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We Only Exist In Relation to Each Other:
An Interview with Lydia Ourahmane by Hannah Waiters

In this conversation, Algerian artist Lydia Ourahmane and visual researcher Hannah Waiters discuss poetics, degradation, faith and the ancient in Ourahmane’s site-based work as presented in her latest solo exhibition صرخة شمسية Solar Cry at the Wattis Institute, as well as the challenges of sustaining her practice amidst the social limits of COVID-19. Ourahmane’s installations and art practice deploy technological means like video projections, vibrating speakers, and auratic lighting that work to embody hope through documenting 6,000-12,000-year-old inscriptions in Algeria’s militarized desert landscapes. Her installations consider how faith remains a permanent force in the invisible barriers of Algeria. For instance, her latest site-specific work documents her journey through Tassili n’Ajjer, a desert plateau between Algeria and Libya known for its unregulated mineral and gun trade. Here, Waiters and Ourahmane discuss works in Solar Cry and the artist's explorations of engagement with the community in Algeria under conditions of shelter-in-place.

To view some of the works mentioned in this dialogue, which took place by Skype on March 24, 2020, look at Ourahmane's Wattis exhibition here.


Hannah Waiters: So how are you, considering all things COVID-19?

Lydia Ourahmane: Every day has felt so different. To be honest at the beginning it was quite suffocating. More in the sense of this swelling intensity on a global scale where we all experienced a very active coming apart, coming into immediate effect for those most vulnerable. Of course, we knew how precarious our modes of existence were, but the violence of negligence and the immense pressure of loss in every aspect are very heavy to process. The energy necessary to recalibrate is a daily task, but on a collective level I think we bear the responsibility of consciousness, and we have to allow for it to move us to care.

HW: With regards to the recalibration of process, I was going to ask you to say a bit about upcoming projects and practice. The methodologies used to create the exhibition Solar Cry involved travel, movement, and a broad sense of connection. The last time you and I met, you mentioned that your studio has always been your laptop—the digital space that simulates embodied experiences. We see how your installations are experimenting with ways that hope behaves as a transmission, transmission of narrative, transmission of connection. It becomes a broadcast and digital space that projects hope within the violence of national borders. So how are you recalibrating your methodologies of making and storytelling at this time?

LO: I think this is what the internet was made for, this very moment!

Algeria has been closed now since mid-March, as in strict curfews, airports closed, etc. I had previously made plans to be here to prepare for this film I was going to shoot in the desert in April. Obviously, it’s not going to happen like I thought it would. I was working hard on getting permission from the military to take a crew of non-Algerians to a site in between Libya and Algeria, a plateau in Tassili N’Ajjer, which has been closed to foreigners since 2011 and is where the photographs in Solar Cry (e.g. The Neolithic Tumulus) were taken . I was due to go there and shoot a film and had anticipated a few people coming out. I stupidly cleared my account by panic-buying all this 16mm film and various pieces of equipment, hoping we could still make it. But at the last minute, the borders closed…which just means we will have to wait for now.

My studio is just my laptop, two phones, and wherever I happen to be at the time. But it’s more just a means to connect to a network of people spread out across various places, disciplines, and expertise. My personal relationships with people are sort of the only consistent “material” I have…which I’m very used to maintaining from a distance, online, over the phone just because of always living in different places and moving around a lot. Obviously it’s very difficult not to be able to see the people you love but you learn how to love from afar, you just have to get better at other ways of communication, like telepathy! Ha ha—which I feel has been very strong lately…

I realised I would have to find a different way of working which doesn’t rely so heavily on my physical mobility or lack thereof. But then there are still people everywhere, we just need to shift the focus more on collaborative efforts, things can still be filmed elsewhere by others for example. I’m definitely trying to focus on what is possible, but I’m also very conscious about taking this time as it is, to let it happen, not to continue trying to live for a future when we all “get out.” I’ve been feeling this for a long time—the art world as we know it is completely unsustainable. So many resources go into maintaining this global roaming economy which inevitably results in a lot of waste; a lot of energy is required to maintain speed, you know. And I feel it is necessary for us to consider other modes of transmission, other ways to maintain focus without misunderstanding activity in terms of pure motion. I am also speaking to myself here. It’s strange, and I kept having a looming premonition of this year not happening, or a major shift at least. I kept thinking that it was because I was going to die. I didn’t die. The universe just held up a mirror!

