basic arabic


“I hate your work” – problems around my “4 Days, 5 Hours a Week – Basic Arabic” in Amsterdam

I. curators

With the system of art ever growing vaster, bigger and complex curators have become a relatively new class of people that serve as mediators between the producing artists and the receptive public. With a relatively small number of artists producing for a relatively small market no professional mediation was necessary. Or the client was commissioning and ordering works of art – the church, the aristocracy – or museum and gallery directors where choosing from a given pool of works that were available without necessarily making that intervention a profession operating independently from the involved institutions as it has become the case since the 1960/70s on. Curators are now professionals that are more and more defined without their supporting institutions – i.e. the galleries, museums, exhibitions spaces and Kunsthalles so prolific everywhere. The function of curators is not only liberated from the institutions for which they work but also free in the sense that everybody can assume that role including collectors and artists. The system of art has become so complex and sophisticated that any role can be taken on by any player in the game. We more and more see now also artists collecting, curating, writing and dealing as well as collectors, writers and curators making art and reflecting about the productions in the role of writers and art historians.

Thought all these roles and functions are highly interesting and need to be constantly redefined in an always changing landscape some of the basic characteristics still remain and are clearly defined by the power and responsibility that come with the assumed role. If artists operate as curators I expect them to stick to that role and respect my role, something they don’t necessarily have to do when acting as artists. Conflicts can arise right out of this complex relationship. I am going now to describe and document a specific case in which I felt treated as an artist with disrespect and in which I thought that the curators – also operating as artists but not in that occasion - have overstepped their limits of control.

II. a specific case (Migrating Identity, Transmission/Reconstruction, May 22 - June 13, 2004, Arti et Amicitiae, Amsterdam)

Last December I was invited to a group show in Amsterdam and approached by Renee Ridgway, an artist acting as curator with the title “Migrating Identity: Transmission/Reconstruction.” I proposed from the very beginning a work that incorporated my Arabic Studies and offered an 8 minute video, entitled “Homeland Security” (I – V) 2003. I understood that the Arabic Study piece would require travel arrangements that were not easy to be met and that made the work entitled “5 days, 4 hours a day – Basic Arabic” contingent on funding. At that early stage I formulated my ideas in writing and they have been received and incorporated in the shows general design. As the time of the exhibition approaches I start asking about travel arrangements and details of the show. The answers were always the same: we are waiting for answers from our sponsor, in my case the Austrian Embassy. About one month prior to the show, Ridgeway came through New York again and we met for a second time. There too I clearly expressed my wish to make the Basic Arabic piece. We also talked about additional pieces I could produce while in Amsterdam. I offered them to continue with a “Reading Frantz Fanon” piece that I wanted to do in addition to my main piece, studying Arabic.

When funding was suddenly made available by the Austrian Embassy I bought a ticket and organized most of the things by myself since I understood that 10 days before the exhibition organizers are busy and I understood that they were short on housing. But to my surprise I found out that they didn’t want me to do this Arabic Study piece. The conversation and exchanges degenerated very quickly and I didn’t understand why. In one phone conversation – which is unfortunately not recorded, the second curators Sonja Beijering, yelled at me the words “We hate your piece.” Obviously, since my works includes the Arabic speaking community of Amsterdam I started to wonder a little bit whether it has something to do with the language proposed. Strangely enough, they offered me to teach me Dutch which again is in total ignorance of my work as an artist. I don’t just learn a language for one week but engage in it over many years. I’ m currently in my 3rd year of Learning Arabic and continue doing so. Since the ticket was purchased I organized and financed everything by myself. My main Arabic teachers, Lina Issa and Nada Mounzer, I encountered directly or indirectly at the opening.

The exhibition was hang in a way that my pieces could have easily accommodated. At the opening this was confirmed by Renee Ridget who right away lectured me that it wasn’t a question of space, or money or of the concept but a question of my attitude. I still remember the negative attitude with which that was uttered. Speaking about attitude, a German curator who I met there by accident – I wasn’t informed about his presence – complained to me that the curators were rude to him when he asked about my piece. Since I remembered that Sonja Beijering started to use the we-form, - she pointed out that whatever Ridget might have told me, there are three who are making decisions. – I was very surprised when I actually met the third curator, Simon Ferdinando. He was not even informed about the problem which I thought was yet another twist in that curatorial power game. I informed them verbally but also in writing that I was doing the originally agreed upon piece and expect the organizers to cover the costs whether they show it or not. The answers to my emails are negative. Beijering told me that they are not going to pay and that I was there on my own, as a tourist.

