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The paralytic drug that’s killing our planet’s future

Art journal ‘Fresh Hell’ explores fossil fuels and its hold over our dystopian future through creative work from the Middle East and beyond

Scientists have reported that the Persian Gulf will be hostile towards human life by the end of the century because of extreme temperatures caused by climate change. That dystopian future, ushered in by our obsession with fossil fuels, is an irony that doesn’t escape artists from the oil-rich nations of the Middle East. In Fresh Hell, a new issue of the experimental art writing journal, The Happy Hypocrite, guest-editor Sophia Al-Maria grapples with the effects of fossil fuels through a collection of art, essays, interviews and short stories by William Gibson, McKenzie Wark and artists and writers from the Middle East and beyond.

“What fresh hell is this? We know exactly what fresh hell this is. Fossil fuel – that paralytic drug – has leeched into our collective bloodstream,” writes Al-Maria, a Qatari-American artist and writer, in her introduction. “It’s destroyed all rational thought. Numbing us with venom while we lope on in a consumptive daze. It’s difficult to recognise the beasts that are eating us at this very moment.”

Al-Maria, whose memoir The Girl Who Fell to Earth chronicled her coming of age between Seattle, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, also coined the term "Gulf Futurism", a phrase that describes accelerating changes in the Persian Gulf. She describes how elements like raging inequality, environmental inhospitality and lives lived purely indoors, are all going to become part of the future of the world as a whole, not just the Gulf.

The work in Fresh Hell ranges from provocative images to thoughtful essays, but what ties it all together is a subtle, non-linear meditation on fossil fuels’ legacy for our bodies, minds and the world around us – all characterized by the wit and irreverence that is Al-Maria’s touchstone. “It is filled with digital pollution and body horror. It refers to psychotronic and psychotropic warfare. It conjoins the primeval and the pornographic. It makes language volatile,” she explains.

There’s an impressive range of work in Fresh Hell. Judy Darragh’s centerfold “Doctor” explores the power dynamics of pornotopia and Lena Tutunjian’s visceral pussyfriends Tumblr feed. Kuwaiti artist Monira Al Qadiri shares stories of her grandfather, a singer on a pearl diving boat in Kuwait and childhood memories of the black rain that fell when Saddam Hussein’s armies set Kuwait’s oil wells on fire. Stills from Al Qadiri’s video installation show synchronized swimmers wearing petrol coloured swimsuits, swimming in oil and accompanied by music from historical Gulf pearl divers.

In “The Gift”, a short story set in Saudi Arabia in the year 2067, in which humans can only drink desalinated water, scientists’ recent climate reports ring true. Egyptian-born, US-based writer and curator Omar Kholeif writes: “Daylight reveals my surroundings to be scorched; the water in our compound’s swimming pool has evaporated under a swollen sun that glistens through my bedroom window and hits a faded poster of a once ‘bee-stung’ lipped Angelina Jolie – she died two years ago of an allergic reaction to saline.”

Writer and theorist McKenzie Wark speaks chillingly about climate change in his essay “Blue Ruin”, issuing a call for new forms of art. “Who could have guessed that when the flood came it would come in slow motion, over forty decades rather than forty nights?” he writes. “As the polar ice sheets unravel and plunge into the waters, those who have so mismanaged the fate of all things cling to their private arks. The animals, one by one, will be saved if at all, as gene sequences. What confronts us now, in our still cosy worlds, are spectacles of disintegration. There’s not much one can do to prepare this civilisation to deal not with its future, but with the very texture of the present. It wants to hide under the covers. But let’s not be stupefied by the power of others, or by our own powerlessness. We can prepare what spaces we have, joyfully, by inventing new practices where aesthetics and technics meet".

“As nieces and nephews are beginning to arrive, I worry about and for them. And this is very much at the root of Gulf Futurism – a nightmarish projection of what is coming globally”

That sense of possibility is tempered by a tangible sense of grief. In Al-Maria’s afterword she imagines a future self, an old lady in a world of 10 billion people. “It will be impossible to be well fed, the internet will be little help. Earth is already really dying. And it’s our (‘the haves’) fault,” she writes. “The internet will be a myth I tell younglings and so will the magic of flight and electricity. I’ll hobble to the hatch of my hovel at the sound of falling sky. And irritated by the interruption, I’m going to have to grumble the old question to whoever might be around to hear me – ‘What fresh hell is this?’ It’s a question for we, the forever interrupted. And now, after everything, I ask it un-rhetorically. This is a time of transition. All questions must be sincere.”

