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Ashkal Alwan’s Home Workspace Program

Joe Namy, Automobile, 2012. Performance view, in front of Ashkal Alwan, Beirut, July 31, 2012. Photo: Ghalas Charara.

SOMETHING HAD CLEARLY GONE WRONG. On a muggy, breezeless evening in Beirut in late July, a crowd was gathered around an artist named Joe Namy, who was nearly in tears. He stood in the doorway of a former factory, which opened onto an empty street running through a drab industrial district on the eastern edge of the city. This wasn’t the glamorous end of the Lebanese capital: no lights shimmering off the Mediterranean, only darkened construction sites, an unloved overpass, and the sickly trickle of the nearby Beirut River. Anxious and forlorn, Namy was telling his audience that he was canceling his performance Automobile, 2012. The work had been meant to mark the end of an auspicious and eventful year, as the first class of students, Namy among them, completed the first edition of the Home Workspace Program, a ten-month, tuition-free, incubator-style art school organized by Ashkal Alwan, the Lebanese Associ­ation for Plastic Arts.

Namy is a musician and sound artist of Lebanese descent from Detroit. For Automobile, he had composed a complex piece of electronic music to be played through the customized sound systems of five tricked-out cars of the kind typically parked along Beirut’s seaside Corniche, blasting bass-heavy, synth-laden subgenres of shaabi, a style of music popular across the Arab world and known for its grittiness, sentimentality, and seemingly infinite variations. The problem, Namy explained, was that despite countless assurances, none of the drivers had actually shown up. In their eyes, this sad stretch of street simply offered too little in terms of peacocking potential. But just as Namy was shaking his head and apologizing profusely, a silver hatchback gleaming with fluorescent blue light turned a corner and crept toward the crowd. Soon enough, a low-riding red Renault followed. In the end, the performance never quite panned out as it was supposed to, but at least the music played and the people danced. The wobbly execution was educational in the most obvious of ways: Don’t be fooled by empty promises, consider a rehearsal or two, respect your audience, and have a good reason for pulling a subculture from its context. More subtly, Namy’s Automobile was a fascinating measure of how far Ashkal Alwan has moved from the core of Beirut to its fringes over the past fifteen years, and how much the organization’s approach to public space has changed since the 1990s, when its five young founders—led by the current director, Christine Tohme—set out to reclaim the city in the aftermath of Lebanon’s civil war.

Ashkal Alwan began, in 1994, by producing art projects in public spaces throughout the city, from the gardens of Sioufi and Sanayeh to the Corniche and Hamra Street, which runs through the old cosmopolitan heart of Beirut. The organization reinvented itself for the first time in 2002, when Tohme created the Home Works Forum, a series of debates, performances, and exhibitions that happens every few years, whenever the political situation allows, and that quickly became the closest thing Beirut had to an international biennial without being a lame, cookie-cutter, could-be-anywhere affair. With the Home Workspace Program, Ashkal Alwan has reinvented itself yet again, moving beyond the logic of the event to a long-term initiative that demands endurance, creates a different kind of public space, and crosses over from one generation to the next. With the school occupying more than twenty thousand square feet of a rehabilitated factory floor, Ashkal Alwan is also a destination address for the first time in its history. “In 1994, we had a cause,” said Tohme, as the students were packing up in early August. “The cause was to reclaim the city, and we lost. That political cause has been transformed into domestic gestures, an introspective space, a place to ask questions about how to live, about dwelling, and about what we want from where we are living.” But this drive to create a safe haven for students also raises questions about the tensions running through any organization that tries to balance the need for privacy—for spaces where experimentation is encouraged and failure is forgiven—and the desire for public engagement, particularly in a place where meaningful opportunities to participate in political life are few and far between.

TO AN INTERNATIONAL AUDIENCE familiar with projects such as Night School at the New Museum in New York and unitednationsplaza in Berlin, the Home Workspace Program probably looks like a far-flung articulation of contemporary art’s so-called educational turn, of pedagogy as performance, where learning is shared but also staged. But Ashkal Alwan’s school is less a clever exercise in institutional critique than a serious attempt at building an infrastructure in a part of the world where art schools—either inherited from the colonial era or tied to the remnants of national-liberation movements—remain philosophically out of touch and technologically ill equipped. To a regional audience more acutely aware of the sad, decrepit (and, in the case of Egypt, deeply corrupt) state of arts education in the Arab world, the school belongs to a constellation of efforts to create workable alternatives, including Ramallah’s Inter­national Academy of Art Palestine, the Townhouse Gallery’s independent-study program in Cairo, and MASS Alexandria—although the students in the Home Workspace Program have so far been older and further along in their careers than their counterparts elsewhere in the region.

