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Beirut has six letters

March 29th, 2010 by Remco de Blaaij

I’m currently in Beirut, Lebanon on a last-minute decided visit without having a project, book, idea or any other productive end result in mind. I’m not here to do a show on the Middle East or to seek for unique stories that artistically aim to tie political moments to an engaged practice. I have to tell you that coming here without prescription is refreshing in itself, to just be in a place and meeting people, see work and show some films. It made me realize again why I am doing what I’m doing and how nice it can be to share information and knowledge in a place that you don’t know beforehand and maybe not even at the end.

I arrived a couple of days ago from London on a highly modern and completely packed flight to Hariri airport. Quickly I was checking again, just to be extra sure, my passport for stamps of ‘the state that cannot be named’, although I made very sure last couple of times I was there to not get my passport stamped, knowing I had this tactics successfully completed, but still. It reminds us again that free travel is not a given fact for everybody.

Beyrouth 1948

Beyrouth 1948

Although the wrong stamps in your passport will not allow you to enter the country, the same sources of these stamps remind me actually very much of the first impressions of city aesthetics and dynamics in Beirut. The beach is the same, the houses in Jaffa look like the houses off Al Hamra and Ashrafiyeh, the streets look the same, etc. I’m constantly reminding myself that the humus however 200 km to the south is really not tasting the same, I’m sorry, but the Lebanese can cook, that is for sure.

Totally leaving the cuisine behind me, I should write and eat more about it, I quite got a good impression on some of the artistic activities that are carried out here. Seeing the upcoming programme of HomeWorks I became very sad especially this week that I will not be able to visit this wonderful programme and initative by Ashkal Alwan. However I also realise that my form of visit now allows me to see places not in guided tours, mapped on artmaps, or referred to in brochures. It needs regular calling, some home preparation and rehearsing first and surnames to get going. I got going very fast because of enormous help of Mounira al Solh and meeting Ninar Esber on my arrival evening, who happened to be in town and was thinking of re-establishing again to Beirut. Given the fact that she was in a ‘mode of Beirut reflection’ this offered me a lot of extra hand on information on how the city is lived, at least through her eyes. To get more readings on this I started reading Fawwaz Traboulsi, definitely a book I should transfer to Charles as it describes highly detailed the Ottoman history of Lebanon and its effect on contemporary society today. The history of Lebanon and especially Beirut is defined by class and religious distinction from on of the very early stages of Mount Lebanon, historically the geographical place north of Palestine that later on became the state of Lebanon. Parallel to an equally divers city of Istanbul, the city was home to numerous religions and sects from the beginning. The Ottoman times describe the rise of Christians, as they were, together with the Jews a protective group in the empire. As these groups were not allowed to take up military posts or tax collecting post at first, they devoted themselves to economy and trade. The statuses of these two groups quickly rose and were both important for establishing trade routes with nearby Europe, leaving Lebanon with a strong economic position in the region. It seems that a Christian influence opposite to the Jewish influence, has still an enormous effect on contemporary society today. As the Ottoman empire collapsed, Lebanon became a small country lead by mainly Christian attitudes and references, although there was always a continuous influence of Islam and up until the 1930/40′s a relatively big Jewish community. Today there is a big immigrant community of The Philippines and Ethiopia. They are the nannies of the rich Lebanese, because I will not get into this, but the Beiruti like to have Porsches/Ferraris and Lamborghinis. In the airplane I also learned that Lebanon is the best in aesthetic surgery in the Middle East. It’s the place to be to have some good Botox sessions I was told in the video.

Back to art. 98 Weeks is a small initiative of Mirene and Marwa Arsanios and is attempting to address every 98 weeks another research project, although i’m pretty sure that these timeframes are not a reference point anymore. Started in 2007 as a research platform, they recently opened a project space in which there is space to exhibit work and to have film screenings. On my first night I went to the opening of Arts Floreaux, an exhibition that transformed the new space into a flowershop avant la lettre. It was there that I was warned that the Beiruti art scene is a small one, I that I should not be surprised that everybody knows everybody. I took the warning as a message of relief, because that sounds familiar in every scene, it’s applicable for New York as well as for Eindhoven. Yes, ofcourse the scale is different.

Other than 98weeks, there are whole arrays of small artist run spaces that organise events that range from artistic to activist production, or sometimes together. Next to hummus, politics are the most consumed goods in Beirut for sure. Sanayeh house is a temporary refuge for artists, writers and others that offer a possibility of residency and to exchange experience in a nice nightly setting with Almaza and a lot of smoking. The architecture of the building as well as the strong dedication of the people inside its architecture was amazing to see and very rare in the places that are familiar to see. Very refreshing.

Institution wise there is the newly Bierut Art Centre that still smells like fresh paint and does what it is meant to do, being and looking like an institution. Beatiful presentations by Walid Sadek ad Emily Jacir. I wonder what this will look like in five years. A new initiative is currently being developed by Christine Tohme from Ashkal Alwan and will be presented during Home Works. Having a clear interest in educational approaches and possibilities, Ashkal Alwan will setup a total new Academy, offering a postgraduate study programme in the artistic field. I was very impressed by the foundations of Ashkal Alwan and its commitment to long-term contribution of a critical voice in both the Lebanese and international world. The immense collection of DVD’s of works of artists, (please see BerlinBeirut of Myrna Maakaron when you have the chance) are a true gem standing in the office and remind me of the same methods used some 200 km to the south, even the offices and desks look the same, it is really amazing.

In Zico House I showed Renzo Martens’ film Episode III at Zico House in front of a small audience. Without explicitly giving too much information on what they would see, they were poured into Martens’ 90-minute adventure. Ofcourse the usual discussion started off again and it was almost confronting to see that showing the film, expecting the same critique again, is part of what Marten’s addresses with this visual report. This trip to Beirut and the non-context that it had, made me realise once again that for numerous reasons this is truly an underestimated visual and conceptual work and should be standard issue for everyone interested in human activates. Not because we can think through this on the various complications and doubts that we have, but because it relates to a critique within a system that uses explicitly that very same systems and techniques to make the criticism clear. Ofcourse he crosses borders and the work tends to shift gears vey fast, but already for this understanding of pure criticism of contemporary visual representation, I’m glad. As well as Beirut, its tactics are quite complex to understand or to bring under words.

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