Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Impossible Possibilities

First published on REORIENT

Mounir Fatmi - Save Manhattan (Detail)
Still from Mounir Fatmi’s ‘Save Manhattan’
The idea of ‘the end of art’ first appeared in the 19th Century, and was quickly denounced by connoisseurs as modern art made its way into painting salons; yet, the idea again returned in the 1960s when it became a household slogan not only among critics and experts, but also artists themselves. What was implied by the idea of ‘the end of art’ wasn’t that art was dead – for art, good or bad, was, and still is being produced – but that, to paraphrase the political theorist Hannah Arendt, the way in which artists’ questions were framed and answered had lost plausibility.
In the world of art, the problem turned out to be not that there wouldn’t be any more art, but that art history was now faced with endless accusations of cultural hegemony, colonialism, political ideology – and more than anything else – of making art and artists politically irrelevant. These accusations were especially important at a time when non-Western artists began to reach galleries, dealers, and panels. Additionally, the ‘end of art’ referred to the birth – or rather, the privileged place – of conceptual art; that is, of the fusion of art and theory, as if its final phase, art were to become a theory about itself. As Arthur Danto, one of the main proponents of the ‘end of art’ thesis, once wrote, ‘Art carries no historical significance whatsoever’.
Yes – one could say that art, or art history no longer has a specific trajectory, and that only individual works now exist. However, this does not mean that artworks are not more dependent on history (in a broader sense) than ever before. The book, War and Other [Impossible] Possibilities: Thoughts on Arab History and Contemporary Artby Lebanese art historian and photographer Gregory Buchakjian is just one example of how history has heavily inflected the practices and discourses of contemporary art in the Arab world. It is not an art history book in the traditional sense, however – like those embedded in the authority of scholars, connoisseurs, and experts – but rather a book about the art of history.
Emily Jacir - Sexy Semite (Detail)
Emily Jacir – Sexy Semite (Detail)
As Buchakjian notes, ‘The number of Arab conflicts today largely surpasses the number of Arab countries’. Thus, it would seem an almost impossible task to speak about art in general terms, not only because of the geographic and thematic variety of such a large region, but also because of the turbulent history, that for better or for worse, produced this art. Buchakjian’s book nevertheless focuses on an art collection founded in 2007 by Qatari art patron Sheikh Abdulrahman bin Saud Al Thani and Lebanese art dealer Saleh Barakat, which aimed to bring together artworks related to the implications of the 9/11 incident on the Arab art scene from 2001 up until the rise of the Arab Spring a decade later.
While much is known about the way in which Westerners – and the West in general – have reacted to the rise of ‘Islamic terrorism’ (a term whose use is suspect, as it precedes 9/11 by decades, having been used in contexts such as the Palestinian struggle, the Lebanese Civil War, and the first Gulf War, for instance), little is known about how Arab societies reacted to these moments of historical transformation. More than just a point of reference, the book and the collection are both attempts to visualise these reactions through art.
The 19 artists represented in Buchakjian’s book span across different generations in-between the first Arab-Israeli war, and the broader Arab Spring, and though preference is given to painting, other formats are present as well, such as photography, installations, and mixed media works. It is also worth noting that over half of the artists are Lebanese; and, while that speaks volumes for the privileged place that Lebanon occupies in contemporary Arab art, the works in question are not necessarily representative of the kind of Lebanese art present in galleries in permanent exhibitions. Rather, they belong to a larger thematic assembly that reflects well on the historical and political vicissitudes of the Arab world at large.

Art is one of the few reliable loudspeakers that can help one understand what exactly has taken place in a region where memory is constantly interrupted and distorted by chronic violence

