If you can catch Neil Beloufa and cling onto his barrage of existential, angsty musings, you’ll uncover an intense, contradictory disenchantment to his role as an independent, progressive, leftist artist. With an oeuvre of layered fragmented, artificial scenarios, Beloufa calls himself an “assembler” — combining forms and ideas over exercising technical execution — interested in creating authoritarian systems in order to break them. Through his multifaceted work, he engages themes and methodologies dependent on whims.
“When I was obsessed with algorithms, I made DATA 4 DESIRE,” he says. Beloufa incorporates simulacra that arbitrarily adds or removes from his video installations, which tackle how power is legitimised, and a world without hierarchy. But he also allows viewers the privilege of deciding what they want to see — or perhaps, given the firm desire to remove himself from the chaotic ready-made scenarios — a case of, “This is your problem now.”
Experimentation, spontaneity, blurring fiction and reality through exposed construction are his cornerstones, as is moving away from representation, irony, and moral judgment. “I torture representation and parasite it,” he says. “There is also a desire to destroy the function and efficiency of things — I don’t want art to be ‘used for’ and reduced to a tool for discourse or propaganda.” But then he charmingly misquotes, “Only stupid people would think that not being political isn’t political.”
With parents involved in the Algerian film scene, Beloufa is long familiar with the arts, its potential for political use and also violence. But it was his inadvertent documentary Kempinski (2007) made in Mali that catapulted him into the contemporary art network, leading to accolades such as the 2018 Abraaj Group Art Prize shortlist, or two contentious exhibitions at Palais de Tokyo.
With 20 films and counting, he lists People’s Passion as a key work — a sculpture with metal tubing along Plexiglass, or dabbling with wooden carved wall works with electrical plugs — before delving into more complex works, such as his Ludwig Museum piece. “In an expensive condo for sale, the real estate agent wasn’t allowed to say the object I had in the space was art, so he was trying to sell his apartment to art viewers,” explains Beloufa. “The public changed its reading of art in opposition to the discourse of the agent.”'
Beloufa produces “a kind of natural fiction” by working with how people handle situations and deal with representations, aiming for non-didactic revelations that enliven an image of the world without using the lives of the participants. “I push the mechanisms until they become artificial, create a distance, break judgments, in hopes that it reflects and reveals truths,” he remarks. “I realised not addressing or considering how reality allows me to create a self-revealing system that never claims its own purity.”
Influenced by 70s formalist decentralised energy and 90s French post-conceptual movements, Beloufa quickly abandoned illusions of functional universalism, independent art, and real-time impact on society, instead of developing a meta-signature of humour and handmade grungy craft to veil serious subjects and undertones.
Beloufa actively puts formalism at risk. “If you know what it is going to be and how it will be perceived, it becomes communication,” he explains. “Putting it at risk creates a tension that makes me uncertain of the result, questioning myself and my position, letting me learn, and protecting the object from my agenda and authority.” Destabilising aesthetics and systems of power is a security measure, but, Beloufa laments pragmatically, “It also sometimes produces things that aren’t really good.”
However, art is for experimenting. “One of the last places you can say no and distrust what you see while still believing in it.” With no rules of engagement, this anarchy plays into Beloufa’s ethos. “It is a laboratory because there is nothing to finish or get out of it, but there is something in it that its believers defend.” And belief is his slippery slope. “I am fascinated and scared by the mechanism of belief, whether mystical, religious, cinematographic, artistic, political or economic,” says Beloufa.
“I am conscious that what art does in society contradicts my belief in it. This permanent conflict of interest works in a system of cognitive dissonance. Showing the construction, the artifice of representation, is a way for me to do art that negotiates this line — an in-between state where the belief functions without manipulation or its magic artificial domination.” He adds that an exhibition is the only context where one is aware of the authority of the space, but avoids conventions lest they contradict the distance and suspension of belief that he tries to engage.
“I use the physical elements to parasite their authority, to force the viewer to decide what they want to see while still giving the tools to refuse it.” Cognitive removal is important because art is about possibilities and “un-definition.” Motivated as much by his own interests as the integrity of the artwork, Beloufa toes the line of incomprehensibility, operating and producing works oscillating between critical distance and cynicism, a push-and-pull of resisting authority without biting the hand that feeds him.
But for all Beloufa’s efforts, his personal blend of thwarting authority plays directly into it. He manipulates and toys with viewers, undermining himself in order to give room for others’ own thoughts. He masterminds complex, experimental scenarios that see him at the head of relational artworks, which occasionally digress into entropy. At that Palais de Tokyo exhibition, he attempted to create a sustainable economic system in the museum. Building a set on site to shoot three films, he organised a party for 700 people where they paid for their own drinks, but got to destroy the sets, creating material and pay for Beloufa. However, the participation economy intended to mislead people assuming they worked for Beloufa spiraled quickly into corrupt failure.
His saving grace, however, is transparency. “Self-critique is authority itself that I always try to break or reboot; the Palais de Tokyo show was an example. But this is also a liberal strategy of self-critique that I don’t obviously defend: admitting failures, even inviting them, is a way to prove your openness and your ‘purity’, which is again dangerous. This why I change and contradict my way of working all the time — a kind of desperate attempt to get out of it.”
A futile effort long as he is a participant in the system he critiques, he laments. “It’s an endless paradoxical loop where you end up capitalising on criticising capitalism.” The more you criticise, the more you capitalise — a cycle tempered only by the zone in-between belief and humor. “What’s perceived as cynical is actually romanticism in a schizophrenic world,” he quips, citing the paradox of Epimenide of Crete before adding: “What we call cynicism today is mixed with sophism. The real cynicism in our society happens when people claim their purity without distance.”
Beloufa’s role is a complex Catch 22 — maintaining that the bizarre field of producing useless things is essential, yet artists shouldn’t blindly serve representation or contribute towards knowledge hierarchies. “What is at stake is the attempt to not let this contradictory loop eat the work, or else it turns itself into a power position,” he says. “It is working for and against while trying to avoid both during production.” So what is his exit strategy? “Today, I am thinking about relocating my work, reducing its impact, but I don’t know. It’s a permanently shifting negotiation.”