I do want to do something.

Before I gave the book away
May 30, 2011, 3:57 pm
Filed under: Blogroll

“L’hiver, la nuit, rentrant de son travail de barman de nuit, Noureddine monte s’asseoir en face de moi, travailant sur mon matelas, bien droit sur la chaise, dans son odeur native, cedre, chene-liege, genevrier, olives ecrasees et benjoin, que le gel dont il vient renforce: il me raconte les histoires de coin du feu, de sa grand-mere des montagnes. Il est aussi celui que j’aurais voulu etres, simple, subtil et beau comme la Nature et le commerce, avec beaucoup d’enfants dans ses reins.” Pierre Guyotat, Coma, p.28-29

“Maintenant, non de maladie, mais d’epuisement, elle commence sa mort, j’arrange ses oreillers, ses cheveux, Samora aux grands cheveux, l’aide a boire- de quel absolu a-t-ell encore soif? Elle m’a toujours aime comme mes soeurs et freres, mais l’oevre que je fais et meme quelques-unes de mes activites politiques et sociales d’alors, Comite de soldats, prostituees de Lyon, etc., la troublent. Ainsi qu’une de mes soeurs fait, jadis aupres de ma mere dans ses derniers mois, qui depuis quelques annees, voulant distribuer egalement son amour a tout ses enfants, la prive du surcroit d’affection qu’elle lui donne d’ordinaire, j’entretiens et prepare sa beaute pour sa fin, pour elle, delivrance vers l’au-dela- mais que lui reste-t-il alors de sa foi?

Notre mere, pres de sa mort, avant que nous ses fils rentrions dans sa chambre et jusqu’au matin de sa journee d’agonie a laquelle nous prenons tous part, se fait et laisse embellir par nos soeurs.

Elle meurt une nuit apres ma visite. Comme elle a donne son corps a la Science, que c’est la soeur de notre mere, je peine a sortir de la salle de morgue ou j’ai aide a ranger son corps dans le tiroir, j’ai mis dans ses mains un petit bouquet et un mot pour les “depeceurs”. Son enterrement: je me retire de la comedie, je reste dans notre exception commune.

Tout ce temps, je le vis entre l’obscurite des lieux d’accouplement et le verbe d’Histoires de Samora Machel-bougies, lampes a petroles, souffles- et la veilleuse de la chambre d’hopital ou respire, du meme souffle qu’elle, la soeur de notre mere.” Pierre Guyotat, Coma, p. 84-85

October 15, 2010, 1:55 pm
Filed under: Blogroll











Here is a text I wrote  on the occasion of Setareh Shahbazi’s  show at 98weeks Project Space. To see more images, http://www.98weeks.blogspot.com

The Steps in Between an Image
A series of close considerations on Setareh Shahbazi’s work
By Mirene Arsanios

I am writing this text in the capacity of your friend and neighbor. It’s a role that comes with insights and entry points (aside from the door’s peephole) into your life and practice that replaces the artist/ critic relation with a door-to-door or a through-the-wall one.  I first met you in 2005, when you came to Beirut for a residency at the Arab Image Foundation and produced your book “O. no no The Crystal Series….”.
I came to know you in 2009 when you moved back to the very same neighborhood.

Something was still to be done. To come back is to reverse paved trajectories, implode familiar images and dismantle known processes as well as their inherent logic. Setareh Shahbazi’s work results from a process of condensation, digestion and re-composition, sometimes performed in reverse or out-of-order. Clichés, popular imaginations, cultural stereotypes, iconic gestures – these get processed and returned under new conditions, in estranged and somewhat unfit forms, as if coming back from a shared time or a place we might have visited before. (The historical period of the pyramids is that of a summer vacation).

The window on the left hand side of your Beirut studio looks onto an industrial bus depot and, further into the horizon line, onto the harbor. The objects in the room converge toward a large blue table placed at its center. A bearded man portrayed on a woven rug, stickers with rainbowed political mottos, family albums, vintage notebooks, geology and home care booklets — these are hung on the wall, carefully disposed on a table, piled or politely leaning against each other.

Setareh’s drawings are immediate, unequivocal, appearing all at once and right now. Their gradations are rendered digitally, becoming flat surfaces and plain colors. She illustrates stories that remain abstract. The gestures of a hand can be assigned multiple meanings (the hand in a horror movie, the charitable hand) but is also simply a hand hovering over a plane of signifiers.
Closer to a force field, her drawing’s surfaces are in fact threatened by the resistance or dissonance at play between the singular elements within the image. Conflict, or rather tension, is at work behind consensus. These images question the very meaning of coming together, which paradoxically results from a process of cutting, taking apart or extracting, a figure literally taken from a photograph. It’s destroying a given set of found relations to recreate new ones.

