I do want to do something.

Worse Editorial Experience
March 25, 2010, 12:29 pm
Filed under: Art stuff, Beirut notes, Learn me how to read

My worse editorial experience was with the Arab Studies Journal.

The story goes like this

I am contacted to write a review on the two books Contemporary Art in The Middle East and New Visions for Arab Studies Journal’s issue on Visual Arts. I receive the two books with a “contract”, which I have lost but that states all the rules and regulations of proper academic conduit, of citation modes ect ect. All of which establishes the tone of the relation; standards are academic and rigorous based on free thought, argumentation and content of the review.

Ok, why not, I am somehow slightly intimidated. I have never received such as a letter, I decide to take it romantically.

The other conditions is that I have a deadline and that the review is not paid. I end up writing 3000 words and have it review by friends with a PhD ( I got caught by some sort hysterical and unhealthy fear of not fitting into the standards. A fear that I assimilate with all the bad bad things that academia provokes and continues willingly  to implement due to its fear of disintegrating if not supported by such institutional apparatus)

I send the review and receive an email

Your review will go through a blind refereeing process after which I will get back to you with editorial comments.

As for the formatting, there are some changes that need to be made, but they will be easy enough to deal with…

Again, the evaluation process…

Almost 6 months pass and do not receive an answer, not withstanding my mails of inquiry.

Yesterday, I receive an email saying that

Your review is still in the refereeing stage with our team of editors. Unfortunately, this means it will not be included in the upcoming visual arts issue. If you would like to withdraw your review from consideration in order to take it elsewhere, we certainly understand. Please let me know if that is the case. Otherwise, I will be in touch with you as soon as it has passed through the refereeing stage to let you know whether it has been accepted for publication in the 2011 issue...”

At that point I wish to withdraw my review. Not such much because of their delay in answering but because I do not wish to be subjected to their procedures.

I do respect their work, but what I have experience through this work relation embodies precisely what I  fight against, precisely because I love academia. When it gets professionalized, standardized and works by subjecting you to a system of evaluation, failure, approval. The work can get done is other ways, and it can be as rigorous (and more fun).

Viva Self Publishing.

Arab Studies Journal – Review
Mirene Arsanios
Knowledge is Sweeter than Honey
Words: 3085

Contemporary Art in the Middle East published by Black Dog Publishing and New Visions. Arab Contemporary Art in the 21st Century, published by Thames & Hudson were both released in 2009. The fact that thematic volumes presenting art in the Middle East were not common until very recently is avowedly stressed in both publications; “Nothing on this scale has never been attempted before…” , “…the first survey of its kind…” . But besides strategic mottos or cover choices , what “kind” of literature and information is the reader being offered through such products in terms of our understanding and knowledge of art practices the Middle East ?
To date, surveys, writings, and critical thought concerning art in the Arab World have circulated via magazines, journals, exhibition catalogues or conferences. These heterogeneous platforms reflect a fragmented cultural production and often focus on specific cities stressing their differences: Beirut is not Dubai, Dubai is not Cairo. If more in depth information is needed, curators and researchers would travel to their target destinations, interview local cultural practitioners and, access a scene through informal conversations and phone numbers written between two coffees on a torn piece of paper.
Large books with corresponding long titles to question will not prevent similar scenes from taking place. However, these reference volumes do hold another approach to the region. Their attempt is to frame and coherently represent the current development of an artistic infrastructure in the Middle East, from Abu Dhabi to Tangier.
Questioning what motivates this book production may lead to unsatisfying speculation – is it merely a tool for Western curators, collectors and institutions interested in the region for obvious political, professional and commercial reasons? Books whose main outcome is to further enhance the art market and reinforce professional exchange?
Although attempts to decode the workings of an art system, gossips and para-institutional critique play an important part in shaping debate, I will follow another thread in this review and outline two problematic; how to render the region’s heterogeneous artistic production without flattening its diversity, and, secondly can the publications we are addressing be catalysts for knowledge production? If so, what constitutes such knowledge?

