“I can’t trust anybody … My husband left me a large amount of money … Thanks to free internet access I can speak to you to ask you for your help.”
This is the beginning of an investigation into deception – one in which digital correspondence has real-world effect. I must first apologise…, an exhibition by Beirut-based Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, navigates the murky exchanges of the internet scammer via data collection, creative fictions and bent truths.
The darkened opening room contains a multi-monitored installation of amateur actors from various backgrounds. This parade of faces appears throughout the exhibition, sometimes in larger projections that conjure an emotive and discomforting presence. Each narrates a personal monologue detailing their entrapment and the ways in which you, the reader, can help them – and get rich doing so. Arranged around a central web-like structure from which are suspended 100 speakers, The Rumour of the World (all works 2014) overlays a disorientating clamour of voices. Snatched fragments can be discerned, their often heavily accented language littered with hyperbolic terms of respect and gratitude, marking the testimonies as falsehoods. Though it is hard to resist a cry for help, it is perhaps harder to comprehend the gullibility of those taken in by such widely-circulated and well-known scam tactics.
Geometry of Space purports to visualise the geographical spread of internet scamming with a constellation-like series of wall-drawn marks and oxidised steel sculptures in the rough shape of a globe. The attempt to map and materialise the slippery practice of scamming is a curious and futile one, echoed in the artists’ temporary marks and rusted metal – forms that lack the malleable complexities of the videos. That Geometry of Space references global peaks of online scamming in 2005 and 2008 is indicative of a decline in their traction – strategies that are overplayed and overworked. Much of this material feels familiar.
The majority of the work on display focusses on the actions of the scammers (the effect upon the victim is always implicit). An installation of wall-mounted scrolls and glass wayfinders that comprise The Trophy Room has an alternate nuance, moving the exhibition away from hackneyed regurgitations of the scam.The Trophy Room focuses on a group calling themselves scam baiters – a vigilante band that seeks to scam the scammers. The scrolls present a series of email exchanges between the baiters and the scammers. What unfolds is a troubling portrayal of the lengths to which the baiters will go to drain the resources of the scammer. At one end of the spectrum, the baiters force scammers to make objects and perform plays, and at the other, to get tattoos with humiliating acronyms and pose in sexually demeaning positions as proof of ‘good faith’. The work documents the result of a cruel revenge process, riddled with power problematics and twisted intentions. It leads me to think about the consequences for the scammers and about the reasons someone might have for turning to this ‘industry’ in the first place. Perhaps there is a finer line between hope and greed than any of us might care to admit.
The idea is followed through in Fidel, one of the videos in Hadjithomas and Joreige’s It’s All Real series. The knots of the exhibition are both tightened and untangled in this work. According to the exhibition literature, Fidel, an amateur actor who appears as a recurring cast member in the videos, was a scammer in Lebanon. That Fidel is also ‘occasionally a stripper’ paints a rather different picture of his life and the choices that are open to him. His testimony indicates a sense of entrapment and a desire for release from his difficult circumstances. Fidel shows remorse for his scamming past. The xenophobia that vaguely niggled in the opening room is foregrounded here – for each of the actors in the videos are immigrants. The countless reports of financial extortion in exchange for passage to safety from war and political disenfranchisement, and the consequent loss of life, provide the most urgent, though entirely unstated, context for I must first apologise…
This text was produced as part of the inaugural a-n Writer Development Programme led by a-n News Editor Chris Sharratt. Each text has been published on the a-n blog, November 2015.
I must first apologise… was held at Home, Manchester, 12 September – 1 November 2015.