Buchakjian resorts to the use of aesthetic fragments interwoven with political commentaries and visual journeys between the selected works – side by side with other known and lesser-known works of Arab and Western artists living in the Arab world – creating an effect similar to that of Walter Benjamin’s Passages, a book which explored the visual culture of Paris in the late 19th Century. As Buchakjian shows, the ‘barbarian’ makes a spectacular comeback in the international media as the hater and destroyer of modernity, wearing the keffiyeh or the veil, the antitheses of civilisation. Concurrently, an interest in Middle Eastern art grows all around the ‘civilised’ world, perhaps not as a reflection of the experience of these wars and conflicts, but as a living document.
‘Art from the Middle East became a new iconic representation of the Middle East. As Véronique Rieffel pointed out, “these artists became ‘Muslims’ from one day to the next, even those who were Christian, such as Mona Hatoum’, Buchakjian’s book explains. In reading such passages, one is reminded of the optimistic period of the Middle East peace process when Hatoum returned to Jerusalem to work on her installation, Present Tense, which was constructed entirely out of Nablus soap – the ancient factories of which had been attacked by the Israeli army – and on which she drew the map of Palestine according to the Oslo Accords. In the words of Buchakjian, this was ‘an impossible map for an impossible country, an impossible life, and a certainly impossible peace’.
Mona Hatoum - Present Tense (Detail)
Mona Hatoum – Present Tense (Detail)
Other artists such as Mounir Fatmi and his celebrated Save Manhattan series appear in the collection, with subversive attempts to dislocate these iconic representations and narratives. According to Stephen Dewyer of Yale University, ‘Fatmi scrambles the authority of spectacles meant to orient a class to a symbolic object (Muslim, French, Moroccan, proletarian, etc.) by locating such identity in an origin of infinite possibility’. Similar is the procedure of Palestinian artist Emily Jacir in her work, Sexy Semite, which challenged the American public in narratives about identity and belonging in the Palestinian-Israeli context.
The idea of Arabs as barbarians – a term which refers almost exclusively to Muslims, obliterating the Arab identity of Christians and Jews in the Arab world – is contradictory, as it presents the Middle East as a field of absolute otherness, contrasting with the image of the Orient during imperial and colonial periods as the most external part of Europe. Paintings such as Ali Hassoun’s Untitled, with its Warhol-like background displaying a certain irony about this ambiguity of representation, and other works related to the American occupation of Iraq – in particular, Saadi Al Kaabi’s Abou Ghraib – silently reflect the consequences of 9/11 and other collateral historical events for the peoples of the Middle East.
It seems to be a constant in the Middle East that in the midst of such a Tower of Babel (as an installation by the Syrian artist Diana Al-Hadid suggests), art is one of the few reliable loudspeakers that can help one understand – in the long term – what exactly has taken place in a region where memory is constantly interrupted and distorted by chronic violence. Buchakjian in his book poetically remarks, ‘War. As if all other possibilities were impossible’. He then goes on to conclude his timely meditation, positing that ‘The highs and lows of Arab history are part of the violent and tormented history of mankind … In the contemporary age, man can ignite the Apocalypse at any time. It’s terrifying and sublime’.
Diana Al Hadid - The Tower of Infinite Problems
Diana Al Hadid – The Tower of Infinite Problems
The Colombian sculptor Doris Salcedo, who has spent decades imbuing her work with the memory of political violence in her native country, says regarding the importance of articulating the recent past in art:
Man has the need to draw from the past criteria to act in the present. When man does not understand his past, his own history, he is deprived of reference points, and finds himself suspended between a past that is perceived as an accumulation of incomprehensible events, and a future that he cannot possess. Therefore it seems like an abyss in front of him. The past is the only place where can find both our origins and our destiny.


REORIENT recently spoke with Buchakjian about the creative process of his book, his favourite pieces in the collection, and the representation of war in Middle Eastern art.
Do you think the Middle East is faced with a challenge in representing images of the West in art, the same way that Western popular culture does with respect to the Middle East?
The same way? Certainly not. Let’s not forget that Western popular culture is a dominant culture that is appropriated in all parts of the world, including the Arab world. To answer your question, the Middle East includes a very wide and heterogeneous group of peoples that do not share the same ideas and visions about the West. Some can see it as an ideal – other as the ‘Grand Satan’.
Hassan Musa - Saint Georges Terrasant le Dragon et le Museé de Bagdad II
Hassan Musa – Saint Georges Terrasant le Dragon et le Museé de Bagdad II
If you had to pick one work from this collection, which one would it be, and why?
Many pieces from the collection have been of great interest. [I would choose] Hassan Musa’sSaint Georges Terrasant le Dragon et le Museé de Bagdad II for its exceptional embroidery technique, Emily Jacir’s Sexy Semite for all the narratives in and around it, and Mounir Fatmi’sSave Manhattan video, a very poetic work.
What comes after war for artists in the Middle East? More war? Does representation stop here or are there other (impossible) possibilities?
Being an art historian and an artist, I live with this question day and night. War has definitely been a dominant subject in art in the Arab world, and it’s no wonder why. But it’s not the only one. Youssef Nabil and Chant Avedissian explore popular culture. Nadim Asfar has been digging into intimacy. Akram Zaatari has been working on sexuality before his major historical photographic landscapes. However, these apparently ‘apolitical’ artworks are often related to specific events occurring in the region.


On how the politicising of art threatens its integrity, Arthur Danto notes, ‘There’s a sad lesson that activist artists must sooner or later learn: the goodness of the message of art does not translate into the goodness of art’. It’s difficult to know right now whether the motivations for such recent examples of historically informed art were political or not. One would be tempted to say they were. Only in the years to come will one be able to tell if the future of the Arab world – and of Arab art – will be as terrifying and sublime as the pieces presented by Buchakjian make it seem.
For the time being, the writing’s on the wall, and it seems to encapsulate his whole book in a single phrase: ‘Useless violence makes history. Useless violence makes art history’.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Lebanon's Rule of Nobody

