2012 - 2020
Lebanon; Beirut, Beyrouth, Lebanon
Plaintext, in an espionage world and language, is a message before encryption or after decryption, and it is easily readable by humans. After it becomes encrypted the message is obscure and unreadable without a key. I use this term as metaphor for my project for various reasons. Lebanon, especially the capital Beirut, has a long history of spy stories. The infamous country attracts a lot of attention in the media (usually the sensational type of attention). But for me it became a second home. Since 2008 I have traveled and lived there many times, altogether making up to almost 8 years. Plaintext is a project that spies on me, my feelings, and tries to decode my relationship to Lebanon.
For 10 months I had been receiving messages on my cell phone while working in an international organisation. These messages, vaguely called security updates, arrived several times a day and marked a completely different way of living my life in Lebanon from what I experienced before and after. I decided to look at them closely, read into their codes and keys, and try to relate them to Lebanon that I know. At first glance they seem plain and clear but in reality they conceal in the open the very codes that make Lebanon what it is. My photographs are personal, nostalgic, at times absurd. They relate to traces, objects, landscapes, forming a notebook or a diary. At times touristic in their nature, taken by someone who knows the country very well but still is, in essence, a foreigner (‘a spy’), the photos delve deeper into the tissue of Lebanese spirit, but also more importantly into my own perceptions and projections.
‘Are you a spy?’ – a question frequently asked in a joking manner in Lebanon. I heard it many times. Aren't we all spies, agents, artists? Gathering and processing information that we only partly understand and using it for our own artistic purposes?
As a thief, an artist, I’m stealing these whats app messages, that were flooding (bombing) my phone every day, and I am no longer just a mere receiver, which was the role meant for me in this story. This gesture is subversive and liberating. I try to convey my feelings about this place.
Messages that form the narrative are very specifically and geographically “from here” but they could also be sent in any other country – if this country was considered “dangerous”. Photos are interwoven with code messages received few times a day. Panic – calm, boredom – excitement, demonstration – family dispute, rainfall – car accident, bomb – traffic jam.
This plaintext could be sent to anyone anywhere. Scrupulous tactic of informing about any type of event seems plain and simple; but actually it is unreadable without a key and the key is ephemeral, subjective and escapes linear meaning. The messages that I was receiving, making up to almost a year “of living dangerously”, created in me a feeling that I was in the middle of something waiting to happen (and it does happen as well – there were few catastrophic bomb explosions in these years in Lebanon – on another note, so were they in Paris or Brussels), but also of being bombarded by random and irrelevant information. It made me look into the legacies that the region has to deal with. A recent magazine article in Beirut talked about discovery of a cell of spies, and detailed how they used a communication device. ‘Three lock boxes were found next to the fake rock, with wires hanging out of them. The boxes were apparently used to operate the device, which was connected to an audio power amplifier.’ There is this legacy of course. But there are others. What I try to do is decipher them and convey them through my personal insight that is far from the truth.
‘plaintext’ offers as well a glimpse into the mechanisms of repetitive propaganda: it can be seen as an example of how this kind propaganda, political agents of sorts, creates reality, fosters panic, creates zones of danger and fear. Repetition of Whats App texts can serve as an example of how technology and social media can be used to amplify the effect of propaganda and influence the reception of it.
The traces left by war can be classified depending on their visibility. There are the ones that are clearly visible on the surface but there are others that hide underground, in people’s souls, in ordinary things, in chaos. When a bomb explodes it is not only glass that is shattered in the proximity of the explosion, the leaves fall down from the trees in the vicinity.
During the civil war the pipes for central heating installed in buildings in Lebanon, were torn out to protect the building from complete destruction in case a bomb hit it.
I always wondered if the lack of clear geographical demarcations, distrust for maps, reluctance for clear address is as well one of the traces of post-conflict society, where it is considered beneficial to keep a certain grey zone, a space where things can be easily hidden or not found, where they can disappear on demand.
The construction of narratives in post-conflict countries is a very sensitive issue. How are these discourses to be dismantled and reused to build a new narrative that can steer away from the ones that are stereotypical and harmful? Code, decode, recode, or postcode? I hope that the project undermines as well the sensational narrative about the region that is present so commonly in the media.
Plaintext plays with the idea that the decoded text, as seen here, is easily readable by humans; and that the one, which is encrypted, becomes obscure and unreadable without a key. It could be the other way round.
This project evolves around notions of post-conflict discourse, creation of discourse of fear & danger, new technologies used in repetitive propaganda, political geography and personal experience, & art as a way to create a new narrative.
PLAINTEXT consists of photographs (wide selection of 260), Whats App texts (around 300), archival images. The Whats App messages can be presented in various ways: as text, as audio, separately from images etc.
* Publication 'PLAINTEXT', design by Krzysiek Orlowski, published by Pix.house & Zinteka, 100 copies, 2020
* Short video “Plaintext_Wave”
* Audio piece (5 hours long) - computer generated voice reading all the safety messages that I received during 10 months.