What’s the value of non-places that we can’t visit and aren’t real? “With Love, From Nowhere: The Places of The Non-Yet,” asks this question somewhere virtual between the UK and Saudi Arabia.

Megan Powell  |  Ed YoungMi Lamine |  9 September 2020

Ellie Niblock and Alaa Tarabzouni (2020) © Courtesy of the artists.

A digital collaboration between London and Riyadh has created a thought-provoking expression of what it means to be and create in today’s world.

The Arab British Centre’s ConnectME digital residency has created new possibilities for digital art collaborations across borders, resulting in inspiring projects from two pairs of artists. These proved to be the perfect conditions for reflecting the difficulties, but also the opportunities that come with the limitations of a non-traditional residency.

“With Love, From Nowhere: The Places of the Non-Yet” would not have been possible without the Arab British Centre’s Making Marks initiative which connects UK and Gulf artists.

Ellie Niblock and Alaa Tarabzoui “Pyrrha” (2020) © Courtesy of the artists.

When Northern Irish multidisciplinary artist Ellie Niblock was paired with Saudi Arabian artist Alaa Tarabzouni to spend the month of August working together, their first question was, “why?”. But here we have Ellie who specialises in sculpture and digital technologies, and Alaa who is a trained architect. According to their appointed mentor, Dr Alfredo Cramerotti, director of MOSTYN Gallery in North Wales, they were selected to take part together in the Centre’s first digital residency due to their joint potential to explore world-building. At Agora, we were curious to find out how the digital residency would work in practice, and the precedent it could set for virtual collaborations.

Alaa’s found items arrive in London. Ellie Niblock and Alaa Tarabzouni © Courtesy of the artists.

Being 6,000km and two time zones apart, Ellie and Alaa felt that it would be important to have some kind of tangible link to connect their work across continents and transcend borders, while also reflecting the uncertain digital reality of the world today and the context of the residency. Their evolving process began with Alaa hunting around her home in Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh for small found items, and posting a selection to Ellie to create sculptures out of. They decided to create three different non-places represented by these sculptures, accompanied by “maps”, 3D scans and sounds; and thus, “With Love, From Nowhere: The Places of The Non Yet” was born. Despite collaborating digitally, their constant communication through email, WhatsApp and Pinterest kept them aligned and connected throughout.

Ellie Niblock and Alaa Tarabzouni “Despina” (2020) © Courtesy of the artists.

The three non-places, waiting to be explored:

The result of Ellie and Alaa’s efforts is a website exploring the three non-places that they have created. Their concept describes places “of the not yet” that do not exist. The artists were inspired by utopic placemaking theory and the novel Invisible Cities by Italian writer Italo Calvino. Visitors to the website embark on a digital experience that immerses them in the non-places, navigating with a mixture of very vague and very specific information about each place which they must complete with their imagination to build a mental image. The artists were curious to explore whether placelessness can be manifested, and used a few different methods to express the tangible and intangible of the cities of Despina, Zenobia and Pyrrha. 

Ellie Niblock and Alaa Tarabzouni © Courtesy of the artists.

Ellie’s sculptures using Alaa’s objects were scanned using a basic iPhone 3D scanning app, resulting in glitchy multidimensional typographies that we can rotate and zoom in on, and yet again no sense of scale or understanding of the place. The more we navigate and discover, the less we know and the more questions we have. The artists’ work is, therefore, a very apt reflection of life in lockdown where other places seem at once impossibly distant, and also at our fingertips, mediated through digital experiences and technology. Their work mirrors our current relationship with the world around us, that suddenly seems less knowable. We realise that using our imagination to fill the blanks doesn’t cut corners, but is the only way that we can make sense of our surroundings.

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