Cruelty, Consent and Consequence

Cruelty can coexist both with pleasure and joy within human experience. It isn’t indeterminate – we all recognise the workings of cruelty through our personal experiences. These might cause us to identify cruelty with interpersonal exchange, as something enacted between people, but its scope is far larger. For artist and curator Izdihar Afyouni cruelty is most acutely present in state policies that regulate free movement, bodies and agency. She discusses her ongoing curatorial project and exhibition series Thicker than Blood [TTB] with academic and contributing artist Jessica Worden, and how they respectively approach cruelty and consent in their practices.

THICKER THAN BLOOD explores bodies and bodily fluids in relation to nation state mechanisms. This participatory series of events hijacks practices of analysis and categorisation by curating the experiences of participants based on their biomatter. The first two instalments of the series took place in London and immersed the audience in an experience of the ethical and psychological implications of racial and genetic profiling policies. Thicker Than Blood proposes that the body is a site upon which the state carries out its expression of power. With this proposition as a starting point, the TTB events rigorously examined, detained and questioned both the structure of an art event as well as the participants themselves. Audience members became both witness and participant in these activities.

THICKER THAN BLOOD and THICKER THAN BLOOD II were free to attend, with a mandatory donation policy: a small sample of blood was taken from each guest upon their arrival. Participants consented to their blood being taken and tested. A medical professional was present to carry out this procedure. How the blood was tested, and what it was tested for was not disclosed to the audience. The results were not disclosed to the public, although they were informed that there was a relationship between the results and the access that they were granted to different spaces within the venue. No data was stored after the procedures were carried out and all samples and materials were secured until the end of the event. Following each event, all samples and materials were incinerated at a local hospital.

Participants were given access to the various performances depending on an individual’s test result. Each participant’s experience of the evening was determined by the differing levels of access to exhibition and performance spaces within the venue. Unlimited access was granted only to a select few. By creating a temporary environment where differing levels of access where upheld by an unknown structure and determined by bio-data, the event reproduced what it might be like to not have access to privileges often taken for granted. This constructed a temporary social system and hierarchy that was upheld by the organisers as well as by participants who tacitly supported through their continued participation.[i] A yet unrealised third instalment of the work, is a direct response to and reimagining of the Israeli Defence Force’s usage of Deleuzoguattarian philosophies of space to structure the relation of bodies and movement, and consolidate formations of biopolitical power.[ii]

Worden contributed to both TTB events, performing Echo/plasm (2015) at TTB1 and Becoming Invisible (2017) at TTB2. Echo/plasm is a 30-minute reading of a gradually disappearing text that explores the cruelty of early paranormal and pseudo-scientific research enacted on the female body. Because the performance manifests through a text that is increasingly difficult to articulate, each iteration is unique. Becoming Invisible is a glow-in the-dark performance work that combines narrative, sound and gesture that focuses on contemporary experiences of femininity and invisibility. Unlike Echo/plasm, this piece was created in response to ongoing dialogue with Afyouni and other artists. Worden’s contributions to the Thicker Than Blood series use intimacy, vulnerability and softness to question perceptions of precarity, femininity and mental health. Worden produces minimal text-based performance works that explore the transformative resonances and inarticulacies of a body that experiences desire, pleasure, exhaustion and cruelty. Maggie Nelson proposes in The Art of Cruelty the possibility of ‘an alchemical, rather than a conflictual’ relationship between love and cruelty.[iii] This proposed coexistence reiterates that ‘the possibility of transformation is always alive, and always ours.’ Both artists explore the workings of cruelty in their practices and how this necessary yet uncomfortable coexistence manifests and is wrestled with in performance and immersive practices.

Izdihar Afyouni, Kruel Thing, 2018.  Oil on Canvas.

JW [referring to Kruel Thing]: I think it’s the not-knowingness of cruelty that makes it callous and incomprehensible. Indifference is incomprehensible…that is also what makes it so damaging.

