The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
In Finitude, Lydia Ourahmane’s installation at the 2018 New Museum Triennial, the vibrations of a cacophonous sound cause a wall made of ash, chalk, and steel to shake invisibly. Bits fall to the floor, collecting in a pile of fragments and dust. Over the course of the exhibition, the entire wall will crumble away. Like many of Ourahmane’s works, it ends in disappearance. Others are more permanent, like two gold teeth she produced after melting a necklace bought from an Algerian migrant for the price of a seat on a smuggling ship to Spain. One tooth has been implanted in her mouth, an irreversible action she chose in recognition of the countless, often far more extreme actions taken by her countrymen, out of necessity and in order to live on their own terms.
The artist’s research-driven practice tests the permeability of boundaries and the state of being in-between. She archives, stages, and animates the many restrictions placed on the freedom of movement of colonized bodies, drawing on stories from her home country of Algeria—from land made toxic by foreign oil companies and chemical plants to public squares where only fictional protests receive police protection. Born in Saïda, she now divides her time between Oran and London.
When BOMB approached Ourahmane about an interview, she suggested as an interlocutor her friend Ben Blackmore, a writer she’s known since their days at Goldsmiths, University of London, and with whom she shares an ongoing dialogue about her work. Blackmore and Ourahmane convened in Florence and later London on the occasion of her exhibitions Crater at Spazio Veda and The You in Us at Chisenhale Gallery.
The very first work I saw of yours
was your degree show in 2014, The Third Choir, and I had only met you a few weeks prior to the opening. Something I came to learn about your creative process, as seen in The Third Choir, is that the works often involve an incredibly arduous lead-up, taking months or years. You go away to Algeria to do the base research or begin to develop your work, and you’re out there for protracted periods of time. But your work isn’t shown in Algeria. It’s exhibited mostly in London and on the continent, which fuels a rigmarole of physical process just to get the work to its venue. Why do you do that?
Lydia Ourahmane I’m often asked that. I think the materials I use need a certain amount of distance. They’re invisible within the context that they’re referencing. Because when you live in a particular culture or society you exist within it situationally, and your ability to relate is stifled. Repetition makes everything become mundane. I’ve always lived between places. My family emigrated from Algeria to the UK when I was a girl. I received my art education in London. And it’s only from this distance that I have learned to understand my background.
BB That adds up. You grow complacent toward everyday things because they’re familiar, and after a certain point, they’re no longer objects in a foreign sense at all; they’re just the accepted furnishings of your world. Exporting them is a loaded act because it rids objects of that complacency. So is it the lifting of these commonplace objects from their native state that creates the dialogue you’re looking for? Presenting them beyond that realm of context enables a level of discussion that was hitherto denied them.
LO I would say so. By granting the objects a freedom of movement, I make possible for them what is systematically denied humans. It feels as though this leads to the bigger picture, reinforcing the complex social ramifications of immigration.
BB But in relocating these items you’re not exoticizing them per se; they’re not exalted in the way they’re presented. You’re explicitly not imbuing the object with meaning.
LO Very true, and that’s a common misconception. The materials I use often have lived through social, political, or economic tensions, and they do carry that weight. I don’t think they can be charged with anything more than what they are. They can’t be mounted. I’m interested in the weighted state of objects, but it isn’t me that charges them with that state; rather, they become charged through their distribution.
BB Well, in that way what you’re doing is more like investigative journalism than any one artistic pursuit. You’ve never reduced what you do to a singular definition. Your work has more to do with the question of redefining what we as observers can infer from a closed situation. Does that still hold true in the work you’re making today?
LO I’ve definitely grown more confident in the object’s capacity to circumvent its system of language.
BB And yet so too do these objects have the capacity to elude. Your exhibitions often go unaccompanied by any kind of descriptive text. For example, in your current solo show, The You in Us, at London’s Chisenhale Gallery, the work is incredibly well-travelled. I’m aware of the whole backstory but only because we literally live on two sides of the same Styrofoam wall. How do you expect your audience to comprehend the multiplicity of voices and histories present there?
LO I suppose I can’t, but I can try to place the work in the context of its narrative. In the Absence of Our Mothers (2015–18) began as a gold chain that I bought from a twenty-three-year-old guy in a market in Oran, Algeria, while researching illegal immigration from Algeria to Europe in 2015. I later found out he sold me that gold chain for the exact price of a seat on a smuggler’s boat to Spain. When I asked him where he got it, he said it was his mom’s and that she’d asked him to sell it for her.
