Artist Profile: Heba Amin

Heba Amin's My love for you, Egypt, increases by the day is featured this month on The Download.

Still from My love for you, Egypt, increases by the day (Heba Amin, 2012)

From The Conceptual Tourist, Fragmented City, and other works, it's clear that the relationship between abandoned buildings and the surrounding's inhabitants is important to you. What experience are you investigating with these relationships? Does it alter depending on your medium (e.g., drawing, website, installation)?    

I think my fascination with abandoned buildings has to do with the abstract, the feeling in the air. They fascinate me as spaces of lost memory or as time capsules of history. I am also interested in how they fit within a broader framework and what they say about the contemporary context.

I grew up in Cairo, where its visual characteristics bluntly display the deterioration of urban life, where abandoned buildings have become normalized within the urban fabric. I began to explore them when I couldn’t make sense of the mass waste of space and money in a city where so many are struggling to survive. My reaction to them was emotional; they disturbed me. So, I began to use them as visual symbols for the emotional collective, metaphors for unrest.

My explorations are not limited by medium, and in fact I experiment with various media in attempt to confront and portray the emotions they move in me. Somehow in the process of working intimately with them, these buildings became beautiful to me because of their honesty.

With your most recent work, you've expanded that spatial connection from Cairo, a place you're intimate with, to Berlin, a newer locale. What are some differences you encounter in the change of location? Are there seeming universals you could apply from your work to the function and feeling of individuals in relation to their surroundings?  Is there a way you think people like to remember places?  

For me it is not about how people remember spaces but more about how the structures themselves hold memories and relay narratives. There is something very powerful about spaces that have been untouched, unaltered and don’t impose a scripted narrative. I don’t think people are often given a choice about how to remember places.  

Berlin was a natural new locale for me because it, like Cairo, deals with this industry of remembrance: both are cities of memorials. I am not only interested in the manufacturing of memories and how they define the identity of Berlin and Cairo but also where we can find more “authentic” memories in less obvious places. There are huge differences of course between working in the two cities, namely that Berlin is not my hometown and so I don’t have the same personal emotional connections or imposed narratives as I do on the Cairene landscape. Also, their histories are obviously very different. 

Another aspect inherent in geography is time and change, which you look at through memory. Is there a static time that you refer to in your drawings and post-industrial animations of landscapes and machines? The vantage points and angular clusters in those particular pieces create an ominous world: the buildings have a spirit and momentum of their own. Is this a state of unused structures, or the state they put us in? Are they recollections? What propels them? Is there a future for these buildings? 

My work attempts to relay emotion of a space and not necessarily an accurate depiction of it. The buildings I explore are structures that are static and present a sort of ambiguity in time. I am not sure that I can say they are recollections, but more like foggy memories. The future is not considered.




Berlin, Germany

How long have you been working creatively with technology? How did you start?

I was never really this “techie” type person, as much as I always wanted to be. When I was younger, I wasn’t exposed to it much. I remember when I was in high school my father suggesting that I study computer science in college because that’s where the future was heading. So I took a computer science class, and pretended to like it, but I didn’t at the time. In college I studied math and tried so hard to convince myself that this is what I should be doing, but I struggled a lot. It wasn’t until much later that I was able to incorporate technology in my life in a way that was comfortable for me.

Describe your experience with the tools you use. How did you start using them?

I use many tools, both technical and traditional and am constantly seeking new ones to learn. I am not dependent on any one tool. I never let my own technical skills (or lack thereof) stop me from pursuing an idea. Technology interests me as a concept and so a lot of my recent work addresses themes related to technology but utilizes actual technological tools in a simplistic way.

Where did you go to school? What did you study?

I got my BA at Macalester College, a small liberal arts college in Minnesota where I studied studio art and math. I continued at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design for a post-baccalaureate certificate then pursued an MFA at the University of Minnesota in Interactive Design.

What traditional media do you use, if any? Do you think your work with
traditional media relates to your work with technology?

I almost always use traditional media; my background is in drawing and painting. My work seems to progress in a very linear way, it is very process oriented. I start with traditional media, and then start to incorporate technology, and then I explore spatial elements. I work in an archival nature, building databases and drawing from collections of work to reconfigure and make meaning of the subject through different materials. I create things not always knowing what I will do with them and, as a result, I sometimes work on one project for years because I can’t seem to find the right manifestation of it.

Are you involved in other creative or social activities (i.e. music, writing, activism, community organizing)?

I have lately been doing a lot of writing, and have become interested in incorporating creative writing in my work. I recently started a creative writing group to break myself out of this academic writing mold. I suppose when you live your life as an artist, it is impossible to not explore other modes of creative and social activities, it’s a lifestyle.

What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held
previously? Do you think this work relates to your art practice in a
significant way?

I make art for a living and support myself through grants and teaching. I now teach at the University of Applied Sciences in Berlin (Hochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft) in the department of “Internationale Medieninformatik”. So basically I teach new media art courses to programmers. I also have a DAAD stipend (German Academic Exchange Service) for an art project for two years. My work relates to my art practice in a very significant way. I learn a lot from teaching and learn a lot from my students. They keep me informed, it is a mutual exchange. 

Who are your key artistic influences?

This is a hard question as years of art schooling has exposed me to so many people who inspire me. But I have to say, the works that I keep going back to over and over again are literary works, namely Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities” and JG Ballard’s short stories. They write about cities in a way that has had a profound impact on my work.

Have you collaborated with anyone in the art community on a project?
With whom, and on what?

Collaboration is very new to me, as I have worked mostly by myself thus far. Now that I am doing more film and video related work it is important for me to work with others and am happy to go in the direction of collaborative work. The experience is so much more enriching. 

Do you actively study art history?

Yes, because I have to teach it!

Do you read art criticism, philosophy, or critical theory? If so, which authors inspire you?

I read a lot of architectural theory.

Are there any issues around the production of, or the
display/exhibition of new media art that you are concerned about?

I sometimes feel a bit frustrated with New Media art. I’ve seen many incredible conceptual works, but find that in general, at New Media festivals for example, works are often lacking in visual aesthetics. It has unbelievable potential as a medium, and I hope someday to see a better bridge between the technological and conceptual with the visual components. I think the best works for me are the ones that don’t try to over complicate things by getting too caught up in the technology.