First published on THE MANTLE
Also available from Beit El Hiwar

[Political protests in Beirut, October 2012. Photography: Mohamad Dankar©]
“Go up to Lebanon and cry out, let your voice be heard in Bashan, cry out from Abarim, for all your allies are crushed. Not one is left to help you” –Jeremiah 22:20
“Go up to Lebanon and cry”. The biblical verse from Prophet Jeremiah serves as the title of chapter nine of Fadia Basrawi’s “Brownies and Kalashnikovs”, a memoir published in 2009, recounting the life of a Saudi woman living in Beirut in between the prosperous 1960s and the July War between Hezbollah and Israel, with the long Civil War (1975-1990) right in the middle. Basrawi speaks in this chapter with vividness about how little hint there was at the time of the evil that would soon befall Beirut and remembers with certain fulgurant nostalgia the impressive landscapes of the Druze and Maronite enclaves in North Lebanon, while travelling there for the first time back in the 1970s: “This bucolic co-habitation had another ten years before the picture-perfect homes would become rubble and their young generation lost, many of them killing before they touched puberty.”
Soon Beirut would become a city divided between East and West and a deadly war would engulf the entire country for some fifteen years. On official record, the Lebanese Civil War ended with the Taif Agreement signed almost exactly twenty-three years ago, on October 22, 1989. Political normalcy would return to the Lebanese Republic and the country would accommodate to the new demographic shift, and reassert sovereignty over Southern Lebanon – then occupied by Israel – and Syrian forces that had been called in once to help maintain peace and stability, would withdraw within a short time. A façade of political normalcy indeed returned and the hope of a Beirut reborn embodied in the ambitious reconstruction project led by the man of BeirutRafic Hariri, was set in motion. Nevertheless, peace or not, nothing of what had been contemplated in the Taif Agreement, ever materialized.
The memory of the war remained unblemished and as if nothing had happened, in an act that seems today more cynical than it was a declaration of hope, the country moved on. Beirut suddenly returned to the glamorous pages of glossy magazines and the scars of war began to be systematically obliterated from the architecture of the city. But the war kept returning to the streets of Beirut. In 2005 after theassassination of Rafic Hariri, Lebanese took to the streets in non-violent protests in what is to date the largest protests recorded in Lebanese history. The protests caused the withdrawal of Syrian troops after many years of occupation – even though many Lebanese refuse to acknowledge this – but this short-lived victory was marred by a long list of political assassination of anti-Syrian figures.
This was followed by the July War between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006 with over one thousand deaths, the clashes between the Lebanese Army and Palestinian militias in Nahr El Bared with over three deaths, a mini-civil war in 2008 when Hezbollah raided parts of Beirut over a political deadlock and then finally the violence that has engulfed the country with the larger Arab SpringClashes in Tripoli between rival Sunni and Alewite factions have been reported since June 2011 and since then the impact of the Syrian crisis is felt in Lebanon with stronger waves each time.  It seems that wars never end, certainly Lebanon's has not, and likeSamir Kassir – himself one of the first victims of the political assassinations in 2005 – remarked about the Civil War, “Was the war ever forgotten? It was forgotten every day, without for a moment ever being absent from anyone’s mind.”
But life in Beirut always goes on. Kassir continues, “It is perhaps for this very reason that Beirut was so gruesomely fascinating – because life went on despite the onslaught, and because the city, in its decline and decay, nevertheless remained a city.” No one has been more perplexed than analysts with the current sporadic conflict and every second headline speaks of the return of a Civil War that never actually returns, perhaps because it never left in the first place, at the same time that the Lebanese seem to go about their own business. But in a twist of fate, on the same day that Lebanese government officials threatened to sue American producers of the series “Homeland” for portraying Beirut as a backward city full of terrorists, terrorism returned with flying colors on October 19 when a car bomb disrupted the otherwise calm neighborhood of Achrafieh, leaving three dead and scores of wounded and physical destruction.
[Candle vigil near the car bomb site. Photography: Patrick Baz©]
Images of the Civil War returned quickly and a few days later, between political demonstrations, protests, violent clashes, scenes of destruction and the surrealistic montage of contradictory political statements and public lies, Lebanon licked once again its own wounds. Quickly enough the human drama of the bomb turned into a political festival when one of the casualties turned out to be state security ChiefWissam Al Hassan, a man close to the late Rafic Hariri and one of the few officials in government supportive of the Syrian revolution in a delicate climate dominated by the pro-Assad Hezbollah-backed government. Accusations flew – and are still flying – from one camp to another and as it is usually the case in Lebanon, no one is ultimately responsible.
Hannah Arendt had a precise term for this form of tyrannical government, “The Rule by Nobody”: “Today we ought to add to these terms the latest and perhaps most formidable form of such dominion, bureaucracy or the rule by an intricate system of bureaux in which no men, neither one nor the best, neither the few nor the many can be held responsible and which could be properly called the rule by Nobody.” The public debate quickly shifted towards political accountability and while on the one hand the opposition is calling for the government to resign, without yet having a master plan, the Hezbollah-allied parties insist on the cynical narrative that condemnation of terror and public outcry is tantamount to the acts of terror and murder themselves.
It doesn’t matter right now who is at the helm in the Lebanese republic; the fact remains that the confessional politics that led the different Lebanese factions to rally for support and allies abroad has made Lebanon a state ruled de facto by external powers and circumstances. It is indeed a rule by nobody. At least nobody Lebanese, that is. While the political protests and outcry turned into a spectacle of political opportunism and yet another reason for violence – as if such were hard to find in Lebanon – the gravity of the situation remains more or less unacknowledged and the death of Georgette Sarkissian, a 42-years old mother, at the site of the bomb, did not quite make the headlines. Civil society began organizing – ahead of the government – to provide material, psychological and moral support to the victims. The government in the meantime remains firm in its position: Not governing.
The message sent to the Lebanese public was clear: If the head of state security can be killed, anyone in Lebanon can be killed. Threats were reportedly sent to a number of politicians who oppose the Syrian regime and its backers in Lebanon and a chilling text message was received in the aftermath of the assassination:“Mabrouk, the countdown has started. One of ten.” Protests were called for at the iconic Martyrs’ Square on the weekend but the attendance was not too promising and while trying to emulate the legendary pro-democracy protests in 2005, the Lebanese flags blended in nicely with political party flags, sectarian slogans and followed by nation-wide violence. In nobody’s rule, no one is guilty or responsible but yet everyone remains suspect. An hour in front of any Lebanese channel attests to this faithfully.  
In a Paris lecture delivered in May, “Liban: L’état tampon entre confessionnalisme, désorientation et dissension sociale”, former minister Charbel Nahas spoke of how in Lebanon media has little to do with being an instrument of democratization and is rather one another combat weapon waging ideological battles in the name of political parties encouraging disorientation in a country practically bereft of History in capitals, and ripe with many histories with small h, often hostile to one another. Life returns to normalcy once again… The Lebanese want to move on, to go on living, but behind the optimism and the resiliency hides the uncertainty like a gunman in the bushes, the country gets a little bit worse each time, and a resolution seems a little bit further away.
Kassir writes in the end of his book “Beirut” – that turned out to be his own obituary – an exhortation about the city that to this day has been heard by no one, in a country ruled by nobody: “Permit it at last to be, after having so well and truly been.”
[Political protests in Beirut, October 2012. Photography: Mohamad Dankar©]

