Thirty-nine-year-old Egyptian artist Basim Magdy lives between Basel and Cairo, producing work in multiple media, including video, photography, works on paper and sculpture. His neon-infused, cryptically titled artworks explore the tenuous relationship between utopian vision and pragmatic compromise. They present strange vistas populated by dilapidated technologies and weird creatures, artifacts from what Magdy refers to as humanity’s “failed futures.”
Magdy exhibits internationally and was Deutsche Bank’s 2016 “Artist of the Year,” but he also puts his works online. His current retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, The Stars Were Aligned for a Century of New Beginnings, is his first solo show at an American museum. Curated by Omar Kholeif, it includes a number of the artist’s films, photographs and drawings from the past decade. Shortly after the opening of The Stars Were Aligned, the artist and I had a conversation about his work, his process, history, the future, failure, hope, and science fiction.
Dan Jakubowski: When I first saw you in Chicago, you were talking with a group of young students at the MOCA. And at the end you asked the audience to respond to your show on Twitter. How does this open relationship with your public play into your artistic practice?
Basim Magdy: It was Instagram actually, not Twitter. I’m interested in engaging with people in any way, actually. In any way I can. That’s why I put all my films online. I want people to watch them and respond to them. I want people who wouldn’t normally go to an exhibition or a film festival to come across them. Maybe they’re not even interested in art. But then they come across the films, and they see something and experience something new. Maybe it will have some sort of impact on them, maybe not, but at least it’s there and available. The same with Instagram. I personally really enjoy stuff on Instagram. I see a lot of interesting young photographers who are doing great work that I became familiar with on Instagram.
But also, the older I get, the more interested I become in the way younger people think. Maybe it has something to do with this gap in age. It also has a lot to do with the fact that things have been moving really fast for the last 15 years. I personally remember a time when there were no cellphones, and suddenly there was something called cellphones. There was no internet, and suddenly there was the internet. That changed everything. I can’t imagine going back to that time. There’s whole generations now that have absolutely no idea what it was like. They can’t imagine what it was like without these two things. This makes the thinking process of this generation quite different from mine. I’m interested in how this works. I’m always intrigued by this relationship.
Part of this process, with me talking to those teenagers, is that I feel like I’ve accumulated enough knowledge to be able to talk to younger people in a way that understands where they’re coming from. Because I lived that age and it was very important in defining my personality. It helps me empathize with that period of their lives, and what comes with it. Because I understand the confusion. I understand that you’re expected to make decisions and you have no idea how. Some of them wanted to go to art school, and many of the questions were directed toward that. “What do you think about going to art school?” I understand the confusion and expectations. I understand what it means to be in a position to have to make these decisions that will influence the rest of your life, and you’re absolutely not prepared to make them, because there is no way to be prepared for it. This doesn’t just have to do with art school. It’s about being prepared to be a grown-up. It’s something you’re never prepared for.
Also, I feel like the younger you are, the less prejudiced you are. You’re more open to new ideas, you’re more open to the world in general. Which is why I find it quite interesting to talk to younger people. There’s always room for a more open conversation. In which people actually listen to each other, rather than the voices in their own heads.
In general, I think, there is no one way I would like to engage with the public. I completely understand that, when you make art, you make it and you show it an art context, a museum, gallery, artist-run space, or festival. But also on the internet. Whatever happens, happens. There’s absolutely no way to control what happens next. I’m satisfied now that there are means for people to actually communicate, and people get in touch with me on Instagram or send me emails. They tell me how my work made them feel. They react to the work, in one way or another. I feel like this is a privilege that people like me are living with right now. We have the means to communicate with the people who see our work. I feel lucky. I feel like this is something I should use. It would be a waste to have these tools that allow people to talk to you about what you do, and for you to not want to use them because you want your work to be presented in a very specific way that’s about the museum, art history, and the history of cinema. We live in 2016, things are different. We have to also function in another way.
DJ: During your talk at the MCA in Chicago, you described your process of “film pickling.” Can you talk about that a bit, and how it relates to the types of images you produce?
BM: I started experimenting with more acidic or more alkaline household chemicals, just to change the pH value of the film. Submerging photographic film in various chemicals for a set period of time and observing the results. I started getting more interesting results. I started making tables showing what kind of film reacts to what kind chemical in what way. I became more in control of the whole process. Eventually when I felt that I knew what I was doing, I made a piece that was the first piece in which I used this process. It’s the double slide projector work called A 240 Second Analysis of Failure and Hopefulness (With Coke, Vinegar and Other Tear Gas Remedies) .
