Everybody has received those e-mails. The ones in which the widow or orphan of the former minister or president needs to spirit millions out of some faraway country and for some reason has hit on you as a willing collaborator – in exchange for a good percentage, of course. You may scratch your head wondering who could be so stupid as to be taken in, but apparently these scams work, which would explain why they keep coming.
Lebanese artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige have collected 4,000 of these e-mails since 1999 and turned them to more artistic purposes. Their 2014 body of work titled On Scams is now showing at Toronto’s Power Plant gallery as part of a summer exhibition schedule about globalism, race and video art that also features German filmmaker Mario Pfeifer and British sculptor Thomas J Price.
The centrepiece of On Scams is a darkened room where 18 competing video monitors feature 36 different amateur actors simultaneously performing the desperate pleas and enticing schemes of the scam e-mails. You can only hear the individual monologues by approaching a monitor very closely, and since the cast includes all races, ages and types, the effect of their many twisting tales is an international cacophony. The artists have also created globe-like sculptures of oxidized steel lines based on the geographic paths various e-mails have followed.
When the work becomes this abstracted, you have to wonder whether a documentary film would do a lot more to elucidate the meaning and feeling of the fraud. Indeed, a video interview with one of the amateur actors, Fidel, who turned out to know a lot about such scams because he used to perform them back in Nigeria, exposes more of the mechanics. Meanwhile, a video titled It’s All Real features some of the true-life stories of the actors, their sad tales of immigration, displacement and loss often echoing the fraudsters’ fabrications.
This sometimes awkward gap between attenuated art and documentary video, between the evocative and the informative, seems finally bridged in (DE)SYNCHRONICITY, a short, four-channel video in which the camera surveys four internet cafés in Lebanon as people come and go. These people are actually actors, too, but in the context of On Scams, the dramatic tension is acute in a way the multiple video monologues are not: Are these customers about to wire away their life savings? Or are they fraudsters setting up the sting? Here, finally, On Scams seems to score its artistic points, bringing the fraud down to earth by giving the e-mails a physical reality.
Hadjithomas and Joreige’s work certainly raises questions about how audiences consume video in a gallery setting, where viewers wander in and out at different points and can’t be counted on to stay for the full duration. It’s a particularly challenging issue for Pfeifer’s intricate films, represented here by a selection he has titled If you end up with the story you started with, then you’re not listening along the way. The first, #blacktivist, is a five-minute 2015 collaboration with hip-hop group Flatbush Zombies, whose participation pushed it out of the realm of rarified visual art film into that of YouTube sensation. A short piece about racism in a supposedly postracial era, it features a parade of provocative imagery, including performances and interviews with the musicians, material about handguns made by 3-D printers and a startling tableau in which the hood is pulled off a Western prisoner of Islamic State terrorists (played by the Zombies) to reveal Barack Obama.
The result is a music video blast, whereas the 42-minute Again – Noch Einmal is a full narrative and a highly effective mix of documentary and drama. It is based on a 2016 case in the German town of Arnsdorf, where an Iraqi refugee and psychiatric patient grew agitated in a supermarket about a phone card he had purchased. He was attacked, beaten and tied to a tree by a gang of passing vigilantes who attempted to turn him over to the police for alleged shoplifting. The attackers were acquitted on charges of wrongful detention. Like some dark police procedural, the film cleverly restages the confrontation for a jury, stopping the action to see if there were other ways of defusing it and interviewing the jury members. One elderly woman is so overcome by the rise of racism in Germany, a return to what feels to her like 1933, she dissolves into tears. Tucked away at the back of the Power Plant, Again is a film that deserves a full, seated, start-to-finish screening instead of the continual loop that is the art gallery norm.
As always with the Power Plant’s fruitful combinations of international artists, there’s an interesting dialogue here, this time between the fantastical global exchanges of On Scams and the probing of attitudes to refugees in Again. Price, the British artist, completes the conversation with his simple but thoughtful sculptures about race. In Ordinary Men, he creates a series of bronze statuettes, perhaps half life-size, and mounts them on ornate wooden plinths, as well as fashioning pure white sculpted heads from an acrylic composite. The initial point is obvious: These figures, elevated as though they were classical emperors or Victorian colonialists, are all of black men. Straightforward-looking guys, these impassive, solitary figures evoke a basic human solidarity, the exact opposite of the foreignness and strangeness evoked by the multiracial crowd of fraudsters in On Scams. Outside the Power Plant’s doors, Price repeats the trick, but this time at a greatly enlarged scale: Cover Up (The Reveal) is one giant of a guy now surveying the Toronto waterfront, pulling up or pulling off his hood, depending on your perspective.
The work might seem simplistic if it were not for Price’s notable technical skill. The heads and statues, inspired by actual individuals although not intended as portraits, are so meticulously constructed that they prolong the engagement with their ideas – the political content contrasting sharply with masterfully rendered traditional art forms, the white heads riffing off the notion of blackness, the ordinary men questioning images of achievement. Their smart physicality provides a welcome break from the many, many pixels of video on offer at the Power Plant this summer.
Summer exhibitions at the Power Plant at Harbourfront Centre to Sept. 2.
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