News Column

The globalized art of the scam mail

August 19, 2014

Jim Quilty



BEIRUT: Around 15 years ago Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige began to collect some of the spam that'd collected in their Internet accounts. The Lebanese artists were interested in a particular genre of online flotsam, the scam mail.

Internet habituÉs have encountered countless numbers of these confidential-sounding pleas from people you don't know, men and women who sketch the source of immense wealth which they can temporarily not access because of some dire personal circumstances.

The anonymous correspondent asks you to deposit a few hundred bucks in an overseas bank account, in exchange for which, you're assured, you'll be remunerated with a serious chunk of change.

The artist-filmmaking team say they've collected, tracked, archived and studied more than 4,000 email scams. The fruit of their creative labor is on display in "I Must First Apologise..." an exhibition up at Villa Arson, Nice.

This sprawling show of video and sculptural works represents Joreige and Hadjithomas' thoughtful efforts to materialize the insubstantial stuff of scam culture.

More than a light-hearted romp through the virtual world of human avarice and gullibility, this work is a weighty contemplation of the creation and reception of art, of performance and imagination, of belief and, yes, money.

This all sounds like it has an air of the aesthetic about it, yet the artists' research has yielded a parallel series of works that take up stories from this country's cosmopolitan fringe mixed-race children of transnational parentage without the means to leave Lebanon.

Though the medium used to deliver the Internet scam rings with the contemporary, it's a form that's actually rooted in a much older literary genre an 18th-century swindle called "The Jerusalem Letter." The name doesn't refer to the Palestinian capital, but a prison on Rue de Jerusalem, in the Paris suburb of BicÊtre, which formerly housed many French confidence artists.

"The scams are all stories that follow the same pattern as 'The Jerusalem Letter,' Hadjithomas says. "We printed one of the Jerusalem letters "

"At such a scale that you can read it from afar," Joreige rejoins, "but not from up close."

"When you read it," Hadjithomas resumes, "you realize it follows exactly the same narrative structure as the scams.

"Common circumstances underlie the writing of all such scam letters: crisis, confusing times, like the French Revolution. The proliferation and content of the scams we have today suggests we're living through a similar moment."

All the work in "I Must First Apologise..." is new, save one. The first piece to coalesce from Hadjithomas and Joreige's research was the video installation "A Letter Can Always Reach Its Destination," which debuted during "Spectral Imprints," the 2012 exhibition curator Nat Muller assembled at Art Dubai from the winners of the 2012 Abraaj Capital Art Prize.

That work consists of a row of 39 characters all non-Lebanese Beirut residents, non-professional actors assembled as if in a police lineup. One after another, ghostly figures step forward to present an earnest scam narrative.

The premise of "A Letter" has been reworked and elaborated in the Villa Arson's first installation, "The Rumor of the World."

"In a 400-square-meter room you find the faces of 39 actors on 23 screens," Hadjithomas says. "You hear all their voices performing their scams from 100 [small] speakers."

In addition to clusters of speakers that project all the voices simultaneously, "Rumor" deploys individual speakers to correspond to each screen, and a system of sound baffles on the walls.

Upon entering the gallery, thanks to this sound design, no individual voice can rise above the cacophony an approximation of a rumor, as Hagethomas puts it. As you approach one of the screens, however, you will at a specific point enter a sonic "sweet spot," where the pitch of a given scam becomes clearly audible.

The most impressive-looking objects in this exhibition are the three 80-cm-diameter steel sculptures that make up "Geometry of Space," which Joreige has described as three issues of a Scam Atlas, from 2005, 2008 and 2010.

The works resemble three-dimensional representations of the global air-route maps you sometimes find in airline magazines. In this case there is no effort to depict the globe itself: The sphere's shape is only implied by the curve in the tangle of thin steel bands suspended in midair.

"We've taken all the scams we received in 2005, for instance," Hagethomas explains, "and calculated the trajectories of these emails. The emails sent from Nigeria to China, for instance, that narrate a scam set in Iraq. Those trajectories together form a kind of sphere.

"Year after year it's very clear there are certain regions that are more likely to be implicated in the scam traffic, and others that are not. For us the scams are writing a sort of alternative history of the world for the last ten or 12 years.

"They always surf on historic political events, turmoil, religious conflict, changes, the financial crises, ecological disasters.

"They choose these [tropes] because they want you to believe ... to believe that corruption is possible ... in certain regions of the world. The scammers see corruption to be [a more believable narrative] from certain parts of the world.

"This is why you see certain parts of the world Africa, say and Russia are crowded with scams, and others are completely untouched ... In the sculptures you see a lot of traffic going to the U.S. [Internet sources suggest] scammers earn about $220 million a year from the U.S. They're very lucrative."

While preparing these works, Joreige and Hagethomas encountered an online counterculture whose members refer to themselves as "scambaiters" or "scambeaters." Mostly based in the U.S. and northern Europe, they've created an online forum called "419 Eater."

"About 80 percent of all scammers are from Africa, most from Nigeria," Hagethomas says. "But they have to work from internet cafes."

"The U.S. government put pressure on the Nigerian government to pass a law against scamming," Joreige says. "Law 419. That's the origin of the '419.' Because scamming is now illegal, they can't work from home because it's too easily monitored. So they must work from commercial spaces."

Scambeaters scam the scammers by assuming the role of scam victims. They respond to scam mails and play along in correspondence that can go on for months at a time.

More imaginative scambaiters trick their scammers into executing and documenting sometimes bizarre acts painting the portrait of a dog, say, or sculpting a wooden computer keyboard putatively as a precondition to sending them money.

The "trophies" the scambaiters collect (videos, photos, paintings, sculptures, performances) are exhibited in a "trophy room," reminiscent of a virtual museum.

Hagethomas and Joreige's "Trophy Room" is an installation of concrete, glass and photo prints of correspondence between scammers and scambeaters, as well as the trophies they've collected.

"As the scambeater demands his correspondent have himself tattooed, etc," Hagethomas says, "you wonder whether this relationship is somehow replaying the relationship between north and south, between colonization and post-colonialization."

"The trophy room questions our relationship to art," Joreige says. "It challenges our relationship to art and what makes art. Sometimes it can be considered a beautiful object but it's not because it's a beautiful object. It's the condition that allows the work to be made."

'I Must First Apologise...' is up at Nice's Villa Arson until 13 October. For more information, see www.villa-arson.org


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Source: Daily Star, The (Lebanon)


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