Interview with Haseeb Ahmed

Interview with artist Haseeb Ahmed (Fish Bone Chapel) by Georgius Papadakis

So I want to ask you first about your practice. In your application for the Designers and Artists for Genomics Awards, you write that “The grotesque in art and architecture always reveals a truth about beauty”. Could you elaborate on that?

Yes. I think that this is something that I return to over and over – in different ways. In some ways it deals with the really old paradigm of “the good, the bad and the ugly” – and there is the old Hollywood spaghetti Western movie, where there is the good guy, there’s a bad guy and then there is just the ugly. And I think what the ugly does is to break the normal categories of what is expected and what is correct, or good. Beauty is somehow always related to the good, but when you have the ugly, it creates a kind of shock, a confrontation where you have to re-assess your relationship to the object. When you find something ugly, it is also because you see a part of yourself in that thing. You actually recognize something about yourself or about people in that. This is what creates such a shock, but this is also what draws you towards it at the same time. This is why I think that the ‘ugly’ is something important for artists to work with. So in architecture you have this category of the grotesque, like in ornamentation which usually emerges first in the depictions of hell, where you have just masses of bodies – an ever accumulating wreckage of humanity. I think this is also where the sexual resides which is a part of all of us, but usually is repressed as well, and just the bare fact of life and death – especially death – you have to be confronted with the grotesque.

In your application for the awards, you state “I am also attempting to use genomics as generative as Gaudi used physics when designing the ‘gravity arches’ of La Sagrada Familia. This is an exploration, the forms that emerge will each be a revelation.” Now, in La Sagrada Familia, Gaudi used chains to find how gravity produced optimal shapes and force allocation, increasing building stability. In biomimicry too, the study of the natural organism reveals structures that are optimal for their environment and structure. In the case of your work, the mutated fish that will emerge, would have thin chances of surviving for long in nature. Would you like to explain about the implications of these in your pavilion, your ideas about duration and temporariness?

I think there is almost two questions in there. There are some photographs of these Gaudi ‘gravity arches’ and what I find really compelling about that, is that it is almost the reverse of what he in fact deploys in the building. The arches that he designs – and his models – for La Sagrada Familia, he is basicaly designing the building upside-down, or in-reverse. And this is what I really like: that somehow there is almost like a mirror-image that he’s using – first the negative comes and then out of this he can generate the opposite. I find that compelling. When it comes to genomics, I think it is interesting because in biological systems there is this idea that nature is constantly producing the most optimal form and this is because nature has this privileged relationship to beauty, which is form and function completely intertwined. I think that this is also partially ideological. It is not necessarily that nature is producing the optimal forms and also the forms that are developed are responses to the environment. The environments is no longer natural per se. It is often totally artificial.

There are many illustrations of ways that organisms adapt to heavy pollution situations. So when I am looking at these malformed skeleton structures of the zebra-fish, I know that there is no way that they could survive in natural conditions. But in some ways these studies are already anticipating a world in which these toxins are shaping the conditions of our life anyway. Many of these things are pretty common toxins. One example I used in my presentations [for the Designers and Artists for Genomics Awards] is nonylphenol which is one of the most common detergents, and detergents of course used at the washing machine drain directly into water sources usually. So what I find interesting is how to use these malformations which I think will become part of what is the “natural” world. How to use them in the built environment – how to use them to generate architectural forms or generate man-made forms. so I also try to see these things as part of nature now or what we think of nature. Now, to the second part, which was on the issue of duration is an interesting one. You are right to say that these creatures wouldn’t survive in nature for very long, or at all in fact – the effects of the toxins are that the fish itself never hatches because of the malformation.The first case of duration in relation to the zebra-fish, is that duration is very important already because the testing cycle is only five days. That is because by law, this animal is never actually considered an animal for those first five days. That means that while it develops from embryo to adult they can do all types of experimentation to this animal form as it develops. This is because it is still holding on to its yolk-sac as it develops, so as long as it is holding to its yolk-sac it is still an egg – although it is a fully functioning adult. That is an interesting character of that, which I really want to explore now. Even this law is very peculiar because it allows for this mode of testing which gets away from other animals like mice and primates. You can do it to a zebrafish which is a fish and has always been consider a lesser animal, but it is also related reproductive rights of women and abortion rights.