My video “Homeland Security” consists of fife short segments of about 1 mintues and 30 seconds. They are numbered and intended to be shown together. Without having been informed the curators decided that 2 segments will do and truncated the piece. The didn’t include the other segments. It would have been fine to talk to me about inserting the individual segments between other video pieces – something that I would have agreed to – but without having been informed they not only skipped 3 out of 5 but also didn’t label them properly. One segment they labeled correctly, the second they didn’t. In order to see some of the segments one has to wait more then one hours before the 1’30” long piece reappears.

This text with the following documentation is not only intended to recuperate the non-covered costs of for doing my piece – 200 Euro, and my production materials, 150 US dollar plus one night in a hotel, 40 Euro – but to also show, how things should not work out. Is it informative that non of the pieces is properly labeled with a name tag? There are only a few diagrams throughout the show that need to be read carefully if one wanted to understand which piece is which?

Inspite of my alienating relationship with the curators of my show, other people have been incredibly generous in helping me. In particular I am indebted to Ann Demeester and her stuff from W139 who provided me a place to stay as well as to Nienke Vijlbriel who also helped me a great deal and made this working stay a pleasure. The most important thing in spite of all this was my possibility to spend time with my Arabic teachers, including with Hikmat Hemary and his wife who just 2 weeks earlier was able to come from Baghdad to join her husband to live in Holland. Not only did I improve my Arabic during 20 hours of learning and speaking but also did I make some friends and learned a big deal about Iraq as well as about Lebanon, from where Lina Issa and Nada Mounzer come from.

I would also like to express my gratitude to Daria Bouwman from the Austrian Embassy in Den Haag who covered the travel costs.


Rainer Ganahl, New York May 2004


PS: let me say smooching about the money. At the moment, when I assumed that everything was going fine, I even proposed them to pay for some of the study things myself. But when I realized that it was not about the money but about the egos of the curators and their way of treating me badly I changed my mind on that and started also to really demand my costs. In addition to that, when I offered them something - paying for this and that by myself - I didn't know of the dimension of this show. I didn't know that they did get several sponsors and that there was quite some operational money at hand. Also the money wasn't really something that was big an issue. It only is now an issue since I really now want my costs reimbursed. Also, when reading the emails, the curators point out that the project is contingent on receiving sponsorship and couldn't be done without that: but by all that they were talking about the travel costs which are not an issue anymore.


5 Days, 4 Hours a Day - Basic Arabic, Amsterdam, May 04 (assisted by Lina Issa)

click here to see a study sheet:

III. emails

Below find a series of emails that show how things unfolded. They are taken as such and often quote replies or even replies of replies. For privacy reasons I removed email addresses and other sensitive information.

beforer the conflict

rainer ganahl to Rene´e Ridgway, Sat, 13 Mar 2004 17:26:35 +0100
good to hear from you
what I was intending to do is the work with the arab community..
strudying arabic... and go from there..
soIhave to come there before.. - when travel is less expensive...
that work hasn t been shown in holland...
also we said to make soe reading seminar.. that also hasn tbeen shown
reading fanon
while I ma there
we said that I come for a week before and I study everyday a certain
amount of time...
5 days 5 hours a day - basic arabic
and then show that.. and in the evenign - if there is interest I
could aslo do some reading fanon on the side
but beofer the show.. - I doin t have to be ther efor the opneing..
so all i need are tapes, and teachers... or teachers and tapes.. and
a flight over and some lilttle money to assist..

On 3/18/04 4:28 AM, "Renée Ridgway" < > wrote:
Hi Rainer,
problem is, budget we still do not know what we can do, about your
ticket. This is just the way it is. Hope to know after April 1st.
On 18-mrt-04, at 1:37, rainer ganahl wrote:
> renne
> how is it goinng
> actually, we shouldn't wait fortoo long because I need to do the work
> upfront..
> so I was thinking:
> a piece that we could call:
> "5 days, 5 hours a day - basic arabic"
> rainer


To my big surprise about 10 days before the opening I get the following email that looked to me as a green light for my project.

