I do want to do something.

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).


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.

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 ?

On criticism ( I never wanted to kill a mosquito so badly)
August 6, 2009, 3:24 pm
Filed under: Beirut notes, Blogroll, Learn me how to read

This is an old post on being exhausted. What is scary is that I still have these fluctuations, from being breathless to being too excited to sustain anything. Fares said two things that I like; a quote from Lacan that I am probably misquoting here ” La vie n’a pas assez de valeur pour faire un lache” and that I have to start to “travailler la matiere”.


The blog has changed since I moved back. It is certainly not as spontaneous as it use to be, maybe because the platform where it emerged is not there anymore. There are questions, sentences, issues that are of interest of course, but they never find the time, space or even desire to make it through the screen. Thoughts come without ever materializing like a repetitive exercise or a fold of the mind that prevents any new shape or direction to be taken. It’s not the thoughts in themselves, but more the exhausting temporal lapse between having them and experiencing what they can do, provoke. Need some brain moist. The more I let go, the more the distance is intimidating, the more my voice resonates through some shrill echoes.

It is maybe a question of adjustment and rhythm, finding a right entry point and take it from there. Drinking more water. Maybe it is about starting to read novels again or watch more French films or American mafia movies. Maybe it is about just doing it, again and again, that is what L. said. You become this or that , once you decide to do it. Since I have decided to do it, things have gotten more complicated. Maybe it is about becoming a “professional” and this is probably what is most violent since it excludes so many things (like the mosquito that is sucking my blood in this very moment) by working in given set of coordinates; a space, a schedule, a language, an outcome, having responsibility ?  Pushing boundaries has never been so physical and my energy economy is simply crashing and in desperate need of pure speculation, imaginative inputs, exciting stuff. a routine.

January 5, 2009, 10:15 pm
Filed under: Art stuff, Beirut notes, Blogroll, questions

I was surprised by Katy’s email letter addressed to the Danish Minister of Foreign Affairs, denouncing the Danish position in the actual Gaza conflict. She told me that she had previously sent a letter during the Israeli war on Lebanon in 2006, and received and answer 5 min later by the Minister’s secretary. While she was writing her mail (asking me how to spell “appel” in Danish), I was depressingly and disgustingly browsing through all the news websites reporting the Gaza massacre, thinking about what could be done and from what perspective. Working in an art association, this question became all the more disturbing and a bit ridiculous. But, it was still there.

In my mail, a link to the e-flux on line journal. It might have been the whole situation, but the editorial got on my nerves, so while Katy was writing to the government, I wrote to the e-flux contact address

“I know it is probably not the role of an art journal to discuss the news, and I am thinking here particularly of Gaza. Reading the editorial, however, the absence of the war on Gaza stroke me, and probably not inasmuch as it was not mentioned at all, but because it was not mentioned in relation to what I was reading. ” Beyond the issue of governance, these circumstances beg the deeper question of the potential for simply inhabiting existing spaces, for properly addressing important questions that have already been asked before seeking the questions of the future” “How then do we begin to use or inhabit these possibilities?”. etc

The aim here is not to oppose, once again, speculation, deferral, layered temporalities and what not, to urgent political matters, but to question the nature of these very speculations and artistic reflections. How far are they from what is happening right now?

The question here is not about the role, impact and position art can have in relation to these issues, but for the least, question its distance from it.”
For the moment, I got an E-flux automatic reply wishing me the best for 2009, I don’t think Katy got her reply yet.

There is too much love between us
December 29, 2008, 11:01 am
Filed under: Art stuff, Beirut notes


This is the review I wrote for Walid Raad’s exhibition at Sfeir Semler Gallery , “A History of Modern and Contemporary Arab Art”. Another version of this review can be found in Bidoun’s current issue, Kids. The review is a bit long and needed to be shorten, some paragrahps are a bit dense as well, but I still think that there are some passages in this review that are important, and do not appear in the published one.

Such as the title, “There is too much love between us”.

