Akram Zaatari: Dance to the End of Love

Akram Zaatari, "Dance to the End of Love," 2011 (video still). Courtesy the artist; collection of the Tate Modern.

Dance to the End of Love is a four-channel polyphonic, visual fantasia composed of found YouTube footage of young men in the MENA region. Each blocky, artifact-laden snippet shows groups engaged in playful, homosocial self-fashioning. The piece opens with two adolescent boys summoning growing, glowing orbs between their hands, fingers clenched to pantomime the difficulty of containing the irradiating energy. They thrust their arms forward in a single motion, each letting rip a 144dpi DIY VFX “hadouken!” As the sequence continues, they take flight, telepathically levitate objects, summon tricolor lightning bolts, turn a tripod into a shoulder-mounted missile launcher, and shoot one another. Each video addresses multiple audiences: they are primarily by and for friends and may be shared on social media or WhatsApp groups. They are also uploaded to YouTube, where they remain available, latent in the cloud, until an artist plucks them out and recombines them.

In Zaatari’s cinematic universe, each figure acts as a participant-author in a shared social imagination of cartoon violence and physical comedy. The engine for these magical realist sequences is animation software—likely freeware, rather than professional-grade. Clips like these are created by following online tutorials, which yield a shared visual language that media theorist Lisa Bode calls “vernacular VFX.” Visual effects are associated today with Hollywood blockbusters on one hand, and face filters on TikTok, Instagram, or Snapchat on the other. Dance’s homespun reproductions of generic action effects are something else, and evince the influence of fighting games, anime, and comic-book movies. 

Akram Zaatari, “Dance to the End of Love,” 2011 (video still). Courtesy the artist; collection of the Tate Modern.

The massification of these cultural forms is reflected in the stunning consistency of vernacular VFX across different locations. I saw similar clips produced by exuberant middle-schoolers at a digital filmmaking summer camp I used to work at, a stone’s throw away from Silicon Valley. Yet under Zaatari’s cursor, these clips register specific regional histories. Simulated violence serves as a syncopated echo of memories of real military conflict; particularly affecting is a clip of a sunswept city skyline augmented with a digital air strike. Zaatari likely considers its anonymous author a kindred spirit. The video appears a farcical repetition of a series of photographs made by the artist at age 16, in which he captured airstrikes on the first day of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon while learning how to take pictures on his father’s Kiev camera. For both Zaatari and his unknown co-creators, spontaneous creativity reflects the real political circumstances in which it takes place, belying a retreat into technophilic fantasy.

Dance is distinct in the artist’s oeuvre, as YouTube allows him to reacquaint himself with older concerns in a novel media environment. The piece constellates technological accessories that produce masculinity—motorbikes, cars, weights, musical instruments, guns, software, the internet, and the camera itself. A similar thread is inchoate in the B-roll of Majnounak (Crazy of You) (1997): between clips of men candidly recounting their sexual escapades, one interviewee pops a wheelie on a motorbike, a group describes a car’s jerky suspension as “orgasmic,” and an amateur bodybuilder recruits his friend to help inject anabolic steroids into his buttocks. Majnounak’s braggadocious, hypermasculine subjects sit static within each frame, narrating their own experiences. Each member of Dance lacks this self-contained autonomy. When they use their voices, they sing rather than speak, but are mostly drowned out by the piece’s thrilling score. To communicate, they gesticulate at the threshold of visual intelligibility; noisy when filmed in low light, blurry when recorded at a distance. Their tenuous opacity is a quality shared with the gay men Zaatari solicits in online chatrooms for interviews in How I Love You (2001). Their lifestyles, illegalized by the Lebanese state, are described under a condition of anonymity achieved not by shrouding them in darkness, but the opposite: a bright strobe is pointed at each interviewee, rendering them luminous, but not totally opaque. Technology extends Zaatari’s access to these men and effaces them. In Dance, he doesn’t have to engineer a technical solution; he finds his subjects already camouflaged, a few compression passes away from total abstraction.

The charming naivety of the tweenage VFX nerds gives way to a brolic diptych: amateur bodybuilders preen to a crushed soundtrack of 2 Unlimited’s “Twilight Zone” next to watermarked footage of tafheet, a Gulf subculture oriented around automobile stunts, including a striking maneuver in which an SUV teeters up onto two partially-deflated side wheels. Groups balance atop as if “skiing” on freshly-paved asphalt roads, forming a stark diagonal shape against the empty horizon. We might read the tilted car as a queer, crooked form that flouts the normative expectation that vehicles be used for transporting goods and people across the desert. This is, after all, a deliberately dysfunctional, highly aestheticized, assertively wrong way to drive. 

According to sociologist Sulayman al-Duwayri’at, quoted in Pascal Menoret’s monograph Joyriding in Riyadh, drifting emerged in 1979, becoming popular rapidly as petrodollars—and foreign-made automobiles—flowed into Gulf states undergoing rapid urbanization contoured by the demands of Western capital. Youths appropriated the car for their own ends, sharing documentation of their acrobatic feats and gruesome wrecks on YouTube starting in the 2000s. Since Majnounak prefigures the artist’s interest in the sexualization of the automobile, it is pertinent to note that tafheet can be a medium for amatory same-sex encounters among riders. Western sexual categories cannot be imposed onto these practices; if anything, Dance contains a visual vocabulary for such forms of homosociality to which scholarship must catch up. The fact of men having sex with men in the drifting scene is less significant than the qualities tafheet shares with the rest of Dance: these men are engaged in counternormative, imagistic self-fashioning through the dissemination of recorded group performances, with a dual orientation towards local notoriety and transnational virality. The forms of performance vary—in addition to drifting, flexing, and shooting, they dance in pairs, play music together, and pop wheelies—but this criteria holds.

