Degree Critical, Spring 2019

Friday 05/17/2019

Hicham Faraj, Compulsory Figures (2018). Courtesy of the artist.

On Post-irony, Parafiction, and Other Distortions: Sahar Khraibani in Conversation with Hicham Faraj

by Sahar Khraibani (Class of 2019)

Hicham Faraj is a multi-disciplinary artist and designer currently based in New York City. He holds an MFA from the Yale School of Art. Faraj’s work deals with friction and dissonance in an age governed by technologies seeking to eliminate them. He explores serious questions on the tension between the human and the post-human with a rather casual and humorous tone. He recently sat down with Sahar Khraibani to talk about post-irony and parafiction, repetition and immortality, and other distortions of time in the Internet age.

Sahar Khraibani (Degree Critical): You talk about post-irony and “parafiction” in your work. Can you tell me a little bit more about these concepts and how you apply them?

Hicham Faraj: I discovered post-irony independently of my work. I was in conversation with my colleagues at the Yale School of Art in 2017 that were engaging with research on post-irony, and the concept resonated with what I was working on at the time. One aspect of post-irony is that it is almost impossible to decipher people’s intentions. I grappled with the inability to tell whether someone is being sincere or being ironic in their statements. We witness many instances of post-irony online, with the way people engage with social media platforms, and the way they share their opinions or worldviews. I think there’s something very ironic about the Internet and social media in general. It’s a great platform for people to be ironic. The way I see it manifest with my work is less about how my work makes people feel but mostly in the way I describe other people’s work or the way I approach it.

DC: What do you mean by that?

HF: I frequently use the adjective “cute” to express my opinion about a project, or an artwork. While my intentions are sincere, they are often mistaken for being ironic, crass or indifferent. The misapprehension of intentions — what makes this situation post-ironic — is the result of the underlying ambiguity of cute. The term cute has three definitions. Cute can mean attractive in a pretty or endearing way, or sexually attractive. But cute can also be defined as cunning and clever, especially in a self-seeking or superficial way. The last definition itself sounds pretty ironic but it’s the only one that comes close to the original meaning of “cute,” which first appeared in English in the 18th century as an abbreviation of “acute,” which also meant sharp or clever. But it seems that over the years the word’s slang meaning caught on and the aesthetic sense has overtaken the intellectual values. Because of its ubiquity in teen magazines, and more recently, the Internet, “cute” is now chiefly used to refer to things we find attractive due to their tiny sizes, fluffiness, and irresistible smiles.

But I’ve also been using “cute” to describe work that isn’t meant to bring out a similar reaction to the one expected when looking at a video of a baby panda sneezing. My confusing choice of words spurs a knee-jerk, pejorative reaction that leaves me wondering about my real intentions in the first place. Have I been using it to mean clever and sharp? Is it a reaction expressive of my attraction to the aesthetic value of the artwork in question the same way I might use it to describe someone’s physical appearance? Could it be my own version of the equally dreaded yet possibly less problematic adjective “interesting?” Maybe I’m not as sincere as I thought I was.

DC: So how does “parafiction” function in relation to this? How does it manifest itself?

HF: What’s interesting to me about parafiction, very similarly to post-irony, is again the incapacity of being able to tell what one thing is. With post-irony, you can’t tell the real intentions behind something, with parafiction you can’t really tell if something is true or false. In my opinion, what makes parafiction successful is that something feels visceral and real, but then you come across minute details that make you question this reality. Parafiction is a term used to describe an emergent genre of artwork that plays in the overlap between fact and fiction. If a parafiction operates within that space between the fictional and the real, alongside this term we might position a second one: a “parafact,” an artwork that draws from the real, but a real whose narrative is so curious, exquisite, or implausible so as to call into question its own veracity. In my work, parafiction and post-irony are major influences. But my work doesn’t quite fit any of these categories fully. This is best embodied in the Immortality Record (2018).

DC: Can you tell me more about the Immortality Record?

HF: It’s a project that was a culmination of a lot of ideas and references related to immortality that I was exploring at the time. The main inspiration for the record was Shin Kubota, a Japanese marine biologist who researches the Turritopsis polyps[1]—the immortal jellyfish—and who also writes karaoke songs about the jellyfish and dresses up as a jellyfish to perform them in karaoke bars in Japan. The relationship between his research and music was intriguing, so I started looking at immortality through the lens of music. In pop songs, the theme of eternity or eternal/immortal love is very relevant. There are so many songs that talk about being immortal in their lyrics. The other influence came about when I was looking into immortality and reading biomedical research about cryonics,[2] rejuvenation, and blood transfusion. I was also looking at online life hacks on how to live longer. Those were more spiritual: drink more tea, look at more art, laugh more often, and finally, listen to more music. All these different references came together and I created the Immortality Record. The record had 12 songs that went chronologically backward from the most recent song to the oldest. They were all pop songs about love that included the word “forever” in the title. The record mimicked the life cycle of the immortal jellyfish and came with the premise that if you listen to it repeatedly, you would keep going back and forth in time, extending your life. In that sense, maybe the record works and fulfills its mission, but it’s a very exaggerated form of parafiction. The balance between fiction and reality here is steeper, and it’s more obviously fiction than it is fact.