While viewing together the pictures you had brought back from Teheran, you insisted on the house your father had build and on how the children were very often photographed next to bare or blossoming trees. I was aware that these photographs were material for a future work, and for the first time they were being treated as a subject per se, defying the uneasiness that accompanies personal and biographical work by giving these photographs their own autonomy. Your desire was also to move away from a strictly digital production by showing the intervals and the steps in between the creation of an image, uncovering the photograph from its digital layers as if it were a nude. On one of the pictures, you had carved out a shape according to a figure taken from another photograph.

The act of cutting up, peeling out, extracting is bound to an act of re-composition in scale and relations. When translated spatially, as she has done in the present show at 98weeks with her wood-mounted cut out images, one can see both the surface and the object, literally walking through a drawing and acknowledging the devices necessary to uphold a surface. Sometimes leftovers from sawing out her wood cutouts lean against the wall as a reminder of what it takes to make these sculptural images.

“So what I do is that I first print the image in scale so I can do the cut-out according to the figure. I also print the image on a white foil. Then I primer the cut out and cover the surface with the foil. (By the way, the different body parts are already cut out in the foil, I just need to peel them off to paint the different colors). Once the foil is on the wood, I start taking out the parts corresponding to different colors and I paint them… I wait until it’s dry. I the put back the foil and proceed to the next color. The last stage is when I paint everything in black to mark the contours, before peeling off the foil entirely. In between each step, there are spooky moments…!”

The resulting work, with no intended mystification, doesn’t account for the acts that are less tangible and hardly visible in the art object itself. Setareh once said, as did André Breton, that she envisioned her work in dreams. During the day, however, she creates connections – between people, locations and contexts – that generate distinctive atmospheres. It’s a scenography of the everyday that consists in arranging a table, dimming the lights or asking if everything is ok.

The Third Mind (me reading)
October 4, 2010, 6:43 am
Filed under: Learn me how to read, New York Notes

I have read and recorded some of the exhibited pages of the Third Mind manuscript at Brion Gysin’s show at the New Museum. I usually indicate the page of the book before the reading.

intro burroughs

A series of correspondences
October 3, 2010, 8:39 pm
Filed under: New York Notes

A series of correspondences, resonances and associations that I wouldn’t ascribe to chance, occurred in NY this summer.  I wouldn’t attribute the following connections to chance but to the over systematization of desire at work in the ultimate stage of the capitalistic machine. A stage where its very motor, desire, is on the verge of extinction as each hearth of fire, or sparkle of interrogation is tamed by an immediate response in the real. One could also reverse this hypothesis and read the relation between these different events as an act of desire, where the mind creates a series of associations and connect things that would otherwise have no link.

Some time back in Beirut, I read a passage in one of Kathy Acker’s interviews where she declared that she taught herself to write (a notion that I find very appealing) with William Burroughs’s book ” The Third Mind” (which I was convinced to find in NY). After visiting a number of independent bookshops, a curious librarian informs me that the book is out of print. I wonder why.

SEPT 8 -PhDs

I meet with Barrack to upload “How to make (nice) things happen” on ArteEast’s website. While discussing the reasons of my visit, I mention that I am also looking at some PhD programs and that I am considering the one at Tish. Barrack tells me that he was himself a former student in performance studies (MA) and that he will put me in touch with some friends, but that I might not receive an immediate answer because they are all thoroughly affected by the recent death of one of the students.


R. Ganahl-Austrian artist living in NY, whose work I really like and who is notorious for riding his bike at all times- gives me an appointment at David Zwirner gallery for the opening of Al Taylor’s show. Soon after, we need to get to another opening in Soho and, to reach our destination more quickly, he takes me on a bike ride with him. Seeing NY from his handlebar made the city feel very much alive… (on this encounter I have written something).


Zeynep and I were vehemently defending our views on what it meant to occupy a position. I argued that I didn’t want to apply for a curator’s residency but for a writer’s residency. She argued that her choice would not be determined by these categorizations  but by the nature of the project itself. Although I agreed with her, I also had the desire to identify with something and fully embrace it, taking responsibility for what it meant to be a writer. It would also alleviate the burden of not knowing always, where I stand. I also added that if I did a writer’s residency, I would meet other people with the same inclinations, which was closer to what I wanted, that basically I wanted to find a family with names and books and that references where characters I lived with. Hence, pertaining to a family with a tradition, that could and should be subverted certainly, but in order to do so, had first to be acknowledged.


