GENERATION GAP #2: Artistic Research in Contemporary Beirut
Marwa Arsanios and Vartan Avakian are still young. They belong to a generation of artists who grew up during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), and their unique experience with artistic research in Lebanon is revealing new narratives for a catastrophic historical episode.
How can these new narratives and art practices participate in the production of knowledge about the history of contemporary Lebanon?
I see Marwa almost every day. She is an artist, my cousin and work partner in the 98weeks research project. Together, we organize workshops, reading groups, talks and exhibitions on specific topics, mainly investigating the “urban problematic” in Beirut. Vartan Avakian has long and thin blond hair and was named after the great Armenian hero Vartan Mamigonian.1 At a certain point, he started to stutter. 2
Both artists live in Beirut and have palpable residues of adolescent passions that continue to inspire their lives as artists. The works discussed in the coming points relate the past to the present (Vartan did not have his 80s hairstyle before the end of the 90s), and make stories out of historical material. Both protagonists easily take on different roles. Vartan can be a researcher, academic, mechanic, or warrior. Marwa often takes the role of a detective. She plays herself, she plays a pole dancer. “But,” she tells me, “I don’t want to play the role of an anthropologist.”3
Vartan is now making a document, a piece of “serious” research, a thesis that sprang from his adolescent fascination with action films shot in Lebanon during the 80s; a period, later coined Lebanese New Wave, that was particularly prolific for the film industry.
About two years ago, Marwa discovered the remains of a former modernist beach house, Chalet Raja Saab, built 1950-1952 by Ferdinand Dagher, on what use to be one of the most beautiful sand beaches in Beirut’s southern suburb. The chalet was part of a larger beach resort project called the Acapulco, which was comprised of approximately 140 cabins.
The massive immigration of Palestinian refuges fleeing the attacks by the Christian Lebanese militias on the Palestinian camps in Quarantina (Beirut), in the early 80s, radically transformed the area. The Chalet, once a bizarre UFO-like construction standing on a quasi-deserted beach, was entirely submersed by the transformation of the area and its expansion into a shantytown. The building now hosts four Palestinian families who constructed additional surrounding walls to close the lower part of the structure in order to create more living space. Some of the original columns upholding the former construction are still visible.
“It started by an attraction to an object that was very particular. I can mention one thing that is quite important: the guy who did this, who designed the structure, was an engineer. In other words, he was not an architect. He had more confidence in the material and how to play with concrete, because at that time they were still experimenting with material. He really played with the form; this is why it led to something quite particular. It doesn’t have a specific influence, of course it has many influences, but beyond this, he is experimenting with form. All these details, made something very ‘bastard,’ attractive and ambiguous, parachuted on this beach.”4
Something happened and had a major impact. Before the outbreak of the war, in the heyday of the Acapulco beach resort, the always already-bored bourgeoisie, the night-life elite, its actresses, misses and singers used to dance on its sand till the early morning. The arrival of the refugees marked another time, a seizure that produced traces of a previous time.
Similar to an investigator, Marwa collects and organizes the material she gathers from her search, out of which she has produced a video, I Have Heard 3 Stories, on the architectural and social transformation of the Acapulco site, particularly the Raja Saab Chalet.
In the video, Marwa interviews the family living in the resort today, recomposing with Samia the different stages of the place’s transformations since the family’s arrival. Trough the collected accounts, Marwa discovers that the Chalet Raja Saab use to be the Acapulco, a hip beach resort. This leads her to interview the former owners of the Acapulco and discover stories about what the place used to be before the arrival of the Palestinian refugees.
She methodically superposes the different accounts with the present architecture of the site in an act of re-composition that unleashes other stories, less concrete, such as the story of Nora the Crazy Horse dancer, who ran down the stairs and disappeared from the Acapulco (“why were they chasing her?”).5
In order to map the area and the politics of its spatial morphing, Marwa translates the space’s architecture in different mediums and scales; a mockup of the original structure, archival images of the Chalet, the place as it is today, and animated drawings, all superimposed. The video is a non-linear narrative, which not only juggles between the present and the past, but between the past and the past through its different accounts and their present enunciation.
THE CITY AS SET
The setting for both Marwa and Vartan’s practices is the city, Beirut, with its innumerable images, incessantly produced. Beirut and its wars, Beirut as pearl of the Middle East, Beirut at the crossroads of civilization, between East and West… Among this avalanche of imagery, finding an entry point into the city in order to anchor an experience, a childhood memory, a personal narrative is generally what motivates the work.