Mind the Map

“There is of course another implicit premise in the title of this volume: that the Middle East actually exists as a defined geographic area” . Contemporary Art in the Middle East opens with a map representing the region, from Algeria to Afghanistan, Turkey to Yemen. Although a slippery construct and an area whose definition an territory is contested daily, the map of the Middle East, as sketched in the two discussed volumes, is symptomatic of the heterogeneous agendas at play in shaping the current cultural production in area.
While New Visions. Arab Contemporary Art in the 21st Century addresses, as its names indicates, Arab art, distinguished in the forward by Hossein Amirsadeghi, from Iranian or Turkish art, Contemporary Art in the Middle East has a looser geographic understanding of the area; 18 artists out of the 45 profiled in the book are Iranian, proportionally representing the largest number of featured artists. Politically, the constructs are also divergent since Israel is included in Contemporary Art’s Middle East with the artist Dani Karavan and with an interview by Andrew Renton, curator of Art Tel Aviv.
Networks of professional relations also have a part in outlining different maps of the region; New Visions is edited and compiled by Iranian, Hossein Amirsadeghi, together with Salwa Mikdadi and Nada Shabout. The editors’ personal and grounded knowledge of the region enables them to formulate questions responsive to local contexts such as the role of art education or the relation between the private and the public sphere in the Arab world.
The editorial voice in the Black Dog book is less articulated, with an anonymous forward and with the name of the editor, Paul Sloman, only appearing in the closing colophon and in the acknowledgement note. Contributors are mostly Western scholars and curators having developed an interest in and worked on projects on the Middle East. Critical essays generally revolve around single practices already benefiting from major exposure in the West, such as TJ Demos with an essay on Emily Jacir or Susan Cotter with an essay on Akram Zaatari and Walid Raad. “Contemporary” in Contemporary Art in the Middle East, presumes a curatorial understanding and is closely linked to the international art world, while New Visions apprehends the contemporary through a historical understanding of the present, of Arab Modernity, and issues of broader cultural production such as vernacular culture, featured in the book with Tarek Atrissi’ essay The Transformed Vernacular New Design Language.
Other than professional milieus and affiliations, imagined audiences also play a role in drawing the region’s cartography. As Lindsey Moore rightly points out “An English-language publication such as this presupposes a cosmopolitan audience” ,can be further nuanced and broken down. New Visions’ concerns are to offer both scholarly standards to the reader and simultaneously appeal to a larger audience;“Create a book with sufficient academic depth and scholarly rigour …while at the same time having the visual impact to appeal to art lovers everywhere…” . Contemporary Art in the Middle East could be seen as an navigational tool for a more amateur and possibly Western reader, combining a variety of essays, interviews with professionals in the field, as Negar Azimi, Rose Issa, Andrew Renton, Wijdan Ali, and a passage of Edward Said’s Orientalism and its critique by Zachary Lockman.
If the maps outlined in each volume do not converge, different configurations of the region are also present within a same book. For instance, Nat Muller’s agile introduction in Contemporary Art frm the Middle East surveys the region geographically and thematically, focusing on individual practices along the axis Beirut, Cairo, Ramallah. An introduction with no continuation or further unfolding in the book since most of the artists Muller mentions are absent from the artists plates :
Missing artists, discrepancies and divergences, between and within the two volumes, embody to a greater extent the cracks and different forces at play in the region. Whatever sets in motion the tectonics of these geographies is uncanny (how, for example, can Akram Zaatari, not be represented as artist in both books ?).
Notwithstanding the different and perhaps complementary Middle Easts mapped out in the two volumes- New Visions gravitates along the axis Beirut, Ramallah, Cairo while Contemporary Art is closer to Iran and London- both are products of a larger editorial projects  and share a similar partition system; forward, introduction, essays, artists plates. The appendix with since Black Dog including a series of interviews and a passage from Edward Said’s Orientalism and New Visions inserting a chronology of significant events in the history of Arab Art. The books’ topography, through its editorial articulation and geographic configuration render apparent different poles and politics within a same region. These differences, however, are ramifications within the current development of the region, and as in any other war, the art wars act at the expenses of singular practices.
In her introductory essay, Muller transitions from her survey on geographic cities to “Cities as metaphor”. Quoting Tony Chakar in a conversation with Stephen Wright, “Could art find its territory in these uncharted territories of differences?” ,  she questions if art can depart from social, historical and political contexts to finally speak for itself; “[I]n other words, let the social political and historical undercurrents speak from the art and not the other way round” , thus relegating identitarian and geographical readings to the background in an attempt to bring individual practices to the forefront. How to envisions such desire in the light of the “kind” of publications being discussed? Alternatively, is it precisely because of these classifying systems and all-encompassing appellations that we should be drawn to learn from the practice rather than to make use of it?