I have an appointment at NYU with Noel Rodriguez to know more about the PhD in performance studies at Tish. I arrive 30 min before our scheduled appointment. While I was waiting in the lounge, I noticed a picture of a young man and a vase with white flowers placed next to it. I ignore it.
While Noel is describing the program’s excellence and the type of learning environment I will be studying in if I was ever accepted, he refers to the department as a family. He adds that the picture in the lounge is a former international Greek student that had very recently died in a bicycle accident. Students and faculty were very afflicted by the loss, but, he also added that there was also something beautiful in realizing that the department acted like a family.
By the end of our meeting-that had somewhere left me speechless and undecided as whether I wanted to be an academic- I asked Noel if he himself had pursued a PhD here. He answered that you know, he had a family and that… you know.

(I linger on these events it is because they somehow exemplify my dilemma between life and academia. If the Greek student had died in academia it meant that life was also there. A life and a family however different from other lives like Noel’s life and his family.  The differences between these two lives might seem self evident but that is worth considering.)


I  visit the New Museum to see the Bidoun Library. On the second floor is a show by Brion Gysin, where I see exposed the “Third Mind” a manuscript he has developed with Burroughs using the Cut- Up methods. The book was never integrally published because the printing would have resulted too expensive. A shorter version of the book was published in France in the 70s. It is now out of print.

burroughs third mind present tense

I noticed at different times, the time in the metro, 3: 45 pm, and later. I remember that today is her birthday.

Idea as Intuition
August 4, 2010, 6:52 pm
Filed under: Learn me how to read

I have noticed that while writing, only an idea is capable of animating my words. I cannot write for the sake of writing, as I find no pleasure in that. I write when intrigued, shoved, or excited by an idea, only then my words can take new meanings, through the juxtaposition of the mind, before the formality of words. I do not want to define a point of departure, but I observe the moment of action; taking up a pen, opening a words document. What is it that moves your fingers, and mostly, what keeps them moving?

I was reading a really inspiring late interview with Kathy Acker by Sylvère Lotringer, published in Semiotext(e), Hannibal, my Father, a collection of Acker’s early writings.

I am posting two pages where Acker describes her relation to inspiration, writing and concept.

“Only bad people have regrets”
July 18, 2010, 9:55 am
Filed under: Blogroll

Is a quote that I read in Aristotle’s Nichomedean Ethics and that somehow relates to what I am about to say. This piece is particular because it addresses concerns that are comparable to points of tensions since they are layered and whole at the same time.
It is a about time, experience and perception. Again about organic residues which sometimes solidify into haunting and paralyzing images. About contemplating time while longing for some more, and observing seasons go by while remembering scenes dating from a year ago as if they were taking place today, as if time was a perfume.

“You still have time, I mean you are not 35”, she said while sipping her coffee.
What determines if you still have or don’t have time, and for what? For doing all the things you are suppose to do by that time, 35, to achieve, give birth, be recognized and loved while loving. What her sentence meant is that your time is externally determined and that you have to abide to its temporality.  In the past years, I have not only been abiding and giving in to these external impositions, but also challenging them. Age was never really my concern because I was always a step ahead; at 23 I was working in a museum, at 26 I had a masters, at 27 I started my own organizations, and now I am almost 30.

Fortunately, other things happen that can scramble this slick temporality, confuse it and hijack its routes. Things that you may not want to acknowledge but that are there and will be until you do. Pain is one thing, and fear is another (Why he could not get it hard remained a mystery to me. He  had given up on understanding, since there was nothing he said,to understand).

I am 30 now, and of what I have achieved or failed to achieve, little remains or little stays since success-imposed temporality is only immediate; the moment of success is already conditioned by the next step in that same path.  On paper, I have accomplished a few things in the last 5-years. I have decided to write them down, together with major events that have occurred in my life.

2006 (month?): I quick working at MACRO (museum of contemporary art in Rome) after two years.
2006 (summer): I decide to go to Beirut during the war to see my mother. I leave some of my things at Manu’s place.
2006 (Sept): I move to London from Rome.
2006 (October): My mother passes away.
2007: Spend the summer in London writing my thesis and go to Rome, where Manu and I break up.
2007 (end): 98weeks is established.
2008 (Beg.): I move to Beirut.
2008 (month?): I start working with Ashkal Alwan (after April)
2008 (summer): I go to Venezuela with my father (a couple of months before, my Venezuelan grand mother dies).
2008 (summer): I meet Fares, we date during the summer.
2009  (February): I start teaching at AUB.
2009 (April/ June): Fares and I start dating.
2009 (August): I move out of Marwa’s place and move in with Fares.
2009 (Nov): We open 98weeks Project Space
2010 (August): Thinking about something else.

