Neïl Beloufa: The Artist Who Holds An Uncanny Mirror to Society’s Future Ills

Portrait of Neïl Beloufa. Photo: Nanda Gonzague for M Le magazine du Monde. Image courtesy of the Artist and François Ghebaly, Los Angeles.
Neïl Beloufa, Screen Talk (video still) of Dr. Martin and Dr. Suki in their San Diego lab. Image courtesy of the Artist and François Ghebaly, Los Angeles.
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Speaking over Zoom with the artist, Denise Tsui takes a dive into Neïl Beloufa’s latest project, Screen Talk, and the importance of humour and banal gestures for allowing us critical distance to view the world and its impending future.

 

TEXT: Denise Tsui
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist and François Ghebaly

Neïl Beloufa has an uncanny way of foreshadowing the future. He is no fortuneteller; there’s no hidden psychic ability or magic crystal ball; and he isn’t even trying to make predictions. The Franco-Algerian artist simply has a knack for addressing the humanitarian issues that concern us—before we even realize the depth to which it matters.

 

Portrait of Neïl Beloufa. Photo: Nanda Gonzague for M Le magazine du Monde. Image courtesy of the Artist and François Ghebaly, Los Angeles.

 

Digital technologies, the potential pitfalls of information streams and the boundaries of fact and fiction are concepts explored in Beloufa’s practice encompassing films and installation. Often, the videos are embedded into modular-type constructions that Beloufa designs for viewing, in such a way that the space, according to the artist, offers a certain critical distance cinema does not. At just 35 years old, he has caught much of the art world’s attention with his unfailing ability to merge real and fabricated, and to speak openly on the hard stuff. Born to an Algerian father who produced a film in 1979 that was set in Beirut during the first phase of the civil war, and a French mother who worked as a film editor until he was four, one could say filmmaking may be in Beloufa’s blood, although the artist makes a point to note he didn’t originally set out to be a filmmaker, but it just made sense after a while.

His student project while studying at École nationale supérieure des arts Décoratifs, Kempinski, produced in 2007 during a class trip to Mali, Africa, received critical acclaim from his tutors—the opposite of Beloufa’s intentions—for its science fiction-esque visual cues and portrayal of ordinary Malians talking about the future in present tense. World Domination (2012) and Occidental (2017) dwell into issues of racism, violence and urban unrest, unnervingly resonating with the current media movements. For his participation in the 2019 Venice Biennale, Beloufa presented a series of videos—filmed via Skype—of soldiers detailing their experiences of military life in war-torn countries such as Ghana and Syria. To view the interviews, Global Agreement (2018–19) required viewers to squeeze into devices resembling gym equipment, where the videos were embedded.

 

Now, the current hype is around his latest project, Screen Talk (http://screen-talk.com/), a web platform that brings to mind the early days of the Internet with its deliberately awkward and clunky interactivity, slapdash fake news notifications running like CNN headlines, and tacky Clipart and fonts that spring up with pop culture quizzes. But it’s not the corny visual aesthetics or its seriously enjoyable entertainment quality that stirred the hype; it’s that Screen Talk almost eerily mirrors our current pandemic-stricken, digitally obsessed reality. The website-slash-video game takes as its departure point, Beloufa’s mini film series of the same name, produced in 2014, based on a script and screenplay co-written with American artist Jory Rabinovitz and cartoonist Léo Maret, respectively.

Shot with amateur actors from Alberta, Canada, Beloufa’s fictional narrative—broken into five short videos—spookily resembles the state of the world this year: a novel respiratory virus has broken out, first identified in Hong Kong, and the global race is on to quell the viral outbreak. Dr. Martin and Dr. Suki, virologists in San Diego—who are also having a rather indiscreet affair—are among the scientists desperately searching for a vaccine. Among the infected is Dr. Martin’s wife, Betsy, whom we see quarantined in a flashy London hotel exhibiting physical symptoms and spiraling mental instability. The current COVID-19 geopolitics around mask-wearing is mirrored when we see one of the scientists developing a cough, but showing little regard for the severity of such a symptom—that is until it becomes evident the virus is spread through air droplets, which prompts him to immediately put on a medical face mask. Narrated through laptop screens and front-facing cameras, the videos are laced with humor and ridicule like a soap opera where the drama all but seems too surreal.