IA: You say knowing and not-knowing. I was recently dealing with two consecutive situations which gave me a bit of hope. The more I tried to hold on to it [hope], the more it evaded me. What sort of drove me crazy was knowing how something made me feel and then not knowing what could have transpired. There was a simultaneous feeling of not-knowing, not being given the opportunity to know, which really fed into my feelings of worthlessness. In a way, this painting was trying to work through those feelings of worthlessness and objectification. That indifference is part and parcel of cruel acts is what’s so demeaning. It causes devastation without any form of accountability – not even the accountability of recognizing the subject’s pain.

JW: So much social exchange objectifies people. Something mundane or so deeply embedded as a perceived right might result in a very sudden and shocking confrontation with an experience that shakes your sense of subjecthood. Like, for example, applying for a passport. You don’t have a right to a passport, but not having one can significantly impact your freedom of movement. It can impact your ability to seek work. To stay in a country you have made your home. This experience is different for different people. When you country of birth and residence aligns with the passport you apply for, this experience is inherently different when it does not. You don’t feel secure in these endeavors – I am perpetually anticipating a moment where my Dutch passport is revoked because my Dutch nationality is acquired, not inherited. It doesn’t feel guaranteed. I can’t take it for granted.

IA: ‘Guaranteed’. I feel like that’s dangerous territory because I don’t think that people can take kindness from other people for granted.

JW: You mean you don’t think it’s an expectation people can have?

IA: No, I don’t think it’s an expectation people should have. I don’t know if that sounds very jaded, but this has been something that I’ve both witnessed and experienced when there’s a power dynamic at play in interpersonal relationships

JW: What is your position informed by? I identify as queer and a migrant. In thinking about my own experiences, I can imagine that some of your lived experiences might contribute to it.

IA: I struggle with the term ‘queer’ sometimes. I think my work often engages in a ‘queering’ of affective practices; the desire with many of my projects is to engage in a deep play that queries the audience’s subjectivity. But I feel as a non-western artist it’s difficult for me to attach the word queer to my work because it’s loaded with western connotations. Obviously it meant something entirely different before its reclamation, but I do think it’s been reterritorialized in a sense since then. Like the usage of ‘queer desire’ [iv] for example; desire may be a universal language, but then how these desires manifest are not: you have differing restrictions or even criminalisation of queer desire. We’d like to think of ‘queer’ as this all-encompassing expansive term but it’s difficult from where I’m standing not to see it as canonised.

I feel apprehensive to twin the two words (queer and migrant) in relating to my own work because the term ‘queer’ is distant to me. I struggle with it in the same way that I would struggle with events curated by non-migrants that attempt to showcase migrant voices. Migrancy becomes a concept. It is intrinsically different to an event curated by and for migrants as it denaturalizes the experience of the person being called migrant because the concepts are abstractions that take away from the experience.

Both ‘queer’ and ‘migrant’ are weighty terms that continue to carry conflicting experiences of joy, hate, violence, freedom and alienation. Twinning the migrant experience and the queer experience is dangerous because of how quickly and easily queer activists, curators and community organizers resort to fetishizing the migrant experience. You don’t get to hear about why migrants are pushed out or how they might gain foothold in these new landscapes or how they can belong in those spaces. I think it’s critical when working with those issues to question the grounding of what it means to be queer or what it means to be a migrant in real terms.

JW: It’s funny you say that. I struggle with the term migrant because when I use it or describe the difficulties of a migrant experience others assume that my migration was not voluntary. There are universal cruelties inherent to being foreign and operating in a language and culture that is different to your own. Not to mention the precarities experienced by non-citizens…

IA: This is why I say it’s dangerous territory. I don’t want to fall into this narrative, like ‘I’m privileged because of this’ but there needs to be more nuance when it comes to thinking about the refugee migrant experience and voluntary migrancy; refugees face a situation where they have so much that’s taken from them, and continues to be taken from them that it’s just wave after wave of cruelty that they are subjected to and have to deal with. I’m just thinking about Syrian refugees arriving in Europe, and there was this painting that I made two years ago called Infidels, which was a response to a member of the European Parliament who suggested that severed pigs’ heads should be hung along Hungary’s border to deter refugees from coming in. That’s kind of hilarious in a really crass and cruel way. They left the severed pig heads out because they assumed the migrants were Muslim and Muslims don’t eat pork right? So the message is you’re not welcome here. I just find it a bit funny because those are people that have washed up, with thousands dying trying to reach these countries, these are the remnants of this continuous disaster and they arrive and it’s like, is that the best you got? Is that your idea of cruelty? Insulting someone’s presumed religion, and I say presumed because Syria used to be the most diverse, multi-ethnic, multi-religious country in the Middle East, populated by Arabs, Turks, Armenians, Circassians, Greeks, Kurds, Iranians, Turkomans and Assyrians.[v] So, it’s just different people’s experiences of cruelty and suffering and then the way that manifests in an understanding of what shape cruelty can take.