On 5/13/04 5:56 AM, "Renée Ridgway" < > wrote:
Dearest Rainer,
Would you believe me if I told you?
Since the beginning of March we have been getting the run around.. we
call at least twice a week, the last two weeks have been more positive,
though on return I found out that everything WAS sent to Wien.
They have said, on the telephone, yes to 800 euro's. Then we asked them
to confirm with an email. She(Mevrouw Bouwman) said she would, that was
last week and without that piece of paper we cannot do anything, nor
will we take the financial risk ourselves. We do not have the budget to
cover your flight costs.
We are tired of calling, I don't know what to say, or who to believe
anymore. We cannot accommodate you, so close to the opening, nor grant
you your Plan A proposal, seeing that we can not finance your travel
ourselves nor arrange anything on such short notice. We are up to our
ears with 16 other artists, installing, etc..
We suggest you call the embassy yourself, since we have no security
that they will pay. Maybe if you are sweet to Mevrouw Bouwman she will
send us an email confirmation and we can go further. We have sent her
an invitation so she knows that everything is happening(of course we
sent her earlier documentation)
What we know so far:
'Homeland Security I-V) is in our video programme, though you never
emailed me about Heidrun's show at SKOR and what she actually showed.
We would still like to know.
Also, the show has been extended. We have invitations, etc. we would
like to send you, we have done the mailing(nederland and international)
and will do an international emailing on Friday.
I have been brainstorming about you coming and what we could do(if you
get funding), after the opening of course, maybe in the week of the 4th
of June or the 18th(last weekend). A Fanon Négritude workshop? or would
you be bored?We have to come up with something that satisfies both
parties, send emails and put it up on the website. I am willing to
discuss this further. There is the possibility of having an
installation at the Gate Foundation as well, but that has to be
discussed and negotiated. The director is back from Shanghai and we can
ask him.
Simon and Sonja suggested you could learn Dutch. Would you like to
learn Dutch? you can access my handy DKU Dutch/German dictionary that
has all the words that are similar in both languages:
You will be speaking Dutch in no time.
I am sorry to write such a disappointing email. I don't quite know why
they say yes, but can't prove it. Maybe she is too nice.
Let me know what you decide.
kind regards,
here is her number:
Oostenrijkse Ambassade
Botschaft der Republik Österreich
Van Alkemadelaan 342
2597 AS Den Haag
Tel: 31 70-324 54 70 or 72

I read it and called the embassy. The embassy agreed to pay my ticket and I advanced the costs. I also arranged for my own staying for most of the time. Due to the fact that there was no extra time to lose I called right up my travel agent and confirmed a flight that was within the budget promised by the embassy. Excited about all this I sent the following email next to another bunch of emails with extra ideas and with some questions concerning the space, the address, the opening and even some help with the costs

:rainer ganahl An: Rene´e Ridgway < >
Zeit: Thu, 13 May 2004 17:48:56 +0200
Betreff: here my email to sony
every8tihng works..
i got a place, and a ticket..
so I hope you find me an arabi teacher
a tv and soime space forshowing it
I snet it to also tosonja
so I will show+
a photo taht shows me studying here in nyc. sice
51 x 61 cm.. 20 x 24 incvh
and a vhs ^ pall.. showingme studying alone here in nyc..
and we write taht I am d\studying there..
that simple..
is that fine with you..
and then I stuyd 20 hoirus.. .5 days 4 horus a day..
that is the name of my peie
5 days, 4 horus a day ^^ basic arabic

To my big surprise, I was told that this is not the way to go.

On 5/13/04 1:45 PM, "Renée Ridgway" < > wrote:
here are also cheap tickets in June
actually the further off the cheaper the price
There are other plans being made that you might want to hear about
before you go off making plans. I hope you didn't buy the ticket, but
reserved it so you can change your reservation.

On 13-mei-04, at 18:22, rainer ganahl wrote:
> -------------------
> rennee
> pleas,e give me hte exact mailing address of your institutin
> scor
> Iwanna also send some post carsd..
> so please, give me a bit of a space and I install also these
> postcrass
> see+
> I will send to sets..
> don]t worry..
> they are beautufl
> also ibring 3 t shirts which Ialso woudl enclsoe. working on themnow.
> so don:t woirry. I make a nie thigns. jut give me a few meters
> is that fine..
> rainre
> to roudn tup..

On 13-mei-04, at 17:21, rainer ganahl wrote:

NO , this is not the way it goes
> -------------------
> renne I found a place to stay as well with ann demester..
> do yo uknow her
> so I ma set on this
> now, the only thing i need from yo. .. do you find soime arabic
> teacher for me. .20 horu intotal..
> r

But here comes a clear reaction by the second curator, Sonja Beijering who then makes a clear point that they don’t like my Arabic Study work to be shown, something totally new to me.

