THE UNSUSPECTING STAR of the third annual March Meeting in Sharjah was a young performance artist named Barrak Alzaid. With a lot of sass and two little handwritten-in-pink-highlighter signs—one reading TWO MINUTES, the other reading PLEASE STOP!—he kept immaculate time over the course of three days, fifty lightning-quick presentations, and two keynote lectures by literary scholar Abdelfattah Kilito (on translations) and curator Okwui Enwezor (on archives).
Seated in the front row of a sterile conference room, with a staff badge looped around his neck and a laptop balanced perilously on his knees, Alzaid gently terrorized each and every speaker with the occasional cock of his head and flash of his sign. Without him, this year’s considerably overprogrammed March Meeting would have fallen apart. With him, it established a nice rhythm, coalesced around common themes, and generated several urgent discussions—on alternative art schools, peripatetic libraries, and the sudden ubiquity of archival endeavors in these lands.
For art-world observers outside the Gulf, it can be fiendishly difficult to figure out what’s going on inside the UAE. At least three of the country’s seven emirates are pushing hard to become the region’s singular cultural hub, and they often seem more opaquely competitive than transparently collaborative.
Of course, there was a time when Sharjah was the most bumping lifestyle destination of the lot. Now Dubai gets all the action, while Abu Dhabi looms like some dark star on the horizon, waiting to suck everyone’s energy into its dense matrix of mysterious acronyms (from the sovereign wealth fund ADIA to the cultural agency ADACH and its archrival TDIC). Sharjah, meanwhile, has become a dormitory town that is, moreover, entirely dry—to get a drink requires a drive to the neighboring emirate of Ajman, which, I assure you, has no cultural ambitions whatsoever, beyond a smattering of seedy beachside bars more suitable to paid companionship than artsy conversation. (Of course, I did experience stabs of regret on waking one morning in Sharjah to the text message YOU MISSED A SPECTACULAR NIGHT OF FILIPINO URBAN DANCE CREW AT BAYWATCH IN AJMAN.)
But while Dubai has the market and Abu Dhabi the monumental museum plans, Sharjah does have a decent biennial, a fund for artists, and the March Meeting (dubiously tagged a “networking” summit). It also has long-standing performance venues, already existing exhibition spaces, and a bit of real pedestrian street life—all ambulating kids and families—which makes for a more pleasant, less alienating milieu than those parts of Dubai hinged on fearsome megamalls, ostentatious hotel complexes, and terrifying ten-lane freeways.
All the 2010 March Meeting attendees lodged at the same modest hotel, the Golden Tulip, and each morning they took a breezy stroll along a quaint canal to the conference room, abutted by a sun-drenched lounge in Multaqa al-Qasba (with the free Wi-Fi, caffeine, and cakes the reigning work ethic required).
A delightfully diverse lineup of artists, collectives, and small-scale organizations made formal presentations followed by open discussions. Sessions of three or four speakers then broke for more informal conversations, called dardashat in Arabic, which took place across the canal in Shelter Sharjah at Maraya Art Center, the newly opened sister space of Shelter in Dubai. The catch this year was that all the participants in the March Meeting were meant to present a work in progress (rather than a review of how they began, where they’ve been, or what they’ve done).
In past years, explained Jack Persekian, director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, which organized this iteration of the event in collaboration with the New York–based nonprofit ArteEast, “we were presenting ourselves, our projects, and our histories. We talked about our past and present. For 2010, there was a proposal from Rasha Salti”—the creative director of ArteEast and, perhaps not coincidently, the cocurator, with Suzanne Cotter, of the next Sharjah Biennial—“that we look into our future.” The March Meeting, he explained, could be “a mechanism to map out the cultural agenda for the next few years.” Given the fact that it included participants from Africa and Asia as well as from the Arab world, it could also offer a broader and potentially more productive definition of what “the region” has become.
Did it work? Time will tell. Most of the participants seemed to be pitching their projects to phantom funders. But because grant-making organizations did not announce their presence, participants clearly felt free to reflect on—and complain about—funding policies that only recognized certain structures.
Day One began in this vein, with Mriganka Madhukaillya’s presentation of the Desire Machine Collective’s Periferry project on the Brahmaputra River in northeast India. The artist-led group refurbished a ferry from the 1970s and turned it into a media lab that is now literally adrift on a waterway that links Tibet, China, India, and Bangladesh. The ferry had hosted residencies and symposia, “based on funding,” said Madhukaillya, “because those are the formats that funders understand.” His intention, however, was to phase out those formats, funders be damned, because the residencies were too short and the symposia too fleeting.
Christine Tohme of the Beirut-based powerhouse Ashkal Alwan picked up the funding strand when she announced that the long-planned-for Home Works Academy will open in Beirut in November. Just weeks before the March Meeting began, a local patron gave Ashkal Alwan a space for the school—free for the first five years—in a former furniture factory next to the Beirut Art Center. “It’s taken ten years for arts institutions in Beirut to get funding from the local community,” she said.
Tohme’s announcement, along with her rapid-fire preview of the forthcoming Home Works Forum, beginning in Beirut next month, hit one of the March Meeting’s high marks. Another came courtesy of Pad.ma (Public Access Digital Media Archive), presented by the artists Shaina Anand, Sebastian Lütgert, and Ashok Sukumaran. From there, a strong pattern of archival concerns emerged, amplified by artists’ talks—Khaled Hourani hilarious on “Picasso in Palestine,” Jananne al-Ani studious on “The Aesthetics of Disappearance: A Land Without People”—on using historical material in the process of creating new work.
Antonia Carver of Bidoun Projects proposed forming a distribution network for independent publishers of art books in the region, and discussed the ever-evolving Bidoun Library along the way. Mia Jankowicz, four months into her term as artistic director of the Contemporary Image Collective (CIC) in Cairo, joked that Carver rendered her entire presentation redundant, but offered a no less insightful lecture on merging the libraries of the CIC, the Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art in Cairo, and the Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum. Then Laura Carderera of Townhouse chimed in with her own plan to organize a full-fledged conference on archival practices this fall.
Across the canal at Shelter, Mirene Arsanios of the 98 Weeks Research Project in Beirut talked about collecting avant-garde magazines published in the Arab world from the mid-twentieth century through today. Rasha Salti referred to her study group with the Beirut-based researcher Kristine Khouri, the History of Arab Modernities in the Visual Arts.
By day three, Sebastian Lütgert of Pad.ma announced the convening of an ad hoc session on archiving at Shelter. “This may be the year of the archive, or simply a year of the archive,” he said, “which is fabulous, but also terrible, because it might very well be the year many of us get tired of archives.” A lively discussion ensued. But by then we were all late for Okwui Enwezor’s keynote on—what else?—archiving in the work of Fiona Tan (however random a work in the Dutch pavilion at the Venice Biennale seemed in this particular context).
I couldn’t find Barrak Alzaid anywhere in the audience, but he must have been there somewhere. Enwezor talked for his allotted time, answered questions, scanned the room, and summed up: “Okay, we all have to go. We’re going to Ajman, I know.”