Hicham Faraj, Outside Unit A5 (2017). Courtesy of the artist.

DC: Your work operates under specific themes, and you tend to think a lot about a certain idea—shadows, smudges, repetitions— and then create a body of work in relation it. I’m interested in knowing more about two of your projects Outside Unit A5 (2017) and Do you feel alone? (2017).

HF: When I start working on a project, there’s always a formal interest at the beginning. I try as much as possible—and that’s when I feel like I’m being the most successful—to follow where that takes me without being influenced by the ultimate formal result. And I think that was the case with shadows. I was initially just interested in silhouettes of shadows, but as I looked more deeply into them I started getting bored of the formal aspect, and became more interested in the verb “shadow” or what it means to shadow someone and follow them around. Do you feel alone? came from the idea of being watched all the time, or being followed around. It references different contemporary situations, the myth of being constantly watched through your webcam, or receiving targeted advertising, or walking alone at night and feeling as if someone is following you. It also references self-help books. At a time where people are talking and thinking about what it means to be lonely today, the short clip started off as a self-help audio book. Its purpose is to assuage the feeling of loneliness, to make you feel better, and to tell you that you’re not alone. But it’s not telling you this in the sense where you have friends you can reach out to, it’s telling you that you’re not alone because so many people are watching you—the Internet is watching you.

DC: Did this come after working on Outside Unit A5?

HF: It actually came before it and is what prompted Outside Unit A5. When I started becoming interested in shadows, and dove deeper into the topic, the research made me think more about digital surveillance and being watched by other people online. It was post-human in a way. Outside Unit A5 was a complete opposite reaction to that, where I was trying to actually get the attention of my neighbor in New Haven.

My neighbor would always leave their shoes outside the door of their apartment. For some reason, I started taking pictures and documenting their shoes whenever I would leave or come back. At the time I wasn’t working on shadows yet. But when I started researching and working with shadows formally, I looked back at these images and realized that the shoes themselves were an indexical image of my neighbor the same way your shadow is your indexical image—a trace we leave behind. I also noticed that my action of photographing the shoes was in and of itself an act of shadowing my neighbor. I wanted to push that and I wanted to make it a point to find out who my neighbor is just by looking at their shoes and putting clues together. The first step for me was to embody the persona of a private investigator instead of calling myself an artist. I started paying more attention to the habits of my neighbor and the traces of things they left behind until I was actually able to find out whom they were. Once I found out I wanted to reveal myself, which is ironic because I was functioning under the secrecy of a private investigator.

DC: Did calling yourself a private investigator make you approach the work differently? Why did you feel the need to work on this under the guise of an investigator?

HF: I think it was a way to exaggerate the fictional aspect of the project. At the end of the day, I was fetishizing this idea of them leaving their shoes outside when it’s actually a very normal habit. I wanted to exaggerate the shadowing aspect of the work and to push it to its limits. How far could I really go with this? I exaggerated this habit and I wanted to add to the fictional aspect of the work by pretending that I was a private investigator.

DC: What were you reading at the time you were working on these projects, or what were your influences? Whose work were you researching?

HF: At the time I was taking a class at Yale School of Art about German cinema in the 70s and the 80s, and we were looking and thinking about movies by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Michael Haneke. Voyeurism is a big theme in their films. There are a lot of mirrors, the characters were often very melodramatic, and there’s always an aspect of sensationalized violence, or a characteristic of just being watched and looked at. With Haneke’s movies there’s always a feeling of things being on the verge of crashing, or moments of high tension. These influences made me want to tap into things that made me a little less comfortable in my practice. Like putting myself in situations of being a character in a movie. I think that’s why I wanted to exaggerate the fictional elements in the work.

DC: For a while, you did a lot of work about smudges like Compulsory Figures (2018). How did that come about and how did you become interested in smudges? How did you take this almost mundane aspect of everyday life—smudging your phone surface with your fingerprints—and conceptualize it? What was it about these smudges that made you interested?

