The Printernet

Rahel Aima

The fact that I
am writing to you
in English
already falsifies what I
wanted to tell you.

My subject:
how to explain to you that I
don’t belong to English
though I belong nowhere else

—Gustavo Pérez Firmat, Bilingual Blues


How do you speak from a place, or non-place? Who speaks, and in whose vernacular? Can cultural production have terroir; can a piece of writing bespeak the very topography, soil, and climate of the place in which it was produced? And in that peculiarly 21st-century turn of phrase that looks to separate digital media’s nutmeat from the husk, is this sense of place to be found in the content or its shell?

When Rami Farook, Ahmad Makia, and I first started THE STATE—a publishing practice concerned with post-coloniality, technology, and the future—in late 2011, we were sure only of what we didn’t want to be. We were determined not to be straitjacketed into a tired regional politics of representation. To become yet another publication from the Middle East that spoke only about the Middle East, in an extension of the same dynamic that puts the burden on people of color to explain and solve race. We too wanted to speak from that cozy position of universality accorded to whiteness, Westernness, and—though it took us a while to see it—people who through choice or otherwise have jettisoned their birthplaces in favor of a global mobility. We wanted to explore the transition from analog to digital media and the sensuous architecture of this “printernet” with a crash course in what would come to be called International Art English along the way. Deracinated, placeless, and decidedly not local; we may as well have been in Brooklyn.

Even as we concurrently ran an online iteration, the bulk of our publishing efforts in the first year were directed toward our “printernet” volumes: themed book objects in which we attempted to materially investigate this print-to-digital trajectory. Often when print material is put online, you see a concerted effort to make the screen look as much like a page as possible. Think skeuomorphic visual metaphors like animated flip pages, text-shadow letterpress effects, or pretty much any Apple interface pre-IOS 7. Or the insistence on replicating the reading direction of the paginated codex form, despite the entire architecture of most browsers being set up for vertical/horizontal scrolling in something of a return to decidedly nondiagonal orientation of walls and scrolls. It’s worth asking here: What came first, the tablet or the book? And is the death of print really just the death of the already historically bounded codex book-form?

In our design, we tried to turn this question on its head and looked to implicate the screen on the page. Articles and images were loaded in landscape format over several pages, or sat neatly accordioned in fabric pouches that looked to replicate both the tabbed browsing experience and the file folder. Other volumes took their cues from the hover and transparency effects popularized by the newest CSS release, or the gridded layout of social media platforms like Pinterest. Even as we played with the visual language of online, however, we forgot to consider that the internet itself—or at least its HTML’ed interface—is coded in American English. Social media best practices mean that much of the posting is oriented around Eastern Standard Time. And even as we saw ourselves interrogating the digital, in practice the printernet was sensible only when it was made intensely physical. In retrospect, this engagement with the digital was an attempt to restore not just the “lost” senses of smell and the haptic, but equally a move to restore a sense of place.

All the while, there were leakages of the local in the form of small aesthetic conceits. Wary as we were of self-exotification for the sake of ornamental kitsch, we couldn’t resist oversized Arabic—Urdu, really—numerals as a design feature, with all the subtlety of last week’s new health goth streetwear line. The incorporation of the Arabic chat alphabet, which uses Roman—Arabic, really—numerals and letters to signify Arabic consonants that evade transliteration. 3 for ع and so on. Following the example of writer Junot Diaz, we stopped italicizing non-English words in an effort to better reflect the language as it is spoken here, flecked with bits of Urdu or Tagalog or Arabic. On a deeper level, we were soon to realize that our interests, as reflected in our choices of themes, were inescapably Dubaiian: Voicings/Articulations/Utterances, Speculative Geographies, The Social Olfactory, and finally, simply, Dubai. Despite our best efforts to be placeless, those initial questions continued to haunt us.


Why are we concerned with terroir anyway? Wines and cheeses have terroir; some even have a protected designation of origin certification to guarantee their provenance. There’s a certain Europhilic glamour to the word, sure, and maybe even a hint of luxury. More than that, though, is the connotation of soil, of rootedness, of a connection to the fabric of the land itself. To talk about terroir is to assert or aspire to a sense of belonging in a country (and indeed, region) structured by the denial of formal citizenship to the majority of its denizens. Just as urbanity under the aegis of Dubaization is understood by what it isn’t (not-sea, not-desert), so too is citizenship in the Gulf predicated upon a politics of exclusion (not-South Asian). If locality suggests a “here,” terroir speaks to a “from-here.”