It has been August since December, while I was already apprehending the summer heat. My apprehension kept me from being cold, in fact there has been no winter this year. There is an electricity cut and we are holding our breaths as to not consume the last blows of fresh air in the bedroom, the door is kept closed and my hair is wet from the shower I just had. If bad people are full of regrets it is because their acts or non-acts are conditioned by the temporality of success (taken in a broad sense), which dictates attitudes that can’t be ultimately justifiable because never experienced (when doing is solely driven by an outcome. When the motivation for an action responds to an external criteria). Within these CV timelines, events occur, which take you back, and forth again and where the future is reconsidered under an old light. (He decides to open the window because it is too hot in here).

May 22, 2010, 11:52 am
Filed under: Blogroll

Ears are cleared. A roaring sound takes hold of you through your fingertips and your left ear.
While his feet are dancing, he raises his hand, then his fists in a fascist gesture (can’t read). His hips remain rigid.
Arched above his head, his brings his arms down, flickering his hands like a flying bird.
The sounds, indistinguishable, are camouflaged by ones to come. He is moving faster than rhythm, or faster than any acoustically discernible composition. Now he walks again. He is conversing with the chair while people are laughing (?)
We are surrounded by sound and didn’t know it.
He is now staring at the wall, placing his head into the hole. Using the wall circumventing the cavity to produce more sound.
The wall resonates; his hands follow while his shadow doesn’t.
He appears taller than he is, black and white at the same time.
I sense that the performance will end…not quite yet.
He is now using the white flour square and dancing in it. It looks beautiful. The flour pillows the sounds of his feet. The moment is dusty, smoky and quite spectacular.
Who is he talking to now?
I don’t want the performance to end. He is now on the stage again, kicking and clapping with his hand and his mouth, his knees and heel. As he walks away from the flour, I think that the performance might end, now it is raining again.
He stops the steps are barely visible but they generate infinite sound, the guy next to me, the rastafari guy, is patting on the stairs. He tries to follow  the dancer.
He drags the chair on the floor, more noise, the same one. He is still majestic, no sound.
He starts singing flamenco folkloric songs and these are the moves that I like, the rhythm in the hips, Shakira.
There is a little bit of hip-hop as well, with ballet and tap dancing and Michael Jackson is definitely in the room.
He takes off his shoes, and his socks, pulls away his trousers, now the other sock. His back is wet and his shirt clings on his back. He throws his shoes into a wooden circular shape, walks bare foot here and there. The sound is overwhelming and penetrates through all my skin pores making the flesh tremble.
He curves his back deeply and raises his hands highly. He does the same moves but silently. He is very silent now, like bull in an arena ready to charge.
A women with a mini skirt wants to leave. He continues to clap his hands. Sounds from the streets, motors and engines. Now his hands are before his head, and he is whistling while walking
(out of paper)

CATCHING UP…(and practice)
May 22, 2010, 11:30 am
Filed under: Blogroll

I have been waiting to post the following posts. Since Homeworks V, ideas have been building up and thoughts lingering. I could choose to let go, because, these thoughts or these writings might not be very crucial now, or because to articulate them demands work and time and well, the moment has passed and there are no deadlines, and probably no readers .                                                                                                                        “If you do let go (on things you wanted to do, or write, or think about) then they were not that important and if they were and you chose to ignore them, they might come back into other more haunting forms”. Yes, possibly. But I also think that the urgency is felt if the configuration allows for it. Practice becomes everything within that configuration since it renders visible what was there, somewhere and that you ended up finally locating. I am still debating, however:  Do things happen because you work for them to happen or do they just happen? What is the role of the practice for a writer, and what is the relation between practice and urgency?

I will therefore post some of the writings that have been awaiting on my desktop folder (“writings”). One of them is a first experience on writing during a live performance, another is linked to a workshop I took part in  on the archive with the group pad.ma.

Another Editorial Experience…
May 6, 2010, 6:51 am
Filed under: Art stuff, Beirut notes, Blogroll

This one is with Cura magazine, a free magazine issued in Rome, the city where I use to live. I will spare you the details of the many editorial misunderstandings as these are becoming more frequent, hence more banal and common I suppose.

What happened is that I was basically expecting to read  a review of the BAC’s I had written and reworked for Cura,  and  ended up reading, once it was already published, the earlier version of that same piece.

Here is the earlier version, the published one: http://www.curamagazine.com/it/?p=1065#more-1065

And here is what I would have wanted to be published, and that I am therefore publishing



The Beirut Art Center recently opened its 5th exhibition to date, America.This story reports semi fictional encounters and conversations amongst different characters visiting the show and raising a set of issues in relation to the exhibition and its broader context.