Monday, October 15, 2012

Reclaiming the Sea - Bahrain

First published on REORIENT

Still from 'Huna London'

The origins of cinema in the Gulf are rather modest, and the industry is still, in many ways, a work-in-progress. The region’s first film, Khalid Al Siddiq’s The Cruel Sea (Bas Ya Bahar) appeared in Kuwait in 1972, and surprised film aficionados with a tragic story set in the country’s pre-oil, pearl-diving days, for no less than its technical accomplishments. Since then, cinema in the Gulf region entered a dormant period, and it was only at the turn of the millennium when it began to cement its role in Khaleeji (lit. Gulf) culture. Films such as Nawaf Al-Janahi’s The Dream (2005) and Ali Mostafa’s City of Life (2009) lay the foundations for the nascent cinema industry in the United Arab Emirates, and ever since, a modest – yet significant – number of short and feature films have emerged from the region.
Saudi Arabia – a paradoxically theatre-devoid kingdom circa the 1980s – has also contributed to the birth of cinema culture in the region via short films, documentaries, and feature-length pictures, which have been screened at film festivals worldwide. ‘Bring your passport – we’re going to the cinema’ was the tagline of Cinema 500 km, a documentary film by Saudi director Abdullah Al-Eyaf, which related the story of 21 year-old Tariq Al-Husaini, a Saudi movie buff, as he embarked on a curious adventure to watch a film at a cinema for the first time. In the film, Husaini applies for a passport in his home city of Riyadh, and from there, travels to Khobar via the King Fahd Causeway into Bahrain, until he finally makes his way to the popular Seif Mall in Manama, where he buys his ticket.
It’s no coincidence that Husaini’s cinematic journey to the Gulf ends in Bahrain, for it was also in the tiny island kingdom that Khaleeji cinema debuted – after Al Siddiq’s rarely-acknowledged legendary feature film – in 1990 with pioneering filmmaker Bassam Al-Thawadi’s The Barrier (Al-Hajiz). As well, it is worth noting that a culture of cinema appeared in Bahrain long before it made its way to the rest of the countries in the region, beginning with the opening of a theatre in Manama in 1937 by Abdulla Al Zayed.
Mohammed Rashed Bu AliToday, when speaking about Bahraini cinema, it’s hard to ignore the impact of Muharraq native Mohammed Rashed Bu Ali, perhaps the most active filmmaker in his country’s generation. Bu Ali debuted as a filmmaker in 2006, and since then has produced a good number of innovative works. His short films, Absence (2008), The Good Omen (2009), andCanary (2010) deviate from the use of commonplace storylines in contemporary Arab cinema – which somewhat imitate the linear narrative of a novel carpeted with heroes and anti-heroes – and present instead acute meditations on loneliness via poetic fragments, paradoxes, and elaborate metaphors drawn from traditional Bahraini culture.
The striking poetry of Qassim Haddad, the tradition of the ‘Good Omen’ (Al Bishara), the act of hanging a traditional female dress over a roof to announce the return of a long-absent family member, and other symbols enrich Bu Ali’s films, and are interwoven in simple stories that more resemble the oral folklore of the island, as opposed to the social struggles normally portrayed in contemporary Arab cinema. Accordingly, his film, The Good Omen commences with the question, ‘Who would leave the sea and build his house in the desert?’ which is in turn followed by another question: ‘What good is the sea when it has all dried up … and the waters covered with sand?’
It would be a mistake, however, to perceive Bu Ali’s films as being nostalgic, or presenting a glimpse into everyday Arab life, for he constantly plays with the opposing forces of tradition and modernity, the bucolic and the urban, and meditative silence versus lush, elaborate sound. His most recent film, Huna London (2012) – which tells the story of an old Bahrani couple on a mission to send a photograph of themselves to their son in London – departs from the themes of his trilogy of short films, while still retaining the sense of opposition between the traditional and the modern, albeit in a more comic manner, and won Bu Ali the 3rd prize at the Official Gulf Competition in the 2012 Gulf Film Festival.