To talk of terroir also works to legitimize local cultural production in some way. Earlier this year, at a talk given at NYU Abu Dhabi, an audience member astutely linked external portrayals of the Gulf (artificial, soulless, cultureless, etc.) with European denigration of early American resource-driven boomtown culture. Jean Baudrillard’s 1986 text “Vanishing Point” in America feels especially prescient in this regard:

The form that dominates the American West, and doubtless all of American culture, is a seismic form: a fractal, interstitial culture, born of a rift with the Old World, a tactile, fragile, mobile, superficial culture—you have to follow its own rules to grasp how it works: seismic shifting, soft technologies.

We see this more explicitly in criticisms of the UAE and Qatar’s cultural institutions and often pertinent (if not awfully cogent) swipes at their labor conditions, even as the same people scramble not to burn bridges with collectors, money. While the merits of the work currently being commissioned in the Gulf are a debatable matter of taste (or, perhaps more accurately, of market), in their scale and in their bombast, one does suspect that they couldn’t have been produced anywhere—or any-when—else.

Marking time, in addition to place, becomes important here. We are, after all, talking about the Arabian Gulf “on the extreme promontory of the centuries,” with all the attendant exhilaration that Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s phrase connotes. In my own research, I have become increasingly interested in the way tech-y language seeps into everyday use. In how it works to time-stamp a certain kind of hyper-nowness—an accelerationist amuse-bouche, if you will—that dances a sharply drawn breath ahead of the present without veering into sci-fi or near-future territory: saying an image is “screenburned” (as opposed to “seared”) into your mind, for example, or analogies of disk corruption and fried circuits. Mobilizing these metaphors to describe a lived, flesh-and-bones-and-sinew experience in itself becomes another kind of reverse skeuomorph, and one that might prove productive, even praxical. How might the concept of peer-to-peer file sharing, which bypasses the need for routing data through a centralized server (or institution, or global city) be applicable to cultural production more broadly?

Especially seductive is the way web-safe hexcodes (I love the idea of a wash of color as an incantation or spell) are used to connote hue or mood. A teenager complains of her pasty legs and tags it #ffffff; a man looks out of his window and instagrams the overwhelming #eaeaeaness of the overcast sky. Accordingly, I have recently taken to dubbing this Khaleeji gray area in which we reside —neither citizen nor short-term migrant; neither the skyscrapers nor seamy underbelly—the #gcccccc. The label is an amalgamation of the supranational Gulf Cooperation Council or GCC that includes the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar, and #cccccc, the hex code for a generic, middling gray.  

To try to produce work that speaks to the specificity of this #gcccccc experience is to legitimize, or at least look to validate, that experience. When we launched our “Dubai” volume, we had the strange experience of the publication’s and subsequent panel discussions’ being widely received and understood as a form of collective therapy. In this context, an emphasis on producing the local might even be seen as constituting a kind of affective labor.

It’s worth noting here that any intimation of the local necessarily needs to nestle within a circuit of globalism. As a publishing practice, we’re interested in the post-Western and direct South-South connections and collaborations that don’t need a feedback loop through London, Paris, New York, or whichever imperial center. We try to commission, as much as possible, work from people who live and work in the places they write about. Diaspora complicates this, as does the fact that we publish in English, with both factors colluding to privilege certain voices over others. It’s not dissimilar to a biennale’s celebration of site-specificity even as it invokes a familiar “Designed in California Made in China” tension between “made here” and “from here” with the number of international versus local (however broadly defined) artists.

If anything, the book-form has come to increasingly resemble the biennale-form, especially in the era of printernet publishing (or post-internet art). More and more, it feels like this often empty promise of site-specificity has to be one of the great drivers of the international art circuit, which—at risk of facetiousness—seemingly involves travelling halfway across the world to see works by the same artists by day, and hobnob with the same people by night. Only the shell—flora, weather, drink sponsors, cultural difference plated up for consumption, to paraphrase curator Jan Verwoert—appears to change. And perhaps in this shell the elusive sense of place is produced, by artists and biennale authorities alike. Like Dubai, the biennale is defined by what it is not—here, the art fair—and so must necessarily be deliberately constructed as local and ostensibly noncommercial.

