Naeem Mohaimen: My Mobile Weighs a Ton

100 spoons but I need a knife

Naeem Mohaiemen

Ever have a morning so shitty you can’t get out of bed. Or when you won’t go to work unless Congress passes that $700B bailout. I’ll look back at 2007-2008 as a time when Bangladesh nursed that kind of hangover. A state of continual limbo, as we wait and wait. For elections to happen, for the Army to return to barracks, for the foul-mouthed politicians to return to the podium. For a limbo state to end.
Security panic is viral: crossing borders, morphing strains, bringing along multiple, overlapping agendas. Ominously, it replicates rapid-fire from North America to Europe to South Asia. Bomb in front of Indian Parliament, round up Pakistani insurgents. Then bombs go off on a commuter train and the lense shifts to illegal Bangladeshi migrants- there are so many more of them inside India. Then a day of synchronized bomb blasts inside Bangladesh as well. The terror analysts go into frenzy, Hiranmay Karlekar’s “Bangladesh: The New Afghanistan?” is one among many off the hook concoctions. Fear feeds hysteria.

A friend predicted early that panic over the Dhaka bombs would play into the hands of a security state. Aren’t you worried I asked, and she replied, I’m more worried about who benefits from panic. Sure enough, by the end of 2006 the message was seeping out from Dhaka’s meddlesome Embassy Row: the politicians have failed, the country was being over-run by terrorism. A desperate nation turns to the institution seen as strong on security: the Army. A “Caretaker Government” (CTG) takes over on 1/11 (‘07), a world driven by numerology.

By the end of Year two of CTG, good intentions had been defeated by brute realities (neither the Army nor the Politicians get what they want). Exhausted by a seemingly endless national melodrama, I could feel my dissident energy seeping away. Using pen names is strangely disempowering. The only space in which I was able to be more vocal were projects that were published outside these borders: in distant art journals or gallery walls. In contributions for Raimundas Malasauskas’ William Blake Saved Documenta and Carlos Motta’s Buena Vida/Democracy project. Where people would absorb the aesthetics but the politics be too remote to have street impact. I wrote with grim pragmatism that I knew there would be no “Last man in front of Tiananmen tanks.”

As catharsis for failure of nerve, I’ve been getting into arguments with old friends. This sometimes degenerates into shouting matches. Later we apologize over sms, email, gchat. On campus, it seems that everyone is strung on some narcotic. But maybe it’s just nerves. As our brains cook to a crisp from un-ending political limbo, mass psychosis is tearing at friendships/communities/alliances.

August 2008 was the first anniversary of the anti-army riots that exploded on university campuses– a tectonic disturbance that was the first challenge to this neat security blueprint. Invited to show at Gallery Chitrak around this time, I finally thought I could dare a shadow commemoration of that August. The first priority was making sure the gallery stayed open for the full ten days. They wanted no fuss, no bother with the government.

It was true, I did have a set of mobile phone photos. Accidental ephemera from the moment. On day 3 of the riots, when the army lifted curfew for two hours, I went on a motorcycle ride with my friend, snapping shots of the wreckage from my mobile. “Don’t bring out your camera,” my nervous friend warned, so I didn’t. The mobile shots, disposable and forgotten (I had almost erased without downloading), now became the tentpole for this project. Blown up to wall size, dyed in RGB palettes, they took on the timeline for the unravelling.