That gold chain first became part of a show in 2015—it was carried around the room by a performer. He’d hold it or take it out of his pocket every now and then, and eventually it would end up draped over a chair. But I felt like that wasn’t the right medium. Then, this past summer when I went to see my uncle he told me all about my grandfather, whom I never met. He died a long time ago. He was a high-ranking sniper in the French-Algerian military, and they kept him on for thirteen years beyond his compulsory military service to train other soldiers.
The French lost 1.4 million soldiers in World War I, including 97,000 colonial soldiers, 26,000 of them Algerians. They continued to pull from the empire for World War II. When my grandfather was called upon to go fight, he knew that if he left, he’d never come back. A friend of his was like, “If you pull out all of your teeth, then you’ll be dismissed from the army as physically unfit.” So, according to family legend, he pulled them out one by one in a single day, without anesthetic, and only then was dismissed from duty. His military records and French passport feature as annexes to my new work, titled Droit du Sang (Blood right) (2018), documenting his dismissal from the army. There are also his identification cards as a resistance fighter in the War for Independence against the French.
He became very active from 1954 until 1962, when Algeria gained its independence. His main job was smuggling arms between the Moroccan and Algerian borders, which was an extremely risky act. He refused our family name to be formally honored, as he wanted his fight to remain pure. Learning about his dedication was truly humbling, but it also returned me to the story of the gold chain. Both actions are finite and definite: this guy stealing a gold chain from his mom in order to pay for his escape, and my grandfather pulling out his teeth as a means to escape fighting for the French. In that common spirit of defiance, these two stories converge in a pair of gold teeth, made of the gold from the chain I bought, melted down. One tooth is in the Chisenhale exhibition, installed at the exact same height as the other, which has been implanted in my mouth. The tooth implantation procedure permanently altered the structure of my bone, by drilling into it—an action that cannot be reversed. This is a good illustration of how I think about my work.
BB Wow. And yet the tooth carries that story so serenely, just sitting there, mounted on the wall, unadorned and looking indescribably chill. It makes me think about Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” in its meditation on the purpose of representational art: The narrator sees this urn as a thing of absolute beauty yet a perfect mystery, a “Sylvan historian” reluctant to divulge its innermost secrets. The work precludes total understanding, and in the end the narrator comes to terms with the fact that he will never be able to know it absolutely. “What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? / What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?”
LO I’ve never read it. But I get where you’re going with this.
BB Someone could easily walk into the Chisenhale and see these remarkable oxidized silver doors, growing ever more silver by the day, opening onto a large, minimally furnished space with a vibrating wooden floor and that solitary gold tooth mounted on the wall, and think that these three pieces occupy that space together and separately. It seems funny to frame a show with so rich and variegated a story as this within a vacuum whereby language is impossible. Well, not entirely impossible. I remember on the opening night people were coming up to you, asking in polite yet highly curious terms if you could possibly explain what this was all about. And you could, of course, and you did, because you are the sole arbiter of that profound narrative, the only person in any way qualified to reconcile these seemingly nebulous works. It puts you in a very powerful position. Is it your intention that your work should need you as mediator, not necessarily for completion but as a means of honoring its allegiance to spoken history?
LO I recount stories, as anyone does, as a way of sharing lived experience. It would be very difficult for me to differentiate my work from the act of me speaking it into existence, or my plotting the trajectory of these stories, which otherwise wouldn’t exist.
I’ve always been interested in oral history as a way of passing on information and recording events within history, which rely on interpretation as meaning and truth. Only recently have we become able to record events, but the idea of proof is also extremely flawed.
BB There’s something distinctly old-world in the things you recount, or maybe the manner in which you’re telling these stories, which feel to me like folklore, in that they contain all the emblems of myths yet also relate to lore’s traditional function, which is the justification of earlier history. It’s this stoic and dutiful act of remembrance against the fear of forgetting. I describe your works as palimpsests. You’re telling stories that relate to you personally, but there’s often this immense generational ache attached. And the way you harness and modernize that arcane ability is speaking from a profound, decidedly national sense of an identity in decline.
