• Interview

  • April 27th, 2020 04.27.2020

    List Projects 21: Rami George // MIT List Visual Arts Center


    Jameson Paige: I would like to start by understanding what motivates your practice, by way of locating your position in the work, however obvious it may seem. The majority of your work, if not all of it, is autobiographical in one way or another. Your family history is quite unique. In addition to discussing why you mine your own experience, I am particularly interested in how you conceive of ‘autobiography’ itself—which I think one could argue becomes a methodological inquiry that’s quite present in your practice.

    Rami George, Untitled (Saturday, October 16, 1993), 2015. HD Video, Color, Sound 5:00 min.

    Rami George: I have found myself continually returning to three major themes in my practice. One being an exploration of queer history, and new possibilities of being/viewing within this. Another, exploring a distanced relationship to culture and heritage, specifically Lebanon and the Middle East. And the third an ongoing exploration into a New Age spiritual cult, The Samaritan Foundation, of which my family was involved in the early 1990s. As noted, my body and self are aspects of all of these explorations, usually in relation to much larger and complicated networks and systems. I have been thinking a lot about these motivations, and why my body plays such a role. I think part of it is just me trying to grapple with the world around me through the specific ways I move through it, while understanding that my navigation is shared across communities. I think about coming up in the U.S. at this particular moment, where we have been reckoning with questions of authorship: who speaks and for whom? I want to make work of and for the world; I feel that if I speak from a lived experience, I can do this with conviction. Is the work for me—a way to process and move forward? Yes. Is the work for others to do the same? I hope, and believe, also yes.

    JP: Your current solo exhibition at the MIT List Visual Arts Center focuses on when your mother took you and your sister from your home in Somerville, Massachusetts to Guthrie, Oklahoma in 1993. The trip was unexpected, spurred by your mother’s fascination with the spiritual cult you just mentioned, the Samaritan Foundation, and left your father behind with little inclination as to what would happen next. The works in the exhibition triangulate forms of individual and collective memory that attempt to make sense of it all. What drew you to make an ongoing series of pieces about these events, and what were some challenges in creating such a deeply personal body of work for the public to see?

    Rami George, Untitled (with my father), 2020. HD Video, Color, Sound 20:31 min.

    RG: My family’s experiences with the Samaritan Foundation have been an enormous part of our lives, particularly from the traumatic break it caused. My father gained custody of my sister and I, and my mother chose to stay with the group. Although my family ultimately reconciled, we never broached the subject until I started researching the community in 2013. It was then that I learned of the publicity around the group, starting with our custody battle, and leading up to the disappearance and murder of another member of the group, Allen Ross. Coincidentally, Allen was an experimental filmmaker from Chicago who attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), as did I. Unexplained connections like this continued to surface as I dug deeper into the narrative.

    My interest in this project has been from a few avenues. Of course, the story is complicated and layered, and has all the makings of a salacious TV drama—in fact, there is one—but I have also been interested in how it speaks about cults, religions, and intentional communities, and this shared drive to search for “truth” amidst difference. I have been interested in exploring our family’s story in this constellation of narratives, both micro and macro. When curator Selby Nimrod invited me to exhibit at the List, it felt like another prompt to return to the project, as the gallery is twenty minutes away from my childhood home in Somerville where so much of this narrative unfolded. It felt significant that my first site visit to the gallery was also my first time returning “home.” I have definitely had to negotiate a lot of trauma and ethics. I am constantly thinking about what it means to “air dirty laundry,” so to speak, but I would rather speak than continue to hide from these painful stories. I feel grateful that my parents have been supportive in my continued explorations into our shared history, despite the pain of re-dredging these stories and moments.

    Rami George, Untitled (virtues, laws and powers), 2020. 30 x 22 in. Paper, Black Paint, Pigment Prints

    JP: Even though this material is, as you mentioned, deeply personal and traumatic in many ways, the work also seems to present a dual drive to complicate the solidity and singularity of grand historical narratives. One element I have always found striking in your video work is the collection of not only many textual narratives, but also visual documents of place and experience from multiple people. Your videos included at the List Center, Untitled (with my father) and Untitled (Saturday, October 16, 1993) similarly assemble multiple sources.Where do these references come from, and how do you make decisions about what falls in and out of the narratives you’re constructing?

    RG: When I first spoke with my father about our experiences with the Samaritan Foundation, he gave me a box full of old documents, letters, and ephemera related to this time, which had been hidden in the garage for twenty years. Untitled (Saturday, October 16, 1993) (2015), centers around one object from this collection: an Oklahoma newspaper detailing our custody battle in relation to the community. In discovering this artifact, I became interested in the simultaneous content of the day happening in tandem to our own narrative. I landed on a strategy of combining close scans of (seemingly) unrelated portions of the paper, set to a reading of the article.

    I found myself revisiting this accumulated content for my recent work, this time filming various documents and materials, including official and legal documents, and more intimate ones such as letters sent between my parents. What falls in and out seems to be a mix of intuition, following loose threads and interests, and finding new connections. There is a unique capability within video to say one thing, while showing something different or adjacent. Within the new video, there is a mix of private and personal moments amidst publicly disseminated information. I was thinking about this video as my father’s side of the story, as compared to the media side of the story present in Untitled (Saturday, October 16, 1993), and thus the personal and tangential plays a much larger role.

    Installation view, List Projects 21: Rami George, MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, MA, 2020. Photo: Tim Lloyd

    JP: Zooming out a bit to other works in the exhibition, the ongoing juxtaposition of official record and sentimental or personal archive constantly collide. Can you speak about what this tactic does to the work, and to a conception of historical authorship?

