Lebanese filmmakers and visual artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige make no apologies for investigating spam emails and internet fraud.
“I Must First Apologise…” is a thought-provoking multimedia exhibition at the Villa Arson in Nice. The outcome of ongoing research since 1999, the work of Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige scores points in both substance and form.
Curated by Eric Mangion, “I Must First Apologise…” runs until 13 October 2014. Featuring diverse media including installation, sound, video, sculpture and drawing, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige‘s exhibition unfolds like a dynamic narrative itinerary, re-telling history through provocative virtual archives.
An immersive, sensory experience
A progressive art school founded in 1972, the Villa Arson’s modernist architecture allows for an immersive exhibition experience. As the Studio International observes:
The exhibition unravels through a series of interconnecting rooms […] forming an informative and visual obstacle course, which accumulate depths and concepts along the way.
The installation The Rumour of the World (2014) is the first piece that visitors encounter. In a darkened room, 23 screens display non-professional actors reading out scam emails. Complementing this disorienting visual is a confusing audio experience: a bundle of microphones hangs down at the centre of the room broadcasting all the clips at once. As The Daily Star Lebanon describes it:
Upon entering the gallery, thanks to this sound design, no individual voice can rise above the cacophony – an approximation of a rumour, as [Hadjithomas] puts it. As you approach one of the screens, however, you will at a specific point enter a sonic “sweet spot”, where the pitch of a given scam becomes clearly audible.
The Nigerian scam
Since 1999, Hadjithomas and Joreige collected and archived more than 4,000 scam emails. Known as “the Nigerian scam”, these frauds use a same general structure. The exhibition press release explains:
a person claims to possess a large sum of money that needs to be transferred urgently. A substantial percentage of this money is promised to the person who accepts to help […] If the “victim” chooses to accept, they are then required to gradually pay sums of money intended to cover various imaginary fees before the transfer is effective. Ultimately that transfer never really happens.
Such emails are “written in first-person, structured like monologues, ranging from confessions of a political figure’s wife or child, sometimes those of a notorious dictator.” These stories effectively prey on people’s gullibility by:
weav[ing] a plausible reality rooted in news or real events, referring to existing conflicts and usurping famous individuals’ identities.
Why do we believe?
Hadjithomas and Joreige’s research reveals that thousands of people get conned each year. Hundreds of millions of currencies are robbed, sometimes leading to murder and suicide. As Joreige said in an interview with Reorient Magazine, “just from the US [alone] more than $200 million […] are transferred to West Africa every year.” Joreige tells Studio International:
Believing a story is like entering into a contract, like at the theatre. You know it’s fiction, but you agree to experience it as a performance.
Contract or not, victims of scam emails are hooked by the false narratives and entrancing sentiments. Such a phenomenon is embodied by Hadjithomas and Joreige’s cleverly designed installations. Harriet Thorpe of Studio International tells of her own experience:
I find myself engrossed by certain faces, giving them my time and empathising with them, yet once I step back into the centre of the installation, the sound escalates and they are just a crowd of liars impatient for my attention.
Preserving lies, transforming truths
In the installation A Letter Can Always Reach its Destination (2012), a piece which debuted in the 2012 Dubai exhibition “Spectral Imprints” featuring winners of the 2012 Abraaj Capital Art Prize, a person reads a scam aloud in the foreground while ghostly holograms of people scroll by in the back. Joreige explains to Studio International:
We wanted to make the actors appear and disappear like the virtuality of the computer space, like a present that is not present. We wanted all the characters to provide an image to this imaginary without an image.
Through their work, Hadjithomas and Joreige preserve the ephemeral presence of virtual scams by materialising its insubstantiality. Going one step further, they transform and deconstruct the abstract data and language into complex image representations.
In Geometry of Space (2014), three mesmerising steel globes track scam email correspondence across the world. Hadjithomas explains to The Daily Star Lebanon:
We’ve taken all the scams […] and calculated the trajectories of these emails […] For us the scams are writing a sort of alternative history of the world for the last ten or twelve years.
Turning the tables
During research, Hadjithomas and Joreige came across the online organisation ‘419 Eater’ which turns the tables on scammers. ‘419’ is the Nigerian law forbidding scams and members of the scambaiting organisation call themselves ‘419 eaters’ or ‘scambaiters’. The Daily Star Lebanon reports that the scambaiters, mostly based in the US and northern Europe, respond to scam mails and play along with correspondence that can sometimes go on for months.
A scambaiter can demand the scammer to have himself tattooed or perform other humiliating acts. The “trophies” collected, which include videos, photos, paintings, sculptures and performances, are exhibited in an online forum called “The Trophy Room”. Hadjithomas and Joreige’s installation Trophy Room (2014) bears the same name and documents the trophies as well as the rolls of endless email correspondence. Hadjithomas remarks in the Reorient interview:
This game can be very cruel, blurring the lines of credulity abuse, power and capital. It shows […] that even with the scammer, there is this incredible desire to believe that makes him fall into the trap of the scam beater.
Alternate history and the art of narration
Joreige said in the same interview:
Actually, when we started to collect all the scams, it was because we were interested in narration.
As Studio International observes, despite its online prevalence, email scam is “mainly confined to the junk mailbox and overlooked in its contemporary relevance.” What Hadjithomas and Joreige do in this exhibition is to rescue scam stories from irrelevance and a disappearance into virtuality.
In doing so, the art of storytelling is preserved. As Hadjithomas says to Reorient, such storytelling, albeit fraudulent
[uses] personalities and characters that exist, talking about conflicts, political revolutions, wars, turmoil, economical changes, ecological disasters … and when you bring the scams together, you see that they’re telling a contemporary history in a different way.
As The Daily Star Lebanon sums up, therefore, the exhibition is:
[m]ore than a light-hearted romp through the virtual world of human avarice and gullibility […] [instead,] a weighty contemplation of the creation and reception of art, of performance and imagination, of belief and, yes, money.
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