BB Often, your work then counterpoints that chimeric quality with very real, official documentation as a means of legitimizing the experience. Like the usage of receipts as proof. In the case of the former, it’s relayed in your grandfather’s passport and papers. In The Third Choir, it was reams and reams of paperwork documenting your various attempts to export twenty empty oil barrels, which were thwarted over and over by the authorities. It’s a process of trial and error. Having witnessed the making of that project, I can’t even begin to describe how chaotic it was. The barrels arrived—
LO—on my birthday. I was sobbing. (laughter)
BB I was worried for you. But in hindsight that frenzy was also kind of the spark itself, the catalyst that piece needed to achieve completion. It was a very real possibility that the barrels would not arrive in time for the show, and you were creating this contingency plan. Which begs the question: Is showing the work the same as not showing it?
LO Yeah, I came to the conclusion that if the barrels didn’t arrive in time, it wouldn’t matter because it’s not about them being there physically. This process has all happened and it exists. And that’s as tangible as it is with the objects being present. It’s not even about the objects at all. I would have come up with a different configuration of presentation, which would have been … nothing! (laughter) There’s very little that is nothing.
BB Was that work driven by a specific visual end product—that quadrant of barrels? It’s probably your most aesthetic work to date.
LO Yes, that particular piece was very specific. I knew I wanted to make a sound work using mobile phones inside barrels, where the phones would simultaneously be playing a sound piece relayed through a pirate radio station I made using a radio transmitter. I wanted to use these barrels as a way of discussing their position in reference to the industry they represent. The oil industry is a common point of blame for the economic stagnation and perceived maldistribution of wealth in Algeria. These objects represent a “reason” for the economic migration that has risen from that region. For me, the work always spoke about the movement of people. I wanted the barrels to enact that same journey. The momentum they gathered through becoming an artwork was something I could never have anticipated. Faced with such heavy bureaucratic restrictions, finding ways around that was what created dialogue. There were six declined proposals for custom clearance before they were granted permission by the ministry of culture to pass as a cultural export, and it became the first artwork to be legally moved from the country since 1962.
BB Those tribulations are crucial elements. I sometimes feel (needlessly) defensive of your work because it appears so humbly as the ambassador of something difficult and hard-fought. The artworks themselves are these muted distillations, graceful composites of their ability to endure tragedy and of the emotional rollercoaster you rode with them. I want to give them a voice to speak. But, of course, that would be missing the point. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I worry they will be misinterpreted. Do you worry about that too?
LO I have to accept it. The very act of showing work is to allow the space for misinterpretation or to give the viewer the right to impress their projection upon that object which most satisfies something within them. The reason I make work is for my own understanding.
BB Some people who don’t know the backstories might see the objects and assume they’re these repurposed, loaded visual cues—
LO But you can feel that they have come from a place.
BB Would you say that sometimes the form a work takes is purely incidental?
LO I really don’t like to restrict myself that way—thinking this has to become something. And that’s the unfortunate part about having deadlines or set timeframes in which you have to produce something. For me, the period of research is the most formative part of making the work. I want to immerse myself in the process I’m embarking upon, or in the subject I’m researching. I want to be fully present in that. I don’t enjoy the pressure of having to materialize in some form, but that’s life. (laughter)
BB The pressure to materialize—let’s discuss that, because there are times when you’ve defied gallery convention altogether. By this I’m referring to one of your more intangible works, Haraga (The Burning). You showed this piece at Bloomberg New Contemporaries in 2014, which I remember was a massive deal at the time, a huge opportunity. Many talented young artists were vying for attention, and that opportunism literally materialized in a lot of the work, which in my opinion was quite sensationalized. I can say only that because I’m not an artist myself. (laughter)
You opted to show your most tacit work to date, withdrawing from the physical space of the Institute of Contemporary Arts altogether. Your only footprint was an unassuming little card on the wall, no bigger than my fist, which had on it the login details for a Wi-Fi network, entitled Haraga (The Burning). The word harraga (“those who burn”) is an Arabic term referring to the increasing number of young Algerians who try to emigrate from Algeria by boat to Spain.