The school is structured in such a way as to be completely reimagined every year. For the 2011–12 edition, artist Emily Jacir served as resident professor, designing her curriculum around evocative words such as trickster, trauma, and troubadour. The agenda was paced by workshops with the artists Alfredo Jaar, Willie Doherty, Hito Steyerl, and Hassan Khan; seminars with Kamran Rastegar (on postcolonial cinema), Franco “Bifo” Berardi (on financial crisis and collapse), and Cesare Pietroiusti (on forms of exchange); field trips; formal and informal crits; and a mentoring system with local artists, writers, and curators, including Lamia Joreige of the Beirut Art Center, Akram Zaatari of the Arab Image Foundation, and Mirene Arsanios from the project space 98weeks. For the school’s second year, which started this past September and runs through July, Matthias Lilienthal, a frequent collaborator of the late Christoph Schlingensief and director of the independent theater company Hebbel am Ufer in Berlin, has taken up the job of resident professor. The third edition of the program, beginning next September, will be presided over by Anton Vidokle and Jalal Toufic, a sign that Ashkal Alwan plans to take on the challenge of picking apart and poking holes in contemporary art’s educational turn.

While every class will be trying something new, the fourteen students who made up the first year’s class (the number later dropped to twelve) were the real guinea pigs, depended on to make their own mistakes and to manage the mistakes of others, including their teachers. Virtually everyone involved agreed that the biggest miscalculation had been the closing event, a disappointingly conventional two-week-long exhibition titled “Open Studios.” The idea has already been scratched from Lillenthal’s edition on account of its failure to do justice to what had happened, what had been tried, and what had been learned during the year.

What did happen, then? Some hints were provided by the artist Raphael Fleuriet, who turned the tables on the exhibition with Ignis Fatuus, 2012, a series of intimate discussions in Ashkal Alwan’s library scheduled over the course of fourteen days, which he used to share his research (on subjects ranging from politics and paranoia to angels and spies), walk visitors through examples of his work, and constructively critique the first edition of the Home Workspace Program. As a group, the students didn’t establish a theoretical framework to sustain their discussions, he said. “All of our crit sessions began with the words ‘I feel.’”

One reason for this may have been the dramatically uneven levels of experience and exposure among the students. Although many of them had already been to art school—Fleuriet studied with Doug Ashford, Hans Haacke, and Walid Raad at the Cooper Union in New York; Mahmoud Khaled is a graduate of the painting program at Alexandria University in Egypt; Noor Abu Arafeh did fine art at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem—some had no background in the visual arts at all, which reportedly made finding common discursive ground in their daily conversations difficult. Whatever the reason, the works in the end-of-year exhibition were characterized, for the most part, by staggering delicacy, as if the art-school-as-incubator hadn’t yet prepared anything tough enough to hatch. Shyness had never been much a part of Ashkal Alwan’s style, but there it was, on display.

Sarah Farahat, A Year in a Day, 2012. Performance view, Ashkal Alwan, Beirut, July 18, 2012.

A FEW DAYS BEFORE the show came to an end, I spent a couple of hours in Ashkal Alwan’s space. One of the highlights was listening to a scratched-up compilation of music and sound experiments Namy had made and pressed onto vinyl. It was a fine counterpoint to his series of large-scale photographs “Constellations,” 2012, detailing audio ephemera such as an empty cassette case and the thin plastic slipcovers typically used for pirated CDs and DVDs. (It was also proof that, despite the botched performance, he is a promising talent.) Fleuriet was preparing for another conversation. Then, at half-hour intervals, the artist Sarah Farahat came to sit on the landing at the top of the stairs that led into the reception area, a space that doubles as a smoking room and thus a sociable place to linger. Every time she took her place, Farahat removed her red shoes and began to speak. Her mode of address was casual and wincingly intimate. I cringed at the personal revelations, the observations of being an American of Arab ancestry in Beirut, the anecdotes about her sex life, the earnestness of her responses to the ups and downs of the ill-fated Arab Spring, labor issues in Lebanon, the horrors in Syria, and Trayvon Martin and Obama and John McCain.

In her ten months of living in Beirut, Farahat had done more community outreach than a nonprofit with years of programming and a budget to match. She made a small magazine called the Beirut Journal for Radical Activation, organized donation-only acupuncture sessions at 98weeks (she’s a certified practitioner), created a residency program for artists at a restaurant associated with the Beirut farmers’ market, Souk el-Tayeb, where she orchestrated a celebration of Ethiopian cuisine, and called attention to the terrible conditions of Lebanon’s foreign workforce in the process. Some of the artists who made the Beirut art scene what it is, and who, for the first time this summer, earned the tongue-in-cheek nickname “the Elders,” expressed exasperation at Farahat’s work. One told me flatly that he hated it. It was so American. It was so far from the founding styles, issues, and concerns of “the group.” But Farahat’s work addressed conditions and circumstances that the Elders have ignored in their own city for decades, to the extent that their work has begun to appear insular at times, as the life of the city changes and moves on, demanding new forms of engagement. Farahat’s project was disarmingly sincere, unabashedly feminist, and deceptive in its simplicity. Her texts, seemingly off-the-cuff and confessional, were actually polished and probing. Her last performance ended: “With all due respect, I don’t really care. What feels right is this. Me and you. Is it a fair exchange? I don’t know, probably not. Am I offering you a telescope. Or are you just giving me an ear? Will my words linger in your ears longer than your looks do in my eyes?” A little embarrassing? Maybe. But if the work gets in the way and makes an audience queasy and prone to questioning, that might be what a school like this is for, and what a meaningful public space in Beirut could become.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a critic based in Beirut.