The process is very simple. You expose the roll of film to, let’s say, vinegar for a calculated period of time. If you leave it in the chemical for longer than the time it should stay, you start losing the image completely. If you leave it for less, it doesn’t really have a visible effect. Every kind of film reacts to the same chemical in a very different way. This makes the possibilities almost infinite. The more kinds of film I can acquire and introduce, the more possibilities for effects I can have. Also, you can do one chemical after another. It’s like putting filters in front of the lens. You can use two filters, or do a double exposure.
One of the main reasons I use film is that film produces an image that I’m attached to in my work. I want to create certain effects, I want to create a certain kind of image. If film is going to do it for me, I’m going to use film. But I’m also not extremely attached to film as a medium. I’m not set on showing my films on a film projector, mainly for practical reasons. I think the main advantage of video projectors is that you can have a projection size as big as you want. The sound doesn’t become an issue with video. One of the issues, I realized quite early on, when I was working with Super 8, is that you can’t make a Super 8 film with sound anymore. That technology has completely died. I wanted to add sound to my films. I realized, right away, that it has to be presented as a video file. So you can control the sound, you can control the size, brightness, and quality of the image with a digital projector. All the manual techniques, pre-projection, contributes to creating a certain kind of image that helps me say what I want to say. But then with the projection, it’s a different story altogether.
DJ: The pickling process reminded me of hand-tinting film, in the silent era. Before color was available as a film process, there would be this painstaking artistic process in which artists would basically paint each of the film frames. The fact that your images have this worked-on, but also cared-for, character, reminded me of these old hand-tinted films. The fact that your images are worked over so carefully, by hand, leads me to feel as if they’ve also been cared for, in a strange way.
BM: I started as an artist making paintings and drawings. That’s how I still think about film. That’s how I frame every shot. I think, when I look in the viewfinder, I see a composition in the same way you see the composition of a painting. I want things to be balanced in a certain way, and that keeps going back to paintings. Coloring is very important for me, and layering is very important for me, so all these things … Maybe they’re rooted in painting. Maybe that’s it.
But also, part of it is I reached a point at which I don’t really think too much about these things. I feel like I’ve figured out my own language of working with the image. Or sound. Or layering text in a poetic way. In which not everything is said in a straightforward way. Everything is subtle. All hints. I feel like I’ve accumulated enough experience to understand my own language. It just kind of flows. That’s what I was talking about with intuition. Now, a lot of it happens through intuition. I think intuition has a lot to do with experience. You accumulate enough experience that the work happens by itself.
DJ: What role does writing (or stories) play in your practice? An Apology to a Love Story that Crashed into a Whale  tells a fractured love story, and The Everyday Ritual of Solitude Hatching Monkeys  is based on a story your father wrote, but all works come with aphoristic titles that suggest narratives, albeit strange, perhaps surrealist ones. Can we think of your works as storytelling, in a way?
I stopped writing poetry at 21 because I realized I was really bad at it
BM: No, but that’s part of it. It’s one of the elements that I work with. I like to think of my works as narratives, because I think that stories are always attached to expectation of having a beginning and an end. My work doesn’t really have that, a beginning or an end. Because I see what I do as fiction, I wanted to be able to go in all kinds of directions, but at the same time, I don’t want it to become too abstract. I’m very fascinated by the use of things like absurdity as a way of communicating ideas. I believe there is a lot of absurdity in my work, or maybe I just like to look at the role that absurdity plays in everything, from the tiniest details of everyday to life to the larger ways society works together. And dreams and fails together.
Somehow, language that anyone would understand helps with that. It adds more accessibility to the work, and on another level it also gives me a chance to express myself more. To say things using not just the language of image, my artistic language, but also written and spoken language. I was reluctant using language … Or maybe not. I wasn’t reluctant. I was using language in a different way with the drawings and works on paper, until I made a film called, A Film about the Way Things Are, in 2010. For that film I started writing a script, and somehow I felt that it was a personal script that is not presented as an autobiography, but there is still something personal about it. I started writing in a very sincere way. But also I started writing in a poetic way. That was the first time I let this element of poetry enter my work since I stopped writing poetry at 21 because I realized I was really bad at it. I found a way to incorporate a poetic sense in my writing without feeling it was really bad.
It became clear that this was the direction I should keep going in. Again, it became something that comes naturally to my work. There are certain things I never struggle with. I never struggle with writing. The films are extremely laborious. But at the same time, they’re a lot of fun. They’re very enjoyable. Because I figured out how to write for films, and how to shoot and layer images and sound. How to make all these things work together. They become inseparable. I always think of my films as compositions. I feel like I’m composing them. I’m adding all these layers, putting them on top of the other. Seeing how they relate to each other, and work together. Eventually I feel like they’re all one thing. I never see the script of a film, or the soundtrack, or the footage, as separate from each other. I would never want to use the soundtrack of one of the films for something else, or as a sound piece by itself. All these things are related, and my use of language is an integral part of the work.
