The Practice of Kinship: A Conversation with Jassem Hindi

Keith Hennessy and Jassem Hindi in “future friend/ships.” Photo by Anja Beutler

It was at the Prisma festival in Mexico that French-Palestinian performer, writer and sound artist Jassem Hindi met Keith Hennessy for the first time ten years ago. Hindi, who is currently based in Berlin, remembers that Hennessy was improvising on stage when he bumped into a child who was eating an ice cream. He recalls watching the way that Hennessy carefully took the time to make sure the child was ok. After the performance, Hindi approached Hennessy and suggested they might work together. That was the start of an artistic collaboration and a friendship that provided material for future friend/ships, a piece that premieres this week at CounterPulse. “Motivated by the ambivalent outcomes of the Arab Spring and a failed effort to understand the war in Syria, future friend/ships plays in the imaginary realms of future fiction,” the press release announces. Hindi and I talked over the phone last week about the politics of friendship and the impulse to imagine and create a future that renegotiates the terms of kinship.

Marie Tollon: How did this project start?

Jassem Hindi: It started from different directions at the same time. My father’s family is from the Middle East. My father is Palestinian, but we are also Lebanese. I was born in Saudi Arabia and I also lived in Syria. That’s a place that’s in the news all the time and Keith and I have a sort of obsession for the news and for politics. Since we met, about 10 years ago, we have had a daily practice of reading the news and conversing. The Middle East has always been part of our conversation and at some point I was tired of talking about it strictly from a political point of view and not from a cultural or poetic point of view.

There’s also the fact that we have been exposing our friendship in public for a few years. We did a lot of small works that were improvised in bars, on the side of festivals and of big projects like Turbulence. We’ve been using our friendship as an artistic theme. The idea was to look at the process of hospitality in the Middle East and in our own practice. How do we host each other? How does that transform us throughout the years?

MT: How do you navigate the transition between the personal and the public spheres?

JH: It is completely organic. There’s this idea of the politics of friendship that I borrowed from Jacques Derrida and what they can expose about politics in general and how we relate to each other — ideas of solidarity, complicity, and independence, that have to be renegotiated every time. I think that is something that we both appreciate a lot.

MT: Scholar Edward Said, whom you mention in the work as an ancestor of Arab Futurism, talked about the failure that people have experienced in waiting for a power outside of themselves — a “great leader, a military victory” — to emancipate themselves from oppression and abuse. He advocated for self-reliance. Is there something of that idea in the politization of friendship that you are exploring in this work?

JH: It is a word that has been used and misused a lot when it comes to politics. Since the early 21st century, there have been some interesting developments around this idea. Communities are trying to learn from their past experience and are not necessarily attached to relationships. Let’s say that we have better tools to be friends in this century than in the last one.

MT: You mentioned living in several Arabic countries. What did the Arab Spring mean to you and could you predict the direction it took?

JH: It’s a complicated question. I think that I am not really qualified to answer. Honestly it’s very different from one country to another. We still don’t know why it happened. It’s one of those historical moments that we can only witness. We are too close to the fire to understand anything. In a way, that blindness directed the work a bit: because you cannot see anything of what is happening now, you can only imagine what can happen in the future. It’s a fabulation. In the Arab world we have a strong tradition of fabulation, we understand storytelling as something that has a political meaning.

We are taking our model from other people who have been listening to catastrophes for a long time and have had their future swept under their feet. I’m thinking mainly about what happened simultaneously in the United States and in Africa around African futurism or Afrofuturism. We have a lot to learn from them, specifically from the cinema industry at that time, where you could make up new scenarios in order to find solutions because if you look at the scenarios that you have in place, there’s no hope. What you can do is start somewhere else that is here but not exactly. The laws of physics don’t apply entirely. From this place that is in between here and the future, between reality and not reality, you can breathe and there’s some room to play.

Where you can play is where you can invent new models and new ways to relate to each other. The idea is not to achieve a discourse or say something specific about what can be done or what should be done but to show what other strategies there are. We have been looking at the work of poets Etel Adnan and Nazik Al-Malaika. There is something for us that is quite liberating and that we can play with in the rhythm of those two poets’ language, in the content but also the structure of their work. But we can only approach it indirectly: diving in it would basically destroy the practical value of it, which is to not finish the sentence, to give room for other people to sit in it and play by themselves. We are just here to offer a platform.