    RG: I think this goes back to your question of autobiography, and why I am so invested in it. I am interested in those moments shared between the individual and the collective, between personal and public. With work around the Samaritan Foundation, I am also interested when the personal gets unwillingly publicized, often without all the messy/beautiful specificities. Perhaps my rejoining of these materials—legal documents, philosophical teachings, family photos—can work to complicate the story a bit more, to acknowledge the very lived experiences within highly publicized versions. History is made up of deeply personal and individual moments, but the telling mostly ignores those, perhaps out of both necessity and a willful erasure. If I can poke a few more holes into this particular narrative, and allow a bit more complication, then I feel I will have done something.

    JP: The collage works continue this jarring juxtaposition by placing family photographs and ephemera in direct conversation with documents from the Samaritan Foundation’s program, specifically elements from the cult’s iconography and moral code. The virtue symbols are actually quite beautiful, however esoteric and morally strange they might read to an outsider. I am curious about the affective tension between these visual elements, and is it difficult for you to see them together?

    RG: I wanted to use this new exhibition as an opportunity to dig deeper into the teachings of the group, of which there exists a lot of material, including numerous publications. Although the teachings and philosophies remain opaque to me, and to other outsiders, I found myself captivated by many of these strange visual representations. As an outsider it is easy to point a finger and say “look at this cult, look how messed up this is,” but I was hoping to take a less judgmental approach: to acknowledge and accept the labor and work done within this community to make sense of the world, and to make sense of ourselves within it.

    I am also particularly drawn to the virtue symbols, which come from one of the group’s key publications, Virtues, Laws & Powers. What I learned from my mother is that these symbols were visualized by the head of the Samaritans, Linda Greene, and translated visually by more artistic members of the group, including Allen Ross and my mother. By combining various teachings and publications with more mundane family photos, I was interested in acknowledging this esoteric content as formative in my early life, voluntary or not, as well as finding strange new moments and connections to rest in. A lot of the content of these collages gets spoken about elsewhere in the exhibition, via the two videos present. While it is not difficult for me to view these materials, separate or joined, I imagine it would be for my parents who lived through this experience very differently than I did as a young child.

    Rami George, Untitled (with my father), 2020. HD Video, Color, Sound 20:31 min.

    JP: As someone who has followed your work for a long time, I am so enamored with the sculptural approach you have recently taken up. This is extremely ambitious in the List show, as you have recreated the Seminar Room from one of the Samaritan Foundation’s buildings in Oklahoma, which eerily enough was a prison prior to the cult’s appropriation. The room actually replaces the gallery entirely. How does this architectural impression of a memory inflect the other source materials you’re tapping through photography, video, and print ephemera?

    RG: I would say I’ve approximated the shape of the Seminar Room, borrowing some of its form from a floorplan of the former jail we occupied. I have found myself incorporating sculptural and architectural structures more within my practice, and the great joy of having a production budget allowed me to think larger. Immediately, before I even remembered the floorplan of the jail, I was interested in the affect of walking into a gallery, only to be confronted with the back of a wall, to then enter another space: a room within a room. I think this reads as an interior or psychic space, as well as merely an enveloping space, as opposed to the “blank slate” of the gallery walls. There are connections to other aspects of the works, including mention of my father being a carpenter on the home improvement show This Old House. So much of this new work is about my childhood home, leaving and returning. I hope the constructed space ties into this return home in some way as well—imprints of a building/space to then revisit many years later.

    JP: In your videos you often use elements of reenactment or include the rereading of a script. For instance, in Untitled (with my father) you conduct an informal interview with your father, but his contribution is actually voiced by an actor. I know this has been a tactic you have returned to other videos that delve into widely different content. Is this element legible to viewers? What does the distance it creates do for the content, or for the viewer?

    RG: When I first spoke to each of my parents about the Samaritan Foundation, I also recorded our conversations. I was going back and forth on this project whether I would use the original audio with my father, or work with a re-reading. Ultimately I felt like there was something interesting in the re-performance, as well as something productively distancing. What I wanted from the voice was similarity with difference. I put out a call for an “older straight white male with a kind voice.” I actually did not work with an actor, but rather a Philadelphia local, Jack Marmorstein. Strangely enough Jack is from Ohio, as is my father, and also experienced a complicated divorce and child separation. In many ways I ended up with a closer reader than I was expecting.

    I feel like there are slips in and out that mark the reading as re-performed, but I am not certain if or when this is legible to the viewer. In addition to Jack reading as my father, there was something strange for myself to re-perform my own lines spoken many years prior.

    JP: You mentioned earlier how your practice gravitates towards three major themes—queer politics and history, estrangement from cultural heritage, and this work on the Samaritan Foundation and your family. How does the exhibition at the List fit into a larger arch of this project?

    RG: With this exhibition, I feel like I have been able to pick away at a few more avenues within the sprawling story of the Samaritan Foundation—such as my father’s experience and teachings of the community. There are still threads left to explore, a large one being my unexplained connections to the late Allen Ross. As part of my exhibition, I presented a public video program comprised of content related to the community, my own and from mass media. To close the screening, I selected one of Allen’s short films chronicling the loss of his grandfather. I would like to explore our connection further, to present more of Allen’s work in relation to my own, and to dive deeper into our mirrored narratives.

    Within my practice, I have mostly worked on these three themes separately, but over the years I have come to realize how often they link and speak to each other. I recently completed a body of work dealing with lasting traces of the Lebanese Civil War. Through this work I came to understand my mother’s loss of religion through experiencing this deeply sectarian conflict. This led to her search for alternative spiritualities, ultimately finding the Samaritan Foundation. I think there’s a lot of room to start making these connections a bit more legibly, and I think in making them, the separate themes start to become more productively layered and nuanced.

    List Projects 21: Rami George runs at the MIT List Visual Arts Center from March 19, 2020-Sept 6, 2020.