Expanding and Remaining by Navine G Khan-Dossos

An Unfolding Interface

By Natasha Hoare

The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
—T.S Eliot, The Rock, 1934.

The truth has never seemed more at stake than now as we stand at the precipice of 2017. Amidst the rapid bending of language in which ‘Newspeak’ phrases – ‘fake news’, ‘alternative facts’, ‘incomplete facts’ – worthy of George Orwell are regularly coined, the novelty of the ‘post-truth’ moniker conceals historic precedents of manipulation of facts. Indeed, when the truth is undermined through the widespread acceptance of lies as equivalent in value a paradigmatic shift, the proverbial canary in the coalmine, signals the rise of fascism. Within this new regime of ‘truth’ journalism has reached a crisis point. Online news sites and social media platforms replace traditional media, driven by clickbait, beholden to no standards of conduct, distributed rapidly online to recruit fighters, shape the outcome of elections, sow scandals, misdirect, and disseminate propaganda. What does art look like in the echo chamber?

This seismic shift in world politics has been accompanied by the acceleration in the complexity of the computational systems that shape the world today. From high speed trading algorithms to cloud computing, drone warfare to mechanized agriculture, immaterial global processes, and their very real infrastructures, dictate material outcomes such as war, austerity and economic downturn. These largely lie (we are perhaps encouraged to believe) beyond the scope of human comprehension, such that some artists have responded to a call for a new imaginary to be built with which we can navigate the miasma. Art, in an evidentiary realist mode, steps in to propose new modalities for grappling with this imagistic problem. In this, they are working with, and against, similar tools to those employed by regimes and terrorist organizations who marshal the potency of memes, image, and animation to spread propaganda and destabilize world systems. Self-conscious counter-imagery and drives towards the ‘truth’ become a pressing task taken up by some artists – provoking the coining of a new term; ‘evidentiary realism’.

Approaching the work of Navine G. Khan-Dossos through this frame leads to a conversation regarding the nature of artistic research. An artist’s methodology is not necessarily ethically anchored, and their relationship to ‘truth’ is not defined. Dossos’s research, whilst meticulous and in depth, is rooted in the potential for a translation of information to painterly form, with a particular emphasis on the materiality and dictates of paint and ground as her medium. This movement towards abstraction pushes a relationship to ‘evidence’ or ‘realism’, understood as providing access to a reality, but whose content enters into the spirit of the terms’ claim towards the documentary in art.

Dossos’s work does refer directly to current affairs, particularly the mediation of Daesh. It also has an embedded stylistic relationship to ‘truth’. In earlier works, she references the forms of aniconism; an Islamic tradition of abstraction with a specific relationship to art as a pathway to truth. In the use of fractals, related to Golden Age advances in mathematics and geometric theory, artists and craftsmen employing aniconic forms in architecture, textiles, painting, and other media, mapped the divine truth of creation through an algorithmic aesthetic; Dossos draws on Laura Mark’s account of aniconism in relation to new media art, Marks proposes an ‘aesthetics of unfolding and enfolding whereby an image acts as an interface with information, and information acts as an interface for the infinite.’ 1

Dossos tools this approach to consider contemporary realities. In her work the fractal pattern becomes intimately related to the pixel, the visual unit through which our relationship to world events is mediated. In the wall painting My TV Ain’t HD, That’s Too Real, 2015 one layer of tessellated forms (a NASA image of a sun-synchronous orbit), scaled to a standard TV monitor size, uses colours drawn from Daesh’s video of the execution of journalist James Foley. The same video was analysed by British investigative Eliot Higgins, who geo-located the exact site of the execution using satellite imagery of Raqqa, Syria. Here, one story elicits two very different responses – a forensic analysis used to provide evidence of the ‘true’ site of the killing, and an abstraction of the same information into a painterly interface whose referent unfolds over time, whose beauty wrong-foots the viewer, leading her into a contemplation of Foley’s death and its world wide mediation. The two operate with vastly different strategies, but both move towards a truthful understanding of the brutality of the journalist’s murder and its weaponisation by Daesh on a global platform.

In her more recent work, Dossos has produced a series of panels that distil spreads of Dabiq, an online recruitment magazine for Daesh, into abstract forms using colours drawn from RGB and CYMK palettes; speaking to the functionality of colour in digital technology and print. The works are also distributed as PDFs through the website Ibraaz, mimicking Dabiq’s own distribution. Here Dossos moves away from the perhaps problematic beauty and abstraction of fully-fledged aniconism, instead reducing and isolating the graphic structural components the organisation decided would appeal to its readers whilst abstracting these to cut their on-going exchange and distribution. New works from the series INFOESQUE take as their source Rumiyah, the magazine that since 2016 has replaced Dabiq. Rumiyah breaks with Dabiq in moving the terrorist’s aesthetic to incorporate overtly Islamic arabesque forms – drawing on an aesthetic tradition as a statement of authority. The paintings reproduce the arabesque forms and redact the accompanying texts, leaving the arches and swirls hanging in flat space, through isolation reiterating their almost surreal deployment. Strangely, after bit rot has set in, Dossos’s panels may be all that is left of the original magazines – a last painterly echo. Dossos proposes a black mirror 2 to our post-truth contemporary paradigm of constant crisis, one that distils complexity to abstracted form, itching at deeper truths whilst maintaining a truth to her medium.

  1. Marks, L. Enfoldment and Infinity, An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art. 2010, MIT Press.
  2. Black Mirror here refers to the Claude Glass; a small convex dark tinted mirror used by landscape painters in the 18th and 19th century. When viewing a landscape through the glass it was usefully reduced in both form and colour, lending itself to translation into a painted image.