An art student from the American University of Beirut: His name is difficult to pronounce. Very young and very critical.

The director: Pretty and diplomatic, clear and straight to the point.

A history professor: Laughs a lot, wears a black shirt with Indian folkloric motifs.
A student in Middle Eastern Studies: Comes straight from an anti G8 protest. Loves Edward Said and Michel Foucault.

A writer: Distant and curious, she wants to know but doesn’t always get the point.

Voice Over: Feminine


The group meeting is at 5. Beforehand, the writer makes a rapid phone call to the director of the BAC and co-curator of exhibition to enquire about the show and about the possibility of a guided tour.

The Writer: Hi, how are you?

The Director: Fine thanks.

The Writer: Do you have time for a couple of questions on the America exhibition, I might write something about it…

The Director: Yes, sure.

The Writer: To start with, why did you choose to work on this theme, and how did you select the works presented?

The Director: Well, we wanted to do something on America, as a myth, America as we imagine it in the Middle East, but America also in general, images from a certain collective unconscious, from childhood fascinations, stories of cowboys and pioneers, but also America and the everyday …We wanted to address different aspects and facets of this country as superpower and as a country capable of provoking feelings of love and hate… We did a tremendous amount of research and didn’t want to privilege one aspect over the other. We didn’t want the show to adopt a single position but rather offer multiple perspectives on the theme. We chose 16 artists, American and non.

The Writer: I see… the majority of artists presented in the show are exhibiting for the first time in Beirut… how did they react to your invitation?

The Director: Most were very enthusiastic. Some even specifically developed works for Beirut, such as Jenny Holzer with her piece Hand Print, 2009, part of broader project collecting a series of official US governmental documents related to the Iraqi war, which the artist transforms into light projections, paintings or electronic signs. For this piece, she collected handprints of American soldiers accused of war crimes in Iraq or post mortem identification of detainees, directly projected onto the wall.

The Writer: I was thinking to visit the exhibition with a group.  Is the BAC developing any programs, labs or guided tours around its exhibitions?

The Director: You know, since we opened, we have had to deal with a lot of crucial issues such as fundraising for the center in order to secure our exhibition program and sustainability. We were able to develop a future perspective for the center only very recently. We could not think an outreach program; we had other priorities I would say.

The Writer: …My question was actually addressing the fact that there are interesting shows presented at the BAC but no framework to develop upon them and reflect on the works exhibited, the show proposed etc…What is the center’s policy in terms of reaching out to the public? I personally think that it is as important as having the show itself…what do you think?

The Director:  Yes, right. Resources allowing, the BAC is putting a lot of efforts in involving universities in its programs. Although we have not formalized an outreach program yet, we are working towards it and regularly propose guided tours. I can tour the group this afternoon if you wish…

The Voice Over: The impression is that Beirut might be stuck in the post war trauma of not having had an institutional space for contemporary art and an exhibition space for many years. But should this reduce all ambitions to blindly reproduce the archetype of an exhibition space/ art center without critically rethinking these models?

The Writer: Would be great…

The Director:  Also, don’t forget that we are being very active with the program developed Around America… Andy Warhol, Lizzie Borden, a performance by Tania Brugera, films by William Eggleston, and other interventions and talks, which all add layers of understanding to the exhibition.

The Writer: yes, maybe…is there anything on tonight?

The Director: Stuart Comer’s video program entitled Andy, as you know I am writing a movie…with Sharon Hayes’ video, Symbiomese Liberation Army, Screed # 16 and An American Family, episode 2.

The Writer: Nice, see you later then thanks for the conversation. I’ll let you know about the piece…

The Voice Over: The conversation has been constructive to a certain extent. The educational problem has not been solved yet and is open to discussion.


5:15 pm, Beirut Art Center. The tour starts.

The Director:  I will guide you through the show. Follow me. Here you can see the Joseph Beuys piece, I like America and America Likes me, dating back to 1974-78.

The Student: The shiny Samsung screen on this big white plinth is impressive…Beuys’ video looks kind of cool next to Ziad Antar’s piece. They both deal with American symbols and icons in a way…

The Voice Over: New connections and associations are created. Who would have imagined, back in 1974, to see Ziad Antar next to Joseph Beuys? Who will articulate these new art histories and how? The students, the curator, the historian? And where other than in this very moment?

The Director: Antar takes black and white photographs of New York with expired films dating back to 1976, today. The result, as you see, are these rather aestheticized and anachronistic images, similar to decaying post cards.