The explosion of biennales in recent decades has certainly resulted in a globalization of the art world—expanding it beyond its traditional (Western) centers, much in the same way we try to forge direct South-South links. Through tourism, marketing, and the promotion of creative industries, biennalization welcomes cities on the global peripheries, along with their art scenes, into the embrace of neoliberal capital. Yet by focusing on articulating terroir, are we inadvertently encouraging the biennalization of publishing? As writers and editors, who are our voices erasing? And finally, who are we working for?


In the forward to our third volume, titled “The Social Olfactory,” we wrote

Print nostalgists often rhapsodise about the musty, vanillic aroma of decomposing lignin, the polymer responsible for yellowing pages and that old book smell. Others cite the crispness of a fresh newspaper, and fingers blurred with ink. Reading with e-ink and backlit displays, however, has so far proved to be a largely anosmic experience. What will the pixels of tomorrow smell like?

 By this time, the question of terroir loomed so large that we couldn’t rely on—perhaps a better word is “trust”—the written content alone. We considered scratch-and-sniff inserts (“SENOLITH Micro-encapsulation: A Selection of Scents Already Encapsulated”), which ultimately proved too expensive, despite the intrigue of scents like “horse stable,” or the presence of both “gingerbread spice” and “gingerbread ‘German.’” A blurry iPhone image of the order sheet reveals that our shortlist included eucalyptus, narcissus, almond, opium, and leather.

In the end, we scented the books by hand. The volume had a dual launch in Dubai and at the first iteration of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in India. In each location the publication was imbued with a scent redolent of the city: black ribbons soaked in a bakhoor-water slurry, and pressed sleigh bell strings of jasmine flowers doused with jasmine oil, respectively. The result was delightful, immediately rewarding, and perhaps, ultimately, too easy. Over the course of two humid months, the mallipoo (as they were locally known) flowers would rot into an indolic fetor. It was something of a dead-stock nightmare at the time, but awfully fitting in retrospect.

Still, the terroir question lingered. Could a publication from Dubai conjure up that particular olfactory bouquet of dust, air conditioning—”fresh air!” to our young selves—and petrol through content alone? The velvety hyperreality of the desert and an empty highway at night; that future sirenry found not in sintered skylines but in jostling demographics, a break with both the Old and New worlds, and unfettered capitalism with no safety harness? That sense of fraught nonbelonging so readily implied in the beautiful epigraph from writer Gustavo Pérez Firmat. Maybe this was the problem: we readily understand locality as embodied—accented, gestured, sweated, bled—or at least made material in some way. Yet as funding changes meant that we began to publish almost entirely online, could we do this without leaning on the book form?

Let’s tack a “digital” onto that earlier question, to ask whether digital cultural production can have terroir or convey locality in any way. The mimetic practice of the GCC collective is particularly relevant this regard, as is Gulf Futurism, though both beg the question of separability from the callousness and concerns of the nation state. Perhaps it’s dangerously dualist to posit any kind of break from the physical—the aesthetic logic of Dubai as a city indeed turns in large part on a mode of digital shanzhai—but Michael Betancourt’s theory of the “aura of information” becomes pertinent in thinking about the nature of a digital work:

All digital objects have this singular underlying form—binary code—a fact that makes the digital object fundamentally different from any type of physical object precisely because it lacks the unique characteristic of form that defines the differences between paintings, drawings, books, sounds, or any other physical object or phenomenon. Unlike physical objects, digital objects are all basically the same, whatever their apparent form once they are interpreted by a machine.[1]

With the shell thus denuded, it follows that any sense of place in online publishing would have to come largely from the content alone. Yet I’m still not convinced that we’re going about this in the right way. I have written elsewhere about AI and humanoid robots as another, particularly insidious form of skeuomorphism. It’s difficult to grasp the need to make machines in human image, to shoehorn them into looking, talking, thinking, passing as people. In trying to make the digital sensible, trying to give it a sense of place that’s just as constructed as the localizing impulse of the biennale form, I wonder whether we aren’t falling into a similar trap. Just as we work hard to have Dubai and the Gulf understood on their own terms and not through crude similes, perhaps we should consider online publishing as something entirely new on the world stage. Follow its own rules to grasp how it works, and find new ways of speaking a place. Rather than exploring, as we have in the past, What else can the book do? perhaps what we should be asking is, What else can the internet do?

Rahel Aima is a writer based in Dubai, editor-­in-­chief of THE STATE, and an editor at The New Inquiry. Her research interests include internet aesthetics, nonwestern futurisms, and the #gcccccc.

The Red Hook Journal has received generous support from the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA). 

[1] Michael Betancourt, “The Aura of the Digital,” see here.