Bu Ali constantly plays with the opposing forces of tradition and modernity, the bucolic and the urban, and meditative silence versus lush, elaborate sound

Bu Ali’s films have been screened in over a dozen countries and film festivals, making him the most international of Bahraini filmmakers. In addition to Huna London being scheduled for a screening at South Korea’s Busan International Film Festival, Bu Ali also produced in 20120 the documentary, Sea Interviews, as part of Reclaim, which marked Bahrain’s first participation at the Biennale de Venezia’s 12th International Architecture Exhibition, and earned the kingdom a Golden Lion award for the Best National Pavilion. The complex artistic venture represented a joint effort by Bahrain’s Ministry of Culture, the Bahrain Urban Research Team, and photographer Camille Zakharia, who explored the decline of sea culture in Bahrain, as well as the use of its coastline as a public space.
REORIENT recently spoke with Bu Ali in Bahrain about his film career, his recent projects, the workings of the film industry in the Gulf region, and the future of filmmaking in Bahrain.
What initially prompted your interest in making films, Mohammed?
We were out with a group of around 13 people – ten of them decided to watch Schwarzenegger’s End of Days,while I and the rest watched Frank Darabont’s The Green Mile. I was a totally different person when I left the cinema; I don’t know what happened that day. I simply couldn’t stop reading and researching about the film, the writer, and the director, and I began to watch all their films. My research about and passion towards cinema led me through many stages. First, I was writing about films in Internet forums; then, I began writing articles in newspaper, and later, started working at the local cinema selling tickets and popcorn. When I wrote my first script and turned it into a real film, I said, ‘That’s it – I’m not going to make anything else anymore’, but after the good reviews and encouraging words I received, I felt I should continue, and here I am – a filmmaker.
Still from 'The Good Omen'
Still from ‘The Good Omen’
What is it you wanted to say and express in your films, and how do they serve as reflections of Bahrain for you?
Actually, it’s funny. When I started out, I only wanted to make a good film based on films that I liked, but then, I found myself withdrawn deep into my emotions – especially when I first came up with the idea of the film,Absence. There was something inside me being triggered, and I felt so close to the older people of Bahrain, and how they think and live. I was very attracted to them, and wanted to tell the world about their emotions, and show the difference between their thoughts and ours. You can see this in Absence, The Good Omen, Canary, andUnder the Sky; it’s the theme of loneliness, told through different stories and emotions. There’s also the authentic identity of Bahrain, which I feel so connected to, because it’s just so real – not simply made out of concrete and cement.
What is your relationship to all that’s happening in the cinema industry in the rest of the Gulf, and the Arab world?
I feel so proud of the new generation of Gulf filmmakers, and how they’ve gotten so interested in making and producing films. We have to thank Masoud Amr Allah, Founder of the Emirates Film Competition, Director of the Gulf Film Festival, and Artistic Director of the Dubai International Film Festival for all the work he has done to help create this movement and change in the filmmaking industry in the region. Without his work, I seriously doubt any of us among the new generation of filmmakers would be in the place they are today.

I feel so connected to the authentic identity of Bahrain, because it’s just so real - not simply made out of concrete and cement

I am a new face to the Arab filmmaking industry, and I’m trying to build up the connections between our films in the Gulf and the Arab film industry. As you can see in my latest film, Huna London, I am from Bahrain, the writer, Mohammed Hassan Ahmed, is from the Emirates, and the cinematographer, Chaker Ben Yahmed, is from Tunisia. It was a collaborative effort between Arabs of different nationalities.
Can you tell us a bit about your future film projects?
The Sleeping Tree is what I’m focusing on now – it’s my first film, which I’ve been working on since 2008 with the writer Fareed Ramadan. I feel that I had to become a filmmaker just to make it, as I feel so connected to it – emotionally and personally.
Still from 'Canary'
Still from ‘Canary’
In this film, I seek to highlight some of the stories and cultural underpinnings that have been instrumental in maintaining the unique island identity of Bahrain for centuries. In portraying a traditional Bahraini family, the reality of marriage and family life will be conveyed beyond our borders to an international audience, as will the unique musical heritage of Bahrain, its folk tales and myths (e.g. the Tree of Life), and traditional marriage ceremonies.
What prospects, in your opinion, does the future hold for filmmakers in Bahrain?
I am really excited about the future of filmmaking in Bahrain, especially since the establishment of the new Bahrain Film Fund. The decision of the Ministry of Culture to support Bahraini filmmakers will lead to new and better quality productions that can help young filmmakers tell their stories in far more accomplished ways. It’s only a matter of time before we start seeing really good short and feature films produced in Bahrain, which will participate in regional and international film festivals and events.
The work of Mohammed Rashed Bu Ali is a paradigm for the particular nature and history of Bahrain, a multicultural frontier society that developed a cosmopolitan character along sea trade routes before the era of modernization – a place comparable to only Beirut, perhaps – which serves as a perfect setting for a practice of art and film. This practice isn’t necessarily at odds with itself, bur rather, seeking in its own underpinnings, alternatives to the binary choice between tradition and modernity. In his films, conversations about, and reflections on tradition are variants of being essentially modern. Reclaiming the sea, the traditional landscapes and lifestyles of Bahrain, and its folklore represent, in Bu Ali’s works, anything but escapism; rather, they are symbolic of the exact opposite – a radical openness towards the past.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Public Space in Bahrain at the Venice Biennale II