The Writer: Funny, I was having this conversation with an American gallerist living in Beirut about New York, its outdated modernity and fading image…

The Director: Here you have photos of Wall Street deserted in black and white taken by Catherine Opie in 2001. Her panoramic pictures challenge the verticality and monumentality associated with this site of economic power.

The Writer: These photographs, as you rightly suggested, are counter monumental, to such an extent that they produce a ghostly aura…

The Student: Way more haunting than Antar’s dated photographs I think…But among all of these attempted representations, I really like Beuys’ piece. He didn’t see America and neither tried to represent it. He refused to walk on the American soil. From the airport, he was directly brought to the gallery space…There he dealt with an animal, a symbol, undoing and doing its symbolism through a living relation, by setting, as time went by, basic rules of cohabitation with another species.

I don’t know, if I had to think about an American symbol, it would probably be A Family Guy, Starbucks or George Bush. Imagine spending one week with George Bush in a room!

The Voice Over: “Even without the actual aggressive intentions of super powers, there is a danger of an atomic destruction of the world. The military technology and the type of stockpiling of weapons which has been preposterously increased no longer admits any control over the total apparatus already impossible to survey. In spite of the stockpiled potential for the destruction of the earth a hundred times over, behind the backdrops of the so called disarmament negotiations the arms race intensifies every year.” (Joseph Beuys, An Appeal for An Alternative, 1981-excerpt).

The Student in Middle Eastern Studies: I came here to see how America was represented in the Middle East. Ok for the myth, the symbol, the healing, but I don’t think America is a myth. I think that in order to understand American power, you need to be informed about their weaponry, you need to have facts of what they are doing and how. American imperialism exists within very material relations of power. Guantanamo is not post-modern. I hate post modernism. Also, I would have expected to see a show for an Arab audience, I mean America is really a controversial topic here! Look at Hezbollah, in their new manifesto, they refer to America as their enemy number one ! In this exhibition, you don’t see how America is perceived in the Middle East on a popular level and what affects are associated with this country. Perhaps in Naji Al Ali’s cartoons…

The Writer: And what are your presumptions on what an Arab audience should be?  Don’t you think that cultural imperialism is as concrete as economical and war imperialism?

The Director: Rather than considering what type of audience for what works, which I think is a very conditioned categorization of the viewer, other questions are posed through the works, such as “how is it that everything continues as before?” Have a look at Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri’s multi-channel video installation, Case Sensitive America on Guantanamo bay.

The Group enters the black box with 4 screens projecting each a series of image, archival and non. The voice over punctuates the sequence of projected image representing ceiled territories, borders, planes… The voice over questions the philosophical foundations of democracy and, the role of the state.

The Director: If you don’t mind, I will continue the tour. In this room, you have a piece by Kara Walker, Testimony: Narrative of a Negress Burdened by Good Intentions. In this film animation inspired by puppet shows, the slave and the master play out an ambiguous sexual and power game where both roles are deeply intertwined and challenged. Feelings of horror, attraction, abjection and desire are confused.

The Historian: I think that Kara Walker’s take on history is problematic… I teach a course on the American Civil War and I still feel very much in that Civil War. I feel like a participant, not an observer… I primarily define myself as an activist, not as a historian. To me, Walker is a distant observer; she manipulates the strings of her characters from above.

The Voice Over: Civil War, the Lebanese one happened 20 years ago…and artists have been addressing it since then. Not in terms of historical accuracy but by attempting to unmask the effects of an unwritten history in the present. They are not activists, quite the contrary because taking a political position, claiming a historical truth would erase the shadows of grey and muffle the sound of the unspoken …

The Writer: You said that you considered yourself to be an activist rather than a historian …

The Historian: My approach to history is that of an activist.

The Writer: What’s your opinion on Mounir Fatmi’s, Out of History, a video interviewing David Hilliard on history, Africa, America and other urgent topics, 40 years after the creation of the Black Panther party in the USA? It is installed in this other box, covered with faxes and documents related to the party’s history….

The Historian: aah…don’t let me talk about that piece and about David Hilliard in particular!  Back in the days, I was actively engaged with the Black Panther party; it was a time of revolution where claims made sense, collective and social ones…Today…

In the background, intermittently, a voice is heard: … Well, yes the people in the Congo, people in other parts of Africa, are… The Sudan, where there is much genocide…those are issues the world should be concerned about because the death of any man diminishes the species of humanity, so we should be involved wherever there is a catastrophe, wherever there is an assault on human kind. It our duty whether we are in Africa, in America, in Latin America, to support the human right causes. I think that we all come from Africa, without a doubt. I think that it is important that the only thing that separates us is distance… You know…its important for young people in Africa and wherever they are, to understand that every situation is different, they have to understand their environment. What worked in the 60s in my community may not, and probably will not work in their community today. But there are certain universals and one of those universals are that if you relate to the people, the masses of people and you are working for the people’s interest then you will certainly be victorious…” (Excerpt from the interview with David Hilliard in Mounir Fatmi’s video, Out of History, 2005-2009).

