BEIRUT: What is a library? Is it a place of memory, of knowledge or of escape? Is it best seen as labyrinth or cocoon, container or contents?
Does it have to be physical or can it be virtual? Is it a place of silent study or community gathering?
Do libraries simply store knowledge, or can they give birth to new ideas? How are collections affected by language, by locality and politics? What did a library used to be? What might it become?
It was questions like these that first got Lebanese artist Mounira Al Solh and Amsterdam-based independent curator Sara Giannini talking. Eighteen months on, and their exploration of the library as place and concept is about to move into the public sphere via the VOLUME project.
A collaboration among the 98Weeks Research Project, Vision Forum and Assabil Friends of Public Libraries Association, VOLUME consists of a series of specially commissioned artists’ performances and talks, to be staged between Sept. 11- 20 at the 98Weeks Project Space, Assabil’s local libraries and public spaces around Beirut.
Curated by Giannini, the nine-day festival aims to encourage reflection and discussion among members of the public on the nature and role of libraries in the digital age, through artistic solo projects.
“Artistic research and artistic production [provide] another way of dealing with theoretical or practical or political issues,” Giannini says. “It’s a form of tangential knowledge that I think pushes you to question things and think about things in a different way.”
Giannini and 98Weeks’ Marwa Arsanios, Mirene Arsanios and Zeina Assaf worked together to select local and international artists whose areas of interest overlapped with those of the project.
Solh and local artist Walid Sadek, U.S. artist and librarian Andrew Beccone, French artist Pauline Curnier Jardin, Icelandic installation, video and performance artist Aldis Ellersdottir Hoff, Swedish artist Per Huttner and extra-disciplinary artistic research platform RYBN.ORG will each present a solo work.
Marcell Mars, Croatian founder of Multimedia Institute [mi2], will give a talk entitled “Public Library (in the Age of the Internet)” on Sept. 13.
The closing event, on Sept. 20, will consist of a panel discussion moderated by philosopher and art theorist Stephanie Baumann, featuring president of Assabil Antoine Boulad, Ashkal Alwan library coordinators Jessica Khazrik and Monica Basbous and Maud Stephan-Hachem, vice president of Assabil and former head of the National Library Rehabilitation Project.
The artists have been developing their performances for the past 10 months, during which time they have been working one-on-one with Giannini. “Each project brings in a very specific different perspective,” Giannini says, “so it’s not like we are taking just one focus. It opens to multiple voices and questions so we hope that this will enrich the discussions.
“I think this is also interesting,” she adds, “the paradox between individuals and multiplicity and singularity. It’s something that reflects the library itself, because it’s one container, one concept, but composed of multiplicities.”
The artists may be working alone, but the roots of each work lay in a weeklong workshop held back in November 2013, when the participants gathered in Beirut to discuss public libraries as spaces and as concepts, touring Assabil’s local branches and exploring the potential of libraries as sites for artistic creation and dissemination.
“It’s interesting to have Assabil as a partner, because it offers an interface to what a library is in Beirut,” Giannini says. “For instance, I was reading just a few days ago that in California they opened the first bookless library. It’s a project by Calatrava, so it’s this wide, posh temple and it’s empty.”
“Alternate forms of libraries and what is a library, and the future of libraries ... these were all things that we talked about in the workshop,” Assaf says, adding that the artists’ projects touch on these themes in different ways.
“A lot of them are very ephemeral and performative projects. They’re not traditional. So they’re also interested in these ideas of ... what does it mean to be bookless and what does it mean to be a giant maze that you can’t find your way out of?”
“The metaphor of the maze or the labyrinth is something that we discussed very much,” Giannini says. “It’s also something that Walid Sadek has been working on, this concept of the maze or the labyrinth connected to Beirut.”
Reflections on libraries as simultaneous sites of memory and of forgetting also played a key role in discussions. “I think all the projects are nourished by these ideas,” Giannini says, “and also by how political influences can be inscribed into libraries’ collections, but I think it’s something that we’re working on in a very metaphorical way.”
A highlight of the initial workshops, she adds, was a visit to the current facilities of Lebanon’s defunct National Library. Utterly destroyed during the Civil War, the building ceased to function as a library space. What’s left of the collection now resides in Beirut’s harbor.
“They’re actually in the duty free zone,” Giannini explains, “which is interesting because technically it’s not Lebanon. It’s no man’s land, a nonplace. There they are ‘rehabilitating’ the books that were improperly stored or damaged during the war, [but] with very poor means, because there is no true interest in having a National Library. This library and its ‘national’ identity show that the political side of a national project is still problematic. That was something very significant.”
The project will also generate its own literary output, via a live publishing platform dubbed “Vologue.” Writers Roger Outa and Lina Mounzer will be penning reactions to and reflections on each day’s program, which will appear in printed form as well as on the project’s website.
In the wake of the event, these writings, along with a number of other related texts, will come together to form a single publication: the “VOLUME.” A single printed copy of this book will be made and donated to Beirut’s public library network.
“Basically if you want to see the publication you will have to borrow it from the library,” Giannini says, adding that a digital copy may appear online.
“I like VOLUME because it’s quantity. It’s space. It’s [books]. It’s sound,” she adds of the project’s title. “So I thought it was interesting. It’s polysemic and it’s connected to the library, but not exclusively.”
The VOLUME project runs Sept. 11-20 at locations across Beirut. For more information, please visit www.thevolumeproject.com