There is still no official news nor any rumors concerning the participation of the Lebanese pavilion at the next Venice Biennale planned for June 2009. A silence that confirms its exceptional first participation in 2007 and openly puts into question the nature of a national pavilion in a country still undergoing a vivid process of nation building.
In 2005, The Sfeir Semler gallery now hosting Raad’s recent exhibition in Beirut, A History of Modern and Contemporary Arab Art_Part 1_Chapter 1: Beirut 1992-2005, attempted to launch the first national pavilion. A venture that never went through due to the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Raffic Harriri in 2005.
If the development of Lebanese modern and contemporary art is deeply intertwined with the history of modern Lebanon, Raad, with this new exhibition takes the cultural and artistic sphere as a stage where to look at the way Lebanon’s recent history traumatically affects its present. This visibility resides in the awareness of the impossibility to see, speak or represent things that have been irretrievably lost due to a “surpassing disaster” (in this case the Lebanese protracted civil war). A notion inspired by the artist and writer Jalal Toufic’s concept on the “withdrawal of tradition past a surpassing disaster”.
The challenge in the creation of an artistic stage allowing for this paradoxical visibility is to keep it from withdrawing into the establishment of an art system and its market. A challenge that Raad addresses frontally since his new project is also about exploring the spaces, names, institutions and relations that make the “art world”. In particular how these have come to form a narrative for what accounts to be “contemporary Lebanese art”.
A narrative that closely involves Raad’s persona and his artistic peers.
This first exhibition chapter on modern and contemporary Arab art is an attempt to process and translate how historical perspective is created; what distance can you see and write from, how far or how close are we in the making of this history and how to “show” it. In order to translate information and material, Raad, in his usual fashion, adopts a classifying system by creating different sections as subparts of his chapter. These sections unfold in the gallery space like pages of a missing art history book, occupying each a separate room along a central wall– Preface: Title 23, Appendix XVIII: Plates, The Atlas Group (1989-2994), Museums, Walid Sadek’s Love is Blind (Modern Art, Oxford, U.K.), Index XXVI: Artists.
Along the central spine, the show divides into two main parts. On the one hand, more sculptural works having each a separate room, on the other side of the wall, a large room containing a series of equal size large color prints, Appendix XVIII: Plates. An important part of the research carried by Raad is translated in these plates; the information he gathered on the creation of a national pavilion, a series of indexes taken from international art magazine and catalogue dedicated to contemporary Lebanese art, an archive on modern Lebanese artists belonging to the researcher Kristen Scheid. The information conveyed is hardly decipherable; some plates seemed to be magnified to the point of abstraction, in other plates (such as with the archive), the material is simply not legible. Importance is drawn towards the layout, the typography, the colors used as background. The effort made to grasp what is presented moves the viewer back and forth in a game of abstraction and physical involvement. While the colors and the size of the prints are immersive, the limits encountered in accessing the information and the mirror image sent back by the large reflective surfaces, can’t but remind the viewer of his/her physical presence in he space.
The same goes for some more sculptural works. In the section, The Atlas Group (1989-2004), an impressively executed mock up of the Atlas’ group retrospective held at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin. The poetic detournement of the Operator # 17, who, every day would redirect, his surveillance camera monitoring Beirut’s sea side promenade to videotape the sunsets is screened in miniature as part of the mock up. Although the viewer has to bend his head to have a glimpse the work, its position in relation to the rest of the show is clearly visible and conceals the choices behind the layout of an exhibition. The mock up of a show, a device often used in museum’s to visualize the final outcome of an exhibition, is presented as the open graveyard of the Atlas Group and religiously demands the attention of the viewer trying to identify some works he/she might already knows. Following museum fashion, a note on the wall of the gallery written in Arabic and in English, “do not touch”.
Similar to the system of a Russian doll game, the mock up echoes the gallery space we are standing and raises some questions such as, how is the space in the mock up, different from the one we are in? Rather than collapsing local and international settings- a white cube in Beirut, or a Museum in Berlin, Raad seems to want to highlight the asymmetry of these experiences: what meaning would such a show have in another context, can you translate a name?
A series of 150 white vinyl names written in Arabic mounted on the white wall of the room dedicated to Section 79: Index XXVI: Artists, keep appearing and disappearing. The names belong to artists who lived and worked in Beirut over the past 100 years, who belonged (and still belongs since some are still alive) to other circuits, living rooms, and histories. No narration has, up to now bridged the gap between the scene that emerged in Beirut in the post war area and the scene active in the pre-war years. In this particular piece, the oscillating distance, physical and historical, creates an experience of the gap and this not only by pointing to its inaccessibility. Questions can then be raised in relation to how the disappearing/appearing act takes place; if any ghost is to come back, it also needs a voice that can break through and create a rupture. Although used in a very astute way, the accomplice white walls of the gallery might not be the right stage for this encounter.
The private gallery space, in fact, with its limits and possibilities, has major role in the way the works are developed. As the press release announces it, the gallery is presenting the “first solo exhibition of Walid Raad in the Middle East”. Although Raad has performed and shown his works in Beirut on several other occasions such as the Homeworks forum or the former Ayloul Festival, it is the first time that his works develops exclusively in relation to this specific setting and takes the development of the art system as a topic in itself.
The performative- and potentially transformative- aspects of his multifaceted practice usually including talks and presentations, shifted for this particular exhibition to a more sculptural, object based works (this also considering the tremendous amount of research that Raad has carried in order to collect the information and whose process remains invisible). If the viewer through the work is always reminded of his/her presence, the silent echo of Raad’s missing voice also inevitably resonates. Self-references and the continuous deferral, reflective surfaces, physical limits, the impossibility to access can certainly provoke a reaction but does not allow much space for any type of transformative response or “hysterical symptoms”.
Instead of opening up a space for reflection, the endless play of deferral and the many critical questions raised, closes possible roads for the understanding and experience of cultural and art in Lebanon, their future possibilities if not their present conditions and past histories. In that sense, the closure in Raad’s show paradoxically acts a first document concealing a silent and powerful voice.
Creating a document, a legacy, an institution in the cultural sphere leads us to formulate a question pertinent to the their absence in the Lebanese context; does Lebanon need a national pavilion when the nation state is  a problematic and questionable form of organization? Are institutions and documents need first to be established in order to be contested? These questions, although impossible to answer, must be kept open, and maybe this through the utopian “desire to meet the masses once again”.