The Writer: But this is precisely what fascinates me about this video. Mounir Fatmi creates a space “out of history” grounded in a person that is still alive and part of that history. The documents (faxes, letters) that Fatmi inserts in the video- also covering the video box’s surface –  are superposed on Hilliard’s figure. Through this visual juxtaposition Fatmi questions the workings of documentation through a maneuver where he himself produces another piece of that history, the video.

While listening to the video, one starts dissociating Hilliard from his historical figure. There is something captivating in his tone of voice, his punctuation of words and in the way he gesticulates his big hands with large diamond rings on his fingers. Fatmi’s video produces a live document,not knowing precisely what is being documented, besides the act of documentation itself…

The Director: Well, this is a bit far fetched…

The Student: There is also a piece by Greta Part on history, Using History.

The Director: Yes, a series of colored photographs representing the reenactment of historical moments or symbols pertaining to American history. The artist questioned the ways in which American choose to commemorate their past, and how they literally embody it…

The Student: Nice, you even have a couple posing as the Black Panther party and representing David Hilliard!

The Writer: I am interested in understanding processes of identifications, historical and social. Mounir Fatmi comes himself from a marginalized community in France…He might see in Hilliard a figure through which voice or enunciate a personal condition or battle. Same thing works for more main streams history such as the one depicted by Greta Partt where American choose to represent and to identify with a certain image of that history…

The Voice Over: A question remains; can the relations that are being mapped through this exhibition- Hilliard, Fatmi, Beuys, Antar, Kara Walker- be played out in the symbolic place of a white cube? Can these different points of view articulate new visions on America, on Lebanon?  Can they produce new art stories? New scenarios and relations?



Name: Fares Chalabi

Department: Fine Arts, American University of Beirut.

The curator said that they didn’t want to give one determinate point of view in order to let the spectator free. As if Freedom, and the statue of liberty welcoming US at the gates of the new world didn’t already have that American flavor we enjoy in our cigarettes. America – the melting pot, the land of the free, the no One’s land, where every point of view is one more American point of view – requests a no “One point of view show” in order to reflect American representations.

America is one and multiple, as any objet, “Michael Jackson is black and white”. But maybe America is one and multiple in a different way, the American way. What if America was really what it claims to be, “The land where anything could become true”. It is as if America didn’t have a face, or content per se, as if its identity were to be without One. Its identity proclaims openness to all, including the brutal forces as well as the more human, creative, and sensitive ones.

American soldiers in the Antarctic, in the jungle, on the ocean, in the desert. Always equipped with the right weaponry and the right colors; green, red, beige, and blue soldiers; and the two magnified letters U.S; us (An-My Lee). Next room, a video game, “The night of Bush capturing”, which is Al Qaida’s version of the U.S video game “The night of Saddam capturing” (Wafaa Billal).  Knowing that al Qaida’s main figure, Bin Laden, was a former U.S trainee, also one of us. As if, the U.S most deadly enemy, was also one of U.S, playing their game, with their programs. The voice off in the Guantanamo piece asks, “How is it possible that the U.S produced this, how democracy could…”, once again questioning America’s inner contradictions (Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri).

These contradictions however can only be possible if we refer to One America, but we are not. The Americans did conquer the Indians but maybe, in return, they have inherited – from the Indians – the repulsion to the One, to the unifying principle. Instead of the One, a plural – the Americas, the United States – reflected on or auto portrayed in a ‘no single point of view’ exhibition, is today’s America’s single point of view.

To conclude, as Michael Jackson puts it: What about U.S?

The Voice Over: The student’s review was never published although he tried to push it in a couple of newspapers and art magazines.

This conversation is inspired by discussions with AUB students, Sandra Dagher, Prof. Noel Ignatiev, Gabrielle Magro and Fares Chalabi.

A conversational space. Reviewing Walid Sadek’s exhibition, PLace at Last.
April 11, 2010, 12:10 pm
Filed under: Art stuff, Beirut notes, Learn me how to read

W: “The only place where conversation can happen is the space of art”

M: “Place at Last” your first solo exhibition in Beirut, suggested a certain relief. Perhaps from the restlessness of having to imperatively and ethically think forgiveness, mourning and violence in post war Lebanon? At last resonated as an equivocal acceptance with a touch of resignation, or as a discovery of something that might have already always been there. Place shifted the problem of how to address mourning in Lebanon to a geographical and spatial solution. Place implies a locality, an identifiable space where meeting is in fact possible.