HF: I always have an interest in one thing and then I let it guide me. With the case of smudges, my interest started with videos of figure skaters falling down. I was really interested in the emotional repercussions of the fall. There’s a millisecond, a tiny mistake, when they fall down, and it breaks the whole illusion of elegance that they are creating. The gracefulness of their movement gets interrupted. Because of the way figure skating is broadcast on TV, a tiny mistake gets extended in time, slowed down, repeated over and over again and there’s nothing the skater can do about it. As I was watching these videos, my attention started shifting from the figure skaters to the surface of the ice. When the lights hit the ice surface, I noticed how flawed the surface becomes with all the skate marks. You can see all the flaws in what otherwise seems to be like a smooth and pristine surface. I was able to create an analogy between something that I know nothing about and something that I do every day: browsing on my phone. That moment when I noticed the ice reminded me of moments where I’d be on my phone and I would notice how smudged the surface of the screen is because of the cracks and the fingerprints on it. And then I realized that the way I slide my fingers on a screen is somewhat similar to the way a figure skater moves on ice. For the longest time, I thought there was something so romantic and beautiful about the way we use our phones but I wasn’t able to pin it down. I was afraid that I was romanticizing and sensationalizing an everyday activity. And I think being able to draw this comparison with figure skaters gave me an excuse to explore this further, and look at the romantic aspect of how we use this technology.

DC: Can you tell me more about this worry of sensationalizing an everyday activity or a repetition of some form?

HF: What’s interesting about repetition is the fact that there’s something satisfying about an action being repeated. It gives one a sense of order, perhaps even some sense of control. There’s also something very visual and systematic about it. My interest in repetition is a result of a broader interest in time, and this is where immortality comes in. One way I witness repetition and deal with it in my work is through animated GIFs. There are so many types of GIFs. There are some that repeat seamlessly where you can’t tell when it starts and when it ends, but then there are the more humorous GIFs, normally sampled out of videos, where it abruptly stops and then begins again. When I interviewed John Williams, Associate Professor of English at Yale, he told me that there’s something childish about these GIFs but that doesn’t make them less entertaining or humorous for adults. That’s a small example of the satisfaction you can get from repetition.

Hicham Faraj, Any (2018). Courtesy of the artist.

DC: Is this what prompted your web-series Any (2018)?

HF: In a way, yes. When you repeat something an excessive amount of times, it becomes comical, for many different reasons. You begin noticing underlying and less obvious aspects of what you are scrutinizing. It’s all about temporal measures. I created the web-series Any with artist Ingrid Chen, and it also relates to repetition, and the exploration of how we experience time. There are three episodes so far and we essentially deconstructed the trope of online tutorials of unboxing consumer goods, cooking videos and other instructional videos that are taken from a top view camera where you can only see the hands of the performer. It’s called Anybecause these hands can signify anyone and can do anything. The first episode is from the point of view of the viewer watching the video, and how for them the person behind the scene is anonymous. Essentially, these hands become yours, and your phone screen where you’re watching becomes a cheap and dissonant portal into a different life. As you hold your phone screen, your hands disappear behind it and they emerge again in the screen through the video. The second episode is from the point of view of the person making the video. We found the subculture of unboxing videos where the people who perform for the camera have very elaborate nail art—their hands are the only way to show their identity in these videos. Conversely, in more mainstream tutorials the hands are supposed to be as neutral as possible. The third episode of Any was more of a speculation on virtual reality in relation to these videos. We were noticing how most applications of virtual reality today take on our human perspective. When you put an AI mask on you are transported to a different constructed reality but you still have somewhat of a linear perspective—the same you would experience it in your natural environment. We were speculating on a virtual reality that takes on other perspectives, like the very unnatural perspective of a top view, or omnipresent perspective. These tutorials bend time: an activity that normally takes a long time such as baking a cake would take 30 seconds on a cooking tutorial and is made to look so easy. Whereas an activity that normally takes 30 seconds such as unboxing, is extended to a 20-minute tutorial video. Time is warped in that sense. Tasks that we find laborious or difficult in real life are made to look easy, whereas tasks that are simple are extended. The excessive amount of these videos that you can find online relates to this repetition, you get to live vicariously through these hands and these videos. The Internet can stop time.

[1] Turritopsis polyps is a species of small jellyfish found in the Mediterranean Sea and in the waters of Japan. It is one of the few known cases of animals capable of reverting completely to a sexually immature, colonial stage after having reaching maturity as a solitary individual. This process can go on indefinitely, effectively rendering the jellyfish biologically immortal.

[2] Cryonics is the low-temperature freezing of a human corpse, with the hope that resuscitation may be possible in the future.

Hicham Faraj is a multidisciplinary artist and designer based in New York. He holds a BFA in Graphic Design from the American University of Beirut and a MFA in Graphic Design from the Yale School of Art. He served as Art Director of The Outpost magazine from 2014 till 2017. His work has been featured on Etapes Magazine, It’s Nice That, AIGA Eye on Design, Magculture, and Buzzfeed. He has been a visiting critic and guest lecturer at the Rhode Island School of Design and Pratt Institute, and a part-time professor at Parsons, The new School in New York. His work can be viewed here:

Sahar Khraibani is a multi-disciplinary artist, designer, and writer from Beirut, currently based in New York City. She holds a BFA in Graphic Design from the American University of Beirut and is currently an MFA Candidate at the Art Writing program at the School of Visual Arts.