HW: I love the metaphor of the mirror because it conceptualizes that we are, in fact, alive in a given space; quarantine is solipsism. Thinking back to Solar Cry, I am intrigued by how you use distance as a material in the exhibition. The exhibition is in part about how you and your family found miracles—formless spaces for possibilities—within government restrictions and invisible boundaries in Algeria. In conditions of quarantine, where Algeria has a strict curfew, how are your current process and inspiration transcending these boundaries of isolation quarantine? In a broader sense, would you say that this isolated space that is being reflected back at us is a miracle?

LO: I think this isolation has been a very different experience for everyone. Even if we usually spend a lot of time alone, there is the obvious difference of choice. We are having to undo the way that distance was previously collapsed by transcontinental flying, for example. Now that borders are suddenly a reality for everyone, we have to accept our immediate circumstances, and the restrictions implied by “slowing down.” But I can’t really get romantic about this sort of solitude.

On a conscious level, we are all dealing with a lot. There is a general pressure to maintain “momentum,” but I’m not sure it’s productive, as much as it serves as a coping mechanism or distraction or optimism I don’t know. I just remembered a conversation I had with my mum some time last year, found in notes:

“It’s good to come to the end of ourselves, then we have to look up and receive the supernatural, we have to empty ourselves till there is nothing left, in the end, in nothingness, this is when you start to receive. Hopelessness is the best state.”

HW: Such poetics are suggestive of the auratic landscape you helped audiences imagine in the exhibition Solar Cry. A song-filled space where an opera singer sings in two notes with subtle variations, creating an improvised sacred hymn drenched in hypnotic blue light. In fact, most of your works use recordings, vibrations, and empty space to develop a sense of disembodiment of sacred ground. Empty space represents the great distance between the artworks’ present location and their conceptual origins. For instance, Gold Digger, the metal detector that listened to the piece of gold embedded in the Wattis floor. Can you say a bit about this piece? And also, can you describe the piece for those who haven’t seen it?

LO: In its current version, Gold Digger is a metal detector propped against the back wall of the Wattis, with headphones plugged into the device so you can hear that something is being detected, but it’s still intended for private use. The device is activated by one gram of gold, which is set into the concrete floor, causing it to make this undulating sound, as it seeks this embedded, invisible material.

But actually, that piece is still ongoing. It’s promised to someone I met in the desert, one of the guides who led me through Tassili N’ajjer. He had this low husky voice you could barely find his words through. He told me,
this is the voice of a person who was lost in the desert for five days without food or water.

There are a lot of people in the south of Algeria who dig for gold. It’s illegal. Anything you find you are supposed to hand over to the police. He and his friend had been searching an area last year in July. They journeyed down to the mines and spent three days digging with all their equipment—metal detectors, torches, etc.—and finally hit gold. Then they saw the military coming. So they dropped their equipment and ran with as much gold as they could carry. They lost their track between running and hiding and ended up near Niger. It was July, and they had no food or water. He was describing the hallucinations he was having as he was coming in and out of consciousness. He experienced these visions of spirits coming to take his soul and having to fight them, exclaiming
it’s not my time to die

I asked, “Will you make a movie about gold-digging with me?” And told him that I wanted to see the mines because that's what he does. He’s currently working as a guide to make money to buy the equipment that he needs for gold-digging. And he responded,
Yeah, of course. When we dropped everything, we lost all of our equipment, and that’s why I am trying to save up.

So we made a deal:
If I get you this metal detector, will you make this movie with me?

I say movie very abstractly. I think I use the apparatus of moving images as a way of focusing a narrative, but it’s also just a natural response to record and document things. But shooting is more a way of thinking through, it offers an instantaneous distance that I can figure out later.

HW: Is it through these stories that your personal experience has been made more accessible to tell?

