cartographic offshoots derived from the animated film, which delve into its narrative, poetic, and scenographic layers, and offer an alternative way of engaging with its content. These elements also transform the densely coded images, spaces, and motifs from the film's montage into independent actors capable of existing autonomously. The film conducts a reading of the Sophoclean tragedy Oedipus Rex, focusing on the relation between father and son—the origin and its proxy—rather than on the triad of mother-father-son. In the film, the son’s desire is always directed towards the father; the proxy’s desire to become the origin at all time. I am interested particularly in this fractal form of reproduction (of desire) and its political implications.
Indeed, in Oedipus Rex, the human condition is meticulously dissected and spectacularized. The narrative unravels as Oedipus unintentionally fulfills the oracle's prophecy – killing his father and marrying his mother – despite his parents' desperate efforts to avert it by abandoning him after birth. There is an inescapable circularity in this tragedy. What led you to single out this story to address the intricate concept of desire, and how did you approach it?
I chose Oedipus Rex as I always begin with the obvious, shifting its framework until it becomes surprising, disturbing, or uncanny. When questions about the nature, architecture, and destination of desire are raised, it is not easy to ignore the rich and foundational literature about Oedipus and Oedipal desire from Sigmund Freud onward. The works in Standard_Deviation take their cues from the Sophoclean tragedy’s dramaturgical construct; its theoretical, philosophical, and psychoanalytic bearings, among other things. Their course of thinking is both cartographic and associative. The story of Oedipus is approached as a narrative device to think through the relations of desire, destiny, and technology, but also as a carrier to other stories. But that is not all.
At the core of Standard_Deviation lies the question: how can we “desire differently?” – In other words, to break out of the circular destinies that structure our entangled lives. The demands this question imposes upon us are enormous. Firstly, it assumes that there is a fundamental flaw in the way we desire (the world). Secondly, it demands from us something that we cannot simply achieve through discursive means. Desire is not a conscious construct, but rather, a complex network of conscious and unconscious trade. Such trades are constituted through forms of bondage that we cannot easily decipher. This is where the importance of tragedy comes into play.
To consider the question of desire, one needs to look beyond the cerebral reading of the Oedipal myth. The work that I am making not only conducts a reading of Oedipus Rex, but further examines the Sophoclean tragedy itself – that is, Sophocles’s figuration of tragedy as an extended machine and technology of endurance, where the object of endurance is the circularity of destiny that I just mentioned. Therefore, the story to which the questions of desire and destiny are central is inseparable from the form through which it is presented by Sophocles. Tragedy, in a Sophoclean sense, is a portion of life – infinitesimal as it is – rather than merely a theatrical form; a portion of life that centralizes, rather than resolves, the violence of reproduction of desire. The body of work that I’m making is an attempt to think of a contemporary theorization of tragedy that emerges from these ideas.
What was the initial visual reference or inspiration?
It was the image of an early 17th century engraving by Willem van Swanenburgh representing the anatomical theater at Leiden University. It became the space that I built in 3D in which a story, any story, was about to unfold. There was no better architecture in which to play Oedipus Rex than an anatomy theater. From the onset, I undertook a process akin to that of automatic writing, but with images. I wanted to follow my unconscious tendencies, observing the generative thinking patterns that manifest as imagination; the sounds and visuals that both drive and are driven by my fears and desires; that libidinal charge that produces all the networked associations, without a plan. Of course, no image is innocent.
In the film Standard_Deviation I (HD, 22’, 6-channel sound), you develop specific visual strategies to address the recurrence of the tragedy present in Oedipus Rex. The film is structured through absurd events that take place within a hyper-realist atmosphere…
Yes, the film is a constellation of phantasmagorical tableaux vivants accompanied by a 6-channel cacophonic composition. The hyper-realistic aesthetic is a way of deferring the visuals to what already exists in the digital realm, aligning with desired aesthetics in gaming. Turning the film into a computer game is a project I envision in the future.
One of the characters you see in the film is a skeletal structure being born from an exoskeletal shrimp-like creature, trying to dig an exit through a floor drain; the spine then grows a leg and tries to escape the architecture using the logics of a platform game. There is also a stone leg bound to a wobbly spine, which is bound to a drain at the center of an empty anatomy theater architecture: there is no body in between – no medium of translation between the libidinal force thrusting the leg forward as it runs for escape, or the spinal structure that ties it down to the room’s center. The leg, in its attempt to flee these chains, ends up orbiting its own stem, the spine. These nightmarish absurd events and images map out the crescendos and decrescendos of the original looping Sophoclean tragedy.
How is the circularity of destiny and the struggle to escape it recontextualized within your artistic practice?
The actual tragedy I am moved by is the circularity of destiny structuring “Oedipal life.” This desire to escape one’s own destiny is paralleled in my work by a desire for castration: a cataclysmic derailment from the inevitability of destiny. Any struggle against some type of power should be coupled with a tendency to leave that power the moment it is reached. We constantly struggle with the tragedy of the reproduction of colonial, racist, misogynistic, and capitalist infrastructures through the very performance of anti-colonial, anti-racist, queer, and anti-capitalist tropes. I wonder how we can desire differently, when, as we try to perform our refusals, we end up reproducing the same tropes we’ve refused. This speaks to a broader discourse about our desire to break away from existing models of oppression by inadvertently reproducing them. Again, this is the circularity of destiny, which brings one to perform the same curse over and over, regardless of our desire to exit the story.
This observation immediately brings to mind the desire to break free from the confines of capitalism, while recognizing the seemingly insurmountable challenge of escaping this all-encompassing construct – what Mark Fisher called “capitalist realism.” You mentioned in our conversation that Standard_Deviation I will eventually evolve into a computer game, so I wonder if you believe that gaming, with its freedom from physical constraints and the expansive potential for roleplay-based methodologies, might be of help in envisaging other narratives and different futures…
Remember all the expectations surrounding the game Second Life and the huge disappointment that followed as its players failed to offer anything new or imaginative in the digital realm? What was disappointing was not the game in and of itself, but the fact that nothing different from what already existed was developed – there was no imagination of other paradigms of living, no articulation of other desires. People just assumed different avatars and became what they desired to be within the existing paradigm of the “first life.” This connects to the idea that we act as if we would be destined to capitalism, unable to desire outside of its logics. The game I envision is not about finding alternatives; rather, I envision it as a space where this move from life to metaphor – life constantly becoming its own metaphor – is hyperbolized and played around with. I imagine the game as an exaggerated space for tragedy, operating through this idea of the circularity of destiny. I am still exploring how to imagine the infrastructure of the game. This labor goes beyond the practical aspects; it encompasses the aesthetic dimension, the existing narratives, structures, and systems that limit our imagination, as tools to expand it by means of mimicry, repetition, self-similarity and derivation.
I do not believe it is possible to name the monstrosity that we live in. But I believe that situating monstrosity within the arena of play is a stimulating practice – or even a way to explore different paths while acknowledging the limitations of the tools at hand.
- IMAGE CREDITS
Cover, fig. 1, fig. 2, fig. 4: Produktionsstill aus The Destiny Project, work in progress. Credits Rana Hamadeh, 2020.
fig. 3: Rana Hamadeh, Stereoviewer Standard Deviation box, 2021, Individual Stereoscope with own stand. Installation at Kunstverein Arnsberg 2023. Photo Michel Ptasinski.