Vartan saw Beirut’s central district for the first time in an action film. Because, during the Lebanese civil war, the city center was deserted and acted as the buffer zone between the divided Christian East and Muslim West of the city, Vartan’s first experience of Beirut’s infamous central district was through Samir Ghoussaini’s The Return of the Hero (1983), which chronicles the life of Samy, a boxing champion who, after beating to death his adversary during a championship in Italy, is brought back to Lebanon by the Interpol to serve the remainder of his sentence in Roumyeh prison. With the police struggling to regain control of the city from rival gangs that have reduced it to a lawless battlefield, Samy’s fate and that of law and order become intertwined.
In the film, the war-ravaged and destroyed city center acts as low production set designs for annihilating attacks, but the civil war is never mentioned as such. At the time, Beirut’s central district was a deserted no man’s land part of the green line that divided the city between East and West. Militiamen and snipers, hidden in fortified buildings invaded by rampant green vegetation, were on the watch for any daring shadows attempting to cross the line.
According to Vartan’s current research, action films were diffused and circulated equally in both sides of the city, and the population, beyond confessional divisions, was subject to the same adrenaline, in a transaction substituting real violence with special effects.
Today, Vartan resorts to theories of simulacra and the way they mediate our experience of the real to explain his research: “In the ‘contemporary media-saturated society, [where] the representation substitutes for the real,’ the simulacrum is confused for the real. My research investigates the mediated image of Beirut in the pop action films of the Lebanese New Wave.”
The work of re-composition is indeed difficult. Following the war, Beirut was subject to another major change: its city center was sold to the private company Solidere.6 All traces of destruction were rapidly erased–together with the former symbolic public sphere and commercial life–and converted into luxury stores and restaurants.
To obtain information and access an erased and often non-documented chapter of a yet unwritten Lebanese history, research is essential. In this research, interviews, stories and archives all come together to form an understanding of what was before. This reading is inevitably conditioned by the present and raises questions of transmission, historical accuracy and the role of art practices in their relation to historical narratives. What distinguishes the later from more conventional forms of historiography?
A generation of artists working in post-war Lebanon critically questioned the very nature of the document and the partition it imposed upon reality and fiction. Their practices attempted to unmask the workings of the document and questioned it as a stable index to read the past; how is the boundary between the real and the fictional, true and false, constituted? The production of fictional archives from the Lebanese civil war became a shared method of addressing this historical and artistic problem.
Walid Raad, for example, with his Atlas Group project (1999 – 2004), collected, archived and produced documents that would mimic the aesthetic of “real” documents. 7 With the Atlas Group, Raad created a system of classification (files are divided between Type A, Type FD, Type AGP) where each type corresponded to a particular attribution. For instance, Type FD files “contain documents that were produced and that we attribute to anonymous individuals or organizations.”8 One such file was produced by “Operator 17”, a secret agent whose mission was to videotape Beirut’s main seaside promenade, the Corniche. Everyday day, before sunset, Operator 17 would redirect his camera on the setting sun–scenery he was deprived from while growing up in East Beirut, the Corniche being located in West Beirut. When dismissed, he was allowed to keep his video footage, now archived by the Atlas Group. This document, might not be “true”, but it has the ability to touch upon and awaken repressed memories, never articulated but undoubtedly real.9 By awakening these buried feeling and provoking “hysterical symptoms,” fictional archives might therapeutically unfold them.
Our two protagonists belong to a generation that grew up during the Lebanese Civil War, and whose work and concerns is not directly comparable to the post-war art practices (although Marwa and Vartan obliquely refer in their practice to the Lebanese Civil War). In their work, fiction and reality are not apprehended through deconstructive critique but are already taken in through the way they actually work; “hysterical symptoms” (adolescent affects and obsessions in this case), more than a desired outcome, are starting points for the works and are staged as such, particularly in Vartan’s research. This shift is a shift in distance. The critical distance between the author and the work, the author and the audience, the audience and the work, gradually collapses by weight of more personal implications and identifications.
Moreover, their material, although translated and interpreted, does refer to an actual site, or event, something that actually happened and whose material traces, in some instances, as with Marwa’s Acapulco project, are still visible. The trace is then fictionalized and interpreted trough a negotiation that brings together historical traces and personal projections. The tension between what remains and how it is transformed often guides the work, in a process that involves the artist and sometimes subjects him/her.