First published on THE MANTLE

“The public and political realm… is synonymous with architecture.” –Daniel Libeskind
It would be an understatement already to begin with saying that the notion of public space is contested nowadays. In the narrowest definition the function of public space would be to provide spaces for social interaction.
The notion of space itself is misleading: Public space usually refers to a “place”, staged in the style of the old European spaces where architecture provides a place for “grounded citizenship-civic experience grounded in shared attachment to a built place that provides an enduring home for members of a political community extended over many generations.[1]
The ambiguity and lack of co-extensiveness between place and space could not be more pronounced. Lebanese artist Khalil Joreige expresses this challenge:“Territory is always defined as a geographic place, but for us it can also be a time in space. The contemporary of someone who is in another country, for example, is a time we are sharing in space rather than place.[2]
The question of how architecture can produce “public spaces” isn’t simply a problem of modern architecture vis-à-vis neo-liberalism but firstly of the deconstruction of the place and the home and secondly of the forces external to architecture that are interwoven in this process.
The home is no longer simply a place or a dwelling but a story, a narrative, a sense of belonging; it appears as a horizon and search for new destinations rather than a place in the past or sense of origin[3]. On the other hand, space appears not as an object but as a process: Space is the mediator between mental and social activities and is thus conceived as a social product[4].
In any contemporary discussion about the production of public space, one cannot but notice that in something so abstract as space there is a noise in the background, which configures this space as much as it configured by it: The images through which this space is constructed and of which it is not independent, and the visual memory becomes an open archive of how the collective ideas about a certain place are presented.
These questions are at the heart of Background, Bahrain’s National Pavilion at the 13th International Architecture Exhibition – Venice Biennale (2012) to which Bahrain returns after winning a Golden Lion for its first national participation in 2010 but yet hued by the shift of the image of Bahrain from an exotic island in the Arabian Gulf to an scenario of unrest.
The exhibition questions the real against the presented and imagined images of Bahrain since the proliferation of photography and media. The nature of images generated by mass-media in the era of hyper-realities obscure the relation between the images and its referent – the supposed real, creating a reference principle in which images always refer to a real world and real objects in it, but this is hardly the case.
More often than not, images exist on their own and rather than reproducing something logically anterior to themselves, they precede the real and have the capacity to invert the order of reality[5]. Images of reality are not a mirror of reality but rather a mirror already broken and they are not linguistic symbols, they don’t mean to say anything, but rather, stand in reference to themselves alone[6].
The visual archive of media images about Bahrain that begins in the 1950’s with the first BBC transmissions shows the transformation of the imaginary about the place and the instability of representation: 
The exotic images of Bahrain before oil are juxtaposed to the oil infrastructure and modernization, the sectarian unrest in the 1990’s, the arrival of Formula One, the tabloid images of Michael Jackson and finally, the near-apocalyptic footage of large scale demonstrations in 2011, all of which show historical moments and transformations creating an imaginary about Bahrain that hardly coincide with the moving flux of reality: The existence of objects hardly coincides with the structure of reality that is not merely an image but rather a larger superstructure of shared stories, perceptions and reality beliefs[7].
The exhibition curated by Noura Al-Sayeh and designed by Francesco Librizzi,Matilde Cassani and Stephano Tropea is a room-large installation in which visitors experience the contrast between images of Bahrain that offer windows into images of Bahrain against the five screens which offer real windows into different video feeds of Bahrain in its everyday setting, creating a juxtaposition between the video-art equivalent of still life paintings that yet occasionally move against the endless fabrication and proliferation of images that show how the imaginary is always partial.
Bahrain is not only offering windows into its present and imagined past but also a strong criticism about the interplay between both and atomizing any attempt at a grand narrative which is fueled by images alone.
Musicologist Hasan Hujairi writes in his essay Bahrain’s transformed soundscapes“Such sounds may still exist, or may have never existed at all. However, in light of the events which took the region by storm – Bahrain notwithstanding – these sounds are no longer the same.” What sounds are those? The megaphones at the top of minarets? Construction sites? Political unrest?
Is Bahrain aware that in the age of the Internet the production of one’s own space is unavoidably intertwined with the images that proliferate in abundance? Hujairi concludes his short essay with: “Sound is fleeting by physical nature. By the time a word is uttered, it has already drifted off into the unknown. Yet what was found to happen in Bahrain since the events of 2011 is that much has been documented and transmitted through the Internet by the use of smart phone. Sound has ever since been immortalized digitally.”
Perhaps the exhibition wasn’t exactly architectural but up to a point, it is an acute reflection of how politics and architecture redeem each other in the sense that the political notion of public space is an essentially architectural one as in the space in which things appear in the world.
The essence of Bahrain that is transmitted through the screens seems a lot more fictional and ungraspable than the way in which images try to shape this reality; this is because visualizing something as abstract public space in practice may be one of the most difficult procedures, that of the panoramic view: “Of course, savoring the miniaturizing of a public space both deep and wide in painting is a far more complex pleasure than, say, daydreaming in historical museums over tabletop models of the scenography of the past.[8]
A panoramic view is always perplexing, complex and overarching; it requires viewing with different eyes all at the same time. But the question for the consumer of images remains open: “After all, a photograph is not an opinion. Or is it?[9]
Two full reviews of the exhibition published by Huffington Post and DomusWeb 