Diaspora and Exile

I have mapped out, geographically and professionally the ways in which the publications under discussion are structured, and my attempt is to see if such configuration can afford spaces for “uncharted territories”.
Geographic displacements, the diasporic and exilic are shared topics in both volumes. Contemporary Art in the Middle East features an essay by Lindsey Moore on “Migration, Diaspora, Exile and Return in Women’s Visual Media”, followed by a an essay by TJ Demos on Emily Jacir, “Desire in Diaspora” and New Visions features an essay by Sarah Rogers, “Imagined Geographies: Diaspora and Contemporary Arab Art”.
Departing from Said’s Orientalism and its interpretation in the works of Fran Lloyd or Reina Lewis, Moore’s problematizes feminist artistic production in the Middle East. Exile and diaspora are entangled and fertile conditions, from where to question traditional binary constructs such as self/other, here/there, colonizer/colonized, exotic/familiar, East/West. Moore proposes to revisit these partitions through Derrida’s concept of hyphenated identities or Abdelkebir Khatabi’s articulation of the chiasmus. Subject formation is linked to artistic production through strategies such as autobiographical and familial narratives. Moore analyses at length Zineb Sedira’s work and her intergenerational and autobiographical approach to exile through stories of departure and interruptions. In her film Mother Tongue, Sedira converses with her mother in Arabic and French, while she cannot communicate in these same languages with her Anglophone daughter. Moore sees in Zedira’s work as the embodiment of chiasmic experience through the artist’s use of the a split screen, recounting simultaneously different journeys, confusing the relation between the here and the there, arrivals and returns.
If Lindsey Moore’s stance on migration and diaspora is pervaded by the melancholic, TJ Demos’ essay on Emily Jacir’s work, “Desire and Disapora”, focuses on the possibility of desire and, consequently of agency, on disempowerment and impossible life conditions; “Where any site latched onto, it appears, the attachment would too easily be exposed as compensatory or nostalgic…Consequently, Where we Come From, like much of Jacir’s work, concerns the (im)possibility of movement, rather than the plausibility of sidedness.”
Diaspora’s confused relation between the “here” and the “there”, are, in Jacir’s work performed through exchange and loss. In her piece, From Texas with Love, Jacir displaces the experience of the impossibility to drive a car in Palestine without being arrested at Israeli checkpoints and border controls by driving uninterruptedly on a Texan. Rather than reading Jacir’s work through an overarching theme, Demos allows the work to guide his analysis on diaspora. To the extent that his reading romantically borders the exotic, when assuming, for instance, that diasporas have to maintain a level of intensity and desire; “The sometime bureaucratic tone of descriptions reveals the fact that even diasporic desires can become routine, after so long, which is yet another tragic element: the banality of exile.”  (What presuppositions assume that exile must equate excitement or commotion?).
Neither vivifying romanticism nor disempowering melancholy, Sarah Rogers offers an astute take on diaspora and art in her essay, “Imagined Geographies: Diaspora and Contemporary Arab Art”. Rogers circumspectly links artistic production to the economical, curatorial and political circuits to which such production participates, “As the scholarly interest in the presence of Diaspora communities coincide with the global turn of the international art world…”  and, a bit further, “Certainly a peculiar dependency seems to exist between the continuing violence that plagues the region and an international investments in the arts”  The directions and economy of these relations are not explicitly discussed,  suggesting to the reader a shared interest. Rogers analyses the case of postwar Lebanon and the return to the country of Lebanese artists having studied abroad, such as Ziad Abillama, Walid Sadek or Lamia Joreige. She bridges these returns with previous historical examples such as the Lebanese painter George Corm whose career was launched by two Italian Jesuit priest and who was sent to Rome to train in classical art and later returned to Lebanon to establish an art market. Diasporas are composed of intricate webs of relations linking the international and local in ways that reconfigure both. More than a transaction from here to there, Rogers sees diasporic experiences as sites for encounters between co-nationals and as situations where interregional ties are developed.
Roger concludes her essay by reminding use of the persistent Euro-American tendencies to classify and categorize artists related to the Middle East through identitarian and geographic lenses. But could diasporic readings of art practices also be a detoured identitarian reading and contribute in establishing categories rather than, again, suggesting uncharted territories?
In her essay “Contemporaneity and the Arab World” Nada  Shabout refers to diaspora as a condition privileged by the West to read art in the Middle East; “Thus the acceptance of diaspora artists in the West is a continuation of the Orientalism paradigm, made evident in the specific celebration of hybridity in the choice of artists in exhibitions organized in the West and by Western curators.”

Scholarly Knowledge?