LO: Well, we only exist really in relation to each other. You share stories and experiences as a way of forging connections. Essentially we were just sitting around a fire after sharing a meal, having walked together that day. Stories are always shared experiences, and they live with you, live on through you. I think that is what is particularly difficult for everyone in this moment, we weren’t prepared for this forced separation. But of course, there are always other ways to feel like presence is still shared. I have been on the go for a while and it’s very hard to find the energy to stop, so this has been a blessing, actually. I feel very grateful at this moment to be able to be with my parents, who I hadn’t spent real time with for a while—and being able to write and think and work not only toward deadlines. I was reading a section this morning in Edouard Glissant's book, Poetics of Relation. The chapter “The Black Beach” is about someone moving so fast because if they stopped, they would fall apart. It felt prophetic, and I think we are navigating a significant global shift, it’s really only the beginning.
But, while I was wandering like this, a silence as dizzying as speed and disorder gradually rose from the uproar of the sea. The voiceless man who walks keeps on carting his black sand from a distant volcano known only to himself, to the beaches he pretends to share with us. How can he run faster when he is growing so desperately thin? One of us whispers: “He goes faster and faster because if he stops, if he slows down—he will fall”

We are not going any faster, we are all hurtling onward—for fear of falling.

– Edouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, pg.127

LO: The Neolithic Tumulus is one of few such archeological sites in Tassili N'Ajjer, Djanet. This one is enclosed, which means the burial of that family was finished, or that the tribe had moved, which seems plausible in relation to environmental changes the area went through in its eventual becoming like a desert. Experts say it would have been the ruler of the tribe. I also heard that when the ruler dies, he is buried with all his remaining belongings to take them into the afterlife; this includes clothes, cattle, his wives, who would be killed and buried with him, etc. The remains of things like this were found in excavations of similar tombs. The tombs remain as mounds, marked by the piling of rocks in a “keyhole” formation. I’ve come across other burial grounds in different areas of the Sahara that are maybe less obvious than this one, and I’ve always been fascinated that no one has moved them for thousands of years. There’s a kind of inherited instruction not to desecrate the sites. Also, the moving of the burial stones is said to carry curses, probably to prevent robbery, etc. But superstitions are genuinely adhered to. At the same time, the moving of stones for other reasons is an interest of mine. For instance, on the plateau, our guides would pile stones in stacks of three, very low, almost unnoticeable, as a marking of the way—this stacking indicates human intervention; it is a way of communication and is timeless in that sense, non-linguistic, understood. I’m also really interested in superstition as a form of law. Superstitions exist because of collective belief, which reinforces them as law. Also, I’m obsessed with these keyhole tombs; on a formal level, they mark an entryway into the underworld. Energetically, the site was very concentrated. These images of stones are inscribing a tale of what was erased, a connection in displacement, a tradition of discourse.

HW: Thank you so much for sharing the backdrops to these works. Before we wrap up, one more question about communications across distance. Since digital space seems more valuable than ever in regards to sharing anecdotes, historical dimensions, and myths, are there any online platforms that you have been contributing to recently that audiences can follow?

LO: I made a playlist called “Music to sleep to” for Chisenhale Gallery which you can listen to here; and have been contributing to ____homecooking____ which is a digest of new works, activities, poetry, movement, and events begun in March 2020 founded by the wonderful Asad Raza and organized in collaboration with Marianna Simnett.

IRL—We have been distributing weekly food packages to families who have been affected by COVID-19 in the Kabyle region near my parents’ community. And, more recently I’ve been coordinating and redirecting some of that aid by working with a collective of people from the Sub-Saharan region; Côte D’Ivoire, Senegal, Mali, Benin and Niger to provide food packages for the largely undocumented community or those who are still awaiting asylum here in Algiers. We are trying figure out how to continue this work strategically and think about other areas of support amidst a deeply complex situation. But for now, our endeavor is to meet the most urgent and immediate needs.

Hannah Waiters is an artist, educator and researcher in pursuit of her MFA/MA in Fine Arts and Visual and Critical Studies at CCA, class of 2021.

Lydia Ourahmane is an artist who had a solo exhibition at the Wattis in 2020, available here.