Writing in Artforum in 2010, Kaelen Wilson-Goldie summarized how Zaatari “conjure[s] a kind of imagined community of men who have, like him, made images, told stories, and assembled vast collections of seemingly ephemeral materials.” Pioneers of studio photography, such as Hashem el Madani and Van Leo, have been useful interlocutors for Zaatari. He has filmed interviews with them, based exhibitions around their studio practices, and assimilated their studio libraries into the Arab Image Foundation, the collecting institution the artist co-founded dedicated to preserving photography from the region. Dance is best read in the context of these projects, and not just because a similar visual smearing between (counter)hegemonic masculinities occurs across hundreds of Madani’s negatives. Dance is a further expression of Zaatari’s artistic instincts, insofar as from the beginning, he has never merely archived images or footage, but patterns of human behavior. Less a collage and more of a training dataset, Dance is too anemic to train an A.I., but more than sufficient for human viewership. The piece is pedagogical in its presentation, as different videos of the same activity invite participation: “you too can sing a song, do a dance, hold a gun, be a man.”

Akram Zaatari, “Dance to the End of Love,” 2011 (video still). Courtesy the artist; collection of the Tate Modern.

Zaatari challenges us to hold queer performance, geopolitics, and the materiality of optical media in relation. What’s clear is that considering the technical production of the image remains a key heuristic for him. In an interview with Anthony Downey in Ibraaz, Zaatari recalls a comment made in Her + Him (2001–12), in which Van Leo bemoans the death of art photography due to the advent of color film, hinting that such aesthetic judgments are superstructural flotsam and jetsam floating on a base of crude material interest. Zaatari recounts, “because photographers did not have the necessary equipment to develop color negatives and to print in color, they had to delegate this, subcontract it, so the lab ate half of their income.” Zaatari demonstrates the value of a political economy perspective to demystify shifts in 20th-century Egyptian studio culture. What would it mean to bring an analogous perspective to Dance?

Zaatari collected this footage in 2009 and 2010, a crucial period in which cheap cellphone cameras and video sharing platforms transformed the infrastructure through which performances of identity would circulate in years to come. There are no longer chokepoints like Studio Sheherazade and Studio Van Leo—regional bottlenecks through which seismic shifts in visual culture can be pinpointed to a single year. Elsewhere, Zaatari has done so to brilliant effect: in 28 Nights and A Poem (2012), he identifies exactly when the assault rifle was introduced as a civilian accessory in Lebanon. In Dance, Zaatari confronts a media environment that has become both more centralized and more diffuse. It is far more populous, with thousands of potential creative interlocutors, yet without strong characters that he can get to know. Such tensions are indelible in the middle sequence of the piece, in which all four channels display slideshows of hundreds of men, in pairs or in groups, in half-embrace, arms crossed, kissing or sitting together. Mostly smiling, posed in front of tourist attractions, by bodies of water, or under orange streetlights, the concurrent presentation of so many photographs gives the sequence an impressionistic texture. 

Many of the constituent slideshows make use of a “Ken Burns zoom” that becomes a sensory ripple across the whole room, a churning rhythm punctuated by splashy, embellished transitions between images. Here again, the ornamental formalisms of freeware—in this case, now-discontinued Windows Movie Maker, recognizable by the signature default blue background of some of the interstitials—simultaneously date the piece and amplify expressions of longing, camaraderie, and love. Whereas in his early work, Zaatari invited his subjects to speak freely, in Dance, he finds himself at a distance from a clamorous field. Out of the unwieldy sediment of digital content, Zaatari finds resonant forms, not individual protagonists.

Zaatari has positioned his work in opposition to the narrative monopoly claimed by the nation state to secure an organic, autarkic community. The warmth of his tone is palpable when he describes multicultural 1920s Cairo, and in a diaristic account of the 14th Sharjah Biennial in Artforum, he made the offhand comment, “I wish everybody was stateless.” Dance fits this antinationalist mold: the piece blurs the integrity of national boundaries, though it would be a stretch to describe the piece as pan-Arabist as it does not espouse an affirmative politics as such. Unfortunately, pre-existing supra-national formations today are firmly in a capitalist mold. In Dance, Zaatari glimpses latent transnational affinities that might counter the spurious cosmopolitanism of capital. Its date, 2011, marks the last high tidemark for the idea that the internet might help produce such egalitarian structures of feeling. For a moment, the Arab Spring served as a shorthand for the emancipatory power of networked collective action. Perhaps Dance does, too. Today, one risks seeming pollyannaish if they think the shared communications infrastructure to which we are all yoked will yield anything other than pain. Only a decade old, Dance has aged quickly, which makes it worthy of reconsideration. Zaatari’s tragicomic optimism is so enthralling as to force the question: have we been too hard on the internet?

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