Rogers, on another note reminds us of the complicity of art historical studies in producing knowledge through identitarian ad geographic classifications. To counter such tendencies, Rogers, as Nat Muller, advocates for the capacity of the work to “reroute us back to the socio and political realities and interventions at stake in the work itself.”
The lack of local scholarly production and educational infrastructures for the study of modern and contemporary art in are voiced concerns in New Visions, particularly in Salwa Mikdadi’s and Nada Shabout’s essays. Disciplinary scholarly production, art historical or other “would allow for construction of several contemporary narratives and be capable of presenting the contemporary practices of the Arab world as part of a continuum and not as a novel contemporary phenomenon”  This would prevent Western curators and critics from establishing the main paradigm to perceive, understand, and value works produced in the Middle East.
Thus, historical knowledge of Arab modernity might put into perspective on the one hand the Arab world’s anxious quest for cultural identity (either by affirmation of a certain “Arabness” or the lament of a lack of historical references and models), and on the other hand, international art shows marketing contemporary cultural production in the Arab World as a new phenomenon.
Shabout laments, that in the absence of art criticism or dominant art historical narratives, the only models available are Western ones. Trough such logic, lack is determined in relation to a model, which in this case is considered the only possible one. This predetermined equation creates illogically a situation where the model is to be attained on the outside, which by definition, can never be reached. The potentiality for art education is to be looked for in the contexts in which we are living and working. To acknowledge such a context is not to write an art historical dissertation on the influence of this artist on another – although it might certainly be part of it – but to be able to recognize and acknowledge what is already in motion and create a model from a given condition.
Mikdadi in her essay, “NGOs and the Public Sphere” looks at the role of NGOs in creating an alternative, non-governmental artistic infrastructure. Ahskal Alwan, founded in 1995 by Christine Tohme in Beirut, is a perfect example of a model that has shaped itself within a specific context. Following 15 years of activity, Tohme is now planning to launch a space for artistic research and education, the Home Works Academy.
The relation between art organizations, knowledge production, and academy is complex. Traditionally, academy has the advantage of offering a public structure, free and open to all, while contemporary arts academic tendencies often operate within restrained circles. In a context such as Lebanon, for instance, individual professors and artists act as bridges between these two realms. How can academy learn from the art scene? The Home Works Academy, by keeping the appellation Academy is tackling a tremendous heritage and proposing to reconfigure it according to certain needs and desires, while keeping the tension with the “academic”.

From Texas

In concluding her introductory essay, Muller, when referring to ways in which artists adopt roles, endorse humor, and play with performance, states that “[T]his is how knowledge is produced: meaning is to be found more in the rehearsals than in the grand finale. It is this processual act that lies at the heart of the creation and perception of art, wherever is it is produced.”  Muller places art at the core of knowledge. Shabout and Mikdadi advocate for scholarly knowledge.
What about the role of writing and publications such as the ones being discussed? What role do they have in channeling and producing new visions on contemporary art in the Middle East, beyond the profiling and indexing of artists? If historiography and the translation of events have become a significant concern for artists practicing in the area , why do similar questionings never seem to pervade scholarly production? How can scholarly publications also learn from artistic practices?
In both books, hints of what constitutes this knowledge are articulated in the discussed essays,   and the importance of singular practices is underlined as a response to identitarian and essentialized readings of art practices. However, the titles and partitions these books have chosen to adopt inevitably draws us back to these categories. Paradoxically, their scope is to counter them, to launch a war against Western misrepresentation of the Arab world and reveal still existing Orientalising tendencies. Although such attempts are surely justified, why is always the Middle East placed in a position to counter ? How can the economy of this exchange be reversed?
I have attempted in this review to look at ways in which knowledge is linked to geography, and relied on the metaphor of uncharted territories as a way of produce new knowledge.  My conclusion is that these uncharted territories are not to be looked for in publications on contemporary art in the Middle East. They are to be looked for in what is not mentioned in the books, in projects in the making and practices, which are not inserted in the map, yet.Precisely, it is through such publications, through the growth, development and institutionalization of an established of a scene and art system, that uncharted territories come to existence.


Best Editorial Experience
March 17, 2010, 9:56 pm
Filed under: Art stuff

here is an article on artistic research in Beirut published on the on line magazine, the Rumpus. Ari Messer (http://www.ayenaye.com/) contacted me after reading the Raad article for Bidoun (published in this blog as well) and asked me to write something for the Rumpus. This is the third editorial experience that I had, and probably the best one.

Here is the article, would love to know your thoughts.


There is no.
March 17, 2010, 11:58 am
Filed under: Beirut notes, questions

Is one of the most recurrent affirmation that is voiced when discussing  amongst friends. criticism exhibition making  curatorial knowledge education government state in Lebanon and in the Middle East.

I’ll try to think a bit more about the “no” and the “there is” in this affirmation.

In relation to what is that absence voiced? Where is it that there is this or that, or when? The there is has a residency in Europe, the United States and other countries which benefit from an established arts and cultural  infrastructure, with a tradition, history, professional, criteria, parameters etc. One can think that there is an enormous gap between where we live, Beirut, Cairo, Bahrain and perhaps many more places.

The problem in the “there is no” is  that the gap between a situation of lack and a situation that “is”, is unbridgeable because it becomes a temporal race, where something is to be reached, where there is a model to be pursued, adapted and appropriated.

Besides the unbridgeable difference, the “there is” is also to be questioned. What is it that there is over there ? European institutions are increasingly rethinking their models, educational and artistic.  So ?

Deuleuze said about Hegel’s philosophy that it had reached the apotheosis of western philosophical thinking, that a tradition had culminated with him and that it was difficult to continue thinking within that tradition after him. However, he said that it was possible to think something entirely different, outside the parameters and logic established in that history of philosophy.

Why not think something entirely different ?