How does this shift of method and perspective affect the nature of artistic research and knowledge? I would like to think of this production of knowledge as a detective story, engaging the authors as protagonists. In the only two pages I have read of Difference & Repetition, Deleuze writes: “ A book of philosophy should be in part a very particular species of detective novel in part a kind of science fiction. By detective novel we mean that concepts, with their zones of presence, should intervene to resolve local situation…They have spheres of influence where, as we shall see they operate in relation to “dramas” and by means of a certain cruelty.” 10
The knowledge we are looking for is the not the resolution of a problem, or conceptual understanding but rather the drama, tragedies and actions that are involved the very process of searching. With its characters, scripts and dramatic turns. To produce the knowledge we are looking for, the research must equate a quest, and its articulation remain tuned to the contingency of the working process.
The methodology used here does not consist in collecting evidence to prove a case, neither to produce fictional evidence, but to write the case as evidence is found (As Marwa’s research on the Acapulco beach resorts evolve, her artistic project changes) The geometric figure of the quest could be compared to parallel lines, which, occasionally meet to form a point in time where the material, the narrative and spaces of projections are negotiated through the art work.
The research process undoes all-encompassing forms of theoretical articulation, which, more often than not, reduce the practice to a description and a proof of what it wants to say. It produces new uncertainties, which can eventually lead to new questions; what can we learn from a history grounded in affects, through affects? (How can Vartan’s love for heroes produce collective knowledge on a particular historical period? Why is a material trace important?)
The previous considerations lead us to the following and final questions of our investigation: how does the knowledge produced through the quest differ from more conventional forms of historiography? Can artistic practices through their subjective approach of historical traces, say something collective about their objects?
What collective or “public” value can be conferred upon the archive when treated artistically? In Archive Fever, Derrida reminds us “there is no political power without control of the archive, if not of memory. Effective democratization can always be measured by this essential criterion: participation in and the access to the archive, its constitution and interpretation.” If archive as treated in artistic practices, could be precisely considered as an interpretation and active participation in the reading of historical traces and material, could it also be reduce to its singular interpretation and participation?
This last point is not a solution, but a situation that comes close to an encounter, a space were the private and the public meet, history and affects.
The Arab Image Foundation, an institution whose mission is to document, collect and preserve photographic material related to the Arab World, is funding and producing Marwa’s research on Acapulco. In this case, the research occupies a space between the private and the public, which generates a paradoxical position; its outcome is “personal” and linked to its producer, the artist, while the material accumulated also pertains to a more “public” domain, a shared space and history.
The paradox offers itself as a space for the encounter, where, through very specific example such as the history of the Acapulco, Beirut’s modern trajectories, its disruptions and transformations become visible through the story of a beach resort. In this encounter, the material speaks because the artist activates it. The artists and the material have a date with History, which, customarily, might be late.
1 see Vartan’s piece on Vartan Mamigonian, Bleeding Pink.
2How i started to stutter I; action(in)jection, singularities, probabilities, common denominators, differential equations and other equally mathematical sounding relations among Lebanese pop-action films of the eighties, is a lecture performance by Vartan Avakian on his research on Lebanese action films, which he links with stuttering, a personal physical feature.
3 Interview with Marwa Arsanios, 8 of August 2009.
4 Interview with Marwa Arsanios, 8 of August 2009.
5 Expert from Marwa Arsanios’ video, I Have Hear 3 Stories, 2009
6 For more information of the controversies around the reconstruction of Beirut central district and its privatization, see Privatized urbanity or a politicized Society: Reconstruction in Beirut after the Civil War, 2006. (Publishing in European Planing Studies, Vol. 14. Issue 3).
7 For more information on the Atlas Group Archive, http://www.theatlasgroup.org/
9 “In this regard, and as has been argued, it is clear that that what we hold true is not necessarily consistent with what is true at the level of the senses, reason, consciousness and discourse but also holds to be true at the level of the unconscious. Hence we would urge you to approach these documents we present as we do, as “hysterical symptoms” based on any one person’s actual memories, but on cultural fantasies erected from the material of collective memories.”
10 Deleuze, Gilles, Difference and Repetition, London and New York: Continuum, 2001