The Magma of Reality
There are two opposite ways to approach Khaled Hafez’s Video Diaries (2011). The first and probably most tempting one, is to immediately bring the context to the forefront, to provide information that will clarify the kinds of images that we experience. If we take this path, we should immediately explain the various sources that the artist appropriated—a term that in the language of the Western history of art echoes a specific moment in time and space—in order to create this work. We should scrutinize what has been taken “as it is”—a video readymade if you wish—and what has been manipulated. However, the word manipulation here definitely leaves behind its etymology “mani” [hands] in order to refer to a digital manipulation, although digital also comes from “fingers”—whether through editing, special effects, music, etc. Last but not least, this approach would have to consider the political aspect of this work, the connection to the so-called “Arab Spring” and specifically the demonstrations in Egypt. It would be a very easy, fruitful, and informative analysis of a document capturing a recent chapter of our tumultuous present, its turmoil and its instability. Despite how fruitful this possibility might be, we must understand that Khaled Hafez’s Video Diaries is first and foremost a work of art. As a work of art we must approach and understand it through the filters of creativity, authorship, signature, and labor.
As a creative act, the making of Video Diaries brings the aforementioned historical events to a different level of consideration and understanding. The filter of creativity here performs in a specific way due to the fact that what we see in the work is a mix between video material that has been taken—appropriated by the artist—as it is and rearranged and video material that has been manipulated by the artist. To be completely precise, both kinds of materials have been manipulated, but while the found material—footage taken from different media outlets— has been “softly” manipulated through the act of editing, the “new material” —the portraits— have been visibly manipulated by altering the way these images come to us. Here again we understand how this work is imbued with a cut-and-paste attitude that links surrealism, automatism, collage, and the history of video art.
As the author of this work, Khaled Hafez takes full responsibility for the content and form of Video Diaries. At the same time, due to the nature of the materials employed in the work, we might assume that the artist is interested in a more complex form of authorship, a form that is connected to the notion of multiplicity, of shared economy (or struggle), of comradeship, and community. The structure of the work and the treatment of the materials once more reveal a double, or perhaps triple, position, that the artist simultaneously adopts. In the portraits of his comrades, to which this work is dedicated, Hafez’s exhibits a strong sense of authorship. At the same time, the decision to portray relevant figures in Egyptian society, protagonists of a specific time in history, can make us believe that Hafez is using his position as an author and artist to bring other authors to the forefront. Therefore, although the images have been heavily altered, they seem to have their own status: holograms of heroes brought to us through Hafez. In the other materials, the rearranged footage from different media outlets, the authorship of the artist, is apparently less visible but in fact more strong, due to the fact that Hafez applies the notion of détournement here. Through his decision to re-edit, mix and re-contextualize these materials, the footage is born again as a new creature, a sort of “new(s) Frankenstein.” The third position, a suspended one, resides in the possibility of some of the materials being actually shot by the artist rather than a media outlet. Following the history of art, we could argue whether this part of Video Diaries is a collage of photographs taken by the other people (authors, artists, reporters, people demonstrating on the street using their phones) or by the artist.
As a work of art, Video Diaries’ signature behaves according to the rule of the field. At the same time, we must also consider three elements that add complexity to Hafez’s signature. The first element is connected to the appropriated material. Through using materials shot by someone else, whether through claimed authorship or in clear anonymity or lack of authorship, the artist superimposes his signature onto several others: that of the camera man shooting for the news, the people shooting in order to witness their presence, etc. The second element is the dedication to specific people, which comes at the end of the work. If we analyze Video Diaries as a traditional work of art, we will see that there are other signatures alongside that of the artist and this is in fact an act perpetuated by the artist himself, who is using this work to acknowledge people close to him. The final element is the double “function” (or dysfunction) of Video Diaries: on one a hand work of art, on the other a document. In fact, due to the material employed and appropriated, this work of art can serve not only as a mysterious and enigmatic “thing” whose sole “function” is to make us think and to trigger our mind and imagination; it also serves as a document of a specific moment in time and space, a historical moment for Egypt, the Middle East, and for the entire world—and by consequence for humankind. As paradoxical as it might seem, this work oscillates between being a tool and being its opposite; being functional and lacking any function; serving a cause and at the same time avoiding any possible goal. This is not surprising since Hafez’s practice has already investigated issues that are opposite with each other, creating works that are oxymora.
Labor here plays a very special role. Because Video Diaries is both a work of art and the documentation of a historical moment, the labor behind it can be classified in different ways: either as the unique work of an artist or as the work of somebody who tries to narrate a very important chapter in the history of humankind through a mix of images and music. Furthermore, it must be taken into consideration that the artist plays a contradictory role. Not only because of the double context in which this work can exist—the field of art and that of documentary—but also because due to the material taken it becomes more complex to decipher the so-called “division of labor” in a work as such. In other words, due to the fact that this work includes images broadcasted by the media and often charged with propaganda, alongside more intimate first hand experiences documented by the people, including the artist himself, Video Diaries is the result of different kinds of labor. This labor is performed by different kinds of people who are united and edited by the artist—again through labor. In a mix, full of contradictions, done through different registers, originally presented and distributed quite differently, Video Diaries prompts us to reflect upon the complex nature of the reality surrounding us, a reality that art doesn’t try to explain, to illustrate, or even to document, although it might use the language of documentation; rather, art tries to unfold it in order to make it more complex rather more easy to explain and understand; more obscure, rather than shedding light on this topic or that topic.
Due to this specific nature, this work can actually be considered a contemporary triptych. This word connects us to the history of painting, since usually the word “triptych” is used to define “a picture or relief carving on three panels, typically hinged together side by side and used as an altarpiece.” This association, as bizarre as it might appear, actually makes a lot of sense, especially because of the choice of images and the way they have been treated. If we look, deeply and carefully at the faces animating this work of art, we realize how painterly they are, how their expressions can bring direct connection to certain paintings. As a continuation of the kind of approach we have taken so far, Video Diaries does not have so many elements that are not common to a triptych painting from the early renaissance. They both have a strong relationship to beauty, although its beauty might appear to us as grotesque, unbearable, and full of mistakes. They both document a specific moment in history, although they do it as complementation to the main channels for building history. Last but not least, they exist, as we said, in a specific moment in time and space (Egypt, 2011) but, at the same time, their goal is beyond these coordinates, to use this fraction of history in order to stir our imagination and perception of a reality that is ever more magmatic.