Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri: Camp Campaign

Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri’s art project Camp Campaign consisted of a nation-wide campaign beginning in New York City. During the summer of 2006, the artists visited detention camps, internment camps, camping sites, and relief camps, among other types of camps in the US. During their travel, they filmed and photographed these places, as well as the roads in between, creating a collection of images that show a political landscape of this country.

They camped in the rural outdoors, and in metropolitan areas they camped at homes. In towns, they parked their van, which also functioned as a studio, and set up a tent, where their campaign materials, buttons, stickers and the like were distributed. They gathered with individuals who usually were or are in or around national parks, relief camps, internment camps, reservations, etc. They met with lawyers, theorists, artists and activists. Sometimes they conducted interviews; other times, they discussed different manifestations of states of exception (i.e. government’s suspension of the rule of law).

Aside from these engagements, the artists created a website, which they updated regularly during their travel. There, they included their writing, an anthology of reference texts, and journalistic accounts accompanied by images or podcasts of their activities. This website did more than set the campaign’s ideals and political platform. It also became a site where the artists openly questioned the project’s form, including its name and its efficacy.

Another iteration of the project was a map by Ayreen and Rene that traces the geographic and intellectual cartography of their project Camp Campaign. Titled by the artists as Fear is Somehow Our For Whom? For What? + Proximity to Everything Far Away., this map was published on the reverse side of Art in General’s Winter INSIDE newsletter, published three times a year and distributed for free beginning in 2007; a second printed version of the map alone was available for free at the gallery. To make this map, Ayreen and Rene rendered the journey they made through the US during the summer, and added a meticulous map legend, list of relevant terms, and a series of notations organized as an index travel route. Numbered, these notations operate as chronological footnotes to the sites they visited. The narrative style is a combination of an informal travelogue with an intellectual journey.

While the website or the map could be seen as documentation of their travel, Ayreen and Rene’s Camp Campaign exhibition at Art in General’s storefront gallery (known then as the Project Space) took a different stance. The exhibition was neither curated nor organized as an archive of the campaign, or ultimately of the overall art project. Instead, the exhibition “followed” a script of a different kind. In a way, it was about what is impending in Camp Campaign, a resolution of sorts. Here, this imminence was presented as a script that was performed–a script that, while it will always remain a working draft, is published in this book.

The script, titled Project for an Inhibition in New York or How Do You Arrest a Hurricane?, is a proposal allegedly authored by two artists known as RL and VL. (The map points to Hurricane Katrina, which struck during the process of Camp Campaign, and the ensuing relief camps that were set-up during the process of developing their project.) On the one hand, this script is a screenplay for a film, and, on the other, it is, or was, a program for the gallery’s art installation. Yet, both of these were meta-scenarios, that is, both proposals were themselves written and formalized about (and as) a work in progress. The script was self-reflexive text that put into play the reality and physicality of the installation and the screenplay for a film to be shot.

As a screenplay, the script describes the process of two artists, RL and VL, who are working out how to give form to their questions, concerns, and ideas, They are challenged by the idea of an exhibition, particularly as it relates to the themes they have been exploring. They are thinking about a possible video, but they remain undecided. As a program, the script became a playful guide for what the public could expect to see in the gallery space at different points during the exhibition period. The script began at the so-called completion of the work, or one of its ends, with an opening reception for the two artists. The space is set up in a conventional fashion, with some projections and sound pieces. As the days went by, it was transformed into the working studio for the two artists. As the script suggested, the public was invited to an unfolding process, an alternative scenario or proposal for an exhibition.

Ayreen’s and Rene’s campaign materials --both the promotional or documentary materials they produced-- became part of the materials inside the RL and VL’s studio. It included a set of slides, videos, as well as un-edited film and video footage, materials for building a model of sorts, drawings, and other objects related to their trip through the US, as well as other journeys the artists took in exploring their theme (Lod, Israel; Baltimore, US). During the four months of the exhibition period, these materials and their arrangement changed regularly, according to the script.

For example, ten days after the exhibition opened, RL and VL decided to close the storefront gallery with two banners, one for each window, which read, “Let Americans Know that the World is Against Torture.” Given Art in General’s neighborhood, the intersection of TriBeCa and Chinatown in New York, one banner was written in English and the other in Mandarin so that local passers-by would have no problem in understanding the message. A bit more than a month later, their script proposed a “dream-like” situation experienced by RL. What this meant in terms of the space or the exhibition was rather unclear; eventually, RL set-up a new situation “within” the space of the exhibition.

While these changes occurred, the gallery always remained open to the public. There was always something to see or experience. Of the three videos included, the one projected on the main wall of the gallery listed names of detainees in Guantanamo Bay, while a slide projector presents dozens of images of taken during the Camp Campaign road trip including shots in places like New Orleans, Baltimore, and Marfa. The working maps and video footage by the artists were there, and some pins, too, all casually placed over the tables or window sills. A record of classical or jazz music was generally playing, and other old vinyl records were stacked in the corner.

The dependence on the script in order to construct the installation, activate it, and even experience it, was due, in part, to the project’s own syntax: formally, the “as if” that is necessary to describe it and that signals the overlapping of the conditional and hypothetical reality of the work. In other words, making or experiencing the exhibition as if it were a work in progress by the artists RL and VL is one way of engaging with the script; the installation suggests a fiction, the activity of those two absent artists whose materials are there to be worked upon, on a different level, by both them and the audience.

While the Camp Campaign trip is the kernel of Ayreen and Rene’s project, and the website one of its public manifestations, the publication of the map and the exhibition at Art in General were two other spaces that questioned the emergence and constitutionality of camps –and the project’s “in-process” aspect, which was, and still is, suggested by the script. This points to their insistence on the work that has yet to be developed: each with its own form, space and distinct public, these manifestations of Camp Campaign were all sites of production and exhibition. Before each, these artists asked, and invited you to question, “What is allowed today ‘in the name of security’?”

In 2008, Art in General published a series of print-on-demand publications, each documenting the New Commission projects it developed from 2005 onwards. One of these books is devoted to Camp Campaign. It includes an introduction by me and an essay by TJ Demos, as well as a script by Ayreen and Rene. It can be bought here.