An Apology to a Love Story that Crashed into a Whale — I couldn’t even see this work as pieces of a text that are framed and mixed up and placed together. They had to have these images, and the images had to be in those specific colors. They had to be shot on pickled film. It makes a lot more sense this way. You need a setting for this story, and the setting was created through these images. The image and the text of this work, they work together. Language is important. People want to connect to what you do. I wouldn’t have been able to tell these little love story fragments without language. Maybe I would have been able to, but it would have been a completely different work. Because I’m particularly interested in making work that somehow becomes emotional, or is somehow provocative of an emotional reaction, the use of language helps with that. It’s a short-cut.
I think it has something do with my work with film. Because of the many tools involved in film, I feel like I can say more with film than any of the other media I work with. So it has something to do with my work with film, and my understanding of image and text. All these elements and how they work together. With An Apology to a Love Story that Crashed into a Whale, I didn’t want to work with time-based, linear sequence of images. I wanted the whole thing to be laid out in front of you. I wanted this love story, this relationship, to completely unfold, as one big entity and one big image. You can read a part here, and read a part there. It’s up to you. The work does not dictate the sequence of how and where things go. These are two completely different ways of looking at things. I felt that the complexity of a love story is something I actually wanted to expose, rather than turn it into a sequence.
DJ: Much of the scholarship and criticism of your work, and even your own statements concerning your practice, return to themes of failure and hopefulness. How do these concepts emerge in your work, and how do they relate to one another?
BM: A lot of my work has dealt with failure. With ideas of failure and hopefulness, in different capacities, for individuals and societies. I think they have to exist together. You can’t always fail, and you can’t always succeed. If you keep on succeeding, you won’t understand the greatness of success. You can’t appreciate success unless you know what it’s like to fail.
Failure and hopefulness are my way of looking at how societies function
At the same time I’m particularly interested in how these things work in cycles. The same failures and same successes keep being reenacted. Groups of people have very short-term memories. Every generation, or every group of people that works together, refuses to believe that they’re actually making the same mistakes that the generations before them have made. Just because the time is different, the location is different, the context is different, it doesn’t mean you’re not making the same mistakes. Failure and hopefulness are my way of looking at how societies function, of how groups of people function together. At the core of every society, there is a desire to accomplish something. There’s a desire, on a basic level, to get better. To be more prosperous. To have more money. To build bigger cities. To create better jobs.
But there’s a lot to it. There’s a lot more that has to do with other things. But I can’t explore all those things. In a film like The Dent , if you want to talk about all these things, it makes a lot more sense to create a fictional small town with no name, that is completely anonymous, and its inhabitants try to accomplish absurd, completely irrational tasks. They try to get the Olympics to stage their event at their small nowhere town. Eventually, they’re at a point when they realize that either they keep trying and keep failing, or they accept their failure and accept that they’re reenacting the lives of their ancestors, and see where that acceptance takes them. And it’s left open. I think that’s something a lot of groups of people do collectively. I wanted this particular film to speak to as many different people as possible, regardless of their background, or their personal experience, or even their understanding of hopefulness and failure.
I always give the example of when I first showed The Dent in Athens. A lot people said that the film was about Athens. When I showed in other places afterwards, people said the same about their own respective contexts. They could relate to it as part of their reality. That’s why I was really happy with how that particular film could communicate something to people. I think that’s also the power of fiction, and on some level, anonymity too. The power of anonymity. It allows for people to see themselves in the work, as opposed to making the work about a particular place, in which any audience that’s not from that particular place would watch the film with their preconceived ideas and understandings of the place. They’d project those notions onto the film itself. I have no problems with that, but that’s just not the way I work. I prefer to leave things open for people to fill the gaps and imagine themselves as protagonists in the film.
DJ: Speaking to the cyclical nature of history and human reality, many of your works feature ruins, construction sites, or other spaces in flux. Or abandoned spaces. What draws you to these liminal places?
BM: Actually, in the few times that I worked with ruins, it had something to do with the passing of time. Or it also had images of construction with it. They’re kind of merged together. It becomes very difficult to tell which images are demolition, and which are construction. I find this way of looking at as very representative of reality. Yes, while we’re living through an experience, we may have very strong opinions about how we see that moment. But 10 years later, looking at the big picture, things are a lot more blurred. I’m trying to work with this blur between construction and demolition, between what we see as good and what we see as bad. And what happens when time blurs all these things together. When time blurs our memory, our collective memory and our personal memory — blurs our definitions as we change as human beings.
The Stars Were Aligned for a Century of New Beginnings runs through March 19, 2017.