PRINT May 2015

Christine Tohme

Joe Namy, Automobile, 2013. Performance view, street in front of Ashkal Alwan, Beirut, May 13, 2013. Photo: Omar Nasser.

YOU CAN’T TALK ABOUT LEBANON IN ISOLATION—you have to understand it as part of a region where things are unstable, where the whole map is being redrafted. The recent developments in Iraq, the war in Syria, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the situation in Yemen—all of these things must be considered in juxtaposition to whatever is happening locally. Whatever happens in Yemen, for example, is reflected on the ground in Lebanon—suddenly there will be tension here between the sects that are fighting there. And for decades, upheavals in neighboring countries have led displaced people to seek refuge here—the Syrian refugees who have arrived since 2011 are only the latest. So the boundaries are not indelibly drawn—they’re porous and mutable. In a sense, Beirut is not a part of Lebanon, the way that New York in a sense is not part of the United States. But obviously the volatility of the region is present here, too. And in fact Beirut has always been a magnet space where people come to experiment, precisely because it’s a very open, volatile structure. That’s what makes the city very fragile but also very seductive. It’s not rigid. It’s constantly questioning itself and redefining itself. What is Beirut?

This was a question that my friends and colleagues were asking in the 1990s, after the alleged conclusion of the civil war. That decade saw the emergence of a new generation of spaces and initiatives, like Masrah Beirut (or the Beirut Theater), and the Arab Image Foundation, which was founded by Fouad Elkoury, Samer Mohdad, and Akram Zaatari and has become one of the region’s most important organizations for the conservation and exhibition of photography. Ashkal Alwan—a space for research, production, and exhibitions that I cofounded with Marwan Rechmaoui, Rania Tabbara, and Mustapha Yamout—was part of this wave, too. We were claiming our city, our public spaces. Ashkal Alwan, for example, was undertaking endeavors like the Sioufi Garden Project of 1997, where we permanently installed sculptures by ten artists in one of Beirut’s few public gardens. At the same time, we were all trying to define the meaning of civics and civic discourse here. We were also keenly concerned with local production. While as curators and cultural programmers we looked beyond the Arab region, we shared a strong conviction that we should focus on the neighborhood, so to speak, and pay close attention to what was happening in our vicinity, in Ramallah, Damascus, Cairo.

There was a feeling of real urgency around all of these issues—we were strongly compelled to create what we created. In that sense, we were following in the footsteps of other nontraditional institutions: For example, in the 1960s, new art and ideas were encountered at sites like Dar el Fan, an innovative space founded by Janine Rubeiz, who saw a need for a forum where people could not only view art but also debate the political and aesthetic ferment of the period. And this is only one example in the vibrant scene of galleries, artists, and literary figures in Beirut, Cairo, and Baghdad at that time.

Dar el Fan operated for fewer than ten years, and not all of the initiatives begun in the ’90s lasted either—in fact, one of the most important, the Ayloul Festival, existed only from 1997 to 2001. And yet in bringing together dynamic constellations of new art, performance, and film from around the world, the festival was galvanizing and very influential. It’s not a tragedy that it ended. Other institutions, including Ashkal Alwan, picked up where it left off and nurtured what it had planted. And when Ashkal Alwan closes, another institution will pick up where we left off and maybe steer things in a different direction, perhaps taking our legacy and refurbishing it with different voices, with another set of concerns and questions.

For me, it’s very important to realize that institutions live and die, like everything else. No institution is invincible or irreplaceable. They may work well for ten, fifteen, twenty years, but at some point the assignment they have set for themselves no longer holds. I think perhaps it’s better to move on once that occurs, because the risk is that the organization will just start running on autopilot, creating all of these conventional apparatuses—memberships, endowments, co-ops, and so on—simply to adhere to a generic notion of what an institution should be, and losing its sense of urgency, its reason for being. Instead of being run by people with intense personal investments and visions, it might be run like an impersonal machine, where decisions are made in a safe, clinical way.