Izdihar Afyouni

Izdihar Afyouni, Infidels, 2016. Mixed Media on Canvas.

JW: I guess the takeaway here is that cruelty, when its enacted by someone, as a cruel act, may not always be received in the way that it’s intended? In the same way that callousness is quite frequently experienced as cruel whether you intend that or not. Or how callous and indifferent a system like capitalism can be.

IA: Yeah… I don’t even know if the intention is always to harm. I think the ethos there is you do what needs to be done without taking into account the consequential devastation to the earth and people. It’s rapacious.

JW: I wouldn’t say that cruelty correlates to harm. Usually if you’re talking about harm, you find you’re talking about physical damage. But cruelty doesn’t refer to that.

IA: What is ‘physical damage’?

JW: Well you might be harmed at work, for instance with some sort of physical injury. That would be physical damage. That might also be how a system might facilitate harm. By creating environments or relationships to people that are dangerous or harmful.

IA: Maybe that is part of my interpretation, but I also mean subjecting generation after generation to a way of living and a way of being that is really unhealthy and insidious.

JW: And damaging…

IA: It is damaging on so many levels, not just the immediacy and obviousness of physical harm, like there not being decent health and safety regulations for migrant workers. I was thinking about Dubai, when Burj Khalifa was being built and East Asian migrant workers were subjected to horrible working conditions, sleeping 20 to a cell.[vi] So that’s an immediate physical harm and collateral damage that you can see as a result of system that valorises cheap labour, racism and callousness to create something. An example from the UK of an insidious generational issue can be the homelessness epidemic – it’s a situation that keeps getting passed on without resolution.

JW: That’s the callousness of social policy, where policy might make sense on many different levels but on a very human level it doesn’t enact positive change, it doesn’t improve. And it can often make it worse. Unless you change the cruel disposition of the institution, cruelty will perpetuate.

Coming back to your point about damage, which ties into the curatorial work that you’ve done,
exploring how damaging genetic and racial profiling can be exposes the callousness of laws, of bureaucratic policies, of ideas that come into being because we are seeking out greater efficiency or greater legislative control. Technologies that facilitate ease and control while at the same time not thinking about the very real impact that these have on actual bodies.

What I found really interesting and also really difficult about the Thicker Than Blood series was discovering that friends felt uncomfortable with attending because they have chronic medical conditions. They are already subjected to intense scrutiny and prejudice in their lives that they chose not to attend. In fact, one arrived at the venue and left when they better understood what they would be participating in.

I could understand what you were doing on a very intellectual level, and also when someone was excluded, I could empathise with how horrible that was. But it wasn’t until I spoke to people who experience it regularly that I understood how Thicker Than Blood [I&II] was performing, with consent, a kind of cruelty that we don’t normally see enacted in society. Mostly because by the time it’s happened it’s already gone, or the people it happens to aren’t heard. Or because we don’t really phrase it in those terms. You were examining this very particular form of cruelty that is enacted in the every day and placing it alongside consensual queered sexualities [SM]. Showing something that we readily recognise as cruel, damaging and harmful in your bloodletting performance Venus demonstrated how those activities could be consensual in ways that everyday cruelty is not.[vii]

IA: You said that these processes are often hidden. I’ve always been interested in those hidden processes, like government-sanctioned torture, or biosurveillance, and a big part of how I approach these expressions of power in my work is by subjecting my audience to them. We have very different ways of working with audience consent. I want to talk a bit about your performance Rudework which took place at Dyson Gallery in March 2017. You asked members of the audience to close their eyes if they didn’t want to participate.

