107 Osman Khan

Born Karachi, Pakistan, 1973 / BSc, Columbia University, NY; MFA, UCLA, California / Lives in Detroit

An eight-foot-tall black monolith stands, 2001-like, outside an art museum in San Jose, California. To the naked eye it appears featureless, but when viewed using a phone camera, words magically appear on the screen. As one can imagine, it draws a crowd. It’s a piece from 2006, titled Seen-Fruits of our Labor, that illustrates many of the concerns of artist Osman Khan around that time, foremost among which was the need to look critically at the impact of the increasingly digitally-connected world through art.

Seen works because a grid of infrared LEDs that are programmed to convey text is built into the monolith. The infrared frequency is invisible to the human eye, but can be registered by the sensors embedded in phone cameras, and hence re-displayed in a frequency that is visible to the human eye. Quite why camera phones transform frequencies in this way is unclear, even to Khan, but most likely it relates to cost minimization. Seen is one of a series of works Khan created during that period that examined some of the granular mechanisms of the digital world. Other pieces include 2004’s Net Worth – which examined the (then) embryonic economy of web presence by inviting visitors to swipe their credit card and observe how many Google hits are returned from their data, in comparison to other individuals – and Khan Artist (2004) in which Khan registered as a validated merchant and invited visitors to auto-generate an entry from him in their credit card statement that claimed, “THIS IS ART.”

Seen also exhibits Khan’s interests in public space and the socially invisible. The text that scrolls across the monolith (which was actually more inspired by the Code of Hammurabi than Stanley Kubrick) is a collection of statements from Silicon Valley tech workers, outsourced call center employees, and undocumented service workers, in response to the question, “What is the fruit of your labor?” The answers range from subsistence issues, such as food and shelter, to lofty social objectives. Inevitably they are stratified by class. Khan’s point seems to be that aspirations, visibility, and social standing are correlated in ways that, however deep-rooted, are obscured. But he is also highly conscious of a contradiction at the core of the project: in order to form a public audience, he has created an artwork that in many ways becomes part of the spectacle that obscures the social relationships he is revealing.

In 2009 Khan took a teaching position at the University of Michigan, partly because he was attracted by the utopian potential of Detroit at that time. Subsequently, he provided several memorable large-scale works to (In)habitation, a 2013 exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. In Come Hell or High Water, a tank containing a “suburban Midwestern living room” was repeatedly flooded and drained, resulting in a progressive descent into mold and disarray. The piece eventually became so malodorous that for a time it closed the museum. In There are Times I Lose Faith (2011), a magnetically suspended 12′ steel beam was periodically dropped onto the installation’s base, and then laboriously re-suspended. The beam’s release was triggered by a call to a “burner” phone – a common method for activating improvised explosive devices – and the phone’s number was flyposted around the city along with the work’s title. Although these works certainly address global issues (most obviously climate change, faith, and conflict in the Middle-East), Khan sees them as being primarily inspired by his experience of arriving in Detroit. Tellingly, both works involve cycles of irreversible damage, but, as the titles attest, they are not entirely defeatist.

Of late, Khan’s work has increasingly addressed his own identity as a Pakistani-American Muslim. In Indus Trucking Company (2013-present), a conventional American moving van is transformed via the vibrant aesthetics of Pakistani truck art into an imaginary business / mobile sculpture / cultural conversation starter. And in the 2016 installation On Which Side, the Barbarians?, Khan dramatically discarded his hitherto streamlined aesthetics to create a mash-up of works linked through different (and often contradictory) aspects of his hybrid identity. Although there were certainly distinct pieces – for example Muslim Center, which juxtaposed a black cube (a reference to the Kaaba at the center of Mecca) with a night image of a Detroit area Muslim Center – the overall sense was of an artist no longer interested in exploring complex issues at the granular level, but instead venturing directly into the wider, chaotic universe.

Steve Panton, August 2018

Copyright Essay’d 2018