Imagine a library that contained every imaginable book on the Middle East, variously housed in hexagonal galleries from Stockholm to the Lower East Side. The Library of Bidoun comes pretty close: pulpy desert sheikh romance novels jostle for space with meditations on the 1970s oil crisis, multilingual literary ephemera and frowning Soviet era political pamphlets. Its chief curator, Iranian-born Babak Radboy isn’t what you might expect from your usual librarian either. Creative director of Bidoun magazine, his commercial clients include the likes of Hugo Boss and a kaleidescopic VMA nominated video for Kanye West. Not bad for a young émigré who arrived in New York City (NYC) on a whim, aged 19 and clutching $600 in his pockets.
Speaking of his childhood, Radboy says he is ‘very much a child of the Iranian revolution.’ Born in Tehran, he grew up in Seattle and began working in design at the tender age of 14. His flirtation with design school proved to be brief: aged 16, he dropped out of the Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena, California within a scant five days of enrolling. The same year, he began working for popular sci-fi series, the X-Files, a job that lasted through the end of the post-tech bubble recession.
Within a week of arriving in New York in 2002, he managed to find a job designing for TV commercials. In 2006, he joined Bidoun and has been there ever since, occasionally doing commercial work as he develops his own creative practice and what he terms ‘independent research.’
Radboy sees Bidoun as very much a post-orientalist response to the climate following the events of 9/11. He explains: ‘I think when Bidoun started, the simple exclusion of certain images constituted a statement in and of itself, and this characterises the early trajectory of the magazine. Here was the Middle East, but without rioting extremists, rallying paramilitaries, abused women, dusty shacks, and exploding buildings.’
Fed up with stereotypes, the editors sought to show a Middle East where people would wake up, eat, go to school or work, and go about their daily lives with pursuits that were creative and not tied to the spectre of a global caliphate. A different set of truths was out there.
At the same time, Radboy is aware of the problematic dynamics of the project. ‘If we are to be honest Bidoun was born as an attempt at self-representation by a certain generation and class of Middle Eastern people,’ he admits. ‘A growing class that had been to varying degrees, educated, mobile, cosmopolitan and modern, living more or less as their European counterparts for almost 100 years.’ Radboy equally points to the myopic danger of privileging only identity politics and ignoring the underwriting economics, remarking that in most of the region, ‘the fact that someone would buy a magazine at all says a great deal about them already, starting with the fact they have about 12 expendable dollars.’
In this way, the NYC-based Bidoun’s diasporic relationship to the Middle East can be a complicated one. Radboy observes that the idea of diaspora itself very much turns on ‘the question of who your parents were, what they did, why they left, and what they brought with them.’
Like the émigré’s nostalgicised non-homeland, then, Bidoun understands the Middle East not as a geographical place so much as a cultural construct—one that was invented in, and therefore is most legible from, a vantage point on the outside. Radboy also notes that if he lived in Beirut, it would be strange to make a magazine that looked to the whole region, despite suggestions of new pan-Arabist sentiments. ‘There is a possibility that the chickens of centuries of geopolitical manipulation are coming home to roost with the Arab Spring and an internally cogent idea of the Middle East is once again on the horizon. But for the time being, Morocco has about as much in common with Qatar as it does with New York. If anything, one could argue that we should be based in London.’
The Bidoun Library, which also interrogates a constructed ‘Middle East,’ might be seen as the logical extension of the magazine’s project. In its earliest incarnations, which Radboy was not involved in, it existed as simple and straightforward resource for art books on or from the region. The collection would travel between Middle Eastern countries where these publications were, perhaps unsurprisingly, hardest to find. In its later iterations, however, it has become something more akin to an installation that both celebrates and critiques several decades of Middle Eastern representations.
Radboy was drawn to books because of their imminent obsolescence in the face of e-books and the internet. They have ‘a certain visibility as objects, and in turn, a vulnerability to material critique,’ he says. Most important, then is that the library remains tangibly physical, with books and pamphlets ranging from hefty tomes to flimsy newsprint. Depictions, representations and stereotypes of the Middle East that you can hold in your hands.
For Radboy, ideas and ideologies do not do battle in idealised, Platonic forms but instead in built environments; a belief that is reflected in the way each Library is installed. ‘Within these environments, ideologies succeed or fail not by rational consensus or open debate, but through much more formal considerations: scale, volume, frequency, duration, and most of all, repetition,’ he continues. One subsection of the Library addresses this repetition, with a wall featuring every single book the team could find with the title ‘The Arabs.’
The majority of books, however, hold one thing in common: a price tag that was five dollars or less. This curious method of selection reflects Radboy’s own unusual personal relationship with printed matter. He describes it as ‘collecting and reading books against the grain, so to speak; relating to texts in a way which belied authorial intent. It seems arbitrary, but this $5 rule actually accomplishes the ethos of the library perfectly: the selection of intellectual products organized not by quality, but quantity.’
Just as the curation of the library becomes more important than each individual curated book, Radboy says he is ‘in general less interested in a specific effect or final product as I am in process—which I suppose is an aesthetic.’ He is especially interested in what he calls ‘the distribution of the design process out of the hands of the designer,’ which includes a design’s multiple reincarnations as pirated or imitation goods. This fascination might take him even further afield in the future: ‘I find Chinese Shanzai or counterfeit culture really inspiring, and also certain internet phenomenons. I’m currently working on a project involving both. I would love to work in China.’
Photographer: Marco Scozzaro