JW: This is a technique that I’ve been using in ritual-based performance work. Keeping your eyes closed to indicate you don’t feel comfortable with active participation is a very gentle way of facilitating a sense of agency and consent in participatory work. In Baptism, For the Living, which was performed at Low Stakes Festival in 2017, I needed members of the audience to volunteer to pour water over me to complete the final action of the performance. By identifying and articulating to the audience that their presence (through witnessing) was a mode of participation and by also facilitating consent, I hoped to avoid some of the coercion that can occur in immersive or live work that requires active audience participation.

Jessica Worden

Jessica Worden, Baptism, For the Living, 2017. Performance at Low Stakes Festival, London.

IA: It’s interesting to see you prioritize your audience’s comfort, and how that can work towards the goal of committing them to the performance. My work is not explicitly about making people uncomfortable but it often comes with the territory of how I portray my subject matter, as was the case with the Abu Ghraib series. There was a desire to make people uncomfortable about something that was hidden and something that people didn’t want to think about. Thicker Than Blood certainly made people uncomfortable in the process. It’s not really my goal but if the subject matter deems it necessary it doesn’t inhibit me at all. So why don’t you want to make people uncomfortable?

JW: Well see, there’s a couple of things here. In that particular work I wanted to help people go on an emotional journey with me and to empathise with the experiences that I was talking about. Experiences that were both difficult and very ephemeral. Very light. I didn’t want to do anything that would jar the audience out of the emotional place I had brought them to. By asking the audience to simply close their eyes if they weren’t interested, or, you know, felt that they were in a position to assist, there was no witnessing of people not wanting to participate. Once I had found people to pour water, I asked the audience to open their eyes to witness. There was no exclusion or humiliation; those who remained seated and watching were still participating in their own way. I articulated that even by being there as witnesses they were necessary to and also supporting the completion of the performance. It felt like a very clean way of finding people who really wanted to actively support the participatory aspect.

IA: I think you have a lot more respect for your audience than I do. You talk about them helping you and you talk about them participating. With Thicker Than Blood, subjecting people to a process was integral to the concept. Although it wasn’t about trying to get them to swallow a particular narrative by curating a particular experience, I did want to throw them in a situation where they had to fend for themselves and where the outcomes were unclear.

JW: Sure. I think that makes sense for what you’re trying to achieve and the experience that you’re trying to generate. Emotional awareness and attunement with TTB’s subject matter requires a different approach and that’s what I continue to find really interesting. And what I was also really uncomfortable with: how you were negotiating consent.

IA: How come?

JW: My politics on consent are fairly rigid. My position is shaped by feminist discourse regarding consent in intimate relationships. Where ‘yes means yes’, where you can also have informed consent. For example: you can read about an activity that you’d like to participate in with someone else and you – with a certain amount of knowledge – can consent to activities that are also not legal, or not legal in this country (UK) or considered potentially dangerous. If the audience understands what might be required of them, they can consent differently. This is in contrast to tacit consent that most participatory work assumes: You’ve chosen to attend and if you don’t like it, you can choose to leave. It presumes an agency that a lot of social exchange forecloses. I am trying to create a relationship with an audience and the way in which I want to communicate with them is definitely very different to the aims you have with Thicker Than Blood. I want to coax. I want my audience to become complicit in something. To be emotionally receptive. I feel that the best way to achieve that is by trying to tease out a way of ‘being with’ an audience that adheres to the consent politics that I try to adhere to in my personal life – so in sexual relationships or in friendships. Which is difficult because a lot of social exchange is not predicated on consent. We don’t actually understand how consent works and it is not approached holistically.

IA: Talking about consent and having good consent politics are two different things. I know that I have a proclivity for making people uncomfortable with my work. In some ways I belligerently take up that space and I’m happy to position the work in such a way that it demands that people examine and experience something that they might not necessarily want to be confronted with when I feel that the subject matter warrants it.

JW: I don’t feel the same need to take up space. But that’s informed by your experiences surely?