As it turns out, the network had the bandwidth of a portaloo, and you had to stand on a table to get at it. It was only when one logged into this network that a pop-up appeared on the phone screen, showing grainy footage of young men aboard a small skiff in open water. That short clip traced a very brief part of a long physical journey, but what it chartered on an emotional scale was huge. The viewer observes an extreme progression in these men as they move northward from Algerian into Spanish waters. In one moment, as they pass the border, their fear turns to elation, and they speak of freedom and of the new lives they’re about to inherit. They had done it. It was only by speaking to you later that I found out that they were arrested at sea almost immediately afterward, and all except one—who was granted asylum—were detained for forty-five days, then sent home to inevitable jail sentences.
LO That footage was never intended to be seen on a big screen. A twenty-five-year-old migrant named Houari showed it to me on his phone after we’d spoken for about two hours about his journey. And then he proceeded to Bluetooth it to me. I remember leaving his house and watching this on my phone in the car. It was so guttural. Experiencing that information, it pierced into my personal space, through my periphery, in a violent way. And I realized that personal, intimate experience is what’s lacking in the way we consume this kind of information. Because refugee imagery is so capriciously thrown around in the media, it’s like we’re completely numb to what it actually is. So I wanted to try and recreate what I’d felt watching that video on my phone to an audience.
BB That seems in keeping with the discussion we had earlier concerning objects and their relationship to context. You attempted to simulate through formal experimentation the way you felt when you first saw that clip, the manner in which you saw it. And that attempt at replication was at the expense of outward gallery presentation.
LO Yeah, a lot of people didn’t actually see it. The Wi-Fi could only support a few viewings simultaneously. And that’s fine.
BB Rumor has it that it was best seen from the café, which was sadly closed the entire time. The fact that one could miss it, that the work was sort of hiding in the space, felt subversive to me and signaled a kind of negative curation. It existed on a politics of refusal. You had this wealth of physical space allocated to you, yet ultimately the nature of that particular work made it necessary to refuse it. It sounds like I’m circuitously defining what you did or do as minimalism, but that work felt surprisingly substantial, even though you were presenting it invisibly. As though the work was doing everything it could to make itself heard against myriad setbacks.
LO It’s a shame the technical aspects of that piece didn’t work so well—actually, I don’t think it’s a shame.
BB That’s what I’m trying to say. You speak of it as though the work was a failure, but the sensation evoked was one of verisimilitude. It was responsive and corollary to its own limitations. It owned its imperfections. That made it autotelic. I don’t think many people would take such a risk with as fecund a platform as that.
LO Then it worked exactly how it should have.
BB It existed primarily as experience. You had to be there, as it was nontransferable. You couldn’t go posting it on Instagram later. Do you actively seek to cultivate that singular notion of subjective experience, inextricable from the present, or would you rather it was something that we could all share?
LO This is why I’m going gray. (laughter) How can I translate these periods of time where there is no hierarchy in events? Often these feelings and observations are very nuanced. Sometimes I wish people could be with me in that. That’s why I fantasize about making a documentary or a film. But that’s another problem.
I need a medium that puts everyone on the same level or in the same realm of experience. I think sound is the only medium that can do that; it’s not bound to language. It also has to be experienced in a very physical way—it’s not something you can unlearn.
BB In The You in Us, you placed transducers underneath the floorboards, which basically act like resonance speakers. In this case, the floor actually resonates. The sound piece is felt through the body as the audience walks throughout the space.
LO I became obsessed with these transducers because they’re intended for sound therapy. They can be placed directly onto the skin, and various sounds or vibrations are played into the body. My sound piece is an hour long, played from underneath the floor into the body of the person walking through the gallery. The sound spreads over eight channels and through twelve separate transducer speakers. You kind of have to be there. (laughter)
I’m interested in the idea of respite and in people experiencing the same thing simultaneously; this is the first time I felt I’d facilitated that.
BB Sound here is the great leveler; it breaks down surfaces. The art world mostly fosters an image-based enjoyment of art. But the rapture of experience is inherently something nontransferable. It can’t be documented.
Let’s talk about the work you did for the Istanbul Biennial last year: All the way up to the Heavens and down to the depths of Hell.