We looked at Adnan’s The Arab Apocalypse and Al-Malaika’s New Year as objects in and of themselves. These two things are of course important companions to the work, but they are neither starting nor ending points to the work. They are just giving us signs about how we can move around and how we can associate something which is about speculative fiction and poetry.

Along the line, there is sadness in all this, which [arises from] the disappearance of an Arab culture that is secular, open, and discrete. This culture is the one that is now disappearing in front of our eyes in a country like Syria and has been threatened for a long time in a place like Iraq and in many other places. Because of war they are losing their poets, their writers, and their artists. We want them to be our companions. But as Tarkovsky used to say, it is in times of crisis and in times of war that art exists. It’s terrible news but maybe there is a chance for something different to happen.

Another thing is that a lot of artists are inventing futurism in other parts of the world. I am going to do it through writing and performance, other people are going to do it through other means. We don’t communicate with each other for now, but I’m sure we will at some point. We all have one thing in common: in general, Afrofuturism, specifically in Africa, and Arab Futurism as I’m trying to develop it now, are quite cynical. We are not amazed by technology or by progress. It’s more a critical apparel that we can develop only in this discourse. Hope is not part of the vocabulary.

MT: From the excerpts that I saw, I could recognize ritualistic, self-made, unstable and poetic elements in the set that seem to me common to both of your practices. Can you talk about the assembly of objects in the set?

JH: The process of our methodology is chaos. There is no rationale to where and how we start. If an object stays for more than 2 days in the room, it means that we are going to be contaminated by it or start to contaminate it. We are trying to use objects or dance techniques that are hybrid enough so whatever is there is something that carries a polysemous presence that people can navigate, without being arrested by one meaning or one understanding of it. We try to choose material that are like good houses to host many kinds of people. We are here to offer this without guiding people’s vision too much, and let them do the work that they want or need to do.

For instance, the child dances are not inspired by children but have to do with this idea of playfulness, fragility and burst of high energy. They don’t achieve anything, they are just ridiculous and playful. This kind of material allows people to just participate. There’s no idea of virtuosity in the work. Anyone should be physically capable of doing it or imagine themselves doing it. We want everything to be completely accessible. All the objects we have are half broken to be unstable and fragile but also to open to everything else. There are also hidden references to Donna Haraway and her philosophy of what friendship is, how machines communicate with humans, and with each other as presences and not as algorithms. She talks about the practice of kinship, as a way to develop a critical apparatus.

MT: What cultural gaps, if any, has this collaboration/friendship contributed to bridge?

JH: We both come with tools and personal experiences. If we do teach each other something, it is never direct, it is always by being in the presence of each other, by letting ourselves be contaminated and transformed by each other’s practice. This is a rule that may have to do with the child-like dance: you work by imitation and analogy a lot. You put back the form of the other in your own world and start to manipulate it as your own. That is part of the hospitality practice, or the generosity of the work. We give each other everything we have without giving it directly. We just put it on the table and whoever wants to pick it up is allowed to do so, to transform it, to misunderstand it and to do whatever they want with it.

Because I am from the Middle East, there are things that I cannot explain or exactly share. But what I cannot share is as important as what I can share. This absence, this sorrow or this nostalgia, the joy that I find in the Arabic language, all these things that are not able to be communicated are accepted as something we have to deal with. It’s true for both of us. Keith has an immense legacy here in San Francisco and that is something that I can only approach from the side and cannot completely understand.

You have to accept obscurity and opacity as part of the game. There is a really beautiful formula from science fiction writer Samuel Delany: “a formless, fabulous darkness.” This is such a beautiful way to look at what the others are: What is a stranger? What is a foreigner? What is a friend? They are also this formless, fabulous darkness. That is a formula that also [speaks to] the work: we don’t need to put light on everything, we just need to bring you this darkness and this presence that can be manipulated even if you don’t understand it entirely.

That’s also why we don’t directly approach the very concrete violence that is happening in the Middle East. You have to be careful and caring for other people’s grief and sorrow. You can’t just play with people’s lives and manipulate them as if they were just material. They are here but they are here silently. And we are trying to be as humble as possible, close to the madness. There is lot of work to be done. It’s not something that you can address directly in art. The practice of art is to just to bring people together and let them build their own tools. No one is there to preach.