IA: It’s dangerous

JW: It is dangerous. But it also sounds necessary for the kind of work that you want to make. You are asking westerners to look at something they would rather not look at. A thing forces them to examine the immense privilege they enjoy by living in a western country where they, for example, don’t have to worry about their citizenship, their access to social services or the government restricting their agency. The thing that you’re asking them to look at is very different to what I’m doing artistically. My experiences as a migrant are also very different. I don’t feel that it would be appropriate for myself to take up space in the same way that you are describing because I don’t have these experiences informing it.

IA: But you do ask people to look at your trauma…

JW: I always frame any content as collective trauma. I might use personal experiences as a starting point but ultimately I aim to connect to the audience through what we might share collectively.

IA: It feels like a personal narrative at times. Like Intermission, the sound piece that you developed at Think Tank in January 2018 which is part of an on-going project.

JW: Which is actually not about me at all. But that’s the thing: I’m interested in making work that other people can tune into. Attunement is so important. It means presenting work that the audience can tune into. They can bring whatever they want into the experience and quite often, when I get feedback from people afterwards, they’ve interjected a lot of their own personal narratives into the work. I think that’s really good. I don’t want to rehash personal trauma. That’s not going to transform anything. My approach works best for me. In facilitating an experience where your audience is confronted with something they don’t want to look at or where it’s impossible for them to understand how cruel, harmful or damaging something might be, perhaps it becomes necessary to be confrontational. Necessary to put things in place so that there are these cruelties that are performed. (I don’t think they’re perpetuated, but I think they’re performed). They are represented as experiences that become possible for the audience to access.

IA: This is gonna sound navel-gazey… do you think that my putting on Thicker Than Blood was a cruel act?

JW: I think putting on TTB was an act of cruelty to you as an individual. (laughter)

IA: Yeah, I did not have an easy time with it getting it past Goldsmith University’s ethics committee.

JW: With Thicker Than Blood I & II, your audience consented to participate in a temporary social structure that amplified social hierarchies, making them distinct and visible. Social hierarchies exclude people based on things that are out of their control. So the cruelty that was enacted and performed in the TTB series is something that the audience themselves are in part responsible for and complicit in. The structure itself is cruel. It’s cruel and deeply inhumane in the same way that any kind of indifferent social or governmental structure or institution might be. The performances depicted different kinds of cruelty, harm or violence but I didn’t see them as acts of cruelty.

IA: Was I sadistic for curating TTB? Can artists be justified in making cruel work?

JW: You were not being sadistic. You created a structure that functioned on the exclusion of people from participation in certain activities based on factors beyond their control.

IA: Is that not cruel?

JW: I suppose it was cruel. But I think you need to take a step back from assigning yourself with these labels. On the one hand it was a cruel thing to do and it is a very cruel thing for people to experience and participate in. Is it something I would have done? Probably not, but that’s also not my specific interest. I just don’t understand how you would have otherwise been able have the audience experience what you wanted them to. Considering what you wanted to achieve. There had to be a level of confrontation. But it feels very different to other forms of participatory performance that might also be cruel but without purpose or aim.

IA: For shock value.

JW: Yeah it’s shock. It’s titillation.

IA: Yeah, I’m thinking about J.G Ballard’s 1970 exhibition Crashed Cars were wrecked vehicles were exhibited in a London art space and topless female ‘hosts’ walked around offering visitors drinks. There were reports that one of the women was sexually assaulted by an audience member. It was a very male way of using visual language; juxtaposing softness, femininity and sensuality alongside ‘machines’ (masculine) violence, and destruction. It’s a very slick, ironic aesthetic. I’m thinking now about the film director Quentin Tarantino as well – I don’t think that when Tarantino depicts cruelty he’s engaging with much more than an aesthetic of cruelty. It pisses me off because it’s like – what are you saying about cruelty and pain? Where’s the critical lens? Are women just collateral damage in the construction of this visual language?

JW: I think it’s really hard to find a common language to talk about cruelty that avoids that. People are intensely defensive when it comes to these topics. Especially when you question relationships between cruelty and consent politics in live and participatory work.