 

 

Neïl Beloufa, Screen Talk (video still) of Dr. Martin and Dr. Suki in their San Diego lab. Image courtesy of the Artist and François Ghebaly, Los Angeles.

 

It’s important to Beloufa that viewers recognize this video was made six years ago, in a different time, that the work is not a reaction to the current pandemic. Originally commissioned by three museums and institutions, the video mini-series may be enjoying new attention, “But when we were showing it at that time, no one ever understood the point of that video,” the artist tells me with a laugh.

“The humour with it, I would not have produced that now,” he explains over Zoom. “What I wanted to do with Screen Talk is I wanted the whole system to be an image of the world and also I wanted it to be a provocation to the art world actually. Because when the pandemic happened I had this digital capital that was never exploited by art in a way.” In its new life, the videos have become the crux of the online platform, which Beloufa describes as such: “My idea was to do micro economy and international exchange collaborations and then you do a small niche where you can be independent and critical for less money.” The idea was prompted in part by what Beloufa saw was the art world being exploited into a type of Netflix for the art—a click and view system. “I was like I’m not going to give you the ability of becoming Netflix. So I reversed every proposition.”

 

 

“It’s really funny because the disclaimer of time [added to Screen Talk], I want to use it every day in my life now. You say it was made before or after,” he laughs. There is another uncanny truth to this. Our reality is now being split into a pre-COVID-19 time, and the so-called new normal of a post-COVID-19 time. The permeability of fiction and reality is widening; increasingly evident as lockdowns and restricted mobility is seen rapidly accelerating the pace of the digital realm.

Produced at the same time as the Screen Talk videos, Data for Desire (2014) portrays a group of twentysomething Canadian resort-town workers at a party getting their flirt on. Meanwhile student mathematicians in France are trying to generate an algorithm—not too dissimilar to those used these days to track consumer habits and preferences—to predict the sexual dynamics between the Canadians. “When algorithm becomes art, when computers do it, it becomes a digital mirror of society,” Beloufa tells me.

Aside from film, Beloufa also has a sculptural practice that investigates his interest in the banality of objects. Speaking about his signature wire sculptures, Beloufa describes how he made them from scraps and leftover metal found in his studio, turning these objects into a mundane gesture poking at the system of high value and culture. “I like banality. I think my job is to represent,” he tells me. “So the objects themselves I don’t care [about] at all and actually it was a game at the studio with my colleagues.”

What does matter, however, is the act of providing critical distance, which Beloufa believes an exhibition space can do. And we need this, “Because we need to take critical distance towards what we are living in a way,” he says as he highlights some of the dire problems founded in the socio-politics and geopolitics of today. “We are at a state of humanity where most of what we watch looks like a joke no?” he asks me. The banality visible in these sculptures thus, gives us a way to be critical.

Reflecting on what’s to come, Beloufa tells me Screen Talk will be completed in September with new additions. Meanwhile a retrospective exhibition at Pirelli HangarBicocca in Milan, titled “Digital Mourning” has been postponed until 2021. A show that has been two years in the making, Beloufa tells me all his major works will be shown in a kind of symmetry, raising the inevitable question—what uncanny mirror to society will Neïl Beloufa’s works pick up on next?

 

About the artist
Born in 1985 in Paris (France), Neïl Beloufa lives and works in Paris (France). His work has been the subject of monographic exhibitions in France and abroad, notably at K11, Shanghai, 2016; Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2016; Schinkel Pavilion, Berlin, 2015; Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 2014; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, 2013; Palais de Tokyo, Paris, 2012 and 2018 as well as the Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, 2018. Beloufa also took part in the Biennale of Contemporary Art in Shanghai in 2014, the 55th International Contemporary Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale in 2013, the Biennial of Contemporary Art in Lyon in 2013 and the 58th International Contemporary Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale in 2019.

He was nominated for the Prix Marcel Duchamp in 2015, the Artes Mundi (Cardiff, United Kingdom) and Nam June Paik (Essen, Germany) prizes in 2016. He was awarded the Meurice Prize for Contemporary Art 2013, Audi Talent Awards 2011 and the Agnès B. Studio Collector Award 2010. His work is present in numerous prestigious collections including the collection of the Centre Pompidou, Paris; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Sammlung Goetz, Munich; and Julia Stoschek Collection, Dusseldorf & Berlin.

 

 

 
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