M: I would personally like to understand the politics of the encounter and if this encounter is possible. Can art be that meeting place?  What do we know, not know, learn from by convening precisely there ?

M: What is the meaning of shared in “shared space”? You mentioned repeatedly the space of the encounter in a post-traumatic war context; how can stand next to one another

W: rub shoulders

M: As you once said. Bare a presence we are inevitably and often unwillingly bond to? With no claims of forgiveness nor unity, but simply appear to one another with no further political or moral implications (Harendt’s space of appearance). Your first suggestion was to meet around the presence of a corpse, because such presence, you argued, could delay the advent of naming and of language hijacking grief (can mourning be possible without language?).

M: A wall separated your show from the entrance of the Beirut Art Center, with a passage marking the entrance. A border that once trespassed would immerse us in a lawless and white room, a sort of sate of exception reconfiguring its boundaries and perspectives. Traditional orientation marks pertaining to the exhibition space such as captions, walls, images, texts, were radically reinvented through gestures meant to destabilize the space of representation. The room’s engulfing whiteness broke a sense of perspective. And the body, at last, perhaps, could find a space outside of it. (Or was it, paradoxically the very space of representation, an art center? Was white the white night in Blanchot’s The Writing of the Disaster or was it the white industrial paint of Beirut Art Center’s white walls?)

M: In Love is Blind, captions are placed on the wall indicating the name of a painting, its author, date of execution and collection, but the paintings were missing. The space corresponding to the dimensions of the painting is left intact, without its object, the painting. What does maintaining the space of representation while erasing is object produce? The structure is maintained through the demarcating frame (the space supposedly occupied by the painting) and through its referent (the caption).

M: Is that missing painting somewhere else? Did you eat it? Do we have to be precisely in that specific place to be able to see? Objects would then become invisible if displaced. Is that your understanding of Place? Is your dream the one of absolute equivalence between what is said and what is seen, between what is seen and where it is seen? Is the space of the encounter the back of a canvas or google’s browser? Amsterdam, Kiel, Paris, Bordeaux, Dole, Mr amd Ms Boshali living room?

M: Above each caption you placed a wall text- another caption- in Arabic whose translation was in the visitor’s guide. The Arabic texts all referred to classical paintings depicting the Roman allegory of Cimo and Pero; Pero, just having had a child, secretly breast-feeds her father who is sentenced to death and starvation in a roman prison.

Faroukh, Cimo and Pero, private collections, Love is Blind. Are you drawing a parallel between generosity and the lost of sight? Filial love in Cimo and Pero and the lost genealogies of Lebanese Modern Art? Cannibalism and nurturing?

(It is said that the cannibalistic person has a strong desire for milk and is fixated on sucking. It devours the lost object in the impossibility of letting go, making the mourning  melancholic and bodily.  Such cannibalistic device implies the suppression of the other. How do you envisage the encounter here? )

M: Do you think that conversations make for an encounter? Is my own form of address unanswerable?

M: In Infinite Conversations, Blanchot talks about one particular form of exchange implied in the master/ student relation and how such space is translated through dialogue. It is the opposite of the cannibalistic devouring since it is  the space of infinite distance;

“ le maitre n’est pas destine a applanir le champs des relations, mais a le boulverser, non a le faciliter les chemins du savoir, mais d’abord a les render non seulement plus difficle, mais proprement inefrayable…”

“Le maitre ne donne rien a connaitre qui ne reste determine par “l’inconnu” inderterminable qu’il represente, inconnu qui ne s’affirme que pas pas le mystere, le prestige, l’erudition de celui qui enseigne mais de la distance infinie entre A et B…”

M: Is the space of encounter the space of an infinite distance ? The infinite distance as a space for conversation, but also the infinite distance that is implied in my relation to others.

M: What do we know or do not know when we are in that space? She said that some people could not live without knowing (without knowing where their sons and daughters are). You said asked how can we live while knowing.

W: “How can you live on when you know that people have committed such acts of violence. What do you do with that excess knowledge?”

M: What you mean here is that we know because we have the ability to understand the distance;  The one that perpetrates the crime can’t question his act, while not having perpetrated the crime, I am also complicit because I know that something happened. It is a knowledge that shakes any identitarian affirmation.

M: How can the excess knowledge be redistributed or belong to the economy it was produced through? The excess knowledge that paradoxically wants to deconstruct identitarian affirmations also produces the unreachable other. (I know, while the other doesn’t).