IA: People are exceptionally defensive about privilege, class and definitely race – there’s almost a one-upmanship. It’s interesting for me because it happens often that white British people insist that I’m white because I’m light-skinned in order to invalidate me when I talk about things such as race and access. It’s this bizarre attitude I keep coming across from white curators who say things like ‘oh yeah but what are you talking about, you’re white…’. It’s as if they want me to be on that same level as them because it’s more comfortable, but I’m not, and my experiences are not. I think if you can look at someone and they look like you, and you can kind of pretend that you’re on the same level then you don’t have to deal with the discomfort of recognising your own privilege. Especially when it comes to people who do not enjoy the same privileges you do, like asylum-seekers or someone who’s living on the streets. When you encounter people on a visceral level, there’s no link there: they don’t look like you, they don’t live like you and you know your privilege. That’s when you don’t look at them, that’s when they become invisible – because you can’t face your own privilege. Especially in a liberal society, especially in a multicultural cosmopolitan city, no-one wants to be called out on their privilege.

JW: That’s a good summary of how that experience works.

IA: We’re talking about cruelty and consent at a time when I’m thinking about it within my own interpersonal relationships, because I was subjected to a certain type of callous cruelty from a place I didn’t expect recently and it shook me in an obscene way. I can understand and have dealt with institutional cruelty and even straight-forward active cruelty, but passive cruelty is a bit different because it’s coming from this place of privilege where you can’t open a dialogue about cruelty to the person enacting it because they have no context for their actions.

JW: Yes! It’s distinct to institutional cruelty which is what you’re effectively exploring in your TTB series. Is it something that we can all find a common language for? Everyone has a context for institutional cruelty because we all experience it in different ways. With interpersonal cruelty, our language seems to be very underdeveloped… in part due to the diversity of privilege.

IA: And experience…

JW: Callousness in particular is a behaviour that arises from a lack of empathy or a lack of understanding. Empathy can only be generated by insight into other people’s experiences. Vast differences in privilege that cannot be or are not recuperated allow callousness and indifference to take place.

Given how much we’ve talked about exploring how cruelty works on an institutional level and how you’ve created a kind of immersive performance, where participants can both participate in and experience what that feels like, is that something that you want to continue exploring in your work?

IA: Thicker Than Blood III will look into biosurveillance practices in the Middle East, specifically Israel, and the way the Israeli Defence Force conduct military practice. Because of how people are socialised and educated, they may not recognise these practices as cruel. Like regarding another group of people as not human. Equally, I feel we’re capable of committing cruel acts towards animals or the environment without it registering as cruelty.

JW: That’s where institutional cruelty is reproduced in interpersonal relationships. The value systems that institutional cruelty generates are also reproduced in interpersonal relationships. Take class systems: in a class-based hierarchy the cruelty of that system also permeates and defines the quality of relationships that might exist between people of different classes. It permits and supports the thought processes that result in cruel behaviours.

It’s the same for relationships between men and women under patriarchy. Because patriarchy prioritises the interests of men and their access to power, women are more likely to experience acts of cruelty perpetuated by men simply because the institutionalised cruelty has given them license to do so. It may also prevent them from registering the cruelty of certain actions or behaviours. We could call it callousness or we could call it permission to be cruel. Callousness in some ways is a word that becomes a permission.

I don’t think that most people consider their cruelties. Callousness and indifference enacted in interpersonal relationships are not purposefully cruel. It’s not like someone sits around thinking ‘ooh if I do this it’ll be cruel’. It is thoughtless. The social structures that surround these exchanges create an economy where a lack of concern is acceptable between individuals divided by socially regulated forms of difference. It gives license or permission to do things that someone might not otherwise do. Maybe permission isn’t the right word in this instance.

I was thinking about the performance I did at Thicker Than Blood II about femme invisibility. How I don’t want to watch videos of it. I don’t want to revisit it. I felt like it was exploring an emotional landscape that was quite personal to me, even though it was ostensibly about identity politics. I also feel really distant from it because now I no longer feel like I’m in a position where I’m constantly under attack. Invisibility is a condition produced by these cruel hierarchies, but it’s upheld and perpetuated by people who do not recognise what they are participating in as cruel.

Jessica Worden

Jessica Worden, Seen, 2017. Performed at Thicker Than Blood II: Consequence, London.

IA: That invisibility is very political.