LO It’s a sculpture, a platform made of concrete and steel. The measurements of the platform—roughly four by four meters—represented the minimum that people have to build on a piece of land in order to claim and secure that land in Algeria. A trumpet solo I wrote activates the sculpture or the space. When I developed this piece, I was working in Arzew, Algeria, an industrial area, close to Oran where I spent the first few years of my life. The area is now home to thirteen chemical plants, which have become noticeably toxic to its inhabitants. People complain about the pollution to no avail. They feel powerless in the face of these foreign companies that erect plants in such close proximity to towns and villages. How is it acceptable that the right to clean air is being denied? The area has become chaotic; the land is useless, so it’s largely ungoverned. You can go there and claim land and build on it. But when people learn about the toxicity, they decide not to live there. These skeletal, unfinished buildings scatter the landscape—my sculpture replicates this structure. And the trumpet calls to a different future.
BB Your recent Polaroid works document landscapes of agricultural ruin, littered with the scattered detritus of civilization. They chronicle the decay consuming these patches of land, yet the Polaroids themselves are also subject to a languorous entropy. Do you like the idea of your works serving as physical allegory for the erasure of collective trauma?
LO Most of my sculptural works are destroyed after they’re shown, like that Istanbul Biennial piece, for example. All that remains is the trumpet solo, or the memory of that sound. Memory exists in the realm of interpretation, which also decays over time. And this holds true to what I deem important in the work, which isn’t its physical form. My work at the New Museum Triennial considers this.
BB Let’s back up for a minute. Too Late For Ambition (2015) was the work you produced with the Traveling Award at Goldsmiths. It’s an immersive video installation with four projections, one on each of the room’s four walls. With the footage in this installation, you seemed to be at your most explicit in making a tableau of a people disenfranchised. In the video, a neon sign reading TOO LATE FOR AMBITION is switched on in the midst of a busy square in Ain El-Turk, Algeria. We see people smashing the sign with rocks. Their position is ambiguous—with their aimless loitering they seem to embody the sentiment of the sign while at the same time adopting violent actions that seek to destroy it.
LO When I made Too Late For Ambition, I was interested in the symbolic resistance to that stated sentiment, something that had become commonplace in Algeria. Protests or public gatherings of people are reprimanded, so I had to use the premise of making a film to be granted permission for that riot scene to be acted out. It was amazing to see the police actually protecting the development of that riot.
BB So you achieved it but only through subterfuge. Do you see a solution to this geopolitical nadir?
LO I still can’t see a relief to this general feeling of frustration, which is very real in Algeria and has existed for quite a long time. Tension resonates in everything and colors every interaction or conversation you have. This feeling that people don’t know or can’t see a future, it’s always in the background. I’m not trying to be damning or disrespectful of the struggle that Algeria has gone through in order to reach its independence. I’m energized by the strength of the people. Every country or place has its problems, but I feel particularly connected to the frustration of the Algerian people because it so easily could have been my reality too. But I have a British passport now, so I’m able to move freely. It’s something every person wants: freedom of movement. That desire for freedom is driving so much chaos because of the many restrictions. Algeria was subject to colonial rule; why can’t that be remediated? So much has been taken from this country; surely it’s only fair that it gets balanced out. There’s always going to be that “phantom limb” sensation of a pre-established right to Europe: “We have a right to you as you had a right to us,” as someone said to me once.
BB I take from what you just said that it’s impossible for you to suppress the sense of trauma that permeates your work. It manifests in a kind of loud voicelessness. There’s this sense of collective frustration, of a nation in a state of expectant exodus. People are upset and indignant and they cry out in a language that won’t betray them. It’s heard from the hollow of empty barrels, from the clarion call of a single trumpet, from the fated exultations of people celebrating their passage into Spanish territory. These works converge when they amplify a larger, more deafening choir of helplessness.
LO I do feel very helpless sometimes, but only on bad days. I wrote my thesis on illegal immigration from Algeria to Spain. It was a recurring subject of conversation during that time and still is now with the people I work with. If you ask someone in my neighborhood how many people they know who have crossed, the answer will be thirty, forty, fifty of their friends. They’re all getting themselves ready to leave, all of them. It’s a real thing that’s happening on an everyday basis. So I can’t ignore that frustration or not comment on it in anything I’m doing.
BB By harnessing these feelings of abject hopelessness, which are very real for many Algerians, there’s a sense of optimism in even showing that because it reads like resistance.
LO I do believe there’s another way, or at least another kind of relief. But what is it? We will see.
Ben Blackmore is a writer based in London.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.