The landscape, the context in which an institution operates, is not static and immortal, either. In Beirut, we’ve seen tremendous changes over the past decade, and even just in the past five years. We have about nine arts foundations and museums that have just opened or are soon to open in the city. For instance, there’s the highly anticipated reopening this fall of the newly expanded Sursock Museum. There is the holding group Saradar, which is working with local and international advisers on building a collection of modern and contemporary artworks and Beit Beirut, a new cultural center managed by the City of Beirut in cooperation with the City of Paris, and slated to open in a historic building formerly known as the Barakat Building or Yellow House. And then there’s APEAL (Association for the Promotion and Exhibition of the Arts in Lebanon), which is also developing a museum, and the Aïshti Foundation, which will exhibit businessman Tony Salamé’s private art collection. This is a new era, where museums and corporate institutions are becoming central actors in Beirut’s art world.

It’s time to reflect on what it means to be creating these new institutions. What is urgent for them? We can’t deny that a lot of it is about speculation and is ultimately market-driven, investment-driven. When Ashkal Alwan was begun—when the Arab Image Foundation and the other institutions of this generation were begun—it was with urgency, with political goals, and with a format that was designed to resist certain givens. And one hopes that these new institutions will operate in response to what the city needs, in response to current conditions.

“Militant Cinema and the Adjudicating Gaze” screening and Q&A session with Nick Denes, Reem Shilleh, and Mohanad Yaqubi, Ashkal Alwan, Beirut, May 18, 2013. Nick Denes and Mohanad Yaqubi.

Recently we have been witnessing a widespread flattening of discourse, an erosion of any discourse that articulates differences and individualism and fissures. And that kind of flattening always constitutes an attack—specifically, on minorities, on women, on LGBT, on the Yazidi, on any person who is not a member of a giant hegemonic mob. And a lot of what is happening in the art world—where questions of market value are conflated with questions of artistic value and where a particular institutional format may be entirely divorced from its originating purpose—is an annex to that. You know, I’m very interested in learning more about Salwa Raouda Choucair, but not because I have such a keen desire to know what a modernist work of art is worth financially.

At the same time, we often hear, “Now is the time for refugees. It’s not the time for art, because art is an accessory. Art is secondary.” And of course art is secondary when you’re thinking of it as an accessory. But when you think of it as a sociopolitical project, it’s not an accessory. It’s something that deals directly with the infrastructure of where you live, with your situation. Practically speaking, we’re competing for resources with both types of organizations, the humanitarian groups and development projects and the private, market-driven art initiatives. That is, we’ve entered a phase where modest institutions—both here and elsewhere, not only in Beirut—have to compete with large-scale institutions. I’m always fascinated when representatives of all of these international institutions come to Ashkal Alwan and take a picture of the donors’ wall and call all of our funders and ask for their support—all these museums and institutions that are big, renowned, and spectacular. So this is where we are now—stuck between humanitarian and speculative projects, and competing for resources with both. And that is a big problem.

One thing we need to realize, ironic as it may be, is that the current situation, in a way, is one we have created. By we, I mean Ashkal Alwan and its cohorts. We are some of the actors who participated in making all of these foundations and museums and galleries pop up. Now we need to reassess, to rethink our presence in this new ecology. In the context of Beirut today, we need to ask, What does it mean to be an institution that was founded very much as a political project? What is the meaning of our presence now? And in five years’ time, when you come to Beirut and see that there is yet another wave of new players, what will it mean to have organizations like Ashkal Alwan or the Arab Image Foundation or Beirut Art Center or Zico House—all of these nonprofit entities?

You might say, We don’t even know what will be here in five years’ time. Yes, it’s all very tenuous—Assad could bombard us, damage infrastructure, cut off our access to the network. But as long as I have this space, which for me is a space of reflection, of free thinking—as long as we have these kinds of spaces, political, artistic, and intellectual spaces, online or IRL, spaces for marginalized voices, forums for art, thought, criticality, and debate, I’ll continue to use and value them.

Conversely, we also need to ask what it means to create new museums—in the Gulf, in Lebanon—when, everywhere in the world, museums are struggling to continue, and everybody is trying to figure out how to sustain these institutions and make them viable. Are we really interested in spaces that do not reflect anything around us—that do not resonate with the flux of a political and social situation that is changing constantly? How do you respond to this constant change in an institution that only presents art as things on the wall, that envisions institutional space as a zone of static, manicured perfection? How do you reflect the street, the politics? You can’t—at least, not in a “perfect” space. Perfect spaces are dead spaces.

—As told to Michelle Kuo

Christine Tohme is a Beirut-based curator and founding director of Ashkal Alwan, Beirut.