JW: It’s very political. It’s also an intensely cruel experience. The idea that you are not seen and that your pain is not witnessed, that it’s not validated or recognised. The feelings attached to invisibility are difficult and objectifying. You don’t feel like you have personhood in the way that others do.

IA: Worthlessness…

JW: Yeah, you feel worthless. I think everyone experiences that to different degrees. It’s generative how you can have these overlaps when it comes to queer work. It’s often focused on sexuality but equally addresses experiences associated with the outsider, the migrant, class difference and so on…

IA: There’s overlaps in activism. You have all these people with wildly different lived experiences but share common experiences of objectification. It is a bit bizarre. Coming from a Muslim country and seeing solidarity between queer people here and Muslim migrants, or there being a float for Muslim LGBT people at Brighton Pride, anti-deportations, don’t deport queer migrants… For me that’s a very interesting relationship. I’ve seen how prevalent fundamentalism is in the Middle East. There’s a lot of fundamentalist propaganda. It’s very difficult to criticize fundamentalist Islam publicly in Jordan because it is a majority Muslim country, and you can’t – by law – publicly criticize the Muslim faith. These fundamentalist laws target artists, writers and activists. It’s a big issue in Jordan, recently the government issued a gag order for local news covering the assassination of openly atheist cartoonist Nahed Hattar by a fundamentalist, following his arrest for ‘inciting sectarian strife’ after he shared a political cartoon criticizing indifferent attitudes towards ISIS.[ix]

I’m always questioning the assumed limits of what I can and can’t say when I’m addressing a western liberal audience. This is difficult to talk about in this context because it’s difficult to talk to a liberal western audience about the very real threat of fundamentalist thought. How it is anti-queer and anti-woman. It’s a messy inconvenient truth. For instance, there are no feminist vegan politics in Hezbollah. You cannot apply these liberal or progressive frameworks to a group like Hezbollah or Hamas. There are different ways of working with each other that can help people who are marginalised. Ways that don’t rely on the delusion that all experiences are one and the same. I really have a problem with this sentiment that ‘we all bleed red,’ I don’t think we do.

JW: Well, some of us bleed a whole lot more than others.

IA: I feel that this language of entitlement and enslavement is tied to our colonial past, exerts itself in the present and extends to our relationship to the Earth’s resources and other species. It is yet another turn on the conceptualization of capitalism that as Marx stated, kills both man and nature in its exploitative performative transformations.[x] It is the language of callous cruelty, of narcissism, of speciesism that can help explain why human technological ‘progress’ parallels ecological devastation. Likewise, in the human propensity for political strife and acts of war, the environment and lowest echelons of society suffer irredeemable destruction. Cruelty, no matter how abstract or distant it might seem, manifests in very real consequences. They aren’t universal. We don’t all suffer equally. And we don’t all have an opportunity to consent. This is the primary difference between my work and the workings of state power reproduced through the TTB series.


[i] Nada Akl and Izdihar Afyouni, “Of Blood and Bureaucracy: Consequences of the Arbitrary,” Pixxelator, April 2018,
[ii] Eyal Weizman, “Walking Through Walls,”, January 2007,
[iii] Maggie Nelson, The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2011).
[iv] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (Routledge, 1990).
[v] Nicola Migliorino, (Re)constructing Armenia in Lebanon and Syria (New York: Berghahn Books, 2008).
[vi] Sara Hamza, “Migrant Labor in the Arabian Gulf: A Case Study of Dubai, UAE,” Pursuit – The Journal of Undergraduate Research at the University of Tennessee 6, no.1 (2015): 81-114.
[vii] Venus choses not to identify as a performance artist and limits her participation to live work performed in alternative clubs and fetish events. She specialises in bloodletting and extreme forms of body art. More about her performance at TTB2 can be accessed at
[viii] Andrew Frost, “Crash and the Aesthetics of Disappearance,” Ballardian, October 22, 2013.
[ix] Peter Beaumont, “Jordanian writer shot dead as he arrives at trial for insulting Islam,” The Guardian, September 25, 2016.
[x] Alexander G. Weheliye, Habeas Viscus (Duke University Press, 2014).

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