You have all these intermediate stages between life and death which are emerging which I find very interesting. It is a kind of states which exist almost off the scale of our normal sense of time and I am interested in these new emergence of sense of natural time which is coming because of these weird experimentations by law and because of laboratory conditions.

You have been inspired for this work by the Capuccine monks bone chapels, while you have also your works ‘target mosque’ and ‘Tomb of Zummurrad Khatun’ where you also have spaces of religious practice as your themes. These are three works that bring together religion and architecture. I was wondering what draws you to this and how does it connect to your current project?

Yes, you are right. This is a long standing interest for me. The ‘target mosque’ was made in 2007 and the ‘Tomb of Zummurrad Khatun’, an inverted tomb, was made in 2008. So it is already five years dealing with this work. For me, what I am often trying to do -and maybe this is another way to deal with the issue of duration- is trying to create stretch over vast quantifiable stretches of time or space. Two points – you anchor one point to the distant past throughout a different area and then replicate its twin in another place in another time. I think that this is really interesting for me because I want to try to create a confrontation between two completely different conditions of culture, of production, of economy and of religion and the way that they shape social life.

So, by remaking something that was made in 1013 AD like the ‘Tomb of Zummurrad Khatun’ and then remaking it in 2008 in Chicago you have this kind of collapsing between two completely spaces and times. And I want to try to create a register for what has changed and what has stayed the same through this work of art by just experiencing and being in the space. Secondly, religion was a way of mediating huge social interests and capital law in the past. And in this way you have these products that are products of generations of people building something and today we do not really have the capacity to produce such objects which were built over six, seven or eight generations sometimes. And I am really curious about what has changed. We are always stuck in this ‘eternal state of awe’ because of that particular, peculiar way of making things of the past, because we are not going to be making cathedrals that look anything like that any longer. But what do we have in its place? What do we have in this huge social effort that has emerged instead? I think it’s not focused on one building or one object but it is much more disseminated into the generally built environment. This is something that I was trying to understand in the work. Also this is why I used technology and different kinds of new means of reproduction. It is important to use 3D printing and CNC routing and these kinds of things which seem to call the future, not just the present in relationship to the distant past.

In the description of your work for DA4GA, you write: “Introducing mutagenics to architecture can make it responsive, incorporate hard and soft membranes, mediate environmental conditions, and move”. Can you explain how this will transform into your pavilion?

I think in this case it is a little bit in relation to the Hyperbody work. Yesterday, I went to see the TU Delft Hyperbody studio and saw what they are doing there. They try to create interactive or responsive architecture, or architecture where the architect is designing algorithms as opposed to designing buildings. So you create an algorithm which created the form and you control this (algorithm) as opposed to controlling the form. I think it is interesting to have a building that somehow can move and react and respond because it somehow recognizes that a building is also a social agent, just like people are. It lives among people, just like people do, it has a lifespan. This is something that I am playing with. There is a whole field of computational architecture and this is really their primary fantasy that has emerged in essence in the early nineties. I am still not sure what my relationship to that field is but I think I have developed a competence with the tools and I want to see where it is redeeming and where it is not. At the same time I find the work at hyperbody deeply a-historical where there is no discussion about beauty or ornament or architectural style which have ruled architecture for a very long time. Instead they claim that their work is completely derived from performance.

It is performance driven architecture …by all these conditions we will get this shape… but at the same time you look at these buildings and they are highly ideological, they look a certain way and it is not ‘pure performance’ as they claim. This is on my mind on what is my relation and how do I form a critique also to this idea to this idea of the building which is responsive to the body. It is such a prominent fantasy in science fiction and also in architecture I think and one that I think has some really interesting qualities and some that are not so interesting. In the case of the fishbone chapel, it is drawing relationship to religious architecture, in this case the chapel and in Christianity you have this relationship to Christ and the body of Christ and thinking of Father, Son and the Holy Spirit, you have this centralized figure who is like ‘all of humanity’ and he died for the sins of humanity or something and he is short of embodied in this space. So I am interested in creating that collision but there is no Christ in my chapel, there is instead this zebrafish which die in millions every year for the progress of science. It is anonymous. It not like the God and Spirit. It is just a very strange animal. So it is again about drawing these two poles in this case is the zebra fish and which takes the place of Christ in the chapel. It is interesting to me to create this collision.