[1] Ronald Beiner, “Our Relationship to Architecture as a Mode of Shared Citizenship: Some Arendtian Thoughts” in Techné, Vol. 9.
[2] What was lost: Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige in Conversation with Nat Muller, Ibraaz, May 2012.
[3] Nikos Papastergiadis, Spatial Aesthetics: Art, Place and the Everyday(Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2010): 26.  
[4] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1991): 68-168.
[5] Jean Baudrillard, “The Evil Demon of Images” in The Continental Aesthetics Reader, ed. Clive Cazeaux (London: Routledge, 2000): 444.   
[6] Sarah Kofman, “The Melancholy of Art” in Selected Writings (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2007): 210-211.
[7] Sandra Lehmann, Wirklichkeitsglaube und Überschreitung: Entwurf einer Metaphysik (Vienna, Austria: Turia + Kant, 2012): 35.
[8] Susan Sontag, “The Pleasure of the Image” in Where the Stress Falls (New York: Picador, 2001): 143.
[9] Susan Sontag, “A Photograph Is Not An Opinion. Or Is It?” in Where the Stress Falls (New York: Picador, 2001): 251.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Marc Codsi's Faded Postcards

First published on REORIENT

Marc Codsi (right) & Mayaline Hage
Marc Codsi (right) & Mayaline Hage
Postcard photographs courtesy Marc Codsi
‘You wanted to see. I also wanted to see, but I can’t seem to. Do you see that?’
Such did Lebanese actor Rabih Mroué asked Catherine Deneuve in an imaginary dialogue, in Je Veux Voir, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s 2008 film. This was around the time when I was just starting to pay attention to the music of Marc Codsi and his band, Scrambled Eggs.
In the film, one could witness excavators, bulldozers, and trucks moving rubble, dismantling buildings, stacking the rubble, extracting the iron, and grinding the rest before throwing everything into the sea. The buildings in question had been destroyed during the Israeli invasion in 2006, and the film, in response, provided a suffocating monument to both memory – and anti-memory – in Lebanon.
While watching Je Veux Voir, I couldn’t entirely be sure whether the background sounds constituted ‘music’ altogether, and whether they were pleasant or not, and thus recalled the words of the American composer, John Cage, who aptly remarked that ‘there’s no such thing as silence’. For Cage, there was always somethinghappening; even in a soundless chamber, one can hear their own heartbeat, and the coursing of blood in their head.
However, Cage – like other contemporary composers – was not interested so much in music as he was in sound, and thus strove to test the limits of the relations that sounds could express. Marc Codsi, on the other hand, is not only interested in sounds, but also music (as we know it) and songs, as I later discovered. More than a musician in the traditional sense, Codsi is rather something of a contemporary artist.
Yes – the kind of artist you see testing the limits in happenings and performances, and blurring the lines between the aesthetic and the real. This skilled postman of sound and his solo album, Faded Postcards always remind me about being ‘contemporary’, bringing to mind places such as hyperspaces and airports. It’s difficult to articulate and reduce such sentiments to minimal expressions.
REORIENT recently sat down with Codsi to discuss his music career, the alternative music scene in Lebanon, and the curious role that memory – and anti-memory – have played in Lebanese art.

Marc Codsi - Faded PostcardsIt seems you’ve done a lot of stuff. You started with Scrambled Eggs, mixed for Mashrou’ Leila, Lumi, played in Zeid and the Wings and Lumi, did a few soundtracks, and you also have a solo album, Faded Postcards. What is your musical background, and who are/were your influences?
My musical career started with the punk band Scrambled Eggs – a great school and ‘laboratory’ for me. I remember that at some point, we used to play whole concerts improvised, and I didn’t have my guitar tuned for six months. It was my experimental phase, and I was also doing a lot of things with people in our small but talented experimental scene in Lebanon, with whom I united for a festival called Irtijal.

Marc Codsi is the kind of artist you see testing the limits in happenings and performances, and blurring the lines between the aesthetic and the real

Later, I sought to develop more of a ‘song’ approach to music, and that’s when I created the band Lumi with the singer Mayaline Hage. Back then, it was more pop and electro-oriented, and we had some mainstream success. After two albums and a lot of touring, I decided to work on a more personal and intimate project, which then became Faded Postcards,released under my own name, for the first time.