On 5/13/04 6:03 PM, "Sonja Beijering" < > wrote:
You cannot make any decisions, because you have NO idea what we are trying
to coordinate.
1. Any confirmation on the phone from the embassy is worth NOTHING. We have
to have it in writing. We have had the same confirmations from her since
April and are SICK of it, because she will not confirm in WRITING, beacuse
she knows she does not have it yet from Vienna. We have to wait until we get
this and that means you should have waited with buying a ticket.
2. We did NOT agreed on any performance of yours because we DO NOT LIKE your
proposal, because it does not interact with the public. We are not willing
to finance your personal study lessons. There are three of us, and even if
Renee had said yes, it has to go through us. She sent us the mail with all
the different proposals, but NOTHING was decided. We never sent you a
3. There is NO ROOM for an other installation in the space because
everything is FULL.
4. You are in the video program already with Homeland Security, that was
decided .
5. We are trying to arrange time and space for a lecture of yours and
installation, IF you get a ticket confirmed in writing, towards the end of
the show, but have to deal with many other people and parties involved and
get an OK. If they are supposed to work with you, you should be a little
more considerate and accommodating to other peoples ideas and requests.
6. As you know this is a huge project, we can just about handle and are
working our asses off. The last thing we need is a *** out of control making
his own decisions.
7. We will talk to you about the way we want to proceed Friday 12.00 hours
(your time)
8. I listened to your message on Renee's phone. I would suggest that you
show respect to us as organisers so that we can better show respect to you
as an artist.
Please confirm this conference call and be prepared to negotiate.
Please understand our situation
Sonja Beijering

----- Original Message -----
From: "rainer"
To: "Sonja Beijering" < >
Sent: Thursday, May 13, 2004 8:02 PM
Subject: <no subject>> dear sonja
> renee got suddenly nervous
> I don't udnrstand:
> we met twice and we agreed on this study thing.
> the problem was the ticket.
> that ticket problm is resolvd and I fixed hte housing
> so I don't know what the problem should be
> so acts a bit as if I "curate myself"..
> I only did what was discussed over many months in advance and fixed on two
> oaccasion..
> I understood that due to the money problem wiht the embassy there was a
> problem but it is resolved after 5 opone calls and emails etc.
> so now,there is time
> I also fixed the housing problem
> the only thing I ask you - that might cost you a bit but also not too
> is a teacher
> adn some space to show it
> so I don't udnerstand why renee is so nerouvs
> r
> she said I should call her..
> but I stayed long on the phone and don't need to call you again justifying
> as if I did somethinhg wrong..
> I acted accroding the plan....
> and I think the resulst are great..
> youget me tehre.. without any costs.. and get me to stay there without any
> costs
> so what IS THE PROBLEM

this is an email that I sent before the phone call in which the curator yealls at me saying “I hate your piece.” Since money was also put forward as an obstacle I offered at several moments that I might cover the costs by myself. At this moment I don’t want to cover the costs by myself since I understood that there was sufficient funding for paying these missing 300 Euros. The special treatment I got from them also makes me demand the money.

From: rainer ganahl
Date: May 14, 2004 11:39:44 AM EDT
To: sonja.artl@

Cc: Work <rr@ >
Subject: lets be nice and professional on the phone
on the phone..
lets just work with the fact:
teh ticket is done
I will be there
I wanna study -
and I m open to do whatever you want me do to if it is whithin my spossibilities
please, make the best use of my presence
and lets find a way to make the studying be worked in the show so it doesn't hurt yoyur plans.
(already I said, if yo8u can't pay fo rit, I pay myself.. so it doesn't hurt your budget)
I makes no sense going into blaming or jealling or drama or accusing
i t is a mass. I m sorry but it was all not properly understood by all of us.. rainer

These are emails exchanged after the show openined.

Von: rainer ganahl
An: Sonja Beijering < >

Zeit: Sun, 23 May 2004 14:10:03 +0200
Betreff: Re: MITR
also here are the reasons you gave to me subesequently.. to my big
surpsrie.. (I of course, what never have advanced the money for a
ticket and booked one had I anticipated your really strange and even
hostile reacitons)
firs arguemnt - no money for teachers
second arguemtn - no space
thrird arugement - I hate it
and last arguemth - my attitude
this was again confirmed at the opeing. where renee lectured me like
to a schoool boy that it wasnt that mooney the space or the concept
but the attitude.. it s quite stragne to show only bad attitude (
patronzinging me bossing me around etc) and talking about attitude

here is an email by Miriam Westen that states that she saw my Arabic Teaching piece in the original proposal circulated by the organizers for fundraising:

On 5/18/04 8:36 AM, "Mirjam Westen" < > wrote
what an awfull story, and rather ridiculous also- the more since i was in a fundingcomittee to judge the proposal and your project 'learning arabic' was in there. -------- (the rest of this email ommitted)


installation view of the exhibition wiht plenty of unused space = "we have no space for your piece"