You are still developing this work, but what elements of what you are exploring are the most important in your view and what elements do you think are important to share with the public?

Now [at the time of the interview] it almost one months since the prize was awarded and the project really now begins. For me I have decided that I will pay extremely close attention to the fish itself and to the experiences that I am having with my interactions with the people and try to develop the form from that. In terms of sharing, what I feel is really important is when I go one day – like yesterday I went to meet with computational architects and today I went to the annual conference of the toxical genomics center where I saw a number of presentations form geneticists, so what I find important is how to carry on from one day to the next, from one experience to the next. I think that part of my audience and also what I want to share is highly specialist disciplines which are only becoming much more specialized. Even if they are dealing with similar techniques or tools or developing them independently, they will have less and less opportunity as fields become more specialized and dominated by industry. In each field I heard people talk about how the integration of education and industry has really determined the way that they do they research now – they have to prove in a very short time why their research is important and that makes it even less available for anyone else outside of their field. But I am in a privileged position now, so I am trying to create this dissemination also between the fields. There is a few different type of audiences in this work and in many of my works, I felt that the people that helped me produce my work are often the first audiences for the work, so they are re-experiencing themselves and also other people and another world is reconfigured through the object that they made. In terms of sharing it with the general public, I think that now that social progress, not to be too general, now that you do not have this highly organized mass movements that shaped that life is on the ground, like big labour parties and workers movements. Science and technology has become the main motor for progress in society, most people think that it is. It always seems that it is moving ahead of everybody else. Even though we make it, we are always catching up with our own production somehow. What I want to try to do in this is just to make it central, make it possible to experience this specialized cutting edge research through the senses alone – by looking, by appealing to the sense of touch and bringing it back to a whole different level of materiality.

You said that the form of the work that you do is going to derive from the interactions you have with people in architecture and people in genomics. Would you like to elaborate on these interactions?

In this project I see three factors that are shaping what the thing itself will actually look like and I am short of trying to mediate between these things. The first being the geneticists, and the skeleton transformations which are developing from these toxicology studies on the zebrafish. The second is architects who are investing almost everything on this idea that the use of computers and robotics will change the way that we design and build and the built environment responds to us. The third factor is in relation to art history, which are these cappuccine bone chapels, so this is also people who I will never meet but they left these chapels to which we can still go, and see and see the way that they were made and understand a little bit. I think what I am trying to do is mediate between those factors. Right now, at these initial stages I am trying to find out how involved people really want to be in this project.

How about the educative aspects of your work. You mentioned in your texts that activities for young people would be part of your project. What do you think is appropriate from this work to share with young people?

That idea is changing now a little bit after the jury’s comments and of the practicalities of these activities. Before it was this idea of almost a mobile biolab which will move around and will host educational programmes for students and somehow will unpack into a pavilion space. But now I think it has to be centered much more now. I would still like to incorporate this workshop character to it and this is something that after going to the Waag Society some weeks ago, I saw some of the workshops of the open PCR and the bio-hacking group and I thought that what they were doing was really wonderful. I think there will be factors that I am not in control of in the actual installation space. But what I hope that when people come to see the work, there will actually be living zebrafish there and everybody can recognize zebra-fish from home aquaria. Then they will see this short of familiar chapel catholic architecture. But these forms will be completely translated to skeletal malformations, weird bone structures. And I would like to have a booklet/ guidebook, so as you go through the installation you can see that this is the result – this arch is a fish and this particular toxin. So I think it might be more about finding interesting ways of posing questions and also demonstrating that you can have this level of manipulation for these biological forms and getting people to think about that. I think that might be the most educational moment – to show it is possible and to formulate the questions. I don’t know if i will be able to formulate the whole educational program necessarily, but the questions are important.

The final installations of the winning teams will be presented on September 14th, 2013 at Raamsteeg 2, Leiden. 

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