As well, I was having fun here and there playing guitar with my friend and fellow musician Zeid Hamdan, and remixing Arabic songs. Lately, though, I’ve been more involved with cinema and soundtracks. I co-composed the soundtrack of Danielle Arbid’s film Beirut Hotel with Zeid Hamdan – which was later banned in Lebanon – and just recently, I co-worked on a song with Yasmine Hamdan (of Soap Kills) for a film by Jim Jarmusch. I hope to release my second solo album soon – it’s almost finished.
You worked on the soundtracks to two Lebanese films by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige – A Perfect Day (2005) and Je Veux Voir (2008) – that attempt to tackle the absence of the memory of war in Lebanon, which is quite a thorny issue. What can you tell us about your participation in these projects?
Indeed, memory plays a very important role in contemporary Lebanese art in general. This is obvious, because of our recent history, as well as the fact that we all come from the war generation. Also, the collective re-working of the history of the Civil War – something which usually takes place after such dramatic events – had not yet taken place before those films.
For those two movies, the directors asked Scrambled Eggs to write some music based on the images they had, and the music was mostly composed based on a series of improvisations. Hadjithomas and Joreige recognised in our music something of the essence of Beirut they were after, and I think it worked out pretty well.
Your solo album, Faded Postcards was released in 2010 under your own label. The album is a truly experimental work suggesting a complicated relationship with memory, and seems to build upon fragments – or rather, postcards. What led you to produce this album, and what was the creative process like?
Faded Postcards was like a collection of tunes, which were composed at different moments, yet all had in common the expression – or the attempt – to express one thing, albeit seen from different perspectives. I wanted to explore the essence of a certain inner feeling that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I tried to venture as deep as I could inside myself, with the belief that the more you ‘touch’ your own specific individuality, the more you can reach a certain universality. I was very happy afterwards, when people told me that they were touched by the music, because it meant to them the same things I felt. It was something that everybody could relate to, on different levels.
In 2008, you formed Lumi with Mayaline Hage, and released the album, Two Tears in Water. This was during perhaps one of the most difficult times in Beirut’s recent history, with the airport closing during May, as gun battles took to the streets, preventing you from travelling to Dubai for a gig. I particularly enjoyed the number, Not Our War – what was this album all about?
Two Tears in Water was meant to be the expression of a sparkling, dynamic, chaotic, and yet falsely naïve Lebanese lifestyle. At the same time, it’s a cult and criticism of our social life. Somehow it’s an ‘anti-memory’ album, as we were sick of the old patterns of history, with its wars and everything else. What we wanted to express was something more positive and more in touch with us – the young generation – and our lifestyle, as well as what was happening with respect to nightlife in Beirut. Accordingly, the album was very upbeat and ‘glamorous’, except for the number you mentioned – Not Our War – which was actually written in 2006 during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The song was recorded while planes were flying overhead, shooting and pulverising a neighbourhood two kilometres away from where I live. It was a spontaneous call.
Marc Codsi - Faded Postcards
You’re working on a new solo album, due to be released this October. What can you tell us about this new project?
It’s the continuation of Faded Postcards. Somehow, it still has the same spirit, although it’s conveyed in a different way. There is more composition involved, and more instruments – especially the piano that imposed itself naturally in the album. I think composing for cinema has perhaps influenced me, because I feel that the music has a strong visual impact. I also moved to Montreal a year ago, as I needed some calm and concentration – which is really hard to find in Beirut – and in that sense, it’s the album of an émigré.

I often receive messages of praise from young people in Israel who have fallen in love with Lebanese music, and identify with it. Those people might think twice before shooting into a Lebanese village. That in itself is a victory.

There is a lot of talk in the international art scene about the Lebanese ‘Underground’, which came into being after the end of the Civil War (if there was such an end), although few actually know what it is. I myself write about Lebanese art, so I’m fully aware about this non-descript place. You have played a role in this underground scene – what on earth is it all about?
I don’t know – a certain label that is good for export? The funny thing is that Beirut is a small city, and small scene where everybody knows everybody else, as well as what everyone is doing. It’s pretty easy for any piece of art to reach a certain degree of attention, especially because the usual filters of art – critics, managers, and labels – don’t really exist, or work properly. Therefore, it’s not an underground scene, but more like a local scene that thinks of itself as the centre of the world.
Lebanon has to be one of the world’s most improbable places – devoid of a national ‘project’, split between cultures and conflicts, resilient in one way, driven to despair in others, humorously sparkling, yet melancholy and sardonic. How does contemporary music in Lebanon reflect on this?
Contemporary music from Lebanon reflects pretty well on this, I think, by being the mirror image of the society embodying all you’ve described – all those conflicts between the past and the future, East and West, ecstasy and despair, hope and resilience, etc. We’re a pretty extreme society, so whatever we do or express is done to the extreme.
Marc Codsi - Faded Postcards
This weekend, for example, in the neighbourhood where I live – Achrafieh – they implemented for the first time a no car zone. For twelve hours, no cars and drive in this big, crowded neighbourhood, so that people can enjoy walking their dogs, discovering the architecture of old houses, biking in clean, empty streets, and so on, while only an hour’s drive away, people are shooting each other because they’ve decided they don’t like each other, or are from different sects! That in itself is contemporary art to me. We are a big piece of contemporary art, whether that be good or bad art.
As Romain Rolland famously remarked, ‘Art is a great consolation to the individual, but it is useless against history’. It is perhaps true that music, like all art, can bring about no revolutions and cannot stop any wars – although I refuse to think of art merely as a consolation. What are your views on this? What is your music intended to ‘achieve’?
I’m not sure I agree. Music, likes sport, can create bridges between people who think they have nothing in common. I often receive messages of praise from young people in Israel, for example, who have fallen in love with Lebanese music, and identify with it – how could they not? Those people might think twice before shooting into a Lebanese village when it will be their turn to shoot. That in itself is a victory.
In speaking with Marc Codsi, a steeper edge to the music scene in Beirut is revealed that finds itself not in sweet melancholy sounds from other ages or in bitter lamentations, but rather somewhere in between. It is architecturally impure, and more interesting than beautiful, causing it to become beautiful in the end – not by parallels, but by extravaganza.
Perhaps the terms ‘abstract’ or ‘experimental music’ are a bit exaggerated for the sounds coming out of the noise of an improbable history, and the possibilities afforded by this music do more than please or entertain; they’re fabulations. Sarah Kofman, the late French philosopher, expresses this feeling much better than I do, though, when she says that ‘There is no art, strictly speaking, without intoxication, without an overflow of life that becomes creative by spilling its excess of life into the universe’.