A recent late afternoon. A brightly lit space, three white walls, plywood lined floor, afternoon sun streaming through the large windows looking down on busy afternoon traffic in New York. Off-center a large table with three half-empty cups of tea. Stage left, an upright old wardrobe faces out, with one drawer pulled halfway out, a small painting of an ear is lying within a mound of rice grains.1
Sitting around the table, three figures are in mid-conversation: COLEMAN, FAWZ, ISAK.
A phone rings stage right. They ignore it.
Coleman Collins: You were saying something about form.
Fawz Kabra: Formats. Shifting formats. Brief Histories has transformed its ways of working, we’ve produced publications, performance works, exhibitions.
Isak Berbic: We want our collaborations with each artist to be something that grows and shifts in format, too. Edgar Serrano exhibited in Winter/Spring 2010-2011 Brief Histories in Sharjah where we showed a video and digital print of his, and in 2021, Edgar was the first artist to do a solo show of his paintings as well as publish his artist book Rumors of My Demise with us here in this space.
Fawz:We had an ice cream project—
Isak: [interrupting] And the balloon release. The canned food market. Remember those sardines?
Coleman: The sardines were fantastic.
Fawz: [nods] We had dinners, tea ceremonies, apartment shows, and now we have this space on the Bowery. But it all started with the group show in Sharjah.
Coleman:That was 2011?
Fawz: Yeah. The exhibition was inspired by how we observed the mediation of the Arab Spring and the instantaneous telepresence of information and images worldwide.
Coleman: Was it in response to that, somehow? How did that context affect the project?
Fawz: Well, we wanted to be careful with that, and we were critical of our own desire to be reactive to it. But at the same time, it was something that was very present in our environment.
Isak: The thing that’s kind of hiding in plain sight is the realization that in these moments of rupture or social reckoning, there is a need to self-organize. You rely on your own independent act and can’t rely on institutions or governments, or these other hierarchies which are traditionally involved in contemporary art making. That's the place where the motivation is coming from. I think our attraction to shape-shifting has always been a sort of coping mechanism. In the sense that we are able to sustain ourselves, and endure different pressures by way of reformatting what the work is.
Coleman: At the same time that shape-shifting makes you hard to pin down. Even though I know you well, I want to resist categorizing what you’re doing. I told a friend of mine that I was going to talk to you about the gallery’s philosophy, and he was like, “Oh, that place— it’s like smart, global south conceptualism?” And I said, well, that’s a little reductive… but it’s kind of true? Like it’s all people that are working with a certain type of politics. How do you feel about that characterization?
Isak: I mean, I would challenge the term, because the term is limiting.
Fawz:And there are other ways of thinking through these things. I think we also consider it in terms of “diaspora” in a more expansive sense, as a condition.
Coleman: I can see the connection. I have a sense that, like—if the diasporic condition is fundamentally about displacement, about being far from home and needing to constantly re-create it, then your continued practice of place-making is connected to that. And so maybe—
Isak: [interrupting] Well it’s not temporary displacement, it’s permanent displacement.
Coleman: Right. So maybe one way of thinking about Brief Histories is as a home for the permanently displaced.
Berbic: I like that. I mean I also like the “Global South Conceptualism” thing. It’d make a good t-shirt. But I think to give nuance to that we need to bring some of those ideas about diaspora in. Because there’s a set of attitudes that come with that. It’s about translation, interpretation, code-switching. Subverting existing hierarchies in order to slot in.
Coleman: Do you consider those attitudes to be central to how you’re approaching this gallery?
Fawz: Maybe there’s something to be said about how that can provide a framework for a curatorial practice. A sort of logic—creating context, providing links and codes for how the work can unfold in the world.
Coleman: That really resonates with me—I’ve been thinking a lot about that process of translation in my own practice. The way that information can be transmitted through both cultural and material processes, and how these different forms can emerge. I might start with a gene sequence, which is ultimately a material entity—it’s a thing that exists in the physical world. But its expression can only be done through language, which takes it into a different realm. And then I have the impulse to take that language and make it material again through sculpture, or video. And I guess it continues from there.
Fawz:And that’s a big point. Our modes of thinking and ways of expression are inconclusive and unfinished. They are ongoing. And even though it may seem incongruous at times, there is a harmony to be found. It is a polyphonic kinship. And none of these things can be reduced to singular parts. We’re leaning toward artistic practices that embody these tensions, that can hold these ambiguities.
Isak: It’s also a life thing, though. It’s about how we cooperate together.
Fawz: Cooperation and care, it’s a genuine learning from art. In our publication Tame the Wilderness?, which Isak mentioned, we republished, “How to Be Together” by Mirene Arsanios, and in one part of the text, she writes, “Being together and not alone is a practice of non-separation between hardship and ecstasy; no one is thriving if someone is surviving.”
Isak: We are invested in each other in these different ways. Reciprocity, and exchange. And perhaps at a certain point it becomes an obligation, but that’s ok, that’s part of being human in relation to one another: being accountable.
Fawz: The relationship is really important—and making that offering, whether it’s rolling grape leaves together or installing together.
Coleman: A sort of generosity through ritual.
Fawz: It is reflected in the work we do, and the challenge to maintain a critical artistic and curatorial practice that is relevant and responsive. To continue working in hybrid and malleable ways. You know, Sahra Motalebi contributed to the publication with We are Learning to Sing, which was made up of draft excerpts she had composed between 2018 and 2020 and a year later, we organized her solo performance exhibition, This Phenomenal Overlay. So we are shifting production, together with artists, and reorganizing as the context requires.
Isak: Like the ice cream project. Icey Cream was a way to fundraise for our publications by selling ice cream at Prospect Park. But really it was the connections and following we made instead by meeting with people out in the field.
Fawz: That experience was important. We wanted to take up this space together with artists who wanted to continue sharing and building on these ideas and methods with us.
Coleman: Whatever happened to that?
Isak: Well, initially the plan was to fundraise, but really, we gained a following instead. The funding paid for the cooler, but we also made enough money to buy a bicycle.
Fawz: You bought that bicycle.
Isak: Ok, I bought the bicycle. But the point is that it all fits together.
A phone rings stage left. They ignore it, and continue talking.