Fresh Hell makes clear that climate change is not just in the realms of NGO’s, government policy and scientific reports, and that during biggest crisis of our time, artists and writers can provide understandings that no one else can. These subtle, exploratory works can help us understand our new reality, but also point to a way out. So why do we #netflixandchill in the face of climate apocalypse? We spoke to Al-Maria about how revolution may get us better results than any climate talks.

If fossil fuel is a paralytic drug that has leeched into our collective bloodstream – how do we recognize the side effects of it? How will we come off the drug and what will happen when we do?

Sophia Al-Maria: Complacency, depression, isolation, myopia, narcissism, nihilism are just a few of the symptoms. And like with any addiction, cold turkey is the only way to get clean. We all know withdrawal is going to be the worst, that’s why the boomers have left it so long. Our parents’ generation have seriously paddled us up shit creek by investing so blindly in the consumer society that we were born into and are now trapped in. So basically – on a global level - a revolutionary (or catastrophic) change is what’s required to stop. If and when we do – we’ll obviously need smaller dreams and bigger hearts.

Being Qatari-American, two nations inextricably bound to fossil fuels, have you felt its influence in your life?

Sophia Al-Maria: Well I don’t think I would have been drawn so urgently to the subject matter if my existence wasn’t wrapped up in the birth of the Gulf oil industry. My father got on a plane with a scholarship to go to America and met my mother who was blindsided by this random Bedouin kid – because oil. So, my interest began with existential onanism but turned into a full blown existential crisis pretty quick.

Is climate change something that pervades your thinking on a daily level?

Sophia Al-Maria: Yes. I went through a period of really desperate depression. The only thing that made it better was educating myself and meeting others who were also hearing the alarm bells. It takes a certain mental constitution to research and face the facts of climate change and I deeply respect those who do. There was an article in August on InTheseTimes that quoted forensic psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren on her research suggesting millenials are experiencing “pre-traumatic stress disorder”. I know you shouldn’t self-diagnose but this aligns strongly with my experience.

New reports are saying that by the end of the century, the Gulf will be uninhabitable because of climate change – what did you think when you read those news stories?

Sophia Al-Maria: I think about my family and wonder what we will do. I’m the eldest of ten. Eight of whom live in Qatar. The youngest is seven. As nieces and nephews are beginning to arrive, I worry about and for them. And this is very much at the root of Gulf Futurism – a nightmarish projection of what is coming globally.

Can you recall the first time you fully understood what climate change would mean for the planet?

Sophia Al-Maria: I don’t think I fully understand it even now. That is part of the problem with environmental movements gaining traction isn’t it? Right now, climate change feels like an abstract concept that is distant to most people with a certain place in the global pecking order. Humans just aren’t programmed to plan ahead into unknowable futures. Especially when they’re all #netflixandchill. I do remember the first time I really understood how gross air pollution was. I went to university in Cairo and a friend of mine used to drive me to school on his motorcycle. Every time I took that helmet off I had a sort of Fred Flintstone 5 o’clock shadow of pollution on the lower half of my face. Not a good look.

Do you think that the issue of climate change resonates more strongly with artists from the Middle East?

Sophia Al-Maria: It does seem like the clear presence of danger is finally moving into view now that the notion of climate change as a conflict multiplier is being clearly mapped out in places like Yemen and Syria. Fewer and fewer can deny the fragility of our ecosystems or the fact they are foundational if largely invisible to the average urban dweller. The urgency of the situation – the impact it has on everything. There’s an exhibition coming up in Beirut curated by Nora Razian and Nataša Petresin-Bachelez which is prompting artists in the region to think through connections between climate change, social ecologies, petro-culture and war. I think a big key to projects like these is to figure out ways to turn constructive dialogues into effective action and activism.

Do you think the COP21 climate talks in Paris could alter the course of history or not?

Sophia Al-Maria: I have little faith in the COP project as it’s been a consistent failure. But I hope the pressure keeps rising and the eyes are trained hard on corporations and governments. That said, I don’t think anything but the complete dismantling of our consumer society will really help and that will probably take a miracle in the form of disaster.




Fresh Hell launches on January 27 at the Lewisham Art House in London